Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Subsystems: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 51

Having finally (for the most part) overcome this ear/sinus infection that eff’d up my balance and equilibrium, I’m playing catch up. A couple of weeks ago we dropped a new episode of Play on Target, considering “sub-systems” in games. We should have another ep up this week or next. So what constitutes a sub-system? We don’t offer a solid definition in the episode. In fact we cover and present several concepts under that header: unusual rules for handling a narrow set of actions; mechanics which don’t fit with the rest of the structures; or non-standard props or add-ons. They break things away from the normal flow- at least the normal flow I imagine when I think about the game.

  1. Dice Games: Some games have an added dice manipulation dimension. Fireborn has players physically shifting dice between aspects. Weapons of the Gods allows players to move some dice into “The River” to be pulled into later rolls. Don’t Rest Your Head has an economy of different dice. Marvel Heroic (and other Cortex games) focuses on player choice and dice pool assembly. There’s an element of hand management to those. And the mechanic add something to the play. Building the pool feels significant in MHR. When you ask players to have dice pools ready without description, the game goes flat.
  2. Let’s Have a War!  Mass Combats’ always been a weird ‘grail” system in games. There’s the theory that players want epic, earth-shaking wars with their characters in command. D&D comes out of Chainmail and many have wanted to revive that flavor. In the episode we mention mass combat “simulators”: Bushido, GURPS Horseclans & Conan, Legend of the Five Rings, countless d20 supplements. They all offer ways to quickly resolve big battles. Some went further, bringing full-fledged miniatures systems to the table. Consider TSR’s unwieldy Battlesystem, Rolemaster’s War Law, ICE’s Bladestorm, Deadlands’ Great Rail Wars, Fading Suns’ Noble Armada, Harn’s Battlelust. Few of these caught on and even the brightest burned out quickly.
  3. Reverse Engineering: On the flip side, some miniatures games end up having a role-playing component. Mechwarrior’s the first of these. We played Battledroids (and then Battletech) with weirdly scaled Japanese models as soon as it came out. When Mechwarrior hit, one ADD GM jumped onto the bandwagon and ran a campaign. Yet though we played that for a dozen sessions and we never saw actual Mech combat. In fact we desperately avoided battle and solved all our missions with alternate approaches. The repair and infrastructures costs for our mechs were too damn high. We weren’t going to risk those. Heavy Gear, Iron Kingdoms, and Through the Breach in this category. These share a common problem: the need to keep sustain mechanics from the minis games in the rpg.
  4. +5 Troops of Battling: While many games built new resolution approaches for mass combat, others shifted to make military sub-systems more symmetrical. Exalted 2e added mass combat rules which use the standard combat mechanics scaled up. Troops serve as equipment for the leader of an army. Legends of Anglerre also just shifts the scale to create the effect. Players can easily transition between these mechanics, since they effectively resolve the same way. That comes at the cost of uniqueness. The mechanics themselves don’t spotlight these events as out of the ordinary.
  5. Roster Roster: Are games where players control a large number of characters RPGs with elaborate sub-systems or just board games? I think the answer’s RPG for something troupe like Ars Magica. But consider the pseudo-roleplay of games like Necromunda, Mordheim, Wreck Age, and Dead of Winter. In each, your characters can grow and develop. Besides DoW, all these offer continuity- the ability to play with the same evolving personalities over time. They can be GMless or run with a judge.
  6. Who was Whisper? I mentioned L5R’s mass-combat a sub-system, but other early products from this line contain interesting sub-systems. You could argue that the player-facing rumor & history book of City of Lies offered parallel play. It served as a kind of CYOA logic puzzle. Players could work through that to develop hypothesis and guide at table play. On the other hand Tomb of Iuchiban had a concrete boardgame element. The final tomb uses a variable layout. The game includes room tiles to lay out and rearrange for the players as they move through.
  7. One-Use Magic Ink Modules: I wonder if solo or GMless mechanics could be a sub-system. We’ve seen solo dungeons (Deathtrap Equalizer), magic-device modules (Blizzard Pass, Midnight on Dagger Alley), and full CYOA books (Warlock of Firetop Mountain). But a revised approach has been the strange CYOA, cross-reference, board game play of Tales of the Arabian Nights and Agents of SMERSH. The former’s interesting for its rich background and absolute devotion to randomness. It’s also competitive. Agents of SMERSH isn’t. Instead the group works together to uncover plots and defeat foes. Mind you, the plots are loosely tied, but I could imagine a more seeded version where early picks set the parameters for later ones.
  8. Community Building: I really need to review Mutant: Year Zero. While it comes out of an older game line, it embraces the modern. You can buy reference cards for plots, mutations, and equipment. The game discusses using these as randomizers. That’s a tangible mechanic and the cards look good. But M:YZ also has a decent system covering community development. Players can take actions and make choices about their community’s direction. It’s more cooperative than Apocalypse World or even the more recent post-apocalyptic game Legacy.
  9. Turn, Turn, Turn: I especially love the concept of seasonal actions. Old games had downtime tracking: thin rules for time between adventures. Think GURPS’ crazy career tables and study forms. But games like Ars Magica, Blood & Honor, and Reign have more explicit structures. The Great Pendragon Campaign and The Darkening of Mirkwood offer rich, multi-generational campaign sagas. Both assume a set timeline and history, with the players responding to that. I recently wrapped out L5R campaign which used a seasonal actionst. I found that sub-system takes careful planning. If you go for a mechanical version, you have to consider resource costs, balance, and time. I began with that approach., but later ditched it in favor of a narrative dialogue. I didn’t want to have to engage with heavy resource tracking and calculations. OOH If I’d seen Wrath of the Autarch before I started, things might have been different.
  10. That’ll Be 500,000 GP: I also love the idea of Crafting systems more than I like the execution. Often you get high density to these mechanics (GURPS, Pathfinder). I’ve tried a couple of times to come up with ways to handle the Atelier series of jrpgs. Craftings more than half of the game. I’m still working that out. One of the best approaches I’ve seen recently has been Atomic Robo, though that’s called ‘brainstorming there’. DFAE has another take on it: open and easily adapted that works. I’m looking forward to the final version of that.
Play on Target: Subsystems 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at


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