Wednesday, March 10, 2010

System Versus Setting (Plus Scope 1.5)

Once again the erudite and insightful Mister Maliszewski at Grognardia has given me a lot to think about in his latest post which you can find here.  I have never gotten to actually play Jorune, but I am one of those kids who saw the ads in Dragon way, way back and wondered what the heck it was all about.  I even got a chance to look over some of the materials published for the game, but never could quite make myself buy into it, either monetarily or gaming-wise.  Don't get me wrong, it is an incredible setting and I absolutely admire Jorune as an exotic setting, but not as a gaming system.  I managed to include it in my quick and incomplete listing of cool Old School RPG Settings in a previous post on Scope where I failed to include the excellent and very much Old School (in all the right ways) Sword-and-Sorcery setting that is Athanor.  Thanks to Blair from Planet Algol for pointing out my unintentional faux pas. Athanor is a wonderful setting and it does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the old-time martians-and-magic pulps like Burroughs, Kline and Leigh Brackett.  Fun stuff.

Reading Maliiszewski's Grognardia blog today was a moment of incredibly fortuitous synchronicity for me.  I have been wrangling and hammering away on my own set of rules for Riskail and Maliszewski drops his analysis of Jorune on my head like a ten ton anvil straight out of a vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon (gotta keep things appropriately old school after all...).  To quote his review of Jorune; "...an exotic, imaginative setting that employed a few too many made-up words to describe itself mated to an uninspired, clunky rules system -- a story all too common in the annals of the hobby."  Ouch.  It'd be difficult to be more blunt, or more on the money.  I agree completely.  It seems that you can have either an exotic setting or complicated rules, but rarely both at the same time, at least not in a game that you expect anyone else to ever actually play or spend money on.

Simplicity in your rules in many respects reminds me of the old saw about brevity being the soul of wit.  Rules-crafting is technical writing, not creative writing.  It's a copywriting process, not poetry.  That is why I split my efforts into two parallel blogs.  This one is for working out matters of systems, numbers, details, theories, tables and all that Behind the Curtain sort of stuff that makes the other shiny and phantasmagorical nonsense intrinsic to the setting actually work as more than just fiction.  The other blog is a place for all that weird prose to evolve into fiction, unique setting details, and all the fun trivia and crap that makes building worlds and developing setting fun.

It makes sense to me, and allows me to focus on both aspects of the process without unnecessarily muddying the setting with the system and vice versa.  In fact my original concept for Riskail was to develop a setting that was independent of any system, much as Freeport has developed into a setting ported to several different systems, or how the old Judges Guild products had a Universal System that made them (somewhat) easy to convert to any other system.  I am very much inclined to focus more on the Setting and let the System be a choice on the part of the DM/GM...perhaps.  It is a tempting thought, but only so long as I don't really think about it.  Settings without dedicated rules-systems don't seem to work, at least I cannot recall a setting that is currently active and economically viable that has no dedicated or at least adapted system backing it up.  Hellfire.  That's exactly James Raggi's point in developing his Lamentations of the Flame Princess system.  Selling modules or adventures or supplements is de facto fleshing out a setting, either implied or specified.  By default you develop a setting in the course of writing out a module/adventure. 
Around and round it goes.  Making my own system or adopting/adapting an established one is a question that has to be answered eventually.  Sure, I could just quote Blake and go off and do my own thing, but I end up in the same dead-end ghetto ninety-percent of RPG stuff winds up in; if you don't write for the current edition of the currently popular game, you are fighting for pennies, or as Ken Hite once told me "You might as well fish quarters out of the men's room urinals."  Speaking of Captain Esoteric, Mister Hite has a truly interesting post on Setting that I found particularly relevant to my current System/Setting deliberations.
Jeff Rients likewise has some very cogent words of wisdom in regards to Systems that I have gone back and re-re-read yet again.  Rob Conley also is someone whose work I admire greatly, and his setting tour de force Majestic Wilderlands is a damn good example of how to make it all work and work well.  Between Hite, Rients and Conley, something of a solution is presenting itself to me. 
Looks like I'm going back to the roots one more time.  For me that's making it all about the Setting more than the System.  I am by nature passionate about Setting and fairly agnostic about System, though I truly value the glorious mess of OD&D and as a rule of thumb to guide my efforts, I want Riskail to be a setting that can accomodate any system someone wants to run it with, and do my best to aid and abet the effort of DMs/GMs to convert the setting into their system of preference whether that is OD&D, EPT, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord or D&D4E--I honestly don't care.  That's their decision.  They're the ones who are running the game, not me.  Like Jeff Berry always used to say: "I just work here," and ultimately I work for those DMs/GMs who are interested in adapting my work to fit into their games.  It doesn't get more personal than that.  It also doesn't get more Old School than that.  Start simple, with something small and build what you need as you need it.  Like Gygax said in Men & Magic, page 4:

"We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first.  That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned.  New details can be added and old 'Laws' altered so as to provide continually new and different situations.  In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable."
Quite desirable indeed!

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