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RPG Systems and Preparing To Run a Game

This is mainly for telophase.

But by way of background for anyone else: I've been playing RPGs for far too long, including being one of the playtesters for Iron Crown Enterprise's first version of Rolemaster. I'm currently in a very by-the-book D&D game, and I have also played online games that used GURPS, first on CompuServe's RPGAMES board and late on the Dreamlyrics message gaming board. And I've run games on my own for friends, and as tournaments at conventions.

Why Do People Use Game Systems?

The purpose of an RP gaming system is to provide a framework within which the gamesmaster/storyteller (I'll use GM to refer to this person from here on) makes decisions. And really, just about all of the types of decisions that I mean can be boiled down to: Does the player succeed in the action that she is about to take? The rest is just supporting details. For example, if the decision is whether or not the player succeeds in a combat, then the details might include how much damage the player character takes and how much damage the opponent takes, and whether either of them has died or suffered limitations (in movement, for example) as a result. If the decision is whether the character succeeds in opening a door, the details might include whether a trap has been set off by the action. And so on.

All of the usual character creation and development processes are in support of this decision-making. The character creation may use a random pool of points - either totalled, or as a set of subpools that are assigned to specific characteristics (as in classic D&D, where each characteristic gets 3 × [1 to 6] points) - or it may use a set number of points that the player breaks down to "purchase" characteristics and abilities (as in GURPS). It doesn't really matter. The aim is to codify any character-based inputs to the GM's decisions. The same is true of any subsequent character development. There is usually some way to increase the character-based input to the process so that the GM's decisions are more likely to favor the character, but whether that's accomplished by adding points earned to a pool that represents an overall character skill/deveopment level (D&D, Rolemaster) or by providing points that can be used to "purchase" specific enhancements or increases in skill levels (GURPS), the aim is the same.

Most systems insert a random factor into the decisionmaking process, usually by having the GM and/or the players roll dice of some sort. This increases both game enjoyment -because the decision isn't predetermined - and realism - because even a very skilled person with great natural ability can't expect to beat all weaker opponents, or climb every wall of a given type all the time. There's always that lucky swing by the opponent or unexpected loose stone in the wall.

So - if you decide that you are not going to use some specific pre-made gaming system, you will have to decide some other way to make these kinds of decisions within the framework of the story you and your players are telling.

Some Things to Do Before You Start Running the Game

It's possible to buy pre-made modules to run as a game. I'm assuming that the GM here wants to create his or her own scnarios.

  1. Decide on the story that's going to be told. Is it a running situational comedy? A quest with a significant ultimate goal? A cops/ghostbusters-type scenario, where the players solve a series of problems, each one self-contained? (There's also the "underground complex stocked with monsters to kill and treasure to take" - which is basically a shooting gallery. I'm assuming that anyone who's bothered to read this far isn't interested in that.)
  2. Start fleshing out the story with details involving settings and situations, including significant non-player characters. This doesn't have to be complete in every detail before you start, but you have to start with something in hand!
  3. Decide what to do about a game system. You might actually want to do this before the previous step, because it's often useful in setting up the story details (especially non-player characters, because a game system will usually have characteristics - stats, abilities - that you will want to determine for these guys).
  4. Get any player input that you want for their characters. If you don't care about integrating the player characters closely with the game situations - for example, if your game could be described simply as "Let's kill all the monsters and take all their treasure" - this might means simply having them use the game system (if you're going with one) to determine their stats/abilities or whatever. But if your game is going to have a more richly detailed storyline, you may want to get some idea of what kinds of characters they want to run (not just mage vs. fighter, but also long-lost heir vs. famous wizard's apprentice, and so on) because this may help you in your scenario development, before they start doing the stats/abilities business.
  5. Decide on what you're doing for the first "episode" of the game. Are the player characters already part of an established team, or will the first episode consist of an incident (or incidents) in which they meet?

(Other people are welcome to chime in, too!!)



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 5th, 2008 12:22 am (UTC)
I think one of the big questions is the difference between the typical tabletop RPG and the sort of online journal-based RPG we're looking at. There seems to be less GM-ly intervention, and in the cases of at least a couple of the ones I've poked through, some plots (when they're having them) are planned and generated by the players themselves.
Jan. 5th, 2008 02:38 am (UTC)
I've done some online forum/journal-based play both in set game systems (Nobilis, Witchcraft) and more free-form roleplay stuff. Most of the big journal-based things I've seen, stuff like campfuckudie and omashu_mills and such, seem to lean towards the purely player-generated model. In the small cracktastic Avatar-AU game I'm in, for instance, players will just sort of casually hash out plot twists in a separate private planning journal or in group AIM chats until there's a consensus as to which way the next few scenes will go, maybe do a little on-the-spot live role-play of the conversations, and then do the public postings (this is for a game that's basically pure cracky soap opera, where the happenings are presented for readers in the form of various characters' LJ/Facebook entries, email, or telephone/IM conversations). That gets pretty unwieldy if you have more than a small core group of players, of course, or serious timezone/schedule issues; the bigger journal-based games I've seen look like they're even more freeform, folks who interact a lot with particular characters may do some private RP before posting, but there's no central game pre-planning, folks just sort of bounce off whatever catches their fancy.

The times I've done non-live play of tabletop systems, it was handled a bit like the smaller journal game above; there would be one forum thread for actual gameplay, another one for meta, planning, questions to the GM more involved than stuff that could be tacked on to a brief note in the end of a game posting, and so forth. In the Nobilis game we also did a few chats early on, when we were still hashing out the details of our Chancel and Imperator, but most of that was handled through the planning/OOC thread. Those games had more plot and GM intervention, through direct scene-setting stuff and responses to character actions and NPC postings; basically a lot like tabletop play, only time-shiftable and a bit slower and less concentrated than a long live session. The big advantage of it, to my tastes, was that the pace and time-shift and player/game selection encouraged a very writerly style of play, if that makes sense -- it felt less like a game and more like we were collaborating on a story. The disadvantage next to the more freeform player-directed stuff is that when the GMs got overwhelmed by Real Life issues, the games died; something totally freeform isn't so dependent on a single director to keep it going.
Jan. 5th, 2008 02:51 am (UTC)
The basic context (at least for the part directed at me), is the idea of a cracktastic Bleach RPG based on my silly zanpakuto generator that popped up on my f-list after people said they'd be willing to play in such a thing. So me and the few people who were willing to work on the backend are (sporadically) hashing things out.

It would probably be a lot more like campfuckudie in action, although I can't see it ever getting that big just because it would be all OCs. :D
Jan. 5th, 2008 03:15 am (UTC)
If you're going for pure crack, there's definitely something to be said for keeping it as free-form and player directed as possible...plot, who needs plot when you have free-flowing crack? XD
Jan. 5th, 2008 03:22 am (UTC)
I'm mostly not sure how much needs to be set up - basic rules, naturally, and some settings/items/whatever*, but I don't know where the balance between too much and not enough is.

* So far, the basic idea is that this is the Omega Crew of the Seireitei - the place where all the divisions dump their misfits and losers**. They got sent to the real world on some sort of mission and basically got forgotten in the mess when Ichigo et al. invaded. So they're stuck in their secret HQ, being run out of a convenience store (see the dire Bount arc), and subject to whatever malfunctioning equipment/gigais/whatever they've got, with the occasional Soul Society person throwing a wrench in the works (i.e. the only canon characters would be mods, because I like the idea of Yachiru messing with their heads.)

** Even more so than your normal run of shinigami, yes.
Jan. 5th, 2008 03:42 am (UTC)
Are the folks who are interested in playing primarily from a tabletop-RP background, or are they more used to freeform journal roleplays? Just from the setup you're describing, that sounds to me like a game that's begging to be less about serious plot arcs and more about random cracky improvisation, with the GM only stepping in on whim just to stir up extra crackiness -- but if the players are used to more traditional play with lots of GM direction, well, it'll probably go better if you give them what they want.
Jan. 5th, 2008 03:47 am (UTC)
I've known from the beginning that I wanted a crack-filled freeform game* - that's not the issue here. I'm stuck on the setup because I don't know what ought to be set up beforehand and what shouldn't be.

* I've forgotten exactly who wanted to play, but the vast majority of RPers on my LJ f-list are LJ gamers, and a large number play on CFUD.
Jan. 5th, 2008 10:58 pm (UTC)

You put us all on a mailing list, didn't you? (Or did you also remember that, and that's what you used to post that message?)

Jan. 5th, 2008 11:02 pm (UTC)
The LJ filter is the people who were willing to work on it. :) As opposed to those who were just intrigued by playing it. XD
Jan. 5th, 2008 11:29 pm (UTC)

Oh yeah ... >sigh<.

I shouldn't try to be intelligent when I'm going through this many Kleenexes ... .

>mournful honk<

Jan. 5th, 2008 02:00 am (UTC)
Out of curiosity, do you generally come up with any set long-running NPCs (non-player characters) when starting out? (This question actually only applies if the game is intended to stretch over more than just one adventure).

Speaking as someone who has played D&D for far too many years and dabbled in GURPS and some other systems (only occasionally GMed, however)--one of the things that seems to make a game work well is to have some stable characters that either a.) the PCs run into more than once in the course of a campaign, or b.) as other adventurers that the players hear about but never actually meet (generally PCs from lifted from past or completely different game systems).

It also might be useful to add to #4 (about getting an idea of what the PCs will be like) the concept of game balance. A fantasy party with no cleric is likely to run into trouble (and spend all their hard-won gold on healing), and a starship crew composed of all engineers and no pilot won't get very far unless they hire an NPC. Encouraging diversity in the player types helps save headaches later on. ^_^

Very interesting post, it's cool to see how other folks work out the set-up. (Hope you don't mind my two cents!) ^_^
Jan. 5th, 2008 03:34 am (UTC)
Nobilis (which is admittedly a very odd, diceless, classless system that seems to be very much a love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing) does this by design: during your PC creation you also create a couple of NPC Anchors, non-powered characters that are bound to your character by love or hate. You can turn them into sort of extensions of your PC at times, taking them over to see through their eyes or work miracles indirectly and so forth, but most of the time they're controlled by the GM as recurring NPCs. The players also collaborate as a group with the GM to create a major NPC, the Imperator that governs their group; add in any other NPCs created directly by the GM, and you wind up with a pretty broad cast that can be used to subtly nudge the plot in motion.

(I have this on my brain even more than usual, as I'm now halfway through Dreamfall, and along with the obvious Gojyo-parallels Cat is really reminding me of an angstier, depowered version of my old Nobilis PC; another small, scrappy, orphaned not-quite-human street kid, and even physically, his feline pupils are about the only thing that would keep them from looking like they could be siblings.)
Jan. 5th, 2008 05:50 am (UTC)
I've never heard of the Nobilis RPG, but did a quick net-search after your comment to look at some reviews. It sounds fascinating. One review mentioned some specific SF/F authors that the system draws elements from, and all of them are high on my personal library list. ^_^ Pity I haven't hooked up with a tabletop RPG group since I last moved--it sounds like a great system to try.

I'm now halfway through Dreamfall

Oh my gosh, you are really burning through those books! Very cool about the book/gaming parallels. I hope your PC didn't get into as much trouble as Cat always seems to! ^_^
Jan. 5th, 2008 07:53 am (UTC)
Heh, yes, after hearing some folks talk it up with parallels to Sandman and Zelazny and Incarnations of Immortality, I ended up buying the Great White Book even though I had no hopes at the time of finding anyone to actually *play* it with; it's just a lovely thing even to flip through, with all the flashfic and gorgeous illustrations it's closer to a really arcane coffee-table book than the average RPG guide. It's out of print now, too, so if you ever see a copy that isn't going for a ridiculous sum I recommend snapping it right up -- even if you flip through it and find it's not quite your cup of tea, you should have no problem unloading it again on eBay. I've never actually played it live, but the setting and mechanics make it work remarkably well for online play, and if I had anywhere near the experience to actually RUN a game I'd be trying to drum up a session RIGHT NOW.

As for burning through the Vinge -- ha, it's only by extreme willpower that I've managed to drag them out as long as I have, the temptation to just sit down and mainline them all in one sitting has been near-overwhelming! But I'm trying to pace myself here because at the same time I don't quite want it to be all over yet, and after the endings of the last two books I'm sure this one's just going to break what's left of my heart again as I get to the end...

(If you're sufficiently bored and/or curious, I've got a bit of old babble about the campaign and character and some snippets of scene-setting passages here; I didn't bother including any of the detailed stats or character background and description, but if you imagine a short, scrawny, girl version of Cat at about fifteen or so you'll be remarkably close...
Jan. 5th, 2008 09:04 am (UTC)
Oooh, a diceless, classless system? Sounds interesting... after doing so much of the paragraph-style LJ RP where the only control on actions is the fear of godmoding or acting OOC, it felt so weird to go back to dice and character sheets and all of that! *laugh*
Jan. 5th, 2008 11:15 pm (UTC)

I once played an online game where it was sort of a compromise - you gave the GM a sort of character background summary with your character bio and then a list of what things you thought your character was good at, OK at, and bad at.

Jan. 5th, 2008 11:10 pm (UTC)

I generally did have some "pet" long-term NPCs set up ahead of time. Some were allies of the PCs, and some were adversaries. All my games were pretty big quest-type games, and yes, it was helpful to have NPCs set up like that.

The game I'm playing in right now is pretty mechanical, but it's the only game I've got. I'd love to be involved in the sort of large-scale semi-serious game I used to play in, mostly with this guy as the DM. But this thing telophase is working on sounds fun too.

Actually, I will throw in an NPC if they're really stuck for a healer-type. But mostly my players were pretty good about balancing the classes themslves. When I'm playing, I'm often the cleric/lay healer (which nowadays makes me think of Hakkai ...) - although one of our current players was running a game for several months, and I played completely against type as a swashbuckling half-orc bard! She fought with a rapier, wore lacy shirts and velvet britches, and her musical instruments were guitar, bongos, and concertina ... .

(Re your 2 cents ... what are you, kidding me? Whip me, beat me, talk gaming to me ...!)

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )


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