Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Catching The Feel of a Universe

So, yesterday I had myself a little rant inspired by a blog post by Robert Donaghue. You can get all the details by clinking on that link above, including links to Mr. Donaghue's original post. The gist of it, for those who don't want to read, was that when making a game for an established universe your priority should be to catch what it is people want about the universe before making the game. This way, you make the game around that and you don't lose the draw the game has in the balancing and game design aspects of it. Today, I want to talk about that same thing, but in regards to Table Top.
So, when it comes to 'catching the feel' of a fandom in a table top role playing game, the two best examples I've experienced is the 40k line of games from Fantasy Flight Games. Followed closely by the D20 Game of Thrones RPG that was done by the now defunct Guardians of Order and White Wolf. In both games (and yes, I consider Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Death Watch to be one big game), you can really tell that the people who made the game spent time to get to know the universe, found the things they thought were cool, and were a big draw, and then built the game around that.

In 40k it's the dark bleakness of the world, the fact that life often costs less than a single round of ammunition (I'm serious here, 1 bolter round will feed a family for like 3 months in some places). The system is lethal, and is in many ways built off of failure. A character with a 50% chance to accomplish something is amazing at it, which means that you are expected to fail over 50% of the time. At first I thought this would be a huge turn off, but as I've played the game I've found it really catches the feel of the universe which is what makes it fun. Now, with Death Watch, they're adding that big want people have, you can be a Space Marine.

In the Game of Thrones RPG, while my experience was limited, you could see the attention to detail that GoO put into the rules, and that White Wolf put into the fluffy bits around it. You could tell what sections GoO did, and which WW did by reading the side bars and seeing the focus. You also had places where the game took large leaps from normal D20 in order to catch the feel of iconic moments in the books. See, in a couple of places (and 1 really big one) armor fatiguing a fighter comes into play in the story, especially with someone wearing armor too heavy for them. It became a crowning moment of awesome for one character, and a lot of fans talk about that scene a lot. Not many RPGs handle rules for that though, but they put it into the game. Suddenly, there was a benefit to going unarmored. If you could keep from getting hit, you wouldn't get fatigued as quickly, meaning you weren't getting cumulative -1 penalties every round until at last you could barely swing your sword. As someone who enjoys playing lightly armored, quick, and agile fighters. I must say, it was a real treat managing to mechanically pull that stunt off and win a fight by exhausting a heavier armored fighter and only then going on the attack. It made me feel very much in the universe.

Now, both of these are still Game Design examples, but they are still important examples of the game done right. As the GM, you have an important job though, which is to take the work started by the rules and continue it through into your game. To present the feel of the universe to people, to wrap them up in it, and let it whisk them away. I think you'll find that it is rewarding when you do it, especially when you can borrow from shared experiences with known universes. I can't remember how many times I've said that "There's just something about Star Wars that makes it more awesome and epic". I mean it when I say it too, but then again, in those Star Wars games I've ran and been in, the feel of Star Wars has been there.

I'm bringing this up as in numerous games I've seen, people are claiming a game is something like a 'Star Wars' game, only the game doesn't have any of the Star Wars feel. It lacks the draws Star Wars has (I mentioned the three draws I feel Star Wars has yesterday. In short, Lightsabers/jedi, Manadlorians, The Millennium Falcon). I've often wondered what the point was of those games being in that universe, if you weren't going to use the big draws?

In short.

Why run Star Wars if you're not going to have the Force or Mandalorians be a part of it?

Why run an Avatar (the nick cartoon) game if you're not going to have benders in it?

Why run a Halo game without Spartans or the Covenant?

Do you have to have them in the group? Not at all, especially if the group doesn't want them in it. But they should be in the game, and they should bring with them the full impact they have in the universe. If they're not there, are you really using that universe? Or are you just doing some generic sci fi/fantasy game that has similar locations?

Everyone's group is different, and the draws for your group might be vastly different. Maybe you're Star Wars groups likes Storm Troopers, TIE Fighters, and the Death Star but couldn't care less about Mandalorians and the Force. That's fine, but it means that your Star Wars game should include the draws for your group.

Again, in short.

Find what your group likes about the universe, grab it, catch it, use it. Otherwise, what is the point of borrowing the universe?

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