Just read a tiny and cool rule in the HackMaster Basic rule book (page 15): if during chargen it turns out your character has not even one exceptional ability score OR if (s)he has two ability scores that are exceptionally low, you can name him/her and… hand it over to the Game Master to be used later as a shop keeper, a peasant or any other passing NPC. Tiny, cool, influential and certainly to be appreciated by the players — just the way all rules should be.
Inspired by some recent discussions in my IM and in Russian RPG blogosphere, as well as by the question I just got (for the hundredth time) in Evony: “do you want to spend 5000 gold to heal these 1000 soldiers?”, I feel compelled to write something about the issue of micromanagement.
One of the most important rules in any RPG, be it game design as such or the gameplay itself, is to make the players’ choices matter. Everybody knows that. However, there is another rule which is equally important: don’t waste the players’ time and energy on choices that don’t matter. Micromanagement is one of those things: you make the players make too much decisions, and each of those is horribly tiny. If this happens in tabletop chargen, you end up distributing literally thousands points among the attributes/skills/perks of your character, and you do this mostly randomly just due to the sheer width of the decision making choice (the example my colleagues were referring to was Eclipse Phase). Same for Evony: if I have 50000000 gold in my pocket, I don’t want to be greedy about a couple of thousands.
There is another folklore saying about RPGs: the dice know the truth. It’s a joke apparently, but every joke has some truth in it—in this case it is the simple fact that most successful game systems are designed in such a way that the randomness provided by the dice brings more fun to the gaming process. However, if the counter values are so high that the random values subtracted from them are close to meaningless, it is also a form of micromanagement and should be avoided if possible or should have a well-designed workaround otherwise.
As some of you might know, I’ve been playing the “global role-playing strategy” called Pentacore for a couple of years and even writing various tutorials, but retired soon after getting myself in top 5 (was nothing left for me to do there, unfortunately). I know a lot of people who tried Pentacore and disliked it for its complexity, but that’s exactly why I liked it: it is very complicated, and usually the winner is the smartest player who did more careful planning than his enemy. These days I found another similar hobby in Evony. I even named my character there after Pentacore’s character, Tenser, who in turn has been named after Salveblues character, who had his name taken from Greyhawk campaign setting.
I’m comparatively new to the game, so can’t offer any advanced strategies yet. Evony seems to be more PvP-oriented: in Pentacore, for instance, you could create an army and sell it; here you have to create an army, attack someone else and then sell what you’ve plundered. Resources are much more mundane (like food, stone, etc) than energies, and they are independent, not derived from one another—this makes resource management much less intricate than in Pentacore. Armies, on the other hand, are more complicated because higher level soldier types are not always better against lower level ones, you always have to stay flexible. Upgrading and even downgrading buildings take a lot of time, so one needs to plan carefully what does (s)he want in the city beforehand.
The ways to be more effective are learnt with time and experience and a lot of thinking/planning. Say, I put my tax to 100%. In a big healthy city that will give me ~50k gold per hour and I will have to comfort people regularly to avoid population decrease: that is 80k food 4 times an hour, you can buy this for ~25k. On the other hand, if I have a city dedicated to making lumber, I get ~600k lumber per hour (no items) from it, which can be sold for 250k gold in a rainy day. Once you figure it out, you know taxes should be kept at minimum.
Achieving a similar level of G-happiness (look for Monsters’ Den: Book of Dread if you prefer dungeon crawling to strategies) in tabletop games is very difficult, since the amount of back-end calculations does not make anyone happy. I yet have to see a decent example of a successful endeavour at that.
I’ve blogged about treating abilities as exceptions already, just want to quickly go back to say that it doesn’t need to be a straightforward contradiction of the ‘you cannot do it’ vs ‘you can do it’ kind. For instance, generic rules can give you some numbers, while specific ones will tell what they mean exactly. Something like when in TSoY, The Pool, Time of the Ancient or any other game that involves stakes, the general rules will say when you succeed and when you fail, and the concrete consequences are determined by your current situation—but on a different level.
Just to illustrate it with something from the fantasy heartbreaker that seems to be my main effort right now (the system is all but finished btw, I just need to describe some setting bits and start playtesting): the general rules state that being on Power Level 2 for a hero means having 2 first-level powers and 4 zero-level powers. Brawler’s powers are battle manœuvers, and the numbers mean how much of them are readied at the start of a new battle—the fighter can still ready them again after use, but it will take some actions to do so. Sage’s powers are mystic abilities, and the numbers mean how many of them the sage possesses. Zealot’s powers are daily allowance of divine invocations, the type of which—aura, presence, wrath, etc—is determined at the time of use, some of invocations grant them the right to use a couple of other classes’ powers. Mage’s powers are spells memorised for this particular encounter. Ace’s powers are skill uses—whatever is not chosen for this encounter, cannot be used (due to lack of instruments or other hindrances).
I have the feeling that I’ve seen that implemented in one of the games I’ve read, but can’t remember exactly where. Maybe it’s just my paranoia…
One of the games I’m actively designing now has a lot to do with duality, so I might use this idea there. But then again, maybe not, so I’m gonna write it out here anyway.
The idea is to ask the players to create characters that go in pairs. Can be any kind of pair: best friends, siblings, lovers, teacher-student, senpai-kohai, master-weapon, etc. The back stories must be intertwined, the abilities linked, the relations consistent, and it must be a good fit overall.
This seems tiny and insignificant, but I believe it will give a boost to my games in some points where I want it, involving the players in collaboration during their prep already, forcing team building and setting integration, and giving the opportunity to create original character design. I hope it will work out especially well in play-by-post games played on an internet forum.
Some time ago I went to read Anime d20 as a system that should supposedly solve some of my problems. If you wonder why I haven’t done it earlier, I can let you know I just gave up after I saw good ol’ dwarves there. Don’t let me be misunderstood, I love dwarves. They just don’t mix with anime. It’s just like trying to ride a bike while having sex: both activities can be fun if tried separetely, but together you’re just gonna fall down and injure yourself and your partner. Not to mention the broken bike and the embarrassement.
- Dwarves. Elves too, they are kinda scarce, but dwarves… I’ve watched thousands and thousands of episodes of various anime, I’m not exaggerating. You know how many of those bearded small guys I’ve seen so far? Yes, I’m counting. One. One motherfucking dwarf! The poor lad went against Olibu in a tournament and lost before you could start counting his screentime. Guys, don’t make a standard race unless it’s a common thing, and having just one of that kind is not considered common.
- Giant Robots and Hot Rods. I mean, what’s the deal with separating them from Mecha Pilots? The story is never about robots anyway, and even if it is, like in Giant Robo, they are still more of a thing that responce to certain feelings and requests, more of a tool than of a front row character. Robotic characters like Kikuchiyo or Al are not that different from others to separate them. Who cares if you actually drive a robot, fuel a robot or are a robot? What matters is that you solve problems with “robot-ness”.
- Ninjas. Yes, for once, I’m against the ninjas. You gotta give ’em some other title, like Shadow Warriors or something like that. You don’t call giant robots “dolems” or “gunmen” because you don’t want to tie it down to RahXephon or TTGL, so don’t rely on this term too. There’re lots of people who want to play a game of Naruto with your rules, please don’t say they all gotta use just this one class!
- Pet Monster Trainers. Epic fail. They tried to base it on Pokemon, then swinged the other way to generalise trainers of different traditions, but the result just doesn’t fit anywhere anymore. And you gotta really make distinction between trainers who fight together with their ‘pets’ (Lucy, Jiraiya), who totally control them (Sasori, Squala), and who summon them and try to keep them on the leash (Rekka, Adilicia, Babidi). The details, like what happens when a ‘pet’ dies, or whether ‘pets’ are real animals, magical creatures or supernatural beings, can be written out in the setting itself.
- Samurais. Same shit as with ninjas. “Samurai” is a cool term, but it doesn’t say anything about you. If you’re a samurai, does it mean you are all disciplined and loyal? Are you for instance able to use sword-based energy attacks or you just cut people? There are different kinds of samurais, and there are series completely devoted to samurai, so this is a double fail. How I propose to do that? Go for several types of swordsmen that you can identify: the one with a magic sword that’s almost like a ‘pet’ (Kazu, Haru, Aya, all shinigami from Bleach), the one that uses special properties of his swords for his attacks but otherwise thinks of it as a tool (Zoro, Zabuza, Kenshin), the one who is just damn awesome at cutting others (Trunks, Tama, Musashi). Note that a hell lot of swordsmen are naturally “multiclass”: think of Trunks, Hiei, Kamina, etc.
- Sentai Member. Epic fail (again). All characters of all classes can be “team players to the core”. Or maybe not. This depends on the subgenre and on the particular game, it’s definitely not multiclassing. Think of Dragon Ball Z: they are all sentai members (at least in the beginning, until the weakest become cannon modder), yet each one of them is unique.
- Students. It’s not a class, it’s background. Some games just state you’re all students, some others don’t. Being a student as such does not give you any special powers, and I can hardly think of any anime beside Yu Yu Hakusho that has a mixed set of students and non-students.
- Multiclass, or the lack thereof. Given this crappy unorthogonal class system, all of the decent characters need to multiclass, and by using classic rules it’s just impossible. How do you think Naruto would look like? Adventurer(with Jiraiya)/Dynamic Sorcerer(ninjutsu)/Gun Bunny(kunai)/Martial Artist(my way of the ninja!)/Ninja(finally)/Pet Monster Trainer(frogs)/Sentai Member(team7)/Shapechanger(Naruko)/Shapechanger(Kyubi)/Student(ninja academy)? That’s 10 levels just for the starting package. Thank God he’s not a robot!
- Attributes, feats, skills. Whereever I look, they are either too specific to a certain series, or too broad and non-specific to anime. I mean, Duplicate? The cost for duplication is totally different in Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, and it’s actually much harder and more rare in the latter despite it being way higher on a power level scale, not to mention One Piece not having any duplication at all, no matter the cost. And what’s up with Dynamic Sorcerers casting D&D spells and forging rings? Gimme a break…
- Combat rules. While I like the idea of using a skill chosen from a set to attack and defend (D&D4 does that, btw, modulo the opposedness) and the surprisingly concise and fun rules for attacking multiple targets, most of the specific aspects of anime combat are not addressed. No talking that gives you real combar bonuses, no hostage rules, no power escalation, lousy second wind, etc.
- Size. Let’s face it: no-one is going to read a 265 page long document just to fish out the 10% that he’d need as a basis to build his own variant to run his own game. I still believe it is possible to design a more or less universal game system suitable for any playable anime (examples of unplayable anime: FLCL, TWHE) and better and more fine-grained than BESM, but Anime d20 is too far off.
- Lack of examples. I do realise this is an SRD I’m reading, but still the lack of examples and references ruins it too. It would look much better with 10 or 20 pages explaning the core rules, followed by example settings, say, 5 pages a piece.
If I ever return to finish GNS, it should include the soundtrack rule. When you start playing the game, plug your iPod to the dock and put it on random (perhaps not shuffle all, but still random within a suitable playlist). If it were to happen right now, I’d use all ost songs, openings and endings included, from Naruto, Bleach, Trigun, Gungrave, Dragonball, Chrono Crusade, etc—that’s what I have, your mileage may vary.
Every time you’re not sure (‘roll the dice or say yes’©) how to narrate a certain dice roll outcome or how to react on another player’s narration, listen to the music, get in the mood, start talking. For instance, let’s say the GM introduces a new character: a kunoichi that walks into the room. He has some idea about her fighting style, but he’s not sure how to describe her. He takes a moment to listen to the song that’s on: if it’s ROW ROW FIGHT THE POWER, she’ll be a rowdy Anko-ripoff, busting the door wide open and telling everyone to shut up, if it’s Shinobu Ondo, she’ll be more Hinata-like, a quiet and cute one. Another example: a PC ninja is trying to learn a new technique, rolls the dice and fails. The player listens to what’s on: if it’s Alive, he’ll start a dramatic story of how everyone makes mistakes and how he won’t give up, if it’s Naruto’s Daily Life, he’ll rather choose to go into details of how he misused it, turned himself into a frog and was busy chasing flies for the rest of the day.
Start talking or listen to the song. This rule kicks ass, I tell you.