Monday, May 21, 2012

Maybe I Quit D&D

Steve Jackson Games is one of the longest running role playing game companies in existence. Next to Chaosium (RuneQuest, and Call of Cthulhu), Palladium ((Rifts) and Flying Buffalo Games (Tunnels and Trolls) SJG has shown a dedication to the ideals of gaming beyond about any other company I can think of. I am so tired of being let down by companies trading hands, going out of business and discontinuing lines that support my gaming. Yes, I could continue playing them even if the company or line was sold or discontinued. But a I have made clear in numerous previous posts—I want an actively supported line, by a reliably supportive company of GAMERS.

Is intimately tied to #1. SJG has stayed true to their flagship RPG. Though GURPS has grown immensely over the years, with the biggest changes being their 3rd edition line, and their biggest consolidation 4th, GURPS itself has remained basically unchanged. I don't expect SJG to radically change the game in the future either. Will their be a 5th edition? Undoubtedly—but it will still be GURPS, not some unrecognizable simulacra thereof.

I have learned that I prefer a game that allows for unlimited flexibility and creativity. This has been discovered in my love for systems like the original Dungeons & Dragons game, Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades and the like. GURPS is the ultimate creators toolkit.

But I have also realized that I love a level of detail and crunch in a system through games like Hackmaster, Rifts and even the good times I had in 3.5and 4e. The problem of course is that such games can become restrictive and can feel too confining. However GURPS allows the best of both worlds. I can create anything and have the mechanics it back it up.

And I have to admit, I like a dangerous world in which death is a constant presence. I don't like having games where the fantasy is carried to such an extreme that death is rarely possible. Unless of course that is a basic assumption of the game such as a superhero game. GURPS can accomplish both ends of these extremes, but it's core game is one where death is a realistic presence. In other words you don't generally have much HP in GURPS. Combat must be entered into with caution strategy in mind.

Which leads me to my sixth reason—realism. The main reason I participate in role playing games is for communal escape. A fantastic based escape into the worlds of imagination. Especially those that allow for adventure beyond what we normally encounter in our everyday lives. However, I am also of a very rational mind—even though my imagination often carries my thoughts into Ultima Thule and beyond, my logical mind expects a level of reason and reality to my fantasy. The realistic foundation upon which GURPS is based appeals to my desires for a “realistic” fantasy.

My appeal for Hackmaster is, I realize, partially generated by the gaming comradery of the Knights of the Dinner Table. But it is also preserved by the level of what I call the old school ethos within the game. This ethos is partially captured by the GM vs player mentality so prevalent in the comic and to a lesser degree in the games' rules themselves. But the structure of the game itself does this via a number of very real mechanics. First is the player optimization potential within the game. Via point buy options, ability manipulation, advantages, disadvantages, quirks, perks, skills, powers and the like-- players are free to engage in free wheeling optimization and character creation potential thus creating the best PC possible with which to face the GMs created challenges. But the structure of the system is also very realistic and deadly, incorporating criticals, hit location, and the like thus making challenges significant regardless of the players efforts at optimization. The whole effect is very much like Hackmaster in a completely unexpected way.

But this similarity is, upon further reflection quite logical. Hackmaster is a syncretic parody of two game systems—Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS. Even the fictional head of Hard eight enterprises Gary Jackson—attests to the fact that the two huge names in gaming at that time, Gary Gygax and Steve Jackson are preserved in his moniker. Essentially communicating that Hackmaster was preserving the ethos of a period of gaming when GURPS and D&D held sway over the gaming world.

The personal connection here becomes even stronger. I grew up gaming in Austin, Texas. Without giving my home address let's just say that the HQ of Steve Jackson games was about 4 blocks from my childhood home. Just behind my Elementary School. I understand that SJG has now moved, but as a part of my youth SJG figured very prominently. In central Texas there really were two systems at the time: D&D and GURPS. There were other fly by nighters, but those were the mainstays. I did play Car Wars, OGRE and admired Steve Jackson and his company highly, even if my main game was AD&D. I even had a friend in my church who was a game designer for them for a few years.

So when we talk old school, what are we really talking about? The old school ethos preserved in Hackmaster has it's roots in two gaming systems. Some might say that HM was really trying to preserve AD&D2e, with its proliferation of character options and game expansion. But much of the character and campaign options of 2e were rooted in other game systems. Especially those systems that had pursued a model of skill based PCs instead of the class based PCs upon which D&D was based for so long. It was an effort to bring these methods to players of D&D, likely with the idea of keeping all gamers within its fold.

Above and beyond my past considerations, there is something else I've realized. My early gaming showed efforts to bring in other games, other genres to my gaming group with minimal or limited success. I have always had a penchant for science fiction, but it has been an itch rarely scratched. Lovecraftian horror has been my longest foray into other fields of gaming—bu that is a love often enjoyed in private; but most of my nonD&Drelated gaming has been Call of Cthulhu.

My RPGs: AD&D 1e, Gamma World, RuneQuest, Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Traveler, Space Opera, Champions, Marvel Superheroes, AD&D 2e, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, OSRIC, Hackmaster Basic, Pathfinder, Labyrinth Lord AEC

But of those only 1e, 4e, OSRIC & Pathfinder of any significant length. My reason for mentioning this here is to show I have desires to play other games, experience other genres, especially science fiction and have been unable to fulfill that wish. Often the greatest barrier to playing a different genre is that it requires changing systems, learning an entirely new way to play. GURPS circumvents this by offering a single system for any genre you would wish to play.

All this being said there are of course issues with GURPS. I'm not fooling myself that GURPS is some kind of perfect game. In fact as I've discussed this with my brother, who has been very helpful btw, he has jokingly called this my search for the perfect game. In a way I suppose there's truth to that. But not in the sense that I think a perfect game exists. GURPS, has it's issues mechanically and stylistically. As does every game on the market.

However, I've been immersed in D&D style gaming since my entry into the hobby so long ago. It's sort of in my gaming DNA as it were. I think my opinion of gaming has been colored to such a degree that I can no longer see clearly when it comes to RPGs more generally. To be short, I feel it is time to get out of my D&D jeans as it were. Try on some new duds.

I also realize that given the nature of the variability of my gaming analyses, and opinions I am committed to sticking with the same system for at least two years. I would say one year, but my gaming cycle tends to run in yearly intervals. And I do tend to change systems at more or less yearly intervals anyway. So I wanted to break my usual pattern and initiate a new era for me. My indecision tends to cause me to vacillate from system to system trying this and trying that in an effort to regain something that was lost.

Now, I've written numerous entries about the loss of an era in gaming. When TSR was sold an age changed. For the past 3 or 4 years I've been tooling around the OSR, sometimes at the edges, sometimes deep within it's search for the past. I've sampled the new, modern age as well; playing the latest iterations of the D&D legacy. The fact is I've been unable to find the world that was lost—but that may be because I've been locked into a D&D only mindset for so long I cannot see the forest for the trees.

Deciding to switch out of this mindset is really the only way out of the rut I've been in for some time now. Seeing this has helped me open my eyes to the fact that there has been an old school that I've been unable to see or at least to acknowledge as a possibility. As soon as I saw this I began to see GURPS and the gaming industry in a whole new light.

And call it personal angst or grudge, but I couldn't help but feel like the D&D world has misplaced themselves due to the fact that the company has changed, the D&D world has changed and I resent that more than a little. It made me envious of those fans of gaming systems that still had their parent companies intact and still producing their games. So I took a bit of a look around and realized that several lifetime companies (by that I mean in my gaming lifetime) are still up and running, doing their thing much to the happiness of their fans and supporters.

Flying Buffalo games preserves Tunnels & Trolls, which is evidently a great fantasy simulacra of early D&D (not quite but close). And tho' rich in tradition has never attracted me.

Chaosium is probably the next oldest, and has put out a number of highly rated games. Unfortunately only Call of Cthulhu remains largely unchanged. Tho' Chaosium has synthesized their game systems into the BRP release. It is new, and remains to be seen if it has any staying power. But I gave Chaosium much thought as it does have a strong universal system, and creates probably my second most favorite game CoC.

Palladium, like Flying Buffalo, inherits the D&D legacy through their Rifts line, largely built on the 1e framework. Though Kevin Siembieda has taken it far beyond what could still be called 1e. I am attracted to Rifts in strange and inexplicable ways. By all accounts it is a clunky, broken, overpowered system—but it still attracts me. However, it is a somewhat narrower system than GURPS in scope and still very close to the D&D Matrix. I need to unhook from the Matrix and see reality for what it really is.