Thursday, March 19, 2009

Odd RPG Mechanics I'm Fond Of


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 L5R which 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.

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.

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.

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 my discussion of the Weapons of the Gods Companion earlier. 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.

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).

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 loose 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 to 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.


In the end, I'm much more likely to homebrew these areas of the game-- but still I seek the Holy Grail for each of them in new games.


  1. In the GURPS 3E Compendiums (Compendia?) they do have rules for chases. There's a slightly abstract number for how far you are from each other. Skill rolls, modified by vehicle speed and maneuverability, change the chase number. You end up caught or escaping. It also has rules for duels, but I can't recall them and I gave my Compendia away years ago.

    The Riddle of Steel has a great realistic martial arts/dueling system, written by a European Renaissance martial arts instructor. It uses dice pools, but the pool has to last through two exchanges. Thus, if you overcommit during the first exchange you don't have any left for the second. The dice pool Art and I worked up was a simplification of that system. I remember running it by my Chicago gaming group/swordfighting friends. It turns out they know the author's instructor, and he's kinda crazy. It turned into a sword fighting discussion, sans gaming. The instructor didn't use safety precautions, and had stabbed and been stabbed several times.

    Anyhow, the beauty of TRoS system is that things like probing attacks, pauses, and counterattacks are all natural mathematical parts of the system. According to some reviews and the discussion boards, it simulated the give and take of a real duel beautifully. Hoarding and spending dice becomes is the heart of the game, and this one aspect is as complex as Risk.

    TRoS is a mess. There's a variety of resolution mechanics for different areas. It's a patchwork that evolved during play. The author fell out of gaming when he joined the Army circa 2005.

    As far as tactical combat goes, I've always thought one should start with the broader tactical world, and then switch to the derived RPG. This is the source of my old musing on three man fire teams for damage. Each man in the team has only three states: uninjured, injured, and dead. If you lose too many men, your team is crippled for the tactical game. Or something like that. I've never written it up, much less gamed it.

    I don't see much value in social interaction dice rules. I'd love to hear the contrary, tho. I would prefer dice over talk for sex scenes: never felt comfortable using seductive talk with a GM.

  2. And I agree-- I don't see the immediate value to those social interaction rules-- but maybe, just maybe, there's something out there that manages to do it well and simply. I', more curious about how people approach this than anything else. I like the "idea" that you could give diplomat and social characters a rich set of options-- and something for tracking debates, network building, and insult contests.

    As for the seduction stuff, well I guess that really comes down to how "experimental" the GM is...(note: I do not include LARPing in this discussion).

  3. >>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.<<

    While strongly I disagree with 99% it is true that not every situation needs a mechanic system already in place for its resolution. I guess it really boils down to the play style that people are more comfortable with. Some players like a nebulous means of resolution, others like the crunch of system mechanics. Sherri is very much the former while I lean more toward the later. :)

    My view is the less structure you have in game mechanics the more likely it is that the players will always succeed, thereby reducing the risk of actually failing at something. Personally I love occasionally failing in a game because it often creates the most fun and memorable moments. But too much structure and you start taking away the control players have over the situation. The hard part is finding a happy medium.

    So please don't direct all of your game mechanic love into board games, it still has a welcome place in our RPGs.

  4. I have the GURPS Compendium II right here - "Combat and Campaigns". It has sections on chases and duels! I will be giving that a look.

    So many of the "mini-games" within a game mentioned here really just need a little bit of structure or support.

    Let me bring of FATE and SOTC again. No, I'm not some FATE nerd, but I have read, analyzed, and rewritten both - and even ran my re-written SOTC. The system has too many non-traditional ways of handling things for my liking, and that proved to be a big learning curve that we never got over really. BUT, they are packed with wonderful ideas and approaches.

    Skills can have Stunts, which are cool extra expressions of your skills. As a result, social skills suddenly become as fun and nuanced as combat skills.

    4E has it's wonderfully balanced (?) Powers dynamics, but completely lacks a similar or parallel system for skills, and there aren't many skills to start with. If you want to be a good cook, you just say "oh, and I'm a good cook". Weird.

    I was very fond of the mass combat system in GURPS Conan (which I ran back when, if you recall!), but never got around to using it. I can't rmember is SOTC has this, but FATE 2.0 does not distingusih mechanically between different kinds of conflicts (social, mental, physical, spiritual, etc.), and even provides a scale-of-resolution option, so you can resolve a conflict (even a mass one) in one roll if you want (a 'scene"), or break it down into "exchanges" (I think), or down to blow-by-blow. Nice.

    Also, the ever-delightful Aspects can be used to define anything and as a result the Compel, Invoke, and resolution mechanics apply to anything. Armies, battles, wars, political dynasties, bureaucratic departments, seige engines, professional rivalries, romantic encounters ships...anything can be defined by Aspects, and they can all interact. And Aspects can change. For quite a while, no "Barbarian Insurgency" could do "The Glory That is Rome" any real damage. But "The Decaying Empire"? Oh yes.

    I still own and love the GURPS, HERO, and Paladium martial arts books. I'd love to distill all those wonderful style advantages and disadvantages down to something more easily usable.

    A simple but flavorful system for Bases would be nice. I'll have to look at Angel someday, and I actuall have but have never read the new Changeling. I loved the Champions rules for that once upon a time, but that sh!t is crazy. Aspects can do that, too. :D

  5. Hmmm. Bases: The problem with Champions' bases rules is that the base is treated as a supporting character, instead of an advantage. Same thing goes for vehicles. Back in 1997 when I enjoyed experimental Munchkining more, I wrote up a character that was 8 monkeys in a superpowerful flying metallic monkey head vehicle. Hoo boy was that powerful!

    Instead of writing a base as a supporting character, it should be handled as a set of advantages to the owner. A set of powers with limitations, in essence. A flying invisible base the size of a small house could be a huge advantage, with the only limit being you can't fit it into a doorway. "Set phasers on Nagasaki sized blast!"

    Martial Arts: it's worth mentioning Feng Shui, which doesn't pretend to model any real styles at all. The system math is horrible, but some of the concepts are lovely. Have you read it? It's by Robin Laws, so you know there's some interesting thinking in it.

  6. Yes-- I used to have a full set of the Feng Shui books. There's a ton of interesting material and ideas there-- and I do like that it stays true to its "unreal" martial arts archetypes. I especially appreciate the way it handles Gun-fu. But you're right about the resolution system-- it is strange, I like Robin laws' ideas but most of his systems have some wonky resolution mechanics (Dying Earth, Gumshoe, Heroquest, etc).

  7. The rules were in the Angel core book. I don't like the point spread with them, but I do like the narrative descriptions that go with each one.

    How did you like the base building system in Conspiracy X? (old or new version)

  8. You know I don't think I ever noticed the base building rules from ConX. I think my favorite part of that system was the idea of characters being able to pull favors or resources based on their alliances and previous experiences. I think that system has a nice way of putting in some genre-appropriate shaping of the normally generic Contacts and Favors qualities.

  9. When Lowell is fretting over mechanics, it's usually over "niche" issues like those above. So he's mulling over arcane mechanics for something that is going to be important to (at most) 1 or 2 players at the table or used only for 1 session.

    So I am now going to be awful.

    Most players have the good sense to avoid playing support characters or social characters or obscure-fighting-style fighters and stick mainly to standard battle-ready characters. Most players don't worry about what's at the base. Battle always has plenty of mechanics, and the majority of players have exactly the method and mode of the 'satisfaction' they expect out of the game. To them, social situations are plot exposition or gimmes from the GM for establishing NPCs. Bases are just wallpaper.

    So Lowell's worrying about his one player who decided to play support or social and is getting fewer opportunities to shine. And, in the end, he can't stop the game to focus on one player for any great length of time. Mechanics for these things are just more points to spend that are not going to grant more shine opportunities--because even if the mechanics are there, the rest of the table has expectations that mean the game has to sweep over these things, or dole out opportunities to every player near evenly no matter how many points were spent by one versus the other.

    So, narrative negotiation. Otherwise, it's just wasted points. Bottom line.

    I am, by the way, incredibly likely to choose support or social builds for my character. And I go into knowing that it mostly is going to make me much suckier at the moments when something is at risk and not much more likely to succeed than anyone else when it's in my 'forte' area because social and support are game color or just a means to an end. No one throws a parade for the healer. No one stands aside to let the diplomat alone do the talking. It just isn't the way games go.

    The healer is the excuse for the fighters being back in the fight right away, but it's not anything more. The diplomat is not going to get more plot points--the GM MUST involve all the players when they are in social situations--and the way to do that is to set them to ferreting out the plot points.

    You don't tell the fighter to go stand in the back at a party, but the diplomat or the healer sure as hell better not be up front in the fight.

    Don't worry about it as points. Worry about it as a storyteller. Give the healer a slap on the back, or something to do for someone other than the other players. Give the diplomat a moment of ...something--or something to do for someone other than the other players. Then get back to the game.