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Just to clear up possible misinterpretation of the post title, I mean Role Playing Games. The ones with pencils and paper and dice. Not the computer ones, not the sexual ones. I say theoretically, because I haven't had a regular campaign going on in quite some time. And because what I end up playing is usually Dungeons and Dragons, because persuading people to learn a new system just because it happens to be better, well that takes work.

Not that I'm saying that D&D is always worse than the other options. If what your group wants, and what D&D provides are the same things, then it is a good option. possibly the best option. And there are always things that are worse than D&D. F.A.T.A.L, for one. D&D gives people the ability to create moderately complex characters quickly, and generally gives them a push in one direction or another on how to roleplay their character, which can be a big bonus with starting or casual gamers. In the more recent editions, its become a crunchy game as well, it gives characters, through feats and class and racial abilities, "bits" that they can perform, usually in combat, that allow them to shape the way the story or the action flows and make things more interesting than a straight slugfest.

But the one thing that really defines D&D for me is less about how the game plays in a session, and more about how the characters grow and change over the course of a campaign. The growth curve for D&D characters, especially at low level, is incredibly sharp. A characters ability to take damage, to fling spells around, to thump the snot out of their opponents, really, to do almost anything, increases at a blindingly fast pace for the first 5 or so levels. This is partially an effect of the low starting point and the linear growth rates, and partially an effect of the fact that low level encounters are quick. There are less shiny powers on either side, which speeds up the players options, and reduces the tendency for the monsters to have abilities that stalemate the combat, or slow it down while the frustrated players look through their grab bag of magical one shots to find out what can take these things down. At higher levels, parties can easily go through a session with only one fight thats actually worth a damn thing as far as XP goes. Hell, parties can find a fight thats worth a significant chunk of XP taking up an entire session. Not always, of cause, since wizards and sorcerers often start breaking out the Save or Die type spells somewhere around this point, but after a certain Challenge Rating, creatures that will succumb to these sort of spells tend to be the exception rather than the rule.* But a high level slug fest is always slower than a first or second or third level fight to the death.

But I digress. Often. The point here is, if you want to take a farm boy who can be overwhelmed by a pair of kobolds, and, in under a year end up with a character able to tear a dragon a new arsehole, D&D can do that for you. If you'd like to have a few special moves thrown in there to make your character able to do something for the group that no one else does, D&D can do that too.

One of D&D's main faults is a direct consequence of the radical growth curve. when the Designers were working on the game mechanics, they couldn't just balance and tune them for one power level. A mechanic that simulates something perfectly at 10th level, but is horribly unrealistic at high levels or low levels can't be used. And a game mechanic that works great at 10th level but is just kinda OK at low levels or high levels, well that should probably get thrown out, but if they can't come up with a better way to do things, might just make it in.

The other thing that really turns me of D&D is the brokenness of the skills. I don't know that any skill system is ever going to feel perfect, but D&D's D20 + skill vs CR is just plain painful. (For a comparison of the maths, take a look at this. Then read the rest of the critical miss site (less maths, more humor. Do not read at work, you will laugh out loud at some point. And if you read while drinking anything, don't hold me responsible if you spit liquid all over the monitor. And then buy the writer's book*** )). If you're going to play a mainly combat based game, the skill problem will probably annoy you from time to time. If you play a very roleplaying heavy game, with a lot of diceless resolution, the skill problem will possibly annoy you from time to time (and why the hell are you playing D&D). If you want to have a game where skills matter, you probably want to play a different game.

The other thing that tends to shit me is the definite tendency for things to be on or off. Most characters will have put almost all of their skill points into the same skills every level, because if you spread them round, you don't keep up with the way difficulties ramp up. If you're on 1 hit point, you fight exactly the same as if you're on 1000.

Now that I've bitched about D&D, what do I do about it. Well, lets bullet point what I want, and I'll show what games I use to match this desire. I'll introduce a couple of things here, but they aren't things I think are wrong with D&D, but just preferences.


  • No Levels - Radical jumps in character growth Vs gradual character growth? I'm picking the second

  • Related to the No Levels, no feeling penalized for being better at some skills than others

  • Fully customizable power/skill sets (Pre-packaged templates optional) - I like guides to stereotypical characters, I don't like being forced into a box

  • Damage Hurts - in ways other than possible death

  • Less/No Resurrection - Its a staple of D&D from way back, but I like character death being a big thing. (yes, I know you can change this by arbitrary DM fiat. I'm listing it anyway, since I think the possibility of resurrection influences the way Death is treated in the rules and in game)

  • Non-Lethal victory - Injuring someone out of a fight. Knocking them unconscious. Not for all game worlds, but some genres dont want to kill everything, all the time.

  • Skills on a Bell Curve - see above

  • A different world - Sometimes you just want to play in a different world. D20 can cover most genres, but sometimes another game does it better, and some people wont play a custom setting, they want the game to be provider of both fluff and rules

  • A consistent world - If I want to DM a world, I want to nail the genre and mood down as far as possible. And if the fluff of the world pushes a particular genre and mood, both as a player and a GM, I want it enforced.

  • Powers should not be given an arbitrary limit - no "use this spell once a day" for no other reason than game balance.



And its time for the games.

Shadowrun - Shadowrun breaks a couple of these rules. Kind of. The skill resolution system, while not feeling as broken as D&D, has some issues. prior to the current edition, almost all characters had starting skills at 6 (the starting max) or 0. No in between. This was mainly due to the fact that its far more expensive to buy an increase in a skill thats already high than to start the skill from zip. The latest system has changed things up, which is good. Damage hurts. If you get injured, you start taking penalties. if you use magic, you might get by throwing spells all day, particularly low powered spells. you try throwing big juju, you can hurt yourself (stun damage, which knocks out, but doesn't kill) really push it, or use the wrong spells? you can fry your brain.
But mainly, shadowrun has a genre. and it enforces genre. to a given extent. Some people read the background and become fringe dwelling, dystopic future, noir-ish, hard shelled but with a core of humanity, complex examples of meta humanity. And some people become psychopaths. Hell, sometimes a couple of psychopaths, especially if they're built as a roleplaying exercise, can add to the storyline. But when its a psycho made up by a player who read the background and saw machineguns as an option and decided that the whole point of the story line is to "absolutely, positively, kill every mother-fucker in the room". Every single encounter, every single playing session. This is bad because a) the story can often be railroaded by the lowest common denominator quite easily, especially when that LCD has enough weapons to supply a revolution and b) because the system has certain susceptibilities to min-maxing (no, I'm not going to teach them to you). And a min-maxed PC vs a ton of grunts stands a pretty good chance, but his even slightly less combat monster fit-out pals usually have a choice between red paste on the floor and running away. Which will probably end up with at least one pissed off player.
The biggest advantage, as a player who normally plays a gunslinger of some kind, to having one combat monster in your group is as a decoy. Both in game, since the NPC bad guys are likely to direct most of their fire at the big hulking armored monster than the sneaky shooter in the stealth suit, and in the meta-game since giving a reasonable length (long enough to show willing, short enough to not piss off everyone) description of how you're sneaking into position, while the combat monster elects to jump out of a helicopter and through the sky light, the GM tends to not even bother rolling to chose between having the NPCs focus on looking for stealthy threats or opening up with AK97s at the barely moving lump on the floor (kind of underestimated the falling damage). Thereby giving you time to calmly and coldly shoot every mother-fucker in the room, without them getting a shot back.
I've had a few appallingly bad shadowrun sessions, but its also given me some of my best RPG stories. (and I know, no one cares about RPG stories, but I think they make a good indication of a decent game). I hope that if I ever snap and start shooting people I have the presence of mind to tell some dude, just before he gets shot in the chest, "here's your fucking club sandwich".

Champions/Hero System. This is one of the great generics. Its complex. you will do maths. You may need a spreadsheet. And what it does, it does well. It is the most customizable roleplaying systems out there. It is, usually, well balanced (I had dedicated competitions in min-maxing it with a friend of mine. he won almost every time. But I made the character who could beat people who were, on paper, many times more powerful than him. (250 points, capable of beating pretty much anything below Dr Destroyer, Hell, He had a reasonable chance of taking Destroyer down, on a good day) ). The mechanics lean towards characters getting knocked unconscious, rather than dying. 99% of all superpowers, ever written can be replicated by the right combination of basic powers and modifiers on that power. And it is remarkably well balanced. It is a great system for high powered, hugely customised, characters. I've never used it for anything except superheroes, but there's a great post here on using it as an alternative to D20, in a D&D setting, especially for high level play.
One final note on champions. Its a big scary system. Its a stone cold bitch making the first couple of characters. But honestly, as a player? Once you know what your character is capable of, its probably easier, and plays at about the same speed as D&D. Mind you, it can be a cast Iron Bitch to DM.

GURPS. One of my favorite systems that I almost never get to play. Its flexible. The skill system is a 3d6 bell curve (honestly, I'd prefer a larger spread on results. If I ever win the lottery, I'm paying some game design/maths wonk to re-design the system and balance it to be played with 3d10 or 4d6 or whatever works best balance wise. And if a major part of your system is centred on characters using skills to do things, GURPS is a natural choice. And once you finally manage to teach people the system, they can use it for anything. (well, except for high level stuff. I've always found that it breaks at high levels). The only real things to remember, when considering GURPs are a) Being hurt kills. not always, and not automatically, but in most cases, if you get shot, or king hit with a sword, you risk death b) there are lots and lots and lots of optional extras. Expect your GM to set some strict limits on which books can be used, or say no a whole lot during character creation. There's a few opportunities for cheesy cheesy min-maxing, but despite its genericness gurps is one of the best systems I've found for creating a world designed for a short to medium storyline type campaign and letting people make a wide variety of characters within that setting.


Honourable mention goes to Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, a system that feels horribly broken and punitive for a whole raft of the reason listed above, but still holds a place in my heart for giving me a home for one of the longest running campaigns I've been in, for the fact that a cruel and broken system of rules kind of fits the warhammer world, for having a whole raft of well written scenarios, for allowing a drunken and violent elf to rise to a position as an admiral, but most of all for the fact that James Wallis didn't manage to burn my barge before I'd made my pile as a river captain.

* I'll just note here that this tends to lead to one of the other less desirable aspects of a D&D campaign. DM Combat Juicing. (I'm really really open to changing that term, its just the best one I can think up now) At lower levels, its easy to determine if you're overdoing the toughness of the fights, or underdoing it. Look how healthy the characters are at the end of the fight. Check how many die**. At higher levels, one round of damage can be enough to wipe out most characters. Sometimes a single monster will be capable of doing enough to take down a party in one or two rounds. But just as reasonably, if the characters play to the enemies weak points, or fluke a save, or the DM softens up the possibility of descending from a perfect ambush and shredding the whole party like tissue paper, the characters can rip the monster a new one without giving the impression of breaking a sweat. And if this happens to three or four encounters in a row, the more adversarial DM will start thinking "they're beating my guys without it troubling them..." and the DM who tries to cater to his players wants will think "wow, that combat didn't seem challenging. I would have been bored out of my skull..." and they both finish on the same point "I better start making the fights a little tougher." And amping up the battles from walkover to tough without hitting Total Party Death is a fine line to walk at that level.

**Not ones who die doing something stupid. sometimes, thats just going to happen. Watch any RPG for long enough, and you'll see at least one Darwin award rehearsal.

*** Jonny, if you end up reading this, I'd like you to take note of the fact I plugged your book. And not so much notice to the gloating in the honourable mention

Date: 2008-04-11 08:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the-christian.livejournal.com
"but most of all for the fact that James Wallis didn't manage to burn my barge before I'd made my pile as a river captain."

Heh. Classic.

Nice post, which I'll respond to later and nice ink for the other day.

Date: 2008-04-11 08:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pure-reflex.livejournal.com
Unfortunately my long running (3 years I think in different forms) shadowrun campaign came to an end, however I've got a few problems with the new system (love the world however..)

1. Min/maxing has been lessened however it's still a problem (I try and get around it through roll playing. Your a gun bunny with nothing else? try being in a situation with no gun..)

2. The 1-6 stat levels (higher with feats etc) are a little too limiting. What I mean here is that the different levels are too undefined and don't effect the odds enough. Almost any test you do within the game is unpredictable, hence you often can't plan on the out come unless you ARE min/maxed.

3. injury modifiers. I like the fact they're in the system, but on a min/maxed player they don't really work. As an example Baccus had a gun bunny who had 14 dice to shooting their gun. For being "close" to death he only lost 2 dice from that total, which if you ask me is a little sus.

4. Injury locations/effects. The numbering system for injuries was limiting since it never really took hit locations into effect and couldn't deal with perminant but not deadly results (like broken bones) yeah you can GM them into the game, but some rules would be nice.

5. Wired reflexes. How to play them out is a question, since they don't technically make you think faster, so do you make the play state what they're going to do at the start of the turn then stick fairly close to that and only let them "react" to other things and not make new decisions until the next turn? and if you let them make complex decisions on every pass, then it makes it too powerful (plus slow combat) since anyone without them is left WAY behind.

There are more issues, but I'm slightly drunk and tired so I can't think of them at the moment. Really I'm thinking of taking the SR rules as a starting point and modifying them to over come these issues, then maybe taking another crack at running a game.

Date: 2008-04-11 08:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pure-reflex.livejournal.com
oh, and don't get me started on edge. It's now THE must have stat. No contest.
and also means that death is no-longer a problem.. :(

Date: 2008-04-12 02:23 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] skunkboy.livejournal.com
Good points, and you get my responses in order

1) I'm not completely anti min-maxing in shadowrun, since most of the campaigns I was in needed an RPG accountant to make a character that was at the appropriate levels of power. Its more the reason for min-maxing that annoyed the hell out of me, since it usually led to characters that were deliberately weak in areas that should have been part of their core package, so the player would have somewhere to get bang for buck on experience.

Compared to early editions, the breakdown into active skills and other skills was a great move, which solved a big chunk of the problem by allowing characters to have "flavor" skills, without hurting for skill points as a result.

I suspect the best fix would be to price skills at creation in the same way they're priced with experience points (karma, whatever) and boost the points given at creation to reflect the increased cost. A little more maths, but it'd be worth it.

2) And this is why I don't disapprove of min-maxing too much. Shadowrun has always had the problem that the level of expertise that the flavor text says a 6 in a skill or stat should give you is way off what you actually get. In the case of characters who had an appropriate pool to call on, the end result wasn't too bad, but if you want a competent gunfighter, juicing your skill and your combat pool was the bare minimum for a hardcore runner.

3) Injury modifiers seem to be less effective in the new system. (says the guy whose main runner could drop an average mook with a 3 shot burst while nursing a medium wound (I dont take serious levels of damage, matter of policy) 8 out of 10 times.

4) Yeah. well. I'd probably avoid criticals in combat, but moving the "Permanent effects of heavy wounds" from a "at the end of the run" basis to a "At the end of the combat" basis, that could work. I'm a gun man, and my core influence is the movies, so wounds that are generally painful, rather than incapacitated bits, seem the natural order of things.

5) I've always been in the full choices every action option. It's nice to have players who play to "set course, and only chart minor deviations from it type thing, but enforcing it would be a sharp increase in workload.

Another option would be to only give partial details on new information revealed. Rather than stating that its a security guard thats just come round the corner, just go with a generic "something", see if they shoot the 12 your old kid, and then give extra details at the bottom of the turn. Bonus points if shooting an innocent 12 year old disturbs the majority of your party. Many bonus points if you can come up with a way to get them to shoot a party member.

Mind you, giving some of the different types of reaction boost different amounts of decision making speed, that'd be interesting.


But yeah, mainly its the feel of the world that keeps me willing to put up with rule suck. And the fact that enough players and GMs I've played with have had a world view that was compatible with mine for most of my campaigns to have enough good moments to make me forget the suck.
And the fact that I had a character with top level move-by-wire, the stealthiest attitude in the group, and custom guns that never let me down. Never underestimate the happiness a player gets from pulling off a few truly bad-ass moments.

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October 2008

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