Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Three Games from Sydcon: Systemed Games for the Systemless Gamer

I've just got back from Sydcon, which is a rather nice little con in Sydney, run by the Sydney Roleplaying Games Association. I tend to feel a bit of a stranger at Sydcon - there's one or two close friends, a small bucket of acquaintances, and a load of folk I don't know. But for all that, I've always found the Sydcon orgs flexible and approachable, the players fun and keen. This year was no different.

I was also in the odd position of playing games rather than running them - I was shouty GM for Ryan Paddy's Black Hart of Camelot freeform (run by Belinda Kelly as head and thinky-plotty GM), but otherwise had signed up for a bunch of tabletops.

I'm breaking my con review into two posts: this first, which covers three games through the lens of systemed play in con games, and then another, covering two decidedly old school games.

Me, I'm a systemless gamer. I prefer the kinds of stories and interactions that come about from direct interplay between players and GM, sans system. But, you know, it's not a strong preference, and sometimes you just like to throw some dice.

So I played Witching Stew by Martin Blake, which was a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game, whatever the latest edition is. And it was the full system - each character had a stand-up cardboard figure, a set of ten or so cards showing our tactical options, a full-colour character board, and a bucket of chits and tokens. I was the only player who'd never played WFRP, but I was able to keep up. The GM had anticipated my ignorance, and had prepared a streamlined system description for reference. Gameplay took place on pretty cardboard tiles, with the climax taking place in a pretty cardboard arena.

The game ran through three encounters of escalating intensity, linked by a fairly rudimentary plot. The first involved a tussle with an old woman; the second, a bunch of drunk rich kids; the third, a chaos cult ritual. Between the encounters, we...moved straight to the next encounter. The characters were loosely tied to the cultists of the climax but not to each other; characterisation was limited to silly voices and scripted tics.

And I have to say, this was the diciest of dicey games that I've ever played. Every action involved gathering and throwing a stunning array of dice. All shapes, all colours. Luck dice, challenge dice, bad luck dice, skill many dice!

So, you know, the game was actually a lot of fun. There was tenseness and excitement in exploring the array of tactical options. As a tactical game it worked well enough. As an introduction to the WFRP system, it was effective. As a roleplaying experience...

...well, you know, it was a fun tactical dice game.

I also played Let's Be Bad Guys, which was a Serenity game by Stephen Marsh. The characters followed the Firefly originals reasonably closely, but not slavishly - my character was a fast talkin', fast shootin' gunslinger who'd narrowly escaped being sold into Companion training and was on the run from her paw. The system was a stripped-down, streamlined and fixed-up version of the (somewhat broken) Serenity system. In practice, this basically meant that sometimes we rolled poly-dice, and the number didn't really matter much unless it was very high or very low.

This was a heist game, and heist games are hard to do well. The bulk of the session was spent planning the heist, saved from terminal dullness with some heavy characterisation in bad pseudo-Western accents. My team observed after the game that the heist-as-executed bore very little resemblance the heist-as-planned, and there was a sense of the GM having a strong set of images to bring about, regardless of what the players did.

As a systemless gamer, I don't feel that the system added much to this game. There was certainly enough plot and drama and party tension to fuel the game without it. Failed rolls usually served to stall gameplay rather than sending it careening in a different direction. Players' intentions, enforced by fate tokens, had far more of an impact on the game than the characters' stats - to the point of sometimes completely overriding the dice roll to get a more satisfying story.

The finale, it must be said, was huge and dramatic and spectacular. It was a fun game, no question. And I got to be a terrible purty space cowgirl, and that ain't nothin'.

The other game I wanted to talk about was Veritas Maledictus by Richard Warner and Muz, which was sold as a high fantasy dragon hunt. And played as a high fantasy dragon hunt. The great heroes who destroyed the dragon were recruited by their original leader's son, to destroy the dragon again, who turned out to have been less than thoroughly destroyed.

Now this was a class act, start to finish. The two-GM team bounced off each other, swapping boxed-text narration duties smoothly and enthusiastically. Supporting this was a dramatic soundtrack, loud enough to hear without being overwhelming. The game was tongue-in-cheek without being camp, the tropes played straight, except when they were played for laughs. The GMs were confident and assured, confidentally leading the players through the story.

System-wise, each character had a number of plusses on their sheet. Resolution involved rolling a d20 and adding a number* - six or more was a partial success, twelve or more a full success, with a one or twenty being a critical failure or success respectively. The characters were good enough in their main skills that success was usually a given, but not always. Dice rolling was used to resolve spellcasting actions, one or two non-combat actions, and combat.

Thing is, this game had almost exactly the same structure as Witching Stew: a sequence of set, scripted encounters, linked by a narrative, and no real decision points. The difference between a tactical game and a high adventure was in the narration, the staging, and the use of the system. In Veritas Maledictus, not a single dice roll was wasted - every action, success or fail, added to the scene. Failures added tension and drama and comedy and explosions; successes, despite being plentiful, seemed hard won. A good roll felt good, like a sword plunging into dragon flesh. We ran nearly an hour over time, and barely noticed.

So, that's three games - one where the game was the system, one where the system didn't seem to help and may have hindered, and one where the system was used to very good effect to support dramatic storytelling. All of them were awesome fun.

But that last one was my favourite.

* I originally picked this as a stripped-to-a-workable-minimum version of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, but I'm told it was based on Omnisystem, which I'm not familiar with.


  1. "well, you know, it was a fun tactical dice game. "

    This bit still irks me, even after so long.

    Can you tell me why you stopped yourself from calling it Roleplaying game?

    P.S. I know WFRP (even the new edition), and I know what it is you are trying to say. But I would like to know why you don't think that sort of play is a roleplaying game.

  2. Dan, the emphasis in this session was very much on the dice and the tactics. The GM had chosen to focus on the system. This gave it more of a boardgame feel than a WFRP game would normally have.

    It meant that as a roleplaying game, the roles were superficial, the plot was simple and unidirectional, there wasn't a lot of scope for characterisation and there was almost no interaction between the characters - and players - beyond manoeuvering for tactical advantage.

    It felt like a veneer of roleplaying over a tactical dice game.

    Which is still a roleplaying game. Just a very tactical, dice-heavy roleplaying game.

  3. "Which is still a roleplaying game. Just a very tactical, dice-heavy roleplaying game."

    That sounds better to me... :)


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