Escapist Podcast: 179: Story vs Rules in Tabletop RPGs

179: Story vs Rules in Tabletop RPGs

Fluff vs crunch. Narrative vs sandbox. What's better a story based game or one more deeply ingrained with rules?

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And here I was lamenting the fact that the Tabletop Podcast had gone on another hiatus, when it turns out you were cleverly hiding on the front page.

When Jon was talking about how minute a game could get, and how story games can pack in more 'story' than crunchy games because things go faster, I was reminded of the Savvyhead playbook from the Apocalypse World games. Theoretically, you could play a mad scientist (actually, if you're not playing some kind of mad scientist you're doing it wrong) and build anything you wanted, and there were few rules restricting what could and couldn't be done. That said, over several campaigns I've only once seen a Savvyhead get close to completing their project because the MC set up tough narrative requirements that they had to meet (they needed to get parts from the haunted hospital, a labour force of a dozen strong men who don't mind getting electrocuted, etc.)

I think that the pace of a game is much more determined by how the GM sets out rewards, and how large they allow your accomplishments to be, than by the mechanics of the game. You might play a B/X campaign that is based entirely on clearing out a dungeon room by room, or a 4e game where you whip through 8 encounters in 3 sessions, going from a battle against kobolds to invading the Nine Hells if the GM gives you extra XP to abstract what you do in between those setpieces. Narrative games theoretically offer more freedom to speed up the plot, but often people have so much that they want to do (and when one person says they need a week to do something, the other characters all need to come up with something they do that week as well) that such acceleration is not a sure thing.

The ASOIAF RPG sounds interesting. One of my favourite parts of L5R was the system for making your new character another member of the clan related to your dead character, so that they have a sense of continuity. Does this RPG do the same thing with houses (and is there the same push to have everyone be a member of the same house)?

As the Facebook comments pointed out, White Wolf games are a wonderful example of how to get a story game wrong. I got interested in Scion by hearing a review of it on System Mastery, but the book has some of the worst editing I've seen out of an A-list product. Of a 340 page book, literally the first 40 pages are mediocre fiction about the main pregenerated character, and the sample adventure is another 50 pages of something that really only works for that pregenerated party. You literally have to wait until page 171 to find the chapter called "The Rules", which starts with "Before you get to the details about how to do this and that, you need to be familiar with the very basics of playing Scion." It then starts to explain all the rules it's referenced in the last half of the book, starting with the first mention of what dice you're actually supposed to roll and what it means to get a success.

Scion's got a good premise and not a terrible system; I'm actually going to run a short campaign with it in a couple weeks. That said, I'm going to have to find someone who understands it better than me to help compile the actual rules so I have something I can give to the players and reference at the table, rather than hunting through endless fluff writing and White Wolfishness to find out what exactly a DV is and how you calculate that number.

I prefer the more mechanics heavy games because the story based ones I think give to much leeway. As mentioned in the podcast the mechanics ones seem to have more weight because it is a lot harder to hand wave away a mistake. And sometimes some of the most interesting and amusing things can happen because of a mistake that wasn't hand waved away since players have to deal with the consequences.

The problem with heavy mechanics games though can be daunting and get bogged down though because running all those mechanics often involve a lot of dice rolling and looking up reference tables. I found that automating some of it with various computer programs helps speed things along. MapTool is a nice one that lets you create macros to handle all of the dice rolling for attacks and keep track of stats, effects (stun, dazed, etc), HP, and so on. It even handles sight lines and light effects. There are plenty of other table top programs as well but I think MapTools has the most features, which also means higher learning curve, plus it's FREE. ;)


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