A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the role-playing game I'm running, The Broken City. We're on a little bit of a hiatus at the moment, while various players are on holiday (the lucky dastards) so it seemed a good time to write a bit more about the game.
Role-playing games can seem a bit of an odd duck to those who've never delved into them. They grew out of more traditional war-gaming (the type where two players line up armies on either side of a board and attempt to destroy each other) which, I suppose, grew out of games like chess, but to my mind, their real strength is as a way of telling stories together. Like improv comedy or a well-rehearsed anecdote amongst friends, role-playing games are about crafting a story that entertains everyone.
However, your audience and your performers are the same people, which leads to some conflict of interest. Everyone wants the story to be filled with intrigue and adventure, betrayal and humour, bitter defeats and hard-fought victories. But when you have spent countless hours building up a character, it can be hard to watch them fail at something, even when it makes for a better story. That's where the rules come in.
There's a huge range of rules systems out there, and the one you pick can hugely affect your style of play. Of course, if you want to run a space adventure game, you'll need a system that gives you rules for spaceships, zero gravity and alien races, but there whatever universe you want to create, there are probably at least a couple of systems you could use. Some are hyper detailed, with rules for deciding your characters height and charts mapping how range affects the accuracy of various weapons, while others can fit their rules on three sides of A4. They might use dice, cards or rock paper scissors to determine things.
In The Broken City, I'm using the World of Darkness system, by White Wolf. World of Darkness is a flexible system meant for contemporary stories with a supernatural bent, usually in a world like ours, but a little worse (hence the name). Anything from Supernatural to Drive could work well within the World of Darkness. As a system, it strikes a nice balance between detail and game flow, which is the trade-off at the heart of most systems. The basic rulebook gives you the foundation for creating characters and running games, and there are various expansions for playing different games - vampires, werewolves, monster hunters and mages.
Mages, or rather Mage: The Awakening, is the game I am using for The Broken City. The rule book is an intimidatingly thick tome, containing a wealth of background information and a huge section on spells and how to create them. But even with this surplus of rules and figures, there were some tweaks I wanted to make.
The idea of certain objects or ingredients being necessary for spells is a fairly common one (think Buffy or Harry Potter) but isn't a huge part of Mage, where magic is a more internal force. However, spell ingredients create a sort of economy within the game - they are something to be traded, bartered for, stolen, or quested after. These are all great opportunities for stories, so I tweaked the rules for extended spells (ones cast over a long time, as opposed to in the heat of the moment) to be stronger if ingredients were used.
There's other examples, but it's a brief glimpse into how changing the rules can change where the story can go. As for changing the background, well. that's a tale for a whole other post...