Rutskarn’s GMinars CH6: The Gamesbow 1-4

By Rutskarn
on Sep 3, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games

Rather than come up with more fictional tabletop games to explain mechanical paradigms, why don’t we just look at real ones? For the next two weeks I’ll be drawing up a spectrum of RPGs ranging from the rigid and traditional to wobbly and intangible.

Don’t take these as suggestions, per se–I include all of these because they make for a good sampling, not necessarily because I adore them. Whenever available, I’ll include links for legal purchase and download.

MOST TRADITIONAL

1.) BattleTech/MechWarrior (Introduced 1986)

This is the endgame; as far as I’m concerned, this system represents the tip of the creaking, painstakingly riveted tower of objective design. Very little in MechWarrior’s sundry editions is left to the imagination of the storyteller. You will not have to guess where your rocket lands or imagine which systems it damages, or how; all of that will emerge conclusively from an exhaustive cross-referencing of dice and rulebook. RPGs exist that are more minute than this franchise, but I’ve never seen anybody play them on purpose.

It’s not that anything in MechWarrior is particularly realistic. Nothing featuring giant chickenlike mechs is going to pass the snarky twitter test of verisimilitude–and frankly, even if the rules were meant to be realistic, they’re frequently incomplete and confusingly presented. Classically, striking a man-sized object with a mech’s melee weapon is nearly impossible…while stomping on them is an automatic hit and kill. And don’t even think about trying out a character who isn’t perpetually wrapped in Mech–the designers realized halfway through they had to make rules for people like you, and, also, that they really hate you.

I’d argue there’s two purposes to MechWarrior‘s overdesign. The first is to provide as many strategic options as possible, which is one very valid reason to make combat complicated and objective. The second is to provide a sense of simulation. That school of thought runs: playing MechWarrior should be complicated because being a mech pilot would be complicated. MechWarrior without the dozens of hit locations would be like Papers, Please without the fussy fines and regulations; lacking a component crucial to immersion.

Having said that, this really is the outer limit of what’s considered basically playable. Most will want something several rungs less fiddly–or at least, a little more developed in its design. MechWarrior players have never been thick on the ground and they’re harder to come by every year.

2.) Dungeons and Dragons (Introduced 1974)

I’ve covered this game at length–it’s a classic marriage of traditional objective rules and friendly approachability. It started out four decades ago as a wargame that simulated a few things besides battlefields, and that, more or less, remains the soul of the game. D&D reasons that the story is the story and that you don’t need much help with it–what you really need help arbitrating is the complicated business of killing and not being killed. It tries to do that in a way that’s tactical, intuitive, reasonably realistic, and interesting. It will serve you for years, and it will not surprise you–and it isn’t supposed to. The rules are predictable and concrete to provide challenges that are predictable and concrete. Defeating a dragon is more rewarding when it’s objectively difficult to do so, which means standards and restrictions have to exist and the rules need to stand on their own.

3.) FATE (Introduced 2003)

In theory, combat in games like MechWarrior and Dungeons and Dragons can be flawlessly conducted by a computer. The rules are very specific about what you’re doing and when you can do it: You get a bonus to your melee attack when you are flanking an enemy. You are flanking an enemy when you and an ally stand adjacent to a foe on opposite squares. A melee attack is (etc). In all other situations–exploring, tunneling, trading, crafting, talking–the limits of a computer inarguably constrain player action, but when it comes to combat, the computer’s got things sewn up to a satisfying degree, and the simulation is only as limited as the programmer’s patience.

FATE is different. You couldn’t trust a computer to run its mechanics to anything but a hollow, unsatisfying degree. The rules provide a somewhat objective foundation–characters are clearly good at some things and bad at others–but the game offers tools and license for both players and GM to ignore, redirect, or steer whatever conclusions are arrived at by rolling dice. In some cases, this empowers players to make events feel more believable than they might in an “objective” game.

Consider the following example:

Alan and Barbara join a fantasy campaign. Alan wants to play his favorite character, a huge-gutted rock-livered freakishly tough dwarf barbarian named Aargar of the Flinty Mountains. Barbara wants to play her old standby, Bohemius the scrawny and consumptive elf beat poet. Both players feel strongly about their characters; their main priority is making sure their vision is backed up by the rules.

Naturally, they vote to play Dungeons and Dragons, because as a well-designed simulationist system they know there will be plenty of ways to represent their characters’ constitutions objectively and mechanically.

Alan is dead serious about being tough–he’s kind of a sickly guy, so a dwarf who’s totally unshakable is his power fantasy. Literally every decision he makes in character creation is aimed at making his vision of the unsinkable dwarf a reality. He sacrifices a lot of versatility to boost his toughness score to its limits–he will add a bonus of +5 to any die roll when his character’s resilience is in question. He picks a class that adds a +2 to any die roll related to resisting disease, poison, or inclement weather. He picks the race that gets a +2 to any check related to ingesting toxins. He even blows his free feat on Iron Fortitude, adding a +2 on toughness rolls instead of picking anything remotely combat-oriented. This adds up to as much as a +11 bonus to certain situations–not only is Aargar the toughest person in the party, he’s already tougher than almost anybody they’ll ever meet. In a low fantasy campaign, he’s already one of the toughest people on the planet.

When Barbara thinks of her character, the first thing she thinks is frail. So she makes him pitifully weak, giving him a CON of 7 for a -2 on all toughness-related rolls. According to the rules, Bohemius is significantly less sturdy than a pet cat.

To celebrate joining the new party, the freshly-created Aargar and Bohemius clink glasses of Dwarven Kickass Whiskey and roll not to get drunk. In D&D, you determine this kind of thing by rolling a die with twenty sides–a die that’s as likely to give a really good result (20) as a really bad one (1) as a precisely mediocre one (10)–and adding any relevant bonuses to the result, hoping the total is equal to or greater than the difficulty number of whatever you’re trying to do. In this case Alan’s die comes up a 4, to which he adds his tremendous poison save of +11 (total: 15). Barbara’s comes up an 18, from which she subtracts 2 (total:16). The difficulty to not get drunk is 16.

Aargar, the legendarily robust hard-drinking dwarf, hits the floor, and Bohemius looks around for a bowl of pretzels.

This feel clearly wrong, but the game offers no recourse; the dice have spoken. There are all sorts of ways to explain what happened, all of which ignore the “objective” situation to introduce external factors (“Somebody drugged Aargar’s tipple,” “Bohemius puked his up,” “Aargar had a stomach flu,” etc). But three problems remain. Firstly, this result is the exact opposite of what Alan and Barbara wanted from their characters. Secondly, both players did everything in their power to prevent it from happening. Thirdly, as they will discover, this sort of weird invalidating situation isn’t even rare. In the interest of delivering a more tactically sound and unpredictable game, D&D accepts that it will sometimes fly in the face of what you expect from your character. Sometimes the fast guy will go slowest. Sometimes the great warrior will miss the drunk peasant. Sometimes the butterfingered novice will play the flute better than the classically-trained internationally famous bard. C’est le jeu.

A little miffed, Alan and Barbara decide to give the same characters a go in the FATE system. This time character creation’s a little less like building a PC and a little more like painting a portrait–it focuses less on mechanical parts and more on creatively assembling an image.

Alan’s still hellbent on being the toughest dwarf around. In the section of the sheet where players write down the parts of their character that are most important in the story, called the character’s “Aspects,” Alan writes down Hard as Mother Mountain. Barbara, wanting to emphasize that her elf is delicate, writes down Gentle as the Summer. This isn’t just poetry or character description–these Aspects, of which each character will have five, are mechanically hugely important.

Of course, there’s also Skills. Skills incorporate into one simple mechanic all the nuance of class, race, spells, and build in a game like Dungeons and Dragons. Alan doesn’t need to balance three or four different stats, saves, and feat paths in order to be a specific kind of tough–he takes Physique, a skill that makes one both strong AND tough, at the highest possible skill level, 5. Barbara doesn’t care about being strong or tough, so she doesn’t take Physique at all.

Alan also creates a Stunt, a kind of specialization that can modify Skill in creative ways, to give him a +2 to Physique checks to not get poisoned or drunk. He calls this stunt Mithril Belly. Barbara buys stunts related to things she cares about, like beat poetry and glamour shots and being noticed at parties.

So what happens when Aargar and Bohemius share a drink in FATE? Just like last time, Alan and Barbara roll–hoping that their dice roll, plus their Physique (effectively 7 in the case of Alan, 0 in the case of Barbara), equals or exceeds a difficulty of 4. Since this is FATE, they’re not rolling a totally random number between 1 and 20. The four dice used mean they’ll roll something between -4 and +4, either of which would be a super rare and unexpected result compared to the more typical +1s, 0s, -2s, etc.

So, naturally, when they both roll for sobriety, Alan rolls a -4 and Barbara gets +4. The odds of either of those happening is a little more than 1%.  This is the most freakishly unlucky/lucky result they could have gotten, and with Aargar’s result at +3 and Bohemia’s at +4, it looks like it’s going to be a (truly improbable) repeat of the D&D situation.

This is where those Aspects come in.

Aspects are all about letting the important parts of the character overrule what the dice say. Alan’s not happy with his character passing out drunk, so he spends one of his renewable-yet-valuable character points to invoke his Aspect Hard as Mother Mountain. He says, “Aargar’s liver should curl up and die at this, but somehow, with the spirit of Mother Mountain in his veins, he remains standing.” Because he has an Aspect to explain why he doesn’t pass out, and a character point to invoke it, he can purchase either a reroll or a +2 bonus to his result. In this case, he might as well reroll, since he’s virtually guaranteed to get a much better result than the hideously improbable -4 if he does. Basically, through the expenditure of a character point justified by Aspect choice, the strength of Aargar’s characterization wins out over freakishly bad luck.

Meanwhile, Barbara sees an opportunity to leverage her unexpected success. In FATE, you get the aforementioned character points whenever an Aspect gets you into trouble you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten into. Barbara says to the GM: “Bohemius is still standing and all, but he’s never been this drunk before and he’s handling it poorly. He’s completely oblivious to danger and starts trying to make friends with those scarred, hook-handed pickpockets in the corner.” Barbara gets a character point for acting out the consequences of Gentle as the Summer.

Alan and Barbara are happy; the rules allowed their vision of their characters to trump flukes of the dice.

The system’s more interesting and robust than I have time to get into, but the main point is this: FATE is designed to let you play any kind of character consistently, productively, and well. Rarely if ever does a “feel-bad” die result foul up the story. Among other things, the system encourages GMs to sometimes turn “you roll too low and fail” into “you roll too low, so you succeed, but something goes extremely wrong,” which is the kind of suggestion traditional games strongly eschew and story games thrive on. Failures are fun, but I’ve met few GMs who can’t do more damage with a skillfully-chosen Success With Consequences.

Of course, not every group wants what FATE‘s selling. D&D didn’t arrive at its unpredictable, wide-rolling d20 by accident. Uncertainty and unreliability are perfectly good sources of tension–it’s thrilling to know nobody’s safe from a wild, unlucky result. The threat of Aargar losing a friendly drinking contest is just annoying, but when Aargar accidentally drinks a poisoned broth, suddenly the fact that he can’t count on a success is exciting. Games like FATE can feel too safe, too catered, for some players’ tastes.

Plus–when you get right down to it, some groups don’t want subjective considerations like “is this Aspect relevant” to factor into mechanics. And for a not-inconsiderable percentage of groups, Aspects and declarations and all the other built-in ad hoc mechanics start to wheedle down a slippery and unlovely slope. When the story can influence what happens mechanically, what are the mechanics actually there for?

I like FATE a lot, and every time I think I’ve thought myself out of liking it I’m surprised by a new and exciting campaign which rekindles my affection. I’ll have a longer post weighing pros and cons before long.

4.) octaNe (Introduced 2003)

octaNe pitches itself as the Trash Culture RPG. It’s fascinated with pulp science, grindhouse, kitsch, bucketloads of gore, bras with knives on, knives with bras on–anything really garish and full-throated has a spot in its milieu. Whereas D&D is specifically a heroic fantasy game, and FATE is built for any kind of game at all, octaNe is designed more for a feeling than any kind of specific setting (though it has one, a modest pastiche of B-movie tropes). octaNe chases the anarchic thrill of no-holds-barred, unpretentious, self-indulgent imagination, and achieves this by way of a rather drastic step: it outright rejects objectivity. There is no sense at all that specific actions obey specific rules to obtain specific results.

All the dice do, once the player declares an action, is determine whether a.) the player gets to narrate what happens, b.) the GM gets to narrate what happens, or c.) the two have to compromise. Players aren’t even more likely to succeed at things they’re supposed to be good at; instead, they have “favorite” ways of doing things that give them points they can spend on future rolls. Basically, the game bribes you to roleplay your character without penalizing failure to.

octaNe will never have the lasting appeal of a game like FATE or D&D, or reach indie darling status like some of the games that’ll bring up the bottom of this list, but it’s a good example of an RPG that delivers good times without the pretense of simulation.

However, just because it’s not much a traditional game doesn’t mean it’s much of a story game. The rules actually do very little to drive or focus the storytelling–the dice rolls randomly shift the authorial power around, which can be fun in short bursts but isn’t hugely compelling. Next week, when I start reaching the other end of the Gamebow, we’ll look at how shifting around authorial power in directed ways can create truly memorable experiences.

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  1. Droid says:

    I really like your point of view on D&D vs FATE mechanics. Also, I wonder why there isn’t a widespread D&D combat simulation program yet, since the rules seem to be rigid enough to allow that? The only ones I ever found were either very fiddly or incomplete, and all inofficial fan projects.

    • PeteTimesSix says:

      My guess is its because of the absolutely massive amount of material there is (be it classes or feats), the vast majority of which is under a license and tends to add either new functionality or modify existing ones in sometimes contradictory ways, and the fact that most optimised builds rely on multiple interlocking feat-class feature combos that half the time need the GM to read the rules in question four times over before they can even decide it it should work. And then you get into things that require GM arbitration (just what kind of action counts as agressive for the purposes of Charm Person, that sort of thing)…

      It seems like an absolutely massive amount of work thats liable to get you Cease and Desist’d halfway through.

      • Limeaide says:

        I wonder, then, if anyone’s ever tried to make a tabletop RPG with the digital part built in? So instead of making a combat simulator out of an existing ruleset, you make the ruleset and the simulator at the same time. That way, you could tailor the rules to play nice with the systems, and you could get away with a little more complexity in the interactions because a computer’s handling it.

        There would have to be an audience for something like that.

        • John says:

          Well, there is Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights, which implements (some large subset of) the D&D 3.5 (or maybe 3.0) rule set and features a DM mode. I’ve only ever played scripted campaigns, so I’m not sure just how powerful the DM tools are. I suspect it would be very difficult for a DM to set up complex encounters on the fly (though that problem would by no means be unique to Neverwinter Nights). Still, I believe that a DM can temporarily possess NPCs, so you could at least get improvised conversation and intelligent combat behavior from NPCs.

          • Tuck says:

            NWN is based on 3rd edition, not 3.5. The DM mode is powerful, but it’s not great for actually playing opponents — once the DM possesses an NPC, it can’t be injured or killed. But it works well for interacting with NPCs more generally.

            In terms of setting up encounters, the DM can literally just spawn in whatever enemies they want, wherever they want on the map. Likewise traps or other interactive items, though for anything more complex than a door/chest it will generally need pre-scripting. DM mode becomes most powerful when combined with a carefully prepared world and set of DM tools.

          • Matt Downie says:

            The faithful-ish reproduction of D&D mechanics in Neverwinter Nights doesn’t feel much like D&D.

            It translates the turn-based play into quasi-real time. So you can tell one character to attack a target and then leave them to get on with it. This feels very different from rolling the dice for every attack. It means things like a +2 to hit become much less noticeable. Should you make the tactical decision to switch to Power Attack? It will increase your average damage per round unless your opponent has very high Armor Class… But really, who cares? The fact that you just hit quickload whenever things go wrong means you don’t take tactical decisions seriously anyway.

        • djw says:

          The Temple of Elemental Evil by Troika is a very detailed simulation of the 3.5 rule set.

          They did such a good job on the rule set that they forgot to make the rest of the game interesting (IMO).

          • Decius says:

            Like everything else Troika did, it got better once it was finished.

          • Michael says:

            A lot of that can be laid at the feet of Temple of Elemental Evil not being a particularly interesting module to begin with.

          • THIS. TIMES ONE THOUSAND.

            I’ve fiddled around with various D&D rules simulators/implementors. They always wind up bending over backwards to implement weird esoterica from 3rd party sourcebooks that were in print for 2 weeks while completely forgetting to implement something obvious from the base books like familiars giving you bonuses to skill checks. Every time I download one to try it out and go to remake a favorite old character I run across the “you must learn a new programming language in order to add one of this character’s totally rules-legal and even kinda common features”. Ugh. I got this thing to SAVE me work, thanks.

            WIZARDS OF THE COAST were supposed to put one of these out as a companion to 4th ed and THEY COULD NOT MANAGE TO DO IT. Seriously, the version of the game that was basically reduced to a stack of cards with abilities listed on them and they couldn’t put out a working computer rules simulator.

            And the thing is, it’s not like any group uses ALL the rules. Or even MOST of the rules. But the thing is that most groups are going to be just varied ENOUGH that they’ll use on average 1-3 rules per character that somehow didn’t make it into the program. And then you either fudge (annoying, because it throws everything else off slightly), or you just go back to doing it the old-fashioned way and not have to deal with the endless supply of:

            “I can’t connect to the portal.”
            “Jen? Can you hear me? JEN? I think Jen lost sound.”
            “I can still hear her.”
            “Oh, wait, I muted my mic.”
            “Can someone re-invite the DM to the room?”
            “HWAAARARRK squeeeeeEEEAEAALALLLLLLLLLL”
            “my headset broke again”
            “Guys it looks like the weather is—-”
            “Dave, it’s your turn. Dave? Dave?”
            *10 minutes*
            “OH, sorry, guys, bathroom break. What’d I miss?”
            “Was that Deathclaw supposed to teleport into the sky?”
            “What do you mean my OS isn’t supported by the new version?”
            “Windows Update just crashed everything ever.”
            “I have to register at the website for this? I don’t need another friggin website account to manage!”
            “We can’t add another player because I only have 4 licenses.”

            I mean, any video game just flat won’t work ever for some percentage of people who buy it. When you have 4-5 people getting together and all trying to deal with a system that is similarly complicated AND supported by amateurs who work on it in their spare time, it’s basically guaranteed that at least one party member will be in that group of people that even YAHWEH can’t keep connected and functioning for more than 10 minutes at a stretch.

            • modus0 says:

              I got the impression that WoTC wasn’t able to get their 4E digital tools done was mostly because they didn’t have people who actually knew WTF they were doing, rather than the complexity of the system.

              It also wasn’t the first time WoTC decided to pull the production of something “in-house” and completely FUBAR’d it.

              • I don’t really think that it matters WHY they couldn’t manage to do it, exactly, it’s more that they’re the owners of the system with quite a bit of money to spread around (as opposed to internet amateurs).

        • Hal says:

          Supposedly WotC was doing something similar to that for 5th edition D&D. The company they were working with closed and they never ended up with any electronic tools for the game.

          WotC’s had a weird relationship with digital tools in 4th and 5th edition.

          • Ian says:

            I got in on the final beta release of that just before they said it was ready for release.

            It was an appalling buggy mess that barely functioned. As nice an idea as it was I’m not surprised WotC pulled the plug on it.

            There is also Fantasy Grounds which has a character creator and virtual table top but you have to do everything you can’t leave it to the computer to run combat for you.

          • evileeyore says:

            “WotC’s had a weird relationship with digital tools in 4th and 5th edition.”

            3e as well.

            Story time: I know the owner of Code Monkey Publishing, the guys who took over PCGen and turned it into E-Tools. That project was as hard to deal with as a bag of cats. It never made them any real money and every single splatbook meant more work for less pay. Which meant they were less and less likely to ever bother supporting 3rd party products.

            Also the owner is a complete dick in real life and online… so his customer disservice eventually caused WotC to decide it’s best to handle such things in house.

        • Cybron says:

          Wizards was actually trying something like this with 4e. That’s part of the reason the ruleset is so ‘pre-defined’ for lack of a better word. For example, it allows for improvised actions, but fairly strictly defines what they should be allowed to accomplish and how hard it should be to accomplish those effects.

          Then their lead developer was involved in a murder suicide, and that was the end of that.

    • Limeaide says:

      There are a lot of rules and systems to program in; I’d be willing to bet it’d take nearly as much work as developing a full-fledged videogame. Very difficult for a fan project and probably not enough return on investment for Wizards of the Coast.

      Some quick googling reveals that they were developing a kind of digital rulebook companion thing called Dungeonscape, but that seems to’ve been canned because of developer problems.

      • MichaelGC says:

        This article coincidentally popped up today and seems to be not a million miles from the kind of thing:

        Mansions of Madness review: Let an app be your dungeon master
        http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/09/mansions-of-madness-review-let-an-app-be-your-dungeon-master/

        • Rodyle says:

          I wasn’t a huge fan of Mansions of Madness, if I am honest. The investigators vs DM imbalance was too large for a tabletop game. Any DM with half a brain could wipe the party every time without too many issues. This is, in itself, fine. However, the manual of the game explained very poorly that it wasn’t meant as a party vs DM game, but rather, as a cooperative game, where the DM kind of holds back and makes things interesting, and ramps up the challenge as the party progresses so that it can become genuinely exiting near the end whether they’d win or not.

          In any case; I don’t think that the system is balanced enough that you could let an app do the DMing in it.

          • MichaelGC says:

            I haven’t played either version, but it’s interesting that you say that: the review gives me the impression at least part of the point of this app thing is to mitigate those exact problems with the non-app version.

            • Rodyle says:

              It actually looks like a very decent second edition of the game, if I’m honest. However, I agree with the writer that the price is way too high for what is basically a 4-scenario game. The first edition I’ve played had 6 scenario’s, and per scenario there were several choices the DM could make to make significant changes to it. However, as far as I can read, it does look like they’ve solved the difficulty issue of the game.

          • Hal says:

            I had a similar impression. In fact, even with the DM holding back, the game is still rather brutal because of the pacing. My group’s experience with nearly all of the scenarios is that, without explicit knowledge of the steps to take to complete the scenario, you end up losing to the clock. It was a frequent occurrence for us that we had to go to one end of the map to find a key, then return to the opposite side of the map to open whatever the key went with. All while dodging monsters and insanity.

            Bleh.

            • Rodyle says:

              Yeah, pretty much. Me and my friends had to use all of our available OOC knowledge and metagame the fuck out of the game to stand a chance, doing shit like setting rooms on fire while there was still a PC in there, since it was a huge bottleneck for monsters to go through and the guy wasn’t carrying anything useful, or doing stuff like doing a full-party split so we could cover the entire mansion much quicker. It was a good idea, but the implementation was lacklustre.

    • Rodyle says:

      It’s certainly possible. Hell, I think that that was the original idea behind the 4e online stuff, that it’d eventually be built out to have exactly such a thing. However, this was never brought to completion.

      As for why it doesn’t exist yet: they’re getting there with Roll20, I think. Although I never used it that way, you are able to program all of your attacks in quite a few systems in there, so that with a single press of the button, you get an attack roll, damage roll and other effects, as well as some cool flavour text you can write yourself.

      PeteTimesSix et al have given good explanations for why we haven’t seen many worked out version though, but one thing I think they miss is the following: they’re all fan projects. It’s the hobby work of one or a small group of nerds doing this in their free time. This means that often, projects are dropped because of the programmers being too busy, or having changed RPG systems, or even just because they lost interest or had a disagreement about in which direction it should go. Furthermore: larger companies may not be happy with such products, since it does sort of infringe on their IP.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Ahaha HAHAHAHAHA

      Sorry, sorry. It’s just that my physical disc of D&D Master Tools over on my shelf, which doesn’t have eyes or hands or a throat somehow just screamed “I TRIED GODDAMN YOU!!! I tried… I tried so hard…” and started sobbing and jumped off the shelf and started drinking my beer.

      I really shouldn’t have laughed. I’m sorry, D&D Master Tools.

      “It’s not my fault! They just kept changing the rules. They never stopped changing the rules!!! They stopped changing the rules for the Cyclopedia, but they just kept piling on errata for 3e! Then 3.5 made things even worse! Then they didn’t even try to make a Master Tools for 4e!”

      There there, Master Tools, everything’s going to be all right.

    • Taellosse says:

      You ever see that saying attributed to engineers, “your project can be done fast, well, or cheap. Pick any two”? Same applies to software. And the fact is that while D&D is the 800-pound gorilla in the tabletop RPG industry, that industry is a very small, very poor zoo, not an African rainforest, and WotC still has a pretty finite budget for non-essential projects. Which is to say, anything to do with software and not rule books must, perforce, have the “cheap” element included. Which inevitably means that it will either take a very long time, or be done very badly. Historically, this has meant that either it takes so long that it is never finished before major revisions to the rules (or a completely new edition) – and thus requiring major revision or scrapping, or it was done in such a half-assed fashion as to be virtually unusable.

      The fact is that the D&D rules are really very complicated, if your goal is to make a robust simulation that is self-managed. There’s a LOT of conditional modifiers based on a variety of factors, and they all have to interact with each other smoothly. Including all of them, and automating their operation, requires a TON of code, and to do it properly requires, therefore, a lot of man-hours. To do that fast means hiring a moderately large team of software developers, plus testers, and to do it well means you’ve got to pay them pretty steep salaries. We’re talking a complexity that nearly approaches video game developers – maybe not a modern AAA studio, but maybe one of the smaller AA teams – which is to say millions of dollars. Since WotC doesn’t have the ability to spend that kind of money, they end up hiring independent contractors on a much smaller scale – teams more on the scale of 3-10 than dozens – and they’re more likely to over-promise and under-deliver, either in their capabilities or in their speed.

      • Matt Downie says:

        “Your project can be done fast, well, or cheap. Pick any two”
        I’ve never been convinced by this saying. How do you make a project that’s both cheap and well done? Even if you don’t mind it taking a long time? The longer it takes, the longer you have to employ people for and the more you have to spend.

        • PeteTimesSix says:

          By writing all the functionality yourself and taking the time to do it properly, as opposed to licensing expensive but functional and finished third-party libraries?

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Yeah.Here,the “cheap” part talks about the money that goes immediately into the project,not the time you personally spend(and the money you use during that time)learning how to do it yourself.

        • Taellosse says:

          “Cheap” in the sense of pure monetary cost, not quality – as a synonym for “inexpensive.”

          You keep costs down, without sacrificing quality, by keeping the number of people involved very small. It is much, much cheaper to hire a capable individual to do a project over the course of a long period of time than hiring a dozen over a short one (cost being a relative thing, of course). And that’s only more true the larger the scale becomes – a dozen people is much cheaper than a hundred, even if the time it takes them is vastly longer. The only compelling reason to hire more people is the task must be done faster – and that can only be justified if the return on the investment is high enough to pay for the extra cost.

          In the case of WotC hiring software developers to make D&D tools, this has meant hiring an outside contractor (because then they don’t have to cover the various benefits due full employees), and it has meant that contractor is a company consisting of a very small number of people – typically less than a dozen in total, and likely a company that is working on other projects in addition to the one they are doing for WotC.

    • King Marth says:

      Asking whether you could handle a tabletop game’s rules in software is kind of a dead-end question, from my point of view. Sure, you could (as the various Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights games showed) but if you’re making software for a game then you can do far more complex things; also reference Shamus’s article on how the same rules for making each individual die roll exciting cause mass chaos at the speed a real-time-action videogame plays. More importantly, the rules for a tabletop game are (or should be, I’m looking at you Mechwarrior/GURPS/Dark Heresy!) designed to be played at the table. Good design should optimize rules so that it’s simpler to describe your action than to figure out how to input your turn into a program.

      Programs exist to track hit points, initiative counts, spell slots, and the other various resource counts that go up and down. Dice rollers can do all sorts of rolls automatically and sum them for you, which is either convenient or taking away from your chance to use whatever ability to identify and reroll those 1s. Virtual tabletops like Roll20 let you handle positioning and quickly determine distances. These tools are great, but locking it all to only work with specific rules would take far more time and effort than just making the generic tools and letting you play any system using them. Time and effort that you can instead use to polish the tools.

      The closest thing to what you’re talking about would be the D&D 4e Character Builder which loaded all available content which you chose from when leveling and summed all your bonuses for you, so that at the table you’d be ready to just roll dice. D&D 3/3.5e had some software that attempted this, but I don’t recall it actually working in the way that people swear by the Character Builder.

    • Felblood says:

      Roll20.net is a solid virtual tabletop, with a lot of great user-submitted character sheets, including ones for DnD3.5 and Pathfinder.

      I prefer to play rules-lite games when I’m not physically in the same room as my group (Drunkens and Flagons is great), but it’s the next-best thing, unless you all have actual VR rigs.

      The thing about these community projects is that everyone else knows what a pain it is to code in all the fiddly bits, so they generally try to share their work, so other people don’t have to duplicate it. That does make the network effect a very powerful influence on which ones develop into robust systems, and which ones wither away only 20% complete.

    • Richard H. says:

      The Only Sheet gets pretty close to this. In particular, it expends an enormous amount of effort on tracking combat buffs.

      Amusingly, for the purposes of this discussion, it came out of the fact that only a computer can keep track of how bonuses stack in D&D 3.5e, rather than because even a computer can model the combat.

  2. silver Harloe says:

    May I humbly suggest you look into the “Amber Diceless RPG”? Of course, it makes the most sense if you’ve read both of Zelazny’s Amber series (10 books in all, but each is a short, quick read, and the first series of 5 are oft used in the same breaths as Tolkien when Very Old(*) nerds talk about fantasy literature — then again, we also often mention Thomas Covenant, so maybe age is not always wisdom for literature)

    I spent some time trying to modify the Amber Diceless system to apply to “regular” people – people who aren’t descendants of the one of the major bloodlines and thus effectively superheroes, but I think FATE captured my goals better than my futile musings. Neverthless, I feel Amber Diceless has something to teach about RPG design.

    (*) sometimes its easy to forget that if he hadn’t miscarried, my son would be as old as you.

    • Daimbert says:

      To illustrate how it would work, I’ll use the example in the OP.

      Alan doesn’t want to be frail, so he’d spend a lot of points in character creation to win the Endurance auction. This would mean that he has the highest Endurance out of all of the player characters in the game. On the other hand, Barbara probably wouldn’t even put in a bid for Endurance, and would likely sell it down to Chaos or Human level and get extra points.

      If the two characters faced off in a drinking contest, Alan would just plain win. He couldn’t be beaten by any PC in a contest of straight endurance. This eliminates any such oddities where Barbara rolls really well and Alan rolls really poorly.

      Now, can Barbara ever beat Alan in a case where Endurance is relevant? Well, yes, she can … as long as she can avoid the contest being one of strictly Endurance. Imagine that the two of them are racing to some final objective. Since it’s a long race, Endurance is certainly a key attribute, and if nothing else happens is probably the determining one. Thus, if left as a straight marathon-like race, Alan wins. But Barbara can use her Warfare ability to plan her route better, and win that way. Or use Warfare or Psyche to delay Alan enough to win. As soon as she puts it on a footing where the attributes where SHE dominates are the dominating ones, she’ll win. Thus, in theory, at least, you’d get into a set of back-and-forth moves as each person tries to shift the situation to one that best suits their abilities rather than the others, with the GM as facilitator and final judge.

  3. Fizban says:

    Getting drunk was just about the worst possible choice of example there, since getting so drunk you pass out is not done with a single roll. Well maybe it was in ye olde editions, but in 3.5 the only official drinking rules I’ve ever heard of are in the Arms and Equipment Guide.* The only way to floor yourself with a single drink is if you have a dex or wis of 1 or 2. You point out that Fate has the advantage becuase of the “four dice used” in the roll, except the roll for DnD should have included some 5-10 dice. The example is ridiculous because the DM has chosen to resolve it in a ridiculous manner.

    Now if you’d presented something that actually works that way and is more important for the combat orientation of DnD you’d have a point. They get hit by a Circle of Death trap followed by similar rolls and boom, super tough dies in one hit while feebles is still standing.

    There’s no dispute that Fate gives more narrative control (not that you can’t ape it with similar rerolls or bonuses for DnD, see luck and action points), but the “drinking” excuse/example always drives me nuts.

    *And before anyone complains about that being a splatbook, you don’t need the splatbook to tell you that one drink=one save and it takes more than one drink to pass out.

    • krellen says:

      And the argument is more compelling anyway when you can point out that D&D requires 5-10 rolls to resolve a “drinking contest”, while FATE can resolve the conflict in one (more compelling in pointing out the differences in the systems, not that one is superior to the other.)

      • Fizban says:

        Indeed. Perhaps the biggest problem with 3.5/d20 in that regard is that because they don’t have multiple rolls as their default, many people can’t understand the idea that some things should have multiple rolls. When 4e rolled around and introduced “skill challenges” or somesuch, a bunch of people acted like it was some revolutionary idea instead of a sloppy shortcut for doing things that already should have taken multiple skill checks. As you can guess, I call that lazy: if the DM can’t be bothered to use more than a single default roll, they shouldn’t be running a rules heavy game.

        • Ugh, skill challenges sounded awesome until I saw how they were actually implemented. They basically stole all the role-playing every time we tried to use them, because they’re not organic. To do a multiple-rolls situation with storytelling, it usually should look something like this:

          Player1: “Okay, I’m going to start playing my lute to try and distract the guards.”
          DM: “Roll Perform.” *success* “The guards gather around to watch your playing.”
          Player2: “While he’s doing that, I’ll sneak over here to get a look in the window.”
          DM: “Roll Stealth.” *failure* “You accidentally knock over a disregarded pike that one of the guards leaned against the wall.”
          Player3: “Do I notice this happening?”
          DM: “Um, roll Perception.” *success* “Yeah, you notice it.”
          Player3: “Okay, I, uh, leap to my feat and yell SOMETHING BIT ME while rubbing my ass and fall over on the guy who was about to look around.”
          DM: “Um . . . okaaay . . . roll initiative to make sure you get him before he turns around all the way.”

          One roll should lead organically to another until the situation is resolved. Instead, whenever we ran across a skill challenge in 4th ed, it looked like this:

          SUCCESS = 8 pass rolls before 4 failures reached
          SKILLS ALLOWED = Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, Perception

          DM: “The guy won’t tell you where the enemy fortress is.”
          Player 1: “I guess I Intimidate him.” *success*.
          DM: “He seems intimidated.”
          Player 2: “so he tells us where the fortress is?”
          DM: “No, you need 7 more successes.”
          Player 2: “So he gives us a CLUE about where the fortress is?”
          DM: “NO, you just need to roll some more.”
          Player 1: “But you said I intimidated him. So he’s, like, scared of me and will tell me what I want to know, right?”
          DM: “No, that means you have one success. You need 7 more successes before you fail 4 times. What do you do next?”
          Player 3: “Intimidate him some more?”
          DM: “Roll.”

          It was DREADFUL. I always got this image of the PC’s going “GRR!” over and over and the NPC alternating “eeek!” and “I’ll never tell!” like a slot machine.

          I don’t think it’s necessarily the fault of the setup, but that was what happened to every group I played 4th ed with, EVER, whenever we hit a pre-set skill challenge. When we did it the old “just roll whatever you think makes the most sense until either objective achieved or someone starts a fight” way, it worked out. It wasn’t always dynamic or eloquent, but it worked.

          I think the trouble is that the “mechanics” of skill challenges where it gives you a certain number of rolls for the whole challenge just don’t work well. Some rolls *should* be “this whole thing passes, or this whole thing fails on this roll”. If a guy catches you in a lie, he’s not going to believe the web of bullshit you’ve carefully been spinning for him to prevent him from calling the guards. Some rolls make sense as constant progression, like climbing a rope. But you don’t have a “guards 1/4 called” meter. Either the guards are, or they are not. They’re not Schroedinger’s Guards.

          • It also changed the dynamic from “players tell DM what they do, DM tells them what to roll” to “DM tells you what you can roll, players struggle to find excuses to justify it.” From a conversational standpoint, it’s the difference between “No shit, there I was . . .” and having someone burst in and demand “WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON HERE?!”

          • Grampy_Bone says:

            Oh jeez, I forgot about 4E’s skill challenges. You are right, they were horrid. This is a completely accurate description. They accomplish the exact opposite of their stated goal. A lot of features of 4E seemed that way, I wonder if it was developed on Opposite Wednesday?

    • MichaelGC says:

      Evidently. His point was to delineate the different systematic approaches taken; the example achieved this exceptionally well. This isn’t the Dungeon Master’s Guide: it’s irrelevant to his point whether any of the specifics were accurate or not, and thus doubly irrelevant to quibble over them here.

      If he has communicated how the games differ in flavour and thus given the uninitiated an idea of what it might be like to participate then the desired effect is achieved, and the actual point stands.

    • evileeyore says:

      “*And before anyone complains about that being a splatbook, you don’t need the splatbook to tell you that one drink=one save and it takes more than one drink to pass out.”
      /raised eyebrow.

      Depends entirely on what is being drunk.

      Of course GURPS, the objectively best game in all circumstances, handles this even better. Depending on what is being drunk it might only take one roll or many before totally inebriation occurs, and of course the stages leading to it (Buzz On, Beer Goggles, Sloppy Drunk, Loves Everybody, Falling Down, and Passed Out) are well modeled.

      ;)

    • Matt Downie says:

      Collecting a bunch of rolls together into a single one is a common shortcut. If you want to climb a cliff, you have to make climb skill checks every round. Do you really want to roll every ten feet, when that means dozens of dice rolls, and pretty much guarantees failure even if you can succeed on anything but a 1?

      The example I generally use for the random variance issue: Want to try to bend this iron bar? It’s a DC 15 strength check. The mighty barbarian fails 50% of the time. The scrawny wizard succeeds 25% of the time. So one in eight times the wizard will seem to be stronger than someone who can lift ten times as much weight.

      • Syal says:

        I immediately thought of Shamus’ game’s thief rolling two 2’s and two 1’s on lockpicking and jamming every door in the house. Presumably a non-dex character rolling a 19 would have unlocked them with no trouble.

        • Grampy_Bone says:

          Except that’s pretty odd since there are no critical failure rules for lockpicking in 3E D&D. In the vanilla third edition rules you can retry forever with no penalties, that’s why the DC for the easiest lock is 20. A person with no skill and 10 dexterity can pick a basic lock as long as they have unlimited time (“Taking 20”). I don’t know why they did this but those are the RAW.

          The example you give is actually one where a DM made an ad-hoc house rule–in direct opposition to the RAW–which was unfairly punitive to a player. Thus the failure here is the DM’s judgement, not the rules used.

      • Fizban says:

        It’s not the system’s fault when you ignore it to take shortcuts. I’ve also never seen an iron bar with a DC 15 break, lowest I can find is chain or manacles in the PHB at 26. Your “bend an iron bar” example is the same DC as kicking open a wooden door, once again making things look way worse than they actually are because you aren’t actually using the rules in a game that focuses on having lots of rules.

        • Matt Downie says:

          It would have to be a thin iron bar.
          And the mighty barbarian failing to damage a wooden door, followed by the weakling smashing it open in a single blow doesn’t make any more sense.

          • Alexander The 1st says:

            It can make sense – the barbarian putting a few good kicks into the door and nudging it a bit each time, with the wizard getting a final hit in.

    • Cybron says:

      That’s pretty definitely a matter of opinion. I’ve been DMing for over a decade and if a player told me that one drink = one save I would have laughed. I’m not saying I would have someone go from zero to passed out in one save – in fact, I’d almost certainly never make you pass out from drinking, unless there was a very good reason to do so. That just removes a player from play. But all the same, I’m not gonna waste time making you roll (or paying attention to your roll) for every drink.

      Besides, it was clearly a hypothetical example to demonstrate the huge role chance plays in DnD. A character who is good at something can fail at a moment’s notice. A more relevant example might be stealth. The consequences for failing even one stealth roll at an inopportune moment can be huge, and you are far too often at the mercy of the d20’s wide range of variation.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Is it really necessary to rules lawyer an example that was intended for clarity and ease of explanation for the newbies?

      • Grampy_Bone says:

        If your example is incorrect then the result is obfuscation, not clarity.

        If you must impugn a system by misrepresentation, then the problem isn’t the system, it’s you.

    • Grampy_Bone says:

      This is correct. Getting drunk works perfectly fine in 3E if you treat alcohol as a poison (which it is) which does dexterity and wisdom damage. The RAW handle this quite well.

  4. Rodyle says:

    Wow Ruts, nice Birthday present you’ve given me, thanks!

    I was wondering where you’d place the following systems on this scale:
    – 13th Age
    – Monsters and Other Childish Things
    – Mouse Guard
    – Everyone is John

    As for the DnD vs Fate scenario you talked about: I’m always a fan of having characters have a chance to fail at things they’re good as, or even succeed at something they’re bad as. Perhaps this says a lot about what I like in my RPGs, but I love the roll of the dice and playing to the results. It gives me and my players a chance to explain these freak results in interesting ways, possibly introducing new subplots or whatever. This is why I’m quite enthralled with 13th Age at the moment. Yeah, it is hard as balls to keep the ball rolling and making sure that Icon rolls are used, but it also gives me nice new plot hooks and keeps my exited to see how the story will progress, too.

    • GloatingSwine says:

      Can’t comment on the others, but the Mouse Guard RPG uses Burning Wheel as a system, which is probably closest to Fate.

      • tmtvl says:

        From the description that Rutskarn gives, FATE sounds a lot like Burning Wheel. Especially with the whole “you can name the aspects yourself” bit.

        Crustacean-wise for the win.

        • Rodyle says:

          Yeah, I love that sort of stuff. 13th Age does this as well: it does away with the set list of skills in favour of a background system, where players create their own backgrounds (for example: Inquisitor of the Dragon Empire) and put a number of points into them. Then, when a situation arises which call for skill checks, they can attempt to convince the DM that one of their backgrounds would help them succeed at this check. If they do, they can add their background bonus to that roll.

        • Taellosse says:

          Having read both systems (though not played both), they’re only similar on the surface, really. Burning Wheel has a lot more complexity in its rules than FATE, as reflected in their core rulebooks’ respective page counts – 600 pages for Burning Wheel vs. FATE Core 300 pages.

          Burning Wheel falls somewhere between FATE and D&D, I’d say.

      • Rodyle says:

        Have you played Mouse Guard, and how was it? The premise really interests me, but the way scenarios are written in the system didn’t really jam well with me. It seemed quite clunky and not well explained.

        • Ian says:

          I’ve played both FATE and Mouse Guard.

          Mouse Guard was a series of stumbling through encounters and trying to figure out how the system wanted you to handle them. This could of course be related to the fact that the GM and all the players were new to the system and as you mentioned the descriptions are not great.

          You could easily play a Mouse Guard game using FATE as is, but you would be hard pressed to use the Mouse Guard rules to play a different setting without work.

          • Rodyle says:

            > Mouse Guard was a series of stumbling through encounters and trying to figure out how the system wanted you to handle them.

            Yeah, that’s what I felt when I was reading the book. It seemed to work a bit too much like 4E skill challenges to me: you can only use what the DM wants you to use, and you more or less have to guess what would work.

      • Alan says:

        Fate makes Aspects central to the system. Mouse Guard puts a skill simulation and a rock-paper-scissors conflict mechanic pretty central. Having played both, I find them more dissimilar than similar.

    • David says:

      I’d place 13th Age somewhere between D&D and Fate. A lot of the combat mechanics are similar to D&D, but the Skills are replaced with Backgrounds, and the One Unique Thing and the Icons all create some more nebulous mechanics than anything I’ve seen in D&D.

    • Cybron says:

      13th Age is mechanically very similar to Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition with a light sprinkling of narrative mechanics like the icon dice. Most of what distinguishes it from Dungeons and Dragons is the very different narrative assumptions it makes about the players and their role in the world.

      • Rodyle says:

        Mechanically? Sure. It resembles 4E, or rather, d20 systems in general. However, the feel when playing is completely different, completely because of the relatively minor changes they’ve made to it, such as doing away with stats for each individual weapon, skills and whatnot.

  5. Grampy_bone says:

    Calling D&D the “Classic marriage of traditional objective rules and friendly accessibility” is a bit silly. D&D isn’t *a* tabletop RPG, D&D *is* Tabletop RPGs. This is like calling Chuck Barry the “Classic combination of guitar and rock.” Dude, he invented it.

    It’s also odd to call it a wargame; D&D’s big innovation was the dungeon crawl. Dave Arneson famously declared the surface lands of his Blackmoor campaign forfeit, since the players ignored the war in favor of looting the dungeon. The original editions of D&D even begin by instructing DMs “Map out the first ten levels of your underworld.”

    The feeling I get whenever I read a “storytelling”-based game is that the developers were lazy. Making a combat system that is balanced, challenging, and internally consistent is really, really hard. Much easier to just gloss over the whole thing and call it a storytelling experience. My storyteller GMs were usually either unable or unwilling to spend time creating structured adventures. They always devolved into players starting bar brawls, dueling with each other, attacking random townspeople, or roleplaying shopkeeper interactions all night. Then the next session the GM announces he’s too busy to make a game for you ungrateful jerks, and you either go back to playing D&D, or the group dissolves.

    • GloatingSwine says:

      The counterpoint, and the reason you can still reasonably validly call D&D “a wargame” is that a lot of mechanical crunch in RPGs like D&D is devoted to combat, and not a lot is devoted to, well, anything else at all.

      Games with less crunchy combat just made the decision to bring that aspect of play in line with most of the rest of the game, not writing a combat system and awkwardly tacking some interstitial roleplay onto it.

      Now, there are reasons why this is the case. Combat tends to be where a lot of the most serious personal consequences for a character exist, so it’s an area where players are likely to want to know that things are being handled as “fairly” as possible. But they’re also likely to want to do a large variety of things, so you need a lot of crunch.

    • Space Master says:

      Just because D&D doesn’t (always) have armies fighting it out on battlefields doesn’t mean it isn’t a wargame. There are such things as tactical and skirmish scale wargames that model conflicts between small groups of combatants. Infinity, Mordheim, Advanced Squad Leader…

      In your last paragraph you point out that “storytelling” games often lack detailed combat rules. I think that if a game (such as D&D or other traditional rpgs) has rules for combat as a large portion of its rules, that may point to it being (in part) a wargame.

      And lastly, I disagree that designers of “storytelling” games are too lazy to design balanced combat rules. I think it’s more likely that they aren’t interested in combat/wargames and didn’t want to include them in their role-playing experience.

      For a long time tactical-wargaming was an integral part of the role-playing game experience, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, just, as you describe, role-playing without tactical wargaming does not appeal to everyone either.

      • Grampy_Bone says:

        Up to 2nd edition D&D, there were rules for every high level character to begin purchasing a castle and hiring armies, but no rules for how to actually use them. That’s because you were meant to transition to Chainmail, or another war game. There were also no shops for high level equipment or gear. That’s because loot was meant to fund your armies and estate.

        Hence, D&D is not a wargame. For more background on this, I recomend the excellent book Playing at the World:

        http://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/

    • Cybron says:

      My experiences are exactly the opposite. I’ve had far more structured adventures in narrative systems than in D&D. Anecdotes will always vary wildly.

    • MichaelGC says:

      That’s like saying poetry is lazy because it doesn’t follow all the rules of prose. Or chemistry is lazy because it glosses over some of the rules of physics.

      What’s lazy is not even attempting to understand that something you don’t personally appreciate may incorporate its own unique difficulties and challenges. It’s lazy to dismiss the efforts of others just because you don’t care about their goals.

      • Grampy_Bone says:

        Your first sentence is correct. Poetry without rules is lazy, and usually bad.

        If you ask an English major to just ‘write whatever,’ you usually get tangled, senseless prose. If you restrict them to something with structure (sonnets) you get something a lot better. It’s actually really hard to improvise good poetry. Most people can’t do it. Certainly not without much experience.

        In any case, if I seem unfairly dismissive towards storytelling games it’s only because my experience with narrativists has been uniformly insufferable. Anyone who spent a lot of time on RPG message boards during the early 2000’s can attest to this. I’ve heard it all before, and I’m still not impressed.

        For some mysterious reason, the lack of success of storytelling games is never attributed to the game’s own failures, but always attributed to audience’s failure to “properly appreciate” them, as you are doing.

    • Felblood says:

      Dude, skirmish scale wargaming is still wargaming.

      English is weird like that.

  6. evileeyore says:

    “D&D reasons that the story is the story and that you don’t need much help with it–what you really need help arbitrating is the complicated business of killing and not being killed.”

    That isn’t all D&D does. It also very well enhances the idea that your character has only one job: Orc and Pie.

    Or to beter explain: Bypassing Doors, Defeating Enemies, and Getting Treasure. And each Class has it’s strengths and weaknesses in these things, and those strengths and weaknesses are rather hard coded into the Classes.

    This D&D’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness.

    It means if someone wants to be ‘the best of the best of the best sir!’ at fighting, they play a Fighting Man. If they want to pick locks and steal stuff, they play a Thief. Wizards cast spells, and Clerics were combat medics. (OD&D terms)

    If you wanted to do more than one thing… you were up shit’s creek. This is what drove the development of other fantasy rpgs (the best of which is GURPS).

    While D&D has broadened what individual classes can do with each edition since the 1974 release, the classes all still fall into the general core ‘roles’: Kill things with weapons or Kill things with magic spells.

    • Echo Tango says:

      Are there any guides/books which try to recreate the specific/focused type of character from DnD, in a system like GURPS?

      What I mean is, in an open-ended/character-freedom system like GURPS, you could theoretically make a specific character guide that basically limits you as much as a character class in DnD, but technically you could just stop following the guide at any point in time. For example, to play a barbarian, it would tell you what how many points to spend on strength, dexterity, etc, and then tell you what order to purchase later additions to your character in. So, emulate the levels/traits/whatever from DnD in GURPS, so new players can easily pick up a GURPS game, but then abandon the guide once they’re more comfortable with being self-guided.

    • Matt Downie says:

      “classes all still fall into the general core ‘roles’: Kill things with weapons or Kill things with magic spells.”
      In some editions, there are two types of classes: those who kill things with weapons, or those who can do absolutely anything you can imagine with magic spells.

      • Cybron says:

        I’d go so far as to say “those who can do absolutely anything you can imagine with magic spells” and “those who clean up after the ones with spells and carry their stuff”

      • evileeyore says:

        And yet, the core of their job (just as with “can do anything with weapons” guy) is to kill things with spells.

        • Matt Downie says:

          Or to fly/teleport past any obstacle, or mind-control enemies, or use invisibility to solve your problems, or cure status effects, or raise the dead, or create tunnels, or walk through walls, or ask the gods for all the information you need… Sometimes you can do those things and then turn into a dinosaur and fight better than the swordsman.

          Balancing high-level magic with strong but mundane fighting abilities is a difficult problem for game designers.

  7. Echo Tango says:

    I’d just like to thank you for introducing me to the Fate system, which has simple dice*, focus on narrative, and a pay-what-you-want price! This is like, probably the best system for me personally. Thanks!

    * Which can still be used to work out bell curves! I mean, technically any random even can be used for this, but +/0/- dice make this very easy. :)

  8. Space Master says:

    That’s an interesting comparison for FATE and D&D. The D&D side captures my experiences pretty well. It’s also the kind of problem I have with Savage Worlds where the difference between being skilled and not is very small.

    But my experience with FATE has been that it’s very hard to have any outcome be a sure thing. If the players beat the bad guys and tie them up, or toss some garlic at a vampire, what can they achieve? They can create an Aspect, and then tag it. In situations where a character logically should simply fail, all they get is a -2. So the bad guys walk away, despite being totally restrained and the vampire swallows the garlic with a little indigestion.

    I like many of FATE’s concepts, but I’d have to hack it a good deal to use it as I would like. Fortunately, that’s easily doable.

    • Rodyle says:

      To be fair: in Rutskarn’s example, a very rare situation occurs. With a -2 on constitution checks, you expect to hit a 16 DC check only 10% of the time. Furthermore, with a +11 on such checks, you expect to hit them 75% of the time. There is therefore only a 7.5% chance that the scenario plays out as shown.

      This is also a nice way to show how big bonusses in DnD can be, by the by. People often talk about how a +1 is only a 5% increase, but it’s really not. As someone who works with statistics a lot, it drives me up the wall when people don’t take target numbers into consideration in these events.

      For example: if the player of the frail character would increase their bonus on the skill by just one, he’d have a 15% chance not to fail rather than a 10% chance, also known as a 50% increase.

    • NFK says:

      Invoking aspects in Fate (which hasn’t been all-caps for several years now) can be done after rolling and comparing results, so generally you only want to do so if it will push you over some relevant threshold. In that way it functions like the game of chicken.

      In addition, it may be valid to simply compel an aspect depending on the situation (to make something auto-fail on the other side), or to note that Aspects are Always True. If someone is tied up well, then unless they have a good way of getting out such as a nearby blade or super-strength then they wouldn’t even be able to attempt getting out. (This last one is a codification of a good GMing principle, that if a roll is nonsensical or only leads to one outcome then you shouldn’t process it in the first place.)

    • Hal says:

      That’s not necessarily how it would work.

      Tying up an enemy in most versions of Fate would be opposed rolls. The player would roll his “tying up” skill (whatever’s relevant) and the enemy would roll his “breaking out” skill. They don’t even have to happen at the same time; the GM might make you roll the tying up part when you do it, and he might roll the breaking out part later on in the session. Each could spend fate points to bolster his attempt as well.

      Dresden Files is actually a great example of how the vampire thing might work, given it’s an urban fantasy system. In the DFRPG, the vampire would have a weakness that gets triggered by the presence of his vulnerability (garlic, holy water, etc.) In most cases, that just lets you bypass their defenses or invulnerabilities, but you could also use it as a compel against one of their aspects. In this case, you’re not trying to hurt them, but maybe you just want them to stay back; you could certainly compel that behavior with the spending of a fate point.

    • NotSteve says:

      One of the things it was hard for me and my group to get our heads around with Fate is that an aspect is always true, not just a situational +/-2. So if you give someone an aspect of “broken leg”, they’ve got a broken leg and should be played accordingly. They’re not going to be jumping, they’re not going to be running, and they’re going to have a hard time walking. It’s when you do something that specifically targets that broken leg that the additional bonus or penalty applies.

  9. tmtvl says:

    Now I’m trying to remember how rolling for getting drunk works in Das Schwarze Auge, and all I can remember is “Elfs literally can’t drink beer, anyone else only has to roll when sufficient quantities are ingested”.

  10. Hal says:

    I love me some Fate. It’s my go to system, ever since I started with the Dresden Files RPG.

    I actually put together an ad hoc Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG using Fate.

  11. Spammy says:

    When I’ve attempted to run MechWarrior games I make clear that there are going to be two different levels of complexity. When we’re in Battlemechs we’re going with the wargame rules. We got hit locations, we got filling in bubbles on the mech sheet, you’re going to be tracking heat buildup, and you’ll be choosing specifically which weapons you are going to be firing.

    But when we’re out of the Battlemechs I care so much less about crunch. Roll 2d6 and check against the number I think is reasonable. I don’t even think I’ve completely read through the advanced combat mechanics chapter in my MechWarrior rulebook.

    To me, when you get down to the personal level in the Battletech universe, it’s about conflicted loyalties. Families divided. Duty vs. Honor. In all of my MechWarrior plots I’ve intended to put the players in a situation where they must choose between listening to their commanding officer or doing what they think is right. Abandon a village knowing it’s in the path of the invading pirates, or retreat to be able to fight again another day. And the crunch gets in the way of that.

    But when we’re in Battlemechs? The Battlemech is meant to be a complex machine. I loved playing the MechWarrior video games for the complexity of their control schemes and I enjoy that kind of crunch in the RPG, but only in the wargame setting. And, for what it’s worth, I still try to manage the complexity of the game by running it in the earlier eras where the technology level is relatively low.

    For approaching Battletech from the mech-combat wargame side, the Introductory Box Set that Catalyst has made is a fantastic introduction. You get the basic core of the rules with easy-to-read tables that make the mech combat easy to pick up and follow.

    • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      I went one better: in the battlemechs, we used BattleTech rules (assisted by the existence of MegaMech). Out of the mechs, we were playing Twilight:2000 with the weapons and skills mixed around a bit.

      No one objected, and Twilight still represented roughly the same level of simulation without all the complication on the players’ part (the GM still had tables galore).

  12. RJT says:

    Have you guys heard about the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Box Kickstarter? I think Rutskarn does not like GURPS, but it is my favorite (I may admit to a bias towards the binomial distribution if pressed)! They haven’t done a non-PDF release in a long time, but they’ve been doing curated selections of rules and variations for particular genres in PDF-form–action, post-apocalypse, “dungeon fantasy.” And this is a test release for a physical product.

    • evileeyore says:

      “I think Rutskarn does not like GURPS…”

      Rutskarn just has bad taste and smells funny.

      • Rodyle says:

        I can see why though. In its desire to be a completely open-ended system, it has become very crunch-heavy, with huge sections of rules which either shouldn’t really be there or perhaps be confined to their own splatbooks. Like, I love that I was able to make my Hos Delgado meet Heavy meets Chef character I’ll play some day in a SciFi thing, but I shouldn’t be spending over 5 hours doing so, cross-referencing different parts of the same book, making sure I have a good balance in skill spread vs skill depth vs pure stats and so on and so on.

        For example: the system doesn’t need separate entries for the disadvantages “No Legs; Rolls” and “No Legs; Bounces”. I shouldn’t have to have a 3+ page lookup table of possible skills to see what my modifier is going to be.

        • evileeyore says:

          “…but I shouldn’t be spending over 5 hours doing so, cross-referencing different parts of the same book, making sure I have a good balance in skill spread vs skill depth vs pure stats and so on and so on.”

          Why not? You only make the character once. After that you just play it. Also, I’ve found that you can spend as much, if not more time making characters for D&D or FATE, so.. to me ‘chargen time spent’ is a wash.

          • ehlijen says:

            This isn’t the whole story, though.

            You make each character once, but you may well make more than one character over your RPG playing life.

            Daunting character creation processes also put off new players to some degree and make creating a party awkward unless everyone has the book (not guaranteed in the past, advocating piracy these days).

            Needing to look up many tables and options just to know what your choices are is cumbersome. Needing to understand the rules to know what choices are good and which ones are bad in an imperfectly balanced game requires system knowledge which new players won’t have, so cue the experienced players needing to pass that on to each new player in turn because each is trying to make a different character.

            There is very little gained by making Chargen so complex it takes a whole gaming session. In Fate, you spend that time fleshing out your character’s personality and history, and that of the party. In Shadowrun, you spend that time figuring out what magnification your cybre-tele-eyes have and whether or not you can afford armour piercing bullets or a cyberdeck upgrade.

            Yes, chargen can take time. But there is a difference between time spent breathing life into the party and time spent comparing tables and flipping pages.

          • Rodyle says:

            It’s probably part experience, but I can pop out a character sheet in DnD-like systems (4E, 5E, 13th Age) in 20-30 minutes tops, depending on how much time I spend on looking up spells and the like if I have a character concept in mind. I did it with new players a while back, and we went through the character creation of four people in under two and a half hours, and most of that time was spent deciding who wanted to play what kind of character and meshing different aspects of the group.

            Furthermore, as ehlijen says: spending time in chargen is fine, but there’s a difference between trying to make something interesting and spending all that time looking at tables and crossreferencing different feats to make sure they don’t clash, or trying to figure out how much a feat/advantage/whatever would cost with over 5 different modifiers applied to it.

        • Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

          Not to mention that most Gurps books are the reading mans equivalent of eating unseasoned cardbord. It’s not quite as bad as hero system but it’s still one of the most unpleasant chores you can find in RPG land.

        • Andrew_C says:

          That sounds worse than RoleMaster: Roleplaying for Chartered Accountants. And if you aren’t into spending 6 hours creating a character only for the entire party to get treed by a boar and die falling out the tree, about the only reason to get that is there are some nifty ideas about campaign and world creation in the DM’s book.

  13. Colin Smith says:

    I suppose I should take heart at the number of folk who love GURPS, but for my money it’s always been an unbalanced knockoff of the Hero System that tries WAY to hard to tack systems onto the overly simplistic minigame structure SJ came up with for The Fantasy Trip.

    Hero is undoubtedly my favorite “complex” do-anything system, but the intellectual buy-in to make the system really sing is quite high and very daunting.

    I’d say the best general purpose, “does everything well and with remarkable simplicity” has always been Chaosiums’ BRP system, derived from Runequest, only slightly younger than D&D, but addressing ALL the complaints leveled at OD&D… no classes, no levels, satisfying combat system based on IRL fighting experiences, simple and logical skill/experience progression, easy to bolt on genre specific rules for flair (As they did for Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, ElfQuest, Ringworld, Superworld,and others).

    And most of the data you need to play is right there on your character sheet. The rules were simple enough that the basics fit into a 16 page pamphlet with examples.

    Bloody elegant design, never understood why it doesn’t get more love.

    • djw says:

      In Runequest (and I suspect most of the games derived from it) combat is very cruchy AND very dangerous. You *cannot* fight everybody you meet. If you don’t have overwhelming odds in your favor then somebody is going to get an arm or a leg chopped off.

    • Ian says:

      I went through both GURPS and Hero and I wouldn’t describe either as balanced.

      They both suffer from the problem of if you don’t build you characters with the GM (or with specific criteria from them that you must not exceed) that it is trivial to build a character that outshines the rest of the party in combat, or can’t remotely keep up with them.

      Then attempting to build a combat encounter for the party becomes an exercise in not killing the squishy ones while not letting the Hulks and She Hulks squash everything immediately.

      Still if pressed to pick one I’d take GURPS any day as the simpler to run and build characters with.

      • Civilis says:

        One of the issues with GURPS (and any point-buy system) is that the point cost is going to be balanced only for a specific setting / play style. For example, the ‘Can’t Swim’ disadvantage is a lot more of a hindrance in a Pirate-theme campaign than one where you’re wandering through the forest (or worse, the desert). Combat advantages / disadvantages especially fall in this category; the GURPS veterans I dealt with considered ‘Combat Reflexes’ cheap at any price in any game where combat could be reasonably expected, and if you’re not going to be fighting, a total waste. One of the few pleasant surprises I’ve seen is that one point buy game, I think one of the BESM editions, had a table with different recommended costs for skills for different genres of story, so skills which were taken for fluff (which differed from genre to genre) were always cheaper.

        On top of that, if you’re dealing with a player with both experience in the system and munchkin tendencies, for every hour the player spent creating the character, the GM will likely need to spend as much time reviewing the character and the rules involved to have a chance to know how broken it is. And if that player helped others create their characters, you need to review all the other characters the same way.

    • Grampy_Bone says:

      This is a common mistake. Systems don’t sell games, content and roles do.

      If systems and mechanics sold games, D&D would have been consigned to the dustbin ages ago. What sells D&D is the role or the “job” that it does (fantasy adventures/dungeon crawling) and the huge amount of content it has. Content is classes, races, skills, items, kits, builds, etc. D&D can provide a wide variety of play experiences, even within the same classes via different specializations (a Transmuter Wizard plays differently from an Enchanter Wizard).

      The mistake pretty much every competitor to D&D makes is they simplify the rules (which is good) but they also simplify the content, which is not so good. Classless systems may potentially have as much or more depth than a class-based system, but it’s a hard sell to a new player: “Read this list of 489 skills and pick thirty.” Much easier to have a list of basic classes and builds for them to choose from, with customization options added gradually later.

      Even experienced game designers make this error. Monte Cook’s Numenara system has a nice elegance to it’s mechanics but only three classes. This is a baffling lack of content. Cook may contend that the classes are merely broad archetypes which can be customized more into traditional classes, but this is somewhat of a dodge. One player’s Jack or Glaive plays pretty much the same as any other’s. There are only six experience levels and you only get a couple of abilities, ever. Low content.

      Cook would have been better off developing the three archetypes into two or three more specialized classes, and further developing the content to support these specializations. But that doesn’t appeal the modern indie narrativist sensibilities. For some reason narrative and content are deemed mutually exclusive, so narrativist games will always be ‘low content’ games, and thus fail to reach a large audience.

  14. Alexander says:

    Please mention time wizards, please mention time wizards, please mention time wizards, please mention time wizards. I know it’s an extremely silly “meme” game, but I have personally had a lot of fun with it after a handful of rule tweaks to make it more user friendly. Nothing beats making the extremely mundane a bit more interesting for me, and this system consistently make that happen.

  15. ehlijen says:

    I find myself wanting to defend Mechwarrior because I consider Battletech to be a wonderful wargame, but the RPG pretty much deserves everything Rutskarn said about it.

    The wargame didn’t much care for the pilots, didn’t even allow room for Character aspects. You have a skill at shooting, a skill at not falling over, and a perfunctory HP tracker. Everything else is all about the different mecha types. It’s what the game was written for, and what most of the wargamers want.

    Then it became a full on scifi franchise, and of course some people wanted to start playing RPGs set in that universe. And that’s great!
    Taking even a reasonably complex RPG, however, and tacking it onto a wargame that doesn’t care for more than 2 numbers on the pilot’s character sheet (everyone has the same HP track) and then drown the player in dozens of equipment gear stats that then actually drive the combat was never really the best idea.
    And they didn’t just go for a moderately complex RPG, these are the same people who made shadowrun.

    In short, I love Battletech, I wouldn’t play Mechwarrior (or A Time of War as it’s called now).

  16. Alvuea says:

    Are you going to include any sort of Apocalypse World/Dungeon World/Monsterhearts/Monster of the Week/other AW-variant games?

    They love that success but sort of thing!

  17. Some of the most tabletop rpg fun I’ve ever had was in a game of octaNe. Our group of PCs were a rock-a-billy band in a semi-post-apocalyptic version of Austin Texas during South by Southwest.

    Highlights include:
    Catching giant bats and then strapping all our gear to them and giving a flying concert over Austin.
    Winning a fight with stuntmen because they kept instinctually pulling their punches.
    Defeating Miley Cyrus in a twerking competition and then defeating her dad in a drinking competition.

    All while (actually) listening to rock-a-billy music performed by the band our characters were based on.

    Good times.

  18. Sean says:

    What are your thoughts on games like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, where the are closer to Fate-style dice but you still get the chance of a critical success/failure ( here’s a comic that does a great job of explaining )? I like these dice because you can get a result like “you succeed, but something bad happens” ( succeed with threat ) or “you critically fail, but something good happens too” ( despair with advantage ). Personally, I love the system as it isn’t the hard pass/fail of D&D’s d20 — it gives some guidance to the players on what happens when they try something. I found that it helped transition some very video-game-esque players into co-story-tellers, which was awesome.

    Also, curious what you think of games like Eclipse Phase ( which I’m currently GM-ing for some work friends, and it’s amazing ). The game is simultaneously the most and least crunchy game I’ve encountered. It uses only a d10 & a d100, and the mechanics of rolling the dice is kind of like blackjack ( roll under a target number ). However, there are rules that give some guidance on what happens when you roll under or over by various amounts. For example, if your target number is 55, and you roll a 50, that’s a pretty damn good roll. If you roll a 8, you still succeed, but maybe it takes you longer. If you roll a 59 you fail, but not by much so you can probably try again ( if you’re not in combat, and/or time is a factor ). If you roll a 89 you’ve failed by quite a bit and should prepare for bad things happening.

    My one beef with Eclipse Phase is that the character generation ( even with the alternate rules in the Transhuman players guide ) takes for-god-damned-ever. Hell, even with the spreadsheet the community made it took my players a while to finalize their characters. Now that we’re done character generation the game is going pretty smoothly though. We haven’t had any combat in quite a few sessions, so that’ll probably trip all of us up when it pops up. And considering they’re about to start planning how to break into a secret hypercorp data vault to try and steal some code that might lead them to a weapons cache belonging to one of the AIs that nearly destroyed humanity, there will probably be some combat coming up in the next session or two. Hypercorps generally don’t like it when you steal their stuff.

    • gyfrmabrd says:

      Personally, I’m still very much in love with EotE’s dice mechanics. I’m a very low-prep, fly-by-the-seams GM and I feel those rules provide a great incentive for me and my players to in the best sense bullshit our way through an entire adventure. It still very much runs on fiat, but it quite explicitly shares that fiat pretty fairly between GM and players.

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