Lessons from reading rulebooks all the time
I take it upon myself to champion game systems I think are great. I’ve been talking up Dungeon Crawl Classics since the beta, and have recently played a lot of Star Wars Edge of the Empire. Reading rulebooks cover to cover can be a really arduous task, mostly because they are meant as reference guides rather than gripping page-turners. Recently my wife asked when I was going to read a “normal” book again. Frankly, it’s been awhile since I have and there are a few reasons for this. Kickstarter is a main culprit. I’ve cut back recently, but I used to relentlessly hunt down cool gaming projects and new systems. Soon I realized I had more systems than I’ve even fully read, let alone have time to play! On the other side of the coin, reading these systems gives me new perspective on my current games, and a lot of them draw on universal themes that can be applied to many systems.
For instance, I really enjoy the character creation statement from Numenera (and now The Strange). For the uninitiated, Numenera characters can be described succinctly using a simple statement: (Character) is a (Adjective) (Noun) who (Verbs). The pre-gen character I played during our session at the Wyvern’s Tale was ‘Leve is a Strong-Willed Nano who Wields Power with Precision.” In Numenera those elements also have mechanical benefits, but it also works to sum up your character and let’s other players know what he is about in just one sentence. To me, it is an awesome balance between a four-page backstory that no one ever reads or remembers, and a mechanical description of your PC (I have a 3rd Level Paladin with 18 Charisma). This could really be applied to any game. In Edge of the Empire for instance, I have a Rodian Smuggler that is as handy with a blaster as he is in the cockpit of a starship. Not as succinct, maybe, but you get the idea.
Another example is FATE. FATE is a fairly rules-light system that utilizes fudge dice (or now FATE dice) that are typical six-sided dice, with either a +, -, or nothing on the side. The core mechanic is that tasks have a difficulty number. Whenever your character attempts an action that is either actively opposed by an NPC or passively opposed by the circumstances surrounding the action, you roll 4 dice and add (or subtract) the result to the corresponding skill for your character. This result is compared to the difficulty number, and if you beat it, your character succeeds! The most important element I took away from FATE is *when* to call for a roll. The idea is to only roll when failure is interesting. I mentioned this briefly in my thoughts after running a few Edge sessions, but it is really true for any system that uses dice for task resolution. In my experience, when a character wants to do something, a GM is usually better served by letting them attempt it. Maybe they are coming up with a cunning plot to get around whatever obstacle the party is currently facing. If it seems like a reasonable request, allow it. If it would be an interesting twist if the situation went one way or the other, call for a roll. Example: The player asks if he can locate a cart or wagon outside of the tavern. Is it reasonable that a cart or wagon would be outside a tavern? Probably. Is it interesting if there isn’t a cart? Not really. Sure, ok, yeah, there is a cart, with a sad looking donkey attached to it. Player wants to steal it to pose as a farmer to get past the guards at the gate. This situation calls for probably a whole series of rolls, each with their own twist on the narrative. Does the owner notice the theft? Do the guards believe the characters ploy? Either of those would be tense rolls for the entire group, and could send the story in exciting directions!
I still have yet to thoroughly read Savage Worlds, TechNoir, Wandering Monster High School, Cortex, Tunnels and Trolls, and Burning Wheel. Plenty of more systems to keep me busy for a long time! Even if I never get the time to play them, I feel like I can learn from them and apply those concepts to games I do make time to play.