#RPGaDay 2017: Day Two – Cap’n Crunch or Lucky Charms?

Day Two of #RPGaDay: What is an RPG you would like to see published?

This is tricky because if I see a gap in the market I tend to hack or write my own solution, and the games where I idly think “If only there was a game that did x” and then forget about aren’t usually particularly important to me. I would like to see a robust system that takes a story game approach (preferably a Powered by the Apocalypse approach) to heroic fantasy games but isn’t Old School Revival (sorry, Dungeon World). I have future plans to write something along those lines and have started hashing out mechanics, but it would be much simpler if it already existed.

Beyond that, something that incorporates all the awesome things from different RPGs that I love – relationship links similar to Strings in Monsterhearts, meaningful changing attributes like the labels in Masks, influence not unlike the debts in Urban Shadows or icon relationships in 13th Age, strong support for improvised mechanics as in Fate, some kind of plot point system that walks the line between balance and awesomeness, intuitive and empowering shifts of narrative control, goal and achievement-based advancement like aspirations in Chronicles of Darkness, an improvisational magic system, generic and modular design so it can be adapted for loads of different genres as in Cortex, well-defined encounter design system as in 4th Ed…the list goes on. Basically, the One True RPG for my design ethic will likely never exist, and if I tried to put it together, it would undoubtedly be an incoherent mess. The whole point of the RPGs I’ve cited above is that each of them does what they do very well, and to try and combine them all would be lesser than the sum of its parts. Still, that’s the dream.

Cap’n Crunch or Lucky Charms?

Sorry, I couldn’t think of another comparison for crunchy mechanics vs. all the other mechanics.

So, one of the biggest things for any GM, in my opinion, is understanding what the system they’re using is actually designed to do. I’ve talked before about figuring out what you’re running before you start and managing player expectations, but a base part of this is really looking at the system. Otherwise you might end up with a wacky heroics system for a brooding, atmospheric horror (happened to me), or a crunchy system for a game where you really want to play loose and quick. You should be able (especially after you’ve played a few different systems) to get a feel for the game by reading it, but if like me, you find that reading hundreds of pages of mechanics means you can’t see the wood for the trees, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

Does it have a mechanic allowing players to take control of the narrative? Action points, plot points, fate points, whatever. In a more mainstream, GM-d game, this is likely to indicate a tendency towards big damn hero moments and that failure is not fun in and of itself. In a more indie story game type of system, it probably indicates that narrative responsibility is shared more widely round the group.

Does it involve a random result generator e.g. dice, cards, coins? If not, a) it’s likely to be a less GM-heavy game or b) it’s going to be a game that functions more on agreement or resource management. The impact of that is likely to be a less driving, energetic game but the players have more control over the narrative and success or failure.

What is the average result for a starting player character doing something they’re good at, something they’re OK at, and something they’re poor at? How does that compare to the average antagonist’s result? How much damage are they likely to take upon an entirely average roll? How much damage are they likely to inflict? If the odds are against the player characters, running a gonzo heroic game will likely be less fun in this system. Same for difficulties: how likely are the characters to succeed or fail at things their characters are built to do (and things they are less good at but will likely come up in the course of play, e.g. social rolls, investigative rolls, fighty rolls)? When I first ran Unhallowed Metropolis, I played through a fake combat to get a grip on how deadly a fight would be…and discovered that the way the standard rules worked, it involved a lot of attempting to hit each other and failing, so I tinkered with the rules until they were closer to the cinematic but brutal combat I wanted.

How swingy is the random mechanic? This goes more into probability curves, which are definitely not my area, but also feeds into 3 – different random generators actually have a huge impact on the mechanics of a system. There are probability curve analyses of most RPG systems somewhere online because apparently there are people out there who do this for FUN. But in broad terms: the more extreme the potential results are (outliers like a natural 20 or a natural 1 vs. clustering average results in the middle), the more heady the highs and despairing the lows. A system like, say, Powered by the Apocalypse, that has a result range from between 2 and 12 on the dice, makes minimal bonuses and penalties more impactful. Adding and subtracting dice from a pool in Chronicles of Darkness has a very different feel from doing so in Spire or Cortex. Is the system based on successes gained? Is it based on addition to reach a final number? There are so many factors at play here, but it’s worth having a basic idea of how that mechanic will affect your players’ chances of success or failure, and how your decisions about bonuses and penalties will too. Don’t forget advancement, either! Monsterhearts stops being as much fun after three seasons, my group has found, because everyone has +3 in 1-2 stats, and aren’t really bad at anything, and it’s a system where the drama is pushed forwards by failure.

Does the system facilitate you improvising mechanics? If there are rules for making NPCs in 2 minutes, it’s likely to be more cinematic. Compare encounter design in Fate to encounter design in 4th Ed. Fate lacks complexity at times (looking forward to their antagonists and encounters book) whereas 4th Ed has a beautiful system for encounter design where it’s surprisingly easy to accidentally ramp up the difficulty if you aren’t careful! If you want to throw in twists at a moment’s notice or respond to player choices, make sure your system supports it or you have enough material to back it up.

I often find that I might be able to get a good idea of the style of a game from reading it, but it’s not till I’ve played or run it for a while that I’m able to dig deeper than the basics and understand why design decisions were made. I imagine there’s also loads of stuff I haven’t though of here (and some obvious things like asking which genre the game is emulating, if any), but these tend to be my thought processes when looking at how a new game wants to be run. Bear in mind, as well, that it’s up to you how you run those mechanics: most games can be more cinematic if run with a light hand on the reins and a healthy respect for making stuff up rather than spending five minutes searching a rulebook, and you can add mechanics to improve the way a game simulates anything without going all Old School Revival. However, to tinker with a system, you first have to understand what it does and why it does things that way – so spend some time with a game before you run it and ask questions about its design.

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One thought on “#RPGaDay 2017: Day Two – Cap’n Crunch or Lucky Charms?

  1. A point that came up in CROSSBOW is knowing how your system is going to interact with your play medium. Fate is an excellent system in many ways, but I have never seen it achieve its potential in Skype play. The lack of direct interaction, the limited awareness of expression and the awkwardness of interrupting all hamstring the intended flow of the system. I suspect that Skype play would work better with a much more rigid system and GM-centred encounter design, and that because of this – and against his own dissatisfaction with the campaign as it shaped up – James’s Stars Without Number game was one of the more successful I’ve played in. It wasn’t ideal, Skype never is, but its problems were not the fundamental lack of fit that I felt in CROSSBOW.

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