Classifying RPGs Mechanically With The Tabletop RPG Triangle

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Categorizing tabletop RPGs can be kind of difficult. There is such a variety of them, and they play in such different ways, that coming up with meaningful methods of comparison is…difficult.

I’m not talking about genre or setting here, either. It’s, in fact, relatively easy to categorize RPGs into fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, or what have you. What is quite a bit harder, in my experience, is to categorize them by mechanics.

This is something those in the video game space take for granted, as that field began as solely mechanics, and had the stories come in over time. Thus, at the start of the medium, the only way there was to categorize games meaningfully was mechanics. That’s how we got “platformers”, “adventure games”, and later, things like “RPGs”, “strategy games”, and “first-person shooters”. All of these genres, while admittedly pretty vague and muddled, offer an idea for how a game plays.

The setting-based labels we provide for tabletop RPGs are less useful in that regards. Fantasy is a genre which includes Dungeons and DragonsDungeon World, and Burning Wheel, but those games play nothing alike. The same could be said of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line, Eclipse Phase, and Numenera, despite the fact that they are all “science fiction”.

In fact, the only meaningful gameplay-based distinctions I can think of in my mind are “OSR”, which describes a minimalist, rulings-over-rules mentality usually accompanied with punishing combat, an emphasis on logical problem solving, and random tables, and “story game”, which tends to describe games with minimized rules which are focused on telling a very specific type of story. These two categories cover only a subset of tabletop RPGs, however, leaving us with a massive third category of “The Rest”, which is basically useless.

With that in mind, I’ve started to think about the way I end up describing role-playing games to my friends, and tried to make that congeal into an actual system with which one can try and describe, broadly, the actual mechanics of the way a game works. This system, then, is tentatively called the Tabletop RPG Triangle.

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The idea is relatively simple: the mechanics of tabletop RPGs can be described as some mixture of the three above attributes: Comprehensive, Universal, and Simple.

Simple means that the written rules are computation light and fairly intuitive. There aren’t a lot of modifiers to be accounted for, not a lot of dice rolls required for single actions, and multiple types of action are resolved using the same game mechanics.

Universal means that the written rules are not bound to any given setting, and instead set out to just provide a general framework for any sort of character doing any sort of thing. The rules don’t emphasize the creation of characters towards any particular archetype.

Comprehensive is perhaps the most unintuitive of the three descriptors, and describes having rules which aim to cover every situation which characters could expect to find themselves in (even if those rules end up similar to other situations). Basically, the book sets out to describe what should happen in any likely gameplay scenario.

The idea is that you can specialize in one of these descriptors, have a strong emphasis in two of them, or be a kind of muddled mixture of all three, but you can’t go whole hog into all three. If a game is simple and comprehensive, it probably isn’t universal: a game that aims to be easy to understand and cover a lot of ground within it’s theme probably has a very narrow theme, lest it overwhelm the reader with options and lose its simple status (I might think of something like Fiasco, which pretty exclusively deals with Coen Brother-esqe comedic tragedies). Meanwhile, a game that is universal and comprehensive is probably going to be a massive mound of rules (gestures towards the D20 system).

For an example, here are a few of the systems I run and play in, plotted on the Triangle, according to my experience with the systems and thoughts on them:

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Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons aims for a pretty solid mix of comprehensiveness and simplicity, mostly as a reaction to 3.5 Edition’s rules gluttony. The skill check comprises most every situation in the game, with a relatively minor number of modifiers, and while the game does try to set out rules for all manner of adventuring situations, it doesn’t really like you playing outside of the bounds of D&D style, big damn heroes adventuring, especially when it comes to pidgeonholing you into class roles, so it’s pretty far from universal.

3.5 and Pathfinder, however, are basically a mirror image, focusing on universality and comprehensiveness. Wanna play a pirate with guns in space? Yeah, sure, there’s a supplement for that. How about some dark fantasy with Cthulhu monsters, except everyone’s a ninja. Yeah, sure! Wanna fight Shrek at the bottom of the ocean? Sure, whatever, I think he’s in Bestiary 5. Just, you know, get ready to cross-reference feat descriptions, combat modifiers, and the contents of about four different supplemental books.

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rules, however, are maybe one of the closest-to-the-middle rulesets I play with regularly. It’s certainly not universal (you’re gonna be playing Star Wars no matter what), but it lets you play a lot of different kinds of stories within that universe. The rules aren’t necessarily super easy, but the complexity is mostly front-loaded when you learn the system. Finally, the game sets out to try and provide mechanics for basically anything ever done in a Star Wars movie, from dogfighting to the Force to building lightsabers to hacking droids, making it kind of a blend of all three.

The third edition of Shadowrun, however, is closest to a point of the triangle compared to any other game I play with. The game is not very universal at all: you’re going to be playing criminals doing crime in a fantasy cyberpunk world, or at least someone interacting regularly with the criminal underworld. The rules are not simple in the least (gestures angrily to two damn pages of rules for throwing explosives), but no matter what you want to to in the world of Shadowrun‘s criminals-for-hire, there are rules for doing it, and for really digging into the nitty-gritty of it. I mean, there are rules for racism, for god’s sake.

Finally, Cypher System is literally the definition of simple and universal. It is, by definition, settingless, trying to provide a framework to let anyone do anything, and literally all the rules boil down into basically the same single die roll. However, even when you begin to introduce slightly unusual situations into the game, it just sorta shrugs and goes “Fuck it, man, house rule it”.

This system is by no means perfect, and even as I write this I find myself having umbridge with it and thinking of counterexamples, but the fact of the matter is that we as tabletop RPG players, and as liasons for the hobby, need a better way to describe the way these games play, at least in shorthand.

When new players get in to the hobby, especially after they play their first game (which, let’s be honest here, is going to be Dungeons and Dragons), we need a way to help them navigate these games and jump off to other games they might enjoy, and using setting as that navigational aid isn’t going to work. These are games, and ultimately the mechanics define a player’s experience with the game much more than the setting, so we need some sort of language with which to communicate those differences. The Triangle is not meant to be the solution, but it is meant to at least inspire someone to come up with their own ideas.

 

Getting Your Hands on Feats

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of feats lately. For the unaware, feats are a catch-all term for one-off segments of rules that can be added to a tabletop RPG character either during character creation or as a reward for progression. Feats I think got their claim to fame in Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, which is arguably the most character tweaking-focused game in existence, although it has since gone on to be a standard in most games.

My game, Blackmarked, also features feats (heh). Generally speaking, I like feats as a way to give characters special one-off rules which let players differentiate their characters from others of the same class/build, and as a way to build character abilities piecemeal to “build-your-own-class”, so to speak. Blackmarked is classless, but you essentially end up constructing a D&D style class from scratch over time by building feats. If you took a character that progressed X amount of time in Blackmarked, and wrote the sequence in which they got assorted feats, stat boosts, and other improvements, you’d pretty much be staring at a class description.

Furthermore, feats in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition help a game that otherwise has fairly limited character customization. Feats let your Warlock wear plate mail, let your Battle Master Fighter throw spells, and lets your Rogue ride a bear into battle. Feats really give your characters legs by spicing them up with interesting and creative abilities. I’m currently playing a Fighter in my 5E game, and finding myself bored with the relatively slow trickle of interesting abilities that Fighters get, even as a Battle Master, so Feats are where I turn to find new and interesting things for my characters to do.

Not everyone thinks feats have a leg to stand on, though (OK I’ll stop). Googling the topic yielded this RPG.net flame war, in which people argue the validity of feats as a means of character customization. Some of the anti-feat points (caltrops?) are valid. They’re massively hard to balance, meaning that games with feats, notably including Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, 3.5E, and Pathfinder, are subject to players cherry-picking broken feats to construct vastly overpowered feats. The power/coolness disparity between feats can be crazy sometimes (one commenter brings this up: “We’re putting ‘cast all your spells while being a fucking bear’ on the same level as ‘uh, don’t provoke opportunity attacks when casting spells, and you have reach 2 with melee’.”).

Furthermore, and this falls heavily into an OSR sort of mindset, is that feats are an example of locking gameplay choices behind character creation decisions. An example mentioned in the thread is the idea of a swordsman swinging his sword in a circle, hitting every enemy within reach, an ability that Dungeons and Dragons 3.5th Edition locks behind the “Whirlwind Attack” feat. In most every game, if a character attempted to spin around with their weapon and hit everyone around them in a circle, the DM would probably either flat out forbid them from doing so without Whirlwind Attack, or impose a massive penalty on the task to the point where it becomes near impossible. What ends up happening is that, if you want to viably spin around and murder everyone within arm’s reach of you, that’s a call you need to make during character creation/progression, and if you’re making the choice during combat, it’s too late.

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And since you didn’t take the feat, you can’t satisfy your dream to become a human lawnmower.

The counterpoint, then, is that you average idiot can’t actually just spin around with a sword and make a series of competent, meaningful attacks against everyone around them. Wielding a sword is hard, and doing that while twirling like a ballerina is even harder. Add on that a bunch of people are surrounding you and, presumably, slashing at you, and you’re pretty likely to mess it up unless you’re a competent swordsman. That competency is what the feat represents.

I think a common theme is thus: people who like feats like them because it allows them granular, precise control over character creation, and people who don’t like feats don’t like how they seem to lock choices about what a character can do behind character creation choices, and how boring and purely mathematical they can be.

To claim that I have a solution to this is ridiculous, but I did have a burst of inspiration whilst reading this argument that gave me an excellent idea. The inspiration came from an obvious source: the literal meaning of the word “feat”:

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That’s right, a feat is an accomplishment. It is born of action performed to such amazing effectiveness that it is worthy of elevation. This is where my idea came forth: if my characters want feats, they’re going to have to earn them.

So, here’s roughly the system. Feats up through character creation are identical. You can choose to take some, and they provide little mechanical bonuses for your character, from stat bonuses to new abilities or whatever.

What’s new is how you get feats during regular play. On top of the cost of experience, as well as prerequisites, each feat has an action associated with it. To purchase the feat, you must have performed the associated action that session. By spending experience points on the feat, then, you are canonizing that moment, that action, as an essential part of your character’s story and being.

For instance, say we have this feat:

Acrobatic Fighter

Action: Completely avoid an attack that would have killed you with a Dodge action

Gain 2 Mastery in Dodge.

Ignoring the rules minutia for a second, this technically is just a slight mechanical boost, but instead of just being a boring little statistical buff, by design, having this feat tells a story about your character. It speaks to the time when you were fighting knights in the burning ruins of your home village, and deftly spun out of the way of a rogue arrow, or the time you were in melee combat with barbarian chieftan and rolled out of the way of his warhammer.

This way, you can have these tiny customizations you can make to your character, but you’re not locked out of these options in regular play. In fact, if you want a feat, this system encourages you to play in a manner befitting of a character who would have this feat. Your otherwise boring mechanical bonuses are tied to interesting stories and interesting play, and instead of limiting your choices during play, it offers you a new layer of choices as you map out your character’s progression through your actions in game.

 

Rip And Tear: How To Make Very Smart Stupid Things

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At the risk of parroting basically every major games publication this year, DOOM is a very, very good video game. I only just recently started playing it since I got it for Christmas, despite the game having come out last May, and I’m honestly blown away by how good it is. Every second of the game feels good to play, and the genuine feeling of ramping difficulty combined with the fantastic feedback loop of the combat just keeps me craving more.

DOOM ties in to a recent trend I’ve seen across media lately, and that’s a trend I’ll hastily call “Very Well Done Stupid Things”. This genre comprises games that seek little more than visceral, action-focused thrills, but do so with a level of craftsmanship befitting of more “high brow” pieces. This is a category I’d fill with movies like Mad Max: Fury RoadDredd, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service, and DOOM‘s game contemporaries in the genre might be BayonettaMetal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

To clarify, this does not mean that these pieces of media cannot contain commentary on greater topics (Kingsmen is a deconstruction of the spy genre, and Fury Road certainly has something to say about feminism), but these topics require some deep reading to find, and the initial impression has less to do with those topics and way more to do with “Oh my god, this is ridiculous”.

I think the first essential key to such an experience is knowing what you’re making. One of the things that distinguishes a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road from, say, a Michael Bay Transformers joint is that George Miller fundamentally understood that what he was making was a movie about cool dudes in leather driving cool junker cars across the desert and shooting each other. A precious minimum of minutes of Fury Road are spent doing things that aren’t driving or shooting, basically the exact minimum needed to push the plot forward. While Michael Bay might say that he knows he’s making “exploding robot car movies for teenage boys”, the amount of time in each Transformers movie spent detailing the (boring) human characters, or reciting (forgettable) lore proves that this sentiment has been lost somewhere in the filmmaking process.

The next essential key is, in fact, an essential key to most storytelling media in general, from games to movies to books: every element of the piece needs to be expertly designed to drive the central focus. DOOM is a strong example of this. DOOM‘s central thesis is thus: move and shoot, or die. Thus, every single mechanic and room in the game is designed to be conducive towards moving and shooting. Traditional cover systems or “Wait long enough while not being shot to recover your health” systems are forsaken in favor of a system by which you weaken enemies (by shooting them) then melee execute them (by moving to them) to get a bounty of health pickups, meaning the best way to survive a fight is to remain in the middle of it for as long as possible.

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The glory kills are also a great source of going “AH GOD JESUS”

When you’re developing a game for pure, visceral joy, you need to make sure that everything in your game ties directly into that. Otherwise, the parts that do not, like DOOM‘s codex entries or Metal Gear Rising‘s walk-and-talk sections, will stick out like a sore thumb against the rest of the game. This certainly isn’t to say that you can’t include dialogue or lore in your game, but do so in a way that acknowledges that players might certainly not care at all, and want to return immediately to the bloodshed.

Finally, I think the last necessary component to make a “good dumb” game or film is an understanding of tone. You have already recognized that you’re making a silly thing, so any attempts at evoking real emotion should be done with the fact that they are going to be framed by ridiculous ultraviolence in mind. Mad Max‘s poignant moments have some good buffer space of quieter scenes leading up to them, ensuring the transition isn’t jarring.

This isn’t to say your game needs to be all jokey and comedy.  Get too jokey, and you drive full steam into Duke Nukem territory, with every moment tainted by jokes that feel like they were just there to make the writers laugh (not to mention the simple fact that a lot of dialogue tends to repeat in video games, leading to groan-inducing repetition). Again, take DOOM as a strong positive example. There are no jokes in DOOM, no one quips, there’s no pithy one-liners or references. Yet, the game is funny by the pure nature of how serious it is, how absolutely self-important it presents itself, while still knowing deep down how ferociously stupid it is at a conceptual level.

“Low brow” does not mean bad. Quite a few of my favorite films, shows, and games in recent memory have been in the pursuit of cheap thrills and dumb violence. However, shallow narrative meaning is no excuse for bad craftsmanship, and just like any other genre, what separates true legends in this genre from the dollar a dozen crap is a real attention to detail.

Live, Die, Repeat: Mastery Through Repetition

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I positively adore the movie Edge of Tomorrowa Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt triumph of a time travel movie in which Cruise’s character becomes an incredible super-soldier by reliving the same day over and over again, until having perfected every minute detail of the day. Watching him stumble around and die a litany of stupid deaths early on pays off in the end when, after thousands of repetitions, Cruise is able to march through a D-Day-esqe battlefield and deal with every single obstacle with ruthless precision, gained through memorization.

As it turns out, I actually really like this scheme in games as well. When done correctly, having to repeat similar sections over and over again, learning every time, is a great way to have the player develop a sense of mastery, and to inspire a sense of awesome skill when the player finally goes back to the same section and does that “perfect run”, where all of that skill development pays off. And, of course, no game emphasizes this better than one game which stands above all, where you play a ruthless killer repeating missions over and over again, learning and improving your tactics every time, where you have to deal with how to expertly maneuver through massive crowds of NPCs, and where you play as a bald guy*.

Of course, I’m talking about Left 4 Dead.

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*You’re only bald if you play Louis or Coach, but you see what I was getting at.

Arguably my favorite FPS everLeft 4 Dead and its sequel were and are unique for their use of repetition. The games focus on playing through a limited stable of Campaigns, each constant in their layout, objectives, and larger beats. Characters always start each chapter at point X and end it at point Y, and they’ll always have big confrontations at points A, B, and C along the way. There is no sense of character advancement or even mechanical differentiation between characters.

So, playing Left 4 Dead means playing the same 10 or so Campaigns across the two games over and over and over again. On first glance, this seems to make the game ripe to become stale. On Normal, each Campaign runs about an hour apiece, so once you’re done with the 5 Campaigns that come packaged in each game, why keep playing?

Well, much like a good cake or Hell, what really makes Left 4 Dead is its layers. On your first playthrough of a Campaign, your singular goal is going to be survival and completion. Each of the game’s Crescendos, high-tension moments where the players need to complete some goal while being bombarded by zombie hordes, feels like a desperate fight for survival, and whenever the music for the hulking, nigh-unkillable Tank begins, the only thing being flung around more than bullets is obscenities.

The best example of this is my personal favorite Campaign from either game, Left 4 Dead 2‘s “Hard Rain”. Not only is Hard Rain a microcosm of the concept I’m talking about (the second half of the campaign has you retracing your steps from the first half to get back to your boat after making a supply run), but when you play through it the first time, it’s horrifying. The entire second half of the Campaign has the levels consumed in a massive thunderstorm, obscuring vision and sound and generally making movement much more difficult. The Sugar Mill, the second chapter of the Campaign, is notably full of Witches, enemies which are docile when undisturbed, but once aggravated by light, proximity, or gunfire, can shred through a character a couple of hits.

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There are entire horror games that I found less scary than my first playthrough of Hard Rain

However, something beautiful happens after your first run through the Campaigns. At that point, you exit the phase of Discovery, and you begin the process of Refinement. You want to play through the Campaigns again, if for no other reason than to nurse a bruised ego, and you find yourself avoiding mistakes you made the first time. The game isn’t identical your next time around: an AI “Director” modulates enemy spawns and available items dynamically based on your player performance, so maybe spots where the game let up last time you played this time become major firefights. However, as you replay the game you start to know where things might appear, which is somehow more rewarding. It’s less like you’ve memorized the level, and more like your understanding of the fundamental forces of the game is increasing.

As you replay Campaigns, you’ll find yourself associated certain locations with memories of that one time things went terribly wrong (or right, occasionally). What were once insurmountable obstacles, such as the mad scramble for gasoline at the end of “Dead Center”, get refined into well-tread ground as your ragtag group of survivors starts to more closely resemble a SWAT team. You start to develop detailed mental maps of each Campaign, each chapter, and soon, you stop feeling like a blundering idiot, and more like a zombie-killing badass, not because the game is going easy on you (in fact, at that point, it will be harder on you than it ever was thanks to the Director) or because you’ve simply memorized every facet of the game, but because your skills have improved to the point where you are simply attuned to the way the game works.

Once you’ve reached this point, Mastery, when you go back to Hard Rain, the level is no longer a terrifying horror story, but a place to display expert skill. Moving through the flooded city streets in the second half is a breeze with map experience, and has you hopping across car hoods like some sort of acrobat. The Sugar Mill filled with Witches becomes a shooting gallery once you’ve mastered the art of “crowning”, or killing Witches with one precise, and extremely risky, shot to the nape of the neck with a shotgun. It no longer feels like this rainstorm is coming to consume you, it almost feels like the storm is an omen of you coming.

Once you’ve Mastered Left 4 Dead, the game opens up a new level of challenge to you by offering an assortment of variant modes, which give you the opportunity to use your skills and game knowledge in new contexts. Versus modes puts the reins of the Infected in the hands of an enemy team of players, forcing you to pit your skill against a team of equally-knowledgeable foes to survive, or alternatively, destroy. Mutations have players play through Campaigns with fundamentally changed game rules, ranging from Healing Gnome, where the only way to heal becomes holding a garden gnome (and thus, rendering yourself unable to attack in any significant way), to Taaannnkk!, in which every single Infected player always spawns in as a Tank.

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To circle back to my obvious bait earlier, 2016’s Hitman (which is a very good video game), also utilizes this pattern. First the player Discovers the level contents and game mechanics, before Refining them through mechanically-motivated repetition, until a Master player is ready to apply their intimate knowledge of the game’s systems to variant modes, in this case represented by Escalations and the challenges, which can impose difficult rules on a run, such as never being seen, or doing the whole mission dressed as a vampire. While Hitman‘s levels are far more clockwork than Left 4 Dead‘s, with everything down to AI routines set to a precise, mechanical schedule, the variance that keeps things interesting comes from the player’s ability to bring in new items every time to help in their assassinations, as well as variety of different ways players can actually complete their goals within the level.

Ultimately, I feel that games that emphasize mastery through repetition are some of the most successful at creating that ambiguous feeling of mastery on the player’s part. The possible roteness of the repetition needs to be mitigated by having some part of the game vary from playthough to playthrough, but I think as Left 4 Dead and Hitman show, the key is that this randomness needs to be able to be mitigated by a player who has fundamental understanding of the systems of the game. A Master Left 4 Dead player knows what spots they need to look for a key health kit, even if they don’t know exactly where to look, and while a Master Hitman player doesn’t necessarily know exactly where to go to perform a sniper-only run of Sapienza, they do know some candidate spots to try out.

The key, then, is to design such a game in a way that makes early playthroughs difficult, and perhaps at times overwhelming, but clear and informative enough that a player can then absorb information from those playthroughs and apply it on their next run. The game then needs to be internally consistent enough that players applying knowledge they’ve learned in-game should be rewarded with satisfying and triumphant gameplay, but still new enough that they don’t feel like they’re just memorizing the game. Finally, once players have mastered your game, you need to ensure that they have ways to take on new challenges, ones that force them to apply their new knowledge in different ways, while clearly signposting those challenges in such a way that they don’t overwhelm new players.

Hacking Roleplaying Games for Fun and Profit

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When people refer to modding games, the term tends to refer to modifying video games (or, at least, hardware and software in general). Modding is a weird situation for designers, in that you’re getting a preexisting design, and you’re hacking and slashing and adding to it to match a new design. It’s as if you were a sculptor, and instead of getting a fresh block of marble, you’re given someone else’s sculpture.

However, what a lot of people don’t know is that there is a fairly vibrant culture of tabletop RPG hacking out there, of people taking tabletop RPG systems and modifying the rules for new purposes. For instance, check out this hack of Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire system, turning the system into a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game. Or, alternatively, you can play some Star Wars, but with this hack of Apocalypse World.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I’ve decided that, as long as I have a bit of free time between semesters, I’m going to try my hands at a bit of hacking, just for fun. After all, it’ll take less time than starting a new game from scratch (especially considering I have in progress projects that need time), while still scratching the itch to work on something new, as well as getting some time to bang around in someone else’s rules and maybe see how an actual pro does it.

The system I’ll be hacking is Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition. I’ve read through the 4E rules, and am very familiar with D&D rules in general, but always disliked using miniature combat in general, and my affection for 3.5/Pathfinder was too great to be shook by a new edition (at least, until friends from my gaming group ranted and raved about 5th Edition).

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Now, inspired by some reddit posts of other people who’ve taken to hacking Fourth Edition, I’m going to take a crack at it myself. Hopefully, this project won’t consume too terribly much time (when compared to a full game designed from scratch), and should be pretty fun.

Step one to this process is rereading the rules for Fourth Edition. Taking a deep dive into how the actual game functions, and reading them with hacking in mind, is an obvious first step. See what I don’t like, see what I do, and generally try to piece together what the rules are lending themselves to, what situations the rules seem built to push sessions to, and what mood the rules evoke.

With that knowledge in tow, the next step is to figure out a plan. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t want to keep the setting wholesale, since I already have a perfectly good game for playing D&D, and that’s D&D. Whether that means I’ll turn it into some other type of fantasy (perhaps some Warhammer-style grimdark, or something a bit more cutthroat and in the shadows), or maybe I’ll turn it into something completely different.

Given that the rules set I’ll be working with is D&D, the third step will most likely be the construction of classes. 4th Edition is very class-focused, giving each class unique paths and abilities, so redefining those classes will be the easiest way to make significant changes to the game. Classes define what the major roles players can take on will be, what players will be doing, and what sort of stories the game will facilitate.

With that, the fourth, and biggest step, is to go at the rules themselves, and make the changes as I see fit to match the vision. I don’t 100% know to what extent these changes will be made, since I don’t know what they are yet, but the more extreme the setting change, the greater the mechanical changes will be, more than likely, although I don’t want to get too far away from the original rules. Generally thinking, I believe my policy will be to try and keep everything that I can, and making minimum possible modifications to the actual rules, only changing what I need to.

Once that’s done, the “last” step is to playtest. The reason I say “last” is that playtesting and modification of the rules will probably go hand in hand, with multiple repetitions of each in a cyclical fashion, as playtesting informs rules modifications and rules modifications demand playtesting.

I think modifying tabletop RPGs is a really interesting idea, and very easy to do. After all, all you need is a word processor. With this project, I’m looking forward to the idea of taking an established game and making it something new.

The Plight of the Noble Fighter

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Has any traditional RPG class suffered as much indignity as the humble Fighter? Defined literally as “one who fights”, the Fighter doesn’t get cool magic spells or deities to entreat, or even zen-like bodily focus or bloodthirsty rage. The Fighter just hits stuff with weapons until they die.

It’s sort of a definitional problem, in that the Fighter is, by nature, supposed to be a non-magical, tactical melee warrior. The Fighter is a mercenary, a samurai, a soldier, someone who knows their way around a battlefield and is defined more by their tactics than by any special abilities.

The problem lies therein: tactics are defined by player activity, not by any sort of in-game ability. Fighting with tactics in mind just means to fight smart, and ultimately that’s up to the player to use the mechanics of the game in an intelligent and effective matter, which isn’t really something you can put in an ability box.

Just look at the description of the Fighter class in Pathfinder. Given less than two pages in the book (compared to the Barbarian, who gets about double that) the Fighter’s Class Features are about as boring as they can be. Get a bonus feat. Get a bonus when using certain weapons. Get a bonus on Will saves against Fear. Not a lot of really cool options here, you can just do a bunch of stuff you could do slightly better.

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Behold the greatest Fighter in the land, for only he is 5% better at landing Critical Hits than everyone else.

5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons sorta fixes this. The Fighter gets three Archetypes, each offering their own boons, but the options still aren’t great. Champions get small bonuses to things they could already do, and their first interesting ability, Survivor, which lets them regenerate hit points, comes at level eighteen. Eldritch Knights are just Magic Fighters, but if I wanted to play a Magic Fighter, I’d play a damn Paladin.

That leaves us with the Battle Master, the Archetype of the Fighter I’m currently playing in my 5E campaign. I feel like the Battle Master is so close to being an interesting Fighter. Battle Masters get a pool of dice called superiority dice, as well as a pool of maneuvers, much like how spellcasters get spell slots. Using one of these maneuvers expends one of your superiority dice (which come back on rests), and lets you do cool things like counterattack after a missed attack against you, or disarm a foe.

This solves the problem of giving Fighters new, interesting things to do in combat with their Class Options, but it does so in an arbitrary manner. Why does doing one of these maneuvers cost a resource? What, in-game, do these superiority dice represent? Tiredness? That can’t be, because even with all of them expended I can still fight normally for hours. Also, how come I can only memorize a few maneuvers? You can’t just swap them out every rest like spellcasters can with their spell slots, you’re basically stuck with your picks for the long haul, meaning that my tactical swordsman who is a master of the parry and riposte doesn’t know how to taunt an enemy.

This leads to the fundamental problem of the maneuvers: they’re not adding new options, they’re just taking away a bunch of options you used to have and saying “no, now these are special Class Options”. All of a sudden, my Fighter can’t attempt to disarm a foe unless I have the special “Disarming Attack” maneuver. You’ve taken control over my own tactics out of my hands and locked them away inside the rules. I now need special Class Options to do something that arguably any human being with a sword could at least try to do.

There are games that do some interesting things with the Fighter archetype. Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed has a class called the Unfettered, which functions more like a Dexterity-based Fighter, or even a bit of a Rogue, and is heavily focused on dodging over attacking. An Unfettered gets to add its Intelligence modifier to its AC, allowing it to parry melee, then ranged, and eventually magical attacks, as well as gaining the Rogue’s Sneak Attack. While this is still just “you can do stuff that you could do before, just better”, the difference between the Unfettered and the Pathfinder/3.5E Fighter is that the Unfettered’s bonuses are focused on a single goal: maneuvering. The Unfettered’s ability to be hard to touch allows the player to take on riskier plays and positions, ultimately opening up the sort of tactics they can successfully act on in combat, giving them more, interesting choices.

Dungeon Crawl Classics has a similar mechanic to the Battle Master of 5E, where Warriors can choose to undertake “Mighty Deeds of Arms”, which are essentially identical to the maneuvers of 5E: declare a Mighty Deed, be it a disarm, a blinding attack, a defensive maneuver, or what have you, roll a special Deed die, and see how you did. The key difference is that DCC doesn’t arbitrarily limit the number of Deeds you can do as a Warrior: you can just sort of do them all the time. This allows the Warrior to be constantly performing these cool combat tricks. Sure, it still has the problem of artificially constraining these sorts of generic moves to Warriors (actually, Dwarves can do them too), but that’s far more fitting of an OSR game like DCC, where only Thieves can sneak and Dwarves don’t get to be Wizards.

I think the key here is that these solutions always give Fighters a set of interesting decisions that are unique to them. When you just give Fighters flat stat bonuses, you’re not giving them any new decisions to make, you’re just tweaking the odds of the ones they already have. When you give Fighters a small list of maneuvers they can do a few times, you give them a few extra decisions, but not a ton (not helping is the fact that a decent portion of the 5E maneuvers are reactionary, making them not tied to active decisions at all), and in the end they’re not nearly as potent as other limited-use abilities, like spells.

And that, I think, is the revelation. Fighters are never going to be able to do things as flashy and game-changing as spellcasters. If you don’t give them anything cool to do, they’re going to feel like picking a Fighter is a mistake from the start. If you give them some cool new options, but restrict them like spellcasters (who do need limitations, lest they break the game), they’ll still feel impotent. If you can’t have a Fighter do amazing things, have Fighters do things all the time. Let players who want to revel in the mundane combat of your RPG get access to the deepest and knitty-gritty combat your game has to offer.

 

Arguing Usefully About Games

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Wow, school takes a lot more time than I thought. If you’re seeing this post, though, it means that I’ve built up a nice reservoir of content for this blog, and you should be seeing a regular stream of posts once more.

But, in the meanwhile, something happened to me recently that inspired me to write a post. I was at the bar the other day when I got into an argument with one of the regulars about games, specifically Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor. I had brought up the game as an example of a good game with bad boss battles (a point I’ve hammered to death before), but the regular relented, saying that Shadows of Mordor was “a piece of shit” and “the worst game of that year”.

“No it wasn’t,” I relented. “Tons of awful games came out that year.” For reference, Shadows of Mordor came out in 2014, the same year as Rambo: The Video GameSonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, and The Letter, a Wii U horror game mostly constructed of assets stolen from the Unity Store. No use, however, as the argument quickly hit a stone wall.

What I realized early on, and tried to get across, was that the argument this particular fellow was making wasn’t “Shadows of Mordor was the worst game of 2014″, it was “Shadows of Mordor was the game I had the least fun playing in 2014″. While that second point is far more watertight than the first, it also doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a useful metric by which to judge someone’s taste for games, but you can’t really argue it. There’s nothing useful to be gained by trying to prove it right or wrong, and we were both fools for doing so.

There’s a greater point to be made here, one which applies to a lot of domains, not just video games, but one that needs to be made nonetheless: liking or disliking a game is different than the game being good or bad. In fact, “good” and “bad” are extremely vaguely defined metrics that mean totally different things to different people. They could refer to the quality of the visuals, the story, the controls, the gameplay, the level design, the character design, basically anything. All of those metrics are inherently biased, of course, although that bias usually matters around the threshold between satisfactory and unsatisfactory, with extremes tending to invoke unanimous decisions (no matter your definition of “good visuals”, you’d probably be willing to say that Bioshock Infinte looks pretty good, and Condemned: Criminal Origins looks pretty bad).

However, the weights people give to these different aspects of games vary greatly, thus rendering all of them fairly irrelevant in trying to define a universal definition for “good” or “bad”. Ultimately, what most people would consider the metric is “Did I value my time spent with the game?” or, for a more narrow view, “Is this game any fun?”

Herein lies the problem: this measure is completely personal, and there’s no way to argue between two of them. You can’t say that your enjoyment of a game is so great that it nullifies someone’s non-enjoyment. You can’t even say that a majority’s non-enjoyment nullifies a small minority’s enjoyment. Ultimately, two people are going to have two different says as to if a game is good or not, and thus, the measures of “good” and “bad” frankly don’t even exist. They’re just shorthand for “I liked it” and “I didn’t like it”, respectively.

However, this isn’t to say that one can’t argue about the quality of games, it just means you need to realize something about argument. In instances like this, the point of argument is not to change the other person’s mind. That’s impossible. You can’t invalidate someone else’s experiences. In this case, an argument has a different use, a very valuable second use that most people forget an argument can have: it forces you to explore, elaborate, and evaluate your own stance.

It’s really easy to form an opinion about things, especially games. You play it, you decide it’s good or bad, and you move on. When you argue about those opinions with other people, it forces you to really consider why you feel like a game is good or bad. Having to put your ideas to words really makes you think them through. Why is Titanfall‘s movement system so good? What about the dialogue in Battleborn made you not like it? Explaining these sentiments to others in a way that makes them understand usually has you think through opinionated statements in a way you never do otherwise, in a way that you can’t take them for granted.

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For the record, the reason I like Titanfall’s movement is that wall-riding is bitchin’, and I like to play games which present interesting decisions in movement and map design (it’s also why I play Roadhog in Overwatch).

Saying your opinions out loud is also a really good way to figure out if they’re stupid or not. I went through a phase in my youth where I would vehemently argue that Call of Duty was a bad series of bad games, and would frequently get into shouting matches about it with my much more level-headed friend (who I now deeply sympathize with). The arguments went something like this:

“They’re terrible games! They don’t innovate at all!”

“Why would they innovate on the gunplay? It’s really good!”

“Well, yeah, but it’s boring!”

“I think it’s interesting.”

“It’s just the same boring war setting every time!” (This was around Modern Warfare 2)

“It’s a genre. Plenty of the games you like take place in the same fantasy or sci-fi setting every time.”

“Nuh-uh, there are little nuances and changes that only the real fans of the genre wold appreciate.”

*Stares at me with a knowing and disappointed look*

At that point, I felt pretty stupid. I didn’t relent, because I’m stubborn and arguing is a fun way to kill some time, but I pretty much realized at that point that my reasons for not liking Call of Duty were pretty flaccid. I’m still not the biggest fan of the series, but I have a far more moderate mindset as to why (I just don’t like to play games that railroad-y), and wouldn’t get into such a heated argument about it anymore.

This is the true use of arguing about games: it makes you understand the mindset, likes, and dislikes of players, including yourself, to a much greater degree than if they just explained it. When people feel like they need to defend their arguments, they will strengthen their points with concrete details and reasoning, and focus on what they believe are their strongest insights, which gives you greater understanding of what they value in games, what they pay attention to. Similarly, when someone goes after your arguments in an aggressive manner, they poke holes in your reasoning and find hypocrisies that you would never have noticed before, forcing you to think about why item X is a negative in this setting but not another, or why you’ve been reasoning in this faulty way, or even maybe how you’ve been going about this game in a way contradictory to how the game wants you to go.

The most crucial observation, however, more important than every other one, is to not take it personally. Never attack the other person, just their points, and never misinterpret a criticism of one’s logic as an insult. Think of an argument as a training match between two boxers. Your goal is to improve your own technique and your partner’s, and to both grow in the process. You can’t win a training fight. If you’re looming over your partner while they’re down on the mat with a bloody nose, you didn’t win. You’re just an asshole.