Well, here it is over a week since I've been back and interest in Phoenix Earth remains rather low. Curiously, this is not as disappointing as I had thought it would be. As Mr. Clean reminded me, I can be assured that the crew back home is most interested indeed. And really, that's okay for now. I have the opportunity to play with lots of folks up here through the Stanford Gaming Society, but I'm a little put off by that whole deal, to tell you the truth. Mind, it's not that I think that they're bad players, or that they'll be way better than me. It's just that the vibe I get off of those games is that they're, well, games. And while I admit that that kind of thing can be fun, I don't roleplay to play a game. I do it to tell a story through the vehicle of a game, which is another thing altogether. And then there's the prevalence of the D&D 3rd edition (which I will refer to hereafter as the D20 system, though I realize that's slightly inaccurate).
Now, don't get me wrong. As a gamer myself, I do appreciate the virtues of the D20 system. From a gaming standpoint it's really rather impressively optimized for allowing players to beat merrily away at imposing ranks of monsters who exist for no particular purpose other than being beat upon. And it's not that I don't think that the D20 system could be used to tell stories - I rather expect that the game Red Jenny is involved in will do just that. But I think that when a good story is told in that system it's in spite of the system rather than because of it.
Allow me to elaborate. Roleplaying games exist on a continuum, with pure storytelling at one end and pure gaming on the other. The hobby actually started out on the pure gaming end. The further to that extreme you go, the more rules and restrictions you find yourself mired in. If you want to emphasize storytelling, then, you've got to either do away with rules entirely or else find yourself a system that mimics reality as closely as possible. A good roleplaying game consists fundamentally of a world - a set of universe laws (e.g., "physics remains unaltered; magic works in the following ways; here is the technology level we're at and the current state of knowledge") - and within those laws anything that would be possible ought to be possible in the game, and my intuitive sense of the world ought to apply to the results the rules of the game churn out. If I jump, I want the rules to say I come down. And this is where my problem with the D20 system lies.
My beef consists of two parts. First is the question of classes. I have no particular problem with the idea of classes, but I think the D20 system mplements them poorly because it plays too much with causality. Take the example of a paladin. A paladin in the 3rd edition is a holy knight with some vaguely defined devotion to righteousness, whatever that means. Because of this devotion he or she is granted several supernatural powers (by "righteousness," apparently ... but I digress). Now that's all well and good; I can accept a world where righteousness is some sort of force of nature or even a personal being. But the truth of the matter is that people play paladins because of their powers, not because of what they are. This is pointed out by the fact that if a mage decides to devote himself or herself to the pursuit of righteousness, what does he gain by it? A bunch of ethical restrictions, that's what. Of course the mage could just decide to level up as a paladin ... but that's to say that so far as the game is concerned the mage only gains the benefits of devotion to righteousness when he becomes a paladin. It's the way the game rules work, but not the way game reality works. A person's class should be defined by what they do, not the other way around.
Then there's the question of what classes are even available. Leveling up in D&D translates, essentially, into the ability to beat things more effectively. Now, that's all well and good so far as it goes ... but what about the other parts of life, the ones that don't involve mayhem? There are people who spend their whole lives studying etiquette, which is most assuredly a non-violent pursuit. Where is the provision in this system for skills and classes that are strong in the mental and social aspects of life (and no, wizards don't count. All of their arcane study has one ultimate goal: beating on things)? I don't object to carnage and mayhem in a roleplaying game, but most of life is nonviolent. And the D20 system utterly fails to model that.
Second is the question of armor. This is my huge and eternal complaint about the D&D system. Consider the example of a man wearing plate mail who is struck by a sword, and the example of a man wearing street clothes who is struck by a sword. According to the D&D system, I have a vastly inferior chance of wounding the man in plate. This is true. However, granted that I do wound them both, I will deal exactly the same damage to each.
This is obviously absurd. The only conceivable representation of this is that I have actually penetrated the clothing of both men and my sword is literally inside their bodies, displacing an equal amount of tissue. Now, I won't deny that that's possible - plate mail can certainly be penetrated by muscle power. But that means that every time I damage somebody in the D&D system, I leave them with a gaping hole in their armor. Which is obviously absurd (and let's not even think about how bludgeoning a man in plate has the same effect as bludgeoning a man in civies. Explain that one to me, if you can). Armor does more than deflect a blow, it also lessens the force of it. The system needs a damage resistance quality built into its armor - not just into the feats of certain classes - in order to accurately mimic reality. And that doesn't even begin to mimic the effects of a gun: if I shoot a man in plate and a man in civies they are both very likely to take comparable amounts of damage. Why? Not because the bullet does more damage to one than the other; it's still the same bullet. If I shoot a man in plate he falls down; if I shoot a man in civies he falls down - he doesn't explode or anything. So weapons too need a characteristic that allow them to bypass or partially ignore armor.
And then let's consider the question of wounding. There are, I believe, two methods of inflicting harm to the human body: tissue disruption or tissue displacement. A bludgeon (or a penetrating weapon that doesn't penetrate the skin) inflicts tissue disruption through the transfer of energy. We know that that can be damaging and even lethal (c.f. the case of the hoplite who dies of a head wound without his helmet ever being penetrated, or the man whose ribs get broken when a bullet strikes his bullet proof vest). But it's a very different quality of armor that stops tissue disruption as opposed to tissue displacement. Take the case of chain mail: a man in chain is reasonably well protected against most swords, for instance. He is less well protected against a maul. A man in thickly padded armor is reasonably well protected against bludgeons, but not less so against a sharp object. There needs to be some sort of distinction there, and in the D&D system there isn't.
And finally we get into the question of the type of attack. The plasma jet evolved by a shaped charge round is defeated by significantly different physical properties than defeat a kinetic attack, or an energy one. A rubber suit will protect me just fine from your chain lightning, but not from your sword. Rolled homogenous steel will protect me just fine from your sword, but not from your plasma jet (or your fireball). Where's the distinction? Why do we have a world where all those types of attack exist and a rules system that isn't even passingly aware of it?
Of course the argument against all that stuff is that they slow down gameplay. But I would argue that gameplay is not what roleplaying is about (and if you disagree, by all means go ahead and use the D&D system). Roleplaying is about acting, about telling a story. If we must have rules let them enhance the experience of the game. Let them give the players insight into what exactly just happened. Let them give the DM suggestions about how to narrate what just went on. Let them introduce an element of chance into the narrative. But let them be grounded in the narrative and never stray, or else they are inhibiting the point of the game itself.