Monday, 20 December 2021

What Reads Like Shit But Plays WELL?

 At some point this blog had something to do with Dungeons and Dragons or something,.. tum te tum the OHHH ESSHH AYR? I think I found those words scratched behind a pillar in a forgotten language in a sertaline dream I had.

In an act of remembrance for whatever this Blog used to be, and out of interest - plumbing, dredging the minds of my audience, and from my own curiosity, I have a query;

What reads badly but plays well?

Here is a picture for you;

Marcel Roux Offering to Moloch, 1908
(ripped off from the blog 'Monster Brains')



A few examples, largely from discussions I have had with friends who read and used things I didn't like the look of. Castle Xyntillan did not appeal to me at all from the text but multiple people have told me "No it plays like hot shit at the table, great fun." Likewise Ravenloft, the villain-is-ASDA-Dracula, sounds awful to me but again many many people say the opposite in play.

(I leave the definitions of "bad", "plays well" and the discussion of what we are talking about exactly (I'm imagining adventures but willing to accept a reasonably wide spectrum of 'similar things' around that), deliberately open. If you want to talk about what 'bad' means to you so you can define it better then do so, please don't argue with each other over definitions of what 'bad' is, its tiring for me.)





33 comments:

  1. Original Dungeons and Dragons is the response to your question

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  2. The Mysterious Menagerie of Doctor Orville Boros by Skerples reads like a joke adventure, but is an excellent (but still silly) survival adventure in play.

    When I first encountered Into the Odd, I had no idea how it would even be playable, but it is now one of my favorite games.

    It is a tough question though. I have far more “reads well, plays poorly” experiences than the opposite. If something reads poorly, I typically do not run it.

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    1. Could you tell me more about your initial experience with Into The Odd?

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  3. Original D&D was meant to be played!

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  4. I have a very hard time forcing myself to read through Matt Finch's adventures, but plenty of people swear by them. And by modern standards, reading most early adventures is a chore, but people can't seem to get enough recreations of Keep on the Borderlands.

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    1. What do you think makes Finch difficult for you?

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    2. Frog God Games house style of columns of text with minimal attention to formatting for use at the table. Also, Matt Finch sticks with more standard monsters and hews closer to D&D setting mainstays which diminishes my interest somewhat. Your work is what drew me into the OSR, after all.

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  5. Numenara has shit layout and character creation and rules reference suffers terribly… and the prose and art direction and art are pretty bad. But the game plays beautifully! I think the stats are novel and flow smoothly. Character advancement is particularly nice and advances at a much more satisfying and different pace than dnd.

    Top Secret the TSR game has been loads of fun every time I’ve run it but the prose is split up and laid out badly. Seems way too generic also

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    1. What about the relation of concepts to the way those ideas are delivered?

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    2. Numenara is I suppose Monte Cook’s attempts to create a better dnd with lessons learned from dnd but he had shitty production values, nonetheless the innovations are great.

      Top Secret is just another middling GURPs style publication that hits the sweet spot of genre tropes. And I think I owe it some credit for boiling down gurpsish combat .

      So basically production value is key to ideas delivery. But it is possible to have good concepts that amount to a fun game for fans even if your book is a mess. No surprises there.

      Maybe a thesis that good delivery and design layout isn’t the trpg savior it’s made out to be?

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    3. Also consider… what reads great but plays like shit?

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    4. I've not played Numenera, but the Cypher system strikes me as an incredibly well thought-through system for making play simple yet rich. It surprises me that there's not more content out there for Cypher in general (I'm guessing because of Monte Cook's limitations on usage) - I would love to publish my own work for Cypher, but it doesn't seem to me that there's enough market share out there to do it. If I could freely include the Cypher rules (with my own classes, skills, etc) then I would certainly be doing that.

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    5. Peter I never said it was a saviour! Don't make me banish you to the shadow realm!

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    6. Dan- so 'Cypher' is the basic engine behind Numenera? And does Cook specifically prefer people not to mess with his world, and/or not to use his engine?

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    7. Yeah, Cypher is the engine. I find it really elegant, and the core rules fit on probably a couple of pages (the rulebook itself is about 300 pages, but that's because it includes a bunch of skills and classes and genre-specific stuff, covering its use in fantasy, sci-fi, superhero or horror genres)

      I particularly like the rules around XP and "cyphers" - which are basically single-use magic items. Both seem really well designed to keep the game quick-running and interesting.

      I can't remember the exact license terms, but they seemed very restrictive, and at the level which I wanted to use it - which was basically writing an entirely new game but including those core mechanics - as you might do with, say, Into The Odd - I think it was basically "email us and we'll consider it", which I wasn't feeling bold enough to do at the time.

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    8. Cypher System is actually precisely what I think of when you say "written poorly, plays well". I have friends who swear by it and I've enjoyed it in play every time, but I find the rulebook to be a beautifully-illustrated complete crapshoot, it really is about 6 pages worth of core rules smeared over a whole long section. I looked at the license briefly and I also had the impression that it's vague enough to be risky for splatbooking, which always offends me when done by THE d20 guy.

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    9. Okay, Cypher's muddled and restrictive ideas delivery here being a turn-off for curious people.

      I certainly wouldnt buy any Numenara books because of how shitty I find the design/art to be. So I wouldnt it organize a group, etc. Even though I think the game design is pretty good. I'm also not crazy on the setting at all.

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  6. The original RIFTS looks like an awful system reading the mechanics, but the four color art and the world building on the original player's handbook for that game are too compelling to be denied. One session of set up and you are off to adventure in a ruined dystopian earth that has echoes of current technology strewn throughout the scraps of what you can scavenge.

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    1. So is it a case where the mechanics *look* really bad but actually run well, or are they still a bit rubbish but the power of the world itself overcomes them.

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    2. The mechanics are a bit rubbish for character generation and skills, they are quite okay for combat, and the power of the setting easily overcomes the crunchy junk because you can easily omit most of the more cumbersome mechanics.

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    3. The idea of decent mechanics for combat and improv much of the rest does seem to fit in with a certain style of OSR adjacent play...

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  7. FGU's Space Opera. Organizational nightmare, but once I consolidated all the resolution mechanics on one page the game plays fast. Character creation is straight forward and if the SM has a cool, original space opera universe to explore it is pure fun.

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    1. Hmm maybe we can call these 'fossil' games where they work pretty good and everything you need is there but you have to wire it together yourself to make it work

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  8. B2 - Keep on the Borderlands.

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    1. WHY Gus! Whyyyyyy??? Elucidate your response!

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    2. B2 appears both extremely simplistic in its descriptions and structure - almost minimalist description and obviously intended as an introductory romp and stomp of the humanoids within the Caves of Chaos.

      However, Gygax's approach to design has a few (unintended I believe)consequences.

      1) The cavern system full of organized enemies in numbers that might be 'challenging' in straight up combat to the large party recommended in B2 but will be almost unassailable by force (if they react in a reasonable manner) for the parties of 4 -6 that most often play it. This forces it into either becoming a monster zoo with static encounters, or demands players start scheming and plotting.

      2) The moral balance of the adventure (again I think this is a contra reading to Gygax's intent) is out of whack. The humanoids with few exceptions aren't really sinister and the inclusion of families and children in the Caves makes it disconcerting for many players to rampage through them. In contrast the Keep's rulers are likely to have negative interactions with the party (one of the priests violently betrays them even) often leading to players resenting the Keep and if not sympathizing with the Caves getting tired of killing their inhabitants.

      This creates an adventure that often goes into interesting directions and makes players struggle with the morality of their actions. It's robust enough to support this because Gygax spent so much of his limited space describing the Keep and wilderness. There's as much referee material for sacking the Keep as there is for the Caves. Again I don't think this is intentional, but it almost always works to create interesting situations.

      Plus the descriptions are so basic that it's easy to reskin.

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  9. The standards you make are the standards you get ... OD&D was so successful because people played it and talked about that instead of looking at it and taking that aspect apart. Reviewers nowadays most often don't play what they read, so what they talk about is their impression of a product's presentation, a distinction often lost to the reader. There is your cognitive dissonance, I'd wager. It's all style over substance now (on the surface, at least, but that's a lot of surface!), and with that, you not only encourage the production of lots of shiny trifle, you also open the door for pseudo-debates about whose poop is more shiny while keeping innovation out ...It's where the blog-o-sphere failed the scene. We are no longer mining for innovation or exploring ideas but showing feathers instead (which is why there isn't any cohesion anymore and everything is fractured into tribes). The reason that the question above even arises like that is symptom of a decline, imo, because if you expect certain artificial signals for content to be "of taste", you stopped looking where original content actually is created, and that's a dead end. How it plays is the thing, how it manifests might be bound to necessity above glitter.

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    1. Truly we live in a fallen eon. But that said, do you have any more specific examples in answer to the question I asked?

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    2. Sure. I guess Encounter Critical fits that bill while illustrating my point. Pre-DTP DIY asthetic which includes bad drawings, inconsistencies and ugly layout, not even proper information design ... an imitation, if not mockery, of what had to work early in the hobby. And it does still work despite playing on those shortcomings.

      Also HoL, for instance, doesn't read like something that could be played, but it works very well as a game (although it needs the supplement Buttery Wholesomeness to fully work, but that comes with the same caveats).

      Same goes for Violence, the RPG ... And I believe HackMaster 4e would fit your proposed dichotomy, as many held the believe it wasn't meant to be played because it was satire, however, it was a sincere revision of AD&D 3e and played very well as that. None of those "read like shit" (with the exception, maybe, of EC), but there where most certainly people out there thinking that way, dismissing those games publicly because of it and despite their quality designs.

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    3. *a revision of AD&D 2e, of course, but can be considered AD&D 3e as they almost exclusively worked with AD&D 2e for source material ...

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