#RPGThursday – Why #TravellerRPG is not #GameofThrones (and that’s a really good thing)

MUCH IS BEING WRITTEN ABOUT the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. One of the more interesting articles I read comes from Scientific America in their Observations blog online. Zeynep Tufekci writes, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones – It’s not just bad storytelling — it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.”

As Tufekci writes:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

This got me thinking. Why is it that I like the Classic Traveller RPG? I think it’s because Traveller is at it’s root sociological, unlike other games like Dungeons & Dragons which are psychological.

Bear with me here.

The connection hit me in part because I introduced the RockyMountainNavy Boys to the Cepheus Engine System recently. Like Classic Traveller, character generation in Cepheus Engine is a series of die rolls. There is some player agency in the process but for the most part the output of the character generation process is a very everyday character. The character is not a hero. There is little chance to min-max character stats – the player starts with the hand they are dealt (or restarts in the event of character death). In play the player must then respond “to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.”

In many other RPG systems character generation is much more personal (psychological). Start with a character concept, then build the character using the right tables. The result is often a heroic character – and that’s by design. After all, who wants to play an everyday drone in the world? They have to live, level up, get more spells, and become more powerful.

Let’s look at how Tufekci describes the best of GOT – character death:

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

The same applies to many RPGs and its why there is often a major reluctance to kill off characters in a campaign. Unless, of course, there is a “heroic” reason to do so.

Tufekci continues:

The appeal of a show that routinely kills major characters signals a different kind of storytelling, where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics, doesn’t carry the whole narrative and explanatory burden. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.

Personal stories and agency…hallmarks of a good RPG. But how many GMs use institution and events – external forces – to shape player characters?

I now see that Traveller and Cepheus Engine have sociological storytelling baked-in at their core. This is what makes these systems so interesting to me. Like other RPG players, I want to be a hero but I derive more pleasure at achieving without a heroic character being given to me.

The Gygax Rule for GMs – All you need is good rules and good books

gary-gygax
Courtesy http://rpglabyrinth.blogspot.com

In my gaming pantheon, I clearly play wargames first, other boardgames second, and role playing games (RPGs) a distant third. Spending-wise, I have bought very few RPG products since April. In the past month I came close to buying two new RPGs but didn’t. Along the way I learned a valuable lesson taught to me by no other than the Godfather of RPGs, Gary Gygax. Gary reminded me that RPGs are inherently a personal creation; if a product is “not quite right” there are tools available to “do it my way.”

The big RPG splash of the month was the Kickstarter launch of The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin Publishing. The project currently (as I write) has over 3,330 backers pledging upwards of $239,000 against goal of $30,000 – and 24 days to go.

I initially pledged to support at the Ship’s Boat-level which is $20 for the pdf version. I then downloaded the free Quickstart pdf and took a look. I am no hard-core The Expanse fan but I generally like the universe. I initially missed the books and became acquainted with the setting through the TV series. After looking at the Quickstart I mulled it over for a few days and then cancelled my pledge.

First, the Quickstarter did not appeal to me; indeed, it actually turned me off. My initial negative reaction was to the artwork. I think my expectations are biased from the TV series and the artwork in the Quickstarter just feels too different. More importantly, it is not what I see as evocative of the setting. It almost seems too cartoonish to me whereas I imagine The Expanse though a more hard sci-fi lens.

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Courtesy The Expanse RPG Kickstarter

Secondly, the RPG core mechanic (based on Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine – AGE) just didn’t capture what I think feels like The Expanse to me. I admit I was a bit confused at first because I was expecting to see the Chronicle System used in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game which is my only other exposure to Green Ronin. I really like the Intrigue Mechanic in Chronicle and it perfectly captures (is evocative of) the Game of Thrones setting.

Looking at the Quickstarter pdf, I weighed my pledge and thought about what I was getting. I decided that I actually already have a version of The Expanse RPG. I actually have two of them, both from Zozer Games, and both using a system I am comfortable with (Cepheus Engine):

  • Orbital: 2100 – “Realistic spacecraft, using reaction drives and rotating hab modules for gravity. Orbital is set in our own Solar System and has a real hard-science feel to it.”
  • HOSTILE – “A gritty near future setting inspired by those late-70s and early 80’s movies like Alien, Bladerunner and Outland.”

I seriously weighed getting The Expanse RPG if not for the system then for the setting material. Then I (fortuitously?) came across this article by Gary Gygax himself and published in 2001 where he talks about author Jack Vance and the Dying Earth books. In particular, Mr. Gygax writes:

There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion. (Emphasis mine)

 

In my mind, I already own The Expanse RPG. My version uses a core mechanic that I feel is evocative of the setting (Cepheus Engine). I have the sourcebooks in the form of several TV seasons and multiple books and short stories. I don’t need somebody else’s vision that doesn’t strike me as evocative of the stories or setting.

The second RPG I nearly bought was another Kickstarter campaign. Tachyon Squadron from Evil Hat Productions is basically Battlestar Galactica with the serial numbers filed off rendered using the Fate Core system:

Tachyon Squadron is a Fate Core supplement that blends space opera and military sci-fi. It’s Evil Hat’s take on popular stories about interstellar battles, like the ones that have ships with wings named after letters and the one where robots chase the human race through space. If you’re interested in deep space dogfights, friendly—well, usually—rivalries with fellow pilots, and playing scrappy underdogs with the deck stacked against you, this game is for you.

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Courtesy Evil Hat

The project funded with 1,401 backers pledging $25,295 against a $7,500 goal. Like The Expanse RPG Kickstarter, Evil Hat was very generous and offers a free download Quickstarter version. It is pretty much as I expected as Evil Hat has previously sold a smaller, similar setting found in Fate Worlds Volume One: Worlds on Fire. In Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie the PCs are pilots aboard a giant War Zeppelin taking on “a horde of WWI mechanical monstrosities.” For Tachyon Squadron I actually was more interested in Stretch Goal 7:

STRETCH GOAL 7 (UNLOCKS AT $26,000): The Battle of Britain: At $26,000, we’ll start work on The Battle of Britain, a 5,000 word electronic supplement that applies Tachyon Squadron’s dogfighting rules to a WWII squadron of Spitfire pilots defending Britain. This supplement will include plane stats and mechanics to help you take to the skies with the Allied forces.

Alas, this stretch goal didn’t unlock. My potential Pilot-in-Training pledge of $12 would not have made a big difference.

What really turned me off about Tachyon Squadron was the over-the-top SJW proselytizing. It is so in-your-face I think it overwhelms the game setting. Even if I am able to put the SJW part aside I see the the game offering me little new. The major rule of difference, dogfighting, is likely not far from that found in Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie which I already own. Much like The Expanse, I have a Battlestar Galactica RPG in the form of the officially licensed Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis Productions, 2007). This game uses the CORTEX Classic system which I generally like (indeed, I am still awaiting my CORTEX Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game Kickstarter to deliver – only 3 months overdue…so far). If I want to do Battlestar Galactica using Fate Core I already own all the setting and rules material; why should I invest more money into a near-version that alleges to be ruleset but comes across more like a SJW propaganda tract?

Passing on The Expanse RPG (Green Ronin’s AGE System) and Tachyon Squadron (Evil Hat’s Fate Core System) got me thinking about the games and systems I do have. Last June I listed Star Wars The Edge of the Empire RPG (Fantasy Flight Games) as one of my Top 3 RPGs. I like the Narrative Dice System and want to play more with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. Thinking about expanding beyond Star Wars I picked up GENESYS: The Roleplaying Game for All Settings.

Genesys is a role playing system designed for flexibility and adaptability, specifically tooled to work with any setting imaginable. The Genesys Core Rulebook not only contains an overview of the rules and how the innovative narrative dice system works, but everything a GM and players need to run adventures in five completely different settings. Everything from equipment to adversaries, character abilities to an overview of narrative tropes, all is provided in the core rulebook for Genesys. With a system so adaptable and expansive you can explore every popular roleplaying genre, from classic fantasy style campaigns, to modern day detective thrillers, and even to a far off sci-fi future, Genesys doesn’t fit into any one genre of roleplaying, and instead invites players to craft their own stories with unparalleled freedom.

Taking GENESYS and combining it with Gary Gygax’s Dying Earth GM approach, I can likely make a version of The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica – or any other setting I chose to explore – for myself.

The most important RPG lesson I learned this month is that I don’t need Kickstarter to make an RPG for me that “isn’t quite right”; I just need good books and a good ruleset.

RPG Thursday – My Top Seven RPG Internet Meme

James over at Grognardia started it, and I am late to get on the bandwagon.

My top 7 played RPGs in 2012 (and a good marker for the past several years):

1 – Classic Traveller (Admittedly not so much the RPG but the setting. I especially have played the games of Classic Traveller such as Striker, Book 5: High Guard, Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron, Imperium, Fifth Frontier War, and Power Projection: Fleet; as well as using adventures such as Adventure 7: Broadsword as inspiration for Tomorrow’s War.)

2- Mongoose Traveller (including Hammer’s Slammers, Outpost Mars and Orbital)

3 – Battlestar Galactica

4 – Serenity

5 – Prime Directive

6 – Mouse Guard

7 – Others I played around with in 2012 were Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner’s Game. Also messed around with Space: 1889 and A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones Edition.

RPG Thursday – Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide

Courtesy Green Ronin

Creating a setting guide or a campaign guide based on an established property is surely a formidable challenge for any RPG company. For many years I have looked at Maragret Weis Productions as the standard bearer for the RPG industry, especially their Serenity and Battlestar Galactica product lines and even Smallville. More recently I have delved into Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and gained a new respect for that company. I especially like the new Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition because, well, its relatively spoiler free!

From the Introduction:

“Specifically, the game focuses on the last year before the start of A Game of Thrones. As a result, no details about the plots and fates of the various characters are revealed, and each house and individual is presented as they are at the opening of the novels.” (p. 4)

I really appreciate the effort Green Ronin is making to avoid railroading characters into actions and settings. The real challenge will not be the setting, but players who have read the books or watched the series and use that meta-game knowledge.

RPG Thursday – Is There a Doctor in the House of Westeros?

Courtesy Cubicle 7

Two new RPG’s have made their way into the RockyMountainNavy domain. I added both Doctor Who:  Adventures in Time and Space (11th Doctor Edition) and A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Game of Thrones Edition. Both are beautifully produced, lavish games. Of the two, I think the Doctor is more suitable for the kids, if for no other reason then the order of actions (Talkers, Doers, Movers, then Fighters) which emphasizes the best themes of Doctor Who, namely combat is a last resort (at least lethal combat…the battle of wits is the real centerpiece of action). Of course, what I really am looking for is a Torchwood edition.

Courtesy BGG

On the other hand, SIFRP is more “adult” in its approach, which is in keeping with the source material. Although SIFRP has a detailed combat system, I find Intrigue to be the most interesting. I have to also say that the Westeros setting, with its distinctive lack of magic, is appealing to me over most any fantasy setting (aka D&D).