Friday, July 17, 2009

JB's Axiom #1 (Skills Suck Part 3)

From this post:

“Good game design only incorporates rules integral to game play.”

This is my new game designer motto, and it especially applies to skill systems in RPGs. Basically it’s a distillation of a lot of design concepts, condensed into a tight little sound bite. Here’s how I’m using it:

The originators of RPGs in their modern form (and here I’m referring mainly to TSR designers, not the wargaming folks on whose shoulders they stood) were geniuses as far as I’m concerned. While RPGs have come a loooong way since the 1970s, they share things with their predecessors that their predecessors share with no one.

A group of people coming together to play. A shared imaginary space. A set of rules to govern play in that shared imaginary space. Game play that requires nothing more than players visualization, shared communication, and an agreed method of dispute resolution. Play in imaginary space requiring players to take on imaginary roles. Continuity of game sessions and methods to track that continuity.

You’ve got all these things, you’ve got an RPG as far as I’m concerned.

Even games that have no potential for an on-going campaign (say, My Life With Master) has a method of tracking game play if you have to finish a game over multiple sessions (even if the time between sessions is only a lunch break).

Anyway, before the introduction of D&D there wasn’t a game that had all these elements…at least not one of which I’m aware. And yet all RPGs today have these elements to one degree or another (by the way, the term “player” can mean “GM/DM” and the term “role” can mean anything from a PC/monster to elements of the shared imaginary space…like the weather or an earthquake).

As I was saying…GENIUSES. And yet while we pay them respect and forgive them their “flaws” of game design saying ‘well, they just weren’t as enlightened as we are now with regard to design,’ well...maybe we’re not respectful enough. After all they, for the most part, stick pretty true to Axiom #1.

I’m not sure they did this purposefully…since what they were doing was totally new, how much “streamlining” did they deem necessary? But they HAD NO CHOICE.

“I’m inventing a game.”
“What do you do in it?”
“Well you do X, Y, and Z.”
“Then you need a system for X, Y, and Z.”

What they did not say is “AND you need an additional rule set to cover anything you haven’t thought of…just in case the players want to try something ‘outside of the box’ or something.”

I haven’t picked up a copy of D20 Gamma World. I love GW, and I’m sure reading the D20 version would both piss me off and break my heart. I’m sure it has plenty of cool feats and WONDERFUL SKILLS like “craft spear,” “build fire,” and “construct hut,” not to mention something like “mutant animal lore.” What a crock of shit.

What do you need to know to play Gamma World?

How to fight, how to figure out artifacts, how to resist toxins and radiation.

That’s about it. The odd stuff is the mutations, and each individual mutation has an individual set of rules. It’s already assumed that your character growing up in the Gamma World knows the rudiments of survival (hut building, spear crafting). If your tribe lived near water you probably know raft making and net mending. But you don’t need a system that models this!

Boot Hill is an f’ing miracle of efficient game design. A couple years back, long before I discovered “retro-clones” I was writing a little western RPG I called “Gunmen.” I was drawing from all the western RPGs I could get my hands on: Boot Hill, Deadlands, Dust Devils, Six Guns and Whiskey. After much scribbling and note-splicing, I finally wrote the following:

RESOLVED: All Gunmen know the following:
A favorite weapon: pistol, rifle, knife-fighter, or exotic (saber, tomahawk, bow)
How to brawl
How to ride, tack, and care for a horse
How to drive, tack, and harness a wagon
How to brew coffee, cook beans, fry bacon
How to smoke, drink, and cuss
How to play cards (not necessarily win)

That was it. If they wanted extra skills (like being a doctor or lawyer or ambidextrous) it cost ‘em dice from another part of the character sheet. However, the design is on hold because Boot Hill pretty much already does this! BH characters could sure use a Charisma score (for chatting up the pretty widows), but otherwise it already assumes all these things. The ONLY thing you really need to resolve is gun play, as is aptly hinted at in the game’s title, BOOT HILL.

That is coherent game design, my friends.

This is yet another example of why “system does matter.” You can’t take one system (e.g. D20) and apply it to all games (fantasy, “modern,” Star Wars, Gamma World) and expect everything to be awesome. It might run…clunky at times…but that’s not the same as “humming along.” With individual games, you can craft individual systems that target specific objectives of design. Too many skill systems feel tacked on and detract from what players are supposed to do “in play” on an assumption that modeling reality in a balanced (or un-balanced…hello, Pallladium!) fashion equals a better gaming experience. That’s bunk. If it detracts from game play it is probably not integral to the game design. That’ll be JB’s Axiom #2.

So junk the skill systems already. One benefit of adherence to Axiom #1 might be a reduced page count of RPGs (again!) making them more affordable and accessible (again!).


P.S. K.I.S.S. is Axiom #0.


  1. Thanks for putting into words feelings I've had for a long time now, but hadn't quite got around to sorting out. Now I better understand why I never found myself taking to 3e and similar games, either as a player or DM. Great stuff.

  2. You're welcome Dave.

    Honestly, it's taken me awhile to figure out why some of the games I WANT to like so much, irritate the hell out of me. Like Star Frontiers.

    3E seemed incredibly cool to me when I first bought ALL THE BOOKS and class splat books...right up until I played it. It's been all downhill since then....