Love the setting, hate the game!

I think we’ve all gone through it. We hear about it and we are intrigued… We finally get it to it and we love the concept… But, when we get to actually doing it, we hate it! What? I’m talking about games; get your mind out of the gutter!

All kidding aside, who hasn’t purchased a game, thrilled by the concept, loved the “fluff” and hated the “crunch”? (Bad enough I used those dreaded terms, but they are useful.) Some concepts are hard to translate into game terms, other times the game design and the story development don’t seem to come together. As much as we like to think game design is a science, getting all the right elements to come together and capture that spark that makes a great and successful game is more like art. Well art and a lot of luck. Look at all the great games that never quite made it.

I realize that the topic of this post is totally subjective; a terrible system for me may be your most beloved game. So with that caveat let me begin…

RIFTS

I admit it, I played Rifts, and I played it a lot! In fact I played Rifts, Heroes Unlimited and Robotech for many years. Is there a support group? But I digress…

When Rifts came out it was, in my teenage mind, revolutionary. A system that mixed magic, technology, with giant robots, supernatural beings and dragons, it was like being a kid in a toy store. I loved it and purchased book after book. To this day I still think Kevin Siembieda, and all the writers that have worked on the game through the years, had some great ideas. But somewhere along the like, actually around the time the Coalition War Campaign was published, I realized that despite the developments in game design and theory, Rifts was pretty much the same game I had been playing for years.

Mind you there is nothing wrong with sticking to a game you like and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, but when I looked at the game I realized the system no longer met my needs or expectations. It seemed unwieldy, needlessly complex in some areas, utterly simplistic in others. I came to the realization that I loved the setting but hated the system.

Every now and then I toy with the idea of actually running a Rifts game, either with the original system or trying out an adaptation. I’ve considered using the Tri Stat dX system, originally published by Guardians of Order, D20 Future or even the Star Wars Saga System.  But then I get to thinking and I can’t divorce the setting from the rules.

I had read all the horror stories about Siembieda (be they true or not that’s not for me to say) and when I went to Gen Con in 2007 I thought I’d  go by the Palladium booth and as a fan kindly tell him what I thought about his game. When I got there I shook hands and met a truly nice and agreeable fellow, we talked very briefly, but he seemed genuinely interested and so happy about the game that I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I can live with the fact that the Palladium system is not for me. If you like it, kudos, I still hold hope for a new and truly revised edition of the game.

UNDERGROUND

This cyberpunk supers game from the early 90s really captured my imagination. Underground was published by Mayfair Games and despite comparisons to various deconstructionist comics of the late 80s in the Wikipedia page for the game it always reminded me of the Frank Miller comic Give Me Liberty.

The book’s presentation, art, and the supplements that followed all went a long way to maintain a feel for the game that drew me into the game’s dystopian vision of the future. Now, like any near future game of the time it seems dated, but back in the 90s the social commentary seemed spot on. As much as I liked it I only rolled up a character once and we played one quarter of an adventure. Why you ask? Well the system of course!

Underground used the Mayfair Exponential Game System originally developed for the DC Heroes game. I played DC Heroes but I never really “got it”. I managed to grasp the basics but the nuances of the system escaped me. It didn’t work for me in DC Heroes game and it did not work in Underground. The system was sound, it just seemed needlessly complicated. As much as I loved the setting the rules kept me from enjoying it. So I never played it.

I guess for a game I truly liked I could have tried harder but these were the 90s; there was an innovative game out every month so I moved on to the next shinny new game, but I still keep the game and remember it fondly. And last but not least…

TORG

I remember the teaser ads in Dragon Magazine; I just knew this game would be something special. I think this was the first big release role playing game promotional campaign I was caught up in. I waited with batted breath for the release and on the day it arrived I got the boxed set, the adventure and the first novel. I had TORG in my hands. The game used cards to allow players a measure of control over the story, it mixed different genres in an internally consistent way, and the meta-plot was engaging. This would have been a great game, if I only got the rules.

I tried, but my teenage mind could not really grapple with it. Now on hindsight I realize I got most of it, but I felt I could not bring it all together, at the time it was overwhelming. I read the first installment of the book trilogy and fell in love with the story. I got most of the supplements published for it and even tried a couple of adventures, both as a player and DM, but it never quiet felt right. So I gave up on TORG and moved on.

But this was one setting I could not give up on. When they came out I never managed to buy the last two installments of the novel trilogy and a few years ago I found them at a used book store during a business trip. I read them, they were not up to the quality of the first novel (which was no masterpiece of literature by any means, but far superior to the next two books) but they reignited my passion for the game and back in 2008 I ran a prequel to the TORG storyline using D20 Modern.

I was very happy; it was like finally getting to meet a long lost friend. D20 was probably not the best fit but we managed and one player called it the best game of Mage that was not Mage that he ever played and to me that sounded like high praise. I still hope to revisit the game, but I’ll probably be using Savage Worlds and this excellent TORG conversion available online.

This was one instance where my dislike of the system did not stop me from enjoying the setting! I am so happy to finally put all those TORG rulebooks to good use.

So which are the settings you love but you hate the rules for? I’d certainly like to know…

17 thoughts on “Love the setting, hate the game!”

  1. For me, Maelstrom Storytelling. The setting of a fallen, shattered, dimly-remembered empire and civilizations rising within an ever-shifting reality is quite compelling, but it's tied to a system that reminds me of the worst aspects of FATE and the old Mind's Eye Theater LARP mechanics. I think it would work a lot better using Everway.

  2. TORG held my interest but than when I opened the box and saw the cards my heart sank. I really hate rpgs with gimmicks. If I wanted games with cards or gimmicks I'd play a CCG… or better yet Poker. Seeing rpgs with tile sets mintaures and cards make the game seem a table top version of a video game… but hey that's just me.

  3. I completely agree about Rifts, but for me the biggest disappointment has been Houses of the Blooded. I love the story of the ven and their crazy, tragic lives… but I find the system attached to be painfully unplayable.

    Now that I think about it, I had a similar feeling about 7th Sea…

  4. I bought alot TORG handbooks in the last months and I love the setting. So many possibilities. *g* (yeah, some insider, eh?!)

    But to understand the rules of mixing realities, possibility storms, etc is not easy. I dind't got half of it after I read through the book for the first time and am quite sure I'm still short some 30% after the second.

    But I will play this game… no matter what. I love it! Shatterzone (same publisher, nearly same engine) rocks as well, btw.

  5. Rifts/Palladium is the system I love to hate as well. There is something incredibly appealing about it and I still buy books on a regular basis. I love reading the books, I just can't stand running the game.
    I'm with you, despite the negative stories I've heard about Mr. Siembieda, when I met him at Gen Con several years ago, he seemed like the nicest guy in the world. Everyone associated with Palladium ended up being a great group of people. Some of my favorites to talk to at the con.
    I had never played any Palladium game at that time, but I had had my eye on Rifts for quite a while. So I decided to grab a copy. I spent quite a while that year talking with what seemed like everyone from Palladium and the one thing that I kept hearing over and over was that most people just house-rule the heck out of the system.
    That should have sent up a red flag, but I bought the book anyway. I enjoyed reading it a great deal, and still do, but when it came time to running the game, I just couldn't do it. My group at the time hated it. Not the setting, just the rules. So I just use the actual Palladium books for reference and run the game in d20 Modern/Future. I may never run a game using the actual rules, but I just can't help buying more Palladium books. I enjoy reading them too much.
    Next to complaining about WotC, complaining about the Palladium system is probably one of the most common things shared by what seems like a majority of gamers. You would think that hearing so many people cry for an updated version of the rules would have some impact.
    Although a freelancer once told me, a while back, that he was working on a Rifts lite and I recently saw a discussion about that very same topic on the Palladium boards, but I've heard nothing official as of yet. I frequent those boards just so I can find out about new Palladium releases. Like I said, I can't help myself.

  6. @Rhetorical Game: really? I really enjoyed the game, and the system – with all its modifiers on the fly seemed pretty engaging. Also, it allows incentives for player attention and participation…

  7. The Rifts setting has potential, if you strip out a lot of the junk, there is an interesting story there. But, agreed, the system is a total dog's breakfast.

    Haven't thought of Underground in ages. The only thing that stuck with me from that game was the Tasty Ghoul cannibal fast food franchise ("I'm a people person!").

    TORG I like. I have run TORG, played TORG, even had a few monsters published in one of the books. I also think I just ignored a few things in the system that annoyed me. (And Mana Junkie, I thought the cards worked just fine for what the game was trying to do. Sure it was a 'gimmick' but one that tried to get the players more involved in the action.)

    Rhetorical Gamer, Houses of the Blooded, yeah, not your normal RPG at all. Requires the right group and the right mindset to play and even then . . . And totally agreed about 7th Sea, which was a game I wanted to love.

  8. Hey Sunglar. A couple months ago I adapted Stargazer's Gears system to a fairly neat little Rifts adaptation. Get Michael to toss you the PDF along with my e-mail, I'd love to have some veteran Rifts players take a look over it and help me refine it a bit more.

  9. The Masterbook rule set, which is based off the Torg rule system, is IMO the best rule system out there, bar none. I will agree the mish-mash of possibilities and how they all interacted with each other made the Torg system too cumbersome to play efficiently.

    As for the cards, they were wonderful. In one pull of a card you had initiative, as well as things that affected the flow of the round's combat. It kept a fight dynamic and interesting. No looking up charts to see what happened in each round, it was all on one card for all to see. I saw it more about a chart coming to you rather than you going to a chart.

  10. The first thing that comes to mine mind when I think about this is Shadowrun. I love the compination of cyberpunk and fantasy, but I never really liked the system all that much. I don't know what it is about it, but it just never really sat right with me for some odd reason.

    However, I still play on running a Shadowrun game with either d20 Modern or Savage Worlds because the setting is just too cool to pass up.

  11. Yeah — I've actually discovered that I have this problem with a lot of John Wick games. I love what he creates but I've never enjoyed the rules to any of his games.

    HotB was the first FATE-style game I ever played and after looking into the others, it's really not for me and mine. I won't derail the conversation but I'm definitely not in the FATE camp. Made me super-disappointed that the Dresden Files RPG was a FATE system…

    @Cody — Have you tried Shadowrun Anniversary Edition from Paizo? It takes all that's good about the older editions of Shadowrun but really streamlines the dice mechanics and the game runs very smoothly at the table. If you're only used to the older editions of Shadowrun, I'd recommend giving the newest version a try.

  12. @Rhetorical Gamer-I haven't tried the Shadowrun Anniversary Edition, but I have heard of it. The reason I haven't tried it because I'm kind of short on money at the moment (College has created a black hole for money in my pocket). When I get some spending money, I might check it out.

    I also agree with you on Houses of the Blooded. I liked the concept of the game, but the rules has always felt a little weird to me. I will run a FATE-style game because it can be fun, but I will only do it for a one-shot or a mini-campaign because I would get frustrated with it after a long period of time.

  13. Great topic! It just goes to show how completely different some gamers are on what appeals to them! One person can hate a game system for the exact same reason that another person loves it.

    I agree with Rifts. Cool idea made virtually unplayable (IMHO) by a clumsy game system.

    This was also my reaction to the Marvel Universe RPG. I really tried to like that game but the rules just didn't work. The core system was very interesting, it simply wasn't not given enough development and playtesting to work out the game-shattering shortfalls.

    See also:

    Shadownrun

    SLA Industries

    World of Synnibarr

    "Classic" RoleMaster (I can smell flames coming!)

  14. Funny how we agree on some and disagree on others… I just love a trip down memory lane. Thank you all for your feedback.

  15. Now that’s my kind of a discussion – spot on post Sunglar. I realize that it’s probably fairly late in this post’s lifetime to send in my two (hundred) cents but I couldn’t help myself.

    Rifts is indeed a weirdly alluring thing – it presses just the right buttons on so many levels especially if you are a teenage-adolescent demographic. The art is both confusing and awesome (still think that Kevin Long’s depiction of the Line Walker is one of the best visions of the techno-mage ever created). Setting is both ridiculous and phenomenal. Then I looked at the mechanics, occupational/racial-classes-whatever, epic-damage-scales and omnipresent percentile tables and I though “Nah, running this system with give me brain hemorrhage”. So in the end Rifts became a system that I would absolutely love to play (sadly never had an opportunity to) but not run.

    Next on my list is Earthdawn. I have good memories about this game and playing a Windling was one of the high points in my gaming experience. Another memory however is that of the complexity of the step and rank system plus all the dice types and tables. I could hardy get my head round it, but then again I was quite inexperienced and I have no recent experience of playing Earthdawn to compare.

    Another game which has always fascinated me but somehow stayed on the shelf is Skyrealms of Jorune. I love the premise of the setting and it’s potential for unique role-play. Again however I felt the system is a bit clunky but in hindsight I should have given it a go when I had my experienced gaming group available. Maybe someday.

    Regarding Shadowrun, I don’t see that many differences between the systems of the say last “original” edition i.e. 3rd and 4th and anniversary. Sure it’s streamlined but mostly the same system. The changes of the setting are more prominent and that pains me.

    I’m going to be a tad controversial now (maybe). I love the original, unadulterated, pre-Avatar Forgotten Realms. Yet, despite the design synergy with AD&D I could never marry the two. It’s probably because I actually started playing D&D well after I started playing rpgs and by that time had come across quite a few systems which were more elegant and consistent. On top of that, by that time I already eschewed experience level character progression I favour of skill point based systems. In fact, I found levelling to be so abstract and that I could only marginally accept that in a fantasy themed game but not modern or SF – I still get a negative vibe from any game with levelling. Yeah, I ignored the whole d20 craze because of that.

    Weirdly enough, now that I’m actually running the Grey Box, I’m using an old school D&D derivative – call it an irony. I suppose that the point in case here is that with time the attitude towards a particular game may change. At the beginning of my rpg career I loved simulationist, very crunchy systems with rules for every single situation and every possible option precisely reflected in the stats. However once I got actually into GMing, I found that games I enjoy the most marginalized the rules in favour of the story flow (e.g. Call of Cthulhu). This gradually pushed me towards the narrativist end of the spectrum and most of my current preferences stem from that.

    Some of these got pretty extreme, for example contrary to my early preferences I developed a completely unfounded antipathy towards the percentile dice. Any game heavily dependent on the d100 or common stat values in excess of 20 would start from a really bad position to catch my interest (except for CoC as above and Warhammer FRPG). This prejudice of mine still holds today and its latest victim is sadly the excellent Eclipse Phase – fantastic “harder” SF setting, really captivating and in tune with the current trends of the genre (cyber-posthumanism) and just the right atmosphere (pardon the pun), but alas build on a percentile engine. If I’m ever going to crack, it will be because of this game or I will port the setting to GURPS Transhuman or something…

    Further, and a tad contradictory to the above but illustrating my point well is my current attitude to systems which use different dice types. It must have started with Earthdawn or about that time but before the percentile stigma. I discovered a strong preference towards games, which were using one or two dice types. For example I enjoyed Cyberpunk 2020 because you needed only d10 and d6 (damage) to play. Better still if only one type of dice was used as in d6 StarWars, Shadowrun, L5R, 7th Sea, WoD or GURPS. I considered that to be a very elegant principle to build a system on, and I loved when it stayed consistent with it. This was always a preference not a must and it’s been getting more lenient especially when I discovered games such as first Alternity (yes despite it’s exp leveling – point well taken) and then Savage Worlds which use the whole popular polyhedral set and are still easy to learn and run seamlessly. So there is still hope for Earthdawn ;) and perhaps the percentile games as well.

  16. Yeah, I do agree with Cody: I do love Shadowrun, above most RPG's I have played, but the system is so annoying (even with its 4th Ed.) that I just tried it once for a short campaign and then decided to stick with d20 based conversions.

  17. @YOMorales, my dear friend! Good you see you in these parts… Are you here to check on in me and see why I haven’t posted in the PBeM?

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