Friday, December 5, 2008

RPG System Overview: Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons The one who started it all. The one RPG by which all others are measured. Say what you will, D&D is the granddaddy of all role playing games. Everybody plays D&D. It's the standard game. If you're in the hobby long enough, you'll play this at some point. Everyone is familiar with it, and most of the time it's the easiest thing to get everyone to agree on. It also established a lot of the conventions that other games follow.

D&D tends to do pulp fantasy very well. There's a Tolkien-esque flavor to the system, but high fantasy isn't really it's strong suit. The new edition is a fairly big departure from past versions, and may manage to do the LotR style better, but I haven't had enough experience with it to come to a definite conclusion.

D&D, more so than most games, tends to encourage a very strict division of labor within a group. Players must choose a class when they create a character. Only certain classes can cast spells, and those classes aren't very good at fighting. Only certain classes can wear heavy armor, and those classes aren't very good at picking locks or sneaking past guards. Despite this, characters are still fairly customizable, though there isn't the room for versatility that there is in a pure point system.

Characters take damage in the form of lost hit points. 3e and 3.5e had no penalties for losing hit points as long as you were above 0hp. 4e has some game effects that occur after a certain fraction of a characters hp have been lost, but it's still very cinematic. Armor makes characters more difficult to hit, so characters must exploit holes in the armor, rather than trying to pierce it.

The magic is integrated into the system, and a party would have a difficult time surviving an adventure without using magic. This is less true for 4e, but a lack of magic users would still be a handicap.

Dungeons and Dragons is the progenitor of the role playing genre. It was also my first RPG. It's not my favorite system, but some of my best gaming memories were made playing this game.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Effects of Genre on a System

Different genre tend to encourage different levels of detail in RPGs. That's not entirely true. Different genre tend to encourage details in different areas of the system. This is a natural result of more emphasis being placed on those areas.

Fantasy games tend to have more complicated rules for melee and mounted combat. Ranged combat is present, but is usually allows fewer options than melee. Part of this is due to the fact that sword fighting is much more complicated than archery. But the rest is due to the fact that few of the genre's tropes involve standing back and shooting at someone. The armor rules also tend to be a bit more complex, and usually involve attacking around armor as often as actually piercing it. Magic is usually an integral part of the game, and often is the longest chapter of the book.

Modern action games tend to have more complicated ranged combat rules, especially when it comes to aiming and long distances. The exception to this is the martial arts sub-genre, which focuses on melee no matter the time period. Vehicle combat tends to be more complex as well. The list of equipment is usually longer, as someone can open a catalog, point to an item and expect it to be available to a character. Armor rules tend to be abbreviated to how much Kevlar one is wearing and wear, occasionally with additional rules for ballistic plate inserts. Unarmored can usually be aimed at, but actually penetrating the armor is usually more successful. Modern horror games also have these tendencies, and tend also to include rules for measuring mental stress and the resultant breakdowns and psychosis. Fun stuff, those horror games. Special rules for things such as psychic powers or magic may be present, but are rarely as emphasized as with fantasy, and the game may even be played without it.

Scifi games tend to be similar to modern action games. Air and space combat rules are usually more fleshed out than in the modern games, but the equipment list is usually just as long. Melee combat is usually given even less emphasis than in the modern game. Armor rules may be similar to the modern game, or even non-existent. Force-fields and other such things may be present, and if so add another layer of complexity. Magic systems are uncommon, but psychic powers or other special abilities such as the Force may exist and function in a similar role.

Games with a specific setting or sub-genre usually have more specialized rules. The general use rules tend to be a mixed bag. Some of them tend to be more useful for one genre of game or another, and almost all of them have a specific tone that is hard-wired into the system.

Next post I'll walk through some specifics on individual games.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Realism in RPGs

Realism in gaming can be a touchy subject. This is especially true in RPGs, because you tend to be viewing things on a much smaller, more intimate scale than in a war game or TCG. The closer you get to something the more detail resolves, or in this case have to be resolved.

I should probably clarify things here. I'm talking about realism in combat mechanics. You can look at realism for things like lock-picking or tanning or haberdashery, but most people don't care about how to scrub a lock or the differences between chrome and brain tanning. They certainly don't want mechanics for the effects of mercury fumes from felt stiffening solutions.

Much of the contention is due to differing opinions on what is, in fact, "realistic." Debating what's "realistic" in fictional combat is a great way to start a six hour argument. The first problem you run into is that combat is really hard to analyze. This is a problem people struggle with in real life. Everything happens very fast, and you really just have to reconstruct everything after the fact. Factor in things like post adrenal shock and people flat out lying, and you'll have yourself tied for several weeks trying to piece together what happened in one knife assault.

Keep in mind that you're also trying to create an abstract, absolute system for simulating what is often barely controlled chaos. There's very little good data on the immediate effects of physical trauma on a person, and that makes it difficult to make realistic rules for it. Why does a knife deal 1d6 of damage and a sword deal 2d6? How long does the blade have to be before it deals the extra die of damage? And these are fairly minor philosophical problems. You should see what people come up with once they start actually playing the games.

There are a few things you can do to deal with the realism problem. First, decide the level of realism you want the game to have before you start playing. A lot of this will depend on the system you're using, but a lot also depends on the tone the GM sets. Match the tone and the system to what you're trying to do.

If you do run into a question of whether something is realistic, ask yourself this: Does it make sense? If yes, you don't have a problem. If no, find out what doesn't make sense and who has problems with that element. Chances are once you do that you can solve the dispute fairly in short order. If not, have something else happen. The goal is to play the game, not sit around arguing how a fictional universe adheres to abstract, arbitrary rules. Rule of thumb, gravity should be pretty constant. Everything else is mutable for the sake of the game.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Editions: TCGs (sort of)

No trading card games I've played actually had "editions" per se. What usually happens is that new sets of cards are released periodically until the game is either canceled or the company goes under. For games like Magic: the Gathering, that can be a very long time, during which many, many cards have been released and gone out of print.

This is good. It lends a lot of variety to the game. Unfortunately, what eventually happens is that you have so many cards floating around with wildly different effects that it becomes next to impossible to balance the game. When a game becomes unbalanced, people stop playing.

Additionally, if you've been playing a long lived TCG for a large fraction of its life, you're going to have a lot of cards. Eventually, you're going to have all the cards you need. Even though the company still makes new cards, you stop buying them because you don't feel like you need them.

TCG companies have to address these problems somehow, or they'll go out of business.
This is why cards become tournament illegal after a certain amount of time. The companies have to balance the games somehow, and they also need the players to buy more cards. As an added bonus, it also means that younger players aren't constantly having to deal with old, obscure cards from the 1993 whenever they sit down to play with an older gamer.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Editions: War Gaming

Editions in war gaming are a little different than those in RPGs. This is because the major revenue for war game companies comes not from books, but from miniatures. So this means that a new edition isn't going to make a company any money, right? Sort of.

New editions cause people to modify their army list. This can lead to people who own complete armies going out to buy new miniatures for units they never used in the old edition. New editions also mean new army books, which usually involve the release of new miniatures. Combine this with a solid marketing push, and not only do you see people buying new versions of units they already own, but often times people become interested in a new army because of the increased attention. This means they buy another army, meaning more miniature sales. The increased attention around a new edition can also bring in gamers who might have left the game for one reason or another, and then found that they like the new rules, or just miss the game.

The change in rules has another effect, though. New editions change the way people play. Tactics that dominated in the last edition might not work so well in the new one. Things that were questionable (read, suicidal) under the old rules might warrant another look with the new edition. This is, to some extent true with RPGs as well, but there's an important difference between RPGs and war games. War games are competitive. There is much more of an incentive to analyze rules and tactics with war games: the other guy certainly is.

This keeps the game from getting stale. It breaks up dominant army lists, and lets new players feel less outclassed by veteran gamers, for about a week. It keeps the game from getting stagnant. If you want to play a game that hasn't changed in a while, look at chess. This game hasn't changed in 200 years. And that was so they could deal with a tie. That's great, but I don't really have the desire to try and learn several centuries worth of strategy just to move little monochromatic columns around a checkerboard. The least they could do is give those poor pawns some cover to hide behind.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Editions: RPGs

A lot of people complain every time a new edition of a game comes out. They see it as the company try to squeeze extra money out of the fan base. For the most part, they're right. Sort of.

Let's not kid ourselves here. Game companies exist to make a profit. If they don't end the quarter in the black, the investors do bad things to the management. Bad things involving thumbscrews. So in order to make a profit, companies need to sell things. RPG companies need to sell books, war gaming companies need to sell miniatures. With me so far?

The problem for RPG companies starts when they've done pretty much everything they can do with a system. After the core books there are only so many supplements a set of rules can stand. GURPS 3e is a good example of that. They had these wonderful little 100 page supplements on damn near everything. GURPS Imperial Rome. GURPS Celt. GURPS Steampunk. GURPS Undead. GURPS Vampire. You think they could have covered everything about vampires in the undead book. Nope, needed a seperate supplement for that. I think it was actually called GURPS Blood Types. They were fantastic books, don't get me wrong. I learned more from those books than some of the classes I've taken. But there cam a point where they couldn't put out any more books like that. They had covered everything worth covering, and a lot else besides. Plus, with the advantage of about a decade of hindsight, old SJ Games realized they had done some really stupid stuff. So they decided to fix all of that. Thus came GURPS 4e, with core books available in both normal and limited leather bound, gold embossed editions. Yes, it meant that if you wanted new GURPS content, you had to upgrade to 4e.

This was done on purpose. SJ Games sells, among other things, books. If they don't add new books to their line, they'll go out of business. Such is life. SJ games may be a bad example, as they've made every effort to make 4e compatible with the old 3e material, even if it means selling fewer copies of the new GURPS Animal Rights Activism.

A better example might be the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D 4e is a radical departure from the last edition of D&D, but 3e didn't exactly follow 2e's example to the letter, either. A large portion of the community genuinely seems to dislike 4e, and to that I say: tough cookies. Wizards owns the license, and this is where they've decided to play the game.

That being said, I don't remember any firemen kicking down my door and burning my 3e and 3.5 books. I assume they didn't do that to you. If you don't like the new D&D, play the old one. Write new content for your games yourself, or even switch to other games. It's your time, play how you want. Just don't expect a company to conform to your tastes simply because you've bought a few of their books.

Next post I'll talk about new editions in war gaming, and how the phenomenon manifests differently than in RPGs.

Friday, November 14, 2008

War Gaming: Design Philosophy II: Revenge of the Colon

Last month I posted about designing an army. While I talked at length about how to think about building an army, I never really gave any advice on actually building the army. Let's fix that.

When building an army the first question you have to ask yourself is "What do I want to do?" Do you want to be very shooty, and hammer volley after volley of fire, or do you want to be really stompy and chock full of close combat nastiness? Do you want to field massive engines of death and roll over your enemies, or do you want to overwhelm your opponents with hordes of infantry. The army you want to play is going to greatly affect your strategy, and therefore your model selection.

Once you've decided on a general modus operandi, start looking over the unit list for your faction, and see what jumps out at you. Are there any units that look especially useful, or that you can immediately think of special tactics for? If so, that's a good place to start your army. After that it's just a matter of finding what units work well together.

Here's a few other things to keep a few things in mind while designing your army:

Avoid point sinks. I know it's tempting to bring every Monster Unit of Doom your faction has access to, and to trick out everything you have with as much gear as possible, but keep in mind you're on a budget. Points spent on cool wargear and really big vehicles aren't going towards more units, meaning that your army is going to be severely outnumbered. I'm not telling you to take nothing but minimally equipped basic troops and one leader with no special gear. I just want you to exercise caution when making big purchases. How many tank do you really need? Will your general really use 100 points of war gear? Does that squad of snipers really need to take grenades?

Be Diverse. I've said this before, but like so many basic concepts it bears repeating: the battlefield is an ever changing environment. You won't always anticipate what's going to happen before it happens. Yes, you could take a horde of frenzied berzerkers lead by an nine foot frothing maniac who can tear a man's arms from his sockets, but what if your opponent brings tanks. They don't have arms to tear off. While individual units may be best suited to a specific role, your army can't function that way. You have to be able to respond to a variety of threats quickly and effectively. So, if you do design the above army, make at least some of your guys are carrying bombs to take out any inconvenient tanks.

Be Flexible. Similarly, your units need to be capable of taking on multiple roles. It doesn't matter if you have the best tank hunters in the game if your opponent is bringing nothing but infantry. Suddenly you have a really expensive unit trying to picking off individuals with antitank weaponry into infantry squads. That's just not very effective. Have a plan B for all your units, and have one or two general purpose units that can do most things capably.

Be Mobile. I've written an entire article on mobility, but it bears mention here. You don't have to mechanize your entire force (unless you want to), but you do need think about how you're going to get your guys where you need them. Imagine that your entire force is on one side of the board, and suddenly you need units on the other side. How are you going to respond to this? If you don't have a good answer, you need to rethink your list. Then again, I play Dark Eldar, so I may be a little biased.

Be Resilient. Bad things happen in war. Don't rely on one unit to perform a vital function. If you're playing a heavily opponent, and you anti-tank unit snuffs it, your out of the game. Versatile units can help you with this.

There's a few basic ideas about how to build an army, or more accurately, how not to build an army. Keep this in mind, and you should do well. Also look at sites specific to your game, and see what other people field. You can find army lists for a lot of games on the 'net. The Jungle is a good place to check out army lists for Warhammer 40k. Otherwise, just keep experimenting. Every game is a chance to learn.