Saturday, October 26, 2013

30 Days of GameMastering--Day 23!

If you don't know the drill by now....Lindevi, "30 Days of GameMastering", challenge, go!

What effects do system mechanics have on story?

When I started gaming, I was a big supporter of the d20 System.  One system that could do potentially everything?  A unified, easy-to-understand mechanic that just so happened to line up directly with the world's most popular roleplaying game?  Sounds great, right?

Unfortunately, in practice, results were always sort of mediocre.  While certain ports of the d20 System--notably Call of Cthulhu d20--managed to maintain atmosphere and tone, many other interpretations of the system (even by big publishers) were bloated, flavorless, and just 'meh'.  d20 Apocalypse was like that for me:  while the post-apocalyptic feel in gaming has always been ripe for great ideas, but the quintessential d20 post-apoc sourcebook left me unimpressed.

Over time, I came to realize a hard lesson:  just because you can make something in a generic system doesn't mean that you should.  Thanks to The Journeyman GM, I love Savage Worlds and its various settings, though truth be told, I can't see myself ever running a true horror game in SW.  Savage Worlds was built to emulate a pulpy, adventuresome feel, with Bennies and streamlined damage that allow for quick recovery.  In a horror game?  You don't want either of those things.  And, while Deadlands certainly contains aspects of horror, it's hard to truly be "scared" when you're playing a hard-bitten gunslinger, a mad scientist, or Gambit from the X-Men.

The right tool for the right job.
Game design is a unique animal:  it's a strange marriage of mathematician and creative writer that calls upon every spare neuron in your brain.  However, it takes both to make a great game.  A game tied too heavily to its mechanics feels generic and like math homework.  A game tied too heavily to its theme feels ephemeral and tacked on.

Think of game mechanics in terms of a tool box.  If you were going to hang a picture, you'd use a hammer and a nail.  You might instead use a drill and screws.  However, you probably wouldn't decide to use a wrench and spackle, even though they might possibly be able to hold the picture up.  The same thing goes for game mechanics.

This guy just lost some SAN points...

The best games use their mechanics to support their theme.  Call of Cthulhu encourages diverse skill use by tying advancement to using skills throughout the game.  CoC emphasizes the descent into madness through its ubiquitous "sanity spiral" wherein failing Sanity tests not only can drive you crazy now, but also makes you more likely to fail further Sanity tests.  Cold Steel Wardens emphasizes brutal combat and psychologically damaged heroes, spending an entire chapter (in a nominally superheroic game) detailing Injuries and Psychoses.  Dresden Files uses Aspects and very broad skills to emulate the flexibility of its arcanely-powered characters.

In the end, you've got to use the best tool for the job.  And, while something like d20 or GURPS or d% might be able to do the job, why not choose a more specialized tool that makes your job easier?  In this brave new world of digital publishing, there are games to emulate nearly every genre imaginable:  don't be afraid to give something new a try!


  1. I remember reading some stuff from Pinnacle about the d20 versions of Deadlands and Weird War II. One of the big problems they had was with AC and hit points. Both concepts work well in Dungeons & Dragons where heroes strap on plate mail and are expected to survive several hits from an attack. But in a setting with guns, it doesn't work because in real life bullets go through armor and are oftentimes one-hit kill weapons. They tried to get around it by handwaving away armor and adding rules where if bullets dealt a certain amount of damage they could lead to instant-death, but the problem ultimately was that d20 was not the right tool for the job.

    Although I'm a huge Savage Worlds fanboy, I do recognize that it's not the right tool for everything. It'd be a terrible system for Doctor Who, for instance. I believe that Savage Worlds has two core values: heroes must be competent and combat must be important. Try to do a setting that doesn't follow one or both of those values and you wind up with a poor fit.

    My personal feeling about Call of Cthulhu in Savage Worlds is that it works if you're running a game where the end result is to ram a ship into Cthulhu (or if you add Nazis, as the new Achtung Cthulhu! setting does). But if you want a game more typical of how Call of Cthulhu RPG adventures go where the end result is insanity and you want to run away from combat, then you'll have a hard time getting the game you want.

  2. See, I have issues with the d% system in general. For something like Call of Cthulhu, where heroes are average guys with little-to-no combat ability, it feels very odd to see the same system being used for something like Stormbringer, which is high-fantasy action. It's just off-putting in terms of theme.

    As I've mentioned before, I can't imagine using Savage Worlds for a deep horror game. Bennies and the like just throw my whole immersion off!

  3. I'm not sure I understand your point about why d% doesn't work for Call of Cthulhu. I know you like the d20 version, but that is used for the high-fantasy action Dungeons & Dragons, especially settings like Forgotten Realms and Ebberon. How is this different than the BRP (d%) version?

    And yes, bennies are one reason why Savage Worlds doesn't work for deep horror. As you put it, you want "average guys with little-to-no combat ability" which breaks both "heroes must be competent" and "combat must be important"