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I have regaled you, gentle reader, with a little nostalgia for the roleplaying games I shared with many friends over the years. I have had several of my old gamer friends check in with me, and nobody has accused me of distorting facts or anything like that–not that the story was so detailed or dramatic or controversial that anyone would. However, I did find one little error in my post “The Long Campaign.” The campaign I am referring to in this post, the one that went on for so many years, actually started in 1982, not 1981. So now that I have corrected this, I can now sleep more easily. I feel a lot better and I hope you do too.

So now I wish to whip forward to the present time. I have played just a bit since I changed states sixteen years ago, but I have not run a game in probably fifteen, and so it is high time I got a campaign or at least a series of games going again. I have several ideas, in fact. There are several systems I want to try, genres I’d like to play with, and stories I’d like to develop, I hope with some creative players who will help shoulder the task of developing those stories. And while I was thinking about all this, I realized something about roleplaying games systems and genres…

It’s all just special effects.

We’ve all heard this phrase from various friends over the years, usually in a disparaging mode about a movie lacking in story or plot or characterization, but abounding in fights, explosions, giant robots, and Megan Fox. And hey, the first movie effects were lighting and makeup effects to make the female leads look gorgeous. Lead hotties are special effects. But I digress.

Special effects are not a bad thing when used in the service of a good story. They allow us to continue with our suspension of disbelief as the story unrolls, helping us to accept that a man can fly, that a monkey king can leap from India to Sri Lanka, and that Megan Fox can fall for the geek protagonist. And if well done they can make the story seem as realistic and as plausible as anybody’s day at work.

Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone. A lady I know said she liked The Avengers but she did not like the first Captain America movie because it was too unrealistic. Another said the film Noah was good but somewhat fictionalized. I did not have a response to either comment.

Well, it’s time to get to my point. Any worthwhile roleplaying game will either fit the taste of a particular player or it will not based on whether it provides good special effects for the type of setting the player is interested in. A hard-science RPG like Traveller or Diaspora really doesn’t have the mechanism to create duels between Force-wielding sorcerers or light-saber wielding Jedi. On the other hand, none of the various Star Wars RPG iterations really seems to have the features to convincingly depict space travel with all its attendant dangers and the technical details of actual space travel. One sometimes suspects that interplanetary space in those games is not actually a vacuum full of deadly radiation; one just shuts the lock, starts up the engines, and flies. Which is groovy in a space fantasy, but doesn’t offer a glimpse of the way real spacefarers have to operate their ships and perform maneuvers outside the ship. In either case If one is not playing with an appropriate system, one will not get to experience those exciting scenes that one want to play out.

The writer Steven Brust has said that his critical theory as a writer consists of this: “Let me tell you about something really cool.” This may be the best aesthetic approach I have ever heard of. In Brust’s case it really works. And I think that if modified slightly, it can be applied to a roleplaying game by any GM: “Let me help you experience some really cool moments.” What moments would you want to play out in a game?

I have a few. I would really love to have my character hold off a horde of baddies at a bridge or other strategic spot while the rest of the party are able to escape. That will either result in a narrow escape or more likely a noble death. A good game for me would allow that kind of scene–that kind of special effect.

I have always wanted to infiltrate an enemy-occupied planet by gliding down from orbit in a stealth infiltration vehicle. Very dangerous and very tricky. A good game for me would make that sort of action come alive.
How about a Man Who Would Be King type special effect that could make it easy to play a scenario in which uniting the tribes into an allied force and opposing the enemy was the goal. And for it to be a good special effect, it would have to make that fantasy plausible.

The same applies to genre. If I want to use my will to summon a fireball and send it to devastate my enemy, traditional sword and sorcery fantasy would be the genre where that kind of scene can best be experienced. But if I want to experience tinkering with arcane devices and gearing to create a flying machine, a steampunk game is more likely to satisfy me if those sorts of actions can be made to come alive. If I have players who want one and others who want the other, the genre has to be able to contain both.

There are some game systems that don’t make any of these things seem particularly real because of extremely abstract mechanics or just a failure to make it interesting, but much of that can be remedied by a good GM and by good players. The key elements are first that the details have to be there: description so that the player can feel like he is experiencing that dramatic moment. Second, the player has to feel like he or she is in control of the process of casting a spell, winning a battle, or navigating a ship, and this means that his or her choices have to be important to the outcome. Third, no matter how successfully the character achieves his or her task, the danger of failure and its consequences must seem real.

So again, does your game system and genre have the “special effects” to make your players’s dramatic moments come true and seem real?

This is directly related to what I call the “Game Compact” which is what we will be discussing next.