Sunday, July 1, 2012

Something Old, Something New

Okay, now that I've laid out some of the major differences between old school and new school gaming the question becomes: What am I designing for: Old school or new school?

The simple answer is: New school, while keeping respect for the old school. One of the big criticisms that has been leveled at Palladium is that they are no longer competitive. Not just in terms of the rate that new material is produced, but also in their ability to keep up with the rest of the gaming industry. Say what you like about "forsaking the old in favor of the new and shiny" or "keeping up with the Joneses of gaming", it is costing Palladium customers, and it's that customer that I'm trying to catch with BTR.

The new school "web" approach also helps us avoid one of those old-school traps: The spot rule. I talked about this briefly last month, when I mentioned "rulings that become rules." Along with the inconsistency I mentioned last month, these rules tend to turn up scattered throughout the various books whenever the designer thinks they should apply. There's a spot rule for muscle atrophy under the Glitter Boy OCC in order to justify forcing the pilot out of the Glitter Boy every now and again. The entire set of Crazy Hero tables from Heroes Unlimited (a game I found surprisingly limited) were reproduced as part of the Crazy OCC.

The old school concept of "fair play" makes it very difficult to talk about game balance. Because real life is not fair, the claim goes, there should be no expectation that the game world will be fair either. I would like to point out at this time that real life is also not fun or optional. Since most people have a choice regarding what they do in their free time, they will tend to focus on things that are fun.

And I'm not going to say that randomly rolled stats aren't fun. I think some of the most fun I've had has been playing a Paladin with randomly rolled and not terribly great stats. Although D&D these days lets you place stat rolls where you like, a Paladin character has a lot of bases to cover and something had to give. I wound up putting my low rolls in Strength and Intelligence. That character was a blast to play and it's a shame that the campaign fell apart when it did.

What I will say is that there's a big difference between rolling an 8 or an 18 for PS and playing an SDC or MDC scale character. Especially since the latter is a player choice. The reason that Glitter Boys and Juicers are so popular that they wind up getting new variants and books devoted to them (as opposed to Vagabonds or Rogue Scholars) is because those classes are powerful enough that players are going to pick them over most others.

The other case that people try to make against game balance is that it attempts to make everyone the same. And that's just not true. Game balance thrives on difference. Even D&D4, the most rigorously balanced game to call itself an RPG, was built around a party composed of characters with different specialties (Striker, Controller, Leader, Defender).

A useful definition of game balance is: A game is balanced when every character has an equal and fair chance to participate in the game's primary activity. But in order for that to be useful, we have to discover the game's primary activity. In a game of Vampire: The Requiem, the primary activity is sucking blood and making moral choices.  In D&D, through all of its editions, it is fairly easy to pick out the game's primary activity: Combat. Each class in the game is built to ensure that it has something to do in a combat scene.

The Palladium house system, as a fantasy heartbreaker, shares this feature with D&D. While it is significantly expanded from its roots, the focus on combat has not changed. Much more print space is given to weapons, armor, and vehicles than other items of utility or interest. So naturally, those character types that are more able to kick ass in various ways are going to be more strongly favored.

A slightly more "indie" variant of the definition of game balance is: A game is balanced when every character has an equal and fair chance to be awesome. The value of this definition is that is doesn't assume a "primary activity." In fact, in many of the more indie RPGs, players can choose or create the primary activity for their character and have the means to be awesome doing it. White Wolf's Exalted RPG as well as Evil Hat's Spirit of the Century both allow players to choose powers (Charms for Exalted, Stunts for Spirit) that can amplify any skill a player chooses to a point of epic awesomeness. Even skills like Bureaucracy or Art can be elevated in this way.

So part of the mission of BTR is not just to mitigate the power of the physical powerhouses, but to make character types like the Rogue Scholar fun to play.