Sunday, June 21, 2015

Isn't that lovely? - Not a rant about role playing games with "light" rules (and not a review of Against the Unknown or InSpectres ...)

I should be sitting here writing something else. It just ain't happening, because what's really bothering right now is not a post about Murder in Role Playing Games or Why I love HackMaster or [insert neglected topic here], but the question why some (all?) role playing games with light rules don't satisfy my urge to DM role playing games anymore (if ever, really). I feel compelled to write that this is not a rant and if anything else, it's my opinion. Please consider this before screaming at the monitor :)

What is this about?

Don't really know yet, but I keep writing it anyway. It's one of those posts where I start writing about something and end up writing about something else, I guess. It's also my second introduction for this post ... Ah well, here we go. Between testing the beta-rules for Lost Songs we had a few opportunities to test some other games, namely Against the Unknown and InSpectres. I aimed to give some light rules games a chance, since I haven't had much time to prepare anything. And although I've been told that they all had been great fun for the players, the experience had left me somewhat unsatisfied and a Game Master.

I had a hard time so far finding out why that is. I couldn't quite put a finger on it, since I liked both games a lot (and will talk about them a bit more in this post, I suspect). My conclusions so far might not be very popular, but I'll at least try to explain them in detail. The short of it: Games with light rules force a DM to make uncomfortably arbitrary decisions where a more complex system would still produce information for a DM to work with. I don't like it. I really don't.

I'll go into detail later on, but lets talk a bit about those games first.

Against the Unknown - Not a review I (but ...)

I read the game on a Friday morning on my way to work and DMed it that Friday in the evening. It's a fast read with very few rules to speak of (seems to be inspired by the GUMSHOE system) and I liked it quite a bit. I couldn't tell you why, though. The premise is not new: hardboiled-stories in the 1920s with some supernatural flavor. Cthulhu already does that quite well and that's just the biggest dog in the yard. It couldn't been the games main feature: as a default players will gain every clue necessary to solve a case. The reasoning behind this idea is that this way an adventure won't "fail" because the players fucked it up somehow (bad rolls and/or bad decisions ...).

Anyway, at the time I thought "why not?!", sounds reasonable enough. Let's run with it. Character creation had been a mix of players deciding what abilities they should take and all of us discussing what that actually means in the setting. The game had been set in the city Mayence in the year 1924, French occupied German city. The French had been working hard to assimilate the city, teaching French in school and all that. Of course a lot happened in the shadows in such an environment: black market, smuggling, trafficking, gambling, prostitution, you name it.

Little known fact: after the first big war the winners had reduced the German army to 100.000 soldiers, but there still had been 400.000 soldiers under weapons. Unemployed, so to say, and still out for a fight. German politics at the time denied any knowledge or connection to those Freikorps (irregular military groups), of course.

Interesting times to live in, I guess, but there were those tired of the war and an occupied city like Mayence was the right place to lay low for some time. That had been the setting for this one shot, the pitch had been a suicide by a caricaturist which his family actually believed to be a murder ...

A setting a bit like in Casablanca ... [source]
Anyway, I know a bit of history, so setting the mood hadn't been that difficult. The players really liked it, too, so everything was A-Okay, as they say.

And yet, every time I had the impulse to make something a bit more difficult, the game's main feature made me say "Yeah, you get that clue ..." and every time I wished to get some system response to what was happening at the table I'd either have to decide what happened or fall back to using DM tools from other games. In the end it felt like telling the players the story I had come up with, only restricted by them asking the right questions (which is bound to happen with four experienced players or more).

Again, the players had a blast, but as a DM I felt unchallenged and unhinged because the system really did nothing to restrain me. I consider this a bad thing. If I as a DM am not bound to certain rules in a game, it basically invites capriciousness. Not on purpose, maybe, but by default. A player of mine diagnosed I feel uncomfortable with this because I'm a "sandbox DM" and I believe he is right.

But my main problem became the games main feature: they always find the clue. That's just wrong for how I DM games. Everything players can do should have consequences. Not finding a clue or making the wrong decisions actually produces consequences and I'm not to use it against the players? It just feels wrong.

I know, many people like this mechanic, but please consider the following: the main theme of the game is finding clues and solving crime, the main feature makes that possible without any resistance. Now, were the game about killing monsters and taking their stuff and people would just get that done because they shouldn't fail at it, it sure would make people feel downright uncomfortable. Right?

Or take it from a game design perspective: if the main feature is about waving through what is considered the main theme, doesn't that automatically make those things the main feature where the systems actually responds to what happens at the table? And wouldn't shift this the game actually away from the main theme?

I still think Against the Unknown is a well done game and I'd really recommend it beginning DMs that know enough about the 1920s (history, pulp, hardboiled-fiction, Lovecraft, etc.) to fill a setting with flavor text. It's also recommended if you think the story told at the table and atmosphere are actually more important than bothering how those elements come alive in a game.

Against the Unknown is Pay What You Want at DriveThru and I'd suggest checking out the bundle No Feet to Follow Us, No Hands to Strike Us because it's a lovely combination of a Weird Tales story, a follow up adventure and the rules themselves, all in one sweet package.

Again, I'm aware that Gumshoe games like AtU, Trail of Cthulhu or Esoterrorists are quite popular and maybe I'd have fun sitting in such a game as a player, but as a DM it's just not for me. I'd have to add and change so much on the system, I might as well start a Cthulhu campaign right away ... 

InSpectres - Not a review (and yet ...)

It took even less time to prepare InSpectres than it took to prepare AtU, but I own the book for some time now and already had an opportunity to test it (a long time ago, but anyway). Players are encouraged to form some sort of Ghostbusters franchise and hunt the paranormal.

Fun premise and fun rules. The main feature is that when players roll high when checking for the result off an action, they are allowed to tell what happens (and are free to add new details). Over the course of an evening they are to collect story awards (which they get every time they add something relevant to the story) until a show down is triggered. Another great feature to support this is the spot light. In every scene one player is allowed to take a spot light, which means he'll stand up and talk to the others players as if in an interview, talking about what happened in the story. It's a great way to add new details to a story, which (if the players can make it actually happen in the game) results in more story points and getting closer to a conclusion.

In the end it's basically the players having narrative control in the game, the DM just awards story points and makes live difficult for the players when they roll low. I love those ideas and it really results in a fun game, but a total newb could DM it without ever breaking a sweat. There is just nothing to do for a DM but drinking beer and eating potato chips (things I'm never able to do when I'm DMing, so that's something, I guess).

The idea behind the main feature of this game is very much the same as in AtU, it's about avoiding the (seemingly) common mistake of allowing players to fail in an adventure. But it results in something far more entertaining: the players are to come up with ideas how the story continues. It made my players realize what my job as a DM actually is and that it's actually hard work. I'm talking about providing believable continuity in a highly random and improvised narrative environment, of course (or "winging it", as they say).

So although I love how this game works, it really ain't for me, because I DM to be challenged by the players and (ideally) the system at hand to create a compelling and believable story from all that talk and rolling the dice. I don't have that in InSpectres, so it really isn't for me (unless I'm in the mood to get drunk during DMing ...).

That being said, I really recommend giving InSpectres a look and would totally play in such a game (a campaign, even). There might be dead tree copies around in your FLGS and DriveThruRPG offers a pdf of the game. There are also some supplements about playing this in InSpace or in a Lovecraftian setting floating around, if that's more your cup of tea. Just google it, there's some strong community support out there.

No more light rules games for me, I say

So this turned out to be what I like about being a DM, the thrill of thinking on your feet and connecting dots as they appear in the narrative. Complications are my tools. If I can't make life complicated for the players, why even bother to start playing a game. You might just as well tell each other a story or see a movie. I wrote one sentence further above that summed it up rather nicely, I believe:
"I'm talking about providing believable continuity in a highly random and improvised narrative environment ..."
This is where I strive and it's where I want the system, as well, to challenge me and feed me with input. I believe that players should not only be challenged, but also should be able to fail. They are not playing to tell me what happened, we play together to find out what happened. At least that's what they get when I'm DMing.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that allowing them to find every clue in a game so that they don't fail in solving the crime is just one step away from not harming them so they won't die (which might be seen as another kind of failing to solve an adventure). And I won't have that in my games.

So for all their clever and funny ideas, I won't DM those two games again (could be convinced to attend as a player, though) and I'd be hard pressed to DM games praised for their light rules again (or even bother reading them). It's just not for me.


  1. Your distaste seems to be more aimed at the core concept of the game - no failure - rather than the lack of rules. Incredibly complex rule systems could still have this feature. I completely agree with your distaste for the lack of failure and the fun of connecting disparate plot points created in play.

  2. True, the lack of failure is one of my main beefs with those games. Initially the DM was important for avoiding omnipotent players, having narrative control with a neutral party at the table is strongly connected with this idea, of course. And yet, I believe there is an important distinction between those two functions of a DM (narrative control and limiting access to power) and a third aspect that allows the system to control some of the DM's powers ("watching the watchmen", so to say). If all those facets are in a game, it's most likely a game I'd be happy to DM. In the cases I know, those games are mostly if not heavy with rules so at least with some depth to them.

    But it'd also be interesting to see a more complex game with some of the designs described above ...

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  4. Yeah, I would add that your dislike is not necessary for "Rules Light" games, actually, but towards what I believe are called "Story Games" and are promoted by the "Indie Revolution" group of RPG designers, which tend to be Rules Light. There is a difference between those two. When you pick up a "Story Game" I think you're likely to find several features in common with each other. One is that the GM's role tends to be (sometimes vastly) diminished, and two, the GM is told that the "Players can not fail", which is often phrased as "Never Say No". I'm not quite sure about the universal prevalence of these two game design goals in "Story Games" but I think it's generally true that they lean in this direction.

    On the other hand I am certain that there are Rules Light systems out there that are not Story Games. I could point you to one (mine), but risk sounding self-promoting, so I won't, but will instead simply say that Rules Light games should not be mistaken for Story Games in all cases. Some Rules Light games might actually do what you'd think they should - make GMing faster and easier, without altering the normal modality of DMing.

    1. There can be a distinction between story games and rules light games. I believe it's basically that story games are customized towards one theme and the players have more control of the narrative than they would in a traditional rpg and need less rules because of their focus (examples I had in mind could be My life with Master or InSpectres), while rules light games keep it basic and general with rules that allow a fast and easy resolution system for all situations (like Against the Unknown or Epées & Sorcellerie). So the main distinction lies in the specific vs. the basic, in my opinion.

      Giving away narrative powers as a DM doesn't work well for me, as I feel reduced to a mere referee. I can't contribute anymore to the game and am simply administering game functions that no one else would.

      Rules light games, at least the ones I played and DMed, always left me with a feeling that something was lacking. Mostly I'm talking about things here a DM is able to improvise, so it's not that big of a problem, but I think a system can have a function of "watching" a DM, if he plays it by the rules. And I believe that demands some sort of depth/complexity. You know, I really like that kind of "crunch" in game that makes a DM think about his options and restrictions (ideally that kind of complexity is mostly on the DM side of the game, not so much for the players ...).

      But I don't know your game and couldn't say if I would like it or not (is it available on your blog?). I'd certainly give it a look, so please, promote away. Give names and all.

      Also: Would you consider Vampire: The Masquerade to be a "story game"?

    2. The "players never fail" thing is all over the place, btw, and I don't like it either way (even scaling encounters feels wrong to me, players get what is around and what they decide to attack or run away from ...).

  5. If the players really enjoy it, I would recommend that you bite the bullet and run it occasionally as a change of pace game.

    1. As a matter of fact, one player showed interest in DMing InSpectres and one really liked AtU, so I might end up playing both games occasionally :) Other than that, you are right, of course. It would be the right thing to do.

  6. Thanks for this not-a-review, it's really good to read your impressions of Against the Unknown.

    Apart from the clue-finding stuff (your thoughts on which I kind of agree with, but that's probably a different discussion), how did you find the mechanics - contests, spending points, character creation, etc?

    1. Well, thank you for reading and commenting on it! Doesn't happen often that I get a chance to chat with the person behind the game ... And I find it very interesting that you (kind of) agree with my critique on the rules for finding clues. I guess they're in there because of the GUMSHOE system?

      As I wrote in the post, my impression was a light but well balanced system. It does a lot and there are some great ideas. I especially liked how shock and mental illness are used ("desperate to win", for instance, is a great rule) and the mini-games at the table to make them work. The cooperation rules are great, too. Good stuff :-)

      But the best thing was the character creation. The idea to limit access to abilities with cards the players have to exchange among each other worked very well not only in defining the individual characters, but also for creating a well balanced group. We had some knowledge about the 1920s at the table, so it wasn't that hard to create some believable characters (but I imagine it difficult for people without any knowledge of the period).

      The only problem I had with spending points and contests was that I think the characters had been way too powerful. I had 4 players with highly specialized characters: a con man/scientist, a spy, a social butterfly and a librarian. There was nothing they couldn't get done with this combination, one of them was bound to be very good in an ability they needed, so I had a (very) hard time making this challenging for them. It's easy enough fixed by giving them fewer points in the beginning, so it's not that big of a problem.

      What I really missed, though, were GM procedures. I'm totally able to improvise a game from scratch, but over time I grew very fond of little things like morale checks and random tables and ... it's really hard to put a finger on it, but most of the time when I read in a set of rules that the GM is to decide something, I think that's something a system should do. But I'm strange that way.

      Anyway, we didn't get a chance to test all the rules (no time for a gun fight or stuff like that) and I don't think I'll get a chance to DM this again the way it is (I'd ditch the clue rules, give less points for character generation and (maybe) play a bit with the die range). But one of my players was very enthusiastic about your game. She's completely new to the hobby and I believe it'd be a great game for her to start DMing (she studied history, for one), especially with that fantastic mix of pulp story, adventure and rules ... And I'd really like to give this a spin as a player.

      I could write more, but I believe those are most of my first impressions and opinions. I hope that's what you had in mind ...

  7. Thanks, that's very useful feedback. (And positive, which is always nice.) Characters do tend to come out at the top end of the power spectrum for "ordinary" pulp heroes. A character with Brawling 3 is literally as strong in a fight as three 1-Brawling thugs. Slightly better, even. I didn't discuss that in the main rulebook in order to keep it a quick read. But it's something I should add to the GM's guide, with suggested benchmarks for different power levels. Lower for the grittier war stories, higher for things like R.E. Howard's desert adventures, and so on.

    "And I find it very interesting that you (kind of) agree with my critique on the rules for finding clues. I guess they're in there because of the GUMSHOE system?"

    I started to reply to this and went waaaay over the comment word limit, so I will make a little blog post and come back here with a link. Suffice to say I have Opinions On This Matter.

    1. And here it is:

    2. Thank you for the great response (btw, may I share your post on g+?)! It made me realize several aspects of the game I wasn't aware of before. Good idea to compare it to the Highlander tv-series and Columbo, it really brings your argument home.

      It's actually not necessary at this point to add a counter argument to the discussion, as you explain that specific style of gaming as exactly that: one way of doing it. But it made me realize a bit more what irked me with this system to begin with. A little detour (really, a short one). In the games I DM (and the one I'm tinkering with right now) I make it hard for characters to die. In an ideal case they escape death by a hair every now and then, but mostly they collect scars one way or another. Still, the danger of dying is very real in my games, but that detailed approach between "all is fine" (read: here is the clue) and "fuck, I'm dead" (read: you missed that clue) is what makes all the difference, in my opinion. I like my games gritty.

      You see, for me it's not about failing or not, but about what a character is willing to pay to push it further than he should ... Players at my table will never miss a crucial information (or die) if they are willing to pay the price. It doesn't matter what system I'm using for this to work, but I'd prefer a system that supports that style of play.

      That being said, I can't help but adding that this has changed my attitude towards AtU. With the guidelines and ideas you presented so far and a well prepared adventure it seems like a nice change of pace. ... I'll have to think about this a bit more and I'll definitely read those rules at least one more time. If I ever get the opportunity, I'll make a proper review about it, too.

      Thank you very much for taking the time. This was very interesting.

    3. Thanks to you too. And yes, please feel free to share the post.

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