So recently I've been considering trying to start running games again, having been playing for a while now (with mostly different people, though that's unconnected) and sorted out some real life inconveniences. A couple of my old players have prodded me on the subject, so I had a bit of a chat about things this weekend over board games. The outcome threw me slightly.
I'd been considering this on the assumption (based on their own comments) that they'd want to either revive Pathfinder or pick up some D&D 4E again. Both of these can be very low-overhead to run: there's a whole swathe of prewritten adventures or seeds out there you can adapt or crib from, plus simple encounter generation rules for unexpected trouble. In both you tend to operate in a relatively limited area at any one time, which means little need for pre-building regions, and I have a decent overall world map for general politicking and cultural stuff (I used the same world for both, and plan to continue doing so). The default playstyle is wandering into an area and poking whatever's there, which makes devising things to do relatively simple: much of the time, either monsters happen to the party, or the party explore an area and interact with what they find; in either case the dungeoneering rules can amply deal with most things that are likely to happen in a fairly satisfying way.
As it turned out, the players who stayed around to chat decided they weren't particularly interested in going into dungeons to meet new and exciting people and take their stuff.* It is... not entirely clear what they do want (most haven't played that much, so it's hard for them to know), but it seems to be a combination of more interpersonal stuff and a less encounter-focused premise. Now, I know that it's entirely possible to run such things in D&D variants, but I have to admit I haven't the faintest idea how. Previous research suggests there's minimal existing content along those lines, which I reckon is a combination of a) minority interest, and b) difficulty.
The advantage of encounter-based adventure design is that you really don't need to worry too much about the party - that's the GM's job in selecting suitable adventures and picking hooks. If you're attacked by a rampaging band of orcs, or stumble into a troll den, or find a shiny artefact lying around, it's fairly clear that a response is needed and the range of responses is broadly predictable. While no plan survives contact with the enemy, the robust rules for said contact should allow you to at least get some fun out of it. However, non-encounter storylines are much trickier. If you decide to go for plotting or mystery, then you need a reasonable idea of the various NPCs and their attitudes and relationships, plus clues as to what's going on so the players can actually twig. You also need to consider how the PCs are likely to respond (on the basis of your limited insight) and what that means for the NPCs. The plot needs to be something that both players and PCs would reasonably be interested in and get involved in, and be within their capability to handle (whatever that means in practice). Oh, and for most players you want to make sure that it's a game, rather than a story with occasional die-rolling. Exploration is fun, but is more of an overlay (like "being a mercenary" or "working for law enforcement") than an adventure in itself: the place being explored needs to be populated with things to do. Simply getting on with life calls for a reasonably detailed setup and (probably) a lot of NPCs whose lives can intertwine with the PCs in meaningful ways - and this isn't something D&D is designed for. You also need the players to have a reasonable idea what they want, and ideally, know how to help steer the game in directions they’d prefer.
In short, running something other than "go on adventures where you meet monsters and fight them because they're there" in D&D is really an awful lot of work, most of which falls on the GM, much of which has to be done on the fly, and which has limited support from the actual system. I can't see myself handling that. Inventing details on the fly, that I can cope with. A related concern is that none of the players are very experienced, and so they're less likely to shoulder much of the work themselves by controlling plot and so on. This all sounds very pessimistic, I'm aware, but healthwise it's important for me to not take on things that I won't actually be able to manage.
Anyway, we talked a bit about other options - Call of Cthulhu came up, as a couple of the players have been in my games and apparently enjoyed them. I'd be willing to do some more, but I do already have one Cthulhu campaign on hiatus due to player availability, and having experienced Pathfinder's chargen people are keen not to do lots of one-shots that require regular chargen. Also, I have an ambivalent relationship with Call of Cthulhu because a lot of the scenarios aren’t great by my reckoning, and others have a tone that I don’t enjoy (I consider Lovecraftian to be Weird, rather than Horror, and play fairly unserious games). The other thing that came up, because I do own it, was Traveller.
In some ways I think Traveller might help with the D&D problems I mentioned. The game is more obviously player-driven, with people hopping around worlds and seeing what's to do. They have non-combat things to play around with, like trading and maintenance and finding jobs. There are bills to pay, cultures to explore. On the downside, I don't know that much about it (bar what I've learned from Close The Airlock! and Arthur, and my sci-fi knowledge is weaker than my fantasy background, especially where planet-hopping is concerned. I'm not entirely sure, but it seems like it's worth investigating, so I thought I'd start off by rolling up a subsector and see where that gets me. I like this kind of stuff.
Because it's a high-tech setting, with potentially vast variation between worlds, there's pitfalls to watch out for in terms of having planets that can actually feasibly support the space-hopping setting, places to explore and so on. Luckily Traveller has a robust subsector-designing guide to ensure you end up with a setting that's functional, plausible, interesting, and has a good balance of sci-fi elements, right? Right?
There are, it seems, some issues with Traveller world creation. I've spotted some of these myself, others have been raised by others around the Net. So next post I'll be having a glance at those and seeing how much they actually matter.
*Obviously, it may be that the other players feel differently, in which case we'll need to negotiate this again.