Saturday, 25 June 2011

Dice and Dementia

Well, tabletop RPGs aren't generally linked with insanity and the like, but... sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking so.

Last Saturday was the day of my belated birthday party.

No... wait. That's not what this blog post is about.
Let's try again.

Last Saturday was Free RPG Day.
There we go. OK, now onto the excessive nerdery. I imagine soem of my followers may drop out before the end of this post. I mention this only by way of contrast with two of them who have recently espoused a belief on their own blogs that I only read their G&S-related posts, which is not true.

I said to the guy in Forbidden Planet that I hadn't played for ages and was interested in anything. Which is true, but it would have been more accurate to also say that I had only ever played D&D (Mostly 3.5, plus a little 4E) before and would be interested in something different, because I like to dabble. I wonder, if I'd said that, if he would've given me different things. If nothing else, he probably wouldn't have then given me the 4E thing, but it's free stuff, so I'm not really complaining.
Anyway, I thought this would be an auspicious moment to talk a little about that most nerdy of hobbies. Does this still count as a date-appropriate post, given it's almost a week late? Maybe. Whatever, post content stuff now.

While RPGs are a rather niche interest, there's no reason why they necessarily should be. They appeal for the same reason we like reading fiction, or acting - escapism. You get to imagine a different and interesting world, tell a story in collaboration with your fellow players and GM, exercise your imagination and creativity. Just find a group, learn the rules and go!
OK, not quite that simple. You also need someone to run the game. But it shouldn't be that hard to find someone willing to be in control of the universe.

First, a fairly standard point about tabletop RPGs nowadays is that they all (As far as I'm aware) have a single consistent resolution mechanic. This is a good thing, because things can get confusing otherwise. In first edition D&D, for example: "Roll [this]" "OK, I get-" "No, that was the wrong dice." "Oh, sorry, I get a 20! Great!" "No, in this instance you wanted to get a low number." You get used to the quirks of the rules, but it's much simpler to have something consistent. So I'm going to talk briefly about those first.

d20: d20 is, to my knowledge, the most common. Roll a d20, add some numbers. Everything you're trying to do has a certain difficulty associated with it, represented by a number you have to equal or exceed. Used by D&D, d20 Modern, and various others.
GURPS: This system may be used elsewhere, but I only know of it from GURPS (General Universal Role-Playing System). Roll 3d6, try to get less than or equal to a certain number. Rather than having bonuses, as you improve, the number you're aiming for less than gets higher. Obviously there's still a lot of scope in there, but the numbers are inevitably capped at a certain point, which feels restrictive.
Burning Wheel: Again, may be used elsewhere, but this is how I know it. Well, to be precise I know it from the Mouse Guard RPG, which uses the Burning Wheel system. Roll Xd6, count how many dice come up 4-6, those are your successes. You need a certain number of successes to do anything. The more skilled you are, the more dice you get to roll, and you may have means by which you can get re-rolls etc.
d6: I believe there exist d6 systems, which are similar to d20 systems in that you're aiming to exceed a certain number, but rather than d20 + bonuses you have Xd6 + bonuses, increasing with skill. I don't have any rulebooks or anything for such systems though.

So, obviously there's some variation in there. In principal I think any resolution mechanic can work well enough, so long as it's fair and consistent. Of course it may work better for some things than others, but in general anything can work. When trying to find out a little more about d6 systems, I saw some people on some website saying how d6 systems were so much better than d20 systems and they hoped people would realise this sooner or later. I disagree. Now the systems they espouse might well work better in various ways than the more commonly used systems, but that would be down to the details of the rules of the system rather than the resolution mechanic.

So, onto the systems themselves. Starting with the big famous one, Dungeons & Dragons.
I'm omitting my brief experiences with first edition, amusing though they were ("Is this poisoned?" "Only one way to find out!" ... "Jay's paralysed, should we-" "NO TIME! RUN! ... WAIT! GET THAT TREASURE CHEST!")
So, 3.5 edition. It is known across the internet, or at least that part of it interested in tabletop RPGs, for having serious balance issues. For the uninitiated, I will summarise the basis of the problems:

Martial classes like Fighters and so on can be strong and tough and kill enemies in a fight.
Skilful classes like Rogues can pick locks, sneak around to strike from the shadows, etc.
Spellcasters, once they reach a certain level of power, can rewrite reality so they don't have to deal with any of these problems.

I'm simplifying, of course. But the thing is, a lot of D&D 3.5 represents how heroic fantasy is often imagined. There's a limit to how much variation you can really imagine into someone killing things with a big sword, but magic can do anything. So there's a bit of an imbalance there. There are other things, like poorly thought out feats, prestige classes, etc, or things which independently are fine, btu when used in combination break the game, allowing optimisers to make things like infinite damage loops (You take infinite damage every round) and become all-powerful deities at level 1; but you get the idea.
All this aside, it's still a very good, very fun system. for one thing, a lot of the seriously game-breaking things you're unlikely to come up with unless you think too hard about it. Also, as far as the incredible power of magic goes, part of the problem is that while the two start out roughly equal, magic scales up in power far more quickly than regular fighting does, so you can just stick to relatively low levels. It's certainly possible to enjoy the escapism of running around a heroic fantasy world in D&D like this.
Also, Pathfinder. Pathfinder is remarkably similar to D&D 3.5, but with assorted adjustments, at least partly made to try and balance things out a bit more. It hasn't necessarily worked, and there are some things in Pathfinder that I prefer the 3.5 way, but it still gives some interesting alternative ideas.
It's/they're fairly combat-focused. Some skills are relevant to the role-playing side of things, but there are some issues with some of those rules, and they're somewhat simpler in any case. In some ways, I quite like this - it can be good to do the role-playing parts of an RPG simply by playing it out, rather than by rolling a load of dice - but this means really the game does work somewhat better for the combat aspects. It's fine if you want to kick in doors, fight monsters, and grab treasure, but not quite so good for, say, complicated political intrigue.

Overall, I like 3.5/Pathfinder. Were I to run anything in it (Which I do have some ideas for), there are some things I'd definitely want to tweak, and I might develop a propensity for inventing circumstance modifiers to allow characters to do things they shouldn't technically be able to, but I would like them to. But in general, I like the feel of it. It really gets that feeling of heroic fantasy for me. Shining knights and so on.

And onto 4th Edition D&D. 4th edition was rather controversial when it was being developed. Or at least so it seemed on the Playground. I personally feel it's too simplified. That said, the Aspect system (For which I got a free thing, you can see it in the photo above) uses some of the same mechanics and I don't have the same problem with that. So it's possible my opinion of 4E is coloured by the fact that I'm comparing it to 3.5, and there are massive differences. On the other hand, Aspect is a separate system, which happens to use some of the same mechanics, whereas 4E, while it's been altered greatly, still has a lot of baggage held over from past editions of D&D. So maybe that also plays a part. Also, of course, for Aspect I only have that little quickstart adventure, which makes it harder to judge.
4E did a lot towards trying to balance things, but the way they did that was by making everything work the same way. That's one of the biggest issues I have with it. I miss the variety. I think 4E combat mechanics are good for martial classes and so on, but imbalances aside, I like 3.5 magic.
Overall, I don't know exactly what it is that I don't like so much about 4E. There are lots of little things, but there are also good things about it. It's basically just the feel. 3.5, as I said, gives me the feeling of epic heroic fantasy. 4E feels much more bland for some reason. Just my personal taste, for which there is no accounting.

GURPS. GURPS seems to me to be decent for trying to be realistic - your hit points never increase that much, so getting shot (for example) will always be pretty lethal. The combat system seems like it would get boring really fast though. It's balanced - it has to be, because everything's done by point-buy, so anything is balanced if you assign the right points-value to it.
That's rather neat about it - that everything is point-buy. You can pick and choose exactly what you want. But on the other hand, I personally quite like having character classes. Or at least, I like having particular sets of class features. I suppose you could put those kinds of particular sets of class features into GURPS by giving them points values, and make some things prerequisites for others to limit how much you can mix and match them willy-nilly. But as I said, I feel the particular resolution mechanic is potentially restrictive. It could work, if you want to stick to relative realism - the reason there's a limit to how good you can get is just the limit of human ability - but GURPS, as the name suggests, is supposed to be universal. It's supposed to work for things where you can be superhuman.
Also, it's inconsistent in ways I dislike - you can get more points by giving your character flaws. Say you decide your character is missing a limb. Then you get more points which can be used for other things. But if you find some advanced technology or magic which allows you to regain that limb, you have to pay of the point cost or take another flaw of equal value. Fair enough I guess. But, if you lose a limb in the course of the game, you don't get points for it. Personally, I feel it should work one way or other, but not both. Either you can overcome your flaws and thus end up with a higher-value character (But you gain no compensation for flaws inflicted after character creation), or any flaws you inadvertently acquire in the course of play should come with points attached (But any flaws overcome must be bought off). Personally I'd go with the first option.
So, it's neat for the fact it can be universal, just plug in some additional rules and go, but in general I'd only use it for a couple of things:
1) Possibly a modified version for trying to make a tabletop version of the video game Might & Magic VII (I may blog about that at some point - basically I think much of it would work better as tabletop than it does as a video game).
2) There are GURPS rules for Discworld.

And, Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel. Everything I say, incidentally, is from the Mouse Guard rulebook. I'm just assuming that Burning Wheel has all the same stuff. My basic impression of this is that it seems very good for the role-play side of things, but the system doesn't strike me as great for combat. Which is fine, it's just a case of different priorities in the game design. Combat in this system, it seems to me, is less about beating the enemy through tactics and so on, and more about making it a cool imaginary action sequence.
Balance really isn't something that could come up with this, because it's so much on the roleplay.
It's interesting in that it there's actually a mechanic for giving some control to the players. You have a separate GM's (Game Master's) turn where the GM gives the PCs obstacles to overcome, etc, and a Player's turn where each player has an opportunity to say what their character specifically wants to do (This is in the downtime from the main adventures the GM pits you against).
Main reason I got the Mouse Guard rulebook,being honest, is that when I was younger (And still now, somewhat) I rather liked the Deptford Mice books  by Robin Jarvis, and I wondered if Mouse Guard would work for modelling something in that world (I think it would). Though also because I overheard some of a Mouse Guard session being run at my first UKitP meetup.

At the upcoming meetup, I'm playing in a Star Wars session being run by Lensman (Not Star Wars d20, another system, a d6 system, not so widely propagated). I'll probably talk about that in a blog post after the meetup but obviously I can't really comment on it now.

There are other systems I'm interested in, but I don't actually know anything much about them as yet.

In general, I think my hypothetical 'ideal' game system would be a hybrid. Bits of 3.5/Pathfinder, bits of 4E, bits of Mouse Guard. Possibly some GURPS, though I'm not sure. I'd probably get a better sense for what I'd want to port in from different systems if I actually played/ran some of them. Of course, even then, it'd be quite a bit of work, so I'm unlikely to do it. More likely just to use the existing systems, flawed as some of them are in my view, for different things, each picked to (hopefully) suit the system. Possible RPG campaigns, that's probably going to be another blog post at some point...

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