Thursday, March 08, 2007

Managing the Rules

So, about two weeks ago I managed to run a New World of Darkness game. It was a mixed game (mages, werewolves and one promethian), which only complicated things. But, as the GM, I focused heavily on the Mage side (I have a strong interest in magic-heavy RPGs. New readers should check out my magic essay for more information.)

While it was fun to be behind the wheel again, one thing quickly became painfully clear. NWD has a lot of rules. And I mean A LOT OF RULES. Instant spells, ritual spells, rotes, spheres, dots, sympathetic magic, temporally sympathetic magic...and that's just scratching the surface on the Mage book.

I spent a significant portion of my mental energy just managing the rules: trying to figure out what characters could do, struggling to plan out the mechanics behind my desired actions. Unfortunately, my brain can only juggle so many balls at once. So, if most of my thoughts are churning over the rules, I'm not focusing on the story. From a tactical and pacing standpoint, I think the evening went OK. But the story definitely felt sub-par.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with rules. Rules provide structure, and I've always said that stories need structure. Rules define the physics of the game world. They define the realm of the possible and impossible. They help give the players and the GM a common language for describing a character's abilities, and ideally the language of rules is less ambiguous than everyday English.

Rules also provide a framework for our creativity to build upon. Limits often foster creativity. Many writers say it's hard to write a story when you're faced with a blank page. There are too many options. Too much freedom. But, ask the same writer for a story about a teenage girl on the run from her alcoholic step-father, and the night she had to spend broke at a truck stop...suddenly, the task becomes easy.

Primarily, though, rules provide consistency. A character cannot punch through brick walls one day, then have trouble knocking out a rent-a-cop the next (unless the rent-a-cop is actually a zombie-cyborg in disguise--but how often does that happen).

This is one of the few areas where gaming might be superior to other media. In most movies, novels or comic books, the writers are only limited by their ability. They can have the characters do anything at any time. Good writers keep their characters consistent--but consistency is hard, and even the best writers drop the ball on occasion. It is especially hard for characters in a serial medium (like TV or comic books), or any character that spans several stories.

Games, however, have an extra layer of artificial consistency. It's not perfect, but every little bit helps.

So, rules are not inherently bad. But when the game system forces you to focus on the rules to the exclusion of story, well something's just not right.

As a tactical game, complex rules reward players for mastering the system. The more proficient you are at manipulating the rules, the more power your character can exert in the game. Unfortunately, this creates a feedback loop. We reward players for focusing on the rules. The more they focus on the rules, the more important these rules become. Story soon becomes a remote afterthought.

Also, complex rules make it harder to improvise encounters. If I want to introduce a Death Mage, I need a strong understanding of the Death sphere at my fingertips. Now, if I had time to look up spells, to plan things out in advance, then everything's good. But if I'm winging it...well...lets just say some of my bad guys used their powers in pretty stupid ways.

I had a related problem with the Riddle of Steel. While there are many aspects of that game that I love, the combat system requires a lot of work. I didn't feel that I could just "fake" NPC stats--and characters took a fair bit of time to build. Worse yet, the tactics you use in combat really matter.

As the GM, how do I play the NPCs. If the players are facing an inexperienced swordsman, I can just have them make poor tactical decisions. Pretending to be stupid is not that hard. But what if I want to make an incredible swordsman. While I can give him good stats, his effectiveness is still limited by my tactical abilities. That's fine, if I'm a better than everyone else at the table--yeah, that's gonna happen.

This bleed-over from a player's ability to the character's ability really bothers me.

I suspect these are some of the reasons Narrativist games tend to have simpler rules.

Maybe the NWD system will get better as I get more comfortable with the rules. I'm alternating the GM duties with two other guys, so I'll get a few more shots. Maybe I can partially compensate by planning things out more in advance. But, mostly, I hope I can find players for a less-tactical game.