Thursday, June 17, 2021

Devil in the Details - When that one design choice overturns an otherwise fine system

Today is a post about griping about things, completely new to the internet, I assure you. You have been warned!

So I wonder how many have had this experience like me. Take a game, a game you might have a keen interest in. You read through it, design some characters, work out some scenario're learning the system. So far you see all the cool stuff and you become increasingly impressed. The creator of the game has a vision, and its one which aligns well with yours, meshes nicely. Indeed, it either supports your own ideas well, or provides ideas you had never considered but can definitely get behind.

Then....that thing happens. It's the thing that for some people they say, "Yeah I like this, but I wish the game did this thing differently," and then they start tweaking and house ruling. In some cases, anyway. I don't generally mean that, though.....first off being I don't like assuming I know enough about the rules to want to change them until I've actually run the game. Second issue being a rule might pose issues, but the idea in my head is that subtler, more disheartening moment when you discover that there's a design element in the game, something maybe a bit vague or undefined that you feel should be fleshed out, or an omission (or inclusion) that just feels out of place to you. 

Maybe the game suggests you should have a wild and wooly bestiary included and the game only has stats for four monsters or something. Maybe you expected the game, which deals with a serious look at ethics or morality in a genre setting to include some rules that support that and they're just...absent. Or maybe you expected the game about high tech capers to have more than a page or so on high tech things. That sort of "oh no" moment.....things you could only fix by, essentially, writing an entire new chapter or sourcebook for the game, or rewriting the game to remove a weird tonal inconsistency. Or drafting up new art to reflect the dark and serious nature of the grim setting, reflected through the eyes of an artist focused on cute anime styles. Stuff like that.

I've had that happen to me on occasion. I'll concede, a lot of what crops up here are SF related, which might say a great deal about my expectations for SF games. A few notable examples I can think of at the moment include....

M-Space Falls Flat on Weapons and Gear

I really dig M-Space and it's design intent, but I believe the author is on record as not being very "gadget focused," and it shows, unfortunately. When you get to the equipment section the barebones weapons and gear lists are the barest essentials for a good SF setting from my experience, and are oddly reliant on some Star Wars terminology with the serial numbers rubbed off a bit (seek out evidence of where else in SF the actual term "restraining bolt" is used, for example, outside of Star Wars). When you see the similarities in the gear it can't be unseen, and the minimalist list means the GM has some work cut out for him if he wants to have a range of gear across differing tech levels. M-Space also lacks tech levels, and oddly, while it does provide ship costs in design, its prefab ships do not tell you how much they cost. My players will want to know!

White Star Can Be Taken Seriously But Doesn't Want To 

I griped about this before at one point, and it was really when the Galaxy Edition came out that I realized that the White Star universe was defaulting to a setting with transformers, cosmic space squirrels, not-wookies, not-ewoks, off-brand jedi and off-brand sith and so on and so forth that the simplicity of the original core rules (which had nominal Star Wars-esque content that I could hand waive) suddenly overwhelmed my ability to use the expanded product with any sense of seriousness. Were I to write a game like White Star, I'd try really hard to corral the homage-style content to supplements and leave the core rules something with a broader scope in application.

Starfinder Uses Handwavium for Gear and Starship Economies

Also griped about, but ultimately a bugaboo that makes it hard to properly run campaigns for this otherwise fine D20 system, is its use of level scores for gear and a starship design system that completely divorces ship design and advancement from wealth. The core conceit of Starfinder is that mechanically both gear and ships are tied to PC level and over time you can get better gear (and boost your ship) as part of the leveling process rather than as part of the "in game story process" in which the players negotiate for the cash to buy things. In theory this shouldn't pose too much of a problem except that it does....and it does so because the way gear is done lampshades the entire process. Gear at level 20, as an example, isn't theoretically that different from gear at level 1. It's just....better. Much, much better. Trying to explain how build points for starships tie in to the galactic economy or why the corporations sell gear at increasingly staggered levels of complexity raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about how the Starfinder universe is supposed to work, and as a result it does some very weird things to one's sense of verisimilitude. The problem of course is we as gamers know the real answer: mechanical balance demanded by the game system. But when the game mechanics cause weird and illogical interpretations of the implied game universe, it makes acceptance of that universe very difficult. More difficult, ironically, than believing in fantasy space elves with magic and laser guns.

Pulp Cthulhu Is Pulp at the Expense of Cthulhu

Yes, you can adopt the Pulp Cthulhu rules and have a rousing adventure in which you through derring do and sheer grit manage to blow away an elder thing while dynamiting his pet shoggoth.....but are you actually playing Call of Cthulhu then, or are you just using assets for a physics defying action game that is paying a slight nod to the source material it perverts? Maybe it depends on the interpretation, but I personally think that talents and all the associated drivel of the pulp rules can go hang out in someone else's games. On the plus side, it's all quietly constrained to the Pulp Cthulhu books and therefore easy to ignore.

Those Dark Places Likes to Talk About The Idea of What's In Those Dark Places But know...What's Actually In Those Dark Places

Those Dark Places is essentially a game about the first twenty minutes of the movie Alien, and it stops right when they are about to find the eggs in the ship. It's an indie game (and as such a lot of the times you have to either be on board with the creator's vision or get off the bus), in which the smallest section of the book is the one which advises GMs on how to populate their games with vile xenomorphs and evil androids. Indeed, it really doesn't seem to want to do this at all, and stops short of....anything. So, yeah. It's really just an indie RPG for rolling up space workers and then thinking about how it would be cool if something interesting happened while they were working. To contrast: the excellent Mothership gives you one rulebook to roll up spacers, then showers you with several incredibly dense space adventure tomes that are increasingly insane and deadly space crawls. 

Okay then! Felt like a rant for fun. I think some of this is cropping up as I am taking time during my work-related exodus from gaming to realign my gaming focus and look for other oft neglected games on my shelves to see which ones might demand more attention and interest. Maybe next post I'll mention some of the games which surprised me with their efficacy in design and focus. 


  1. I know exactly how you feel. I'm always amazed at weird turns in products and simply wonder why someone can't just do X?

    Of course, then I think, I guess I should make and share X, but...well...I'm always glad to support someone who is willing to do X so that I don't have to

    1. I feel the same way! In my waning years I am much happier to find that someone else put the effort in than to do it myself.

  2. GURPS: You can be anyone, anywhere, anywhen! Just don't, you know, run into any weird creatures there. Because there's no Bestiary :'(