Wednesday 20 August 2014

Thoughts on boring systems...

Despite having a wealth new games to play (or never play, but admire, and the same old suspects are wheeled out again and again), I often find my thoughts turning to the world of Titan, and Fighting Fantasy in general. A couple of days I read an old blog post, which I cannot now find. In that post, nostalgia for FF gamebooks was tempered by the assertion that you couldn't get kids these days to play these books when they could be smashing things to bits in [Insert Current Game Title Here]*. And I think that assertion is, sadly, more or less true. But a fantasy adventure gamebook does things in a different way to a viscerally thrilling fantasy adventure video game. And in that difference there is a virtue that we should remember when playing roleplaying games. 

FF combat is boring. It is boring because there are no choices (most of the time). Roll dice until one side wins, with not even the possibility of retreat, is not uncommon. This means that the whole thing could be settled by a single dice roll, the probability of victory being fixed the moment the encounter begins. It'd lose some tension, sure, but the end result, mechanically speaking, would be the same.

So where is this virtue, eh? Well, mechanically boring combat is feature, not a bug. 

I play mostly with people who have not and will not read the rules. And so I am acutely aware that combat with lots of choices equals victory to those with system mastery. I find nothing more disheartening when I read roleplaying forums that are 'epic' accounts of encounters that concentrate on the 'synergies' that the players managed to set up between their powers or other clever exploitation of the system. In the games that I run, once combat is started I want the encounter settled quickly. I want it settled quickly because I want the consequences of that combat to result in further interesting choices for the PCs. Choices about the game world, not the game system. 

By having such boring combat and task resolution, FF gamebooks remind me of the things that roleplaying games can do better than video games. Roleplaying games can never match the complexity of micro-choices about the system that are the focus of many (not all) video games - ability to master the controller and the powers and abilities of the character. And if we use a system that wasn't put together by designers worrying about that, the actual play of a roleplaying game will by necessity focus on the choices being made in relation to the game world rather than the game system. And while a gamebook has the same 'dead' GM as a video game, in a tabletop RPG this perspective can be taken to the extremes, with truly open worlds existing in living imaginations rather than fixed on paper or in code. 

So thank you Fighting Fantasy - I glad that you were my introduction to fantasy adventure gaming and not [Insert Video Game Title Here]*.

*I am out of touch, but not that much. I could have named a video game - probably one that I have enjoyed tremendously - but I don't want to make this about that particular  video game. This isn't about denigrating video games. But simple systems force the play(choices) to be about the world, while a complex system allows the play(choices) to be about the system.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I was raised on FF books my mum would buy me from the second hand bookshop down the road.

    I don't know about you but I always just skipped the fights or went back to where I came from. They were definitely not the reason I read those things.

  2. FIghting Fantasy gamebooks were all about the choices you make during the adventure. Combat was often best avoided!

  3. One of the things that I always need to wrap my head around with FF combat is the distribution of results produced by a 2d6 roll, and the way that modifiers (+1, +2 and so on) change this distribution. In FF, the role of SKILL can be boiled down to a modifier - for example, a character with SKILL 8 has, in effect, a +2 to his 2d6 roll when fighting a monster with SKILL 6. Now, modifiers to a 2d6 roll stack in a non-linear fashion (I'm not sure this is the correct terminology), which means that what looks like a modest difference in SKILL is actually an insurmountable obstacle for the combatant with lower skill, particularly as the odd lucky roll has little effect when combat is about whittling down STAMINA by many successive iterations of the 2d6+modifiers roll.

    Given the range of SKILL for the gamebook characters was 7-12, this meant for some characters had next to no chance when coming up against high SKILL (10+) opponents, and there was nothing that the player could do about this. Meanwhile, your SKILL 12 hero could chop his way through ORCS and GOBLINS (SKILL 5-7, which equals a +5-7 modifier to the hero's 2d6 roll!) without any real risk of harm.

    I need a chart of 2d6 probabilities, with the effects of modifiers, if our AFF games are to be as mechanically transparent as our d100 games. d20 based games are also easy to work out - each +/-1 is a 5% change in the chances of success.

    1. I use this one:

    2. Oh, and how come it slipped my attention that you had Warlock of Firetop Mountain out for AFF2e!

  4. Replies
    1. Thought about this some more. You're basically saying that, though RPG's started out as tactical combat systems(Chainmail, etc), where System Mastery is the whole point, they evolved into something else entirely, where excessive tactical combat distracts from the finer points of the game.

      That's interesting... Two opposed forces, tactical combat and roleplaying, grapple for dominance of the game. Remind me to invent an RPG where the PCs are Roleplaying Concerns and they must do battle with various Combat Mechanics...

  5. In the gamebooks there were some battles you could "escape" from whenever you wanted at a cost of two STAMINA. This tactical option means that you can't really settle the whole thing with a single roll. In the Fighting Fantasy RPG this option was a standard rule based on a GM judgement just as in every other RPG.

    1. I appreciate that, and I was exaggerating for effect, But only a little. The option to retreat/escape wasn't there most of the time.

      But making a decision such as, 'do we retreat?' only requires minimal system mastery, especially in a system a simple as FF. Making a innumerable tactical decisions about the use of maneuvers, feats and powers, and developing intra-party synergies, etc. all require quite advanced levels of system mastery. And even if they didn't, they are all decisions about the system, rather than the game world.

      Make no mistake, this is a post in praise of FF ;-)

  6. Simple enough for players who fall asleep between combat turns to follow, boring enough that people want to actively avoid combat. It's a nice alternative to complex and lethal combat of the "what's that second book?" "the grapple rules" variety.