Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

The Ongoing Search for the Perfect RPG

October 24, 2011

I don’t completely remember my first gaming experience.  I know it was one of the few at my friend Blair’s house, before his father — a Southern Baptist minister — decided what we were doing was demonic (So we switched to Traveller when we were at Blair’s).  I do remember that my red-box human cleric died, and Blair handed me another character, “Belwe” a cleric with perhaps the lowest Intelligence I’ve ever played.Belwe went on to horribly ruin his relationship with his god, when he failed to capture the sould of what I believe was the lich in Tomb of Horrors.  Still, something about that: making up stuff that you could do, rolling dice, the bit of sadistic glee of the youth minister who ran the games was fun.  The morals of the time meant we switched to Traveller fairly quickly, but I picked up a red box set, then the AD&D books, along with Traveller, Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, Gamma World, DC Heroes and Champions.

I was, to put it mildly, completely hooked.

I was also a tinkerer.  D&D wasn’t quite right — why were demi-humans capped in level? Traveller had too many different types of guns.  Champions’ point-buy character creation was too easy to manipulate, and so on.

So I went on the search for the perfect gaming system, even as I kept playing D&D and Traveller.  Generic systems interested me, GURPS tried to hard to allow all genres all the time, and FUDGE required a lot of setup work and had problems with advancement. FATE (which is based on FUDGE) answered helped with a lot of that, but you still needed skill lists for the players, for whatever setting you decided to settle on.

Even so, I was changing as a gamer. I cared less and less about the system, and how it simulated the world, and more and more about having fun and telling good stories.  I started writing more and more, and telling tales became more important.

I started looking at narrativist games.  These games tied the mechanics of their systems heavily into the story world and the character motivations.  They were limited in scope — you always play an amnesiac in A Penny for My Thoughts; you always play a horrible minion in My Life With Master.  These games vary, but in general they get player buy in to the setting by tying character, mechanics and setting tightly together.

In doing so, through the character and mechanics, it invest the player in the story.  In most of these games, players can frame scenes or decide how they work out.  In some the GM is very limited in what she can do, to allow for more player freedom and involvement in the story.

None of these systems were perfect, but they were often perfect microcosms.  Instead of one big perfect game, you had many that were perfect within their scope.  The problem is, you have a fun game, and you say “Anyone want to play amnesiacs, or people who don’t sleep, or…” whatever, but it’s not quite what everyone wants to do.  So you play a bit more D&D.

And that is where we get to Bhaloidam.

The first time I saw someone play Bhaloidam (long before it was called that) was at PAX.  Corvus and I were friends from online — I’d been following his blog for some time, and we’d been talking on IRC for a while.  Meeting him (and a bunch of other people) was one of my main reasons to go to PAX.  Another, not wholly unrelated, was to see and play Bhaloidam.

I watched as Corvus ran the players (three folks I didn’t recognize nor remember) through what sounded like a fairly typical RPG scenario.  They were homeless teens, being trained or taunted by a Fagin type character.  This was a battle, and I watched as they rolled dice, and moved around the board. One of the players said, “I’m going to knock him into the trashcan.”

“No, no,” Corvus said.  “Roll the dice first, then tell me what happened.”

And I thought hmmm.

The dice were rolled, and it went very well for the player.  “Now,” Corvus said, “You can do something else if you want, because the dice is more than you need than to just attack him.”  He went on to describe the mechanical aspects, which involved moving the Fagin character behind a trashcan or something, and improving the overall lot of the part in creative ways.

Players already have some investment in their characters.  Some expand that to an investment in the story being told.  By letting these player say what happened, to tell the story that makes their characters heroes (or whatever they want them to be), Bhaloidam was leveraging that investment into investment in the story.  Like narrativist games, the storytelling balance shifts a bit from the GM to the players, and everyone gets more involved.

My turn to try out the game came a few hours later.with several of my closer online friends: Dierdre Kiai, Travis Megill, and Max Battcher.  “We’re doing something different, if you don’t mind,” Corvus said.

“Go for it,” I said.  Different is good. If I wanted to fight enemies, I have a bookcase full of D&D books.

He then went on to describe to me what has become known as the Kiai-Megill variant.  I had a slip of paper with a secret, a suspicion and a short background written on it.  I had one of the character boards, and quickly placed my token on it, describing my character.  (Or it was done for me — I’ve done it several times since, and it’s pretty straightforward, and probably even easier with actual tokens in your hand than on a spreadsheet).

In this version, which Corvus writes about recently, and which Travis described closer to the time we played, we didn’t move about a board.  We could talk, when it was our turn (and we could adjust when that was).  As our Ego was spilt (as we lost health, so to speak), we could be pushed to reveal some of our secrets, suspicions or other information.  The whole thing was just us talking, but it felt balanced, nuanced and yet mechanically played just like the earlier group who was fighting.

Most of narrativist games today do that by tying everything to the setting, but Corvus has found a good way to do that without tying to setting, so we can collectively tell any story we can imagine. I’m pretty sure that Bhaloidam is my next step along the way of searching for that perfect game.  I’ve backed the Kickstarter, and so can you.