Friday, December 12, 2014

RPG Mechanics I Always Ignore

I wrote this over six years ago, back in March ’09. I’m strident in places. Usually I’m middle of the road. I come out of years and years of playing more detailed, system-heavy games: Rolemaster, GURPS, Bushido, Champions, Fringeworthy, and the like. I did AD&D until ’87. From that basis I began to move into lighter systems after 2000. When I reread my early posts, especially ones about system, I see myself wrestling with what I want from a game. I’m go back to our homebrew, Action Cards, come up with new sub-systems and then strip them out again. Here’s what I didn’t like/didn’t use back then, followed by present-day commentary. These reflect what I dig at the table for most of my games. Some games use these elements to support what they’re doing and that’s awesome. Torchbearer for example makes resource management central to play. I think I missed that purpose-driven point in my original post.


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 D&D “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.

Oh boy. Bunch of problems here. First, I’m conflating two things here: wealth and encumbrance. Second, there’s a place for money counting. That’s an important element in many OSR games. It creates atmosphere and offers a tangible reward. Tracking money can be fun when that’s integrated into the game play: i.e. that money’s the point of the game. I’m usually not running games aimed at that. I tend to focus on larger scale loot: connections, magic items, favors, objects of utility. It isn’t what I normally do- but if I ran something like DCC, I’d probably at least try to bring that in as a factor. Third, the encumbrance question is more involved than I suggest. Some games have a tactical aspect where that’s important. Encumbrance and carrying capacity serves to distinguish characters. It forces choices on the players and can be important. And with modern electronic character sheets and rules integration, we can easily track equipment and weight. It isn’t something I’m going to do but I see it fits with some games. The closest I come to this is 13th Age’s limit on magic items, with the players wrestled with in a session this week.

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.

The question of how you handle social interaction’s more complicated. There’s an eternal debate between “Allow them to Play It” and “Roll Only” approaches, with most games falling somewhere in the middle. I think my old self is actually reacting to the concept of Initial Reaction rolls- that when characters meet NPCs you randomize reactions. That’s usually not the way I play. NPCs usually have a position and particular desires. Players usually have a particular presentation or approach. I base initial reactions on that and the environment (reputation, situation). Players can obviously make checks to modify attitudes. So that’s a case of adjudicating. I keep most of that abstractly in my head. But I admire a GM who can and does mechanically track attitude states for NPCs. OOH this may be a straw man- I never played with a GURPS GM who used Reaction Rolls.

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, level 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.

Some people love this stuff. For some it’s a rich part of a particular game’s experience. I’ve heard a players talking about ship construction in Traveller for example. It makes me wish I dug this, but try as I can it doesn't click for me. In the last several years I done at least one game which included this, but I kept it simple. For my Star Wars campaign I put assembled a simple set of options and add ons the Captain character could buy for his ship over play. I had a menu of maybe two-dozen choices for an 8-10 session campaign. I’ll likely do the same when I run my Crimson Skies spin-off portal.

Modifier Charts, Range and Combat Complications
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.

System matters and what you want to get out of the system. I’m not running simulationist games. So I have a tendency to quick adjudicate modifiers for games. For example I run Mutants & Masterminds and I’ll throw in circumstance modifiers from time to time, often to change up the environment. I like 13th Age’s streamlining of this as well- reserving penalties and benefits for character feats or monster effects. Fate’s about my speed. Aspects allow quick definition of the environment and allow players to choose how to interact with them. OOH in our f2f games we play out combat with minis, at which point I mix scene aspects with actual terrain on the table. 

That being said, I’ve playing around with running an X-Com game using Roll20. It has fog-of-war built in so it could be perfect. If I wanted to run a highly tactical game like that I’d track all that stuff. Elevation, snap shooting, firing on the run, cover, range effects, etc. Players would have to make informed decisions about whether to take a shot, when to move, and what kind of cover to use. That a place where these mechanics would serve the game’s purpose.

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 an 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.

Like Disease, Fatigue is cool for me when it is used as a setting element. They’ve been down in the dungeon too long, they’re trekked through the desert, etc. Fatigue as its own damage/resource pool doesn’t appeal to me. I think they have more impact if they come from an existing pool like HP, Stress, or even Drama Points.

Variable Experience Rewards
The excellent Old School gaming blog, A Paladin in the Citadel, reminded me of this recently. He's been looking at early games at how the logic of their experience point reward structure impacts play and game. He's hit The Fantasy Trip and the Holmes Basic DnD for example.

I remember those things from when I played when I was younger, but I also remember those going out the window pretty early. Except in rare cases, whoever ran almost always just threw out either a lump sum to be divided or just an equal fixed number. Then at some point we started playing original Rolemaster. The GM who ran that (based in a Hârn analogue setting) always went through and tracked damage dealt, relatively levels, treasure found and distance traveled for individual experience. The system provided an unfortunate feedback loop which fed players who did well and screwed those non-damage dealing ones. Of course you'd see that as a problem later in some computer games and MMORPGs. The breaking point came for that system when he transported us to a Gamma World like setting and we went cross-continental in a hovertube. Immediately we demanded the experience associated with a journey of that length. Eventually since RM had development points per level spent on skills, the GM just gave out DP instead of Exp.

When we moved to games with points built in, like GURPS & Champions, the system became a little easier and we tended to have a single consistent reward for all players each session. Most games had individual mechanics for singling out and rewarding players. Usually we ignored those. In practice in long-term campaigns I saw one of two effects. If the GM gave out those bonus points, there sometimes arose a question of fairness-- and the GM would have to effectively rotate the gifting of those bonuses which negated the system. On the other hand, player vote systems really depended on the group. I saw groups which could handle it and rewarded well. On the other hand I saw established groups where the system rewarded on play of a certain kind-- only within the conventional expectations of the players. Any play outside of those lines became ignored.

Eventually I gave up on those totally when groups would actually track and realize that someone hadn't gotten bonus points and make sure those went to the person left behind. Again, the same effect as giving the same number to everyone. Now, for reward, I tend to use drama or hero points, a temporary resource. Since it is decoupled from power and relative ability, but has real effect, it doesn't create any tension at the table.

I still agree with this. I understand arguments about creating difference and incentivizing certain kinds of play. I think we potentially hit against the “Syndrome” argument from The Incredibles. But on my list of table values, that ranks lower than player parity.