As I begin to prep for a new SF game, I am once again torn by the question of whether to take the time to build the game to fit my own parameters, or whether to take someone else’s prescription and use a published game designed for SF play. It’s not a new conundrum so I thought I would air the question here.
On the one hand, picking a solid generic set of game rules and picking just the right set of parameters to fit my own vision of the far future is probably the more rewarding option in the long term. Taking, for example, the GURPS 4e rules and figuring out which options would best fit my game universe means that I can control all the variables of design and present exactly the kind of experience I want to offer.
On the other hand, that’s time-consuming and requires me to have a reasonably well-sketched out vision of the far future upon which to make the decisions that make the game unique to me. Therefore, taking an existing set of SF rules with a solid pedigree – say, Traveller – means I can just sit down and start working on the situations and challenges of offer straight away. That’s quicker and easier.
The trade-off with a prescriptive set of game rules, that come with hard-baked assumptions about the way SF universe work, is that you have to accept those assumptions up front. In return for having someone else doing the design thinking up front, you get to dive into the enjoyable bit of building characters and putting them into interesting situations.
Most gamers opt for a set of rules that are close to their assumptions about the way the worlds they want to play in work, and get on with play. There’s nothing wrong with this just as long as you don’t mind those assumptions and can happily contend with making small tweaks to rules that you don’t like. The downside is that, for the gamer who wants to operate under different assumptions, you’re going to have to suck up the hard baked ones you’ve got in the rulebook.
For years, I played Dungeons & Dragons. My favourite edition was the 3rd because it came with loads of options, solid rules that covered the sorts of things I like to have rules for, and was readily played (at the time) by most gamers.
The major problem I eventually realised I was having with D&D was that all my worlds essentially operated under the same basic assumptions. This meant that, underneath some superficial surface changes, the worlds were pretty much the same. Same classes of characters, same spells, same assumptions about the big stuff.
Wanting a more bespoke experience requires effort. The tension for me is that, if I was 10-20 years old and had all the time I had as a teenager all over again then, yes, I would happily invest the time needed to build that bespoke world and customise the game rules to fit. But I am in my fifties, working full-time, and generally exhausted at the end of a long working day. Weekends have responsibilities to my wife and family. Time is shorter.
Taking the prescription means I get to play more quickly and with less effort. The cost is sacrificing my desire for the bespoke, the customised, and the unique experience. The question is where on that spectrum, between the completely regular kind of RPG game and the idea of something different, do I want to operate? The truth is that I might have to accept that I can’t quite give the time and effort I want to the next game I run… but I am not sure.
That’s the conundrum: to take the prescription or to invest in the customised game. But the underlying question is nagging at me too. Will the game I build really feel or even be that much different to the kind of game I could run with a ready-made SF set of rules? Possibly not because how creative can you be after another 10 hour working day?
I wonder what I’ll choose in the end?