[RPGs] In Defense of the Old, the Bad, and the Broken


#1

Ahoy, internet. Hi, Waypoint. Good morning, Tabletop. (Still working on introductions)

Let’s talk Old, Bad, and Broken RPGs.

Its been 40+ years since the progenitor of the hobby got published, and there have been dozens and dozens of roleplaying systems produced since then. While some have managed to stick around and maintain a place in the public eye (or at least the eye of the niche audience they appeal to), the majority have fallen by the wayside and simply faded from view. In some cases, it was just a case of bad timing or poor marketing, but for most of them, they just couldn’t hang.

Maybe they had bad writing, bad design, or just bad ideas in general. Many certainly had bad production values by current standards - to call early RPG art “a bit crude” is perhaps being generous. They could also have just been products of their era, daring and interesting when they came out, but creaky dinosaurs by the reckoning of the modern audience. Speaking of creaky dinosaurs, I bought some of those games, played a few of them, and there’s a few I hold onto solely for nostalgia or irony’s sake.

But I don’t come here to bury Caesar, I want to praise him.

There are plenty of forum threads and blogs out there that rip apart these antiquated and baffling game systems, but I want to take a positive tack in this thread. I want to discuss what is good and worth looking at from games that are considered past their prime or relevance, what can be mined or learned from games that never got an audience, how we can use or even play roleplaying games that have a notoriety for their screwed-up mechanics. I honestly believe that you can get something worthwhile from all but the most toxic of games, and as an older guy it does sadden me a bit when I see old faves dismissed out of hand due to a lack of Hotness.

And, hey - I like Hotness. New and innovative systems are coming out at a rate now that’s hard to contemplate, and I do not begrudge people wanting to keep up to date with current trends in the hobby. There are so many better ways to get into roleplaying games than there were even as recent as a decade ago, and if anything I’d like to see more people discover what makes this whole make-believe-with-rules thing so magical.

Sometimes, though, cold takes are worth examining, and figuring out the roots of what works now from what used to work then is a good way to build your understanding of the games you’re playing currently.

So, to kick things off, let’s talk Rifts. Yes. That one.

Rifts is a roleplaying game from the Palladium line, first published in 1990, created by Kevin Siembieda, and despite a reputation for being batshit crazy nonsense its still getting made today. I remember being excited by the promise of the game when it first came out, despite having had bad experiences with other games which shared the Palladium system, perhaps due to sheer gusto with which Siembieda went for it. Check out this cover art:

Its tacky, surreal, and very 90’s, but it really jumped out at you when you saw that thing on a store’s shelf. Its one of several paintings by Keith Parkinson, who contributed some more full-color pieces visualizing Siembieda’s cuckoo dreamscape.

And a cuckoo dreamscape it definitely is, seeing as it attempts to create a setting where not just a few realities collide but all of them do. The setting is a post-post-apocalyptic Earth, overrun by invaders from other dimensions and ruled over by a bunch of off-brand Nazis in power armor. Given that it uses the same system as most of the other Palladium RPGs, its theoretically possible for your Ninjas and/or Superspies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, superheroes, and so on to end up on RiftsEarth. A masochist could even attempt to convert their character from an entirely different game’s campaign and bring them over. Anything and everything you could imagine might show up due to the titular Rifts between dimensions.

And that appealed to me, back in the day, despite knowing full well that I didn’t like the Palladium system. And that system has serious issues that I won’t get into here. As do the setting, and the character options, and the editing. And - look - its a bit of a mess. But what an ambitious, sprawling, inclusive mess it is.

This kitchen sink approach to a setting isn’t unique in the annals of roleplaying games or genre media in general. When you’ve already accepted fantastic stories about aliens, mutants, and magic, its not much of a leap to imagine a variety of characters from different places meeting up in some common setting. Would they get along? What contrasts and parallels would there be? Can these worldviews and themes resonate when brought together? Can Superman beat Mighty Mouse? Its the stuff fanfiction, crossover events, and a lot of video games are made of.

And despite a game system that seems to lack any semblance of balance, organization, or consistency, Rifts could and did sell a lot of books simply because of that promise.

Also, you could play a guy in power armor that shoots a big old gauss cannon. I was partial to going against the tide of popular opinion and preferred the relatively squishy and lame Vagabond, which was just a guy with some old junk and some survival skills - but, look, I get it.


#2

Might as well bring up the behemoth that is DnD.

DnD has never been an elegant game, or perhaps even a good game, but I feel like it’s got more going for it than just being a punching bag for people who are invested in less popular RPGs

Everyone who’s played knows that wizards (all spellcasters, really) in DnD are ridiculously, undeniably, broken in any edition other than 4e. That said, I appreciate just how bold a lot of spells are. The spell list gives magic users an incredible amount of explicit power to enact their will upon the world as they see fit. They end up being able to use too many of these game-altering abilities, and it sucks that more magically-deficient classes are stuck just swinging a sharp piece of metal while the casters bend time and space , but having hard rules that let the players just say “no” to a situation they’re put in by the gm can be dramatically powerful.

Speaking of bold, this retrospective of the Baldur’s Gate series by Noah Gervais also gave me a real appreciation of the arc of a DnD game. For better or worse, your fundamental, mechanical relationship to the world around you changes more drastically over the course of a campaign in DnD than in any other game I’ve played. The problems facing a level 20 party would be downright alien to a level 1 party, and I can appreciate the journey that goes from fleeing a brown bear in terror to dueling demigods on an immaterial outer plane.

One of the smarter things that DnD did in its branding is mythologizing the “natural 20.” Even people who are super critical of the system (like me) tend to get legitimately excited when a dice roll comes up as a critical hit or miss at the exact right (or exact wrong) moment. The reaction around the table is like watching a football team succeeds at a bullshit Hail Mary play that never should have worked. In a conventional scripted narrative, such an unlikely result would probably feel unsatisfying and unearned. but when the longshot is dramatically justified by the rules of a game, it feels great.

Another thing I like about DnD that a lot of modern RPGs discard is that every being in the world is assumed to play by the same rules. It doesn’t matter if it’s a PC, an NPC, a monster, or even a plant. You can flip open the monster manual and play as anything in there, if you don’t care about balance. Want to play as a giant spider paladin, with all the stats and abilities of the giant spider intact? No problem, since humans and giant spiders are fundamentally similar in the system. I’m a pretty big believer that mechanics in games are at least as capable of providing meaning, pacing, and focus as editing and cinematography in film, and in dnd the mechanical framing mostly emphasizes whoever is taking direct action at the time. It’s a simple approach, but one I like more than mechanically framing the PCs as special people with the unique ability to exert their will on the world via the mechanics.

Welp. This ended up being only kind of about dnd, huh?


#3

Remember Spiders’ Bound by Flame? From a few years ago? I have no idea why but I still think about that game, a game that by all measures should be considered fairly forgettable. I don’t remember a single character’s name and don’t care to, nor any coherent narrative arc. What I do recall however is the way it all fit together, in the way Spiders’ games usually do. Bound by Flame is the quintessential B game, in that you could see Spiders’ going for it, but not quite reaching the precipice. The combat, the level design, and the character design formed a cohesive unit that managed to convey the intangible feeling of “heart,” however that is quantified. I can definitively state that Bound by Flame had that in a time where I felt that B-tier western rpgs were being cannibalized by increasing development costs. Maybe that’s why it stuck with me, because, other than a handful of smaller rpgs and one big rpg, I haven’t been able to sense the heart in the genre, and it sits as one of the last of those types of games.


#4

God do I want to try Rifts. It just sounds so insane and so convoluted that I feel like some of the fun would come from everyone trying to figure out the rules and failing spectacularly. The only problem is that no one I know wants to play an rpg that we all know has a bad design. But one day I’ll play it, roaming the world as a glitter boy and referring to tables and tables just to figure out how my character eats a sandwich.


#5

World of Synnibarr is a profoundly terrible game, with a character creation method that is completely arbitrary and dumb (roll a d20 5 times, reroll any result worse than 8), requiring the GM to use logarithms after every hit to calculate how far the target is knocked back, exponential growth for leveling up, and a massive amount of tables for anything.

Playing it is as intended is a lot like watching several jars of molasses run a marathon. But if you can find your own fun, there’s just so many rules, systems, and mechanics competing with one another that it can get completely bananas. In one game, we first left the planet and traveled through space when one character turned super saiyan and kicked a kite with their full strength before being pulled into a pocket dimension by a psychic so that they wouldn’t die of asphyxiation. We then, before landing on earth, turned the mass of the kite negative with magic, and when the GM ran the numbers to see what the size of the crater we made was, found that we made a mountain.

In another game, we used the expansion which contained rules for starting businesses. We then befriended a massive dragon that flies through space, made it agree to become a vehicle, and started an interstellar travel service, and fought to keep it in the black.

The game is bananas and stupid and never play it, but the stories you get are so out there that if you somehow get a fun session out of it, you’re never going to predict what could happen.


#6

I love finding RPGs with interesting and unique settings, especially if they bring some cool new mechanics into play. Two of my favorites are WARS Roleplaying Game (2005, Mongoose Publishing) and Polaris (v3.1 2016, Black Book Editions).

WARS has a terrible generic name which I’m sure didn’t help marketing. It is also built around the D20 Modern shell…which is a pretty awful system. However, the setting is pretty great. It is a sci-fi setting in our solar system starting in 2391 after humans have colonized most of the system. Earth is united as a classic cyberpunk capitalistic global corporate federation. Mars (renamed Gongen) has it’s own unified government and was colonized by mostly East Asians after a massive chain of nuclear reactor meltdowns made most of China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia a wasteland. The Outer Rim colonies (basically everything past Mars) are various outposts and colonies on asteroids and moons setup by various state-sponsored groups, corporate groups, ideological groups, criminal cabals, and freelancers. Tensions rise as some of the Outer Rim create a loose confederation for independence and Gongen and Earth gear up for a war with each other and the revolutionaries for control of the various sci-fi resources. Right before the war breaks, a massive rift opens up between the asteroid belt and Jupiter thrusting an alien planet and it’s two warring factions into the system.

I could go on, but in short it is a really cool setting and it adds in that this rift created a bunch of psychic/psionic people with various cool powers. The tech is all completely possible stuff (except the alien tech being more technobabble) with the fastest human ships only being able to travel at 0.05 AU/hour (20 hours from Earth to Sun). The Aliens are meant to be more mysterious NPC forces (though it is D20 so they are stated).

The second RPG I want to talk about is Polaris, unfortunately another D20 Modern-inspired game, though this one is based off the Pathfinder system, but it has the same flaws. Again it has a really cool setting. Basically it is post-post-apocalypse, but the surface is uninhabitable with toxic air and radiation and who knows what else, on top of the polar ice caps being long melted. All of civilization lives underwater. It is cool to see an inverted map of the world where cities and nations are arrayed throughout the oceans with undersea canyons, mountains, and basins being the topography. The apocalypse is unknown and happened at an unknown time in the past. The underwater survivors at some point created an empire that ruled the whole world with super technology and genetics that probably allowed them to clone the human race back from near extinction hence their name: the Geneticians. That empire rose and fell, and their technology was mostly lost. A successor empire rose and fell and then more nations rose and fought for dominance and now standoff against one another. There are a number of various takes on possible societies, both the good and bad and many in between. Plucky outposts holding together old submarines and underwater bases as well as mercenaries, mutant mer- (or near-mer-) people, and religious fanatics.

All together it is another awesome setting that is really let down by a pretty clunky system for the type of game you’d be playing. I’ve never actually played the game and part of that is it just seems like the D20 system holds it back. The whole thing is set up more for intrigue and politics or scrappy just-trying-to-get-by adventures that D20 just isn’t built for. Not to mention that classic grid combat in a 3d environment with high-pressure water physics is a huge pain to wrap your head around.


#7

I actually ran a short Rifts game with some friends in my 20’s, a sort of bizarre Wild West campaign using one of the myriad sourcebooks produced for the line. It was called New West and - as is often the case with Rifts stuff - it was chockful of lovely nonsense that doesn’t make sense collectively, like the Psi-Slinger, a psychic who shot mind bullets from ephemeral revolvers. Observe the cover:

I struggle mightily to recall the specifics of our campaign, but it was a deliberate attempt to play a game system we all knew sucked. It wasn’t something we necessarily played ironically, but we dove in with an acceptance of its shortcomings and a willingness to ignore the bits that annoyed us.

And, you know, it was fun. Frothy, explosion-laden nonsense, from what little I do recall, and sometimes that’s enough.

Would I recommend anybody dive into the Palladium line in earnest? No. But for a couple of arrested adolescents with too many RPGs under their belt, it was perfectly serviceable as a distraction.


#8

D&D is such a beast. One the one hand, its overpowering presence on the scene for so many years certainly felt stultifying to many, myself included. I resented it for such a long time, if only because it was assumed to be a default by most of the gamers I knew. Every discussion about gaming was framed in D&D terms, every other setting was an off-brand homage to somebody’s old D&D campaign, and no matter what actual game system or campaign premise I ran non-gamers would refer to my hobby as “Dungeons and Dragons”.

On the other hand, its absolutely foundational and has a lot of lessons to give on a wide range of topics - especially when you compare and contrast the differing editions that carry the brand name.

My personal biggest takeaway from D&D (when I finally broke down and played it) was the idea that if you want to encourage teamwork, sharing of spotlight, and strategic thinking mechanically, you need to give PCs available player roles “gaps”. The fighter is good at fighting, but he’s no good against magic. The magic user is good at magic but bad at fighting. And so on. That lets people assemble the puzzle pieces together into something that works better as a collective than as disparate individuals. And, yes, in most versions of this, things break down when one class or type gets access to more powerful versions of what the other guys are supposed to be good at, but that itself is an object lesson.

I’m not saying I want every RPG I play to use that class/role/archetype model, but I do prefer games that try to give all PCs something unique that can contribute to the larger whole.


#9

Heh, my experience is almost the opposite. Most of the people who I’ve met who are into tabletop RPGs are super anti-DnD. Understandably so, for a whole bunch of reasons, but it’s hardly the valueless, unplayable dumpster fire that some other indie rpg aficionados claim it to be.


#10

D&D is fine, 5E especially. It has the issues inherent to the murder hobo games but it’s made some efforts to at least be more diverse and it’s not a bad intro to TTRPGs. I do wonder how well it’s doing these days. It feels like more and more people are moving away from it and it’s not super well supported by WOTC from what I hear


#11

It seems like it’s doing fine? It’s the most popular rpg on Roll20 as far as I know and Wizards releases a book for the game every couple of months. I think it just seems like it’s not as popular because the indie rpg world never talks about but it’s really the only rpg most people know. I think it’s a fine game.


#12

D&D is still a very popular and loved game. There are very vocal people that hate on it, and a lot of people that don’t like it for many reasons (I include myself in that group). But the vast majority of people can come up with something good about it. I wouldn’t say that D&D failing or losing support, it’s just that there are a lot of RPGs now and they are getting better. Remember that tabletop RPGs are almost exactly as old as video games. Chainmail (the precursor to D&D) came out in 1971, Pong came out in 1972. And while video games rapidly expanded with the Atari, only Dungeons and Dragons existed for tabletop RPGs for years. We are currently living in the late expansion phase of RPGs that I would equate to the SNES or maybe N64 era. It stands to reason that D&D will lose market share just by virtue of more systems competing against it.


#13

RIFTS is really fun, if you just sit around a table for a few hours with some buddies and try to make interesting characters, because that is the best that Rifts gets - don’t actually try to play it.


#14

Yeah, the sheer variety of wacky characters you can make in Rifts can make chargen a fun experience in a group setting.

I feel like a lot of the games I was into as a kid were more fun to make characters for than to play - I don’t want to think of how many GURPS PCs I made on my lonesome to for non-existent campaigns.