Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The sweet spot: simple, creative, tactical

The resurgence in old-school gaming has highlighted the appeal of simple rpgs that foster creativity. There is a powerful appeal here. Remove the learning curve for the rules, and you can focus on the learning curve for play. Player skill becomes a matter of critical thinking and decision-making rather than rules mastery.

(This last bit raises issues of tension between roleplaying a character's decisions and making informed player choices, but this tension really applies to rules master as well: Can you really justify your character taking that highly-optimized feat combination?)

The place where games with more complicated rulesets can shine is in tactical options. (I don't mean just combat tactics here, but that's the most obvious place where they show up.) That's not to say that old-school games lack tactics - one of the advantages of such games is that players can try just about anything. Crazy ideas are often encouraged. What old-school games lack, though, are systems for tactics. Crazy ideas are often encouraged... but not always. If the GM thinks (correctly or incorrectly) that something is dumb, he can (and often will) smack the attempt down. There is, of course, a lot of variability here. Some GMs take great delight in "laying the smackdown" on what they see as dumb player choices.

What do systems for tactics get you?

First, it tells players that they can do this sort of stuff and gives them a rough idea of how effective it would be. Let's say I wanted to try to trip a giant. In an old-school game, the GM would decide if this was even possible. I might, then, get a random chance of success. It might be a better chance if I have a good plan. Still, it is unlikely that any two randomly selected GMs would give me the same odds of success. One might just rule it impossible. Another might think the idea was cool and give me a 75% chance of success. Contrast this with d20 games, for example, in which I would have a pretty good (though imperfect) idea of how likely I am to succeed... and whether success is even in the realm of possibility.

There's something to be said for that.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks: enumerating tactical options implies that these are your options. Creativity in tactics isn't necessarily encouraged here. Instead, you are encouraged to choose from the options given.

Perhaps more importantly, there's a lot of overhead in terms of rules to learn. I happen to like achieving rules mastery, but a high learning curve means that I have fewer people to play with and I spend more time teaching people how to play and looking up rules... when I could be playing instead.

So... is there a sweet spot? Simple rules that offer a tactical system that promotes creativity?

I think there is.

There might be rules out there that would do this. I'm not sure. There are certainly some that try: Savage Worlds and Fate come to mind. Fate , to me, comes closest to a system for creative tactics... but it still isn't quite there.

I feel like I'm groping toward something. Maybe it is a stripped-down Fate with a tweaked maneuver system...

If there are games you think hit this sweet spot, leave a comment and let me know. I'm wondering whether I missed something obvious here.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

How Many Stats?

What's the sweet spot for the number of attributes and skills in an RPG ruleset?

Last week, I complained a wee bit about the proliferation of attributes and skills in Eclipse Phase. One of my biggest frustrations with the Dresden Files RPG is how many disconnected social skills it has (Contacts, Deceit, Empathy, Intimidation, Performance, Presence, Rapport... ). Old World of Darkness games had a huge issue with introducing extra skills in supplements... which could be problematic when the number of skill points to split among them didn't increase.

I'm not a fan of attribute proliferation, but I might have gone too far the other way. In the Fate-based post-apocalyptic game I'm running, the skill list is:
  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Knowledge
  • Persuasion
  • Will
  • Magic
There aren't any attributes. That's pretty much it, except for a couple of derived stats like Initiative and Defense.

Each character has a number of Aspects, though, that describe them. One of the tweaks I made here was requiring an Aspect that serves as a descriptor to each of the above skills. So, for instance, an android PC in the game has the Knowledge descriptor of Damaged memory cores alongside her rating and another has the Combat descriptor of Curl up and take it (alongside her very low combat score). Hmmm... the descriptors aren't generally negative. Those two just stuck out at me. In Fate terms, these are normal aspects. They just help to specify how the character applies each of their skills. Characters also have stunts, which let them tweak things in various ways.

Part of me really likes this approach. Another part of me thinks, "Only six skills?! Are you crazy?!" There is, of course, a perfect reply to that second part. It goes like this:

  • Strength
  • Dexterity
  • Constitution
  • Intelligence
  • Wisdom
  • Charisma

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Almost Loving Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is almost a great game.

As a rule, I don't like science fiction games set in space. I just don't get excited by them. I'm not sure why. I mean, I went to Space Camp when I was a kid. I like space travel.

My best guess is that in space games, you're typically just playing a normal guy. I don't think that's all of it, though. I don't know that it really matters, though. The point here is that I got excited about Eclipse Phase. I just started thinking of all sorts of character concepts. Given that a central conceit of the game is that people can download/copy/backup/reprogram/reupload their minds (into multiple bodies, no less), I think that the philosopher in me was intrigued by the idea of playing with different notions of the self.

The point is that I got excited by Eclipse Phase.

Then I tried to make a character.

As long-time readers of my blog know, I'm not afraid of game mechanics. Still, a ridiculously complicated spreadsheet was pretty much required for character creation. Even then, it took hours. The sad part is that it isn't necessary. Character creation allows you to tweak your character a lot, but the steps described for it are fairly inefficient and could be simplified quite a bit. Moreover, a significant number of stats are redundant. For instance, there is a Willpower aptitude. There is also:
  • Lucidity (Willpower x2)
  • Trauma Threshhold (Lucidity /5)
  • Insanity Rating (Lucidity x2)
These are all multiples of Willpower... Couldn't we just have a single stat and build the mechanics around that? Willpower isn't the only stat that gets multiplied like this. There are ten stats and seven aptitudes (basically extra stats). Five of the ten stats are derived from a multiple of one other stat or aptitude.

Eclipse Phase also has you separately define your Ego (mind) and Morph (body), because the two can become separated. Everything on your very long skill list is based off of both your Ego and Morph. Determining the changes to your character sheet that would come from replacing your Morph would take a significant amount of time without an impressive spreadsheet. In some games, though, this could happen all the time - an important means of travel is Egocasting: in which your ego is sent as information and downloaded into another (presumably temporary) Morph.

This is cool. It is also really annoying.

From the small amount of the game that I've actually played, it seems to run well... but we also haven't run into any of those situations that would call for switching out Morphs. As cool as the idea is in theory, I kind of hope we don't.