Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #10 - The New Skin

Yeah, that's Barney, but it's still DOOM under the hood.

When it comes to RPGs there are few constants, but one of those is that if you get enough gamers in a room as ask what their favorite RPG is you will not get 100% agreement.  Sometimes "enough gamers" is two. Regardless, we gamers have been tinkering for decades now trying to make the "best" game we can. Sometimes that involves setting, sometimes it involves rules, and sometimes it involves mechanics of random number generation.

Players and GMs have also been more than willing to take the "takeout menu" approach as well "I'll take a little from column A and a little from column B" mixing and matching rules between games, mixing the setting from one game with the mechanics from another, or even mixing and matching genres.  All's fair in love and war ... and gaming.

Skinning and hacking are complicated subjects. There's not really a clear demarcation between the two, and plenty of ways to approach the subject.  I'm not too smart though so I'm going to try anyway. I'm going to start with re-skinning, because ... I dunno, reasons?

Re-Skinning is something that has probably been around for almost as long as RPGs themselves.  To me re-skinning is when you take a game's mechanics and leave them alone, and simply put a new setting, and setting terminology, on top.  So long as you aren't changing game mechanics, its a skin, once you start touching the way the game resolves things and works that is a Hack (I'll do another column for Hacking).  This is where games with "universal" mechanics/systems come to play.  Stuff like FATE and GURPS where the selling point is that you can use it for whatever you want and never have to learn something new.

Re-skinning often comes into play when you have popular settings that don't have an official RPG.  Take Mass Effect as an example. In the year and change that Monte Cook's Cypher system has been in the wild I have seen at least two different instances of people skinning the Cypher system to serve as a mechanical foundation for Mass Effect.  Likewise I have seen similar attempts for the AGE system used in Green Ronin's Dragon Age RPG, to skin it for Mass Effect. I'd wager there are several more systems, and dozens of examples across those just to reskin RPGs for Mass Effect. Seems like BioWare and some lucky RPG publisher could make some money if they wanted (and from what I hear BioWare isn't interested).

It's probably safe to say that to some degree most RPGs players have done some re-skinning at one point or another.  It could be as simple as a home grown setting for D&D with some minor changes to clerical gods, or it could involve turning something into something else.

Mutants & Masterminds isn't billed as a universal system, and if you've ever played it you probably know that it is keyed toward comic book style game play.  At it's heart though is a very smartly designed point-based system that can be used to simulate darn near any kind of power, be they super, magic, mutant, or something else.  Internal to the game this is done with a finite list of basic effects that are built up with modifiers and skinned to fit the effect desired with descriptors. In other words, at the mechanics level, a gun and a super power energy blast use the same basic rules, they inflict Damage (the effect) at range (a modifier). The only difference is the descriptor which describe the context of the mechanical effect; bullets for one and fire for the other for example.

This is a perfect system to lay a skin on and use for whatever you want.  So long as what you want is a game that will feel like a comic book.  And that is what brings us to the first big talking point.

Game mechanics have a certain "feel" to them.

You can skin Mutants and Masterminds all you want but it will always feel and play a little like a comic book game due to the way it is designed.  You could change some of the rules but that would be a Hack, and that is a different column.

When you are looking to play in a certain setting, keeping in mind the tone and style of the gameplay you want is crucial when you pick the game system/mechanics you are going to use.  It doesn't matter what setting you use you are probably not going to get an "old school" feel if you are using White Wolf's World of Darkness as you mechanical system. Likewise you'll not get a very superheroic game in the Marvel Universe if you are using the 2nd Edition Shadowrun rules. The mechanics provide a certain feel to the gameplay, just like the setting does so when you are trying to find a system to skin a game setting onto the feel of the intended gameplay experience is pretty important.

I think finding the correct feel for a skinned game comes down to two aspects: genre and tone.

Let's go back to a prior example; let's say that you really want to play some Mass Effect.  There's no RPG out there for that series so you start by looking for a system to skin.  Genre is going to make a huge difference here.  Few people are going to even consider a fantasy game like D&D, Ars Magica, or the like.  That's common sense, these games have little in common with Mass Effect and would be all but impossible to skin.  Why? Because they don't do what needs to be done mechanically.  There are no rules for modern firearms there, and while spells could take the place of the Mass Effect biotics, the whole thing wouldn't capture the feel you wanted.

You could take the current Fantasy Flight Star Wars games and try to play Mass Effect with them.  Use Force powers for biotics, build your own starships (or not), and generally just change names.  It's bound to give you a better fit for Mass Effect than D&D would.  Likewise you could skin Diablo onto something like Earthdawn get a better result than if you tried using Rifts.

There's more to skinning than picking the right mechanics for the genre.  Sure, choosing the right game to use for mechanics will make your job easier, but it also influences the tone of the game. I mentioned how the mechanics behind Mutants & Masterminds are capable of creating almost any kind or power you want a character or creature to have.  I stand by that, and really feel that there is a lot that system can do, but the tone of the game is one of superheroics, and the characters always feel extremely capable.  Combat in the M&M system isn't very deadly, and healing tends to be quick, because in comics people get beat down all the time and pop right back up a few pages later ready to face off against the big bad.

Genre-wise M&M is very flexible, I tried a fantasy game using those rules and the characters felt very authentic to a fantasy world.  The mages could sling magic, the warriors had mighty weapons, and great skill, but tonally the game wasn't anything like D&D. The magic users could cast far more spells and far more frequently than in D&D, while the less-lethal combat meant that clerics healed less and fought more; they certainly felt more militant to me.  The result was a fun game, but it wouldn't work for an old school dungeon crawl where every room and corner should bring the looming threat of potential doom.

The hard part here is that tone and genre both are informed by setting and mechanics.  Genre informs what kinds of mechanics you will need (try playing a Star Wars game without rules for starship combat), or don't need (how often do you need aircraft rules in a dungeon crawl?).  Tone informs (and is informed by) the way those mechanics work to make the players feel their character interact with the world.

Imagine how different a game feels when the only thing you change is the damage done by monsters?  If you double the amount of damage they can deal then each combat becomes a potential bloodbath where the players are far more likely to take significant injuries and risk death.  Want to make your characters feel like action heroes? Cut the monster health by half and watch as the PCs become ultra capable gods of combat, killing enemies far more easily.

Assuming you don't want to fiddle with rules changes and hack something for your game just keep in mind the genre and tone of the game you want to play as you look for a game system to skin.  keeping those aspects of the experience in mind will help you to choose the best fit for your needs, or potentially give you ideas how to tweak things for an interesting new experience.  Imagine a Star Wars game where death potentially hides behind every combat roll, or a Shadowrun game where magic is twice as dangerous to the caster and the target.

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Tangential to the discussion above, but entirely related to it, is an experiment that my friend and fellow blogger +James Walls is trying.  He's calling it Quattro con Carnage - Tannryth: Realm of … Something and in the coming few weeks he is going to run a campaign in eight sessions across four systems.  The idea is to keep the setting and the characters the same and see how each system changes the feel of game; essentially reskinning the same characters and setting onto four systems.

He's invited me to take part in this, and I plan to write a couple columns about it; after each system change I am expecting to write about the change that each system has brought to the tone of the game.  I expect to find that these changes will impact the sessions, the characters, and the play experience dramatically. I hope you all will come back and join me as I discuss this experiment, and how the above thoughts impact and are impacted by it.