Sunday, May 19, 2013

GM Tips: Know Your System Expounded

GM Tips: It's easy to get into any number of RPGs as a new player, but getting started is a rocky, uphill battle for the Game Master, as he must wrangle player personalities, schedules, and the rules of the system in addition to developing his own plot. Hopefully, a few personal lessons will ease your GMing burden, or at least illustrate how one nerd shoulders the burden of the Game Master.

Before I get into today's tips for GMs, I want to point out that early yesterday morning May officially became the highest traffic month in the history of the blog. Woot! Also, with nearly two weeks left, May is going to be the first month to reach a personal goal for me since I started the blog. It's an embarrassingly modest goal, and I originally thought I'd hit it in month three of blogging, so I'm not going to share it right now. But I wanted to thank you guys for reading and to let you know that it means a lot to me. Now tell your friends, you anti-social dorks.


As a completely pointless token of my thanks, here's a pic of something fun I made on Friday. Yeah, sometimes this is what I do, too.

Check out my under-moisturized hand and freaky ET fingers.

Okay, now to your almost regularly scheduled Nerdery: In GMing 101 I stressed first and foremost that you know your system. Knowing your system is an invaluable element of situational awareness as a GM, and it goes beyond the rules found in your core game book and extends to understanding your perceptions and those of your players. If you want the lay-abouts to enjoy the game, that is. If you don't, then by all means plow into whatever rules system you fancy and bedevil those silly fun-seeking players.

Here I'll provide some examples of RPGs that I own, their most important mechanics, and what factors normally lead me to play a game with that system. This is a good principle to ply when in the early stages of planning an RPG campaign, and it extends to any discussions you should have with your core players before putting too much work into a game. It really would be unfortunate to get three sessions into a new campaign to find out that your players, system, and setting are a poor match for each other. Unfortunate, but not atypical.

Primary Mechanic: Roll 3d6 and total the rolled result, looking to get under your effective skill for the action.

For being so notorious for math and character-building minutiae, GURPS has one of the most straightforward primary game mechanics of any dice-based RPG system. You throw your three six-sided dice and want to get low results--at most equal to your skill for the specific action. That's it. Physically, a player is doing the same thing whether jumping a bridge or fast-drawing a pistol--throwing 3d6--and it's only the specific modifiers and player choices that change. Now, damage does call on players to roll different numbers of six-siders, but that's a small, clear deviation from the gold standard. GURPS players need no odd-sided dice, don't have to alternate between mini-game diversions for game mechanics, or hover over whether or not they want to roll high or low. You want high rolls for damage, and low rolls for everything else.

Now, that simple game mechanic has a whole range of applications, and because of that the core books for GURPS are really thick with well thought-out and detailed rules. And the huge library of supplements out there are usually an expansion and explanation of the simple guidelines in the two books of the core set. For instance, the Low Tech series of GURPS supplements build on the ancient arms, armor, and economic aspects of playing a gritty game in eras before firearms became commonplace. But there are basic lists of swords and medieval weaponry in the core books, but they tend to be a shorthand list meant more for simplistic and stylized games with action movie mentality--equipped with Low Tech, you can specify weight and cost for pauldrons rather than an entire suit of armor. This pattern means that a GURPS supplement often fits in well with the core set, but it also isn't as likely to be a game-changer as other RPG expansions. Depending on your personal sensibilities, this could be an asset or a liability.

Breadth: Anything.

GURPS is the Generic Universal Role-Playing System, fool. Of course you can cover any setting. And Steve Jackson Games has supported GURPS so well that there are probably multiple supplements to the rules to cover any genre or setting you might have in mind, whether it's spy action movie, transhuman punk sci-fi, or frakkin' Watership Down. GURPS has it covered. Now, it doesn't mean that GURPS covers all genres equally well--it's generic, so any game system that's tailored to a setting and well done should be better than GURPS in their specific goals. But if the governing factors lean the right way, you can totally get into just about any sort of game with GURPS.

Deciding factor: Weight and encumbrance.

The encumbrance system of GURPS is emblematic of what makes it unique as a system, and I find that if I'm looking to play a game where I don't care much about encumbrance, then GURPS might not be my choice. For example, if I were to play a super-powered genre game, I'd probably think twice about using GURPS. And this isn't just because I'd ignore the encumbrance system in a GURPS Supers game--the finite one-second resolution of a GURPS turn feels contrary to the pacing of a comic book story. The only way I'd want to do a GURPS Supers campaign would be as a gritty deconstruction of most genre conventions, but as a four-color game I doubt I'd use it. For my current GURPS Myth game, however, one of the central themes of the campaign is the journey and daily survival of the characters. The system's way of handling hiking, fatigue, encumbrance, and the deadliness of medieval combat were central considerations for me when planning the style and plot of the campaign. So even though medieval fantasy settings are the most common amongst RPGs, there's really no other system I know of that I'd consider using to run my Myth game.

World of Darkness
Primary Mechanic: Roll a 'pool' of d10s and count the number of dice that come up as 8, 9, or 10. The more dice that 'succeed' the better. 10s get rerolled and any extra successes added.

World of Darkness is a game tailored to a specific campaign style, and--while it's not strictly limited to the default setting--it is distinctly geared towards evoking the themes of the main setting. Called the Storytelling system, World of Darkness is geared towards a more conceptual method of role-playing games. Rolling in combat covers hitting, damage, and defense in the same dice roll. There's also a sort of mini-game related to characters' morality and sanity that is the cornerstone of the game, where PCs who commit immoral acts relative to their current level need to test for declining morality and any eccentricities or delusions they might develop at the same time. Finally, it's worth mentioning that World of Darkness is actually a collection of different related games all based on the storytelling system. One game focuses on vampire PCs, another on werewolves, one for mages, one for Frankenstein-type monsters, and so forth. They all share the same core rules and some straightforward variation of the morality system to represent the values peculiar to the sub-game's protagonists and their own eccentricities.

Breadth: Supernatural and occult games, especially ones based in a modern setting.

World of Darkness is nothing without eldritch, magical, or at least weird powers at play. There's also a lot of drama stemming from internal party and character angst, so if you don't want monster PCs to be at least somewhat conscious of their metaphysical problems, it might be a poor fit. A recent supplement, Mirrors, gives some high-level suggestions for porting the game into a fantasy, sci-fi, or post-apocalyptic setting. But even so they still need to accommodate or at least address the key themes above.

Deciding factor: the morality system.

I love the morality system, and because of that World of Darkness is one of those games I'm always interested in playing. Because the morality mechanic features a different set of standards for slipping morals, characters tend to skirt the fine line of sanity and ruthlessness in a world of monsters. It's evocative and rare, and to even try to make morality and sanity similarly large elements of other games takes a lot of shoe-horning and handwaving.

Dungeons & Dragons (or any D20 really)

Primary Mechanic: Roll 1d20 and add relevant modifiers, comparing the total against a target number.

D&D is the ultimate representative of RPGs for most people--nerd, gamer, or otherwise. But I'm another story. Sure, I'd always heard of D&D, but I didn't get into a game of it until I'd already gotten three or four other systems under my belt. It may be mitigated by my prior experience, but the core mechanic of D&D is kind of clumsy to me. The simple 1d20 mechanic is complicated by the addition of action points, which can be used for extra actions, special abilities, or to add 1d6 to the main roll. Then weapons' damage are based on any dice but 1d20. So even though it's a classic legacy game mechanic, it's really the least comfortable system for me.

Breadth: Niche stylized action and heroes.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition has little breadth in the main system--the company Wizards of the Coast is currently only making the standard D&D setting and Gamma World variation, which is a wacky post-apocalyptic setting. But there's Pathfinder and the True20 systems based on the third edition of the game, made by Paizo Publishing and Green Ronin Publishing, respectively. Pathfinder is still a traditional late medieval fantasy setting, but True20 is designed to cover almost as many settings as GURPS, albeit with less depth and scrutiny. But the core of all of these d20 games are still fundamentally limited to high action, low-grit campaigns.

Deciding factor: setting.

Frankly, I don't think I'd ever run a fantasy game with D&D. The rules are hamstrung by classes and mechanics that really take a lot of tweaking or handwaving to make it mesh with my approach to fantasy games. However, for a comic, irreverent, and ludicrously lethal short-run game, I love Gamma World as an easy game to get into. Ironically, the only game I'm really interested in running based on the D20 system is Mongoose Publishing's out-of-print Starship Troopers RPG. There, the class system fits military specializations reasonably well, the high-action rules fit with the war angle, and the tweaks to the core of the D20 system make it lethal enough for players to feel fragile in the face of their alien enemies.

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