Episode 136: The City is Like a Woman, and She Wants Her Alimony

This month, Roger and Mike consider system choice and system mastery, and look at Mike’s new Blades in the Dark campaign.

We mentioned:

Fiasco at the Bundle of Holding (until 16 April), our original comments on this offer, Ken and Robin talking about Renfields, Roger and Nick talking about Renfield (2023), Dragnet, A Long Way to Way to a Small Angry Planet, Steve Jackson’s Designer’s Notes for Man to Man, Earthdawn, Exalted, Food Chain Magnate, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, Monsterhearts Dramasystem, Good Society, Powered by the Apocalypse, RuneQuest Unknown Armies, FATE, Primeval (the series Roger couldn’t remember), the official Alien RPG, FUDGE, Blades in the Dark, It Came From The Late Late Late Show, Dick Barton, and King of the Rocket Men.

We have a tip jar (please tell us how you’d like to be acknowledged on the show).

Please use the discussion forum at discussion.tekeli.li rather than commenting below.

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


This is about Michael’s comment about the two types of games and (many) modern games being more constrained. I’m one sentence in and I can already tell that this will be a bit long and rambly.

I do not think that there are two types but I definitely see a spectrum of game designs with some games being very open-ended in their design (Fudge) and others being very constrained (Mountain Witch). This spectrum has always existed, but “professional grade” game publishing and the ability of games to reach an audience has gotten so much easier that it is easier to pick examples from today or the recent past than from three or four decades ago.

Games like GURPS, BRP, and Savage Worlds provide a framework and toolkits for building a campaign. By the nature of the specific game mechanics, a campaign run with one system won’t have the same feel as the same campaign run using a different system. However, the details of the setting, the campaign’s premise, who the PCs are, and what the PCs are expected to do will be the same. The game system can shift the tone of a campaign, but the themes would remain largely unchanged.

Games like Blades in the Dark, Monsterhearts, and Dogs in the Vineyard, provide the setting and clearly outline what the campaign is about. They also make a deliberate attempt to tie the game mechanics into who the PCs are and what they are expected to do (and not do). You can run a campaign about a gang of ne’er do wells doing crimes in a city of perpetual darkness using practically any system, but it won’t have the same feel as BitD (at least in theory—there is always a fudge factor in how the game is actually run and played versus how the game was intended to be run and played).

Games like D&D, Traveller, and Mutants & Masterminds do not come with a built-in campaign in mind. Sure, you can purchase a campaign for it, but that is separate and optional. They are not fully generic—there are expectations about who the PCs are and what they will be doing—but no one would call them constrained. My examples are tied to a specific genre, but people have adopted these systems to other genres (with varying degrees of success).

Have game systems gotten simpler and/or more constrained? I don’t know how to measure it. There have always been simple systems and more complex systems. Do we look at the number of games published? That opens up a huge can of worms. Do we go by market share? Then we might as well just look at D&D (which has gotten simpler, but I would not call it a simple system). I think we have to remember that we are a self-selected subset of rpg fandom and should be wary of any broad statements about gaming trends.


One confounding factor that I didn’t have time to explore: some “simpler” systems are just as complex as “complex” systems but they put that complexity into e.g. detailed rules on what narrative goals you have to achieve before you can expand your base, rather than how 9mm bullets interact with layered Kevlar. Which means the question of real-world fact-checking largely goes away, but the actual manipulation of numbers can be just as fiddly.


Also, so-called simple systems often just defer decisions to GMs rather than have explicit rules about the situation. For this reason, the simplest systems can be the most draining to run. See Amber Dicess Roleplaying Game. The book has very few game mechanics and is mostly GM advice.


This is why I get edgy about the simplest systems. If everything is going to fall back on “the GM decides”, or indeed “the players decide together”, then we might as well just sit down and collaborate on a story.


The other component I thought I was hearing was whether a system has bounded or unbounded set of actions.

Like if the setting of BitD is interesting enough to a group after one round as ne’er do wells and now they want to play researchers. If the system is analogous to a set of CRPG menu options (attack, spell, item, run) rather than a resolution mechanic (3d6 where are you on the bell curve) then it makes sense to me that could feel like a limitation of the design.

It makes sense to me that there’s a scale of system offering opportunity to resolve anything, system facilitating a type of play by focusing on particular actions, and system dictating a type of play.

That far end of system dictating a type of play by constraint of player action choice does seem like a move away from the activities of rpgs as distinct from board games or CRPGs or war games.

Makes me think about earlier discussions of En Garde and where it landed in the development of the hobby.

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There has also been an explosion of rpg boardgames (Gloomhaven, et al.) which hold no interest to me at all but also fit somewhere in this spectrum.

I mentioned above how games define (or not) what PCs are expected to do, but there is also a question of what the players are expected to do.

  • Think tactically about how to defeat enemies and challenges
  • Plan out (as in a writer’s room) how the game/story will progress
  • Narrate what is happening in the story (including flashbacks)
  • Describe what your character is doing in the scene (or combat round)
  • Speaking in-character to NPCs and other PCs
    And so on. The less time spent on that last item, the less fun I am having at the game table.

Bounded actions definitely feel more boardgamey (to me the classic is probably Descent ,but there’s GW’s HeroQuest too of course)

There’s been a little chat on Mastodon recently about RPGs with no combat at all, and I think very few would do it well; I’d reach for GURPS because of its huge array of social skills and personality-affecting traits; one could make a case for Primetime Adventures or DramaSystem, but IME those tend to break when you want more detailed resolution than “I do/don’t get what I want from this scene” (which for their primary purpose is probably fair enough).

One system that Mike did not mention he was considering that I thought he might is Reign 2nd Edition. ISTR he has mentioned previously having backed the Kickstarter for it lo these many moons ago, and it is now out, with the physical copies having been sent earlier this year. It may be worth considering, especially with the core rules now separated from the setting.

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Do you mean the rules do not support combat or that the scenario (or even the entire campaign) has no combat? I can easily imagine a Cthulhu-themed game (or any mystery-based game) with no combat.

The plan was to set up a campaign with the metarule that there wouldn’t be any combat in it. So the game rules could support it, but that part of things wouldn’t ever be used.

Obviously you could do this in anything, but what you have left when you strip the combat out of D&D/Pathfinder isn’t much.

I came across an interview on THE GROGNARD FILES with Marc Miller in which he talked about early days at GDW and described EN GARDE as the game they played on a Friday Night with whoever turned up. He said it was a game without any campaign elements: you played whoever the dice rolled up for you, one week the Duke everyone was defferring to, the next the proverbial Bastard Son Of A Peasant. Sort of like THE GREAT DALMUTI writ large.

Personally I think face-to-face EN GARDE would work best as a one day event in the background of a games convention.


I did consider REIGN for my next game and one day soon I’m going to have to run it again. But it went better with my Wednesday night group than with my Monday night group who found the ORE to be hard to get their heads around and somewhat difficult to get anything done with.

Also I couldn’t use with the ‘Exiles from a Mountain Village’ idea unless they took the whole village with them down into the valleys. Which would be a very different game. (And reminiscent of the Just-Off-The-Boat opening for EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE which I would love to run with REIGN if only someone else would do the adaptation of the magic.)

I will see if Roger feels like doing a review of the new REIGN.

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That’s understandable then - you definitely don’t want to go forcing your group to play with a rule set you know they don’t get on with.

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Co-incidentally to this episode, I too have started work on a fantasy adventure and had to decide on a system. I came down to Reign 2e or Fudge, and ended up going with the latter, mainly because it has been quite a long time since I have used it. I used Fantasy Fudge from the 10th Anniversary edition, but drastically cut down the skill list (it’s very 90s with its extensive skill lists). I think this makes character creation easier for the players and running the game easier for me.

So far it has been working well for me and my group.


Given SOS’s history and the Fudge skill list, Fudge could be considered a derivative of GURPS. :smirk:
Personally, I don’t like Fate, but I like it’s skill list and use it for Fudge. As with Castle Falkenstein, I like having a condensed list of skills with no attributes.


I reckon that game rules are for when I can’t decide, or when I don’t want to decide, or when I don’t want the outcome to be or seem like a decision or choice. So systems that assign the power or responsibility of choice rather than determining an outcome fail me at the only point where I need them, and are not satisfactory to me.


My brother said something about Blades in the Dark which chimed with me: it feels like a Play By Mail RPG not a tabletop RPG. All those tick boxes and trackers and faction rankings…

And I thought, yeah, it seems to be a game where the GM has to show their working. For instance, in a Vampire game, you learn the Nosferatu love you all to bits and the Prince is a bit miffed at you. In BitD you get told that but also told the Tier 4 Nosferatu are +2 and the Tier 5 Prince is -1. As a GM of Hack the Planet I found those trackers (and faction clocks) very useful. However, as a player of Blades… I don’t care what the numbers are.

Also me and my brother are being penalised by the xp system for not being dicks (either in character or in real life). We roleplayed the sensible action of lurking in wait at the top of the stairs to ambush a guard if/when they came up. But that ambush never happened because Roger distracted the guards with ghostly stuff, so we get zero xp for the mission. Because our characters mainly get xp for violence.

The Tier thing is also guilty of shutting down options. Normal RPG – you can’t take on Darth Vader because he’s much harder than you in a fight, but you can take on 8 stormtroopers because they are rubbish. In BitD those stormtroopers are part of Vader’s faction, which is a higher Tier than you are, so you’ll get your arse handed to you by the stormtroopers… Or at least that’s how the Tier thing makes it feel.


For what it’s worth, I’d have been quite happy if it had meant they were distracted and on edge so you got a bonus in your ambush. But I didn’t think of it in time, and helping someone else is a different mechanic.


This really sounds like mechanics over complicating the story?