Musings about what I do/don't want from an RPG system

As we are approaching the season of Bah! Humbug! I thought I’d try to get my curmudgeonly musings about what I’m prepared to put up with in RPGs these days. This is mainly from the perspective of me as GM, but there will be observations about stuff I’ve played over the past few years. Having nothing but online games for a big chunk of pandemic has increased my grounchiness by an order of magnitude.

1: No Crunch!
Good Grud Above, but I’m sick of crunchy games. I dislike them as a player and I’ve come to utterly loathe them as a GM. I want a system which is… You shoot them. They take damage. If they were wearing body armour the damage is less. If you aimed before you shot, you’ll have a better chance to hit. End of.

Playing WH40K Dark Heresy at the moment and all the pointless complications about this weapon is rending and that one has penetration, and that other one is balanced, whilst this one here is reliable. This beastie can resist this type of damage and that beastie is immune to that one. When I try to hit the beastie I get +10 for Thing or Situation A, -20 for B, +10 for C, +30 for D, -10 for E, etc etc. Aaaaaaaaargh!

Compared to games of yore, like Phoenix Command or Aftermath, WH40K has hardly any crunch at all. But it is still too much crunch for me.

2: No grindy combats.
Combat should be fast. If it takes 30 minutes to run a combat, that’s too long. If it takes a whole session - or worse more than one session - to run a combat, I’m bored and frustrated as a player. Get. On. With. It. (WH40K and Scion I’m looking at you here).

As a GM, combat grind is not why I run games.

3: I’m sick of having to run party NPCs in combats.
Because pandemic, most of the games I’ve been running have 3 players. Which means 2 when someone can’t make it. I got into the, in retrospect, stupid rut of boosting the party numbers by having some NPCs tag along with them. While that’s great for RP opportunities, plot hooks and plugging a skill gap if no-one wants to be the medic or the ship’s engineer, it is a pain in the backside if I have to run them as well as all the bad guy NPCs when the party gets into a fight.

It is a pain in the backside of a different sort if I hand them over to the players to run in combats. Partly
because then they have to be fully statted up, instead of just being Martin the Medic with 70% in First Aid. But they can’t have spoilery stuff on the char sheet. “Hey, Martin the Medic has ‘owes money to the space mafia’ on his sheet”. And what happens if I had a whole chunk of plot planned around Martin and the space mafia, but the player running them managed to fumble a roll and get them eaten by the ravenous bugblatter beast of Traal during a combat?

I resolve from now on not to let parties have fighty shooty NPCs. Except in systems where the presence of allied NPCs is represented by a game mechanic which states something along the lines of: add +1d6 to your dice pool for every ally who has your back in the fight.

4: No chapters and chapters of talents, feats, special abilities, spells, superpowers, etc etc.
I’m not so bothered if my players have a bunch of this stuff sprinkled all over their character sheets, just so long as they are the ones who are keeping track of what it does and don’t keep asking me to look up the rules for when they can/can’t use Expert Swordsman and what bonuses it gives, and does it stack with Pointy Thing Mastery and Fight Like A Girl.

But I don’t want to have to keep track of all this bollocks for NPCs (Vampire 5th ed and Werewolf the Apocalypse and Firefly I’m looking at you here). And it is a nightmare for games where not everyone owns a copy of the rulebook. Especially during character gen. And especially in online games whenever someone wants to spend xp.

5: I should be able to produce a short and sweet cheat sheets for my players.
Ideally on one side of A4 (even if it has to be in size 10 font). Maybe 2 sides if they need a list of things they can spend story points on.

I ended up with a 12 page (in size 10 font) cheat sheet for Vampire 5th ed. :roll_eyes: See complicated lists and crunch, above.

6: The game mechanics should make the PCs awesome.
They should have decent skill levels in the things their character is supposed to be good at. The medic should have First Aid 80% not 20%. The sniper should have shooting the crap out of things 85% not 25%.

They should have story points (or a similar mechanic) that they can spend for extra dice or re-rolls or the like. Those should either be really abundant or decently powerful. Like Dr Who gives you 12 story points, and you can spend them for extra dice or to turn a failure into “I’ve just succeeded by the skin of my teeth”. Or Cortex Prime lets you spend to roll an extra dice to add to your total.

Systems which are stingy with story points or only give them weak effects need not apply.

7: No-one should be sitting around bored during starship combat.
Any game where only the pilot and the gunner get anything to do can fek right off. A game that claims the engineer will have lots to do but every round is just a variant on “Do you want to heal the damage the shields took last round?” can fek right off too.

Thoughts? What are your deal breakers and wants list for a system? Has the pandemic gaming experience changed that?


I want lightness and consistency. I want quick combat and not much in the way of special modifiers, but at the same time I still want big fast rifle bullets to hurt more than small slow pistol bullets. I want character generation to be quick but to produce a character who isn’t like all the other characters in that niche. I want the moon on a stick.

I have recently been running a GURPS Dungeon Fantasy game in which the combat is much of the point – but the players know that going in.

Possibly heresy: I’m not sure we really need blow-by-blow combat any more than we need blow-by-blow forgery or stealth or persuasion. Zoom out a bit, model a quick exchange of shots or blows rather than worrying about exact positioning and sequence of events, and a realistic combat will probably be over after that anyway.

Which may help the NPC-vs-NPC problem too.

“Story points” can be in-game: I’m trying a bit harder at this at the cost of tiring myself out because I think it’s really important that I succeed. I think Warhammer is traditionally “you’re a bit rubbish”, but the days of starting at first level and earning your way up are gone. See letters in early White Dwarf where people are outraged at the idea that someone joining a 10th level campaign should just be handed a 10th level character…

The old Star Trek Starship Combat Simulator is not terrible for giving people things to do. Engineer allocates power between movement/weapons/shields, tac officers try for sensor locks, shield controllers balance shields, helmsmen move, gunners fire, damage control tries to fix stuff. GURPS Spaceships does that a bit.


If you like space themed games, I highly recommend the West End Games Star Wars d6 based rpg. Very quick simple system adding the SW theme to the d6 Space rules. The main core rulebook and sourcebook are available as reprints, and other sourcebooks and modules can be found on ebay and possible in digital formats too.


The combat rules are so low-grit that you can soak a lightsaber with stormtrooper armor

I really do like the WEG Star Wars d6 system


I forgot the added factor that it was written in the mid 1980s - post Return of the Jedi but long long before the prequels. And with reskinning it could easily work with other space IPs such as Blake’s 7 or Space:1999.


I have the modern version of d6 Star Wars system in the form of the Summerland and the In Flames RPGs, which have the OGL version of it.

My favourite starship combat is Ashen Stars (Gumshoe), which is fast and abstracted. I once ran a session where the players fought in 3 separate space battles and still had tons of time for roleplay (they convinced some space pirates that they had defeated to join forces with them to take on a bigger enemy). In that 4 PCs are needed on the bridge - effectively Kirk, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov - all doing stuff. You are at a dice penalty if you take another action before everyone else has had their first one. The abstraction is that all 4 PCs are assumed to be doing their job every action, so if Kirk yells “Evasive manoeuvre 5! Fire photon torpedoes!” it is assumed that Chekov fires, Sulu steers, Uhura jams the enemy sensors even if it is just Kirk’s player rolling dice at that moment.
You don’t whittle down the other ship’s hit points or shields: you are trying to accumulate a target number of successes to achieve your goal. Like 12 to run away and make the jump to lightspeed or 18 to knock out their engines and board them.

I’ve thought of another deal breaker for me…

8: The system should support PCs being sneaky or clever (without the GM having to fudge it)
So if Lee Harvey Oswald lays his ambush and shoots President Kennedy, the President is dead. Oswald doesn’t have to shoot him another three times then charge down from the Book Depository and engage the President in a knife fight.

I was especially narked during an Only War game, when we PCs were on a space station with the mission of getting to the command centre, killing the bad guys and turning off the defences (so our reinforcements could dock). We got to a room directly below the command centre. The published scenario expects you to fight your way up the stairwells full of booby traps into the machine gun nests. Instead, I stood on a table and stuck all our explosives on the ceiling.

The GM let us blow a huge hole in the command centre… but the big bad that fell through it didn’t seem at all fazed that it had been blown up then plummeted down, so we still had a loooong grindy fight against it. And none of the machines or techs who ran the defences had been damaged enough to stop working. We had to climb up there and press buttons to switch it off.

It’s really, really, really annoying when you think of something clever and practical and effective, but the game system just pisses all over it. And to a certain extent the GM, because he could have just said “Yeah you kill it” or “yeah it is stunned for a couple of rounds - have some free attacks” rather than calculating we’ve done 20 points of damage but it still has a squillion left so there is no game effect.


I think attritional damage is a consideration here – if the basic reality modelling says “this foe has 47 hit points” then things which don’t do clearly-delineated hit points will be more work for the GM to consider. My feeling is that most people most of the time when they take painful levels of damage tend to stop fighting well before their lives are at risk; but most RPGs ignore morale (because “you can’t tell me what my character does” maybe?), and many ignore non-fatal injury, and let everyone keep going until they’ve bled out.


I look for consistency as well. I think that may be the most important core.

Like with d6 Star Wars, I very much prefer the version without a wild die.

I want a system to be free from a battle map. A lot of times systems add movement rules that exceed a battlemap size and that drives me up the wall (haha). Like how champions speedsters or the keyblade master I made for savage worlds can sometimes just circle the entire battlemap to go four squares away because, what the hell, they’ve got that movement and may as well do something silly with it if they can’t do anything useful with it.

From there I look for a transparent action economy. I want this for two reasons. First I do not want a player to be surprised. Casting times can be a particular sticking point here. Don’t build a separate action economy for physical combat and magic and then try and run them simultaneously. Second I want to be able to easily run split scenes.

One of the most freeing things to me of TTRPG is the theatre of the mind aspect. I want, and I find players to want, more scenes like Rogue One, Fifth Element, or Last Crusade in which different folks in different places can be advancing a narrative together in their elements without having to cling the party together like the “multi armed blob” from the Might and Magic computer games.


These are often at odds. For the sake of discussion, I’ll define three different types of awesome: aesthetic, narrative, and mechanical.

Aesthetic awesomeness is firing a laser pistol from the back of a t-rex. It’s really no different than shooting from the back of a horse, but it looks cool “on screen.” It’s also all the cool-looking and special loot that you pick up in CRPGs and MMOs–they are awesome just because they look awesome. It doesn’t really apply here, but I thought I’d mention it.

Narrative awesomeness is when you describe your character doing something really awesome and cool, However, without the game mechanics to back them up, all that description can go for naught and just boils down to “ya, ya, whatever, just roll, here’s a bonus.”

Mechanical awesomeness is when the game has specific rules (talents, feats, powers, etc.) that do awesome things. This allows players who have mechanical bite to match their narration or to inspire the narrative when they can’t think of anything awesome. The danger here, of course, is that not only do end up with a laundry list of of special abilities to exploit, but they can cause the narration to take a back seat with players just invoking game rules.

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The real problem is the players. Or rather, if the GM thinks of something clever and practical and effective, and does an insta-kill on a PC from a book depository, there might very well be a mutiny. Some players like this kind of thing, but I doubt it would be fun for most. So the game mechanics make it difficult to on PCs and this translates into making it difficult to do against NPCs (at least the named, “boss” NPCs) unless you add in rules for minions.

And on the other side, I know someone who describes GURPS combats as “hermetically sealed” – if A and B are having a swordfight over here, and C and D are having one at the other end of the deck, A won’t be able to move to help C before C’s fight is over.

I try to avoid too much rules-talk, because my mode of immersion is damaged by it. I’d rather say “I’ll try extra hard” than “I’ll spend a story point”.


I’m also compensating there for my personal damage from playing White Wolf and Shadowrun in undergrad where the whole ball game was wrapped around getting as many actions in a turn as possible and folks enjoyment at the table was particularly affected by that bug/feature.

I think I’ve played too many games where the talents, feats etc don’t give mechanical awesomeness. They raise a mediocre character to almost competent. :slight_smile: Mainly because the game wants you to buy a chained series of talents before you are awesome. You have to buy Animal Ken (horses and dogs get +1 reaction rolls towards you), then the specialism Reptile Ken (komodos and alligators are at -1 to hit you), then the specialism Extinct Reptile Ken (paleontologists buy you drinks in bars), and only then can you buy the Were-T-rex power of being awesome.

I certainly felt that way when I started playing D&D 3.0. It seemed that the game was putting limitations on what you could do unless you bought into the feat chain that let you overcome the restrictions. On the other hand, some of those feat chains led to cool, awesome stuff.

If you have a game system that is meant to handle a variety of power levels (for example,150-point vs 400-point GURPS characters or Novice vs. Heroic Savage World characters), would you expect that all the awesome abilities to be available to the low-level characters? If so, what does being a high-level character provide? If you want characters to start with awesome abilities and not work their way through the chain, start them at a higher level and further down the chain.

Aside: One of my annoyances with D&D 5e is that it has characters choose Backgrounds. These define some of the skill proficiencies, starting gear, and a minor special ability tied to that background. However, the description of the backgrounds make the character sound far more experienced and competent than a 1st-level character actually is.

I think it depends on the genre, the type of story that everyone wants to tell, and the stakes of the scene. There is also an issue of timing and character spotlight.

Genre Example:
If the game was trying to emulate a martial arts movie and the scene was against a bunch of henchmen, then a few rolls probably suffice. There is also an assumption that the protagonists will win such a fight, so if you simply things too much, a bad die roll can throw off the story. In the boss fights, where the fight itself becomes a story-within-a-story, you want detail and nuance. Zooming out would be a grave disservice. And if the PC dies, you want to make sure it was “earned” rather than be a fluke of a small sample size of random numbers.

Skill rolls tend to involve the summary of a lot of individual steps and choices that take a certain amount of time, whether it is climbing a wall, picking a lock, persuading the bar tender to give you some intel, or fighting hand-to-hand. But once you throw a gun into the mix, the assumption is one pull of trigger = one skill roll. If you zoom out in a fight that combines melee and ranged attacks, the impedance mismatch may be jarring.

Assuming you have more than 1 PC involved in the fight and they aren’t all doing the same basic fighting tactics, zooming out robs them of their spotlight. If everyone is simply attacking with handheld weapons, then you can treat a troupe of PCs as you would a mob of NPCs. But if 2 PCs are in melee, one is sniping from cover, one is sneaking around the flank, and another is conjuring illusions to frighten and confuse the enemy, zooming out may be rather boring compared to letting everyone do their thing and playing it out.

I think you may have hit upon why I want to swoon with boredom (or at the very least retreat to the foyer and read a book) during the superhero punch ups in the ‘big team’ films. And therefore also in big boss fights in RPGs.

For the superhero movies it is because if there are 7 superheroes and 7 supervillains all going toe to toe, the fight just drags on and on and on. Because everyone has to have their own frakking story-within-a-story.

For the RPGs it is either the tabletop equivalent of the above (4 PCs versus 4 big bads) or all of you are fighting an uber-big bad, like the Hulk or Godzilla. The latter rarely has nuance or story-within-story in an RPG - it is largely grind, grind, grind. The former may or may not be a grind, depending on the system. The story-within-story often doesn’t work there due to game mechanics like initiative, and who has what weapons and a bit of metagaming. Like Mario the Mafia Boss might be my sworn enemy, but I as a player know that if we’re going to survive this fight we have to take out Sally the Sniper first. So I go first in initiative and target her, as does PC 2, sworn enemy of Harry the Henchman.

I think I want my fights to be like The Magnificent Seven (original version). The boss isn’t any more or any less killable than the regular bandits, it’s just the plot keeps him out of reach for the first few scenes of the final showdown.

And if the boss is Godzilla… there are no minions. He does all his stomping on Tokyo himself. He doesn’t outsource it to people with sledgehammers.


It’s almost always much more effective for PCs to team up and all attack bad guy A to knock them out of the fight quickly than to go each after their own targets, especially in a D&D-type system where you fight at something like full strength till you take enough damage.

(And yet, have the bad guys do it, and boy do the players whine.)


Been there, bought the t-shirt. See also players who want to be snipers (nigh invulnerable to attack, raining death from above), yet get upset when you throw a sniper against them.

There are many players who want a light, tactical miniatures-driven combat game with some roleplaying to stich it all together. To them, the fights are the main course and they want it to be (ful)filling. This is obviously not to everyone’s taste. The question is, can you take a combat-forward game system and run a roleplaying-forward campaign. Yes, you can, but when you eventually get to combat, do you want to use the standard rules or is there a streamlined combat option?

I like these discussions because they get to the heart of what is fun/important to you at the gaming table and what kind of game you want to play and the challenges associated when different players want different things out of the same game.


Having skimmed the thread and can’t see this mentioned elsewhere but have you tried any ptba?

Crunch is limited, and keys off what’s going on in the gameworld. You go to attack someone, then you use the directly engage move, if you want to work out an angle on a situation or evaluate options, you can just roll assess the situation.

Combat is keyed off conditions so it rarely takes time since you aren’t looking to wack an HP sink until it falls over.

Playbooks have all the player-facing rules in one place so you don’t need to worry about it. Applies to your point 5 as well.

Game mechanics as I said earlier get out of the way of playing. Everything exists to support the fiction. You describe what you want to do and then roll the most relevant move, with an Unleash move typically existing as a catch all.

For the final one, since pbta pushes more for N in the GNS, people will only get bored if they aren’t doing stuff. People can always decide to try something.


I don’t get the hype around PbtA mechanics. In most game systems, you describe what you want to do and then roll the relevant stat/skill/ability/trait/whatever. The fact that GMs never roll dice actually breaks my brain because I can’t apply the “describe what you want to do and then roll…” principle to characters who aren’t PCs. I cannot think of a game system in which people cannot always decide to try something. I’ve never encountered the problem that PbtA is supposed to address.