Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Let's Talk About Bond, Part I: The Rules Are Not Enough

By now, my wife is a little fed up with James Bond. It's not that she's an anti-fan or something, just that she doesn't particularly care for Bond films. One of the most amazing things she's ever said to me is:

"I like the movies and all, but it's not like it's important. Not like Star Wars or Star Trek. I mean, those are important. I can watch James Bond, but I'm not going to think about it."

This sort of logic explains why I love my wife, but I've got to disagree with her on the Bond front.

So anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I've been reading through a lot of old White Dwarf magazines lately. A lot of them. I actually took my time reading through the first 100 or so issues and spent a lot of time thinking about what I read there. One of the most inspiring things I saw there was an ad for a game that I remember terribly fondly: James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service. Ever since then, I've been on a bit of a Bond kick, my wife's exposure to which led to the amazing quote above. It also led to me spending an awful lot of time thinking about James Bond, watching James Bond films and even to me buying a copy of the RPG off of eBay (which I thankfully got terribly, terribly cheap). My James Bond ideas and thought experiments have been percolating for about a month now, and just the other day, I realized what it was all for, what I can take from it and where James Bond and the fantastic RPG that was built around him can take me and my games.

Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service

Before I write anything further, I'm going to confess, in proper fashion, that I have never actually read a Bond novel. I have no idea how Ian Flemming meant for the character to be portrayed or anything about Bond beyond that which shows up on film or in the RPG. There, now that we've git that out of the way, let's get down to brass tacks.

For the uninitiated, James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service is the best-known and best-regarded role playing game released by Victory Games, an off-shoot of Avalon Hill games spawned in order to help AH cash in on the RPG market (more than a little too late). Yes, I know about Powers & Perils. This ain't about that. So, in 1983, Victory Games came out with the James Bond RPG and marketed the hell out of it. Big splashy comic-esque ads in all the gaming (and some non-gaming iirc) mags. At the time TSR had come out with its own espionage RPG three years earlier in 1980, so James Bond really needed to knock it out of the park in order to anchor AH and Victory Games as key players in the RPG market. The strange thing is, AH/VG did knock it out of the park but failed completely at the anchoring itself part.

There is a school of thought that states that game system doesn't matter and if you've got the right system (usually a stripped down system that allows lots of flexibility), it can be right. A good DM can make any game happen in (most) any system as long as he does it right. Sure. That's awesome. But there's also something to be said for systems that encourage the sorts of behavior that the RPGs genre tend to thrive on. A lot of folks, for example, like to say that there's no role playing in 4e D&D, and this misperception (in my opinion) stems largely from the fact that the rules don't ever talk about role playing but talk an awful lot about how to kill things; thus, 4e games often skew away from the story and rp stuff and toward face-smashery. By the same token, if you're making a game that's designed to emulate James Bond movies, it makes sense to include rules for the things that James Bond does in order to encourage those things happening. The 007 RPG, as a result, includes rules not just for combat and skills, but also for chases (foot, car, plane & boat), interrogation, gambling and seduction. Obviously, if there are rules that tell me how to go around seducing enemy agents and potential assets, then the rules want me to go around seducing enemy agents and potential assets. This is the solid foundation upon which the 007 RPG was built.

Rules Wonkery

The down side to having rules that cover all the awesome James Bond-ly stuff is that those rules have to be good. And for their day, these rules were good. They used tried-and-true mechanisms of their day to do things that weren't terribly common at the time using the sorts of logic that designers were really enjoying designing back then.

The Good: The system used a consistent mechanic across all actions without any of the "use these rules for this, those rules for that" that still plague game design today. You needed to know one rule and one rule only. Well, one rules mechanic. And how to read a table (see The Bad, below). The other really neat thing about the game is that it uses the early "degrees of success" system (sort of like the color coded one that TSR would use in the same year for their seminal FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes RPG) that helped players and GMs interpret the results of skill rolls to provide for properly Bond moments (such as when your spy barely succeeds at the cunning plan you've concocted).

The Bad: First off, it's percentile dice. Which almost always means "roll low" which, to me, means that it's counter-intuitive. You'll notice that this is a theme with me. The second glaringly huge problem is the table system that I mentioned above. It's not just one table, it's two. You first need to know which difficulty class you're facing, then you cross-reference with your skill/ability. Only then do you roll (and roll low, remember) and after you roll, you compare your result to the degree of success (or failure) chart and then go from there. Oh, and your stats? The only thing that they do for you is to tell you which line to look at on the first chart I mentioned and they have no mathematical significance to any rules or rolls beyond that. So... yeah. Stats just sort of describe a line on a table in an ordinal fashion, rather than describing any mechanical benefit associated with them. Awkward...

I'm going to leave it there for now. Next time, I'll get into what I think the 007 RPG does well, how it manages to pull off a solo-cast movie in an ensemble-cast game, how I'd write the game today and what James Bond has inspired in my own gaming. James Bond will return in "Let's Talk About Bond, Part II: Live And Let Dice."