Mechanical difficulties

I haven’t run a lot of games. (In fact, I’ve run precisely two: Memento and the ongoing Once Upon a Time in the West, plus one almost completely rules-free LARP session.) In the case of Memento, going into that game, I had a large amount of familiarity with the LARP mechanics for Changeling (i.e. what sorts of things their powers did, though there were occasional points of massive discrepancy between the two sets of rules), and a similarly large amount of familiarity with basic World of Darkness tabletop mechanics (i.e. how combat and such worked, though certain Changeling-specific rules were new to me).

That isn’t the case with OTW, and man, is this an eye-opening experience.

With all due respect to certain readers of this journal who were involved in the design of Scion, there are some honking big holes in the mechanics, which I mostly find when we fall into them headfirst. For example, there’s a first-level Justice Boon which allows you to accuse somebody of a specific crime and know if they’re guilty or not. The rules specifically tell you that the roll isn’t contested by the suspect’s player. So, in theory, a brand-new Scion of Tyr could walk up to Loki and say, “Loki! You arranged for Baldur to be murdered!” And know immediately that Loki was guilty. Erm, no: I respectfully submit that a trickster god should not be so easily caught, unless he wants to be. Also, there are a truckload of Manipulation knacks that have no mechanic for resistance; you could just say to Loki, “Tell the truth!” and he would have to obey, at least briefly. This seems unbalanced to me.

But the interesting thing to me — and the point where I diverge from some of the attitudes I saw expressed on the Forge, back when I was reading their forums — is that I don’t think house-ruling is necessarily a sign of failure on the part of the game designer. I do think the examples I’ve just given are things that would have been better fixed before I got my hands on the book, but that isn’t true of everything. For example, I prefer to have Legend increases (which are kind of like level increases) happen at narratively appropriate points, rather than whenever a given player saves up enough XP to buy the next dot. Ergo, our house-rule is that I announce when the PCs all go up in Legend, and in return they don’t have to pay for it. That’s a personal choice, not necessarily a flaw in the original design.

Then there’s the stuff that isn’t broken, I just have to learn how to use it. Boy howdy, does it make a difference how familiar you are with a system before you start running it: things like “what difficulty should this roll be?” and “will this opponent be somebody the PCs can take down?” and so on are tricky enough when you’re trying to remember which of the eighteen different White Wolf dodge mechanics this system uses, and a good deal harder when you start throwing in system-specific powers that can really change the odds. Scion has a particularly brutal setup on that front, I think, because of the way epic attributes scale. I think the scaling is appropriate — we’re talking about characters on their way to becoming gods, after all — but it makes me remember that the one thing I like out of D&D mechanics is the nicely mathematical formulae for calculating challenge ratings.

And yet, I wouldn’t want to run D&D, because I find its rules too confining for the kind of game I want to run. (Or for that matter, play in: most of my D&D experience was in a game that was really just a Forgotten Realms game, a world for which D&D happened to be the system. We regularly threw the rules out the window, and got by on group consensus.) It all just hammers home to me that whatever some die-hard fans preach, there is no such thing as a perfect system: there are systems better or worse suited to what you want to do; there are systems you know well or poorly and navigate accordingly; there are systems with more or fewer obvious mechanical holes. Only that third aspect rests in the hands of the game designer.

And that’s why we don’t live in a world where every game runs on GURPS or d20 mods. But I admit, there are times when I think about how much easier my gaming life would be if I only had to know one system. 🙂

0 Responses to “Mechanical difficulties”

  1. tchernabyelo

    The system, without doubt, has a significant effect on play, and therefore the system you use should be compatible with the style of play/campaign you are looking for.

    The groups I played with all realised this pretty early on (we’re talking early 80s here) and virtually all of us designed systems to go along with each campaign we ran. I’d run some very tight, by-the-numbers systems, and some which were much, much looser. But even the by-the-numbers systems have tended to base themselves on a few key principles rather than, D&D-style, coming up with largely incompatible methods of dealing with every new thing that comes along.

    I haven’t played D&D since the very very early days of 2nd Edition, and having seen the stuff that’s gone on since, I have absolutely no desire to.

    Roleplaying is one thing I miss, but it uses the same brainspace for me as storytelling. While I can draw ideas from one to the other (and have done), I find it all but impossible to do both at the same time.

    • Marie Brennan

      My impression is that successive editions of D&D have moved toward making their core mechanics more coherent, so that new additions can be grafted on without as much chaos resulting. Which isn’t the same thing as balance — prestige classes and the like were particularly prone to brokenness, I think — but at least they operated off the same dice-and-difficulty principles as the core classes.

      But I could be wrong. I had only brief experience with 2nd ed, the aforementioned rules-chucking 3.5 game, and a vague awareness of what 4th ed looks like, based on friends’ comments about it.

      Brainspace: yeah, it’s kind of true. I realized way too late that when I ran Memento, I wasn’t writing a novel at the same time; that’s definitely put a crimp in my ability to devote the kind of time to OTW that it deserves. (Also, why the hell do I keep coming up with game ideas that are so brain-intensive? Memento, it was 650 years of English history; OTW, it’s geographic/cultural spread instead, as I try to juggle a bunch of different factions in 1875 U.S. politics.) I can play in a game with the brain left over from writing, but running one turns out to be not so easy.

      • unquietsoul5

        Actually D&D 4th edition mechanics emulate on tabletop World of Warcraft style game play, and are more a combat mechanic than a full blown roleplaying system.

        The principles and concepts are very different from many other game systems. Many games have evolved away from being combat mechanics and towards more LARP or Story Sharing mechanics, with a higher degree of social interaction tools and narrative tools at your disposal.

        There are also some systems that are even more combat tactically oriented than D&D (example: Hero System, the root system of Champions).

        The system does influence the play style and the setting drastically. Tools like Drama Dice, Fate Points, Compels all take mechanics in a different direction.

        You might want to look at Cortex (used for TV show emulation games, like Buffy, Serenity/Firefly, etc.) or Savage Worlds (Savage Suzerain is the setting book that takes the rules into the playing of Demigods and world hopping), or HEX (Hollow Earth Expeditions for true ‘pulp setting’ mechanics), or Fortunes Fool (a game that uses Tarot and not dice at all), or the new Dresden Files Game (which uses a FATE system modified to emulate the Dresden Files Book Series, including the players helping to design the city the game centers in as part of the character generation side of the game as the city itself is a character in many ways).

        There’s a lot of material and ideas out there….. saddling yourself with a klunky wargame mechanic may not be the way to go when running a game if you want a more social game or a high magic/demigods concept game.

        • Marie Brennan

          Actually D&D 4th edition mechanics emulate on tabletop World of Warcraft style game play, and are more a combat mechanic than a full blown roleplaying system.

          That’s kind of been true for a while. There was so little in the rules of 3.5 to support being any kind of social character, beyond a couple of feats giving you minor bonuses to certain skill checks.

          I tend to prefer the systems that are, as you say, more story-sharing in nature, since what I game for is character and collaborative story creation. My experience on that front has largely come through White Wolf products (World of Darkness, plus a little bit of Exalted and Aberrant and Scion thrown in) — they are, of course, a big part of what started that trend — but also a few others. I wouldn’t say Scion has a “clunky wargame mechanic;” it actually has a lot of awesome stuff to help foster dramatic narrative and mythic flavor. But it does have its flaws, and then there’s the basic problem that I’m not yet familiar enough with the system to be able to use it as smoothly as I’d like.

  2. zunger

    Yeah, it’s really difficult to eyeball the difficulties of challenges without a lot of experience. D&D only manages it because the entire system was built so thoroughly around solving that exact problem; I once sat down with a friend and found we could reverse-engineer the system by which different character class advancement trees were balanced against each other. It’s remarkably precise.

    Scion, OTOH, does a really poor job of this sort of balancing, even by the standards of WW games. This isn’t really a design flaw; that sort of balancing imposes so many constraints on character building that it basically turns the game into some interpolation between GURPS and d20. But given that design choice, it means that both the players and the GM need to deal with the issues which come up a bit more dynamically, and use a bit more meta-game sense to make things work out. Thus: a game better played with more experienced players, who are mature enough to know that this is not a game of Munchkin. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      I still feel bad about how the Riley fight went. That was my “holy SHIT I need to be very careful how much epic stamina I give the bad guy” moment — I hadn’t realized until then just how large of a difference even one additional dot could make, especially if you pair it with the right knack. (And that’s at low levels of epic attributes: given the curve, it gets worse at higher levels.) His weird circumstances meant that advantage wasn’t built to last, but it was more egregious in the initial stages than I had intended it to be.

      We’re having to do a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion to steer things in an appropriate direction. Like, I’m still working on how to make the system encourage the purchase of Boons rather than a gazillion epic attributes, and furthermore encourage specializing in a few Purviews rather than taking a random salad of Boons from a lot of different ones. There’s nothing wrong with those latter approaches in their own right, but I don’t think they fit the concept of Scion as a game (and the intended feel of OTW in particular), so it’s a question of how to get the system to support what we’re trying to do — and do it without completely unbalancing other aspects of the mechanics in the process. I borrowed a few house rules from the Scion game I played in briefly, but that one didn’t run long enough for me to uncover even half the places where I feel the written mechanics could stand to be rejiggered.

      I do admire the precision of D&D as an intellectual thing, but overall I detest its approach to mechanics.

      • zunger

        One of the real problems Scion has in the boons vs. epic attributes matter is that the boons are all individually crafted — and thus much more prone to being either pointless or grossly overpowered through subtle design error. Compare this to the definition of magic in the most recent revisions of Mage, which were much better about having a consistent set of “types of things” you could do with X dots of any particular arcanum, and which then left the details of those things up to players and GM’s, giving only (extensive) suggestions for illustration.

        D&D had similar long-running problems with spells, and only really seem to have gotten the equalization nailed down in 3.5, or maybe 4.0, but at the expense of having everything engineered to death, and severely limiting character variation. Not my favorite approach either. 🙂

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeah, I’ve told Kyle that in retrospect, I really should have house-ruled the third-level Phase Cloak from Moon. The difficulty is too low, and the benefit too high — but contrast that with, say, third-level Fertility, where you can protect a piece of land from bugs! Go you!

          On the other hand, I really do want to encourage Boon purchase, because it creates so much more variety in what players can do to deal with challenges. I’m reminded of a problem I set for the PCs in Memento — they had to beat the Wild Hunt in, well, a hunt — and looking at their attributes and abilities, there was simply no way they could ever succeed. But then I looked at their Arts, and saw about a half a dozen ways they could “cheat” their way through the hunt. Individually-crafted powers lend themselves to individually-crafted results, which are often more narratively interesting.

          Off the top of my head, the one system I can think of that imposed a rigorous framework on magic while still being very flexible is Ars Magica: the verb + target structure makes it relatively easy to determine what’s required to do a given thing, without nailing everything down to a list of pre-determined matched powers.

          • zunger

            Yeah. This is an issue. 🙂 My main objection to Ars Magica is that it’s structured around a very, very different kind of story, more a life chronicle than an adventure novel. Which is quite interesting but not necessarily the best fit for many story types.

            One thing which I have had some luck with is using one game’s engine in a rather different setting from the one it was designed for. This isn’t always easy — some games, like D&D, are so tightly coupled with setting that moving them out of it leaves you with nothing — but with some combinations it can work out.

            WW’s “core” games (Mage, Vampire, even Werewolf) in their most recent revs are my recent favorites for this; I’ve found that they adapt well to any setting where the basic premise of those games is reasonable. In particular, Mage is good for a game where you want the PC’s to have fairly fluid supernatural powers, and you want a slightly-faster-than-linear growth of PC strength. The “gnosis” knob, with the same GM-controlled advance hack that you’re using for legend in Scion, gives good overall power control. Vampire actually works fairly well too, and you can actually strip out a lot of the vampirism per se and just use the mechanics if you want that sort of game.

            A system that I found works well for non-magical environments is the old (d6) Star Wars game, with Jedi stripped out. (Those were never written very well into the game) The mechanic is fairly light, and the action keeps moving rapidly. The setting is also handy since, with spacecraft and droids, it can form a good SFnal game, and without them it can be a good non-SFnal engine.

            (The d20 Star Wars is crap. d20 has a quadratic-growth mechanic in character advancement, which was trying to make things more “cinematic,” but in practice makes everything feel pretty blah and boring above low levels, and also make everything pretty blah and boring at the beginning.)

            It may be interesting at some point to try to implement the Scion narrative concepts using Mage’s underlying mechanics, or some tweak thereon to replace the arcana with “things appropriate to a god of X.”

          • Marie Brennan

            If I ever run a Harry Potter game, I’ll be using the Cinematic Unisystem ruleset designed to run Buffy: its combat mechanic isn’t great, but combat shouldn’t be a big part of Harry Potter anyway, and the TV-show vibe of the system (drama points, etc) lends itself well to that story’s genre. The big hurdle, unfortunately, would be a hurdle no matter what system you used, up to and including designing something completely new: you have to find a way to assign difficulties to spells beyond the random ones that get mentioned in the book. (Okay, Levitation Charms get learned in the first year, and Summoning Charms in the fourth; how do you extrapolate a progression from those two data points?)

            I think new!Mage is one of the better adaptable magic systems I’ve seen, but I only think it works well for a magician-based approach, if that makes sense: there are spells the character learns and casts, as opposed to inherent abilities or some such. I don’t think it would work well for Scion, not without a degree of hacking beyond the reasonable, given the importance of epic attributes, virtues, birthrights as eventual divine iconography, etc.

            You could, however, probably do a lot of Scion with Exalted mechanics, given their baseline similarity. And then there’s the Changeling superhero game I really want to run for me someday . . . .

          • zunger

            That’s a good point; I’ve heard many good things about the Exalted mechanics, although I’ve never played with them. Those would probably work best.

            Unisystem combat mechanics are a complete disaster; you may want to think about what you’ll want instead of them just in case a fistfight breaks out at school or something. 🙂

          • Marie Brennan

            I played in a Buffy game long enough to think the size of that disaster is one I can cope with. J.K. Rowling’s magic “system” is the real disaster, and really, the #1 obstacle between me and the “American Hogwarts” game I’d kind of like to run. :-/

          • Marie Brennan

            (Though I must admit, there are times I would happily accept the chaos of working out a magic system in exchange for running a game that stays in one time and one place, with one set of NPCs, instead of this “giant canvas” bullshit I keep inflicting on myself.)

          • zunger

            *grin* You have a point. Those books did not exactly go for self-consistency in the magic system.

  3. drydem

    See, I think trying to use a guilt detector on Loki would be like using night vision goggles in the sahara desert during the daytime.
    Or, on the other hand, that Loki would have set up enough culpability buffers that any reading would be inherently inconclusive.

    • Marie Brennan

      Which is why we’ve been instituting resistance rolls: they represent the target’s ability to throw up a smokescreen of one sort or another, whether it’s mystical or just such a barrage of lies that you can’t sort one from another.

      If it was just The People vs. Loki, I’d handwave past it, but there has to be a way to handle cases that are more closely contested.

    • swords_and_pens

      “culpability buffers” — I have new favorite phrase for the day. 🙂

  4. la_marquise_de_

    Yep. We mostly play 2nd edition D & D, with many local rules/practices built up over time (all with intelligent names like ‘Tim’s initiative system’ and ‘the Roger memorial fudge’), plus Feng Shui, which need serious jinking to avoid players becoming too powerful, and some Pendragon (which notoriously was originally published with some of its battle system missing). I like systems I’m familiar with, for the simple reason that I know them, and I dislike number-crunching systems like MERP. But what really matters at heart isn’t the system but the ref. A good ref makes for a good campaign.

    • Marie Brennan

      Okay, now I really want to know what the Roger memorial fudge is.

      I don’t think I could ever latch onto 2nd ed D&D, not with THAC0 being the most non-intuitive combat mechanic I’ve seen in my life. But so much of it really is what you know: just as I have twenty years of experience with Wordperfect making that my favorite word processor, enough time spent with a particular set of mechanics will make them seem comfortable.

      • la_marquise_de_

        The Roger Memorial fudge is *not*, ever referring to one of your ref’s NPC’s as ‘whatsisname the were bear’ and then trying frantically to back track. We have stacks of this (ask em about self-inflicted death by rhino some time).
        Ah, D&D 2 THAC0. I’ve played that so much I can do it without thinking. But I remember finding it confusing way back. Me, I’ve never got my head completely around the White Wolf combat system.

        • Marie Brennan

          Is this because you will annoy the ref by not remembering the name, or because whatsisname wasn’t actually a werebear, or because you weren’t supposed to know yet that whatsisname was a werebear? ‘Cause I’ve seen all three types of mistakes happen in games. 🙂

          • la_marquise_de_

            The third. Roger was prone to such things.

          • Marie Brennan

            Ah, it was Roger saying things like that. All makes sense now.

            (And yes, I definitely have instances of that in my own gaming experience. In fact, I’ve been having to strenuously police myself not to commit that exact mistake in OTW. Fortunately, in another couple of games they’ll know what word I’ve been avoiding, and then I won’t have to avoid it anymore . . . .)

  5. swords_and_pens

    Just a question: have you ever given any thought to the diceless systems out there? I ran Amber DRP for a while, and while it is tough as the GM (you are *always* “on”, since you can never revert to a die roll), at the same time, there was a lot of flexibility to the system. I’m not sure how much that approach may appeal to you.

    When I did my brief stint in the RPG industry (early to mid-90s), it seemed like everyone was trying to one-up the other guy in terms of originality at the time in terms of mechanics (assuming they weren’t busy trying to create a new card game, that is). I agree that a lot of it ultimately comes down to what you want to do with the game vs. how well the system can accommodate those needs. And there’s nothing wrong with house rules — they’re simply a way to try to bring need and game design a little closer together.

    • Marie Brennan

      I have zero experience with the diceless systems (aside from special cases like LARPs or that D&D game that try to avoid mechanics just because they’re a headache). The concept is interesting to me, but I doubt I would ever try to run one without first having played under a GM who knew how to handle it.

      Re: originality — there’s a point at which I really feel like the wheel doesn’t need the kind of complete reinvention some people seem to believe. The attribute/ability distinction, for example, is a good one, that can be adapted to various permutations and probability curves as needed for a given kind of game. Contrast with the basic mechanics of Dogs in the Vineyard, which I can’t wrap my brain around, though I’m sure if I ever played a game of it the idea would make at least a little more sense.

    • pentane

      I can’t really abide any gaming system but Amber, but I became disillusioned with the meta narrative of Amber back in the mid 90s.

      Just starting to play once a month again.

  6. beccastareyes

    It’s weird — I like trying to convert things to other things, to get at how they ‘work’. (It’s also why I collect sourcebooks for systems I like, to get at ‘how do you apply X in building a setting’.)

    Right now, I’m grooving on several different things — True20 and Mutants & Masterminds, and also FATE 2.0 (as expressed in Spirit of the Century and the Dresden Files RPG). In both cases, I have two games written by the same people with the same mechanics, but different implementation — and both sets are very different from one another in the tradeoff between fluidity and concreteness*. Also both have a difference in play… or so I’d assume, as I’m still trying to get together a game group.

    * With something like a MMORPG** on the concrete end and something like interactive fiction on the fluid end.

    ** Maybe D&D or GURPS, but as long as you have the DM in the same place***/time as the player, some fluidity results.

    *** For definitions of place that involve chat rooms and such.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve heard interesting things about FATE, but never tried it myself.

      • beccastareyes

        It has definite elements I might adapt to other games, such as making character generation include phases where the PCs create connections to at least two other PCs. Which can work well for certain games. (And the Dresden Files RPG has some pretty nice stuff about collaborative setting building entwined with character building.)

        It’s not for all games or all game groups, but they’re useful and relatively system-agnostic things. And I play with a lot of creative players, who already do this stuff without much prompting.

        That and I suspect the game will work well for online games, especially for non-real time things, like Play-by-EMail/forum/journal games.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeah, I like having PCs start linked if it makes any sense at all. (Which it unfortunately didn’t for OTW, since it was 1875 San Francisco and I wanted a racially diverse party. But for future games, yes.)

  7. Anonymous

    I may take you up on that, thanks! But not yet; I think I’ll leave that book for near the end of the project.

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