Friday, June 26, 2009

Random Game Design Thoughts

I think the guts of most RPGs can be disassembled into three mechanical categories:

1) Mechanical playing pieces (either buildable stuff like character generation, vehicle design schemes, etc or readymade items like spells and equipment lists).

2) Combat

3) Stuff you do that isn't combat.

Some games use a so-called 'unified mechanic' that attempts to squash items 2 and 3 together. Most of the time this claim is overrated, as you quickly find that the unified mechanic is highly modified with special cases and charts and crap once Fightey Time starts. Relatively few games use the exact same mechanics for a barbwire cage match and a tea party with the Queen. S. John Ross's Risus is about the only game I personally play that does that.

Not that I wouldn't try another system that works that way, though I am wary of such designs. A major pitfall with many unified mechanic games I've seen is that they tend to look like a perfectly decent game that would be good if only they had remembered to put in the chapter on combat. Somehow Risus avoids that sensation of playing a stripped down game. But maybe because I'm confident that the designer isn't a hippie trying to make a point about the unhealthy ubiquity of combat mechanics in RPGs. He's still pretty hippie-ish, but Ross doesn't have an anti-combat design agenda.

In the case of games that separate combat and non-combat resolution, pretty much every single time the combat section is a lot more interesting, both in terms of fiddly mechanical parts you can play with and actual nifty cool results in play. Off the top of my head I can recall only two subsystems that approach the same level of awesome as nearly any game's combat system: car chases in Savage Worlds and seduction in James Bond 007.

So here's my challenge to game designers everywhere: more cool rules for car chases and scoring with hotties, please! If your setting doesn't have cars, chases from horseback or spaceship cockpit will do nicely. And if your setting doesn't have sexy people, please go back to the drawing board and design a new game. Elfwood exists for a reason, folks.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. First I am totally with you on the rules for scoring hotties. Not nearly enough page count is devoted to this endeavour in most games. As for the rest, I have to disagree.

    Man, I hate disagreeing with you Jeff, you're my hero, but I've got to on this one.

    I tend to dislike games without a unified mechanic and I can think of dozens of games that have one. A unified mechanic, to me at least, simply means that all situations are resolved one way.

    Let's take D6 Star Wars by West End Games, one of my favorite systems. Roll a number of dice and beat a difficulty number. That difficulty maybe set by the GM, it may be a NPC or other player's roll, etc. Beat the number and you succeed. Are you trying to fix a droid, bake a Rodian Swampslug Pie, blast an opponent with your Bowcaster? Great, beat the number and you succeed.

    Sure there are side rules and recommendations for this and that but in the end, you roll X dice and beat a number. I don't need to look anything up, there's no argument from rules lawyers and double checking some third party supplement only one guy owns.

    Nearly all the games I regularly run have a similar set up. Even D20, which at its core is the same system R. Talsorian came up with back in the eightes, is Stat + Skill + Die = Result. I tend to use that for Traveller (reworked), Mekton, Superheroes and Fantasy. Other times I use LUG Star Trek's variant, Roll a number of dice, add skill rank to highest die rolled. Wee!

    As far as combat goes, fancy moves simply mean a higher difficulty number or a bonus to the roll granted in certain situations. No different then any other system and again, I can do it off the top of my head much easier.

    In the end its a matter of taste I suppose.

  3. Any game system that has a separate, additional step for determining damage (for example, D6 Star Wars, Cyberpunk) does not have a "unified mechanic." It may have unified skill roll, but combat becomes a separate system...usually one that is more "fiddly" or "interesting" than the normal task resolution.

    @ Jeff: check out Albedo.

  4. Games within a game is what we call this among my local crowd LARP/RPG. The trick is finding the right balance of complexity. To much is just as bad as too little.

    The point of unity for all this is the character stats. GURPS and more recently Aces & Eights are good examples of RPGs that have many subsystems that are games within themselves. At last count GURPS had three distinct magic systems and many more variation. (GURPS Magic, GURPS Mage the Ascension, GURPS Rituals/Voodoo)

    GURPS Vehicles is an example where a subsystem got way too complex. GURPS Spaceship in contrast recast the Vehicle system into a form that many players are happier with. Basically they used GURPS Vehicles to build a module system with everything precalculatd.

    GURPS Mass Combat is one of the gems of the system. It effectively takes in enough of the factors involved in mass combat so that players have a lot to fiddle with but resolves it fairly straight forwards so you are not dealing with the full complexity of a wargame.

    Expeditous Retreat A Magical Medieval Society and the Silk Road are two other product I recommend as being great games within a game.

  5. If you consider the d20 System a game with unified mechanics then the problem isn't that we disagree, the problem is definitional. That is to say, your definition of 'unified mechanic' is CRAZY GO NUTS!

  6. Wait, is Elfwood called that because you look at hot pictures of elves and get wood?!

    I'd throw out Barbarians of Lemuria as a game that succesfully uses a unified mechanic. It uses different stats specifically for combat than for non-combat resolution, so it definitely doesn't give fighting the short shift. But it's all the same mechanic. I've found it works quite well, though there aren't the kind of fiddly bits you are liking.

    If you want some serious fiddly-bit subsystems, check out Aces & Eights.

  7. I'd change your rules structure to this:

    1. Buildables

    2. Pre-builts

    3. Combat

    4..n Stuff that isn't combat

    Consider D&D, how many subsystems did B/X have that weren't combat: casting, searching, thieving, and turning undead just off the top of my head.

    As for subsystems as interesting as combat:

    1. Magick in Chivalry and Sorcery with its attempt to put game rules on Bonewitz's Real Magick
    2. Spell casting in Earthdawn with the threads system

    But, complaints aside I think you've got a pretty good model.

  8. Yeah, Herb. I almost broke it out that way myself. But since I was concentrating on the other two categories it didn't seem like a particularly important distinction in the context.

    BA: If you can shrink that Wrath of Khan era green dog pic down to a decent icon you should totally use that somewhere.

  9. My yet-untested Invisible Eyes game has a tiny section on combat and puts more mechanical focus on chases and free-running. That's the first example that comes to mind!

  10. Adam Drew10:15 AM

    I'm a fan of unified mechanics, but I tend towards the hippie side of things.

    That said, if you want a game with specialized submechanics, check out SpyCraft. If you can get past the numerous other headaches the game provides (overly-specialized classes mean the party is always slipping up, gear selection takes almost as long as gameplay, fiddly d20 mechanics mean your characters never feel cool even at high levels) it has great rules for car chases, computer hacking, interrogations, and a few other things.

    Word verification: Bongra; a giant moth with an excessive fondness for certain illegal substances.

  11. Anonymous11:35 AM


  12. Anonymous12:02 PM

    Character generation in classic Traveller remains my all-time favorite subsystem.

  13. Did you mention cat girls? I'm not sure if anyone has done elf women and cat girls in the same game. Although I guess cat girls are way too 90s.

  14. Settembrini12:40 PM

    Any Schmock can design for number 2+3, or unify them as much as he wants. It isn´t a game in the sense of being actually something that anybody can use, unless it has lots of numero Uno.

  15. I get what you're after Jeff, and I can get behind it for the most part; it's guiding my own private efforts.

  16. A worthy challenge!

    To me, the vast majority of the stuff beyond building, combat, and magic is usually better off handled free-form without rules.

    When someone does come up with a good combaty subsystem for something, though, it can be awesome.

  17. Okay... I call "rules for scoring hotties" - Social Mechanics, which I've been an advocate of since forever. If a game doesn't have any sort of social resolution system then I generally won't bother with it.

    I don't think you've seen many games with consistent unified mechanics. A success should always be a success and a failure should always be a failure, no matter if you're slapping your lover's butt or cooking her dinner to apologize afterwards. It's just the result that differs. A smack is resisted by opposing defenses and a successful one causes trauma or damage or whatever. Wheras cooking that dinner is subject to ingredients one is using, and a success means a tasty meal and a full belly, and perhaps a lover's forgiveness.

    Both can be augmented by equipment, and potentially magic, it's just the result that's different. Why should the mechanics for both be totally different.

    I find games that have totally different rules for combat treat everything that isn't a fight as an afterthought, which isn't "Role" Playing to me. There can be just as much riding on a successful singing performance as a successful punch, often the performance can be far more pivotal.

  18. There was a fan -- Emmet Milestone -- of Heritage's original Trek RPG (which was really just a miniatures combat game) who wrote an article in 1979for Different Worlds magazine that essentially added a set of rules to cover "Romantic Entanglements".

    Roll 4D6 plus the character's Luck modifier. If the roll is under the target's Charisma, the character falls in love. Kirk doesn't get the LU modifier because "Kirk has no luck in love".

    He then detailed a different mechanic for "Making a Pass". :)

  19. I mentally divide all game mechanics into Things That Define A Character and Things That Resolve A Character's Conflicts.

    I acknowledge that there are other kinds; I just don't care about them and never have ;)

    Fly From Evil has both scoring-with-the-hotties rules (and relatively extensive coverage of what you can do with that in terms of manipulating people, consoling people, getting information from people, encouraging people who need encouragement, etc) and chase rules (emphasizing foot-chases and car-chases pretty much equally) though both are more discussions of how to apply the mechanics than sets of crunch. But given FFE's focus (and designer) it's an inevitable mix :)

    FFE also has very solid boozing rules, and other things tricked out to the genre.

    But I'm a big fan of making rules for what's needed, and saving space on the rest. I have two other mid-to-large scale RPGs in the works (I never mention them by name because I too tire of people waiting years for me to finish things, so this way nobody knows they're waiting) ... and neither of them have chase rules in them, because neither of them need them.

    One of them has extensive seduction and social rules, because it needs it. One of them has simplistic/afterthought seduction and social rules (with more social, less seduction) because that's just the kind of game it is.

    And so on.

    I want more games where seduction matters (really matters, not just as a prurient side-event), and I want more games where chases matter ... but in the games where they don't (or aren't likely to) matter, I'd rather those pages in the rulebook be given over to something I'd use.

  20. He's still pretty hippie-ish, but Ross doesn't have an anti-combat design agenda.

    Indeed. I do have a strong pro-scenario, pro-honest-tactics, pro-let-the-dice-fall, anti-story, plot-is-just-for-structure-make-it-about-the-PCs-and-their-choices-not-your-whiny-ass-narrative-go-write-a-novel-if-you're-so-into-yourself agenda (which, to me, sings loudly through everything I've ever worked on), but for whatever reason most people don't seem to notice :(

    It's nice, at least, to be acknowledged as not-anti-combat :)

  21. I guess I should make some clarifications regarding my statements:

    @JB- Star Wars may use a different system for combat but I don't think of it as all that different. Damage, like a skill roll, has to beat a number with however many dice the weapon or attack has. Roll X dice, beat a number.
    'Feels' the same to me.

    @ Jeff- I am not saying the 'D20 System' is a unified mechanic so much as I'm saying "Roll a D20, add your Stat Bonus and your Skill Rank for everything" is/would be a unified mechanic. There are lots of other parts to offical D20 System. Please be aware that this does not alter the fact that I am quite likely crazy go nuts.

    I'm glad you like the pic, originally an image of Kelsey Grammer from his appearence as time-lost Starfleet captain on TNG. As you can tell I have numerous green dog images. Its my thang. Heh

    @Dan of Earth- If you're ever in NYC and I'm running D&D or TFOS you can pretty much bet you'll see both in the same campaign.

    @Helmsman- This is bsically my thinking. I've honestly always been a bit wary of social rules though. Too often the players go, "I roll my Convince skill" instead of trying to actually come up with a way to convince NPCs. I am always on the look out for a better way of doing that but since my players like to add a good bit of RP into their RPG I usually just wing it.

    @S. John Ross- Hi. (Any chance to say Hi to the all-too-cool S. John Ross must be taken).

  22. One way to implement social mechanics without them actually replacing role-play is to just have the die-roll effect the character's general outlook of the persuading character. A good roll makes them more trusting/liking, while a poor roll makes them more suspicious or resentful. That way the IC conversations aren't stepped on by the mechanics, they just effect how the characters feel about each other.

  23. Anonymous1:54 PM

    I have to say that I'm against "fiddly" rules for lots of kinds of activities in a game. If you want fiddly rules for odds and ends look to AD&D, especially the dungeoneers and wilderness survival guides wherein you will find unique rules for hypothermia, disease, travel, non-thieves using theif skills, so on and so on. Hackmaster is like that to the Nth degree. I've played a crapton of Hackmaster and all the little games-within-games are extremely tiresome unless you are playing with the hardest of hardcore. Too much book surfing.

    Let me drop this alternative: fiddly "rulings" based on primarily problem solving and secondarily role-playing. How's that grab ya?

  24. Anonymous4:32 PM

    I like the ingenuity and sense of variety that arise from separate sub-systems - AD&D spells are the most obvious example of this, giving the game a really distinct feeling from every other fantasy RPG - but I don't like the fiddliness in practice that this causes. For this unified mechanics are good. It's pretty easy to define a system with minimal variation between determining outcome of a roll as "damage" vs. some other result, and to relate it back to a core skill. If you write 500 spells and they all follow exactly the same mechanic for resolution as combat, etc. then they aren't really a sub-system at all.

    I don't think there will ever be a pure unified mechanic though, there will always be fiddly exceptions. But the less you have to resort to rules-checking, the smoother your play.

    (Unless you're an 18 year old nerd with a lot of time who has essentially memorised the DMG).