A little over a year ago my youngest daughter (who just turned 26 on August 9th) came to live with me. She is an excellent cook. It was wonderful having her at the house during the period of time where my girlfriend was slowly dying of lung cancer. She cooked a lot of wonderful food for us. However, she has had some less than stellar moments. A few months ago I grabbed some brownie mix for myself, a friend, and my new girlfriend. Because we didn’t have any in the house, I also bought some plain vegetable oil. My daughter Kira offered to make the brownies so of course I accepted. As the brownies were cooling I noticed that the vegetable oil had not been opened. When I asked her about this she said she simply used olive oil. The brownies were still… good, but there was definitely a noticeable aftertaste of what was definitely not light olive oil. This was a substitution which did not work very well.
Any RPG experience is a mixture of several different elements. Substituting something for anyone of them tends to have an effect on the final product. Sometimes this effect is subtle, and sometimes it is quite profound. Sometimes the substitutions are not exactly planned, such as when a player drops out and another one joins. However, very often the substitutions are quite intentional. This is a particular interest to me because I am able to experience the difference that this change makes in how play feels.
Having a fairly strong OSR background and having cut my teeth playing the older versions of TSR D&D, I am no stranger to substituting one set of mechanics for another one, or substituting one set of procedures for another. This “design by substitution” is a large part of the OSR phenomenon and can produce some very different games. Lamentations of the flame princess and astonishing swordsmen and sorcerers of hyperborea are just two examples of games where creative substitution of mechanics and procedures have created games which are in my estimation better than the original. There are literally hundreds more. In my own gaming I have tinkered with substituting all sorts of mechanics and was always quite interested in how that changed how play felt. One could go on and on about the various magic systems and other alternative rules that have been churned out by the OSR movement, but this post isn’t about that.
My own group has had quite a bit of fun substituting one game for another as we have tried a bunch of different RPGs. It is always very interesting to see what these different games feel like compared to one another. Substitution of one game for another can have a remarkable effect on how our RPG session feels. That said, what I find just as interesting is what happens when you substitute one game for another using the same characters, and in the same campaign. Very often you find yourself making decisions in a different way as you are informed by the system how game world reality operates.
In our group we are very often substitute one game master for another. rotating who has that responsibility has led to some very interesting campaigns. While I was initially taken aback by the idea I have found it to be very satisfying. I’ve also found substitution of characters to be a nice addition to play. Using troupe style play with a stable of characters, or actually rotating characters as we did in circle of hands, substituting the character you last played with another one opens up quite a few possibilities for a richer experience and for varied perspectives.
Every substitution brings something new and interesting to the table. you start to be able to identify the effect of each change, And very often you are taken by surprise by a consequence that you would not have anticipated.
By the way, the version of that song on live at Leeds is awesome. But this blog post wasn’t about that…