You make eye contact from across the room. Something about their look, their style, draws you toward them, and as you come closer, it just gets worse. Is it gonna be forever, or is it gonna go down in flames? It’s a whirlwind romance, initial infatuation turning into a blissful honeymoon period, followed by a rapid melt-down of bitterness, broken hopes and mutual recriminations. Yep, down in flames.
I’m not just summarizing a Taylor Swift song; I’m talking about what happens all too often when you jump headlong into a new RPG system. It sounds ridiculous, comparing a game system to a romantic relationship; but if you find a system that really ‘clicks’, it can have a major impact, not only on how you spend your money, but how you spend your hard-earned gaming time.
Like relationships with people, sometimes games just aren’t a good fit, and you’re better off cutting your losses early. But with some forethought and patience, you can avoid the pain of a bad break-up and maybe find true love where you least expect it. The current golden age of pen-and-paper RPG’s offers something for everyone, but it helps if you follow a few simple rules in your search for a soul-mate:
1. First Dates Should Be Cheap
Don’t spend money right off the bat. Yes, I know the cover art is awesome, and the description sounds awesome, and just please take my money now! But this is the path to heartbreak.
These days, you can download a free preview or quick-start for almost any system. The advent of the Open Game License (OGL) has encouraged many publishers to release free basic rule-sets for their products. Take advantage of that. This is a great chance to get a ‘first feel’ for a system without investing a lot of time and money.
If you can’t find any free resources for a system, you might want to step back and pause. Rule books can cost upwards of $50, and, without a test-run, you’re committing a fair amount of cash based on first impressions and looks.
2. Crunchy or Fluffy?
A quick skimming of the rules should answer your most pressing question: is this system Rules Heavy or Rules Light? Does the system emphasize rules (crunch) or story and setting (fluff)?
Rules Heavy systems generally stress simulation, using charts and stats and tables to accurately model a character’s abilities and actions. Rules Light systems usually provide a few key mechanics to govern the action, but let the narrative drive the details. Some people like tables and charts and handfuls of dice; others put narrative and story arc above all else. Whichever camp you belong to, you can figure out pretty quickly which side a new system falls into by checking two simple aspects:
Try the mechanics. Stage a few mock combats. Roll up some characters. When I was floundering with weird dice and mechanics, the GM of my Star Wars campaign told me to “just make a dude, you’ll figure it out”, and he was right. In a class-based system, don’t forget to roll up several characters classes: in a standard fantasy setting, I’ll usually roll up a fighter, a wizard and a rogue to get a feel for how combat, magic and skills are implemented.
3. Hold On Loosely, But Don’t Let Go (Right Away)
So you’ve paid your money and you love your new system and you can’t wait to share it with your group. Awesome! Quit reading and go roll dice. But maybe you paid your money and now you have…doubts. Buyer’s remorse. Cold feet.Don’t give up until you’ve tried it. Some systems feel clunky on paper, but actually play well. Sadly, the converse is also true and what seem like clever mechanics fall flat in actual play. But you never know until you sit down with friends, break out the beverage of choice, and start rolling dice. Give it a session or two. If you still can’t warm up to it, pillage it for ideas in your next game. There’s always something you can salvage from the wreckage, even if it’s just a setting idea or cool character concept.
We’ve all been burned by a game we loved at first sight, but just couldn’t get comfortable with. I have shelves of gaming books that are dusty and unused because I bought them based on a quick infatuation with cover art or a cool premise without doing any homework. But with some patience, research, and a little luck, you can find a partner for life: a partner to fill your nights with friends and the rolling of dice, and your days with graph paper and #2 pencils.
Beat that, Taylor Swift.
Jack Benner is the head bottle-washer and sole roustabout at Stick in the Mud Press http://stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com/. He doesn’t want to talk about how he knows Taylor Swift lyrics from memory. He’s a total metal guy who would never actually buy a Taylor Swift album. Especially not the last one, no matter how catchy it is. Really.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.