Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Game Systems and Reboots

Any of you ever play Rifts?

Now there was a tabletop game that creaked and clanged. A byzantine rule set full of weird exceptions, nonexistent balancing, and an endless parade of expensive expansion books.

Was it a bad game? Well...

Let's compare it to D&D. D&D underwent a series of reboots over the years.

While it's a bit uneven, D&D reboots about every five years, invalidating all the books of the previous version. This is a serious move for the creators, since it means all the expansion books to date are now worthless. Expansion books are a huge part of the income from that IP - core books are just the start.

But it looks like around five years after the core books come out, people stop caring to buy expansion books, so it's time to roll out some new core books and start again.

Each iteration of D&D uses new rules, and all the elements of the game (monsters, settings, treasure, classes, skills, etc) are rebalanced and recreated anew. While people have versions they prefer, by and large each version is cleaner than the last version, if just because it hasn't had time to accumulate much cruft.

Rifts didn't reboot. At all. For 25 years, Rifts has kept the same core rules, skills, classes, etc.


Because Palladium Books likes expansions. The idea of invalidating expansions is just not in their business plan, especially since their expansions are "half core" - nearly every Rifts setting book adds core features to the game's rule set. If you create a tattooed man or a blind warrior maiden or werewolf or Glitterboy pilot, you have a character with radically different rules from most other characters. If those expansions are invalidated, then those concepts don't even exist any more. It's not like invalidating an "elves in detail" book - if you do that, there are still elves.

This is not just speculation - Palladium Books insisted that EVERY expansion book from all settings was theoretically compatible with every system. So you could play a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in Robotech.

This approach made reboots nearly impossible, and power creep inevitable. The best character to play in Rifts was whoever was in the most recent expansion book. The rules grew more cryptic and arcane as exceptions became the norm.

This is an interesting situation to compare. D&D, with its frequent reboots that recentralize and condense vs Rifts, with its infinite expansions, the only new versions being to rerelease the core book with some important expanded content stitched in. Comparing D&D 5e to Rifts is really revealing.

Now, the reason I bring it up is actually a bit different than you might expect.

See, each Rifts expansion book should have just been its own game.

The problem with tabletop publishing at the time is that people played games by having a group of dedicated nerds sit at the same table for years. If you played Rifts, you kept playing Rifts more or less forever. If it was D&D, you played D&D forever. You probably didn't even switch editions!

My opinion was always the opposite. Games should have an arc. They should have a finish. Whether it takes one session or twenty, there is a trajectory and the end is always drawing closer.

If you do this for a while, you notice that the rules and extraneous content make a huge difference. A game can be dramatically weakened by using a rule set that doesn't highlight the core draw of the game. A game can also be weakened if there's random content stuffed in that draws attention away from the core of the game.

Now, if you are playing in the way the old publishers decided everyone was, maybe that's not a big deal. You're attached to the characters and setting, rather than to the game or the core draw.

But if you play games that have an end, you quickly start to notice these things. And when someone says "hey, want to play this d20 game?" You find yourself shaking your head.

"D20 doesn't have much to say any more," you reply, and they stare at you blankly.

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