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.