Tuesday 17 January 2017

Tasting Systems, and Taste In Systems

Wherein I think, again, about what I look for in a game:

With a little idle time, I figured that I’d roll up a Dark Heresy 1e character and play through the introductory adventure, solo, as some kind of ‘proof of principle’. And perhaps a ‘rehearsal’ for trying out the game with my group. As a taster.

And it taught me that my prejudice [1] matched the reality; *for me*, Dark Heresy is simply too fiddly, it would not work for my players, and I can no longer imagine having the ‘headspace’ required by this game to do the kind of worldbuilding on the fly necessary for allowing proper player/character freedom. Also, the introductory adventure sucks. Well, I didn't play right through it, but the introduction to the introductory adventure sucks.

Why does it suck? The same reasonthe WFRP2e introductory adventure sucks, and why Caravan, one of the RQ6 introductory adventuresucks. And that is; introducing an RPG with a series of scenes in which the players make no real choices, and make dice rolls that have no consequences is a demonstration of literally the opposite of the exciting and unique features of RPGs: freedom and consequence! 

As I played the introductory adventure, in the admittedly slightly absurd situation of my GM-self narrating scenes to my Player-self with his rolled up Cleric ‘Wolfe Nihilius’, I got very bored. And annoyed. Annoyed because a skill based game ought not ask for skill tests that are not consequential; it is terrible ‘training’ for a GM. 

But this got me thinking. If I couldn't see myself running Dark Heresy, why was that? What do I run? Why do I run those games? What did this bad taste in my mouth tell me about my palette, the tastes that I have acquired over years of gaming. This not to denigrate Dark Heresy, but ask; what do I look for in an RPG? So, here, in order, as I drank a cup of tea looking at the front cover of Dark Heresy, is what I came up with:
  1. Fast character creation – players should be able to get into playing pretty quickly. This is usually coupled with pretty straightforward character sheets – if it can fix on an index card, all the better. This allows replacement PCs to be created quickly, new players to join, and suggests a system in which system mastery is not required. Plus, if I have people coming round to play and RPG, then we want to play that night, not next week. So definitely no ‘session 1 = character creation’!
  2. Fast ‘world’ creation – it should be fairly straightforward to ‘eyeball’ the necessary stats and mechanics for an NPC, a monster, or an environmental hazard. If this is possible, a GM can offer all kinds of choices to the players and their characters. 
  3. Simple, straightforward systems to resolve action, or, even better, a system that ‘permits’ ad hoc resolutions. I know that no game can ‘refuse’, but if it is in the ‘spirit’ of the game to simply roll a d6, eyeball a percentage chance, or test an attribute, etc. as and when necessary, this facilitates fast, intuitive play. As with points 1 and 2, this suggests a system in which the game is in player interaction with the world, not with the system.
  4. Relatively flat character progression – for two reasons: 1/ I want things that are threatening, powerful, etc. at the start of a game to remain relevant once the campaign is established, and 2/ I want to be able to replace PCs which die or 'leave the story', accommodate irregular players, and add new players to the game without too much ‘fudging’.
  5.  A game in which setbacks are possible, even expected, as well as advancement; in other words, in which PCs deteriorate as well as improve. Examples of this would be games with a wound system, games with sanity or corruption systems, and games in which the expected ‘rhythm’ of adventures means that aging etc. comes into play. This also includes systems in which it is in keeping with the spirit of the game for the PCs to (preferably as a consequence of their own decisions) to lose everything, their magic items, their wealth, their space ship, etc.
  6.  A game that eschews fiddly book-keeping. With my group, this is not much fun, just work. But I do want the resources that matter to matter mechanically. I am increasingly drawn to abstract resource management systems, so that such considerations are still part of the game, still part of player decision-making,  but that it is not a case of tracking every arrow, torch, coin, and ration.
  7. A system that presents the tools for sandbox play. For me, these tools come in two forms: 1/ Procedures for handling player/character-driven (off plot, so to speak) adventuring. Encounter tables, reaction rolls, and treasure tables are all useful here. 2/ Procedures that allowing the characters to properly interact with the world and - importantly - become more powerful outside of the personal mechanics of levels, magic items, hit points etc. Here I’m thinking about faction rules, trading rules, rules for holdings and dominions, etc.  

Apologies for all this thinking aloud, reminding myself of what works for me and what, despite temptation, I ought steer clear.

[1]Why, if these are my prejudices, do I own Dark Heresy? Hell, I don’t just own Dark Heresy, but the core books for all the games in the 40k RPG line! Because I would like to run a game in a crumbling Gothic science-fantasy space empire. Just not with these systems.


  1. My gamebook systems Wayfarer and SCRAWL attempt to cover most of these points. DEfinitely points 1-4. My gamebooks will attempt 6 and 7. There isn't much room for setbacks as the systems are quite simple. These systems were designed for solo play, but they could be used for tabletop RPGs too, Maybe using 1d12 instead of 1d6 for a greater spread of results.

  2. I feel like relatively flat character progression and a game where setbacks are possible, if not expected - these two things go well together. If your character progression is somewhat flat, you don't become useless if you get a bit of corruption or stat loss or the like. It also means you don't have to whinge quite as hard when a level 1 former-henchperson joins a party with people at level 5 or the like. They're not useless by default.

    1. Yes, a few of these preferences are interrelated. The relatively flat character progression also means that all the world building that I do as a GM is always relevant. It might be a bit easier to tackle an encounter if the PCs build up their power (which might involve interacting with the world rather than amassing XP or likewise) but that incentivises and rewards player choice and the pursuit of goals.