It’s an old adage (and yes I do love that word, I’ve used it often enough) that it’s not the system; it’s the Game Master that makes the role playing experience enjoyable. As a result of recent discussions with friends about which system to use for a possible sci-fi game (a topic I’ve mentioned often before here in the blog), and the wonderful interview Game Knight Reviews did with our fearless leader Michael, specifically question 8 about Michael’s favorite games to play, I’ve been thinking about this a lot…
I have heard variations of the idea, but it basically boils down to the concept that an able (and what THIS constitutes can be a whole other subject open to discussion) GM can make any system entertaining. In effect a good game master can turn a turd into a gem! I have been guilty of saying this myself, often without giving it much though. If we think about it, this is not completely true. There are some systems that are really not salvageable. Be it because they way the rules are written (the intent or the actual use of language) makes them incomprehensible, or the mechanics are so confusing or nonsensical, that no one can really play the game. And I’m not discounting attempts at humor or parody in RPG form, which may not be meant as actual games at all, and can be fun.
Thankfully I think these examples are few and far between and are mostly games someone clobbered together on their own and then inflicted on the rest of us via the wonders of the internet. The majority of published games, be they physical books or in digital form, published for profit or as free games, maintain a minimum of quality that makes them playable and enjoyable to at least some gamers. And I this is the point really, what may be a great game for me, could be a terrible game for you. What makes a great game is so subjective… I think as a community there may be some consensus on certain games, but just visit any old message board or blog and read the heated discussion on editions, game versions and their merits. To quote the late Human Torch (He is still dead right?): “Flame on!”
So once we’ve established that what constitutes a subpar game is subjective, let me approach this from my perspective. I have been a proponent of the GM makes the game idea before, so I’ve decided to put it to the test. I want to pick one of those games I swore I would not play and try to run an enjoyable adventure using them. Why am I being a masochist you ask? Well it’s not so much being masochist, but proving to myself if I can make this work. If what I’ve repeated often enough is just a platitude or something I can do.
So once I have set my mind on this experience all I have to do is find the system to do it. I stood in front of my game collection for a while. I’ve played a lot of games in my life, and read many more. While I have gotten rid of a few, most are still there on the shelf. My first thought was The Babylon Project; the first RPG based on the TV series Babylon 5. I have not actually played the game, but upon first reading it I disliked it so much I put away the RPG based on my FAVORITE TV series and never used it (and I had purchased two copies). But thinking about it, this would not be a good fit for the experiment since B5 would bring with it a whole other set of expectations, most of my players are as passionate about the series as I am, and that might hinder the experiment.
Then I thought of World of Synnibarr, but sadly I got rid of that game. You must be asking, what possessed me to part with that gem? Shortsightedness I guess, but alas it’s not available. So I may have to settle for the next best thing, RIFTS!
Ok before you cry foul, I did say this represented MY personal taste. I am sure there are plenty of RIFTS fans out there who enjoy the game and continue to play it. Good for you… I played them all, starting with Robotech as a teen and young adult, but along the way realized the system was needlessly complex, and not in a good way, for me and my group. I stopped playing RIFTS and Palladium games long ago. Despite all controversy and the things you read on the net, when I briefly met Kevin Siembieda at Gen Con 07 he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I wish him continued success with whatever endeavor he undertakes.
RIFTS is a game we stopped playing long ago and which most of us agrees is not what we expect form a game. So this might be the perfect rule system to try and prove my point. I plan on running a RIFTS adventure with my players, without telling them and see if they enjoy it…
I know there are flaws to my plan, maybe RIFTS has too much baggage, or they will figure it our t right away and simply throw their hands up, or worst of all I am conceited enough to think I am a good enough GM to pull this off! This is just in the planning stages but I will keep you informed.
So in a way this is the turd into a gem challenge… (No disrespect to any specific game!) Who’s with me? Who’s willing to choose what they think of as a subpar game and try to run a great adventure with it? Who thinks I’m delusional, that there is no such thing as a great GM making a bad game good?
PS – While writing this post I discovered the website of Raven c.s. McCracken, creator of the World of Synnibarr, in his bio he pokes a little bit of fun at his creation! Enjoy…
I think the premise is just flat wrong: system matters. You may be able to have a good time anyway, with the right GM and the right players, but unless you’re just tossing out huge chunks of the system and are really playing systemless, playing with the wrong system will reduce the fun everybody has at the table… and why would you want to inflict that on people? We could be having more fun than this, guys, but I want to prove a point, so suck it up? No, thanks.
Now, there are lots of fairly light-weight systems that are roughly equivalent, where the system only comes into play once in a while and doesn’t really slow anything down with consulting rules and tables, and for those it might not make that much difference short-term. QAGS and WYRM will play much the same: do a bunch of RP, sometimes roll a die and do a little math.
But if you really play something like Space Opera or RoleMaster as written, you’re going to encounter huge time sinks in things like rolling up characters and playing out combat, and those are going to change the quality of the game. It may not be a huge deal if every combat takes an hour and involves shuffling through huge masses of tables if the players find that particular system engaging, but if they don’t then no matter how great you are as a GM they’d be having a ton more fun if you were just running WYRM.
Joshua, my players had a similar reaction… It’s meant to be a little tongue in cheek, but I would like to try out the experiment anyway… thanks for posting and for the comment.
So is F.A.T.A.L. off the table then?
My recent post Dice Mechanic Decission
I forgot about FATAL… Silly me! LOL
I, for one, can attest to the fact that the quality of a GM can indeed turn a turd into a gem. My friend and GM actually dared to run a game of Synnibarr for us and you know what? It was a lot of fun! Sure, we all (GM included) laughed at how consistantly and starkly ridiculous the game was but we still talk about the game to this day…and isn't that the ultimate sign of a successful RPG?
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go roll up the replacement for my character who died with good karma!
Joshua, I have to totally disagree with you: In the end, system does NOT matter.
There are many factors, that decide wether I enjoy a game or not: The chemistry between the players, the "quality" of the GM, the setting and wether players identify with and enjoy the world they are playing in…all things, I would call "soft" factors.
The rule-system? Yeah, there ones that are more clunky than others, ones that are more abstaract or more simulating, heavy or light, elegant and simple or heavy and wargame-like. Does that mean, I will have a better time with system A as opposed to system B? Of course not – the rules are just a framework…I might have personal preferences and some people might have a maximum of complexity that they are willing to take but if we get away from the theory and get to the table and actually play – System does not really matter. When I am playing with the right people, who share my view of the hobby and the GM knows his job, I can have (and I had) a great time with a festering turd of a ruleset like RIFTS. Or D&D – a system I hate with a passion, but that still has some great gaming memories attached to it.
Nice idea. I've often considered it but never taken the plunge… partly because I don't want to bother myself to learn a game system for a one night stand. I even have a copy of Raven McKrackens dread tome 🙂
We did do a turn of Empire of the Petal throne recently. Many might hail it as a harbinger of great RP experiences… but having read it… I have to say its a disastrous mess by any modern standard. Confusing, arbitrary, and while its world is rich with ideas, the history lesson that starts the book is both a hopeless mishmash of competing themes and a snooze fest at the same time.
We had a great time, characters died like flies, we had wizards that couldn't cast a single spell, hopeless warriors, utterly massive imbalance between characters, and what not but the players laughed and the adventure was amusing and had a very old school feel.
I think the bottom line is this. In RPGs the game rules and the settings books are tools to help the game master and the players tell compelling stories, either through play or through story telling and generally both. What kind of tool you need or like depends on your style and ultimately a great tool in unskilled hands is of little use, but a good tool in good hands is a thing of beauty.
Game designers are in the tool making business, be it structure or raw imagination. Some tools are made to do most of the work, some are designed to maximize the artists (gm or player) expression. It all depends on what you want and need.
So how did this experiment turn out? I’m on the side that this experience will suck – but I’ve also had GREAT games in systems I hate. But I think this is because the players and GM explicitly ignored the system. Which is not the same as a good GM making a bad system good.
cauldronofevil I never convinced my players to play Rifts, they flat out refused… I never gave up on my attempt and about a month an a half ago I ran a one shot for friends at a gaming activity. It went… well! In spite of the system. The thing is Rifts is one of those systems that really gets in the way,it hinders your play, and I don’t think I’d run it again.
Someone shared this bit of news today, posted on the Palladium Books website Kevin Siembieda posted: Something new and exciting. In an effort to truly expand Rifts® across the Megaverse®, in cooperation with Palladium Books, another role-playing game company is currently adapting the Rifts® Earth setting to that company’s RPG system of rules, as well as producing adventure sourcebooks. This is only the second time in Palladium’s history that an outside company will create new game material under a different set of rules.”
What rules is he talking about? No idea! here is the link to the posting where I got the quote… http://www.palladiumbooks.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=779:palladium-booksr-weekly-update-april-19-2015&catid=52:weekly-updates&Itemid=183