Tuesday, March 17, 2009

RPG Mechanics I Always Ignore

(But still keep appearing in rulebooks)

Equipment tracking and encumbrance: I don't remember when I stopped worrying about this kind of thing. I distinctly recall having the classic DnD “is it written on your sheet?” arguments back in high school. I also remember keeping track of these things for a time when we played Gurps, but only because encumbrance actually had a fairly easy to track set of effects. Somewhere along the line I stopped really caring about it. When Dave Fink ran his Rolemaster game he shocked me by forcing everyone to go to the equipment lists and spend money to show what precisely we were carrying. It seemed so odd.

The last real attempt to follow this was more of a tactile exercise when we played the Red Emperor campaign. I had money bags sewn up by Sherri's mom and prepared coins and tokens to track wealth. We stuck with that for a long time, but eventually I gave up on it. I'd stopped measuring treasure troves in terms of Electrum pieces and Gold Coins. That kind of tracking just seems a little archaic. Instead I measure wealth and items more abstractly. If someone says they have something, and it makes sense they'd be carrying it with them, then I let them have it. If there's a question we make a roll. I only worry about wealth in the abstract-- ratings and levels-- that help support an argument that someone can having something special or expensive.

The exception comes where the question of scarcity of wealth is crucial to the scenario. For example, in the Crux campaign, I've made their lack wealth and resources appropriate to their status a central theme to the campaign. Over time they've slowly accrued more money, which has in turn brought more things they need to spend money on. That question of wealth and support serves as a major plot point. Alternately, in the Changeling game, they have a support structure for food and shelter, but at this point little else. Since the campaign has a theme the question of how outsiders survive in the real world, how much money they have is important. Over time I expect those monetary questions to be answered but they should always at least be pressing in the background. At the same time, I still don't need them to have equipment lists: we know they have a couple of changes of clothing, a fine set of Dollar Store dishware and so on.

For your classic game game, all people really need to have on their sheet is what weapon they use, why armor their wearing, and any magic/unique items they've picked up over the course of the game. Kaiju, in the Action Cards system, has a card that specifically addresses the question of having the right item at the right time-- if he pulls it he can justify excellent preparation.

Reaction Rolls: Gurps, and a few other systems, have social rules that elaborately track levels of friendship and interaction. I feel a little bad about ignoring them in Gurps since several advantages add bonuses to these initial checks. But on the other hand, if you have to leave these kinds of considerations to mechanics-- then I think you're doing something wrong. I'm not saying that social skills shouldn't have checks-- but they should be used where risk comes in and the player's had a chance to develop how they want to interact. Those skills become support for Matrix-style arguments about being able to persuade, convince, bribe, bluff, or seduce. The GM has to decide the player's comfort level with these kinds of interactions-- balancing the player who can comfortably soliloquy with the player who gets tongue tied. I, for example, try to interpret things for players if they have high social skill levels but they themselves might not be picking up on some of the subtleties.

Vehicle and Equipment Building: I like my character points to stay where they are-- with character creation. A number of games-- Gurps, Cyberpunk, MektonZ, Hero System, among others-- have elaborate systems for building devices, magic items and/or vehicles. For some games I can certainly see that-- if you're playing a giant robot game, you need to have rules for them. More often these systems involve elaborate calculations about weight, chassis strength, dollar costs, levels limits and so on. I don't want to deal with that-- I mean, I just barely stat out the bad guys. Generally these systems do align with the other systems in the game-- I mean that they ought to be simply another iteration of the character creation system, but in a different scale with a few twists added to them.

I don't think I've ever run a game where these kinds of things have been important-- the exception being Neon Genesis Zombie. Gurps and other fantasy games have extensive systems for the creation of magic items, but I've always ignored them. I just make up something that sounds cool. I always abstract these elements and ignore this sometimes literal chrome on the game system.

Modifier Charts, Range and Combat Complications: As you know I don't usually use a GM's screen. I also don't like looking at the rulebooks when I'm running-- I always feel the need to apologize when I do. Exceptions occur when something completely new comes up or when we've probably handled something wrong before. The former often happens the first time we use a power or a maneuver; the latter I try to do only if the results otherwise might screw a player who has invested points in something.

I can recall the amusement of trying to put together all the modifiers from the old Gurps Size/Speed charts-- Vatican City moving at the speed of light while on fire was only something like a -16 to hit. Most games with numerical systems spend time delineating all the possible modifiers. I usually chunk those in favor of simply giving a penalty or bonus. My favorite is +/-2-- really-- it is easy to add and usually makes a difference. Obviously if things get crazier you need to do more-- but I generally wing everything on that score. An exception would be hit location penalties-- I usually stick closer for those. One thing to watch out for, as a GM, is compensation creep. When players start out with their skills, they're usually pretty low level. As a generous GM, your instinct is to not apply modifiers. However, once players get to higher skill ranks, there's more room to impose penalties. Hence, your instinct is to begin to impose them for things you wouldn't have before. Impose penalties where the player knows that what they're doing is difficult-- otherwise don't worry about it.

Range also falls into this category of mechanics. Any game with a significantly detailed weapon chart establishes very different ranges for weapons. I remember loving the detailed number crunch of the Palladium Armory books or even the Fringeworthy/Stalking the Night Fantastic games. However, in practice we rarely paid attention to those numbers. They're like a comfortable pillow for simulationists, but in play they slow things down. Obviously throwing a knife or an axe has a shorter range than shooting a gun or a bow. But in play I only give penalties if, when I eyeball the scene, it looks, um, “far.” In practice most things will reach across your usual room or hex map. If not, then -2.

Some systems require bows a round of prep. No. I hate that. Yes-- it would be more realistic to calculate times, but it irritates me. Crossbows and Volters, which do more damage, take a couple of rounds to reload. We assume that a player (or an NPC) is only going to get one or maybe two shots from one of those-- we don't calculate it otherwise. Likewise, I don't usually assign “snap-shot” or “draw & fire” penalties. That's a cinematic action and I want to encourage it. If not, then -2.

Disease and Fatigue-- If you have to track a character becoming exhausted from being in combat, your combats are going too long. Gurps has some rules for this and Rolemaster Standard System had the most insane set of guidelines I've ever seen. Those mechanics read like a parody of a real rpg. A combat lasting that long ought to be a mass battle-- or perhaps there's a series of fights, in which case-- shock of shocks, you apply a -2 penalty. Likewise diseases should be important game events rather than something you have to roll for. Too many games have extensive lists-- with effects, incubation times, contagion levels, and all kinds of details. I'm sure some GMs follow through on these things, but I have never used these rules-- they just seem like a bizarre elaboration.

I'd be curious to know other people's experience in this regard.


  1. Equipment tracking & encumbrance: yeah. At the start of our current 4E game, the first GM had us buy our starting adventuring equipment. G-wha-? This after a previous game set in 1934 where one of my characters had a "skill group" called "Millionaire Industrialist" and another called "Adventurer", and another character had "Struggling Pulp Writer/Journalist" and "WWI Infantry Vet". I don't recall a single instance of confusion with any character in that game as to who had what when.

    Reaction Rolls: The most I do, if I really don't know or care how an NPC "should" respond, is to roll a d6 (I'd roll a d3 if there were such a thing) to get a sense of how much they like or dislike the PC.

    Vehicle and Equipment Building: GAH!!!! I never even read that chapter in MnM. One more reason to love FATE/SOTC's items-as-Aspects.

    Modifier Charts, Range and Combat Complications: I don't mind a chart or two, but I did fall in love with FATE/SOTC's "zones" - if you're in the same zone as someone, you can hit melee. If not, you can't. You have to spend movement to get there, and with a zone system, you have very little of this, which makes lots of things easier.

    I'm liking more and more the idea of margin of success on a combat roll yeilding that number of "action points" which can be used for damage, pushing, feinting, defense - anything within reason.

    And when we were working on a system for a Star Trek game I ran, Gene sold me on the idea that you're either able to fight or not, and that either your in range or not.

    Disease and Fatigue: I'm slowly getting over my desire to be able to track this sort of thing - not disease, really, but fatigue. The dice pool system gene and I came up with (again, for that ST game) tracked this kind of thing REALLY easily. Basically, the dice in your pool (for rolling stuff) were also your hit points. You could get "stunned dice" back pretty easily (a second wind), but more serious damage might keep dice out of your pool for a while.

  2. At some point, Art and I should consolidate our ideas with things we like about other people's systems.

    I loved Matt's old "name two roles" skill system. As he mentioned, Art had "Adventurer" and "Millionaire Industrialist". I had "Two Fisted Priest" (think the Boystown movies) and "Bartender". The Adventurer skill turned out to be too useful...

    A few 'skills' should be stats everyone has (ie BESM), such as Punching and Shooting. Some skills which must succeed for the adventure to move forward (clue finding and interpretation, ie Gumshoe) won't have any chance of failure. This varies with setting. In The Watchmen, EVERYONE breaks down under interrogation or torture. In an Agatha Christie mystery, surefire interrogation would ruin the story.

    What it comes down to is that we rarely want to simulate the real world. We want to give the feel of stories and movies. What rules cover any genre?

  3. For years I generally disliked genre-tailored games, thinking "why not just use a generic system? Sheesh!" Now, I love the idea of rules tailored to achieve the feel of a specific genre or film or show or whatever. It's fun to see how people achieve this.

    Anyway, all my games tend to have roughly the same level of pulpiness (kinda pulpy to pretty darn pulpy), so the system I'm SLOWLY cobbling together should nestle into that zone comfortably. Right now it looks like our dice pool system defined by Wushu character structure: Here's a Wushu character i ran in a play-by-post Star Trek game. This game allowed 12 points to be distributed among any number of Traits (or whatever term they use), plus a Weakness at 1. You can have defining sub-traits equal in number to the rank of the main Trait -1.

    Chief Medical Officer Khrangk

    Battle Surgeon! = 5
    'Iw (“blood”): Nothing grosses this guy out. I mean nothing. Quite the opposite: the gruesomer the better. He’s fascinated by and highly knowledgable of anything biological.
    pIn'a' (“master”): Khrangk is a top-notch saw-bones.
    Ha'DIbaH (“meat, animal”): Xenobiology is his specialty.
    'ogh (“invent; devise”): Stop talking about the problem and solve it. Khrangk is a skilled medical innovator. It comes from patching up warriors on the fly and getting them back in the fight.

    Tlinghan jIH! (“I am a Klingon!!”) = 4
    vIq (”battle”) - Like all Klingons, he can throw down with the best of ‘em, be it shootin’, stabbin’, bare-knucklin’, wrasslin’…you get the idea.
    Quv (“honor”) – Khrangk will not give up an honorable endeavor, and can inspire those around him to do the same.
    Qapla' (“success!”) With those redundant organs, he keeps coming back for more. And that natural stubborn brawn comes through when weaklings fail!

    Klingon Social Club (and I mean club) = 3
    HoD (“captain, leader”) Back down, little man: we don’t have a word for fear or surrender…
    HIq (“wine”) Knock one back and lend an ear. Khrangk serves as a gruff, practical counselor, too.

    DoghwI' (“fool”) = 1
    Stop your whining and hold still. Khrangk has a terrible bedside manner and little patience for kvetching and idle philosophizing.


    The sub-trait thing is an optional rule. here's how I wrote up Hercules, modelled after Marvel's herc' and the Steve Reeves' Herc':


    "They Don’t Call It Herculean For Nothin’" = 5
    Hercules is the strongest man in the world, and his feats of strength are unparalleled and legendary – and in some cases seemingly impossible! In battle, all but the most worthy opponents fall like ten-pins before him. His body is a mountain of muscle and vigor.

    "Don’t Let The Muscles Fool You" = 4
    Strength isn’t much good without a lever, and Hercules is well-known for using his brawn in almost unimaginable ways to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. He’s no slouch in the tactics area, either, and is well aware of the emotional and political forces that put into play the armies and menaces he has had to defeat.

    "Yeah? Well, You’ve Never Partied With A God Before" = 3
    Hercules lives life to the fullest. He has no worries. His power, optimism, and sense of fun are infectious. He’s not above enjoying the squalor of an enemy’s palace before turning the place to rubble.

    "Unbridled Fury" = 1
    Being so hard to hurt or challenge, it takes a lot to enrage him, but when he loses it, he really loses it.


    Here's a Superman I wrote up using Truth and Justice, a PDQ-based system. The descriptive character definition is a lot like that in Wushu:

    Never-Ending Battle for Truth and Justice (presence, trustworthiness, leadership) +6
    Mild-Mannered Reporter for a Great Metropolitan Newspaper (unassuming but dogged, fastest typist you've ever seen) +4
    Strange Visitor From Another Planet (mysterious origin; orphan complex; fascination w/ quirky human chutzpah) -2

    Kryptonian +6

    Signature Stunts:
    Faster Than A Speeding Bullet (super speed): +2
    More Powerful Than A Locomotive (super strength): +2
    The Man of Steel (invulnerability): +2
    Able To Leap Tall Buildings In A Single Bound (flight): +2
    Powers And Abilities Far Beyond Those Of Mortal Men (super sense, heat vision, cold breath, etc): +2


    I love having character defined this way. I'd like to be able to use these kinds of descriptors the way Aspects in FATE?SOTC can be invoked or compelled, but simplify the rules for that a great deal.

    Whew! I am The Bandwidth Eater!

  4. I do like those systems that use abstract descriptors to deal with skills, abilities and ideas. I recall Over the Edge having something along those lines.

  5. yeah, that's all you really need to define a character - a few well-worded phrases. It's fun, too! OTE is one of those games I wanted to check out but then forgot about...