Friday 9 March 2012

This is not an argument for balance

Sigmar no.

Erik Tenkar posted a few days ago suggesting that running a skill-based RPG demands greater system mastery on the part of a GM than a class and level-based game. I thought of D&D and OpenQuest, and AD&D and RuneQuest II, comparing the two families of games. My intuitive response was; ‘No, he’s wrong. What can be easier than running a game with a unifying mechanic such as ‘roll under skill’? A GM can be up and running a game of, say, OpenQuest in no time at all. The eccentricities written into the variety of systems used to resolve character action in D&D demand that the GM doesn’t only have a feeling for the system, but real knowledge’.

But Tenkar is right, of course, to say that character generation, getting *players* up and running, can be far quicker in a system such a D&D. A player rolls stats and chooses a class, and away they go. Okay, they still have to buy equipment, but it is possible to streamline this process, with the help of a few dice rolls. A player rolling up a character in a game of OpenQuest or RuneQuest II has to assign skill points, choosing the abilities that are either class-based, or universal, in the simpler forms of D&D. Of course, that too could be streamlined by bringing in archetypes – kind of like proto-classes – in which all the starting skill points are assigned and a set of equipment allocated. Similar to the way careers work in WFRP1e/2e.

But there is one area in which an A/D&D-based system trumps a RuneQuest-based system in terms of ease of GM system mastery. Encounters. A RuneQuest-based system allows for pretty open-ended character advancement. Great. This supports the mechanical resolution of non-combat situations and encourages ‘gaming’ playstyles that emphasise those situations. Combat is ‘realistically’ deadly. Several adventures into a campaign, and two similar starting characters might be very different mechanically. By contrast, a 3rd-level Fighter is a 3rd-level Fighter is a 3rd-level Fighter. Boring?

Well, maybe. But if you want to run a free-wheeling on-the-fly sandbox campaign, that a GM can easily have a very clear idea of the capabilities of a 3rd-level Fighter makes judging the threat level of an encounter fairly straightforward – you know the abilities and levels of the PCs, and can, at a glance, measure this against the hit dice and abilities of the monsters. Note, I didn’t write, ‘makes balancing an encounter fairly straightforward’. By contrast, you have to have some experience in running a BRP-derived system to understand the interplay between outnumbering, skill levels, and equipment, before you even add magic into the mix.

It's not about finding a perfect balance, just understanding the relative weight.

I know that OpenQuest/RuneQuest are explicitly not games of ‘killing monsters and taking their stuff’. This is built into the system. And this is why, if you want to run quick, episodic games, I think that they are far more difficult games to prepare for as a GM, though they are potentially far more rewarding for everyone involved.

As you might read into this I’m still stuck on the system of the sandbox campaign.

No comments:

Post a Comment