Pastiche roleplaying: the system

A post by the Mixed GM got me thinking about what I’m trying to do with the FAR System and FAR Western — in essence, what I’ve been doing is trying to mix RPG game styles that I like. But not simply as a pastiche. I could probably slap together Pastiche: The System and have some fun playing it as a homebrew, but I want to make a real system. One that’s uniquely mine and that works not just for me, but for other people, too. Maybe people would even pay money to buy the rulebook and play it. (Dream on…)

I have never actually played any OSR (old-school roleplaying) games, but still, some of the points the Mixed GM makes about why he’s finding OSR systems superior to modern D&D and Pathfinder struck a chord with me…if only because I loathe most of the same things OSR adherents loathe about Pathfinder et. al.

For one thing, Pathfinder’s crazy-complex system of skills and feats and character classes that endlessly branch from one another just drives me nuts. It’s detailed, sure — but for me it’s the wrong kind of detail: fussy, convoluted, and rule-bound to the point where you have to game the game to play the game.

I much prefer either a compact set of basic skills that can cover a wide variety of situations (ICE’s old MERP system is my touchstone for that) or…something else that I haven’t yet defined. Whatever it is, I want a skills-and-abilities system that’s streamlined and flexible, but I don’t know what that ought to look like yet. It’s one of the things I’m currently stuck on.

Another thing that drives me up the wall with most modern D20 systems is that even with all their complexity and detail in other areas, life-and-death situations still come down to a flavorless combat mechanic that boils down to “roll-to-hit and deal X hit points.”

As I’ve said many times before, I like combat systems that are lethal — as it seems the original D&D was — and full of brutality and flavor (for which I have Iron Crown Enterprises’ Rolemaster critical hit tables to thank).

Although I do agree with a lot of the things the OSR crowd doesn’t like about many game systems, I’m not going for OSR style in any way. Other things I’m doing would probably (maybe) set the OSR crowd’s teeth on edge. I like the way many of the games that have come out since the turn of the century use character-based mechanics — personality, goals, motivations, backstory — to drive the game. Even though my old MERP sessions were mostly hack-and-slash fests, all our characters had backstories and were played as individuals who had personal reasons for hacking and slashing in the first place. So I want to make a game in which characters are individuals who have a place in the world, not just “I rolled up a level 1 cleric named Dunstable.”

The holy grail for me, by the way, is Song of Swords. Their combat system is unmatched for realism, and although it takes some learning to play, once you know what to do it’s reasonably quick to play. And it’s built around character goals in a way that makes the game deeper (not harder). Their whole system is brilliant, actually, and makes me jealous.

Paradoxically, although I love lethal, brutal combat, I also reallyreallyreally hate it when my character dies…so I’ve gone to great lengths to temper my lethal combat system with character-based mechanics that help PCs not to just die suddenly halfway through the first game session. You can still die quickly if you’re a careless fool, but if you play well you should have plenty of game time to enjoy your character.

I have no illusions about reaching Song of Swords level of across-the-board realism, but (hubris alert!) I think I can do a better job than any RPG system I’ve ever seen when it comes to making combat with firearms both realistic and fun (if only because the Song of Swords crew hasn’t tackled modern firearms). And those awesome guns — the way they become an extension of the hero’s will and the villain’s vileness, the way they enable self-sufficiency in a dangerous world, and the way classic firearms are just inherently cool — are a huge part of what makes the Old West such an appealing setting for storytelling. To me, anyway.

Plus, ‘Murica! My direct ancestors were out on the 19th century frontier making America. That inspires me, and I like to think that my game might honor them in some way (a weird, nerdy, probably pointless way, but still…). I hope this game will help whoever plays it to evoke the spirit of the American West that my family created and lived in.

Will any of it work? Well, so far, what there is of it works for me and mine. If…when…I get the whole system put together, maybe we’ll see about the rest of you.

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