Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Challenge of Capturing Flavor in an RPG

I love the game Far Away Land. It's OSR in that it's a rules-light sort of game. I've only played it once or twice myself, although it was the first RPG I suggested my middle school aged son take to his after school game club. Far Away Land just drips with flavor. It's part Adventure Time, part D&D, part...something entirely different. Just look at this picture and you'll see what I mean:

Pictured: WTF?
That's a group of bear-mounted nuns battling hive mind clones of Abraham Lincoln. Those are stock NPCs / Adversaries of the default world in which Faraway Land is set. Reading through the book is an absolute treat. There is a whole lot of zany lore that is helps to give the game a very unique tone and voice. The unique art helps in this regard as well.

I have come here both to bury and to praise, however. You see, as much as I love reading FAL, even trying my hand at doing a little of my own art for FAL, when I've run it the game felt like D&D. None of that awesome unique flavor translated onto the tabletop.

Even if you don't personally care for the stuff I just showed you, bear with me. I'm a pretty experienced GM. I've run a lot of D&D and a smattering of other games over the past 25 years or so. As a GM, I think I do D&D pretty well and I'm a fair hand at horror games. While I can't create the feeling of dread that Call of Cthulhu or Ravenloft are supposed to engender, I at least know what I'm aiming for when I run one of those games.

However, I have no idea how to create the kinds of feelings I get from reading FAL when actually playing it. One of the problems is that FAL gains a lot of its flavor from the art. Roleplaying takes place mostly in the player's imaginations, however, in the theater of the mind. How can I achieve the same effect at the table?

I've never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight...
I don't have an answer for that. I'm honestly asking because I don't know. This kind of thing isn't limited to Far Away Land, of course. Any game with a signature look could create a similar challenge for the GM. Part of Planescape's appeal in the 90s was certainly the wonderfully stylized Tony DiTerlizzi art.

Would Dark Sun really be Dark Sun if not for the weird stuff that Brom created for that setting's boxed set and various supplements?

I've never played a single game of Dark Sun, but man did I love looking at the books. A lot of people I know did the same. We all talked in hushed tones about how deadly a setting Athas was, or how characters started at level 3(!), but we never actually played it. "Cannibal halflings!" we'd laugh. Then we'd go play in our generic, home-brewed fantasy settings. Or stupid Forgotten Realms.

The creator of Far Away Land seems like he might be aware of this challenge. You can get a deck of cards that depict the game's monsters. There are stats on the back for the GM and pictures for the players to look at on the front. I have to wonder if this doesn't have the same effect that miniatures can create. Meaning, once you have a picture or miniature for a bunch of monsters, the GM feels like he can't use monsters for which he doesn't have a good representation.

Maybe I'm underestimating the effectiveness of props. Maybe, once the players see a bunch of creature pictures done in this style, they'll begin to imagine everything the GM describes in a similar fashion. Maybe...

In the end, I'm left wondering if some games just read a little, not better, but maybe a little more evocative than they actually play. I'm not sure what, if anything, a GM can do to help this problem.

It makes me kind of sad, because there are some cool looking games out there.

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