In 2011, I ran a short campaign using the Solar System RPG rules.
A while ago Harald posted on Google+ and wasn’t too sure about the system. We had talked about the Solar System RPG before and so I asked him what had made him change his mind. After all, he had done the German translation of the system. Harald turned the question around and asked me instead: Looking back at the game I ran from character generation to transcendence, what had worked well and what had not?
I want to preserve what I said back then on my blog instead of loosing it in the depths of Google+:
Without thinking about it too long, it seems to me that the system is not quirky enough for me. If the rules are too simple, to unified, then results end up being predictable. With results I’m referring to the game experience at the table. With D&D and other traditional systems, it’s hard to figure out how your game play will change. There are weird spells, weird monsters, all of them with little extra rules that cover their specialty. In their totality, the systems are not rules-light, even if some of them such as the old school D&D variants have simple character generation.
I think this is also related to Changing Gameplay Over Time.
I don’t have much D&D 4E experience, but I’ve seen people complain online about the perfect progression of character’s abilities and monster’s abilities. Old versions had asymmetries over time such as attack bonuses growing faster than armor class, save or die effects eventually dominating hit points.
Furthermore, non-quirkiness promotes abstraction. Abstract combat, abstract conflict resolution, and I’m wondering whether as a gamer, I might prefer more grounding. I’ve heard the same argument from other people, too. Sometimes it is also discussed under the label of Dissociated Mechanics. I end up not liking the abstraction of chess and prefer the speculations at the table that come with such questions as “what do you see when invisible people walk through water” or “can the fire reach me around the corner?” If you have quirky rules such as how fireballs work, then you can draw conclusions as to what happens if obstacles block the fireball’s path and use them in play. If the system is very abstract, then we roll first and interpret or explain the result afterwards.
The end result, therefore, is that the game felt a bit blander than before. The story felt like epic high level D&D without all the pain that high level D&D 3.5 would add, but the actual game experience felt blander than the simple Labyrinth Lord games I like to run.
The rules of the Solar System RPG role-playing game has some interesting advice on how to prepare an adventure. The rules were extracted from The Shadow of Yesterday, which also has a section on designing an adventure. Here’s an extract of what it says:
I take out a sheet of paper and write down the character’s names on it, each in a separate corner. I write down all their Keys around them, and the Secrets they use the most and their best abilities. Then take these notes and think of how this bits o’ character can work into an adventure. You don’t have to hit everything, but hit at least one Key and one other thing per character. Make up some non-player characters that hit these things. […] What do your friends like? […] What do you like in a story? Put some in. […] Key Scenes should be tense, have multiple outcomes, and force players to make a decision for their characters. “Discovering the princess is trapped in a high tower,” “meeting the overlord,” and “confronting the wild beast” are good Key Scenes, as each can result in multiple outcomes and do not put restrictions on what the player decision is for her character. […] Wait for pauses in the game, moments where the players don’t really know where to take things. Then make something exciting happen to one of their characters. They’ll react, and you can sit back again. If the players take stuff in a direction you didn’t expect, be agile. Rewrite your concepts on the fly to fit in the direction the game’s moving. Remember this: nothing in the game exists until a player character interacts with it.
– Clinton R. Nixon, The Shadow of Yesterday
Here’s the result of following this sort of advice for preparing tomorrow’s session. First, I write the player character’s names along the edge of the page. I don’t write down keys and secrets because by now they have so many that looking it all up is difficult. But I know this: one is a vain fighter, one is sorcerer that is always at the forefront, one is a historian, one is an elf that only recently broke free from his dragon overlord, and two low-key elves. They want to stop the foul wizard Onomur that is pumping the black blood of the slain demon lord from beneath Great Roaring Jungle into the area under Dangerous Jungle. The “dungeon” I prepared consists of a funky drawing that acts a lot like Peter Mullen’s Laboratory of the Asmodean Techno-Mage: a visual inspiration, no spacial map or anything like that. In addition to that (I always like to prepare at least two or three things), Galadriel wants to bring back White Tigers. I provided a rumor as to where they might be found in the last session and this session will have a pointer to the first of a sequence of stages leading them there. It may look like a railroad but I hope I’m flexible enough to adapt to other solutions my players think of. In addition to that, it’s a sandbox and thus they might decide to follow-up on the rumors at some other time. I also don’t know how the various stages will get resolved. My hope is that these are some of the Key Scenes.
I also prepared some stats for foes, opposition for all the key scenes. For Solar System, this is easy. Pick the most important abiliy. If you can’t think of one, use the monster name as it’s “essential” ability. 1 is weak, 2. is competent, 3. is heroic (this is generally the maximum for player characters), 4. is mythic (if players use stats in this range, there’s a danger they are taking the risk of transcending – utterly achieving their end and ending their active involvement in this campaign), 5. is supernatural. Pick a few more abilities if you feel like it. Assign pool points to indicate their resilience: 0–2 is goblins, 10 is where player characters start, 15-20 is what I have been using for campaign-level bad guys. Assign gifts such as magic schools or other interesting feats. The player characters might get a chance to learn these, if they have the necessary points to buy them and if they manage to befriend the opposition.
That’s basically it. Very different from how I usually prepare my low-level old school D&D games using Labyrinth Lord rules.
I’m not sure what to do. I’ve switched the Sunday game from D&D 3.5 to Solar System RPG. At first I wanted to switch to Labyrinth Lord, but one player expressed his reservation and so I looked for something else. Having played Lady Blackbird and having played Solar System once, I knew that I was interested.
Coming Sunday will see the third session. I’ve used the adventure preparation method suggestion in the rule book: on a blank piece of paper, put the player characters in the corners, add two or three interesting abilities, skills, gifts or paths to help you remember, and fill the paper itself with events, locations, people – anything you feel like adding. Add connections between the various elements until every player character is directly connected to at least three things.
This is supposed to provide the support structure for your improvisation as “Story Guide”.
I’m not sure I like it.
I think the word “Story Guide” is giving it away. It’s not quite a railroad, but I feel like I’m preparing to railroad the game. I wonder why this doesn’t happen in my Labyrinth Lord games.
Perhaps—and I had not realized this before—I’m missing wandering monster tables! Why is that? I’m not sure. Perhaps the list of wandering monsters is too long for me to organize events into a nice little tree of four or five scenes.
We’re still playing on the same map, thus I am falling back on a lot of D&D lore. But this grounding in D&D is not helping. We have pixies and orks, goblins riding on ferrets and a red dragon. Perhaps this mixing of D&D background and Solar System rules is leading to my cognitive dissonance?
I feel like I’ve been thoroughly trained in the ways of D&D. I like not only wandering monsters, but numbers appearing, their stats, the treasure tables. All of these help me generate the world without feeling too responsible about it.
When I’m not using D&D, I feel like I’m designing everything. It’s a choreography. Every hex has one encounter at most. Every encounter is potentially significant for the narrative. In terms of the current adventure (“kill the red dragon”) this means that the temple of Set, the snake men, the pixies, the goblins—all of them are clearly obstacles to prevent the party from reaching the dragon. If they weren’t, then in terms of the Solar System rules, there’d be no need for conflict, no need to talk, no need to roll dice. That’s the vibe I’m getting, anyway.
What are the specific Solar System rules that generate this situation?
As I read over the list, none of these points seem too compelling. It seems to be all in my head. I wonder why I’m feeling unable to run the kind of game I’d like to run. I’ll report back next week.