Sunday, February 12, 2017

All System Is

Where to begin? Alright, well, today is my 48th Birthday. 

I have been really busy this month, and so my posting has fallen by the wayside a bit. I've also been in a gaming-funk of sorts, frustrated by my inability to match my particular interests, and style with that of my groups. This has been an ongoing issue for some time now, with no clear solution, or end in sight. It's not drastic enough to prevent me [or my players] from having a good time, but I remain acutely aware of it.

I feel somewhat like an up, and coming garage band, one that knows it has real talent, but is asked to 'keep it down' when they practice.

How can I play my best when my best is big, and loud, and I'm not allowed to be loud?

In other related news...

I have a Gaming Epiphany a few days ago, the likes of which I haven't had in a long while. For those unfamiliar with what I mean by a 'Gaming Epiphany', in my case it means an idea for a campaign comes to me (sometimes inspired by something, sometimes out of the blue), and it comes fully formed with a clear concept of the setting, possible meta-plots, plots, and sub-plots, NPCs, creatures, tech, and the total package. It all pops into my head at once. 

Unfortunately, it is one of those IP games that unless I have the right group, it simply won't work. A guaranteed 5-star success 10-15 years ago, I don't know that I have the audience for it right now. 


I will talk about it in an upcoming post, but first...

I've been thinking a lot about system lately.

While I was running through my thoughts, and opinions on the subject, I the opening paragraphs of several games that all seemed to use a similar example to try to explain what a role playing game is.

Paraphrased, they go something like this:

"Remember when you were a kid and played pretend? Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, or whathaveyou; one kid would say, "Bang! I got you. You're dead!", and the other kd would say, "No I'm not! You missed." Role playing games give you a set of rules to help you determine what happens in the event of such a situation.

You know you've read paragraphs like that before. We all have. From Star Wars, to Teenagers from Outer Space, Champions to Toon, nearly every RPG ever published that has a, 'What is a Role Playing Game?' section has a few lines like those above. 

I sat, and what happened?

What went wrong?

It occurs to me that there is only one purpose to rule mechanics in RPGs. If we are to believe these 'What is a RPG?' introductions to the hobby, and I have no reason not to, then all we need is a way to determine the outcome of random events, and/or events in which there is a chance of failure do to probability, and circumstance.

Basically, all gaming is, and all it needs to be is...

Player: I want to do a thing.

Gamemaster: Roll this die to see if you succeed at doing a thing.

Player: OK. (Rolls). I got what I needed.

Gamemaster: You do the thing.

Sometimes you want to do a thing, and an NPC, or another player/PC, does not want you to do that thing. This goes with the classic 'Cops and Robbers' example in the RPG introduction - I got you/No you missed me. So we need the following additional bit:

Player: I want to do a thing.

Gamemaster: The bad guy doesn't want you to do that thing. Roll this die to see if you succeed at doing a thing. I, as the bad guy, am going to roll the same type of die to have you not do the thing. The higher roll wins.

Player: OK. (Rolls). I got what I needed.

Gamemaster: You do the thing.

Why do we have more than this? Why are RPG books a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred or more pages in length? What is the rest of this crap?

Well much of it is combat in the vast majority of games, probably because combat is such a big deal in action/adventures genres. Does it need to be as complex as it is in the vast majority of RPGs? I don't know. Personally I don't think so, but boy oh boy there sure are a lot of games that have a ton of combat crunch.

What does it add to have all those additional rules? What is it missing without them?

Imagine playing tag, or some pretend game with friends at recess, and trying to determine if the chain-link fence around the school yard counted as one quarter cover from being 'it'. Picture yourself, and several of your buddies discussing it, when suddenly the bell rings and it's back to class. You just wasted all your fun time. 

I often feel the same way during any game session where the players focus on the mechanics more than the game itself. Players often get way too tied up on one rule, or another, and burn precious game time. It's especially frustrating because what exactly would the end result of a particular rule question be?

If it's success, or failure based on a rule...well that makes sense I suppose...but as I noted above, that should be a relatively simple thing. More than that sometimes seems little more than an obsession over minutia.

"But shouldn't I get the +1 bonus for wearing a blue shirt on a Friday, while using the related trivial feat, and being seated to the right of the GM bonus? I demand my +1! It's in the rules!"

I'd rather the player come up with a great idea. I'd give them a much bigger bonus for being clever, or even just say it works.

Am I really advocating the idea that rule mechanics are meaningless? No, not exactly. I am wondering though, at what level is it excessive? At what point do we say that the added crunch isn't adding anything substantial to the gaming experience.

When do the rules have too many rules?

Barking Alien


  1. Happy birthday!

    For me, too many rules is when you have to look up how to do a thing. Looking up the result of some die roll or action is fine, but having to look up when to make that die roll, or what die to roll, or something like that means there are too many rules in the game for me to remember.

    1. Thank you Kelvin!

      I agree with you completely, but looking up the result of an action is (generally) not something I enjoy either. I much prefer systems that say something like, 'If your roll is double that of the target number, or the opponents roll, something special happens (you get an extra action, you do extra damage, etc.).'

      Another version I like is our house rule for Traveller. You roll two six-sided dice, add your stat + your skill, adjust with positive, or negative modifiers. Regardless of the end total, two 6s, 'Boxcars' is a critical success, and two 1s, or 'Snake-eyes', is a critical failure.

      The way is plays out is that you succeed, or failure based on the total result. The Boxcars roll means something positive, and awesome happens even if you fail. The Snake-eyes roll means something goes bell up, and something negative occurs even if you succeed.

    2. Oh yes, I only mean special cases like critical hit charts, where there is value in having the extra information, but it's not required to run the game, and -- if you want -- you can ignore in favour of a more abstract result.

      If you have to look up the result of a basic die roll, then that gets into the Too Many Rules category that I tend to avoid.

    3. That's a yardstick for me. Having to look stuff up is a major reason I'm not enjoying Pathfinder so much. Games that put what you need all on the character sheet are big wins to me - 4E D&D of all things worked really well for me in this respect. Marvel Heroic does it too, and with a completely different world view. Beyond that, games with clean and consistent resolution systems like Savage Worlds for the most part, or M&M, make a game much easier to play and run.

      It's easy to blow this, though. Pathfinder, for example, has a nice, simple, d20 mechanic for resolution. Up front that seems easy enough, but when trying to resolve the failure or success of one of those simple rolls it fragments into a churning sea of tables or paragraphs of text outlining the different outcomes and breakpoints and the game bogs down. That part is becoming less and less fun to me.

  2. OK, the first thing I misread was that you feel that there is too much gaming church.

    Which peculiarly enough actually works as a critique, but not necessarily for the Wednesday Night Highly Distributed Online Tabletop. (Some arrangement of those words makes a good acronym, but not that one.) True Believers In System can become exhausting. But that's not what you were talking about.

    I'm a computer programmer and tester. I have an instinct and a compulsion for picking systems into pieces and finding where they break.

    So this could become a reply about what gaming IS, and that's too deep to go into as a reply to a more specific observation. So, base definition. The kiddy-pool analysis of what gaming IS, says it's the cooperative creation of a shared narrative using a simplified set of rules to determine the path of the narrative. The kiddy-pool analysis of WHY gaming is, says that the satisfaction of a game comes in the process of achieving, or failing to achieve, goals set in the game, and that the satisfaction is greater when the game appears fair - i.e. all players can "win" - and when the payout of the game is high enough to be worth the investment.

    Analyzing your basic event-resolution model shows that it is highly front-loaded where complexity is concerned. In order to have a quick, simple, easy transition of that type, a LOT of detail has to go into the setup. "I want to do a thing" can range from "use the toilet" to "take over the world." For an unopposed "thing" you have to have at least considered how possible it is to do that thing and created a resolution mechanic. Then you use the mechanic to determine if you can do it. (Dice are only one possible mechanic.) For an opposed "thing" you have the same issues, but along with them, you have the complexity of the second actor attempting to interfere. There's a whole RAFT of other considerations hidden in the resolution mechanic.

  3. That said, I personally like the rule of fractal crunchiness. The resolution system could be what you've described. So, the "fractal view" of the game is a number, from 1 to whatever, that says how deeply you need to iterate. When it works, you can use the outermost simplest view of the resolution mechanisms to generally determine results (1 iteration). The unopposed thing is actually the outermost view. The opposed thing is the next most complex view (2 iterations). If you have time or need, you can use the same basic rules in a more detailed way, iterating over things, inwards and more inwards. Every time you do this iteration you add more time to the process of traversing the rules to resolve an instance of something, but it allows you to handle the details as deeply as you want.

    Basically, an event is an aggregate of a number of sub-events, and how abstractly we choose to view the aggregation is where things become intriguing. Keeping in mind the illusion of control: if the event is WW1 and the resolution is 1, we have "HunAlly Group" and "Non-Hun Ally Group" and the resolution was "Non-Hun Ally Group Wins." Playing that game is boring. You have no sense of control, as a player in that game. You can't see why or how it happened. Taking it to resolution somewhere around 2 or 3, you have the game RISK.

    Roleplay Illustration: You have two starships passing in the infinite night. Unfortunately they are sworn foes and must engage in starship combat. The outermost rule says "determine the outcome of this combat." This is level 1 crunch. You can choose to resolve it there with a system rule which may involve rolling but may only say 'win/lose/draw', or you can say, "let's get into some crunch. The Andorrians are going to pretend to be harmless and friendly and then attack, as they do. You, oh Captain, are a Federation exploration captain, so what do you do?" As a good Fed captain, you choose to open hailing frequencies, but since this is an apparently unknown ship, shields are up and crew is on alert. This will give you some modifiers and details. This is something like level 2 crunchiness. You resolve the hailing event, and then resolve the Andorrian sneak attack, and then resolve the Federation counter-attack (or other response). This can open a second opass at the same level if no decisive result happens, AND you can go deeper, if you have players taking the part of crew members in different operational departments. That could be level 4 or 5 crunch. If you want to take it down to modeling heat buildup in the phaser banks, that's level 7 or 8 crunch.
    (continued again)

  4. I believe this is essentially true of every game I've ever seen, with variation on how well the different levels of resolution mesh. Some games do it well, others suck very much at transition between levels, and some games use entirely disconnected and thematically different resolution for different things that really could be done with the same model. (Sometimes you can't, but I contend that's simply lack of proper analysis and identification of points of abstraction.)

    Further, I think that this is a thing that people tend to understand instinctively, because we abstract stuff all the time, it's what human brains are very good at. Changing levels of resolution is something we do a lot. The other thing to note is that when we change our base level of resolution, we don't keep track of what most of the outer levels are doing.

    I had a further long-winded wandering into the history of RPGs and where they got it wrong (mixing levels of resolution without a clear demarcation, losing track of the reward/fairness factors, making resolution mechanics too complicated or contrary) but we all know those things.

  5. Happy birthday!

    On groups, gaming, and ideas:

    Man, I hear this. I don't think any of my players has exactly-exactly the same mindset that I do. They vary on a scale, but there's no exact matches for the type of stuff I want to do. In general, I try to find a balance between doing exactly what I want and catering to the interests/styles of my players.

    On system:

    There are some systems I've seen that aren't much more than what you're talking about. And they're great systems. The Puddle is one of the most fun things I've ever played. But I find that a lot of them fizzle out over time.

    I can think of two primary things that having more rules enables. The first is that it helps to make the world more real and more sustainable. It's easier for GM's to determine the difficulty of things, and easier to have differing situations. Having it as simple as "you roll to see if you do the thing or not" doesn't allow for a lot of depth or variation.

    The other thing is primarily advancement. I know that I ran a campaign in the Firefly RPG, which is almost entirely skill based, and players got sort of bored because their characters just got better at stuff but couldn't do anything new. I find that something I and my players both enjoy is advancement and learning new abilities/powers. Being able to do things that couldn't be done before. Unfortunately, in order to support this, there have to be more and more mechanics put into place.

    I used to play/run 3.5/Pathfinder, but I became increasingly frustrated with the level of crunch and how much the mechanics took the forefront. I have since moved on to trying to find things in a better balance between too complex/detail oriented and too broad of mechanics. Personally, I feel the Cypher System does a good job of getting the right level of balance, but a lot of my players weren't huge fans.

    I've been working on my own system in order to bridge the gap, but that's...a lot of work.

    I hope that you manage to find something that works for you and your players.

    1. 'Man, I hear this. I don't think any of my players has exactly-exactly the same mindset that I do. They vary on a scale, but there's no exact matches for the type of stuff I want to do. In general, I try to find a balance between doing exactly what I want and catering to the interests/styles of my players.'

      I feel you brother. This is something I find myself struggling with a lot over the past 3-5 years.

      The variation of depth issue is absolutely valid, though I could argue a GM good at ad-libbing and creating things on the fly could certainly provide that without a system to tell them how. That doesn't mean I don't agree with you. Indeed that is a key element of system for many gamers.

      As for advancement, you definitely have a point there as well, but it depends very much on the system now doesn't it? And not just the system, but the genre.

      Star Wars, Star Trek, Traveller, and modern world characters improve their abilities far more than they gain new ones. That is primarily a Fantasy thing, and even then more of a D&D/Pathfinder thing. A true Medieval European soldier probably didn't learn new fighting techniques nearly as often as they simply got better with a sword.

  6. Over the weekend I had the chance to try to explain RPG's to someone who had literally no background on the concept, hobby, whatever. Nothing easy to build upon like video games, or even much on the genre. I had basically Tolkein and improv theater with which to work.

    So explaining the role of rules went a bit like this. First, it gives the player an idea of what the PC can and can not do on a fundamental level. Is the PC strong enough to lift a log? Do they know how to program a computer?

    Second, it provides the GM, who is the stand-in for the universe and everyone that lives therein who is not a PC, a way to determine the outcome of events that either have a random element to their outcome or by which having a random outcome provides drama to the game experience. Amber did a fair argument on explaining why some random events in RPG's aren't really that random, but that random nature is there really to create drama.

    So providing guidelines for the players and creating narrative drama--that's what rules should fundamentally do for me. Anything that gets into too much more than that either feels cumbersome or in some weird way masturbatory to a certain kind of person.