An Acceptable Level of Risk

This week’s post came out of some pondering I was doing after I wrote about introducing a couple of new people to the hobby last week. Specifically, about how one of the players ended up bouncing off the system a few times as the dice didn’t want to cooperate with his idea of how he wanted the game to go.

It got me thinking about systems, and about how I like different systems to provide different experiences, depending on who my players are and the game setting and assumptions that we’ve chosen for a particular campaign.

I’m not going to get into heavy theory here, and I’m not going to bother with the whole GNS categorization that was a major topic of the Forge back when it was a thing. Instead, I’m going to talk about a few specific games, what they do, and how they do it. Hopefully, this will be of some use to those who are searching for the “right” system for them.

Past Examples

One good example that I’ve already written about on this blog involved my search for the right system to use for an action-espionage campaign. There are many different systems that have been used for various espionage RPGs:

And more, not to mention all the generic systems such as GURPS and Hero System that have published espionage supplements or that are often referenced by players of those systems.

But in my search, I eventually settled on the Feng Shui RPG, because I knew it would provide the kind of play experience I wanted.

Media Settings

It can get more muddied when you want to run a game that takes place in the same setting as a known media property. For example, one might want to attempt to run a game that is essentially the RPG version of the Mission: Impossible movies.

But even that requires further definition. The most common confusion that I tend to see that crops up when people discuss playing in a popular setting is whether or not the game is going for emulation of the property itself.

For example, when people talk about running a game in the setting of Conan the Barbarian (using Robert E. Howard’s original stories), there is usually one group that wants to use the setting as it was in the stories, as if it was a real place. Let’s face it, the Conan setting is dangerous, and people die easily and often. So if you’re focused on the setting itself, you’d probably want a game system that is fairly gritty and where combat can easily be lethal to the characters and NPCs. A player might lose multiple player characters over the course of the game, and it’s only when a PC survives does he or she become the “hero” of the campaign.

The other group wants to play the game like Robert E. Howard’s stories. The fundamental difference here is that, while NPCs are fragile and often die easily, the protagonist of Howard’s stories (i.e. Conan) is fated to survive at least until he becomes the King of Aquilonia. A game taking this focus isn’t about whether or not the characters will survive—of course they’ll survive, because they are the protagonists. The question is what adventures will they have and what interesting things will they experience over the course of the game.

Both of the approaches are totally valid, but they really are at odds with each other. And a game system that is perfect for one approach will almost certainly be wholly unsuitable for the other approach.

Just as an example, the excellent Mythras RPG is great for the first approach. The game system can be very deadly for PCs and NPCs alike, combat is fairly involved and provides opportunities to do interesting things during a fight, and it’s grounded in a certain sense of realism.

On the other hand, HeroQuest 2E, Fate Core or the second edition of 7th Sea is more appropriate for the second type of game. These system assume a good level of competence from the PCs, and it’s easy to frame challenges in a way that highlights the PCs’ role as the protagonists.

When the Dice Don’t Cooperate

John Wick (the RPG designer, not the movie assassin), wrote an interesting blog post back in 2015 about dice and how they are used in RPGs. While I don’t agree with everything he says in that post, I do agree that sometimes I have no interest “in exploring the idea of random failure as a dramatic element in an RPG.”

Now, I do run D&D games, and random failure due to dice is a key element of the rule system for that game. And when I decide to run D&D, I’m accepting those rules and what they bring to the table. For one of the games that I’m running with some of my friends (playing Out of the Abyss), that feel of D&D, where I roll out in the open and let the dice fall where they may is a thing that we enjoy. We know that any of the characters might die at any time through a series of bad dice rolls (though there are ways to mitigate that somewhat). We accept it, because that’s the experience we’re looking for.

But that doesn’t work for every game I run. And that’s why I like the Fate Core rules (as an example). In Fate, it’s not generally about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about what success will cost you. Generally, between skill levels, Aspects, and fate points, a player can usually pull of a success when it really matters to them. But when the player spends those fate points, it means that the character’s negative Aspects are going to have to triggered at some point to get those points back into the player’s pool. You can succeed now, but what will it cost you (and when)?

This is not just a thing in a narrative system like Fate Core. The current Conan RPG by Modiphius has a mechanic by which the player can “buy” additional dice for a roll, but those bought dice provide the GM with “Doom”, a resource the GM can spend to make things more difficult for the characters during a scene.

These kinds of mechanics smooth out the random nature of the dice, and allow the players to direct improved odds when they really need a success.

And going back to John Wick, his second edition of the 7th Sea RPG is great for this. The player rolls a handful of dice (based on ability scores and skill ratings), and then “spends” those dice for actions. In 7th Sea, it’s not about success or failure on any given task. Rather, it’s about how much the character can accomplish in a round. Roll well, and you can achieve your objectives, avoid harm, and potentially take advantage of special opportunities provided by the GM. Roll poorly, and you’ll still succeed at what you’re trying to do—but it will mean you’ll miss out on some opportunities, or take some damage while you accomplish your objectives.

Tying It All Together

And this goes back to the introductory D&D game that I ran for the new players. This was a one-shot adventure, with no expectation that the characters were going to continue in a campaign afterward. The adventure itself—Mad God’s Key—is a bit of a mystery, with a dungeon crawl at the end. And the players played well and reached the final encounter in the dungeon with only one character having been injured.

And then the dice decided not to cooperate.

For the new players, who were coming from books and movies that follow a pretty identifiable narrative arc, it was time for them to succeed and overcome the evil at the end of the story. But D&D’s rules are not set up to support that kind of game. The rules are designed around random failure creating difficulties for the characters (including possible death) because those become branching points in a campaign.

So we ended up with a mismatch between the rules and players’ expectations. Because when the player tried to attack the evil high priest, of course his character shouldn’t start whiffing at that point. That would be entirely anticlimactic. Again, not in an ongoing campaign, but definitely in a one-shot adventure.

As I said, I like D&D and I’m perfectly willing to run it as written and let the dice fall where they may. But after the game, I realized that it’s not a great system for a one-shot with new players. As an introductory game, for people who may or may not end up in a campaign later on, the rules can result in a real disconnect between expectations and reality.

Conclusion

Over the last year or so, I’ve introduced a few new people to roleplaying games, some kids and some adults. D&D worked well for the kids, because we launched right into a campaign, and D&D is designed to support that kind of game.

But the more recent experience was a good reminder to me that another approach is probably better for brand new players who aren’t jumping into a full campaign right at the start. A system like the one in 7th Sea would have provided a more appropriate experience.

And so it’s resulted in me reviewing my various campaigns and taking a hard look at the system used in each one, to make sure the rules are appropriate for what we’re trying to accomplish in each of the games I run.

How do you choose the “right” system for a campaign? Do you just go with the default system attached to a particular setting, or do you tinker and modify, or do you replace the system wholesale with one that you feel is a better fit? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

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