Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An ideal RPG

I've been running role-playing games (RPGs for short) as a Game Master (GM from now on) for nearly 15 years now. I think I've ran maybe 10 different systems (including the different iterations of Dungeons and Dragons), played in several more, and read maybe 20+ different systems. In additions I've tried my hand at writing my own systems, and got paid for contributing to a game system (Fantasy Flight Games' wildly successful line of Warhammer 40k RPGs). So I have some weight to opinions on RPG design. In all this time, however, I've never reached my platonic ideal of a perfect RPG to game master (GM). That said, however, I have some darn good inklings as to what my ideal RPG to GM would look like.

Minimum of rules for maximum of results
I want a system that doesn't provide me with minute rules for every possible action a character can make (never mind that it's an impossible task). I want a system that tells me how I can quickly come up with my own rules to adjudicate character actions. I don't want a system that needs tinkering, or a lot of rule memorization, in order to work. I want quick tools that are applicable in the maximum of situations. What RPGs so far might fall under this heading? The closest I've seen so far is Mouse Guard (based on Burning Wheel system), Wushu (terrific for one-session play, but a little too rules-lite), and (albeit with some tinkering) the New World of Darkness RPG from White Wolf.

Plug and Play
My ideal system does not require much (or ideally not any) tinkering to be used with a variety of settings and groups. I don't want ponderous rules for spelling out the nuances of all the individual species, classes, gear, etc. I want a system that focuses on character actions and decision regardless of what setting they might be in. The adventures of Odysseus are - despite the obvious differences - similar in structure and motivations to those of Jack Carter of Martian Chronicles, or many comic book heroes, or whatnot. That's what interests me more: the actions of the characters, their motivations, their adventures and personality. That's what I want the system to focus on, not tables upon tables of every conceivable minutae.

So easy your grandmother could use it
I'm not a dumb person, and I have a reasonably good memory, but I want the minimum of memorizaton required. If the rules could be fit on a DM screen in their entirety I would be ecstatic. If I could hand the rules to my players and they'd be familiar with them after 20 minutes of reading tops I would be ecstatic. I don't want a challenging tactical simulator (I'd play video games or tabletop wargames for that), or a super-realistic game. My criteria in this category is that the system should at no point slow down the game or take away the fun.

It keeps going and going and going...
There are many so-called narrativist and rules-lite systems that already do most of what I've set out above. Most of the ones I've looked at, however, suffer from a particular flaw - they do not support character progression with meaningful rules. The players are at heart stat-munchkins (even if they say otherwise). They want to see numbers change on their character sheet. They want to feel that their characters change in more ways than just their role in the story. And they want that progression to be meaningful and visible (again, even if they say otherwise). Most rule-lite RPGs I've read work great for short adventures or one-shots, but few offer this kind of progression that satisfies the players.

I've got the world on a string
The characters won't be doing much if there isn't a world to do it in. World building is a fun part of any GM's job and most of creativity and imagination goes into world building. All too often, however, I get frustrated trying to adapt a particular system to the world I have in mind. I look at the feats or skills or advantages or edges or aspects or whatnot that I would have to come up with for my world in order to make it work as intended. And therefore I return to my first point - instead of rules I want tools to help me make up monsters, people, effects, vehicles, gear, etc., on the fly without having to look through a book (and normally I'm lucky if it's just one book, usually it might involve multiple supplements) and thus grinding the game to a halt. That just ruins the fun and wastes time for everyone. Also, if I have to spend more time preparing for the game than actually running it, then I do not want to run it. That's why I don't run Dungeons and Dragons (of any edition) anymore.

Am I asking for too much? Eh, I'm sure I could get some good answers about people's favourite systems that purport to fulfill all my criteria, but to be honest - and arrogant - I doubt that they would. Eventually I'll build my own and inflict it on my players!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Enough coddling

Inspired by a Globe and Mail article on shorter summer holidays for students and instead spreading the holidays more evenly throughout the year (here's the link), here's what I think are necessary changes to fix education system in Ontario:

- Let students graduate with a certificate at 16 to start work earlier, or continue to 18 and graduate with a diploma which allows them to go on to University or College, and let their last year count as University/College credits (in the same fashion as CGEP in Quebec). This is the system in Great Britain and it seems to produce some good results. It lessens the burden on the system (less students in higher grades), prepares the students better for post-secondary education or for workplace, and lets those students who are interested in starting to work early to do so without penalizing them for dropping out of high school.

- Shorten summer holidays (again, the way it's done in Britain), or get rid of them and spread the holidays throughout the year. We need to compensate for loss of OAC, help knowledge retention, and allow students and parents to enjoy more time together throughout the year rather than stress the parents with having to find babysitters, summer camp, or summer school during the summer. Systems with shorter holidays, or year-long programs (whether public systems abroad, or some of the private schools right here in Canada) show much better academic results and graduation rate.

- We need to bring back meaningful assessments and evaluations, and to implement stricter guidelines on academic performance. Under the current system it's next to impossible to give a failing grade, and meaningful deadlines for assignments (and indeed course completions!) are non-existent. Students are also being pushed through the system without regard as to their actual progress, resulting in situations where a Grade 12 student who has been in a Canadian system all his life reads and writes at a Grade 2 level (personally witnessed).

- I think we need to at once make the curriculum more flexible in some areas and more rigid in other areas. First of all, the vocational courses need to be accessible to students earlier (so that they can graduate with a certificate at 16 and start working). Secondly electives need to be available in earlier grades. Thirdly certain core subjects (English and Math primarily) need to be not only mandatory throughout all grades, but also be year-long. Otherwise the results are just embarrassing. Finally we need to give technology and computer courses earlier. We often take it for granted that the young generation are tech-savvy, but in reality they are woefully ignorant. They know how to text, use Facebook, post YouTube videos and chat, and that's it. When it comes to actual practical knowledge of computers and software even 40-50 years olds can run circles around 16-year olds. I've seen it myself. The amazement of "You can do that in word processor?!" is funny only the first couple of times. Afterward it's sad.

Given the trajectory that our education system seems to be on right now, I think within 10 years we're going to hit a crisis in the work force, practical and pure research, and education in general. It's going to take some drastic changes to avoid it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Everyone has problems

Just thinking out "loud", but these are the problems I think will become increasingly important to Canada and the world at large. Regardless of the headaches that this kind of thinking causes, sometimes it's good to take a look at the big picture, at the map ahead. In no particular order:

- Climate Change. This one's going to be huge for way too many reasons to list. "Climate Wars" by Gwynne Dyer is probably one of the most insightful books on the subject meant for popular audiences.
- End of cheap goods. There's every indication that the rapid Chinese growth spurred on by Western demand for cheap goods is coming to the end, due to currency imbalance, living quality growth in China, and growing consumer demand within China. Now it is likely that other countries will pick up Chinese slack, but for a confluence of reasons China was the ideal place to provide cheap manufactured goods to the rest of the world, and that might change.
- Growing polarization of politics, especially in Canada. I think that we are already well into our own Canadian Culture Wars and it's going to get worse before it gets better, especially with the latest election results and growth of Conservative media outlets and popular sentiment.
- Sustainable Development (or lack thereof): the problem is not that of technology. That much is very clear by now. The problem is that of political and social will. Our political system prevents any kind of meaningful long-term planning and development, and our social system prevents us from dropping our favourite childhood toys and grow up. The world's not going to stand still and wait for us to get our act together, but our leaders and masses are unable and unwilling to come to grips with it.
- Clash of Civilizations: personally I hate this term. I think it's misleading, dangerous, and smacks of high-blown rhetoric and demagoguery. However, looking at the current political climate, it might just become a reality. Whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, it remains to be seen.
- Peak Oil. 20 years ago the idea of global Peak Oil was deemed preposterous. Today respectable textbooks (McGraw Hill, Pearson, etc.) publish graphs showing that peak oil is happening right now. While the deposits in Alaska, the China Sea, Canadian oil sands, etc., might give hopes that there are still vast reserves of oil to offset Peak Oil and stave off oil production collapse for several decades, that's a little like arguing that an addict shouldn't abandon his heroin addiction because there's still plenty of heroin available.

Well, that's all for now. More thoughts as they come.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The power of storytelling... to kick ass!

Ran a Wushu game the other night. It was impromptu and very spontaneous, so in other words - perfect conditions to run such a game. I let the players pretty much go wild and do what they want (I did have to veto a telepathic schoolgirl geisha character though - ick!). The theme was Space Pirates and after explaining to the players loosely how character creation worked they got to it. In the end I got:
A Chaos Space Marine (this guy)
Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction (only with an even bigger afro)
Cyborg Cyclops (the X-Men kind, not Homer's Odyssey kind)
Pink Power Ranger (the wussy one with the bow)
And a Robot Butler Bob Marley.
They fought Royal Martian Navy marines, psychic ninjas, survived a freefall from orbit to the surface of Europa and would've ended up on board the Event Horizon where they would've fought Cthulhu (pictured below). In other words - shit was so cash!