This is an article I wrote a really long time ago (circa 1997 or so) for the long defunct online publication Sphere. It raised a lot more spiteful flaming when someone reprinted it to usenet than when it was actually on Sphere, which amused me greatly. It’s reprinted here as part of the SFSTG section of the site, and for its commentary on the nature of roleplaying, gamemastering, and those LARP weirdos.
Many thanks to Steve Karstensen, webmaster of Street Fighter Central, for keeping the article up all this time.
Street Fighter: White Wolf’s Black Sheep
MY INTRODUCTION TO STREET FIGHTER
Several years ago, I was at a friend’s house when I happened to spy a copy of Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game on the shelf. When I inquired about this ("What the hell is this doing here? Are you nuts?"), my friend proceeded to extol the virtues and strong points of this game. However, like so many others, the only thing I could think of was, "It’s a role-playing game based on a video game. What else do you need to know?" and dismissed it out of hand.
In those days, my friends and I were using the GURPS system by Steve Jackson Games as a role-playing vehicle; flawed as it is, it remains one of the most flexible systems for role-playing in almost any genre. However, always on the lookout for new systems to play (or steal from), I eventually decided to check out White Wolf’s World of Darkness (WoD) line. Once I got past their cover art, I was extremely disappointed in their rules: a wildly random and abstracted system of successes vs. cancellations, where luck seemed to take more of a part in events than one would expect in such a grim setting. I had run gritty adventures and campaigns of my own using the GURPS system, and used its potential for excruciating detail to great advantage; in the White Wolf system, that was all gone. I soon came to the conclusion that the GURPS adaptations of the White Wolf books were far more useful than the originals.
I always try to give a new system/movie/recipe a fair shake, though, and so sought out some White Wolf gamers to try it out. What I found was an overwhelming majority of people who were determined to take themselves very seriously while pretending with all their might to be vampires, werewolves, mages, mere humans, etc. I found this to be extremely annoying, not just because of their extreme seriousness, but because the rule system made absolutely no sense within the WoD context. I soon felt that I was taking part in an episode of Scooby Doo where everyone took the guys in the rubber suits very seriously while all sorts of improbably cartoonish things were happening around them.
Shortly after this experience, my friend expressed his intention to run a Street Fighter campaign. Despite my misgivings about the game, I agreed to participate, mostly because I am a serious RPG junkie and will play almost anything once. After an initial bad session (mostly due to character design mistakes in an unfamiliar system), I began to get into the atmosphere and cinematic fighting sequences. As the campaign progressed, I began to really like the system, and to consider it exceptionally well-balanced. Now having played numerous sessions of Street Fighter and having pored over its rules, I feel that there can be no doubt that Street Fighter is the single best application of White Wolf’s game mechanics, and is indeed their finest game system.
THE WORLD OF STREET FIGHTER
Since Street Fighter went out of print even before I started playing it, there will be many readers who are unfamiliar with its background, even if they are familiar with the line of video games by Capcom. Therefore, a summary of the campaign world follows:
"From the forests of Sri Lanka to the windswept crags of Scotland, from the back alleys of Las Vegas to the jungles of Brazil, Street Fighters gather to prove their fighting prowess. Driven by revenge, glory, honor or desperation, these men and women pit their combat skills against the best the world has to offer. Beneath the pall cast by the worldwide crime cartel Shadoloo, these blacktop samurai strive to return honor and respect to a world of corruption and senseless brutality. Welcome to the world of Street Fighter, where danger and adventure, glory and excitement, are yours for the taking…"
This is taken from the basic rulebook for Street Fighter. One of the things about Street Fighter which is so appealing to jaded old gamers who have heard this plotline again and again is that it carries this tired concept to all-new heights of absurdity, which somehow makes it more enjoyable and, strangely, easier to swallow.
Consider the three basic premises of Street Fighter:
1) The archvillain (M. Bison) and Shadoloo are out to take over the world BY CRIME, and
2) The player characters are out to stop him with FIST FIGHTING, but
3) First the fist fighters have to beat on each other.
Absurd? These premises are actually not too far from the basic premises of nearly every WoD game setting. A familiar plotline for White Wolf:
1) The world is in some sort of horrible trouble,
2) The player characters are the only ones who can do something about it (and they will), but
3) First they fight each other a lot over silly clan rivalries, trivial philosophical differences, etc.
It seems more enjoyable to go around the world fighting with other people to stop a worldwide crime syndicate in the crazy world of Street Fighter than to do something similar with dark and spooky powers in a serious, angst-ridden WoD setting.
WHITE WOLF GAME MECHANICS
One of the things which makes Street Fighter so exceptional as a role-playing system is the appropriateness of its game mechanics. Many role-playing systems fall short in this department, since their mechanics are either too byzantine or too simplistic to reflect the nature of the campaign world they are trying to facilitate. Strangely enough, the mechanics of Street Fighter are basically identical to the mechanics of every other White Wolf role-playing game, many of which have been criticized for the inappropriateness of their game mechanics.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with White Wolf’s game mechanics, here is a brief synopsis:
1) Characters have attributes, like in other game systems, which are measured in "dots". More dots equals greater ability. The normal range for most WW games, including Street Fighter, is from 0 to 5, although it is possible to go higher.
2) To perform certain actions, a player rolls a number of 10-sided dice equal to the number of dots he has in the appropriate attribute(s), generally counting results of 6-10 as a "success", a 2-5 as a "failure", and a 1 canceling out a success. The more successes you get, the better you do. A failure (no successes) means just what it says, while a negative net result yields a "botch", which not only fails but indicates some nasty side-effect. (Other game systems generally refer to this as a "critical failure".)
3) As your character progresses through adventures, he is awarded "experience points" which he can spend on acquiring more "dots", which generally allow him to roll a bigger dice pool to perform appropriate actions. This increases the potential number of successes he will achieve on a good roll, but only slightly decreases his chance of botching.
This system is different from the two major RPG dice systems, which are the linear system (roll an X-sided die, score this or higher to succeed) and the bell curve system (roll X dice, score a sum of this or less to succeed).
1) Linear Rolls
The linear dice systems, the most famous of which is probably Dungeons and Dragons (and its various spin-offs), have the advantage of being very simple: you roll one die, and if you score X or above, you hit the monster. They are easier to understand from a statistical standpoint than any of the other systems, but do not have the advantage of reflecting true mastery the way the bell curve system, and to a lesser extent, the successes vs. failures system, does.
2) Bell Curves
The bell curve system, used extensively by GURPS, seems to make a great deal of sense as far as "realistic" actions and results go. As your skill increases, you get an advantage in your chances for success, which decrease as your skill gets higher and higher, until the difference seems inconsequential. Masters of a skill (say, those who have to get a total of 25 or less on a possible range of 3-18 to succeed, barring the occasional critical failure) aren’t necessarily able to succeed more often than experts, but do better at difficult actions (those that incur a penalty to the roll).
Without going into a lengthy mathematical discourse, the White Wolf system is, in practice, more prone to oddball results and great inconsistencies from action to action. One character performing the same action over and over again can get wildly differing results every time he rolls to see how he’s doing, to the point of absurdity. For instance, a character pushing a heavy cart down a path can do okay with it one turn, botch (do horribly, possibly suffering an accident) the next, then get lots of successes and sprint a ways, etc. This sort of wild, roulette wheel-type randomness seems to detract from the sense of angst-ridden fatalism which pervades the World of Darkness line.
The system does, however, work remarkably well for the high-adventure world of Street Fighter.
THE CAMPAIGN BACKGROUND ARGUMENT
Many advocates of the World of Darkness line often tout the fantastic background and flavor of these games and the settings in which they take place. Whether angst-ridden dark ages Europe, angst-ridden modern times where things are not all as they seem, or angst-ridden adventures through the extra-dimensional realm of the Umbra, the White Wolf books spend a vast number of pages describing the campaign world, its history, and its inhabitants. This provides a ready framework for gamers to work within, and imagery to keep in mind as they play. Whether or not the background material is any good is a purely subjective matter, however, and so one has to deal with the question of whether the presence of so much background material is a good thing or not.
Many other popular role-playing systems do not offer as much world-specific information as does the World of Darkness line. Some, like GURPS, deliberately offer no information (due to the vastly different campaigns that are possible), leaving the design of the world up to the gamemaster, with the possible aid of an optional worldbook supplement.
Is the extensive background information an advantage? This depends on whether or not the information is well-liked by the participants (again, a purely subjective factor) and how lazy the gamemaster is. One of the things which makes a gamemaster great is his imagination and ability to get his vision of the campaign world across to his players. "Storytelling" is a good description of what a good gamemaster does: he is crafting a story for everyone’s enjoyment. This is a lot of work, something that many GM’s are unable to do because of time constraints, lack of raw ability, or laziness. WoD takes care of this for you, but then the gamemaster is telling the stories on a backdrop from some guy at White Wolf rather than his own.
In contrast, Street Fighter’s background is almost deliberately sparse and sketchy. As it stands, the background for the world of Street Fighter (taking into account all of the published supplements) describes a pulpy atmosphere with just enough detail to make it enjoyable, lending it to a "beer ‘n’ pretzels" experience. However, the raw framework is more than adequate for an imaginative GM to add detail as he sees fit. What if Shadoloo was running slave ships under the noses of American harbormasters? Where does the new highly addictive, ultimately fatal heroin derivative come from, if not labs on Mriganka? Are street fighters actively hunted by the police for their involvement in a fundamentally illegal activity? Can you die in the ring? There’s plenty of room for grit and darkness in Street Fighter, but most importantly, it will be the GM’s grit and darkness.
Yes, one could also retrofit any of the WoD systems to become more personalized, but then why did you spend you money on all of that paper? Most of it is devoted to the campaign background anyway; it almost compels one to use it. In fact, many gamers who use WoD background information use nothing else, throwing out the rules system altogether and descending into "Live Action Role-Playing". This will be discussed next.
THE WORLD OF LARP
(This may seem like a departure from our topic, but since many WoD games are played in a live-action format and Street Fighter is not, it is somewhat relevant. It may also be a comment on the types of people who play Street Fighter and WoD games.)
What was the first role-playing game you ever played? Most gamers would say Dungeons and Dragons, but in truth the first RPG for almost everyone is either Cops & Robbers, House, or some variation on these themes. These games of "let’s pretend" form the basis of what is now a substantial portion of White Wolf gamers’ activities, Live Action Role-Playing, or LARP. White Wolf LARPers generally use no dice or tables in their games; many of them actively disparage the use of such conventions as "getting in the way". Instead, they rely on a combination of improvisation, whatever acting ability they may or may not possess, costumes, and the background material from the White Wolf books. Some proponents of this practice insist that it is the highest form of role-playing game possible; many non-LARPers ridicule them for their silly antics at DEFCON conventions and bad acting. When analyzed, the LARP philosophy has some rather big holes in it:
1) Rules Are A Good Thing
The biggest problem with Cops & Robbers is, in my opinion, the "I shot you!/Did not!" situation. If you think of RPG’s as advanced versions of Cops & Robbers, rules provide a stable platform that the players can (usually) count on in an otherwise completely arbitrary system, and die rolls allow fate to intervene without subjecting one’s fate to the whims of the referee. When the die rolls are forsaken, you must have a group of players which is either totally fair and objective about everything, or willing to submit to the subjective opinion of a referee. Throw out the rules, and there is absolutely no framework, and the way the world works is never clear; there is no basis for argument other than naysaying: "I drank your blood!/Did not!/Don’t argue with me, I own your soul!/Do not!/Not fair!…"
2) Why Did You Buy Those Books Anyway?
As soon as you come to the realization that WoD LARP is really nothing more than a game of Spooky Supernatural Make-Believe, the need for any sort of books in the first place seems unclear. Indeed, since most LARP eschews rules of any sort, why would one buy a rulebook? The reason to get the books is (A) the pregenerated campaign background, and (B) the gothic artwork, always a big selling point. But if you aren’t using their rule system anyway, why not go the extra mile and actually create your own environment to act in? This brings us back to the point of laziness outlined in "The Campaign Background Argument". It’s much easier to use the WoD canned background, but experience of creating your own environment to play in is much more rewarding, if you’re willing to do the work.
Of course, another reason for the use of the WoD background could be that "Vampire: The Masquerade" sounds a lot cooler than "Angsty Vampire Make-Believe Game".
3) Everyone’s (Not) An Actor
In essence, LARP is nothing more than improvisational theatre based on the WoD sourcebooks. Without rules, the enjoyability of the game is based on the participants’ ability to act in this medium. This is not an easy thing to do; acting is one of those artistic pursuits which, like singing, painting, and modern dance, is appealing to a wide range of participants because they are under the impression that it is easy. This is not the case, and this misunderstanding has led to a proliferation of extremely bad actors, singers, painters, and modern dancers. I am not contending that all LARPers are bad actors, but I have seen many, and the vast majority of them choose to portray vampires by speaking in lilting tones, over-emphasizing inappropriate syllables, and walking around with their hands in front of them, usually with fingers outstretched at the person to whom they are uttering their lilting, strangely accented monologues. ("HAH, puny MOR-tal, you are UN-der my PO-wer!", with waggling fingers at the subject’s face.)
Whether or not LARP is a good thing from a subjective point of view is totally dependent on the individual. Obviously, many people enjoy this sort of thing. However, when one inspects the activity in detail, it seems clear that if one is going to improvise theatrically, there are probably better, more creative ways in which to do it.
STREET FIGHTER TODAY
As I write this paragraph, the Street Fighter campaign that was started by my friend several months ago is still going strong. In the beginning, he expressed his intention to run it for at least 10 play sessions before any decision to continue or abandon it was made. It is now well past this initial goal, and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Subplots are developing quickly, side adventures and solo sessions have been run to maintain campaign continuity, and a side campaign in the same world is beginning.
Is Street Fighter a great RPG? Is it more enjoyable than the other White Wolf systems? In my opinion, absolutely. If you can get your hands on the books, pick them up. (If you can get a copy of Contenders, consider selling it to me!) Then get your normal gaming group together, and try the same experiment we did: test the system for a minimum number of session, say 5 or 10, no matter what. After that, you may draw your own conclusions.
Street Fighter tends to be disparaged by many White Wolf gamers, but when the majority of the negative comments are inspected, one finds that the common thread among them is that the complainer has never actually played the game. Typical comments read like: "I picked up the game, looked at the cover, sighed and put it down…"; "It looked silly and pointless…"; "I prefer a more mature setting than this book seemed to offer…". I have never talked to a gamer who has played Street Fighter who said it was a bad game; this is further evidenced by the absence of gamers willing to part with their Street Fighter sourcebooks.
Best of luck finding the source materials; I hope some sort of agreement with Capcom and/or White Wolf can be made whereby the materials may be reproduced and released in some form or another. In conclusion, remember this quote from my friend who got me into this mess in the first place: "Crime is powerful, but it is nothing before the awesome might of FIIIIIIST FIIIIIIGHTING!!!!"
Street Fighter Sourcebooks (published by White Wolf, now out of print)
Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game (the core rules, statistics for most of the World Warriors and their fighting styles, plus introductory adventure "High Stakes")
Street Fighter: Player’s Guide (two new styles plus maneuvers, rules for elementalists, animal hybrids and cyborgs, good supplemental material on managers and the Street Fighting circuit)
Street Fighter: Secrets of Shadoloo (three new styles plus maneuvers, statistics for the main bad guys, a complete map of M. Bison’s island fortress of Mriganka, and the adventure "Tourist Trap")
Street Fighter: Contenders (nine new styles plus maneuvers, rules for duelists, plus a slew of NPC’s)
Street Fighter: Storyteller’s Screen (a reference chart with important referee information, plus short adventure "Shades of Grey" and new maneuvers and skills)
Street Fighter: The Perfect Warrior (a multi-part adventure for moderately experienced characters, including a new style and maneuver which can only be learned through the adventure)
Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (excellent anime featuring all the World Warriors)
Not Recommended Viewing
Street Fighter (the JC Van Damme live-action movie; a bad way for Raul Julia’s career to end)