I’ve put the “Reinventing Pulp” series on hold for a week in order to do a short article for this month’s Blog Carnival, which is all about life and death in RPGs. The series will return next week.
One of the problems with a campaign that spans multiple game systems is that there are parts of the rules systems that form part of the campaign background, whether you realise it at the time or not. Specifically, when a campaign evolves from AD&D or 2nd Ed to 3.x or Pathfinder, two pieces of this incurred background in particular can leap up and bite you.
The first is restricted class levels for non-human races. To be honest, I never understood this aspect of the rules. If it was necessary to balance the benefits given to non-human races, there were so many better ways – the most obvious being an xp penalty that slowed their development such that a human reached 20th level at the same time as the non-human race reached their stated “racial maximum”.
There’s been a lot of discussion about this particular legacy rule lately, with a proposal that it be brought back. There are two blog posts that are especially worthwhile: Demi-Human Level Limits – What Were Those About? and this reply Ancient History – Demi-Human Level Limits responses. When you finish reading this article, they are worth checking out.
The other game limitation is more interesting. Under the old rules, elves cannot be ressurrected. When the game system changes, suddenly they can. When this change occurred, it was a matter of considerable discussion amongst the players and GMs around me. It quickly emerged that there were two consensus opinions regarding the best way to handle the transition.
The more things change
One camp held the position that everything else had changed, why not this? Simply ignore the limitations of the past and pretend that they had never been part of the game.
The more they stay the same
Another maintained the position that this limitation had formed part of the psychology and decision-making of both the players and their characters, and hence was part of the formative fabric of a campaign. This group insisted that the limitations be artificially ‘frozen’ in place for the duration of that campaign and those PCs.
A third path
The debate was quite heated, and I thought both arguements had sufficient merit that neither was compelling. So when, a number of years later, I found myself with a game that was about to make the transition from 2nd Ed to 3rd Ed, I carved out a third path.
The concept was that the PCs are the architects of change within a campaign; at the very least, they have a front-row seat and a certain level of influance over events, at the other extreme, they are the instigators and agents of change. So why not make them the principle operators in this change?
And so I crafted a side-quest for the PCs, to be held in abayence until the first time a PC Elf was killed. The concept was that they would have to create the mythological infrastructure that provided a return path from the elvish afterlife back to the mortal realm, and that this would also (as a side effect) open the door to a new type of Elvish Undead, revealing a few aspects of the relationship between Life, Death, and Undeath within the campaign.
I even ensured that eventually they would have to undertake this side-quest by making its successful completion a prerequisite for the PCs achieving their ultimate goal of becoming Gods. Unfortunately, the campaign shut down before it reached that point, after seven years of part-time gaming; mostly because I no longer had enough free time to run a seventh campaign. Something had to give, and this was the least painful option.
So why write about this now?
It’s only recently occurred to me that there was an implication of this that I hadn’t recognised, and never thought to explore: the fact that for each species which was subject to ressurection, someone within the game world had already done this. Or, alternately, that some species were so weakly-bound to the realm of Death that they were inherantly able to be ressurected.
(Rhetorically) Does anyone else see any story potential in either of these alternatives?
This post isn’t just about the Life, Death, and Ressurrection of characters; it’s actually intended to be about the Life, Death, and Ressurrection of a particular generation of game systems.
To a lot of people, a generational change in their rules system is something to be endured. To others, it’s something to be ignored or avoided altogether. There is an alternative: to look for the opportunities in the change.
A spot of self-defence
Long-time readers of this website – and anyone who glances at the categories list over to the right – may be tempted to point their fingers at me and level accusations of hypocracy, because all my campaigns are still operating with D&D 3.x rules. This is a choice that has been made quite deliberately, and for several reasons, the most important of which I explained in the comments to a previous post “The Quality Of Rules”, part of the (still incomplete) Rules Mastery series, where I wrote:
All too often, when people are assessing House Rules, or even changes to the Official Rules, they operate exclusively on the GNS axis, or they talk about the “flavor” having changed without being able to summarise exactly how and why. That’s because they are using the GNS [Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist] axis and there’s no place on it for genre considerations, so they are reduced to saying “it’s different and I love it because it’s better for the game I want to run” or “it’s different and I hate it because the changes get in the way of the game I want to run” – frequently simplified to the basic reaction with no analysis whatsoever. Those assessing the changes then dive directly into game mechanics and specific changes because there is no tool in their understanding for generalising.
Each edition of a game system occupies a slightly different position on the GNS-and-Genre landscape to the one before it, defining it’s own “comfort zone” in terms of the genres that it can comfortable simulate without rules modification. Some of them will overlap – some won’t, and don’t. I think that’s the source of a lot of the angst felt over the “edition wars” of D&D. From everything I’ve seen and heard, 4e does a better job of focussing on the low-fantasy end of the fantasy spectrum, and it’s better-defined in it’s focus on that niche. It’s geared to shorter campaigns so that characters never get to the point of being capable of the sweeping and epic attributes of a high-fantasy campaign. My tastes run to high-fantasy, and even 3.x with Epic-level characters doesn’t lean far enough in that direction for me; but those rules are closer to simulating the chosen genre of the games that I am running, that can and will take many years to play out, than 4e. So for my games, 3.x is better than 4e.
The emphasis here is on “for my games”. My decision was an enlightened and deliberate one. Does that mean that I’ll never buy a 4e product? Only if I can adapt it to my 3.x campaign, to be honest; and by the time those campaigns are complete (5 years or more from now), I would not be surprised if 5th edition is out. And from all the indications lately – see this article from NewbieDM’s blog, which I find completely plausible – there is evidence to support that expectation. By 2014, 4e will be six years old, not counting the time spent in development prior to release. Even if there weren’t valid game-mechanics/fan-oriented reasons for a new edition by that time, there will increasingly shrill noises coming from the direction of those making marketing and business decisions calling for a new edition.
My choice isn’t for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should reject it without considering the possibilities.
I’ve never yet run a campaign with a deliberate permanent change from one rules system to another built into the plans from day one. But – using the precepts I’ve described in this article – the potential is there. It would simply be a matter of identifying the plot potentials and opportunities that the transition would provide. Generational change in your game system doesn’t have to be a life or death decision for your campaign.
Mike is now on Twitter! You can find him as @gamewriterMike. Why not stop by and say Hi? And, of course, you can always leave a comment if you have something to add to, or say about, this article!