Sep 222008

So I’ve played a LOT of different games. I own a lot of different games.

I’ve played year long campaigns, as well as one shot games. And everything inbetween.

But one thing never fails. I always return to Runequest.

The specific version may vary.. 2nd edition, 3rd edition, Mongoose. They all have things I enjoy.
But its always what I return to. The baseline if you will.

And I think I’ve finally put my finger on why:

Modern games (and I use the term modern loosely) have a different focus than many older games. In a way, the best way to sum it up is “style over substance”. That sounds terribly derogatory so let me elaborate.
In many newer games, the focus is on the characters and their powers, abilities and ways they can influence things, the story or even the world at large. Crack open a White Wolf book and you’ll find countless pages of disciplines, gifts or charms. Check the new D&D or its predecessor D20 and you’ll find an ever-increasing number of feats, spells, creature abilities and class powers.

The emphasis is on the character and the powers he posses. The colour if you will.

There’s many reasons for this. It obviously appeal to the wish fulfilment we all do, “wouldnt it be awesome if…”  They define and set apart characters mechanically “My guy can shoot lightning” and they give us cool stuff to be excited about.  Those are all good things.

A lot of new games talk about player empowerment, about being able to influence the story directly, sharing the narrative. They often do this by mechanics that let you change details, take over the storytelling or at its simplest form, succeed at a certain dice roll automatically.  Often these things become rewards for actions taken, or even used as a sort of gamble or metagame mechanic.

The reason that these games ultimately don’t have the deep internal logic that Runequest does to me is that they were built around these steps. Often every single piece of the game is built around the ideas of character powers and player empowerment. Look at D&D4 for example. When you strip away the classes, races and monsters, you’re left with very little information.

Look at Exalted. Its all set up to specifically support a certain style of game, in a certain setting.
Look at Spirit of the Century. The epitome of a given playstyle and mood.

What Runequest did though, and to an extent still does is build a framework that is separated from all that.
If you strip away the monsters and magic, the Runequest mechanics are still rock solid. Nothing seems weird or unusual. The game resonates with an internal logic that matches how we expect the world to work.
Most games look very very strange once you strip away the flavour and the powers.  Some will still work, though they will feel devoid of what made them special. Others will work because they are designed to promote certain narrative ideas (like FATE).

But they don’t inherently “make sense” to me. I ran White Wolf’s Trinity for a year, and I still find the dice pool mechanic completely nonsensical. I understand how it works and I understand the effects on the game, but every single time I sit there and count dice, I am reminded I am playing a game.

Games with meta-mechanics like FATE are even more jarring. Rather than increasing the narrative, for me, they create a divide between the narrative and the mechanical play by producing strange dice quirks or effects.

To me, Runequest has always represented the fundamental way things work. Your ability scores affect skills, you improve by using your abilities or taking time to train them, limbs can get hurt or incapacitated, wounds are serious etc.

Once you add in the monsters, magic and people in funny suits, it feels more “realistic”.. .maybe plausible is the right term here.

Because the foundation is solidly grounded in what we know and expect, the fantastic feels like it makes sense. There’s a sense of scale. I know that an axe can seriously hurt somebody, so something doing 3D6 damage is extremely dangerous. I can equate that to something in my head.

This doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed or played other games in the past. I love WFRP, Rolemaster, Traveller, Reign and a bunch of other games. I thought FATE was neat and Heroquest was genius.

But they’ll never be “natural” in the same way.