Saturday 6 July 2013

On Explicating System Preference, Systemic Blandness, and Alienating Nebulousness

While broadly I agree that system doesn't matter nearly as much as who is at the table, I still find that I like some system a lot more than others. Viz:

Games I Like
D&D prior to 3rd edition
Cyberpunk 2020
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition (I have never actually played 1st edition)
Apocalypse World

Games I Don't Like
Savage Worlds
White Wolf's oWoD "storyteller" system
D&D from 3rd edition onwards
d20 Modern
Basic Role Playing
Mutants & Masterminds

Special Cases
Call of Cthulhu
Unknown Armies

The 'special cases' are games were I am not necessarily a massive fan of the system, but I just get the setting and genre, and everything else to do with the game clicks with me so it doesn't matter.

What are the differences between the Games I Like and the Games I Don't Like? Clearly, it isn't a matter of rules-lite versus rules-heavy. WFRP 2nd edition is fairly rules-heavy, as is MERP, but so is D&D 3rd edition and d20 modern. Nor is it a matter of genre: that cuts across both camps. It isn't to do with the lengthiness of character generation: that was a huge turn-off for me with Hackmaster, but it takes ages in MERP too. And nor is it about traditional versus story-games either, clearly.

As I look at the list of Games I Don't Like and consider the reasons, I think it largely comes down to a combination of systemic blandness mixed with alienating nebulousness.

We'll start off with systemic blandness, because this is easier to explain. Systemic blandness is, simply, a system that is neither elegant in itself, nor interesting despite not being elegant, nor charmingly inelegant. To explain: Risus is elegant in itself. It is incredibly easy to pick up, has surprising depth, and is very well thought-out. Cyberpunk 2020 is interesting despite not being elegant. It is somewhat complicated and you have to keep quite a few things in your mind as you play, but there are things in there that are genuinely interesting (the combat system, the life events system, etc.). Pre-3rd edition D&D is charmingly inelegant. In the abstract it is stupidly overcomplicated and messy, but it doesn't matter because it could not be more charming. It is lovable.

The bland systems are the ones I am sure you can just pick out from the list from a once-over: Savage Worlds and the storyteller system are chief among them. I would include D&D 3rd edition in that too. It ironed out all the charm from TSR-era D&D but did nothing to make it more interesting or elegant.

Alienating nebulousness is harder to define, but it can be described as follows: I have to be able to picture in my mind how a scene is playing out during the game. If a mechanic is too disassociated from anything I can easily see in my mind's eye, I dislike the system. Diaspora suffers in this respect because of the way fate points and tagging work. You have a vision in your mind about how a scene is playing out, or how a character is, and suddenly that has to shift because a fate point gets played. I dislike that. It alienates me. d20 Modern suffers in this respect too, because of hit points. Getting shot with a rifle and losing a certain number of hit points but suffering no other ill effects makes no sense to me. I can't picture how that works in reality. I can picture it in a D&D fight because of Gary Gygax's extended metaphor about the sword fight between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne in the Errol Flynn film. I can't picture it when people are shooting each other. The nebulousness of it alienates me.

One or two of the games I don't like don't fit this model. I don't like Hackmaster for the simple reason that character generation is ridiculously fiddly for the light-hearted, humourous fantasy game it purports to be. It is the point at which charmingly inelegant becomes plain annoying. And Mutants & Masterminds is one of those games which just don't make it easy to DM: the system is interesting and everything but do I really have to spend five fucking hours creating a single villain? Who has time for games like that?

No model is perfect. But it's a safe bet that if you want to win my heart, game designers, avoid bland nebulousness like the plague. Okay?


  1. First: I think you're nailing it with this. I've always steered clear of systems with alienating nebulousness.

    I wonder, what are you making of shadowrun and rolemaster?

    I've re-read your article on SR and I don't know if I agree or not. Your "correction" seems perfect, but I've always interpreted the Sixth World like that (it's cyberpunk with scary magic). According to today's article, you'd like SR?

    1. Shadowrun is in a similar camp to Cyberpunk 2020, for me. I know the system is different but it has a similar level of 'crunch'. And I'd tie rolemaster in with MERP. Suffice to say, I like both of them.

  2. That's an interesting list. I wonder where you would group GURPS, Hero System and nWoD, for curiosity's sake.

    I do agree with you on Cyberpunk 2020, though. I got a lot of mileage out of that game when I was in college.

    1. I haven't played Hero System or nWoD, but I suspect I would dislike both - Hero System because it is too complex like Mutants & Masterminds, and nWoD because it is bland. But I don't really know.

      GURPS I like but really haven't played much of.

    2. I am not a fan of GURPS because I find it as complex as Hero System with none of the ease of use or charm. It comes off to me as both complex and bland.

      Oh course, I don't see M&M as all that complex.

  3. What about Microscope? And don't say it isn't a role playing game, because we played it together and did the voices and everything

    1. I like Microscope. I suppose I would put it in the category of systems which are not elegant but interesting. It works, but the way "scenes" play out is just basically free form.

  4. Perhaps the problem with Hackmaster was the assumption that it's a "light-hearted, humourous fantasy game"

    I know the name of the game is Hackmaster, but the name of the game is Hackmaster. It's a hard-core, house-ruled, hyper-violent AD&D clone - parody requirements from WotC aside.

    That said, you play the humor straight, no one will be laughing after acid-spitting weasels melt your gnoll fighter's face off in one round.

    1. (I say this with 2 2-year hackmaster campaigns under my belt.)

    2. In that case it seems even worse, because if character death is frequent there's no way in hell it should take that long to roll up another one! ;)

    3. It's only as frequent as your skill dictates. That said, death rules are favorable and characters all get a "hit point kicker".

    4. Perhaps I can put it another way: I don't see what the value added is in comparison to AD&D. Except a nifty initiative system, but that's outweighed by what seemed to me like a very faffy character gen method.

    5. Ah. I generally found that although character generation is long, playing it strictly btb, it's a very cohesive system.

      Like many of the questions and problems that come up when playing straight AD&D in the style of sandbox are just pleasantly resolved by Hackmaster. Many of the subsystems (social status, honor, critical tables, exploding dice, threshold of pain) are just fun in play. Skills tended to give players things they could spend money on and work towards.

      I'm not trying to convince you. Well, maybe I am. I just wanted to reply that it's AD&D turned up to 11. I would say, playing the games, btb, Hackmaster characters are more survivable.

  5. I really like this post. Like so many of your best ones it makes me want to do a similar one of my own.

    We differ quite a bit on likes and dislikes but no where more strongly than Mutants & Masterminds. I literally have no idea what you are referring to when you say "Five hours for one villain."

    To stat it up? To fight it? Neither takes me even half that amount of that time on average.

    1. A fifth of that time... hell a 10th of that time to stat up a villain is too much.

      M&M is a crazy crunch monster of a game.

      THOUGH I know that how you run it, Adam, is to have the players crunch it up while writing villains in simpler style. Still: how long does it take you?

    2. True, it would only take me an hour or so to create a character if I were creating my own PC.

      Creating a single villain using M&M 'Light', a set of optional rules for 2nd Edition (I believe) one available on Green Ronin's website and drivethrurpg for next to nothing, probably takes me 20 minutes maybe. If I have a character idea in my head (which I usually do) it can be even quicker.

      M&M a crazy crunch monster? I honestly don't see it. GURPS, HERO, Rolemaster...comparatively M&M is Basic D&D.

    3. Honestly I think I was just being nice with the 'even half that time' comment.

      If it takes me an hour to make any character in that game it's cause I'm either being a perfectionist, I've actually come up with something that the game would have trouble emulating (there are a few superpowers, such as Super Speed and its various effects, that Champions does much easier and better than M&M) or I am distracted by conflicting ideas.

    4. I was exaggerating a little bit with 5 hours but it does take bloody ages in comparison to most other games. You like the game and are familiar with it so to you it's quicker, but if (like me) you're not particularly clued in and have to look things up, it's a long and arduous process which is fun if you're in the mood, but feels like homework otherwise.

    5. I'm sure part of that is just to do with genre, though. I'm not really a comic book or superhero person, so naturally to me what feels like a chore is going to be the best thing since sliced bread to somebody who likes that sort of thing.

    6. That is very much true.

      When M&M 3E did the DC comic book characters for its DC Adventures line, the M&M forums were abuzz with who everyone wanted to see stated up.

      It was surprising to me how many people wanted to see Power Girl or a certain Green Lantern or Kid Flash.

      I was thinking, 'Those guys are easy. I can stat THOSE characters in my sleep'. Want to WOW me? Let's see how you do DC's plethora of second or third string but really powerful and esoteric characters like Metamorpho, The Metal Men and Dr. Fate. ;)

  6. I'm curious about blandness and Savage Worlds - that's one description I've never seen applied to it. Between bennies, cards, and the speed of the system I don't get "bland". Can you expound?