Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Roll Your Own

A major reason I stay away from RPG controversy is that it's really quite common that people come to a blog post that addresses a controversy and have already decided their opinion and, in many cases, have already judged the content of the post they're about to read based on whatever biases they bring to the table, rather than the actual content of the post in question. And so, let me move away from the controversy of the 5e Basic Box ("Starter Set" sounds like it's freaking LEGOs, man) and instead explain a core theory that I came to while I was getting myself acquainted with one particular rule set last year: character creation is a player's entry point to the rules.

When I wrote about +Sarah Newton's Monsters & Magic system, I questioned the logic of placing character creation at the fore of what amounts to a new rules system. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me. I did not know the rules of the game, but if I'd made a character, I'd know about the working parts that make that character go. I'd know his Ability Scores, ability modifiers, know something about effects and descriptors and all that other stuff that I can't remember right now because I'm writing this at work where I don't have my copy of M&M. Basically, by making a character in that game system, I've shown myself what parts of the rules my character will interact with, and thereby nearly given myself a checklist of things to learn. The "Oh, that's what that means" effect here is huge.

I spend a lot of time talking to and gaming with a Mr. +Donn Stroud. One of his big issues in gaming is "immersion," a word that I will think I understand as it relates to gaming, but then I'll learn something new that means I didn't know what I was talking about in the first place. So, these days, the concept of "gaming immersion" has been at the forefront of my thoughts on game structure and game writing. Of course, my concept of immersion is drastically different from others' (and, I'd guess, from Donn's) because what immerses me in a game is, naturally, different from other folks. One things that Donn likes to touch on, though, is that he dislikes when rules "take him out of the game," meaning that the rules of the game distract him from the play of the game. I think that part of rules doing this is learning curve (if you don't know rules and have to look them up, you're typically taken out of the game) and that, the better connected you as a player are to the rules themselves (in your comprehension of them), the better able you are to remain immersed in the game when the rules come into play. It's just that simple.

No idea what this means
Effectively, at least to me, the issue of "immersion" becomes one of a quintessential dichotomy between two very different players: one is you, the player-as-player-of-a-game; the other is also you, the player-as-player-of-a-character-role (an actor). The more in sync these two halves are, the less dissonance you as a player experience and therefor the greater your immersion. It is dissonance between these two halves, I believe, that disrupts immersion and jars a player "out of the game." Thus, it is key for a game to work to close the gap between player-as-player and player-as-actor. One of the easiest ways to do this, I feel, is to introduce folks to the game rules (the "player-as-player") at the same time as introducing them to their characters (the "player-as-actor") by getting them to make characters.

That's what I expect out of a Basic Box (or "Starter Set" if you must): the job of the box is to introduce players to a rule set and involve them intimately in the game, including both the player-as-player side and player-as-actor side. From my perspective, this means including character creation rules. Let's look at some of the more successful Basic Boxes of the past and present.

  • Holmes Basic: The box that made Basic Boxes a thing. Not only was this box created to introduce new players to the game, but also to simplify and streamline the rules of D&D from the original (and often convoluted) 0e rules. This set also introduces the now-obligatory "WTF is an RPG anyway?" bit and then launches pretty quickly into character creation. Many friends of mine and folks I look up to in the gaming community list this set as their entry into the hobby. 
  • Moldvay Basic: No list of successful Basic Boxes would be complete without this gem. This is one of those editions that I knew nothing about growing up, but I really appreciate as an adult. A further refinement of the 0e rules from the Holmes, this box introduced race-as-class, simplifying the "what classes can my dwarf be again?" question with the answer "just put down 'dwarf.'" This rule set improved the character creation experience significantly from Holmes without bulking out the page count, with the result of a concise but robust character gen system that gets the job done simply and elegantly.
  • Mentzer Basic: Some folks will poo-poo my inclusion of the BECMI Basic on this list. However, I will readily argue that Uncle Frank's inclusion of not merely character generation rules but also an example adventure in the section intended for players is the real gem here. The choose-your-own-adventure style mini adventure is a stroke of immersion genius: it taught the relevant rules as you went and dovetailed nicely into the character creation rules. 
  • Pathfinder Beginner Box: I have as much derision for the Pathfinder system, the thing is this is a really well done box. Character generation is fairly limited (three races choosing from the core four classes), but still robust enough that you can keep using it for a long time. This box cribs from Mentzer with its own CYOA introduction. As far as a Basic Box that introduces you to the concepts of the game in a cohesive manner through the creation of your character, it's hard to find another modern Basic Box that does as good of a job as this one.
  • Adventures in the East Mark: This is the newest box on the list and, to be fair, I haven't had the chance to use it yet. This box doesn't use the Mentzer CYOA tactic, which is unfortunate. This Basic Box feels like it floats somewhere between BX and BECMI and is really satisfying.
The surprise honorable mention:
  • 4th Edition Red Box: Many of you know that I don't hate 4e. These days, I don't have the particular itch that this game scratches, though, so I've let it fall by the wayside. Really, it's a prep issue; I'm not interested in spending all of the prep hours that 4e requires. As far as a Basic Box that introduces game concepts to you, the player, gradually, though, this one is pretty solid. Character creation, for example, is integrated directly into the Mentzer-style CYOA section of the players' book, which makes it interesting (you build your character as you learn how the game is played). The major fault with this box, however, is replay value. Once you've used this thing once, it's useless. You as a player or DM are not given the tools to build stuff beyond the adventure that's included. The other fault of this box is the "gamey" nature innate to 4e: it can be hard to maintain immersion when there's a large amount of dissonance between in-game capability and in-character logic. 
Basic Boxes that sucked:
  • 3.5e Basic Game: This black box really had some promise, especially if you were into the whole "game board and miniatures" approach to RPGs which, back then, I was. While the parts that were in here were really useful for that style of play, the whole box wasn't the sort of thing that would "immerse" you in your character. It still felt like a board game and little emphasis was put on creating your own character (if memory serves, you might have just selected a pregen "playbook" for a class). 
  • Marvel Super Heroes Basic: This one was pretty much useless to us when we were kids because we didn't want to play Marvel's existing heroes, we always wanted our own heroes. Sure, our heroes were just rip offs of X-Men characters with often-unfortunate names (yes, I once named a Colossus-alike with sound powers "Vibrator;" fuck you, I was 10), but we always wanted to make our own stuff, you know? As a result, I don't think I ever really understood the funky FEAT table until someone got a copy of the Advanced Box which included chargen rules. 
Non-Basic stuff that misses the mark:
  • I talked about MWP's Marvel Heroic RPG the other day. I continue to hold this up as an example of how to completely screw your audience out of understanding your game. I still have no idea how the Cortex system works, despite the fact that I own the Cortex Plus Hackers guide. I'm sorry, but talking about the moving parts of a system without ever showing me how they work inside of a character makes all that stuff pointless. 
  • It might come as a surprise that I consider HOL to be a complete failure in this arena as well. Long-time readers may recall that I'm a fan of thenigh-apocryphal RPG HOL, which many  folks have probably never heard of. If not, do yourself a favor and look into it. It's kind of an artifact of the 90's post-old school, post-kewl gaming scene which includes other neat stuff like Over The Edge, a madcap shitshow of over-caffeinated, tobacco-stained and syrup-encrusted craziness that is basically Dungeons the Dragoning 40k before Dungeons the Dragoning 40k was ever dreamed of. The downside of the system is that (a) it's absolutely nuts and complete unrelatable to anything anywhere ever, (b) it failed to include chargen and (c) dude, this thing is so convoluted and wobbly, sorting out what's a rule and what's a joke can actually be pretty damn tough. The joke was really on me all along, however, because the more I ever explored the rules here, the less they seemed to matter. Which leads to that dissonance thing. 
Last night, after I posted the "controversy!" post, I spent some time discussing this whole shebang with my wife, who is not the sort of person who gets terribly involved with the rules of different games. Basically, I wanted to know from her whether the whole topic was worth discussing at length. While the end result of that conversation was that "yes, Adam, bothering to write about this thing does make sense because you have things you'd like to say," she added something that I really wasn't expecting but that I'm kind of excited about. "The new Basic Box is designed to turn a board game player into a DM? Maybe that's how I'll learn how to DM." 

Yes, folks, I am pre-ordering now. We'll figure out the chargen thing on our own, I guess (even if the rumors have it that it won't be a big deal).