The Seven-Sided Die

Why it's not insane to like Rolemaster

Posted Friday September 05, 2008 at 05:22 AM

Recently I was reading the Creative Commons version of Clinton R. Nixon's The Shadow of Yesterday. That he chose to release it under an open license is awesome, and though I could write about that I'm more interested in an aside he buried in the game.

Note that this is from an older version of TSoY, marked as version 0.9, which is somewhat less polished than The Shadow of Yesterday 2005. The neat thing about the older version 0.9 is that it contains a bunch of design notes, including the following (emphasis mine):

The phrase "role-playing game" is totally misleading. The types of games lumped into this phrase differ from each other as much as playing a first-person shooter computer game differs from acting in a play or recreating a historical battle. [...]

Why is it a misnomer? Here's why: some RPGs provide a framework for telling a story with your friends, others provide a structured system for representing day-to-day occurrences in a real or fictional world, and others provide a play environment for competition among the participants. Only one of the above—the last—is what would traditionally be called a game, and none of the above, with the possible exception of the second, fit the definition of role-playing as it's used in psychiatrists' offices or corporate team-building exercises.

That bolded phrase above is what really caught my eye. I don't think it's exhaustive—it likely wasn't intended to be—but it neatly chops up different kinds of roleplaying styles.

There is a huge variety of roleplaying games out there. Very few of them actually make explicit the style of play that they are suited for. Like tourists visiting a foreign culture, most people who game assume that their favourite style of play is the only or best way to play. On encountering a new game most gamers will try to evaluate it by a standard of play that doesn't apply to the game, and consequently they find the new game coming up short.

That's why I like that short list Nixon wrote. You don't have to be steeped in hard-core roleplaying theory to catch the simple idea that different games are enjoyed for different reasons.

The creator of the world of Hârn and its companion system HârnMaster, N. Robin Crossby, died recently. I'm sorry to say that I had never heard of his lovingly-detailed creation until the news coverage following his death. It's a good example of a world and a system that seems to sharply divide roleplayers: some love it and sing its praises, while others consider those player's tales of roleplaying feeble escaped peasants and their senseless deaths at the whim of the dice to be thoroughly inane.

The difference is in those lines Nixon wrote. There are so many different kinds of game that go under the misnomer "roleplaying game" that it's often like comparing apples to sheep. Hârn really appeals to me precisely because it offers a different sort of play than what I usually get: deep immersion in a plausible fictional fantasy world. The detractors of the game might focus on the crazy-complex rules system, but for people looking for that deep immersion the rules are not the point, but merely a tool to achieve their nirvana.

Which brings me back to The Shadow of Yesterday. I like me some fantasy swords and sorcery roleplaying, but I'm increasingly leery of combat-focused rules systems for that style of play. (I suspect that this is mostly a phase in my tastes, because I don't see anything wrong with D&D 3e when I'm in the mood for it.) Most traditional fantasy RPG systems detail the combat and character creation and then stop there, assuming that the why of playing is self-evident. These systems are great for exploring fictional worlds, but they're not so good at creating stories that are anything more than just travelogues with swords and monsters.

The Shadow of Yesterday offers something different. The conflict resolution system is designed to address not only physical confrontations, but also social and moral conflicts. It provides a framework for character creation that puts the motive for adventuring in the spotlight, and supports all kinds of dramatic play equally well with a structured resolution mechanic that isn't just about swinging swords or slinging spells.

Most importantly, its reward system hooks directly into the character motivations, which means a player powergaming the system is roleplaying more. I want to play more games like that.

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