I loved d20 when it was released, but it became bloated and overly complex. Then Pathfinder seem to be the holy grail of gaming, running like precision clockwork, only to fall prey to the same sickening bloat of expansion book after expansion book. I had begun to feel that gaming had lost its magic for me. There were no more risks. Everything became so mechanical and predictable that the sessions weren’t fun anymore. Challenges became a simple matter of adding up a few bonuses.
“Okay so if one player assists me for a +2, and one player casts bless, and I use this masterwork item, and drink this potion, then we will have enough to do this no problem. No no, don’t waste that spell, we only need a 16 and this way I can do it by taking ten”.
That is what ruined gaming for me. That is what sucked the thrill out of adventures. That is what killed the magic of RPGs. And Old School Revival brought it back to life! I went back to Old School games because I knew that any current edition would just keep grinding out new material. They have to sell books after all, it’s a business. But I realized that the GAME hadn’t lost the magic, it’s not that the hobby wasn’t fun anymore. Rather it was that the editions we were playing. The heavy mechanics and the arguments over a mere +1 bonus. Because the player knows so much about the mechanics that they feel cheated if an unknown element effects the expected outcome. They know the target difficulty of almost any task, and therefore they know exactly how much that +1 matters.
Characters shouldn’t always know what is affecting their chance of success and failure. You don’t get to know that you are about to be stung by a bee on your way to the car this morning. You don’t get to factor that into your plans ahead of time and adjust accordingly. Likewise, the characters may not know about an invisible spy, or a magical effect which protects their target. They may not know that their weapons have been sabotaged during their last rest, or any of a multitude of other “surprises” that were supposed to come to light in a big plot reveal. But instead of these things causing the players to think “in-character” about what is happening and why, they would often result in bickering about how it could be possible that this rule on page X isn’t working all of a sudden. Everyone wanted to be Neo in The Matrix, to be able to see the ones and zeroes behind the facade.
And even when the rules weren’t causing arguments, they still often managed to sap the fun out a game session. How much fun is it to hunt across your character sheet front to back, top to bottom, looking for a bonus? Checking rulebooks full of powers and abilities, trying to hunt down that +2 that will ensure your success. The other players are losing interest while the GM is staring at you ready to tell you the results, but you continue to stall for time, saying “wait I know I get a bonus to that from something.” While you can get caught up in that type of thinking under pressure, and believe me I have, it isn’t really fun for anyone at the table. It isn’t the kind of heroic action which most RPG games aspire to.
Many newer games and independently published RPGs have great mechanics that focus on quick action resolution, or focus on a particular theme or playstyle. These mechanics can often be transported into your game and can be used to mitigate some of the crunch of newer systems. One mechanic I like is this;
Any one thing in your favor grants a +2, any two things grant a +5, and three or more things grant a +10. So if you are trying to pry open a door on 1d20, and you have a strength bonus, a crowbar and a buddy helping out, you get +10.
That is a lot easier than hunting for bonuses, and it rewards the group for working together. But new mechanics can also be very confusing or disorienting to a game that is already very crunchy, or to a group that is not comfortable with house rules. Sometimes it is better to just play the new game for a few sessions and then recommend using the rule in your d20 game.
When it all is said and done, I have found the simplest way to revitalise my interest in the hobby, was to look at all my current stories through the lens of Old School game rules. All the excess mechanics melt away, leaving the most important story elements behind. Characters are described by their deeds and background rather than their modifiers and bonuses. Situations are handled by interacting with the game environment rather than by hunting for something on a character sheet. Social situations in a game are played out instead of being resolved on a die roll.
As a final note, while it is true that you can run a crunchy, mechanic-heavy game that embraces all of these themes, that is often more a result of what you and your group brought to that game, rather than being a play style that is supported and rewarded by the mechanics of the game you are playing. Make sure you are having fun with your games, don’t let them become a chore. Keep on gaming and keep rolling 20’s.
Note; This article was written last year before I got into the FATE RPG. Expect to be seeing more about that in coming weeks.