#RPGaDay2015: 23 – “Is this better than Primetime Adventures?”

A large part of what I love about RPGs is trying new ones—not just new settings, but new mechanics. I love it when a game forces me to play in a different way than I ever had before, or comes up with a new way to describe characters. I play RPGs to have new experiences, and one of the ways I get those new experiences is with new games. So I don’t think there can be a “perfect game” for me—at best, it would be the “perfect game right now”.

That said, I can tell you the game that is my baseline. Whenever I’m getting ready to run or play a new game, whatever the game is, the question in my mind is “how is this game better than running the same premise/setting with Primetime Adventures?” I use Primetime Adventures the way a lot of people use GURPS or D20 System or Savage Worlds.

But even then, the answer is “it’s not”, and I therefore end up using Primetime Adventures, only probably one time in ten. So while PTA might be as close to a “perfect” RPG for me as anything, I don’t think there’s anything that really deserves that label.

#RPGaDAY 31: Wildburry, Cape Suzette, and Perach

[School started, so time is short, and this is late.]

While the rules are not necessarily the game (especially since many game systems are used in more than one RPG), I’m gonna say that “best RPG” has been covered in one way or another by days 6, 12, 18, 20, 21, and 25. There’s no way I could narrow it down to just one favorite RPG—even coming up with a top 5 is hard (and last time I tried I gave up once I’d narrowed it down to 8)—and whatever it is it would be one of the games I mentioned on one of those days, and/or repeatedly on several other days. So rather than bore you with the same things over and over, I’m going to interpret this as my favorite game instance (evening/campaign/whatever)—which includes a particular RPG, of course.

There are a lot of possibilities here—I’ve been blessed with lots of great games. There was our “filler” game of Remember Tomorrow from a couple years back, which did an amazing job of giving us a coherent game that consisted of a quartet of individual stories. I had an awesome time playing Heroine at Forge Midwest this year, and my first-ever game of Primetime Adventures was this amazing con game of “a more serious take on Jem, as remade by J.J. Abrams”. And there are many others. So in my usual decisive fashion, I’m going to declare it a 3-way tie.

In general, my favorite games are ones that other people have run—I tend to be the GM, always have been, so any time I get to play is great, but it’s particularly great if the game is great. So I’ll take running a good game over playing a mediocre one, but if everything else is equal, I’d rather be in the player’s seat.

Wildburry Academy

An exclusive private school somewhere in the Romanian mountains, where exceptional teenagers are taught how to play “the great game”. Except it’s not a game any more—the Cold War is over, and the gentlemanly rivalries of the 19th and early 20th centuries are found only in history books. Not quite as dark as reality, but still a world of deception, double-dealing, and uncertainty. We used Spycraft 2.0, and our characters were 15- to 16-year-olds when they first enrolled. We played through their first year, with a fun mix of fake teaching missions, serious espionage missions—and typical high school events, as depicted in any teen romcom. (We don’t take our games overly seriously.) The GM was great, and Spycraft really supports running a game like this, with lots of crunch to differentiate our characters and make tasks genuine challenges. Plus, I got to play Vacile Moşanu, former Transnistrian teen idol with an ego that borders on solipsism, but an actual knack for organizing others and an inexplicable way with people. I got to play the member of the group that everyone loved to hate—the Barney Stinson of our game, complete with pulling off outrageous plans (when the dice favored me).

Higher for Hire

A few years ago I was playing in a group that was playing fairly traditional, long-running campaigns—things like Arcana Unearthed and Reign. I wanted to play some more story-oriented games, so I pulled a small group together of like-minded people, and one of the first games we played was Primetime Adventures (PTA). We followed the suggested setup, meaning that we first settled on a setting & premise, then created characters, then chose characters from among those to be our PCs. I’d heard multiple accounts of starting from children’s shows producing amazing games of PTA, so we started talking about actual shows that we were all familiar with. Turns out there weren’t that many (mostly due to age differences), and then we hit upon TaleSpin. Taking a tried-and-true method to adapt an existing property, we decided to play the next generation. It was almost 20 years after the events of the show, with Molly & Kit all grown up. Baloo and Rebecca had married and retired. Kit had inherited Higher for Hire, and then run it into the ground—like Baloo, he was a good pilot but no businessman. He was living on the couch of his friend Riki Tavi. Meanwhile, Molly had gone off to college and, teaming up with her friend Gosalyn Mallard, become an actual costumed vigilante, bringing her childhood idol Danger Woman to life! What she knew was that it wasn’t all Kit’s fault that Higher for Hire had gone under: the escalating conflict between the air pirates and the vigilantes had made the airways so dangerous that everyone’s insurance rates had gone through the roof. Sher Khan had made sure of this, and then stepped in as all the smaller insurance companies went bankrupt to “magnanimously” buy out Higher for Hire (and any other competitors that didn’t fold first). Don Karnage was now a doddering shell of his former self (though having gained in wisdom what he had lost in debonair), and the air pirates were only still around because it was convenient for Sher Kahn to continue to have them as an excuse for higher shipping rates. We also had fun pulling in other possible characters, beyond who actually appeared on TaleSpin, from related settings.

We decided who our main characters would be and then randomly determined who would play whom (rolled dice? I can’t remember), which left Dan as GM, me as Molly, and Caitlin as Kit. It was absolutely fascinating as the combo of the dice, the characters’ stats, and the situations drove us into all sorts of unexpected territory. I remember distinctly discovering at one point “Molly’s kinda selfish”, and being surprised by this. But, all around, it was an awesome game, and has me ready to return to Primetime Adventures any time I can find an interested group and a few weeks.

Relationship map v2

Reclaiming Perach

After a couple false starts, I finally got to run a game using The Burning Wheel. We created our own setting, extrapolating from the life paths: a world where the elves had “uplifted” humanity (and, before them, the orcs). Eventually, the humans outgrew their “parents” and war broke out. Humans discovered/invented sorcery and won the war, destroying elven society in the process. Our characters included an elf who feared he might be the last of his people, but the rest were human, remnants of the war. The story was intended to revolve around Anthony de la Bouche attempting to reclaim the throne of Perach from his usurping uncle, but I made the mistake of letting them into the same room with a weapon in the second session. In a deadly and non-narrative system, don’t let the PCs at the main badguy early on, because they will kill him.

As it turned out, this made for a very interesting game: only a select few knew that the uncle was dead, and so it became a game of politics and propaganda while trying to avoid the king’s forces long enough to raise political support for a return. The Burning Wheel system really shone, and made for an awesome game, despite my occasional errors in gauging the effectiveness of enemies. Though my very favorite scene never happened: we were all set for a combined simultaneous duel of wits and duel of sabers between Anthony and the most powerful of his dead uncle’s supporters, Captain Robillard. We’re talking total de Bergerac territory here—and a game system that can actually make both parts equally fun and equally consequential. Then the PCs used a clever combination of facts and carefully fabricated evidence to sway Robillard to their side, thus completely short-circuiting the duel. I was so disappointed. :-( Not that I can actually complain when the PCs are clever and/or non-suicidal—the duel really would’ve been a toss-up, and thus a very risky move on Anthony’s part.

We had a very satisfactory conclusion to Anthony’s storyline, and were just starting to get into the question of whether any elves remained (and they had begun finding evidence of the returning orcs) when the game ended. Had it gone on, consequences would’ve become very interesting: in addition to the orcs no longer held in check by the elves, there were side effects of all the magic, some of it very dark, that had been used to win the war, still lurking about the land. Maybe someday…

#RPGaDAY 20: Ars Magica, Fudge, & Primetime Adventures

I’m a bit of a neophile when it comes to RPGs, and there are only so many hours in a week, so no promises that I’ll be playing any particular game in another 20 years. I think the best I can do is look back at the games that I was playing 20 (or so) years ago and either still play or would still play if I could. 

I first played Ars Magica 23 years ago, have returned to it repeatedly since, and still buy almost all the books. I still count it among my favorite games and I’d play it at the drop of a hat with the right group, so I don’t have any reason to believe I’ll be any less interested in another 20 years. 

Fudge used to be my go-to system when I wanted more than DIY and less than a fully-formed system, and I still like it. It’s extremely versatile—just compare Fate Accelerated, Diaspora, Fate Core, and Another Fine Mess. Fudge is 22 years old, and I believe I’ve known about it for at least 21 years, and based on its history so far, I expect there may even be fresh takes on it still emerging in another 20 years. But even if there aren’t I think it’s pretty safe to guess that I’ll still be using it in one form or another. 

Finally, one much younger game that I suspect I’ll still be playing: Primetime Adventures. It’s just barely a decade old, but it has yet to be outdone at what it does, and I like what it does. I can’t say for certain that my tastes won’t change, but I suspect they’ll always include the sort of story- and character-focused game that Primetime Adventures produces. And unlike many other story games, Primetime Adventures can handle a very wide range of story structures, just like TV can, so it is unlikely to grow repetitive or stale for me. 

#RPGaDAY 18: Over the Edge

I’m an RPG hacker, tinkerer, and designer. Most RPG systems have at least some appeal to me, and tons of systems have bits of them that are my favorite implementation of that bit. On top of that, even clearly flawed systems are often my right-now favorite while I’m playing them. So picking a favorite RPG system is quite possibly even harder than picking a favorite RPG. I’ll exclude anything I’ve designed, just on principle, and try to narrow it down at least.

A couple of my favorite games are such in part due to their systems. I’ve used the core of Ars Magica to build a general fantasy game, but I think most of what makes it appealing to me is specific to the setting—once you strip all that away, it’s a pretty simple system, which is mostly good, but also doesn’t make it very distinctive. Underground is a more novel core system—a human-scaled version of the system from the old DC Heroes game. It breaks DC Heroes’ lovely 3×3 stat symmetry (three each of mental, physical, and social/spiritual, each split into power, finesse, and resistance), but is otherwise an excellent refinement and expansion, turning it into a very elegant gamist/simulationist system that handles a wide range of numbers and facilitates easy conversion between units (i.e., from speed to distance or strength to mass, and the like).

Aria is another old system, quite crunchy and detailed, that I continue to love for the clevernesses in how it all comes together. A lot of people found the book “pretentious” due to its insistence on eschewing the traditional RPG jargon in favor of using standard dictionary words in accordance with their conventional definitions, but once you get past that to the underlying system, it is one of the better systems I’ve ever encountered. And it’s magic-building rules are probably the only thing to out-do both The Primal Order and Ars Magica.

Though these days, if I wanted a crunchy system, it would probably be Burning Wheel. It’s probably the only crunchy system I’ve actually enjoyed running. While it has a lot of detail, it all falls together very elegantly, all makes sense, and the numbers work out mathematically, do what they claim to do, and both make sense and are fun in play for the most part. No boring can’t-lose fights; no whiff-filled endless challenges. If I ever run it again, I’d like to try some sort of abstracted system for wises, like the Circles system, instead of tracking them individually, but that’s my only complaint. And the way all the bits interact just perfectly is amazing, and makes running and playing it fun. It’s probably the only game I’ve found that could handle a Cyrano-style simultaneous duel of wits and rapiers, and make both halves equally interesting and equally fraught with peril.

Generally, however, I go in for less-detailed systems. For a long time, Story Engine (originally used in Maelstrom Storytelling) was my favorite system. It uses an interesting structure, focused on scenes and narrative control rather than either simulation or difficulty, and pioneered a lot of the play style that was reinvented by the rise of Narrativist indie RPGs nearly a decade later. It’s also unusual in being structured such that cooperative rolls are the norm—typical difficulties are out of reach of a typical character acting by themselves.

Story Engine RPG (courtesy of RPGNow)

Story Engine RPG (courtesy of RPGNow)

In that vein, Primetime Adventures and The Shadow of Yesterday (TSoY) might be the best examples yet of two different developments of that Narrativist structure. I prefer Primetime Adventures, which is about as far as a system can go in focusing on authorial control while still having any character-differentiating mechanics at all. It’s the game system I choose when I have an interesting setting in mind and don’t want to create my own rules—it has replaced CORPS, Fudge, and Savage Worlds for me as my default generic system.

But I have to admire the amazing balancing act TSoY pulls off, sneaking authorial directives into its Keys under the guise of character motivations, and basing rolls on character capabilities but using the results of those rolls to determine narrative control rather than success. It’s the game system we just chose when we were playing something else and loved the game but the rules were not gelling for us, and it has been used as the basis for more than a few other games, most notably Lady Blackbird.

I also need to mention two systems that are amazing, but a bit tied to their settings. Zero has a very clever system that inherently trades off specialization and breadth: by using a fixed skill list of just the right length, the d6 x d6 roll perfectly scales such that the more skills you have the less good you are at each of them, without needing to fiddle with skill points or any other bookkeeping. While other parts are specific to its setting, that core is something I’ve reused elsewhere, because there’s really nothing else that does that so smoothly.

Meanwhile, Everway is simply in a world of its own. Every part of that system is awesome, from chargen based on inspirational images, through metaphorical primary traits, to the best way yet to quantify an infinite variety of special powers. [Is it frequently useful? versatile? powerful? Total the yeses up and you have your cost.] I’ve adapted it for space opera, and others have adapted it for supers, and I’m sure it could form the core of any number of other fantastical (as opposed to more realistic) settings, though with a little more work than for adapting a more traditional system.

Over the Edge 2nd edition

Over the Edge 2nd edition

But if I had to pick just one system to use from now on, I think it would be Over the Edge. For me, it’s the perfect balance of words (mostly) and numbers (just a few). It’s focused on character capability, but boils everything down to a small number of stats, with an easy default roll built in. The way that it uses dice is also genius, providing bonuses and penalties that don’t change the range of the roll and don’t require complex—or really any—math (beyond the basic addition you need for an unmodified roll). It’s much like TSoY in feel and goals, though without the excellent Keys mechanics, but simpler and more free-form, so easier to adapt.

#RPGaDAY 12: Four Colors al Fresco

Well, there’s “still play”, and then there’s “still play”. The oldest published RPG I have played recently is probably The Shadow of Yesterday (we’re playing it now). I also regularly return to Primetime Adventures, though it’s been a couple years since we last played it. And Primetime Adventures is pretty much my go-to game when I don’t have some other game specifically in mind, so I’m sure I’ll play it again some time soon. 

And then there are several older games that I would play at the drop of a hat, but it’s been many years since I last have: Ars Magica, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Underground, The Babylon Project, Everway, Fading Suns, Deadlands (the original), or Over the Edge. I still buy all the Ars Magica supplements as they come out, and try to find time to read them. 

The oldest published game I actually have played semi-recently is Rolemaster: I played for a bit about 4 years ago with a group that is still playing the original edition, 30 years later. But I don’t really think it’s fair to say that I “still” play or read it—I haven’t touched it since then, didn’t read any of the books at the time, and before that group I had last looked at a Rolemaster book in about ’85. 

The only games older than The Shadow of Yesterday that I’ve both recently played and intend to play again in the future would be my own Four Colors al Fresco, created in 1999, released as a free beta PDF around 2004, but not yet properly published. It will be this fall/winter, if I can make the time between school and work.