Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Niche RPG Mechanics I Dig

I’ve been reexamining my posts from the first year of my blog (’09). In the first months, I wrote two posts- one on mechanics & sub-systems I hated and one on those I loved. So have my tastes or perspectives shifted since I wrote these? As you’ll see not so much on this post, but there’s more hubris on display in the next one I’ve kept the post in its original format (warts and all), but added commentary.

While I've been whittling away at the mechanics I actually use at the table, I'll still admit that I have great fondness for cleverly constructed rules and systems. My problem stems from their real lack of utility at the table-- getting in the way of the story of narrative. But I still like the idea of structures-- and some of them do work for handling odd things. I know Sherri gets a little frustrated when I start talking about new system mechanics I've come up with-- she knows that 99% of the time I could handle the same thing through narrative negotiation. I have been trying to sublimate my affection for mechanics into my board game obsessions.
That being said if I find one of my “pet topics” has been covered interestingly or well in a game system, I'm feverishly drawn to pick it up. I've seen some good versions, and a lot of lousy versions of the systems. Some I've liked at first and then changed my mind after playing with them for a while.

Mass Combat: We used to play Chainmail with all the figures we had-- probably my first real introduction to miniatures game. It wasn't really tied to any campaign, but closer to pulling out all your action figures and rolling dice to determine battles. Back in 1985 TSR finally put out Battlesystem-- which was intended to be the definitive mass combat rules for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. We still played AD&D at that time and I recall picking up the rules and never, ever using them.

Instead the first time I saw an even reasonably workable way to handle mass combat in a role-playing game came from Gurps. They first presented an abstract system in their Horseclans book and then later in their take on Conan. That broke forces down into numbers and values and had contested rolls. However both only had some light contact with how the players might interact with the battle (i.e. here's how you resolve the battle and you can do some point...). Over the years I saw other iterations-- TSR with Birthright, ICE with War Law- which was even worse than you can imagine. Probably the best take I've seen has been L5Rwhich resolves the battle but also provides events and incidents to give more color and control for the players. Exalted 2e has a take on it that I don't find that appealing, despite its simplicity (essentially armies become like equipment and weapons for resolution). The Black Company RPG has some great stuff-- but it suffers from being based in d20.

I've tried some homebrew systems in the past-- trying to bridge the gap between the strategic choices of the leaders and the roles of the players on the battlefield. Some of those resolution systems have been interesting and made for good sessions (the Siege of Neutral City, the Battle of Whitewall) while others have been real misses (the Urokell Campaigns) in part because different players wanted different things out of the game. So my druthers these days is to handle those things as abstractly as possible-- but at the same time I look over the rules I find in other games, hunting for that magic bullet.

I’ve little with mass combat since I wrote this. Mostly I've handled it in the abstract. It’s a looming factor in our Legend of the Five Rings seasonal campaign, but we haven’t yet had any full-scale conflicts. In fact the players work hard to avoid those. Even our "Sellsword Company" campaign saw most things handled in tactical skirmishes, with players commanding themselves plus an abstract set of troops. In the last few years I’ve picked up a few games that have interesting mechanics at this scale like Reign and Legends of Anglerre.

Chases: Action movies live or die on their chase sequences. However, translating that energy on to the tabletop can be difficult. On the one hand, you want players to be able to make strategic choices-- whether their fleeing or pursuing, but on the other hand you want everything to move at a breakneck pace. You could make everything based on A or B shout it out choices-- like quick-time events from video games but that isn't entirely satisfying. The good action sequence has characters interacting with the environment in clever ways. There's also the question of how you represent skill in those situations-- I mean, beyond speed and reflexes. Let's say you have a system of compared maneuver types-- represented abstractly-- a good pursuer ought to be able to determine something about his opponent's actions going into the chase (“i.e. You think he's going to do an X, Y or Z escape action”). That would allow them to calculate more optimal responses. But that's another moment, another decision, another step, another cross-referencing that needs to be handled. And so we slow things down further.

Two games I recall with more involved discussion of chase mechanics are the old James Bond RPG and Spycraft. The former I don't remember that well-- but my suspicion is that it wasn't that great since I don't recall many exciting chases in the games I ran. Spycraft has some interesting ideas, but unfortunately wedded to a d20 based system with a highly, highly elaborated feat system. I still keep looking.

I still tend to run these as a series of competing tests. But I’ve also like options for risk vs. reward, where players can gamble on their success. I've begun to think that there’s a big difference in how you ought to present chases where the players are pursuers vs. those in which they’re pursued. Night’s Black Agents has some good chase mechanics, but perhaps a little more detailed than I want. Fate’s been useful as a model for handling environmental details and player’s ability to manipulate elements of the chase. I also have to check out the new Feng Shui rules and see what they have.

Duels: There's great tension that comes from seeing a single hero take on their rival in a one-on-one duel. The end duel from Robin Hood or any high noon showdown from a Western. That's hard to replicate at the table for a couple of reasons-- not least of which is that you have multiple PCs. You can kind of work around that through careful planning and a group that understands dramatic necessity. But most games done really simulate the back and forth of a duel-- advantage, gaining ground, managing to get out of a particular maneuver. Those are discrete elements and generally when I play, I'm imagining a round of combat not as a single swing and defense, but as a series of movements, strikes, and finally real attempts. One other problem comes up in gunfights or Iaijutsu duels-- that's really one strike or shot and ends up being a contest of initiative. I've tried a couple of work arounds-- usually involving perception and skill checks before a duel to gain advantage. Those have usually happened in tournament settings. Some of those ideas I took from a Pyramid article on the topic, but I haven't found anything entirely satisfying.

I still dig these- particularly as set-piece moments between a PC and a hated villain. I’d like something that allows that to be easily integrated into a larger combat. I built a dueling mechanic for our L5R Action Cards game. I worked decently the single time we’ve used it, but it hasn’t been stress-tested by any means.

Bases: This may sound odd, given my general dislike for building equipment or vehicles, but I like the idea of the group investing shared points into the resources of a base. What I don't like is systems with highly detailed rules for this-- including point costs for square footage and so on. Or even the old Warlord's keep structures from classic DnD (“Whee! Level 10! I get a Castle!”). I think these kinds of things ought to be abstract. The Angel RPG had a system of ratings for different aspects that I liked-- at least I think that came from the Angel RPG, but it might have been from one of the Buffy-verse rpg sidebooks from Eden. Changeling has some of this in the concept of a shared Hollow with resources that players can purchase. It is an aspect I like and if I see it, I usually try to take a look.

Social and Political Grand Scale: I think I mentioned this in [an earlier post on] the Weapons of the Gods Companion. While I'm not sure I'd ever use them, I like the concept of rules and structures to deal with these kinds of games. I remember the old Aria Worlds game which tried to deal with the evolution of civilizations. Impractical, absurd and strange-- but also fascinating at the same time. These kinds of rules approaches can develop good material inasmuch as they show what power structures and relationships exist within a society or group.

Reign does some cool things in this, but my go to has been Blood & Honor. I’ve used that as a structure, combined with concepts for modelling from Legends of Anglerre. The trick is to make these important and useful to the players- giving them control over development and choices. But if we’re going larger scale, to consider the really big picture, I think Microscope and Kingdom just plain works. Combine those with storytelling tools from things like DramaSystem, Durance, and The Quiet Year and you could easily craft a really interesting large-scale game that zooms down to the micro level and back.

Martial Arts Systems: I love seeing what people make of this-- from highly specific maneuvers with multiple rolls (ala Gurps MA) to delineated but looser feat blocks (ala True20 and the like) to simple lists of actions (ala Hero System). My problem now is that I've seen so many of these systems over the years that I immediately note the resemblances. I do love to look for the relative level of Wushu-y-ness of these systems though. I want a structure for MA that stays relatively loose-- but I'll read any of them, and there have been some bad ones (Enter the Zombie, some of the weirdness of Exalted where it goes into the highest level stuff).

Since I wrote this, I ran a wuxia campaign using my Storyteller hack- White Mountain, Black River. That went pretty well, but once we got deep into the game the complexity escalated; in part from my mechanics and in part from the base system. To build that game I went through other systems to see how they handled MA. In particular I went through the games from this post, Boot to the Head: Martial Arts Treatments in RPGs. I also looked at Qin, Spycraft, and several d20 MA approaches. Part of me wants to take some of the WMBR ideas and see if they’d work to do a wuxia version of 13th Age. I also have some new approaches I need to play out to see how they feel, in particular Jadepunk and Tianxia. I’ve also had Spellbound Kingdoms and Jadeclaw suggested to me.

Social Combat: I'm always curious about games which try to model social combat. I mean obviously you could handle it the same way as physical combat, but that seems to lose something. You have varying objectives, varying circumstances that might be even more difficult to model. Plus, once you go down the road of abstracting these kinds of interactions-- where do you stop? I don't think I'll ever use an involved system for this but I love to window shop. Both Burning Wheel and The Dying Earth RPG have systems for this. The former has all of the strange low-trust, low-detail problems of the rest of that game and the latter goes too far into paralleling the two kinds of combat. Dying Earth also suffers from some broken basic mechanics-- or at least mechanics which our play group didn't find palatable. I think there might be some things worth digging out of that game though (except that Pelgrane Press will lose their license to the material in the near future and make it OOP). I'd like to see more and fuller treatment of these ideas in the Legend of the Five Rings game-- that always seemed like a strange omission. Maybe they've done something with that in the newer books.

I think it is telling that I considered this a niche mechanic. I’m pretty happy with Fate for social conflict. I’ve found the addition of Composure Stress and the ability to push for Consequences & Concessions makes this a viable option. But sometimes it can be hard to maneuver players into taking that road and/or making it feel satisfying. Everyone usually builds themselves at least slightly for physical conflict, but more often we only get one or two players who’ve built for social. I’m also interested in looking more closely at how the various Apocalypse World games handle this. They seem to have all of these concepts baked into their DNA.