I wrote a nice little essay I think you'll like, except that I've lost contact with my hosting service and Google Doc's "upload" feature is so bad with embedded images that I might as well just not post it at all.
So I'm gonna talk about Dungeons & Dragons instead.
That's not fair. I'm gonna talk about most mainstream tabletops simultaneously. D&D is just my example, largely because it's got an easy, well-known acronym so you'll know what the hell I'm talking about.
D&D. D&D... D&D?
I don't like D&D.
D&D - and most other mainstream RPGs - are built in a specific way. They are built around the idea that bigger is better. The more content, the more rules, the better the game will be. Hey, the GM can pick and choose from a wider selection, so he can create a wider variety of adventures and that's good!
This idea is so ass-backwards that it amazes me.
You need content, yes, but you have to remember that every game is communicating something. Every experience the players share says something very strongly. Having a million different things that could happen is pretty pointless. Instead, there are about two things that should happen, and they aren't written down anywhere because your adventure is (I hope) quite unique. Anything else will weaken the experience, turn it into a slush of experience points and dice.
There's no depth to running into a dungeon, rolling up goblins, and then rolling up treasure. There's nothing being communicated. You might as well watch daytime TV.
I'm not saying that you should diminish your game for the sake of giving a message. I'm saying quite the opposite: you should have a clear experience in mind when you build your game, and that will guide you to create a great game.
For example, if you run a Star Wars game, it's probably going to focus on the difference between light side and dark side. That's kind of what Star Wars specializes in. The experience will probably be centered around "the struggle not to fall" or something similar. (Of course, now Star Wars has published dozens of RPG books so you can just toss random crap in there, too. Thanks!)
What's your core idea in D&D? "Kill monsters, get XP?" Most GMs have something cooler in mind - "Let's take on a demon! I'll make the villain a demon that controls a horde of vampire bunnies..." or something.
That's not really what's going through the GM's head, though. Instead, he's thinking of a feel for the experience. He's thinking of how he wants the game to play out. He wants the players to feel out of their element, swarmed by hopeless odds, whatever.
Does D&D help him with that?
D&D does not.
D&D's pack of rules - especially since 3.5 - are geared specifically to be completely generic. The d20 system is basically the high fructose corn syrup of the game world. It has no merit other than being easy to mix into things that should never have corn syrup in them to begin with.
This is true of most major tabletop RPGs. As I mentioned, they add more and more content to the game, thinking that makes it better. In turn, they have to expand the rules to cover that new content. When it comes time to release the next version, they go back and revamp all the rules to be more generic, to more easily cover this vast expanse of useless content.
"What are you, some kind of RPG anarchist?"
Yeah, pretty much. There are a lot of indie RPGs out there. These games are tiny, very focused. They are geared towards providing a specific experience. While some of them suck, many of them will provide a surprisingly interesting experience that you would never be able to wrangle out of D&D.
Personally, though, I think playing an existing system is a cop-out. If you have an experience in mind, you should make your own system and content to support it.
If you want your players to go up against a demon and feel the press of otherworldly hordes, you build rules that are strong on attrition instead of win/lose, and contain some built-in system that clashes nicely with the demonic horde's capabilities (giving them a sense of being very alien). For example, I like the idea of making the players use dice, and using dice for all the human enemies... but then have the demonic enemies use cards. If the players acquire demonic powers or devices, they use cards to power them...
Anyway, the point is that that giant stack of lovely books is a giant stack of lovely junk food. Your players may not even realize it, but they're bored and fat.
Mentally, I mean.
Am I being clear? Do you agree?