Episode 135: Slug Stores

This month, Mike and Roger consider how to do character sheets right, and ponder the future of generic systems.

We mentioned:

Apocalypse World, Call of Cthulhu 7e character sheet, RuneQuest AIG character sheet, RuneQuest Starter Pack handouts, QuestWorlds (formerly HeroQuest), Risus, Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Index Card RPG, The Mountain Witch, GURPS, GURPS Thaumatology, Nephilim, FATE, Prime Time Adventures, Monsterhearts, GUMSHOE. Amazing Engine, BRP, Savage Worlds, Hero System, Starfinder,

Here’s our tip jar. (Please email or leave a comment as well; they don’t always tell me when money’s gone in.)

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.

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I very often make my own character sheets for my PCs because
a) I find it fun
b) I can organize it the way I want and include the information I need and not include the information I don’t care about.

One of the things that I never include is a place for player name. I know my own name. I don’t fully understand why this is included on character sheets. I can only justify it if

  1. The GM keeps all character sheets and doesn’t know the PC names
  2. You lose the character sheet on the street and hope someone finds it and gets it back to you.

I also never include campaign name because I don’t really care.

I like having a box for portrait because even seeing the portrait helps me play my character. The hard part is creating (or at least finding) the portrait.

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Savage Worlds does fantasy quite well and I’ve run long campaigns with it. It does the thing where a bow and a revolver and a magic bolt all do the same base damage and if someone wants more crunch and differentiation, they can go to GURPS. Edges and Hindrances are like GURPS Dis/Ads except they all cost the same. Savage Worlds does supers, but not to my satisfaction probably in the same way that supers doesn’t quite work in GURPS.

When I read Genesys, I saw many parallels with Savage Worlds to the point of losing my interest in Genesys.

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I’ve played a bit of Savage Worlds but the mechanics constantly irked me. The ease of building a charisma monster, the broken probability curves, the way numbers matter more in a battle than anything else because one of you can stun-lock someone so that they can never act. while the other one hits them. I mean, none of these breaks the system, it’s just extra friction.

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The stun lock issue has been mitigated in the recent editions and Charisma has changed as well. I’ve made it work for me and I can always to back to it, but I’m burned out on it at the moment.

The broken probability curve is overstated (and not as bad as other games). [For the uninitiated: Because of the way dice explode, it is easier to hit a target number of 6 with a d4 than a d6 (18.75% vs 16.67%). The difference is less pronounced with higher dice and higher target numbers. However, it is easier to get a raise (beat your target by 4 and you get extra benefits) when using d6 versus a d4. Besides, the defaut TN is 4. In other words, it is quirky, but not broken.]

Tomorrow, I’ll be starting a Fabula Ultima game. It is based on Ryuutama and has even more “broken” critical rules. Every roll involves 2 dice that can be d6, d8, d10, or d12; you add them and try to beat a target number (usually 7, 10, 13, or 16). You get a crit (automatic success and extra benefits) if you roll doubles of 6 or higher. It is easier to get a crit with d6+d6 than d6+d8, d6+d10, or d6+d12 (1/36 vs 1/48 vs 1/60 vs 1/72). However, your overall chance of success is better with bigger dice.

I spend way too much time thinking about this stuff.

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Savage Worlds is basically optimized for don’t-want-to-spend-all-night-fiddling-with-the-rules high action games. I get the sense that at multiple points the designers said, “Eh, close enough” and moved on to the next rule. Unfortunately, I was the least rules-lawyery person in the one game I ran of it, so it didn’t go over great.

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Relevant to design, I think among the greatest moments of sheer joy I’ve ever seen in gaming was when my players in oWoD games in undergrad spent XP and got to fill in more dots on their character sheets.

They managed to combine the joy of coloring and the joy of idealized personal advancement. Also the terrible memories of scantron tests.

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I’m not especially rules-lawyery personally (at least, I don’t think so) but my issue with Savage Worlds was that it sounded fun in principle but wasn’t that much fun to play - that is, the mechanics weren’t much fun to interact with. I may be old-fashioned and atypical but I actually rather enjoy the metagame of Dungeons and Dragons and many other RPGs… rolling dice and looking up things on tables doesn’t feel like a chore to me. Anyway, my experience of Savage Worlds was generally ‘Failed - I’ll spend a benny. Failed again - spend another benny. Failed again - I’ll… oh. How do we get more bennies?’

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I like light systems up to a point, and that point is where the system backs away and says “eh, just make it up”. If I were just making it up I wouldn’t need the rules.

(Thinking of FATE, one possibly unfair impression I get is:

“I do [hugely complicated thing interacting with backstory and world detail]”. “OK, you get +2.”
“I, er, lend a hand.” “OK, you get +2.”

)

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In the case of the Shaken rules, the current iteration of Savage Worlds is “Failed – I’ll spend a Bennie. Done, I’m no longer Shaken and can take my turn.”

I was talking more generally, really. Most important rolls seemed to end up in that sort of space. Personal choice, I suspect, but I didn’t enjoy the mechanics. I always enjoy roleplaying, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t want to interact with the rules - sometimes it’s fun to roll on an insanity table, however unrealistic it is, or to pick up a tonne of dice when I let loose a fireball, or to critically fail. I just didn’t get that satisfaction from Savage Worlds, in a way that I have from Genesys, as a similar ‘light’ system… but at this point I think I’m simply expressing my personal tastes rather than making a useful argument.

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No system is truly generic. No system can capture any mode, style, or tone of play. Good systems can find wide applicabilty across many genres and types of adventures/stories, but what the system chooses to highlight or gloss over remains consistent.

Most systems are built around a core mechanic of:

  1. Player – I want to do this thing.
  2. Game Designer – This is how you do the thing.
  3. GM – Based on the rules (including this randomizer), you did (or didn’t) do the thing.
    Everything else about the system is how one does the thing. Some systems put a lot of focus on the framing of the thing. Others capture detail on the versimilitude of the outcome. Some have different sub-systems for different things you might do because it’s “fun.”

The lighter the rules, the easier step #2 is. The lighter and smoother the system, there is a danger of the game system losing character–that spark that makes the resolution engaging.

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Oh that’s a much better way of expressing what I was trying to say, thank you.

Yeah, a problem I also have with QUESTWORLDS. I think you’re supposed to fill the embarassing gaps with narration, something I find easier with BLADES IN THE DARK for some reason.

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Crime is easy to imagine?

It may be that the restriction of the theme of the game makes it easier to use. I don’t have the same sense of the kinds of things that can happen in the non-specific systems like QUESTWORLD and GENESYS. Which may be another reason generic systems are less popular now.

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I suspect generic systems are less popular because there is less need for them now. Back in the mists of time (the 80s) our gaming club first hacked BRP then adopted GURPS to enable us to play all the genres and settings which either:

  • Didn’t have a game dedicated to them (now there is probably a metric tonne of games for every subgenre).
  • Had a game, but none of us had ever laid eyes on it. For instance we’d heard of TSR’s wild west RPG Boot Hill but if a physical copy ever reached the north-east of Scotland, I never saw it.
  • Had a game, but it was a sucky system. Aftermath RPG combat system, I’m looking at you here.

These days, if you want an RPG about garden vegetables fighting crime and one actually exists, then the internet will find it for you and it can be yours faster than a speeding download.
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/20710/The-Veggie-Patch

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One of the key design reasons for GURPS, according to Steve Jackson at the time, was avoiding the “Fantasy Games Unlimited” problem of every game having a slightly or markedly different system, requiring new rules (or exceptions / alterations to existing rules) to be learnt in order to play a different genre. Aren’t we back in that FGU situation now with the avalanche of specific systems?

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Yeah, but those systems are much simpler. I think that’s the real key: nobody’s asking you to learn Chivalry & Sorcery when you switch to a new campaign now, they’re asking you to learn The Mountain Witch or Airship Pirates.

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Perhaps it’s distance from the wargaming roots.

No one is asking for unity of system because the idea of competition across or portability across tables doesn’t have a direct analogue anymore.

From what I’ve read and my hazy memories of the 1980’s the idea of moving a player from one table to another was more analogous to moving a unit from one table to another. Or at least there was a more recent legacy of thinking of it that way.

What with virtual tabletops now, groups seem even more locked in as social entities players belong to rather than there being a market of tables for players to compete across. Which twinned with tournament play always seemed a strange relic to me.

Summarizing for maybe further discussion here:

  • Systems seem less complex so less pressure for generic system because the time savings from knowing a generic system are less advantageous.

  • No one is trying to take a character from Joe’s game to Sam’s game and to the regional tourney like a wargaming unit.

  • It’s easier to play with a group for longer because social media and video conferencing mean it’s less costly to maintain the connection to a group from five years ago as compared to 30 years ago graduating from schools or moving towns. So less pressure on system familiarity as a qualifier to integrate at a new table.

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