RPG Mechanics: Don’t fight the system

This post has been a long time coming; I first mentioned it back when I interviewed +Kenneth Hite maybe. It’s not that important, but it’s an idea that has been growing on me for a while, and I think my discussion with Ken crystalized something.

Frankly, it’s why I want to play a game of Night’s Black Agents, since my mind was jarred like Hawkeye’s in the Avengers when Ken told me that your point totals were only peripherally related to your ability with a given skill in Night’s Black Agents.

No, what the points measure is how many times you can be awesome in any given scene. They were related to skill, obviously, since if you can be awesome a lot, you’re probably good at something.

But ultimately, NBA is about screen time, as in “movie or TV.” It’s a narrative-based game.

And that’s OK.

Don’t Fight the System


Each game is going to be tailored to a particular style of play. The games I’ve been playing lately couldn’t really be more different on the cover. +Matt Finch‘s Swords and Wizardry Complete, GM’d by +Erik Tenkar, and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, by either +Nathan Joy or Emily Smirle. Both of those, by the way, are converted D&D modules.

I have tons of fun in both games, but they’re different. Very different. Not “better” or “worse,” but very different.

Swords and Wizardry

To me, the thing about S&W (and based on the free version, D&D5 as well) is that the key is really in resource management. You are either going to run out of resources – spells, hit points, healing of various types – before you destroy your foe(s), or you won’t. At lower levels, and for some classes perhaps even higher levels – you don’t really have much of a choice to make.

Rul Scararm is a fighter. On any given turn, his only choice is really “shoot with my bow, or take a magical sword out of my golf bag and smite away.” Other than what target I’m swinging at – which is usually “the one in front of me,” or failing that “the one with the lowest HP,” since it’s better to take a guy out of the fight than whittle down a few of them – my choices are few.

The spellcasters have more choices; they’re the Omega of the game. Have the fighters hold the line, the wizard casts Web, and basically it’s all over but the looting. Or it’s not, in which case the fighters mop up. Now, the alternate rule Erik uses allows you to keep attacking (cleave) if you kill a guy, so the fighters can cleave up to their level, while other classes can cleave once. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I each have lain waste to 3-4 foes in one round this way.

So we’re useful, and we open a lot of doors with brute force. But the rate limiting step on our adventures is really a combination of our combined HP, the priest’s healing spells, the group’s potions (we always clean out the shop every adventure start), and the magic-user’s spells.

We embrace this. I’ve not noticed +Joe D (our magic-user) or +Tim Shorts (the cleric) complaining at all. Rul and Mirado go in first (sometimes we scout), set up a wall of pain, and then the other guys do something impressive if they can, or provide some additional carnage if they can’t. Any individual encounter isn’t that tense; the question is how much loot and how many experience points can we get before we deplete our resources. If we run out before we voluntarily quit – very likely someone’s going to die, or be about to die.

We don’t struggle against that. We strive to clear the most rooms and get the coolest stuff. We banter in and out of character. We tell really awful jokes, and without question it’s the most fun I have gaming these days.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy – All Options ON


In Nate and Emily’s games, we use the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy genre treatment. Well, sort of. They turn on a lot of Martial Arts switches. Emily has decided to use the same Technical Grappling variant Peter uses. We use a lot of Low-Tech armor rules, and even a nifty new armor system made by +Mark Langsdorf. They don’t like the regular spell magic system, so we’re using some sort of Threshold Magic.

Here, the challenge is that any fight can be deadly.

Any. Fight.

Get cocky and throw some All-Out Attack? Expect to be nailed if you don’t kill your foe, because you can’t defend. And unless you have DR 10+, you are likely to be vulnerable. With the TG system i place, getting thrown down and grappled by a monster is a real threat.

DF character templates are cool enough that there are lots of options for each blow, too. You aren’t limited by low skills. You can easily step up with Weapon-16 through Weapon-20 right out of the gate, They key is using your unique skill set to do tactically superior and effective things on any given turn.

Most fights are over in a couple of very long (in real time) turns, but every action has tension. You can critically succeed or fail, which means you can be suddenly awesome or really in trouble. My Warrior Saint, Cadmus, dispatched a swordsman with Broadsword-30 in one blow . . . because he turned his back on me while within my Move radius. Splorch.

The key bit here is that the GURPS rules as we were using them reward detailed tactical choices, and the system is deadly enough that you’re not going to have a hundred turns of it.

Now, GURPS can be played fast and loose. I’ve never run it that way, but I’ve played it that way. But I think that, in terms of not fighting the system, GURPS really shines when you can turn the detail up as high as your group’s comfort/enjoyment level will allow.

GUMSHOE


I fought the system, and the system won. I just didn’t get it, so I played my character in Trail of Cthulhu like I would a GURPS character. My focus was on any specific task, not on “do I want to be Awsome this scene, or not.”

In a way, the General and Investigative spends make GUMSHOE systems games of narrative resource management rather than tactical resource management.

The kicker here is that’s true of combat too. And if you fight the system, and it bothers you to a large degree that a .50BMG and a punch to the face really aren’t that different in potential effects, then you’re going to hate it. A lot.

But if you don’t fight the system, if you decide that your awesome martial artist is going to simply hold his own this fight, and accept the narrative, rather than the tactical, consequences (because when you get to that final battle in the episode, it’s on, baby) then you can enjoy it the way it’s meant to be played.

Parting Shot


Recently I spoke about games I’d like to play, and NBA and FATE were high on the list. I’ve never played in a game of FATE, but I made Thor as a character with +Leonard Balsera, and I’d love to experience the game. +Sean Punch recommends it as a narratively crunchy, rather than tactically cruchy, bag of fun.

Once I can guarantee my schedule is such that I can make the game, I’ll probably pester +James Introcaso to run a game or five of D&D5 for me (and Peter) at the very least, so I can experience the new thing.

But ultimately, it would probably behoove designers to both know and say what kind of game they expect you to be running, and how they designed the rules to support that game. For a game like GURPS, which can support many genre flavors, advice on “well, if you want tactical crunch, do X, Y, and Z with these books,” while if you want narrative, low-detail flavor, you simply must have Impulse Buys, and may need to hide Low-Tech and Tactical Shooting in a deep, dark hole.

By and large, I have a lot of fun gaming. The few times I have not, it can nearly always be attributed to expectations mismatch.

There’s a lesson there.

3 thoughts on “RPG Mechanics: Don’t fight the system

  1. One thing to keep in mind about S&W (or any old school D&D game) is that though there are rules for combat and not much else, you're able to try literally anything you can think of, too. So instead of just hacking or shooting, you might lure a stronger foe into a trap, make a deal, etc.

    1. This is true, but the same can be said of any game – you can try literally anything you can think of. All more rules covering things does is tell you more about your chances of success or failure for some of those possibilities.

      So I think while "you can do anything in old school D&D" is true, it's neither more nor less true of most other games.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *