One of our regular players climbed back into the GM chair to run us through some Gamma World
. The game was fun, light-hearted and a fresh reminder of what it felt like to play D&D 4e last year. It was also, for me, the very definition of a skirmish game.
Roleplaying, as I understand it, has its roots in tabletop miniatures gaming. Dungeons & Dragons
arose from a set of rules called Chainmail
and was a move away from the general big armies wargaming towards individual-level skirmishing.
As an old-time tabletop miniatures fan, I was quickly drawn into roleplaying due to the focus on skirmish-level combat combined with a sense of ongoing story.
As roleplaying games have developed over time, incorporating more and more people with a desire to roleplay (read: act, tell stories, play in role), games have developed with less tactical-combat focus and looser overall rules. But it's not all been in that direction... especially in the arena of fantasy roleplaying.
Dungeons & Dragons
Of strongest interest over the years has been the development of the D&D roleplaying experience. Born out of skirmish wargaming it was initially loose, wholly and open to much interpretation. A play-style now re-titled as "Old School" emerged in which combat was certainly a part of the game but also surrounded by free-form exploration and story-telling which gave an ongoing depth to most of the individual skirmishes. This play style has, I think, in turn influenced wargaming through the encouragement of detailed tabletop campaigns, in which games are linked together to form a narrative.
Over the years, however, D&D developed stronger rules with an emphasis on clarity and stability. As rules were expanded and nailed down so the most tangible area of the action, fighting, found itself expanding and becoming more detailed. By the time we reached the D&D 4e rules the game had become so heavily focused on fighting and combat that I (and others in our group) labelled it as essentially a tabletop skirmish game.
This trend is not isolated to D&D, however. I see the influence of wargaming in systems like Savage Worlds. A lot of fun is had by millions of players worldwide with this kind of skirmish-roleplaying fusion. There is nothing wrong with it either... it's just not quite something that gives me the "whole experience".
At the other extreme lies story-telling, the form of roleplaying in which combat is often either minimised or abstracted to a large degree, certainly doing away with miniatures and combat maps. The focus is on the characterisation and development of a story, plot and much more intrigue. Most players of the extreme forms of this style are wannabe or actual actors... or at least give that impression. Again, nothing wrong with it.
Except... it's not my style either. As a gamer raised on tactical wargames it's a dull session in which it's all talk and no action. Fantasy and SF stories are rife with the action and that's what I like in my RPGs too.
The middle-way for my games is a fusion. I like the skirmish roots of RPGs, especially the action and detail of a good combat system. I also want to blend in a plot, strong characterisation, rich setting and other story-telling elements. What gets harder to find is two things: 1. a system that supports a blend and, 2. players who seek a blend.
Over time I have sensed a polarisation in gaming style, with the schism focused on skirmish versus story-telling. When we played some Old School a month or two ago it was a revelation to understand just how pervasive this schism has become. It's also sub-conscious... and, here's where I stick my neck out, that schism is unhealthy.
Both styles have much to share. The GM who can blend both a good skirmish scenario with a rich plot and encourage players to develop engaging characters is a rare dude indeed. Yet that is something I would aspire towards because his or her game would be rich and exciting and a whole bundle of fun... varied, deep, engaging.
What's the practical upshot? For me it's about considering the balance.
When it's all encounter to encounter focused on the fighting it gets stale quickly. If it's all talk and plot and interaction it slows down. When it's a fusion of high-paced action and deep engaging character interactions then that's when it gets to be really absorbing. The real trick, I guess, is knowing just how to get that balance right... for your players and yourself.