Saturday, January 26, 2019

System as Physics Engine, System as Narrative Engine

First off, let me apologize, as my terminology may be incorrect in modern gaming theory parlance; I'm not up to date on it. I'll try to define my terms as I go, and get this out of my head.

I've seen a lot of game systems in recent years (FATE, Powered by the Apocalypse) that have been called more 'narrative' in nature. On a linear continuum defined by two opposite poles, this would be one the poles. The opposite pole would be games that are more 'mechanistic' in nature.

Mechanistic game systems' primary priority is to emulate the 'physics engine' of a given world, including perhaps some unspoken rules of that world's genre. In the case of the Hero System, this allows to take damage and recover from it as people do in heroic fiction (books, comics, TV shows, movies), as opposed to how they do in real life. The game rules reinforce the consistency and therefore in-game plausibility of these things happening.

And plausibility -- strongly correlated to suspension of disbelief -- is one of the cornerstones of science fiction / fantasy stories.

Narrative game systems' primary priority appears to be (I've not played that many, and certainly not as long as I've been playing mechanistic game systems) to emulate the character archetypes and plot tropes of a given genre or sub-genre. The rules themselves enable and enforce the actions of characters and the unfolding of the story within certain parameters -- the good ones allowing for a multitude of stories without falling into the trap of the dreaded railroad.

The responsibility for plausibility here lies with the players and the GM rationalizing the unfolding of the story in a satisfying manner.

You'll note that I've steered away from calling either approach 'story-oriented'. To my mind, both are used to tell stories -- narrative ones seem to focus on the narrative flow of the game, while mechanistic ones tend to focus on the plausibility of the events that unfold in the game. Both seem to retain the agency of the players / player characters (for the most part).

With that in mind, some future posts I'll be writing will try to unpack what things I like about each type of system -- and which things I don't. My preference is clearly for mechanistic systems, as these are the ones that I'm most familiar with, and the type that I most strongly associate with RPG gameplay. But I've always been intrigued by different systems and settings in RPGs, so off I go...

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mining the DC TV Multiverse: Opening observations

When I was a young gamer, there was an extra delight in playing a supers game wherein there was a chance you might run into a villain or a hero from one of the established universes.

Certainly, if you were playing TSR's original Marvel Super-Heroes RPG, or the DC Heroes RPG, it was expected as the stats were already provided to you -- and it was expected that you were more or less in the same universe as the one in the comics. But if you were in one of the more generic superhero RPGs, then you expected that some liberties would be taken with the canon.

If it was a mixed universe -- with characters from both DC & Marvel (and perhaps other super-heroic universes), then you wondered how things were different.

For example: What was the REAL story behind supers in WWII (since the two big universes had different reasons why the metahuman population, along with the Olympic-level mystery men, could have ended the war a lot faster)? Did Superman first appear in 1938, and if so, does he look old now? Did Batman influence the appearance of the Moon Knight? Why didn't they find Captain America earlier with folks like the Spectre and Aquaman able to search for him?

And all of this is backstory, of course, not meant to detract from the stories and adventures of your own characters.

The current wave of DC multiverse TV shows (live action, not cartoon), shows that it's not afraid of shared multiverses (hello, Arrowverse) or segregated storylines (Titans, Gotham). Furthermore, they are comfortable  playing around with expectations derived from comic canon (Black Canary AND White Canary? Cisco Ramon?). Of course, the cartoon universe led the way with the classic Batman: The Animated Series -- and the movies have done their number of canon as well (Wonder Woman in WWI, older Batman, younger Superman, etc.).

It certainly has changed the expectations for variance from continuity -- now we're simultaneously looking at how the variances both stay true to the characters and their history, and how cleverly they change them to make them more interesting and engaging on their own, or within the context of the world they've been recreated in.

The bar has been raised (and lowered in some cases), and it's likely to be the same in your RPG's supers universe.