The Problem With Trad Games

Totally clickbait, kids. Don’t freak out. I’m just gonna talk about my problems. They’re not your problems.

So anyway a friend posted yesterday about feeling the pull to play a big sprawling trad game (but only with the “right crowd,” because he’s judgy discerning). Boy do I have sympathy for this feeling.

The past few weeks I’ve been feeling maybe burned out on RPGs. Maybe. I thought, at first, that (like my friend) I was maybe just feeling burned out on small press games. And man do I have a lot of them. Between my own collecting and the huge airdrop Andi Carrison did last year, I have a lot of titles. And none of them are really calling out to me. Either I’ve played them, chewed through and found the tasty marrow, or I’ve read them and I can’t build enthusiasm for what I’m reading.

But then I realized, more recently, that there’s another vector at play. I get a lot of energy from the enthusiasm of my players. And I feel like my players’ enthusiasm for small-press games can be either fleeting (fun first session followed by less-fun second, as we figure stuff out) or highly conditional (very specific preferences for how their behaviors are shaped). They just don’t have the same deep hunger for novelty and exploration that I do — we have different agendas of play. At a different level than ye olde capital-A Agendas.

So I stand in front of my shelves, longing for something to read that will excite me. Or that I think will excite my players. Obviously it’s synergistic, or maybe codependent: I bring excitement to the table, they get jazzed up, which jazzes me up. But I stare and I stare and I just can’t bring myself to pull down one of my beloved small-press games and really dig into it (again).

But you know what I love to read? I mean really, really love? Trad game books. By which I mean stuff produced by supplement treadmills at a very high gloss. Stuff packed with dreams.

I love the illustrations and the text, but not the probably-broken rules. I love that they’re glossy and colorful. They excite me in a visceral way that small-press stuff just doesn’t (at least after that first read and internalization). Maybe I’m shallow. I’m okay with that.

Probably the next thing I’ll run for a few sessions starting in January is a FFG Star Wars game. Depending on what gift certificates come my way this holiday season, I’ll be getting Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny and putting together a kitchen-sink Star Wars thing that’ll run 5 or 6 sessions. Hopefully it’ll cohere around a few very tight hooks. My players are cautiously optimistic, but we’ve had two failed Edge of the Empire games already so I can’t blame them for being a little gunshy.

So my problem with trad games is that they’re so great to read. I love pulling pretty much any title off the shelf and thumbing through it. Just letting the images and tables and names wash over me. And then knowing that they probably don’t work without a lot of heavy lifting, i.e. running them “like a roleplaying game.” Fixing rules. Building up legal precedence. Keenly feeling rules that should be there but just aren’t. Hacking out solutions on the fly all the damn time.

My dream is that somehow, someday small-press games will somehow produce exciting supplemental materials. Don’t know that that’s ever going to happen, for a variety of branding and practical reasons. I refuse to believe it’s impossible for rules reasons, but god damn it I have yet to see a game that provides procedurally tight play with minimal GM prep/lifting and is fun to just thumb through and dream. All the bandwidth gets used up on those tight procedures and nothing is left for the other senses.

0 thoughts on “The Problem With Trad Games”

  1. Fiasco books are an excellent example of books that are super-boring for me to just sit down and read. I’ve thumbed through lots of playsets and there’s just nothing there that grabs me the same way. Several d6 tables and a few intro grafs. They’re references, not self-contained entertainments.

    That’s the small-press aesthetic I was talking about. If I was pumped to play Fiasco, sweet, there’s shittons of material ready to jump on. But that material isn’t pumping me to play Fiasco.

    Today, right now. My locals haven’t played Fiasco yet! Might be time to show it to them, see what they think.

    TBH probably what ends up happening is that I have my list of games to play at conventions, and games to play at home, and those are not the same games.

  2. This sounds more like a problem with small press games than it does trad games …
    I’m in the same place though. I know I can get people excited for a first session if I wave around the official Star Wars books but I also know that none of us really, truly understand how those dice work.

  3. Nice tabs, man!

    I feel like Burning Wheel fits your criteria. Sure, there’s nothing but BWG in print right now, but for a while there you had BWR, MonBu, AdBu, MagBu, and all the peripheral supplements like Blossoms and Jihad. MonBu and MagBu are fun to thumb through.

    But, yeah. As much as people make fun of GURPS or HERO for having a splat for just about everything, I can tell you that during my HERO days, there was something really enjoyable about getting a new, phat, sourcebook every month that essentially reinforced my fandom for the game; I’d get to read about a given topic and see it implemented in the system.

    Geez, what a 180°. I am indie fanboy waxing nostalgic about splats. What the hell is wrong with me?

  4. I’ll give you the advice that I’m slowly taking myself: commit to running a full D&D 5e game to 20th level. The game gives you a framework for measuring progress (“We’re halfway to 20th level.”) and clearly defined end goal (“We’ll stop at 20th level.”). If things start to drag, maybe boost the experience point figures a little, but stay committed.

    The “heavy lifting” you’re worried about is a feature, not a bug. Get away from the indie game commandment to play the RAW. Use 5e as a chassis to create a homebrew D&D game that fits your group like a tailored suit. Plunder those trad books you love for d20 rules to bolt onto 5e’s framework.

    At it’s core, 5e is a very rudimentary system. You’ll need to create interesting rules to liven up fights and other encounters. This will hopefully scratch your critical, game-designer side.

    Don’t think of homebrewing as creating legal precedent or hacking solutions out on the fly. Every RPG involves making judgment calls for edge cases. That’s not onerous. It’s part of tabletop RPGs. Hell, you can change your mind later on a ruling if you want. Stick to the rules, but be relaxed about it.

    From what I gather, you’ve got a great group of players. They can make every game fun. They’ll make D&D fun. Ask them to commit to 20th level. Entice them with promises of vorpal swords and wish spells.

  5. I share this feeling so strongly. I love playing with the toys that big trad games provide. This is why I’ve been poking away at building Burning Wheel Earthdawn on-and-off for years.

  6. Yeah I feel squished between those extremes too. Love my Glorantha books but find GMing it to be exhausting because I feel like I’m dragging the rules along behind me. Love Burning Wheel but find it exhausting to invent all the details of the setting and, like, read history books to figure out how to make it make sense. Other games fall somewhere but it seems like there’s a sweet spot in there that someone could theoretically hit.

  7. Right? Can you imagine if luke crane​ licensed BW out to the folks making Symbaroum or something?

    I think my thread tl;dr is that small press games are great to play but not read, and big glossy trad games are the opposite. And I’m not sure how or why the “reading isn’t important” aesthetic is apparently so deeply baked into small press.

  8. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the “reading isn’t important” aesthetic is related to the “holy crap it cost how much to print five hundred copies of this book?” response.

    I definitely find it meditative and cleansing to set aside all my delightful little games with their moving parts and fiddly mechanics and just play Vampire once in a while. You want to fight that guy? No need to ask what the story consequences are or what you’re willing to risk, just rolled Strength + Brawl and let’s see how much damage those kewl powerz of yours do!

  9. I don’t know that it’s so much that reading isn’t thought of as important as that including fictional content in the text is looked upon with deep suspicion in indie/small press circles. The players are supposed to make that stuff up themselves, and if the author does any of it beyond providing procedural guides for producing it, they’re robbing the players of agency. I get that, but it doesn’t actually align with what I find most exciting about gaming.

    One of the things I found really exciting about Circle of Hands was that Ron was unafraid to tell us about its world.

  10. My big problem with trad games is that a lot of them just don’t tell me what to do as the GM, and that gets me some taunting by Elite Pro GMs but it’s just not obvious to me so I have to figure it out all on my own. Sometimes that’s easy (Myriad Song) and sometimes it crushes me (RuneQuest).

  11. Probably the most recent game I’ve read and played that most neatly bridges the gap is Mutant: Year Zero. Some but not too much inspirational material wedded to tight but not too tight procedures.

    Damn that’s a good game.

  12. I find myself oscillating oddly (with alliteration, no less!) between indie games and more traditional ones. I am a sucker for a long, sweeping campaign (life, unfortunately, favors one shots!) with lots of ins and outs and a cast of thousands. I love a lot of indie games dearly but am worried about them having the mechanical meat to carry a game for a longer period of time. I am also being tempted by the FFG Star Wars games (Picked up Fate & Destiny and accidentally bought Age of Rebellion for myself too!). Have only read F&D so far but the Talent trees with the Force power trees scratches that itch of advancement in a way that a lot of indie games don’t.

    I’ve always been curious how much distance I could get with an Apocalypse World powered game. For some reason it feels that Call of Cthulhu will get me farther. Currently playing a game of Dresden Files which has a lot of what I love about indie games (more sharing of narrative control) with a LOT of other widgets that make it feel more traditional. It also strongly emphasizes campaign play.

    Conversely, I have found I have LESS inclination to read the pretty trad game books and tend more to beeline toward mechanics to see if it’s something that will allow me to tell the story that I want. Haven’t figured out whether F&D will let me play Jedi that FEEL like what I think they should feel like.

    Either way, I hope you find a way out of the tangles of the Burnt Out Forest. Got way too many games I want to play with you, Paul Beakley!

  13. I read it along with all of the other RPG-related posts you’ve written over at least the last year and probably before that. This isn’t the first time you’ve written about your inability to find satisfaction with an indie rpg. You always end up throwing away a game because the rules are “broken” somehow. 

    If trad books are making you excited, then play a trad game. There’s no shame in it. Accept that it’s going to have warts and broken pieces, and fix them. 

    You’ve got to recapture some sort of “beginner’s mind” about playing RPGs or maybe think about giving them up. You’re a very smart, very good gamer. I want you to be happy doing stuff you like to do. If you need me to nod patiently while you wander in the woods, then I’ll try and do that. But I really want you to be out of the woods and having fun. I can’t always stop myself from trying to help you with that, too.

  14. A big fat well illustrated sourcebook can rekindle the enthusiasm you did lose at the table with your players. The problem is that following that road means that playing will become the less enjoyable part of your relationship with the hobby, an exercise in frustration, with enthusiastic readings followed by inevitable frustration when the game will fail to deliver on its false promises.
    At this point most GM start complaining about having “bad players”, then they stop playing altogether but they continue to buy and read sourcebook, becomes bitter ex-players and start roaming forums and social networks attacking any innovation and defending a ideal “way you have to play” that they never really were able to experience at the table…

    My suggestion would be to resist the lure of these lying books and their empty promises, or if you really want to use them: strip all the game statistics and use The Pool to play there.

  15. This post was very solid.

    I’m going to not comment in the thread though. Save to say, I’d love to do a jam session or panel on this with you and Bret Gillan​ and maybe John Stavropoulos​ and maybe Thor Olavsrud​ if y’all are at Dreamation.

  16. I think I’m with both Ed McW and Moreno Roncucci on this. The indie ethos is about laser focus and relating everything to actual play. It’s a reaction to (as they see it) the era of splats written by people who generally didn’t play filling books with “fluff” that was largely designed for reading enjoyment and not playing enjoyment. And, as I see it, it was really only the most hard-core, lots-of-free-time fans who could pour through the mounds of material and find what was gameable and use it. That’s always astounded me, honestly.

    I mean, look at all those tabs in your Rogue Trader corebook. And there’s THIRTEEN more books in that line!

    Also, I’ll again point to BWHQ, who produced Bloodstained Stars for BE, which is 100% in-game fictional material.

  17. Dave Turner wrote above: “This isn’t the first time you’ve written about your inability to find satisfaction with an indie rpg. You always end up throwing away a game because the rules are “broken” somehow.”

    I have to confess that i don’t remember well your past posts about this issue. I am following way too many people (I should really strip down my stream…), it becomes a blur after a while, and so I don’t remember if what Dave wrote is true, or if it’s true, the names of the games you wrote about.

    But it would not surprise me if it was true, because there are really a lot of broken “indie” games around.  The Forge told us “everybody can write a rpg, and you should, too”, but at the time the games were battered, broken, rebuild and playtested in a very active community that had no qualms saying that something didn’t work well (at least directly if not in public). The result was something I have never seen before in my life: rpgs that actually worked! That you had not to “fix” a lot of times during a game just to be able to play.
    Then the Forge closed down, story games never really took its place (or even wanted to) and that environment of peer criticism became a loosely tied web of social relationship that works only as a hype machine.
    If you find too many broken indie games, my advice is to play indie games from the Forge Era from 2001-2008, they mostly works and even if they don’t you can find a lot of threads and discussion about how to fix them.
    I find that, even design-wise, after that time there was a return to older design, trying to court “traditional” players or OSR aestetics, there was a general return to traditional rpg tropes with “a good GM” that had to make everything works.
    These “old” 2001-2008 games are still the most innovative ones. And they works.

  18. Moreno Roncucci no, Dave is actually really badly mischaracterizing me. Not an uncommon thing to have happen, understandable when you’re standing at the crossroads of identity and critique (I don’t recommend it, the traffic doesn’t even slow down!), but I’ll talk about that in a different thread.

  19. My love for reading game books evaporated nearly 15 years ago — right about the time I started playing regularly again after a drought of several years. Now I can barely bring myself to do it unless I’m actually going to run/play the game — even with stuff like Glorantha, for which I have huge affection.

    I’ll note that Bloodstained Stars, mentioned by Mark Delsing above, was a failure for us. It’s actually a very engaging read but has never sold especially well to fans of the game or the comic.

    The Adventure Burner doesn’t really fit the type of game book that Paul Beakley described above, but it was designed as something to sit down and read rather than as material to bring to the table. While it sold through its initial print run, it didn’t really move fast enough to justify a reprint.

    I don’t know if I’ll be at Dreamation Brand Robins, but if I’m not I’d be happy to have that chat through hangouts or similar at some point.

  20. Oh yeah, so I did have a copy of the Guide to Glorantha for a while but it was completely impenetrable to me. Form factor was a problem, the damned thing is just too big. And the stridently system-less stuff never hooked my gamer brain. Just the way the whole thing was assembled did literally nothing to get me thinking game thoughts.

    Obviously not all supplements are the same.

  21. I love the Guide to Glorantha but I also can’t just sit down and read it. It’s great when I decide I want more info on a particular area or people though. That will often cause me to follow it down the rabbit hole. But I agree, the form factor makes it challenging.

  22. I feel your pain. There is a sharp disjunct between games that are fun to read and fiddle with (lonely fun) and those that are fun to play. I look at the production values and detail in things like 3e’s Manual of the Planes and drool — I want to dig into it and create a game to play right now. I just don’t want to use those rules.

    Recently I’ve found some relief, partly by recognizing that most of what was fun in there was what I did and not strictly what was in there. They are imagination pumps and I can get that elsewhere. Or use these ones to fuel a different game.

  23. One (correct, in my view) attitude prevalent in non-trad games that the fun stuff is what happens at the table rather than reading a glossy book.

    Unfortunately, this means that some designers have the attitude that reading the actual book is a chore that has to be done to get through to play the game, so let’s make it brief (possibly good), and minimalist, giving just the technical information needed to play (bad).

    I want flavour. I want the book to sell me on why the game is worth my time playing over the many alternatives. I don’t want technical manuals.

  24. Ara Kooser It’s why I bought a bunch of it! Even though I’m having a hell of a time getting my head screwed on straight to run it. 

    I need to go back and read Ralph Mazza’s exquisite breakdown. I held the whole game in my mind for a shining moment and then lost it again as soon as I remembered I don’t actually like Tolkien.

  25. So here I get pinged into this thread, and the OP is this long post and there’s a billion comments and lots of them are long…and I dutifully read them wondering “why did I get pinged into this thread?”

    Oh, there’s the payoff. I agree completely.

  26. PS: here’s some sacrilege. Paul Beakley its possible to play TOR and not play Tolkien, and add bits and bobs from fantasy you like better…that’s pretty much what Gygax was doing…

  27. If there’s one game at the moment I’m head over hills in love with, it’s The One Ring.

    There are plenty of others I like, but TOR I like far more than is purely rational. It’s the one game line where I’ll pre-order everything for it without hesitation.

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