When the System Doesn’t Fit

I’m on vacation this week, and as such, my routine is a little off. I forgot I had a post to write until Grant jogged my memory, so I apologize that this post is coming a little later than they typically do. -Peter

Recording Episode 64: Matching System and Story got me thinking about the topic referenced in the episode title, but I kept mulling it over for a long time after we finished recording the audio for the episode. As I’ve referenced on the podcast, I’ve been GMing a GURPS game for the gaming group that Grant and I are in. There’s been some good player buy-in and our gaming group’s inter-player dynamics are good enough to make many groups green with envy, but despite all of that, I put the game on what’s hopefully a short hiatus last week.

The reason was, of all things, prep time. GURPS is a really neat, really useful system, and it’s capable of having an AI that operates remotely in the same party as a ninja, a wrecking machine with a combat exoskeleton and a heavy assault rifle, and a wizard/field scientist. However, at the power levels my PC group is operating at (800 points), all of that awesome requires awesome challenges, and often awesome foes, and when a goon takes you 45 minutes to an hour to stat up properly with the aid of character generation software, something has to give. GURPS’s simulationist mechanics also tend to move slowly in combat, and it’s really, really easy for someone to take a rifle round and die. None of this is to say GURPS is a bad system – I’ve used it before and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t fitting quite right with the feel I wanted – my intention was something closer to an action movie – and even if that was going perfectly, the prep time was more than I could handle.

I entertained a number of different system ideas – I have a fairly substantial library of generic and semi-generic systems, but as it turns out, this was a thorny one.

  • Feng Shui 2 just came out, and as a Kickstarter backer, I have a copy. It is specifically geared for action movie style roleplaying to boot. But there’s no way to model Grant’s really interesting artificial intelligence PC. Egeria (the PC) is a massive supercomputer/data center in the bowels of the Intrigue, the warship the PC group is based out of. None of her abilities are physical in any way – she operates by accessing things remotely, hacking, piloting small drones (or larger ones), and receiving A/V feeds from the other PCs. There’s nothing at all like that in there. Dang it. Scratch that one.
  • GUMSHOE is a system I’ve really been wanting to try running for a while, and I have a good selection of different products that could be hacked together in different ways. However, none of them really cover the AI or the science-y wizard. No dice on that one, either.
  • Mutants & Masterminds would probably allow a pretty clean PC translation, but the four-color nature of the artwork and writing was causing me cognitive dissonance as I read it, and the prep time would likely be only slightly less intensive than GURPS, though it would probably work in a pinch.
  • D20 Modern has the same prep time issues as Mutants & Masterminds, and also couldn’t handle Egeria.
  • Savage Worlds is a fantastic system, but we just used it for our last campaign, and it too would have some trouble with the AI and the wizard.

Finally, in frustration, I did what I should have done first: asked my gaming group for suggestions. Grant suggested the FATE system, which is ultimately going to be what I’m going to try converting to. It’s both generic enough and narrative enough that it can handle the PCs and an interesting assortment of bad guys, the rules are available free online, which is useful to both me and my players, and it’s flexible enough to handle the specific tone I’m trying to set. I’ve got some time off this week, so I’m going to start the conversion process.

The take-away from my whole ordeal is this: If you find yourself in a situation like this and get stuck, make sure you ask for ideas from other folks as as soon as possible. If you’re stuck, there’s nothing like another person’s brain to get you UN-stuck. Other roleplayers, particularly ones that have played and/or read a lot of different systems, are your best resource for clearing the mental logjam. It’s also not a bad idea to diversify yourself a bit. One of those systems sitting on your bookshelf might be just what you need some day.


Episode 64 – Matching System and Story 1

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Grant and Peter are back, with Fear the Con 8 behind us and new gaming horizons ahead! Grant’s had some major changes in his local gaming group, which prompt some discussion, but soon enough it’s on to our main topic: Picking a system that works best for the kinds of stories you want to tell while gaming. From universal to simulationist to light-weight indie games, we weigh all the considerations we can to help you pick the right game. Plus, some (well-deserved) plugs for System Mastery [sometimes NSFW], and this clever trick for making your own Fate dice!

Scripture: Proverbs 4:6, James 3:17

Irons in the Fire

I haven’t managed to game with other people since I got back from Fear the Con, though not for lack of trying. My regular gaming group has had a “perfect storm” of scheduling conflicts that has gone on for several weeks as various group members deal with the responsibilities, obligations, and inconveniences of adult life. This sort of thing is nobody’s fault – evidenced by, if nothing else, the fact that each individual group member, myself included, is responsible for about the same amount of cancellations as any other. Still, it can get disheartening when we can’t get together and game on a regular basis.

Everyone with something to say about gaming has made the same suggestions over the years: carve out the time, obligate yourself, come up with pick-up games or a separate, lightweight game that can allow for a partial group. Those suggestions are good as far as they go, but sometimes even those pieces of advice don’t work, and it can get disheartening when someone other than the usual busy people can’t make it, which usually leaves you with no pre-planned fallback. So I humbly submit the following advice for when a few too many members of your gaming group need to tend to various other irons in life’s fire.

1. If your gaming group is made up of your friends (and I hope it is – gaming with friends is wonderful), see if you can at least hang out with a few of them and socialize. If you’re lucky enough to live close by, go to dinner, go do something else fun together, hang out and play video games if possible. if, like my gaming group, you’re spread out over three time zones in four different states, see if you can at least get an hour or two on Skype or a Google Hangout with at least one of them. Not being able to game is unfortunate. Not maintaining your friendships can eventually become tragic. Not to be melodramatic or a downer, but losing track of one’s friends is one of the top five regrets of the dying. It’s worth it to let some other, less-important things slide in the service of having worthwhile relationships in your life.

2. If the perfect storm has happened and you’re by yourself but really wanting to game, do some kind of prep that’ll be useful next time. Look over your character sheet (or draw up a clean one if you’ve been putting that off), watch something similar to your game or play a video game that reminds you of it. Sometimes the best you can manage is doing something that keeps you in the same creative or thematic space as the game. It is, however, worth doing a little out-of-the-box thinking if you’re in this predicament. For example, when Grant’s Savage Shadowrun game was going on, instead of just looking for cyberpunk stuff to watch, read, or play, I’d probably have been more apt to watch episodes of White Collar or Leverage for heist ideas. Along these same lines, it can be good to intentionally consume some media outside of your usual genres for ideas. I’ve beaten this drum plenty, but I recommend espionage and crime thrillers in particular for gamers. The characters in those movies are almost always player character types, and you’ll get some fun ideas for things to do at the table watching or reading them.

3. If, on the other hand, you’re experiencing some gaming burnout, take the opportunity to do something completely different. Organize something around your residence, go for a walk, watch something totally unlike the game you’re in, etc. It can be nice to have a palette cleanser every now and then, and it baffles me that we in this hobby are so reluctant to suggest taking a break now and then. There are a lot of things I really enjoy in life, but there’s nothing, literally nothing at all, in my life that I don’t occasionally need a break from. There’s some evidence that variety of experience can help with depression, too, so it pays to switch things up a bit now and again. (If you’re interested in hearing at least a little bit more about that, give a listen to episode #113 of The Art of Manliness Podcast).

4. Most importantly: don’t give up and don’t get bitter about the situation. Once you’re out of your early twenties, responsibility has the disturbing tendency to chase you down and eat your free time. Children, jobs, volunteer obligations, church, illness, and so forth will interfere with your gaming schedule, and more importantly, they will almost certainly interfere with the gaming schedules of everybody in your group. It’s absolutely critical to be mature about these ups and downs, because it is inevitable that even if your life is stable with big chunks of free time, at some point, it will be your turn to be the reason for cancellation.


Bonus Episode 6 – Fear the Con 8 2

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Grant and Peter sat down together—in the same room for the first time in the history of Saving the Game—and recorded a short bonus episode together at Fear the Con 8 in St. Louis, MO! We talked about a lot of games and people, including Mikey Mason [NSFW] and Rev. Derek W. White, but mostly we talked about what we did at the convention and how much fun we had there with the extended Booter family. Enjoy!

Episode 63 – An Introduction to Roleplaying Games (with Rev. Jason D. Wood) 2

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Reverend Jason D. Wood, a full-time pastor and gamer, joins Grant and Peter to help introduce roleplaying games to the curious! Jason writes for The Mad Adventurers Society as The Mad Cleric, giving out gaming advice and life advice for gamers in equal measure, and contributes to the Mad Adventurers’ Potelbat and Potelbat Yalp podcasts. (He’s most accessible on Twitter as @Wood_JasonD.)

Jason joins us for a very special episode: An introduction to roleplaying games for the curious and the uninitiated. As a sort of companion piece to our very first episode (“Are RPGs Evil?“), this episode is designed to be a resource for those who’ve never played before, and want to (or feel the need to) know more about them. We outline the general conceits of RPGs, explain system and setting, discuss why they’re so much fun, and elaborate on some of the positive benefits of roleplaying games. (In particular, we spend some time talking about The Bodhana Group; new listeners should listen to Episode 25, “Therapeutic Roleplaying (with Jack Berkenstock Jr.)” for more on that. They’re awesome.) Finally, we wrap up with some advice on getting started in roleplaying games, whether individually, as a family, or as a church activity.

Scripture: Proverbs 27:17, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 5:27-32, Romans 14:16

Defining “Gamer” 2

Listening to the latest bonus episode of Game Store Prophets got me thinking. (Actually, GSP usually gets me thinking, but this time it got me thinking so hard I blogged about it.) Early in the episode, it came up that there are 1.4 billion gamers worldwide. That can mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people. On the podcast they mention that it includes everything from people playing casual mobile games like candy crush through serious board gamers like Tom Vassel and professional League of Legends players. The term “gamer” also has an interesting connotation to outsiders as well, because to some people, it indicates gambling. It includes console gamers, PC gamers, people playing Magic: The Gathering at the local Grand Prix qualifier, every D&D group since Gygax and Arneson, and maybe even the family playing Monopoly (and trying not to let the game devolve intro fratricide).

The more precise part of me wishes there were more specific terms, but then I hear Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) spoken in Derek “The Geekpreacher” White’s voice in my head and I reconsider. I think maybe having just one banner of “gamer” to sit under is like having one of “Christian” to sit under; it has the potential to unify, rather than dividing.

Still, like “Christian,” the label of “gamer” will give you some basics, but there is a tremendous amount of interesting specificity to tease out when talking to individual gamers. Before I continue, I’d like to call for comments on this one in particular. I’ve met a number of our listeners (mostly at Fear the Con) which has been a great experience, and I’d like to get to know our audience better. So in the spirit of sharing, here’s what it means to me:

Tabletop RPGs: We just put Grant’s Shadowrun game using Savage Worlds rules on hold, and I have started running a GURPS game, but I’ve also played a bunch of d20 variants, FATE, In a Wicked Age, The Trouble With Rose, Ragnarok: Fate of the Norns, and probably more than a few I’m forgetting in my day. I’ve gotten small entries published in two GURPS books and a couple of PDF d20 modern books that were made to raise money for charity after Hurricane Katrina. Most of my gaming these days is via Google Hangouts, and I’d really like to get a regular tabletop gaming group together again at some point, but for the time being, the current situation is what works with my schedule, and I also have an absolutely fantastic group, so I can’t complain too much.

Digital: I am one of those smug “PC master race” guys (no, not really – I just like tinkering and don’t have a traditional living room set-up with a TV, so console gaming would be a serious pain and is also more of an investment than I feel like making). I’ve built my own gaming PC from components several times over and I despair of even making a dent in my game library before I die, much less finishing it all. I enjoy a lot of smaller indie games and “second-tier” titles from companies like Klei. I’m a sucker for game bundles and sales, and I really enjoy games that let me take my time and think about my next move. I’m also a huge fan of story-driven RPGs like Bioware makes. The Mass Effect games are my favorite game series of all time, and I gave almost an entire weekend of vacation to Divinity: Original Sin when it came out. Most of the stuff I play is fairly “serious,” but I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ll play a round of Peggle or Bejeweled every now and then, and I’ll also fire up War of Omens and Card Hunter in my browser from time to time.

Non-RPG tabletop gaming: I played Magic: The Gathering a bunch back in high school (though never competitively) and got out for a long time. I recently got sucked back in by the Duels of the Planeswalkers computer games, and now I exclusively play the Commander/EDH format (though not nearly as often as I’d like). I enjoy board games when I get the chance to play them, but unfortunately, I almost never do. (Though I have convinced my wife and parents to play Dominion with me a few times, which is a lot of fun.)

Okay. That’s me. How about you? What does “gamer” mean to you, and how do you game?

Episode 62 – Animals

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Grant and Peter are back, and talking about creatures great and small! Inspired by M. J. Young’s 2004 Faith and Gaming article “Animals” (written for the Christian Gamers’ Guild), Grant and Peter discuss the wide variety of animals seen in roleplaying games and the real world. Then, we talk about how to use them effectively in your story and setting, and some pitfalls to keep in mind when the focus shifts to pets and other creatures at the table. Plus, we’re going to Fear the Con 8 and you should too!

Scripture: Job 12:7-10Luke 12:6-7Revelation 5:13

Of Finals and Short Blog Posts

This is going to be a short one – this is finals week for me, and while I’ve knocked one down, I still have other on Thursday I’m preparing for. (Two finals for one class! That’s just mean!) In any case, I haven’t had a tremendous amount of time to think about blog topic recently, but I’ll leave you with a couple more pieces of gaming curriculum “Extra Credit” in honor of my finals.

Longmire: An interesting and very well-written cop drama set in modern Wyoming. Sherriff Walt Longmire deals with murders, corruption and limited resources. This show is worth watching for its treatment of small-town dynamics, its characters, and its interesting take on police work. You wouldn’t have to change much to make the setting a post-apocalyptic one instead, and it does a good job of portraying characters that have various levels of respect and affection for each other working together in spite of their differences or failing to work together despite their positive relationship. The books are also supposed to be excellent, but I haven’t tried them, at least not yet.

Anthologies: I’ve plugged the Sojourn series that I’ve been published in a number of times, but any anthology that interests you is going to have at least a few ideas that you can use. I’ve pulled monsters, NPCs, setting elements, and plots from examples I’ve seen in anthologies before, and because the works in an anthology are short, they tend to be dense. Furthermore, if one doesn’t work for you, there’s probably something else in the same book that does.

And that’s going to do it for this week. Next time I’ll be back with a more typical blog post. Good luck to any of you reading this that are also in finals season. May your studies go well and pay off handsomely.

Episode 61 – Fear the Charity and Con Games (with Derek Knutsen)

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Derek Knutsen, co-host of THE ESTABLiSHED FACTS and the mind behind Palegain Press, joins us to talk about charitable activity happening at Fear the Con 8 and some tips on running convention games! Derek has run Fear the Charity events at Fear the Con for several years now, and this year he’s also running Fear the Fruit. He’s also running a canned food drive, an alternate reality game (ARG) for Fear the Charity donations, a charity dungeon crawl at Fear the Con, and more! In short, he’s very busy helping everyone at Fear the Con give back to the broader community, and he’s awesome. While we have him on, we also pick his brain for some advice on running good convention games—basic advice on handling people, play and preparation. Enjoy!

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12Malachi 3:10Matthew 18:20