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<   No. 3635   2017-04-03   >

Comic #3635

1 Mordekai: While a campfire will keep us warm, there's one big problem with it. It attracts wild animals.
2 Alvissa: No, fire drives away wild animals. Well known wilderness fact.
3 Mordekai: I beg to differ.
3 Alvissa: I'm an elf! I know this stuff!
4 Mordekai: And that's a pack of wolves.

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They're very brown for wolves. I suppose they could be Ethiopian wolves, or perhaps even dholes[1].

Or more likely, the wolves in this fantasy world just happen to be brown.

[1] Not these ones.


I've previously described in some detail my history with roleplaying games. Although an avid gamer, my circumstances have led me to a somewhat limited experience with different roleplaying rule systems. I moved from a beginning with Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and its more complex big brother Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) through a couple of home brew systems to GURPS. Because of its generic nature and applicability to any genre you can think of, I didn't have a strong need to acquire other game systems beyond GURPS.

The main reason for trying other game systems was to experience the campaign worlds that they brought with them. For this reason I've also played around with Cyberpunk 2020, Call of Cthulhu, James Bond 007, Paranoia, and Toon. Seven commercially published game systems is, in my experience, a very low number for a seasoned roleplayer to have experience with. Many people have played dozens of different systems.

Back in the day, I wrote my own home brew system designed for use in a spacefaring science fiction setting. This was The Amber Nebula, which mutated into a GURPS campaign that featured the original Paris, Serron, Iki Piki, and Spanners as PCs.

At the time when I wrote my Amber Nebula rule system I liked the idea of a comprehensive set of rules, which covered every possible situation that could arise in a game. This came from the background of AD&D, which tried to be exhaustive in its rules, and where it failed the holes were plugged by articles in Dragon magazine that offered either official additions or suggestions by interested authors. Dragon magazine gave rules for how much volume a gold coin occupied, and mathematical formulae to determine how many coins you could fit into a space of given dimensions, depending on if they were neatly stacked or randomly dumped.

This obsession with comprehensiveness led me to develop a complicated game system. I decided that D&D's six character ability stats needed to be split up into at least twenty different stats. Intelligence for example, was split into Knowledge, Reasoning, and Research. Then there were dozens of different skills. I even used newly learnt knowledge of multivariate calculus to calculate combat hit probabilities assuming a Gaussian accuracy model. It was all really complicated, in the name of "realism". The real world was complicated, so a decent game system needed to be complicated to model all of that.

That's one approach to designing a roleplaying system, but certainly not the only one. A lot of gamers tend to gravitate towards complex, "realistic" systems, seeing them as a means of simulating reality in the game setting. The better the simulation, the more enjoyment they get.

Before moving on to other styles of rules systems, let's talk a bit about roleplaying games as an activity. The essential component of such games that distinguishes them from board games, and even from modern computer "roleplaying games" (which have borrowed the terminology), is that in a roleplaying game you take on the role of a character and you can choose to do anything that character could do in their world. A computer roleplaying game, even one styled as a "wide open" sandbox is still a very tightly restricted sandbox. You might be able to travel anywhere on the game map and talk with or fight any creature you come across, but you can't climb a tree, hack off a branch, and carve it into a set of dominoes. You can't sit in a pub nursing a beer and pondering wistfully over a lost love while flicking peanuts at the bard attempting to perform in the corner. In a traditional tabletop roleplaying game, you can.

It's the flexibility of having a human game moderator that allows your character to do, or at least try to do, anything you can imagine that gives roleplaying games their intense fascination, at least for me. I love the freedom of roleplaying games, played face to face with other people. But I've played a few computer "roleplaying games" and very quickly gave them up because of how uninteresting and uninteractive I found them, though I recognise that many other people enjoy them immensely for other good qualities that they possess. It's a totally different experience, and I think that co-opting the name "roleplaying games" for computer games does a disservice both to them and to the traditional face-to-face games.

So, one way to grant the game master this freedom to moderate any events in the game is to provide rules for as many situations as you can think of. The rules need to have some flexibility and inclusiveness. For example, no rule writer would provide a specific skill for carving dominoes out of a branch, but there might be a skill for woodcarving, which can cover that situation plus many others. So you can concentrate on rules that will generalise and provide a broad coverage, to try to have something suitable for any situation.

This is the way that GURPS approaches simulating the events in a game world. Over the years, GURPS evolved a large and complex skill tree, which was pruned back with the publication of the 4th edition, with an eye to providing just enough broadly defined skills to cover virtually anything a character might want to do. Although defined to be relatively broad, the desire to cover everything still results in a lot of different skills.

A different approach to roleplaying systems is to define only the rules that are expected to commonly come up in play, and to handle any other situations by asking the game master to apply common sense. So in a combat, there would be rules to determine who hits and how much damage is done, but if a character wants to carve dominoes it's up to the GM to say either, "Sure, you can do that," or, "No, you don't have the skill to make dominoes." Or possibly, "Hmmm, you might be able to do that. Roll a 7 or higher."

This "rules-light" can go fairly extreme. After the highly complicated system I wrote for The Amber Nebula, I wrote a very different system for fast and free roleplaying. All of the rules fit on a single sheet of A4 paper, and I called it the One Page Gaming System, or OPIGS. I happened to have saved the rules for OPIGS, and they're online on my website. It's a highly underspecified rules system (and much of the jargon comes from inside jokes known only to me and my gaming group at the time), but believe it or not I actually ran a few games using these rules and we had a lot of fun.

And in the end, isn't that what matters? Having fun? People can have fun in many different ways, and as long as you're having fun playing a game, you're not playing it wrong. I used to have fun playing games with detailed rules that tried to simulate reality as carefully as possible, even if it meant having to pause a lot to look up specific rules. But over the years I've moved to enjoying fast and free-flowing play with lots of social interaction with my friends. So what game systems do I like now?

Well, GURPS in its entirety is large and contains lots of rules. You can run it in a very simulationist mode. But most of the rules can be treated as options, which you can ignore if you wish. The core game mechanics of GURPS are quite simple, and with a bit of experience you can run whole game sessions without ever looking at the rulebooks once, just winging it whenever an unexpected situation arises.

Even more free flowing and simple is Toon, by the same publisher, Steve Jackson Games. It simulates the classic cartoons of the 1950s and 60s, such as Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes. It has only a handful of skills to cover the typical things that cartoon characters want to do to one another. It also contains some of the best GMing advice you will find in any game. Basically, if you don't know how to handle any situation in the game, just make something up, quickly, and keep the game moving. In a properly run game of Toon, nobody should ever need to look at the rulebook during play. The rules are simple enough that everyone can easily learn and remember all they need to know to play.

Another set of rules which I've been using lately and really like are the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition rules. For a long time I stuck with the (1st edition) AD&D rules, because they were familiar, and skipped the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions. I've heard good things about the 3rd edition, or more accurately the revised edition commonly known as 3.5, and a lot of things that I thought sounded bad about the 4th edition.

I'm going from second hand accounts as I never played 4th edition myself, so apologies if I misrepresent it. I've heard that the rules changes in 4th edition made the game much more like a computer roleplaying game, in that it offered a bunch of standard "recipes" of actions that you could take to produce various quantified game benefits. This resulted in combats often being preceded by an almost ritual in which each character would cast spells or activate abilities that granted bonuses on various stats and skills, the goal being to maximise game statistics before wading into battle. It became a game of number crunching and choosing tactical combat actions from a fixed menu of options, much like a computerised game, in stark contrast to being an open and free-flowing game in which characters would try unique things in unique situations. The DM became more an algorithm, turning the handle on the rules mechanics, than a human making decisions about running the game. (Maybe this is overly exaggerated, but this is my impression from what I've heard.)

Some people loved 4th edition, exactly because it was more deterministic and more like a computer game. It became like a puzzle to be solved or a thing to be optimised, and there are certainly lots of people who like those things in their gaming activities. Which is fine, but it's not my idea of fun.

The 5th edition of D&D went back to its roots, in a significant change of direction. The rules system was simplified and a lot of the overspecification was removed. An emphasis was placed on roleplaying - imagining that you are your character, and dealing with the consequences of your individuality and personality. Rather than provide extensive rules on buffing your character with numerical stat and skill bonuses, there are rules that require you to think about your character's past history, social background, previous personal relationships, and so on. And when it comes to eventually getting into a fight, the mechanics are quick and easy, and the adventures are written to make you think about the motives and personalities of your enemies, rather than just their odds of hitting you.

In my mind, this was exactly the right direction to take, and I think 5th edition is one of the best things to happen in the history of D&D after its inception. Others may disagree with me and prefer 4th edition's more crunchy optimisation focus, and that's fine.

The important thing is to recognise that there are multiple different styles of roleplaying, and that different people like different things. And that there are very different styles of rules out there, so you should spend a bit of time trying to find one that suits your own style. If you've tried roleplaying games once and didn't really enjoy it, I'd encourage you to try a game with a different GM and a different set of rules. Roleplaying isn't a single uniform experience, in the same way that music, or Asian food, or computer games aren't all single uniform experiences. You need to try some different flavours to understand the variety and find something you like.


Note: This annotation was inspired by reader Ian S., who requested an essay on the topic of my relation with role-playing games as part of his Patreon supporter reward. If you'd like me to write an extended annotation on any topic you care to name, or if you just want to show some support for the comics and other creative work I share, please consider becoming a patron.

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