Monthly Archives: January 2012

What are role playing rules, systematically/mechanically?

Back in October (, I discussed one of the most basic realities of role-playing gaming: that RPGs are focused on conflicts at the heart of storytelling. That we want to be challenged by those conflicts, but our defeats are preferred to only be temporary setbacks. That the DM, acting as storyteller, needs to have rules in place to limit his power. The players’ characters are also limited so that the conflicts the DM creates aren’t too easy, unless that’s the desired effect.

The question for this article is “how do the rules accomplish this? How do they create this balance?”
What finally struck me a while back, especially after reading and playing the indie games Universalis and Mortal Coil is that RPGs are really resource management systems. This kind of game play is present in the two aforementioned games, as well as the Marvel Comics RPG the comic book company put out, as well as Fireborn, currently held by Fantasy Flight Games. Some systems take this idea to a grotesque extreme. While Star Fleet Battles first springs to mind, that’s not really an RPG. Superhero games (or at least the more successful ones) are especially focused in this direction, with Mayfair Games DC Comics game being the best example.
In these extreme games, the player has a pool of points he uses to create every aspect of his character, and he gains more of those points along the way. In the DC Comics game, those points were a continual resource, as they could be used in combat to alter results. In Champions, the resource management goes a little differently, but it’s still there, with wise use of experience affecting the character’s effectiveness in conflicts. Games like Fireborn and Mortal Coil both use pools of dice or tokens that the player can manipulate to affect conflict outcomes.
Even D&D has its Out Of Character resources. Hit points (and healing surges in 4e) are a resource that the player must manage to achieve success. D&D 4e also has a resource system for DMs, which has never been present before, in the form of the XP budget when designing encounters. Point- and pool-based resource systems are where the balance comes from in modern games. Of course, at times, I don’t think designers necessarily see that as they design. And some times, I think they do, but actively make choices that oppose that thinking in certain ways.
But that’s a subject for another post.

A quick post based on today’s announcement from WotC

So, that post I promised got both delayed and derailed. Delayed because of major pain in my arm caused something going on in my shoulder. I needed a couple of days away from the computer to let the shoulder relax and unlock. After that was game night and i decided to take another day yesterday (Sunday, Jan. 8th, for the future people who might read this someday).

The derailment by today’s announcement by Wizards of the Coast of a new edition of D&D ( This one has me in a pretty cranky state, and not wanting to finish the posts I’ve been working on for a while, until I can process the anger and frustration this announcement creates for me. Hopefully writing this post will help me do that.

Like a lot of old school gamers, I started with AD&D. When I started playing in 1979, the first AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide had just come out. We played that most every day after school for the rest of my high school career. However, in college, within about a year of graduation, I found other gaming groups, and while we had started diversifying in high school, I really diversified in college. But we all kept coming back to D&D.

Some of my readers are no doubt surprised that I write of those games with fondness, as I am a big supporter of 4e. My high school games don’t hold quite the specialness that the college games did, but high school was that time of discovery, when things were new, and college was where I met some very long standing friends and furthered that voyage of discovery. These days I do look back on the AD&D and 2nd Ed systems with fondness, even though I now find both systems clunky and broken.

I came to feel the same way about 3.0 and 3.5; they are clunky and broken. I had some great times in the handful of games we ran with the system, but I have no desire to go back. I’ve also spent an insane amount of money on two full and one “sub-edition” in the past 10 years, and WotC fumbled around with 3.x, trying to find a balance between playability for role-players and power-gamers. My opinion was that the roleplay side lost that battle in the end, even though I hear the argument from the other side of the Edition Wars. And as one of my Google+ers has posted: If they thought the Edition Wars were bad before…

However, this new design work Monte Cook is doing is supposed to create a unified system that brings all of the editions together. I just don’t see how they’ll manage this, considering how different 4e is from past editions. My limited understanding (as I haven’t been able to really dig into the previews yet) is that this will be a more modular system than in the past, but if they make the steps back I assume they’ll make (likely bringing back Vancian Magic, nerfing spellcaster Armor Class and weapon-user damage), then it won’t be a system I want to play.

I like the current balance of the 4e system, as do my players (other old schoolers). I like that every character can inflict reasonable damage for their level, that wizards and clerics aren’t useless after one spell at low levels, and that no one at higher levels is playing a character that is “fire and forget.”

At this point, I’ve signed up for the playtest that WotC has opened. I’ll give the system a look, but the NYT reviewer admitted to a bias against 4e and that he likes the new system that he was allowed to play late last year. That biases me to believe this won’t be a game I’m looking for. It means I’ll likely go back to indie games in the future, or write my own material for 4e, probably borrowing liberally from Star Wars Saga Edition and the 4e-based Gamma World, or I may find an “indie game” that will allow me to build what I want affordably (which is something I’m looking into anyway for Urban Fantasy gaming). I may also find myself pulling out my old DragonLance Saga System (a game I fell in love with at the end of the TSR run of D&D) and giving that a spin.

Sadly, as I commented earlier, I think WotC may be shooting themselves in the foot with this, or they may bring enough of the lost fan base back into the fold to heal the rifts 4e created. Of course, those of us who are fans of 4e may also be left out in the cold, as the 3.x fans felt with the last couple of edition shifts. And of course, it may divide the 3.5 and Pathfinder folk. I simply don’t see a lot of good coming out of this announcement.

I hope I’m wrong. But I doubt it.

Bad, bad blogger…

So, it been a while since I posted. I could offer a lot of reasons, but most would be excuses. The truth is, I’ve been distracting myself, deliberately.

I can’t tell you why I’m doing it. It might be the fear of success I inherited from my dad, or it might be a simple lack of discipline, trying to fight with my computer (and especially my browser), or other factors, or any combination of the above.

Thing is, I have two article started that I just haven’t taken the time to finish. No real reason for that. Just is.

Unfortunately, I also know this is a persistant problem. By my calculations, at one post every two weeks, I should have written eight articles by now. I’ve completed half that.

So, for now, my apologies for not keeping to schedule. I’ll try to get one of those article done ASAP.