It’s the people that matter, not the system

I’ve just come home from day 2 of Genghis Con 2011. Day 1 (Thursday evening) I played a game of Savage Worlds – my first non D&D role-playing game. Today I played a game of D&D 4e Living Forgotten Realms, a GURPS game and a Call of Cthulhu game. I intentionally decided that, with this con, I wanted to broaden my RPG horizons.

So far, the only game that hasn’t been much fun was the LFR game, but I know it’s not because of the system – I’ve enjoyed lots and lots of D&D 4e games before. It’s just that the DM wasn’t that great – not too prepared, running skill challenges in a very dice-rolling way rather than a role-playing way, not being especially creative with monster behavior, etc.

The Savage Worlds game was set in a sort of magical steampunk Victorian era. Our characters were basically trying out to be in something like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. We got to rescue Ada Lovelace and some other people from horrible alien egg implantation. The system was pretty easy to follow once I got the hang of it (a variety of dice come into play, with exploding die rolls). My character had the ability to turn into a huge wolf, and his main “disadvantage” was heroism – he would throw himself in harm’s way, with no attention to his own safety. That was fun to role-play.

GURPS was fun in a different way. Again, the mechanic was simple – roll 3d6 and try to get below your skill number. The GM was running us through a crazy kung-fu movie adventure, and the characteristics that we all had were plenty to give us a ton of role-playing opportunities. We had a sexy lady, a dirty cop, a drunk, a naive butt-kicker, and my character – an African with crazy luck, a stutter and a crippling fear of blood. Once we started discovering boxes of machine guns and explosives (thanks in part to my character’s Serendipity), things went nutty. I wouldn’t want to play like this all the time, but the GM had done a great job of creating interesting characters that were easy to get into.

Call of Cthulhu, much to my surprise, was way cool. I’m not really a horror / Lovecraft fan in general, but I was completely open to trying a game where it’s quite likely that everyone in the party will either go insane or die. I’m proud to say that, right at the end of the session, my character did both! This game mostly uses percentile dice, where you try to roll below a target number. I consistently rolled high on sanity checks, which meant that I kept losing sanity. When I got to the point that my character had to spend three hours nearly crippled by bacteriophobia, I think I really stepped up as a role-player. The whole group was well-developed, and even though we ended up “losing” in the end, I think we were very true to what our characters would do (even if it wasn’t heroic).

What’s the common thread? All of the fun games had great game masters and players, all of whom were enthusiastic about the game. I think maybe a game like D&D4e will be less consistently good with public games because there are so many people who play it, not all of whom are big RPG enthusiasts and not all of whom are really skilled at running and playing great games. With niche RPGs, only the people who are really into the game are playing it, which means that it’s more likely that you’ll have a great group of players and an awesome game master. It’s not that the system is better – it’s just that the random distribution of people is better.

As long as you have great people to play with, it doesn’t really matter what game you’re playing – you’ll have a good time.

4 thoughts on “It’s the people that matter, not the system

  1. For the most part, I agree with you. I’ll play any system, because the system doesn’t matter, it is just a mechanic to facilitate the game. I won’t play every genre, because some just don’t appeal to me and make it hard for me to suspend my sense of disbelief.

    As to “good” games, any game where people enjoy themselves is a “good” game, IMHO. “Good” is a very subjective term and not everyone can be an expert on how to run a game immediately. As a youth coach, I tell my players that if we work as a team and play well, it doesn’t matter if we lose. The only time it isn’t a “good” game is when we defeat ourselves.

    Anyway, glad you had an enjoyable con experience.

    • I completely agree about what makes for a “good” game and that it’s completely subjective. My experience so far (with a very small sample size) is that I’ve personally had a lot of fun at all three non-D&D RPGs I’ve played at the con, but I’ve had a small number (less than 10%) of D&D games in public that were not fun.

      I think D&D4e will remain my system of choice, since I do like the fantasy setting and the tactical combat. But I won’t necessarily have a lot of fun every time I play in public – and I’m okay with that, because I usually will have fun.

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