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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr, Day Six: Fat games (and character creation part three)



So RPG blogger Zak S. of Playing Dungeons and Dragons with Pornstars once divided games into "fat" and "skinny" games. I think this is a pretty interesting distinction -- it isn't quite the same as rules-light vs rules-heavy, although they often go together. A "fat" game is a game with lots of stuff, usually mechanical stuff but not always. You can have a relatively simple core mechanic but still have lots of stuff in your library -- spells, monsters, items, abilities, that kind of thing. All of the different animals in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness are fat content, for instance. The monsters in D&D. All the weird equipment in Rogue trader, like porta-racks and synskin and hoverboards. The superpowers in Marvel Super Heroes.

I think this is often overlooked, honestly. When we pore over RPG rulebooks until late into the night, it's usually that kind of thing we care about. People who love Unknown Armies usually don't care about the game's somewhat clunky core mechanics (other than the excellent Madness Meters) so much as the many many different magic schools and Avatar paths and whatnot.

I think we can conclusively say that World of Synnibarr is a fat game. Although the rules are complex, with long character generation and lots of spot rules, the real density of the book is in the powers. (No, wait. These are p0w0rz.)

The book is 477 pages long, including index, appendices and all that stuff. Of this, 88 pages are monsters and a whopping 102 pages are spells, psychic powers and what have you. Character creation is the longest section of the rules, at 81 pages (!), but even then that's because it contains all the descriptions of the different classes and races and their various powers. The combat and spellcasting rules take up a mere 16 pages all told. There are lots of other spot rules here and there, but a lot of the rest of the book is taken up with setting description (33 pages), equipment (35 pages) and so on. Even the gods get 7 pages of dense three-column text.

So when I say that the game is complicated, it's not so much that the rules are complicated (although there are a hell of a lot of steps in many processes) as that there is a lot of stuff in it. You're never going to find, like, a fighter hitting a goblin with a sword. It's always going to be a Bio-Syntha Cyborg (who has a ton of special rules) shooting his Midnight Sunstone Bazooka (which probably has its own special rules) at a Sea Unicorn (which, in turn ...).

Now, fat games are deceptively simple for players in some ways. For instance, even though there are umpty-bajillion different magic schools in Unknown Armies, I as a player only need to know the rules for my one (though maybe I care about knowing what they all do in order to choose the one that's right for me, I guess). But the GM, of course, has to know what all the players' stuff does, and then also needs to know what all the monsters and NPCs and so on can do. In a D&D-type game, this is usually relatively simple. If I roll "wolf" on the random encounter table, I just turn to p. 101 of the Monster Manual and away we go. In fact, I don't even really have to do that -- I only need to know a handful of stats for the critter: move, hit dice, AC, to-hit, damage. I can fudge the rest.

But there isn't an equivalent of that in Synnibarr, as far as I can tell. Almost every damn thing has crazy powers, so I'll constantly be flipping back and forth to the powers section. Sandbox play becomes kind of a hassle.

The way around this, of course, is to be Raven c.s. McCracken himself and just have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game so that you can know without looking that a Black Titanium Wolverine has 5 attacks per turn + 1 for every 5 levels.

Anyway, character creation continues:



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