Netflyer Oxford University Role Playing Games Society
Netflyer 33

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Game Systems: Who Gives A Stuff?

When was the last time you played a game to the letter of the rules? My guess is that a good proportion of the younger readers will have no more recollection of the heady days of AD&D-style rules lawyering than of eighties pop sensation Kajagoogoo. Game system design has a bad press: a lot of people feel that rigid rules arenít necessary in a hobby which is seen as freeform acting and based around character interaction. I would agree that systemless games are great in principle, but it can be hard work deciding how fate treats your players in every single situation. Most of the time, itís far easier to roll some dice.

The primary reason for a game system is combat. That is the only time when a system's limits are tested and when it has to provide a win-lose situation by the roll of a die. Combat is the focal point of this article, and my objective is to identify what makes a good combat system, and to sort out the useful game mechanics from the dross. I don't want to create a realistic system - I want something which (a) the players will understand and (b) will make for entertaining combat (regardless of realism).

Popular Trends and Popular Misconceptions
The reason that systemless or system-light games are popular with aged gamers is different from the reason it attracts newcomers. For old players who had lived through the phase of combat-by-numbers that was AD&D, abandoning the dice and playing a game freeform was seen as a sign of maturity, because it wasn't necessary to quibble over the rules when a better experience could be had by mutual consent between player and GM. For new players, however, it was attractive because it involved a lot of handholding and guiding the player through the game world. At the same time, the RPG scene was going through an image change, mainly thanks to Vampire, and attracted a lot of new players as a result. "Blah blah, roleplaying as an art form, blah blah, it's not about dice it's about interaction, blah blah, roleplaying is like amateur dramatics, etc". On the one hand it was desperately pretentious, but on the other it has done a lot for publicity, so on the whole it is a good thing. Say no more, I think.

The first misconception is that RPGs had evolved from violent gory slugfests into intelligent interactive games. It would be truer to say that a lot of RPGs are now both violent and interactive.

However, this notion was translated by game designers as: "we do not need to write game systems anymore", when it should have been: "we do not need elaborate systems any more". People still like combat and action but they want drama as well. And why not?

Secondly, it is generally accepted that game systems are something to be suffered rather than enjoyed in an RPG. This is partly because complicated ones (like AD&D) have a learning curve associated with them, and use mechanics which are abstract rather than ones which bear direct relation to the situation they try to resolve. In other words they use a load of jargon and are a bit of a turn-off. In order to make them interesting, therefore, you have to make the mechanics easy to grasp and relevant to the situation.

The upshot is that not a lot of newcomers nowadays are introduced to anything more complex than Vampire. I think that the Storyteller system is a diamond for bringing new players into the RPG world, by the way - its presentation is flawless in its use of dots rather than numbers and rating a character's strengths from one to five. It's a personal assessment questionnaire for your player character! For combat, though, it sucks. There are good combat games being produced, like Feng Shui, but these are in the minority and rather than "graduating" to better systems the newer players prefer to play out their supernatural grudge-matches in Fang-Land.

Why You Want A System
The first reason why you want a system: you want to keep order so that you can be on top of the game, and you also want to make sure that everyone gets a turn to bash the bad guys. Games like Vampire werenít designed to be heavily into combat, and as a result they rely on the GMís narrative skills to keep combat running smoothly. That's fine when you are dealing with one or two players in a sit-down game but once you start running massed combats with a lot of people (such as in a Live Action game), things become testing for the GM in the extreme. They have to maintain a focus on several people at once, ensuring that the quieter players present actually get to do something whilst appeasing those others who, by virtue of having the loudest voice, attempt to dominate the combat and shout their way to victory. Not unlike trading at the London Stock Exchange, I shouldnít wonder.

The second reason is so that your players can manage themselves better. Players like to have a feel for not only their character's personality but also their strengths and weaknesses. If you make them cross off their own hit points then they will have a constant reminder of their character's physical state and (if roleplaying properly) will behave accordingly. More importantly, if a player has an idea of how good their PC is at a particular action, they can gauge the risk involved, and if their gamble is successful then it feels like much more of a victory.

The Nitty Gritty
I'm not about to write a lengthy treatise on the perfect system mechanic. (For one thing, I don't think it would make good reading). Instead, I have a checklist of ideas for improving a combat system which I applied to the White Wolf system at various stages when trying to turn it into a better combat system whilst retaining its approachable format:

  1. Impose order on combat. Vampire has characters with multiple actions in a round but makes no attempt to decide what order everyone plays in, making the game a scheduling nightmare. A lot of systems divide combat rounds into segments (usually ten), which the GM counts out in order. This is a good way of managing combat with several characters who have different numbers of actions in the round - a PC with three actions in a round might go on segments 3, 6, and 9, for example. The advantage of using this system is that (a) it gives a real sense of time passing and action and (b) the players take notice of when their turn comes up, rather than the GM having to prompt them.
  2. Minimise the number of stats you need. A gun, for example, only needs two stats: how easy it is to fire, and how much damage it does. All other stats are superfluous. Apply the same principle to the character sheet - for combat purposes all you need to know is how strong the character is, how much damage they can take, and how frequently and accurately they can shoot a target.
  3. Write everything down on the character sheet. This is so that the players can always see how many hit points they character has and always have a good idea of their strength and their toughness, and their ability to fight. It stops the GM having to look up stuff in tables or make calculations in their head, and generally speeds up gameplay.
  4. Game mechanics: You want to determine, for instance, the rate of fire from an automatic weapon. A lot of rules for guns involve "burst values" and "rates of fire" which are (a) meaningless jargon and (b) involve lots of repetitive dice rolling. Try to simplify the rules in terms of the system you already have instead of writing completely new rules which are over complicated: more bullets = more damage, harder to dodge, ammunition runs out faster. Apply that principle as often as possible and remember that you are not trying to model the real world perfectly, only enough so that combat looks "realistic" whilst keeping the action at a premium.
  5. Game mechanics, Part II: any part of a game system is less than useful if it involves (a) looking up information in a table (e.g. Traveller), (b) doing multiplication or long division in your head (e.g. the damage system for Shadowrun), or (c) applies a single roll of the dice to more than one quantity.
  6. Avoid systems which require you to roll the dice in a funny way (e.g. multiplying the results together). Even the "buckets of dice" systems (Vampire) suffer from the fact that they use two variables rather than just one (a target number for the dice, and a variable number of dice to roll) which slows things down a bit.
  7. Players need to feel that they have something to lose if they are to enjoy any victory. In a combat system, the PCs can die or be injured, represented by some sort of health or hit points. In my opinion, the best systems for "cinematic" combat are the ones which do not offer instant death as a result of injury, but nevertheless impose a penalty on the character for injury. Crossing off hit points doesn't really give the players a feel for the brutality or danger of combat, but killing them randomly as a result of a poor dice roll is a bit stiff as well.
The Good, the Bad and the Unplayable
The Good
If I have listed a game in here, it isnít because it is a diamond in itself - Shadowrun, for instance, is deeply flawed. However, I think that all of these games have good mechanics in them which serve as good examples and can be exploited..

Chaosium - Runequest (and Call of Cthulhu)
Runequest is a brilliant system - effectively the very simple Chaosium (Call of Cthulhu) system with some extra combat bits added on. It has several features to recommend it: for a start it has a clever way of breaking the combat round up into "Strike Ranks" and stating that faster and taller characters holding longer weapons will tend to strike their opponents earlier. Weapon skills are a very simple single dice roll to evaluate success or failure in both attacking and parrying. Armour makes a lot more sense, in that a physical piece of armour covers a body location and will absorb a set amount of damage when that location is struck; and damage is kept in small numbers such that all attacks could be life-threatening. As an aside, a lot of work was put into the game world of Glorantha.
Call of Cthulhu is comparatively simple but uses the same percentage system. Combat is very simple: each person rolls to see if they hit, and if they do they score damage (which has a good chance of killing the target if you are using a firearm). Good for the sort of duelling that takes place using lumber axes in a very dark cellar.

Judge Dredd
The one excellent feature of this game was the way it handled combat rounds. It divided each round into ten slots, and each character could have a number of actions depending on their Initiative score. Then characters got actions on specific slots depending on how many actions they had - so a person with three actions would act on slots 3, 6 and 9; someone with five would act on 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 and so forth. There was a real sense of time passing in the game. I was so impressed by this mechanic that I nicked it wholesale for my Department V game.

Feng Shui
A game that was designed for combat and delivers well. The initiative system is great - roll a die and add your initiative; highest score goes first, after which the GM counts down the "shots" until zero, at which time a new round was declared. Players got their first action on the number they rolled, then the next three "shots" later and so forth, and so as long as everyone can cope with basic arithmetic it works well. Dice rolling is a bit weird but fast once you get used to it. This is a cinematic system, however, and lacks the shot-to-pieces-and-crawling-around-in-your-own-blood realism because it uses the old Hit Points system. Now out of print as far as I know.

Lace & Steel
Fantastic and unique card based system which at once put the player totally in touch with the combat and - get this - was actually interesting for other players to watch; based on 16th-17th century rapier combat but would translate into just about any setting given a bit of thought. Sadly I think itís now out of print.

Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing
WFRP grew from the fantasy wargame of the same name. Combat in WFRP is not unlike that in Runequest, because it was quick and percentile-based, and in every attack there was a real chance of being killed outright. Because, like AD&D, the game was derived from a wargame, the characterís stats pertained almost directly to combat (everyone had a Weapon Skill, a Strength and Toughness etc). This would never have happened had the game been designed as a RPG from the ground up. Although the stats were a bit abstract I think that it caused a lot less confusion when combat came around, and the rest of the game (apart from the dire magic system) was so atmospheric that it really didnít matter. If you were the sort of person into exotic medieval weapons, however, you might have found the treatment of "specialist weapons" a bit lacklustre.

Cyberpunk 2020 (Talsorian)
Cyberpunk games are supposed to be brutal and nasty once you begin distributing heavy firearms to the players. CP2020 handles combat quite well but the actual damage rules are only so-so. Of course, the Solo characters would always dominate the combat by virtue of being so much faster, but that makes sense when the Solo is a person who kills for a living when everyone else just carries a gun for their own protection. All skill rolls are carried out by rolling a single die and adding the relevant stat. Initiative is almost identical to the system used in Feng Shui, so is bound to be a winner. However, armour and weapon damage are a bit over-simplified (just roll some dice for the weapon and compare it to the armourís Stopping Power) although they donít slow the game down which is a plus. The actual system of causing wounds was pretty good with a little line of boxes which the player ticked off to see how badly wounded they were, and (in true Cyberpunk style) seven or eight stages of death (!).

Amazing Engine
This otherwise unremarkable system has a neat feature for damage in combat. All weapons are listed with a Lethality rating; when you roll "to hit", if the single digit on the percentile roll is below the Lethality, you score Lethal damage, otherwise you only do concussive damage. Characters have two sorts of hit points (Stamina and Wounds), one of which governs non-lethal "stress" and the other health (more or less). This means that you can have a character who can take a vast amount of concussive damage but be just as susceptible to a killing blow as a much weaker character. Armour affects the lethality of incoming attacks as well as the damage done. Other systems in the past have split damage between non-lethal "fatigue" and real damage, but none to my knowledge with such an elegant mechanic.

This game looks like fun but because it used a buckets-of-dice system, it is a bit cumbersome in play. The damage system is a bit weird too, involving a lot of counting and calculating which is liable to put people off. The one good idea it had, though, was the idea of a Dodge Pool: this is a pool of dice you kept in reserve to defend yourself with against attacks each round. Do you spend your entire pool dodging one attack, or do you keep a few back for later and increase the risk of being wounded now? Itís flexible, functional and easy to understand.

The Bad
There are two reasons why I would consider a game bad for combat. One, if it has gaping holes in the mechanics which rely far too heavily on the GM to improvise, and/or Two, when it takes far too long to play out a combat.

Palladium game system (TMNT, RIFTS)
A horrendous dog of a system, with a combat system combining the worst elements from several systems. Suffered from AD&Dís obsession with hit points as well as sharing the Storyteller systemís inability to handle multiple actions in a combat round in any way that made sense. Juvenile artwork.

Letís see: inelegant system of multiple dice, where more time is spent grubbing for stray D10s under furniture than rolling them; tedious repetitive dice rolls required; authors not completely decided on how multiple actions should be handled in combat, with no formal structure given over to combat rounds because "adults shouldnít need to adhere to the letter of the rules at the expense of gameplay". Vampire was not designed for combat, and the "World of Darkness: Combat book" is nothing more than a cash-in.

Cyborg Commando
I'll be amazed if anyone has ever heard of this weird game by Gary Gygax. The plot was OK (aliens invade the world, you take them on as a disembodied brain in the stomach of a robot body), but rolling dice was ludicrous and involved rolling 2 ten sided dice and multiplying the results together. At the time, though, people assumed that an "original" RPG needed to have some new and far out game mechanic to attract attention, no matter how unplayable.

The whole of the Chill system looks almost like a percentage system and, like Call of Cthulhu, combat is very much in the background, as it should be for an investigative/horror RPG. However it was a bit weird because it required reference to a table in the back of the rulebook for skill results. Itís probably a bit unfair to put into this category but it just doesnít work for combat, yet isnít quite simple enough to excuse this in the way that Call of Cthulhu is.

Sigh... the first RPG I ever owned... Traveller is a Sci-Fi RPG in the hard science tradition. The very old version I have uses a single table where you cross-reference the weapon you are using with the armour your target is wearing to get a bonus or penalty to hit on a single dice roll. Sound complicated? Not really, but very dull and doesnít relate well to the real world, although a bit more accessible than AD&D. To be fair, though, Traveller was all about building space ships and exploring new and exciting and usually uninhabited worlds, so the chances of getting to fight anything more lively than trees and shrubs were a bit slim.

The Ugly
The games which are functional rather than fun. They do the job but arenít streamlined enough, or do not relate well enough to the world in which the action takes place.

(Advanced) Dungeons and Dragons
The first RPGs were derived from wargames rules, and D&D came from a set of skirmish rules called CHAINMAIL. As a result the system was just a combat system with a few extra bits bolted on. For those who took the trouble to get into it, it was functional, but like the wargames it came from, it made use of charts and tables which tended to put people off a bit. D&D goes for functionality over atmosphere and uses abstract numbers such as Armour Class and Hit Dice to describe combat, all of which shifts the attention away from the actual excitement of combat. So, top marks for being a working system, zero for getting anyone to enjoy playing it.

Fighting Fantasy/Dungeoneer
I played this when I was about fourteen. The only rules there are in FF gamebooks are for combat and as a minimalist system it works fairly well. Combat consisted of rolling your dice at the same time as everyone else, and the person who won the roll (getting the higher number) hit the loser. It also had a Luck stat, which worked surprisingly well. Thatís about where the excitement ended.

Good as a default option, in that you could do much worse for your campaign. Simple to grasp the basics, yet there were expanded rules if you wanted them. Therein lies the ultimate problem of GURPS: it tries to be all things to all men and is therefore rules-heavy and as a result, in order to make combat a bit more exciting and believable, a certain amount of reading up is required by both GM and player. The 3D6 method of dice rolling is a bit weird as well; whilst it does produce a nice probability distribution, it isnít particularly smooth or intuitive.

Great if you like wading through acres of charts and tables in search of that special critical hit that would spell nasty messy doom for your enemy.

Tunnels and Trolls
The advantage of Tunnels and Trolls is its vast array of weapons - anything from a Flamberge (two handed sword with an undulating blade) to an Ankus (Indian elephant goad) can be yours if you have the strength and dexterity to wield it. The disadvantage is that the only thing that distinguishes between all of these weird and wonderful weapons is the amount of combat dice they grant, regardless of their actual functionality. But the system was only designed for solo gamebooks, so we shouldnít expect too much of it. In combat it runs with the same simplicity (and repetitive tedium) of Fighting Fantasy.

Last Words
All game systems have a learning curve associated with them, and the trend is towards games which are plug Ďní play - the players can generate characters within minutes and start playing. More involved systems which are better ordered and so easier for the GM to handle should therefore require the players to invest a little more time in learning how to play, as one would do a boardgame. However, there is no need for the kind of minutely described systems which were the mainstay of the AD&D era. I hope that in the future more effort will be put into the design of games so that they can be easily described to newcomers yet offer a firm enough structure that the GM will be able to work within the system to produce thrills, rather than around it.
Ralph Lovegrove