FABLED LANDS - collect the set

Sunday, 12 September 2010

People don’t want to role-play anymore…

But hang on. Is that actually true? My friend and Mirabilis co-creator, Leo Hartas, was telling me about the campaign he ran recently for his son Inigo and pals. It sounded amazing. A ship that sailed on the treetops of a measureless forest, hurled off course when apocalyptic storms swept down. Descending by rope below the canopy, the players encountered shoals of exotic birds darting like fish between the trunks. And something lurked there in the darkness, in the hidden depths of a wood that no human had ever penetrated.

Great atmosphere! Inigo and his friends ate it up, and quite right too. Fantasy is at its best when it shades over into fabulist areas like that. Michel Tournier or Mervyn Peake rather than screeds of yawnsome sociology about orc tribes. Fantasy needs to have a dash of the dreamlike and the strange about it. Like life, in fact.

What about the rules? No rules, Leo told me. Or only a very rudimentary and largely improvised system. Roll a dice and see what it suggests. Carried along by the story, his players didn't want to break the spell by having to do lots of number-crunching and book-keeping.

I know that role-playing isn’t commercial these days. Sales are maybe 5% of what they used to be in the early ‘80s. People would rather log in to World of Warcraft. It’s easier.

Except… Inigo and his mates play WoW, but they were still up for the face-to-face experience and real immersion in the story that an RPG can give you. So I think that part of the reason that role-playing games and gamebooks have faded away is that they’re just too bloody complicated. “Roll two dice, add your stamina score and compare with the opponent’s modified defence factor.” Blah blah blah. It’s an extension of homework.

And why? What’s the point of such convoluted rules if the aim is to have a shared experience of improvised story-creation? You want some kind of rules. Enough to ensure a grandstanding player doesn’t hog all the fun. But those rules don’t need to look like an end-of-term maths test.

Role-playing got stuck in the same sucky whirlpool that comic books did. As sales started to tail off, publishers tried to pump more money out of the remaining customers by narrowcasting – making the experience more and more focussed on a tight hardcore group. But in catering to that group (who probably did prefer a combat system based with modifiers for every different weapon type) they made role-playing far less attractive to the casual crowd. And thereby accelerated its demise.

Arguably this problem is what the whole retro-clone movement set out to solve. But as to that I would say: to become simpler and regain the freedom of inspiration: move forward, don't look back. I was there for Dungeons & Dragons the first time round, and slogging around a dungeon with a half-elf in saggy tights was always pretty lame. Really, one dungeon expedition is quite enough, then you need to move on. What was exhilarating in the early days was the spirit of improvising adventures, of having fun as a group unfettered by stacks of rules. That comes from the players and the setting, not the mechanics - though the wrong mechanics can sure get in the way.

In The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn and Hal Iggulden wrote of role-playing:

“There are few inventions of the twentieth century that can combine entertainment with imagination so well. In a very real sense, it is a training ground for the imagination and, in particular, a school for plot and character.”

I would love to see the Iggulden brothers create a simple, cheap, accessible role-playing game that (like Dragon Warriors back in the mid-1980s) would be sold in bookshops and that would attract a whole new generation of players. A game that wouldn’t be all about arithmetic and dice-rolling but that would put the focus on imagination, acting and a shared narrative. And hopefully nary a mention of orcish tribal customs.

32 comments:

  1. I hear you! People get too caught up in "Let's run the entire "Q" series back to back!" to realize that the strength of their hobby is the fact that you can do whatever you want, and there doesn't need to be rules for it. It's why I still prefer the older editions- it's not all about dungeon crawls, it's about exploration and discovering stuff and having a great time with your buds. It's not about playing the game as Gygax would have played it, assuming you weren't gaming with him, that is.

    Best sessions I ever have are the ones where we all approach the table with ideas and see where it goes. To that end, I recommend the free game DONJON so heartily that it's absolutely insane. Want to see how creative your players really are? Play a game where any fact, situation, or complication is up for grabs by any player including the DM and see where you go.

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  2. Something I have been thinking about as well. I have run entire games in the past using nothing but a D6 and having the players track nothing other than equipment and health.

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  3. I had one entire game where nobody had a sheet, just a verbal description of their character, and the only roll we did all evening was by flipping a coin. The more you can streamline the rules, the easier it is for everyone involved to free up their imagination. That's when the group can improvise a really unexpected roller coaster of a session.

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  4. Yup, some of the best games I've run have been 100% ruleless...no dice, no rock-paper-sissors, no coins...nothing but me as a storyteller and the players playing their characters. I ran a sci-fi game where the players only had a physical description of their characters to go on..."you are 5 feet tall with a halo of rippling energy in place of hair".

    These days bulky rules just make it harder to play a system and therefore the attached setting. I think that's why WW was so successful, they coupled a relatively straightforward system with a setting that appealed to a lot of people.

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  5. There's also a big difference between rules that set out to mathematically model an action the player is attempting and rules that just aim for a quick but demonstrably fair resolution and leave the player to interpret what happened after the roll.

    The former type of rules always take ages as players are saying, "I'm going to jump up on the table, that's +3 for my acrobatics skill, allowing a -1 for the puddles of beer, then I leap at the guy, +2 for being higher and +1 for having his back to me..." Argh. Where you could just say: "I attack the guy. A double 1! What happened was, I leapt on the table and from there I did a flying tackle..."

    One approach encourages improv, the other grinds the game to a halt every time a rules lawyer gets a bee in his bonnet.

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  6. Hi Dave

    A slightly unrelated post, but wanted to bring people to attention to the new Fabled Lands group on Facebook:

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=124772550907224&ref=ts

    Thanks to the Yahoo FL Group for pointing it out!

    Alberto

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  7. Thanks, Alberto. And everybody should bookmark that right now, because there are going to be some *big* FL announcements there starting - gosh, I think maybe starting tomorrow!

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  8. Wow! Can't wait - have started to get back into my fabled lands books in preparation. I am hoping that the news involves a serpent king and a domain :) Oh and some lone and level sands would be nice too :)

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  9. Drake, my lips are sealed, though I will say that Frank Johnson, the head of Fabled Lands LLP, was throwing those same words around last week. He might even have thrown in a labyrinth and some legions :)

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  10. Were the words Russ & Artwork also thrown around by any chance?

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  11. As luck would have it, Alberto, I just emailed Russ. We'll see what he says.

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  12. Good points, though I should mention that one of the other reasons I believe crunchy rules tend to oust simpler systems is that strategic analysis is easier than narrative imagination for many groups. Good storytelling does not come naturally to everyone, and without a strong GM, improvised story-telling can be as much of a challenge to one group as convoluted rules are to another.

    Ideally you need a good balance between the two - a system that is streamlined enough to not interrupt or bog down the story, but provides enough tactical depth to keep the strategic players engaged.

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  13. That sounds like great (promising) news!

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  14. Wayne, although I talk about roleplaying as improvised storytelling, I emphatically don't mean by that the kind of game where everybody is self-consciously contributing to fashion a narrative. That strikes me as a very sterile exercise.

    What works better in my experience is when each player is concentrating on their own character's goals and foibles, without the slightest regard for co-operating to create any kind of group activity (unless that's what the character wants).

    That way, nobody starts feeling overawed by the need to think ahead and plan authorially - they're just playing in the moment. Even the referee is just going with the flow, allowing them to break his scenario if he's been foolish enough to over-prepare one. Then the story *emerges* - and in fact nobody should even think of it as a story until they come to look back on it. Like when you throw a ball, there's no rule of the universe that says, "this ball will follow a parabolic curve", there are just instant-by-instant rules about kinetic and potential energy that, when they've all been processed, end up having created a parabola.

    I don't think this type of improv is too much of a challenge to an average group of human beings because it's what we do most of the time in real life. The story that you see in retrospect may not be structured like a Steinbeck novel, but it doesn't have to be. It can be as aimless as a soap opera. The fact that players pushed it into the shape it took from the inside is what makes it special to them. Those are the games I enjoy playing in the most. I have to say that they usually kick in after the strategic players have packed up and gone home.

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  15. Dave, it would be interesting to know where you stand as Dragon Warriors creator on the rules discussion on the DW Wiki.

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  16. It's a different question, Hugh: what system should be used for Legend and what kind of system might sell nowadays in bookstores the way original Dragon Warriors did. The latter has to appeal to about ten times as many people, which is why I think the Iggulden brand couldn't hurt.

    As for the DW rules debate - I would have thought my views were pretty clear by now. 2nd edition DW was a treat for people who grew up with original DW, but the game needs to attract new players if it is to survive. Personally I'd like to see a new version that reflects my own idea of Legend a little better, but we only know that 2nd edition DW wasn't commercial, not whether a revamp and/or new rules would be more commercial.

    The final decision as to what actually happens will need to be sorted out between Fabled Lands LLP and whoever takes over the DW license from Magnum Opus Press, though I'm sure they will get plenty of ideas from the lively debate on the Wiki.

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  17. Is there a book for people who want to do a rule less RPG which gives ideas of settings and adventures or skills that peole who take part in such an activity need?

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  18. I think there are some freeform RPG books that presumably consist of scenarios and characters. Although the best places to swipe adventures I find are movies and novels ;-)

    Further to Wayne's point, I should have added that combat is of course a form of story-creation too - and (in the form of sport) is the earliest form of drama. But the problem of combat in roleplaying is that it's such an easy part of the story to obsess over that it can scupper the chance of building up more interesting narratives. That's why I prefer an interpretive combat system to a fully simulatory one. It's quicker and it keeps the overall flow going better.

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  19. Øystein Evensen14 September 2010 13:38

    I come from a social context in Norway where roleplaying is very much alive and well. Gamebooks, sadly, do no enjoy the same popularity, but some of us try to keep also this genre alive and fresh. In this regard I and a friend have somewhat adapted Fabled Lands into two-player gamebooks. We travel together most of the time, I as a wayfarer and he as a priest. It might be considered cheating, but we have made changes so that the quests are not too easy. All enemies appear in twice the numbers, some difficulty rolls we both have to make (and if one fails, we both fail) others only one of us have to make (I do all the talking), and it works quite well. In the expansions, do you have any plans to make quests designed for more than one player? There might not be a market for it, usually you either play with a gamemaster or you play alone, but I find the concept of two-player gamebooks to be quite enjoyable, especially when none are in the mood to narrate.

    We have always loved Fabled Lands for it's unique abbility translate some of the freedom and openess of conventional role playing games to the usually very limited format of a gamebook. But alas, the the world was not complete. That's why I must tell you how thrilled I am that we finally might see a completion of the series. I'm a bit of a johnny-come-lately to the series compared to a some others here, but I have waited for this for at least eight or nine years, and especially since Mark J. Popp informed me that you were willing to complete it. As the years passed I must admit that I lost a little hope, but you have rejuvenated my faith. Kudos if you manage to pull this off!

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  20. On reflection I should have just simply said that some people find role-playing quite challenging, as opposed to roll-playing where the game is an exercise in tactics (rather than talk about story - I didn't mean to suggest games of direct authorial control). I agree that the story should be a by-product of the world, the scenario, the characters and the dice.

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  21. Øystein, have you tried the Blood Sword gamebooks that I wrote with Oliver Johnson? You can play those solo or with up to three friends, in much the same way it sounds like you're using the FL books.

    Wayne, it was a point well worth making and I don't suppose it will ever be resolved. In my own group, we have some players who embrace the idea of being able to do absolutely anything and others who wait to be told what "tonight's adventure" is. Usually the latter are just waiting for the next bout of dice-rolling. As an agnostic, I don't care about whether people have fun My Way - just as long as they *are* having fun!

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  22. Øystein Evensen14 September 2010 17:03

    I have Kingdoms of Wyrd, but I still haven't gotten around to buying the other books in the series. Allthough the story in these books is great, Blood Sword is more of the linear type of gamebooks and we prefer the free-roaming aspect of Fabled Lands. In this way the Dual Master books, particularily Blood Valley, that Jamie Thomson wrote with Mark Smith are quite good, but they are short and we have played throught them so many times already that we are naturally looking for something new. But the fact that they stopped publishing multiplayer-gamebooks after 1988 suggests that there wasn't that big a market for them in the first place, so we might be looking in vain. I just thought I should get the idea of multiplayer-quests or campaigns for Fabled Lands out there to see what sort of respons it got, in case there are others into the idea.
    Anyway, our current system works for us and we look forward to any new adventures that might come in the fabled Harkuna. We will try out the RPG as well as soon as this is available.

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  23. Hey Oestein ! Since you - like me - don't live in an (officially) English-speaking country, you may be glad to know that Blood Sword gamebooks can be downloaded through Torrent from the Underdogs database. In France, I could only buy the first and the last book of the series in a bookstore, I got N°4 as a second-hand and had to download the rest for I could not find them elsewhere.
    In France, we had the Défis & Sortilèges series. The 4 first books allowed a multi-player game with different characters in the same universe. The first book can be downloaded legally, the three others are not yet available.

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  24. Interesting discussions as alwyas...

    Dave, what do you mean by "That's why I prefer an interpretive combat system to a fully simulatory one."? Could you explain those two systems?

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  25. A good example, Joakim, is our homegrown Tekumel game system. You get to choose between all-out attack, all-out defense, or half and half. Also, if you defend successfully against an attacker who would have missed, you can riposte. This means that players are making decisions on a quick, abstract level before they roll the dice ("I do two half parries against the two opponents") and then it's up to them to put a story interpretation on what the dice dictate as happening.

    So in that example, say both opponents miss and the player made both parries. Then he hits with two immediate ripostes. But he could interpret that as: "I duck between them and they hit each other." The dice and the rules give you the end result, but the player owns the interpretation.

    Whereas take that situation in GURPS. There you've got stacks of possible combat manoeuvres. To get that same outcome of ducking so they hit each other, you'd actually have to plan it in advance and make a whole string of near-impossible rolls to succeed. Hence you wouldn't even try - you'd go for one of the regular manoeuvres like selecting from a CRPG menu, and the fights as a consequence are never as dramatic.

    So GURPS is a simulatory system - you decide exactly what you want to happen, and the system models the probabilities. Whereas in the Tekumel example, you begin with an almost abstract (though still tactical) decision and you improv what happened between that point and the end result. Not only is the interpretive system quicker, it leads to far more interesting and varied results.

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  26. Dave, what a brilliant explanation! It sort of made my mind 'click' and I realise why I dislike certain kind of RPG rules and love others. With the interpretive system even combat is part of the story, not a layer on the story (and a quite boring one unless you like combat to be very technical...).

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  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  28. "A good example, Joakim, is our homegrown Tekumel game system. You get to choose between all-out attack, all-out defense, or half and half. Also, if you defend successfully against an attacker who would have missed, you can riposte. This means that players are making decisions on a quick, abstract level before they roll the dice ("I do two half parries against the two opponents") and then it's up to them to put a story interpretation on what the dice dictate as happening.

    So in that example, say both opponents miss and the player made both parries. Then he hits with two immediate ripostes. But he could interpret that as: "I duck between them and they hit each other." The dice and the rules give you the end result, but the player owns the interpretation."
    :)
    Dave, you are aware that there are systems that work exactly the way you described, right ;)? That's the default in ORE and Mongoose Runequest 2, Talislanta and BoL can be played either way, and there are probably a couple others I can't think of at the moment.
    Also, in my limited experience, the real "tactical" players are more than happy to improvise, if the system doesn't make such attempts a sub-optimal option.
    With respect,
    AsenRG

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  29. Oh yes, I'm aware there are lots of systems that work the way I described. I was just using that as an example of an interpretive system and comparing that to other systems that try to model everything. Because roleplaying began as an offshoot of wargaming, the whole simulatory (and often combat-heavy) style got built in from there and it took time for interpretive systems to evolve. But sure, they have been there since the mid-80s at least!

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  30. Yes, but I want to add something. The approach you described is not opposed to either the "simulatory" nor the "tactical" approach to roleplaying. Indeed, it can often simulate real fights better, in my very humble opinion, and Mongoose Runequest is recognised as being tactical.
    Same goes for combat heavy, some grittier systems actually lead to less fights.
    Bottomline, it all depends on what the players want! You are not going to get improv out of the people who don't bother describing your actions now.
    And I agree, there are many, many people that would make great roleplayers, but the RPGs still have to reach them. I don't want to lay blame for it at anyone, just hope that your approach will work better. Allowing for interpretations actually is a nice step in this direction, but then you still have to reach them somehow.
    With respect,
    AsenRG

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  31. Even in my own group there are people who are less interested in getting into the skin of an imaginary character (which is what I like) and more interested in mastering the complexities of the rules so as to win every fight. Well, everyone should enjoy the game the way they want. There's no right or wrong way to roleplay. However, when I see the minis coming out and people focussing too much on combat mechanics, I think I see why the hobby is rapidly collapsing to a singularity. So maybe a looser, more interpretive style would reach a wider audience... We can only try!

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  32. Agreed, but again - numbers help the roleplaying, it's some people that spoil it;).
    If I understand the number-crunching, I will just make a more competent warrior, and this will allow me to have the system confirm his image as a veteran. And curiously enough, most warriors in RPGs start as veterans!

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