Digression Girl

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Along with my posts that I’ve noted as “Minute Musing,” I’ve decided to establish another category: “Can of Worms.” These sorts of posts are ones that I feel may be likely to provoke conversation or response, quite possibly of the passionate or heated variety. I’m aware of this, and so have noted that fact by the very label of “can of worms.”

One thing I have seen argued time and again over my years in gaming has been arguments about various systems or aspects of systems used in games. There have been many game systems created and used over the years, many in an effort to properly “capture” the feel of a particular genre or medium, or perhaps in an effort to “fix” a system that some see as being inherently “bad” or “broken” in their eyes.

The reasons and systems debated are countless: class-based systems versus skill-based systems; systems that use one type of die or multiple types of dice; systems that use abstractions or simulations for events such as combat; systems of alignment or indication of a character’s character, whether acceptable or unacceptable in particular contexts; systems trying to replicate a specific fictional series of work authentically (like officially licensed games for well-known franchises); and so on.

Frankly, everyone has their own preferences for game systems and play, though I’d say those preferences are shaped to a degree by the enjoyment experienced playing those games, and not just because of the supposed simplicity or efficacy of those systems. I still have fond memories of the Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal Rules set for Dungeons & Dragons (often called BECMI D&D), but I do find 5th ed. D&D to be a much more friendlier system to learn and play with.

The thing is, we all have a wide variety of opinions, tastes, preferences, experiences and the like that shapes our palette when it comes to everything–food, entertainment, work, friends, relationships and so on. Though we may believe that there could be a perfect one-size-fits-all solution to a problem, we can’t agree on what that solution is, and we can be particularly partisan or hostile when it comes to why our preferred solution “works” and anyone else’s proposed solution “doesn’t work.” To be brutally honest, our subjectivity ultimately dominates our judgment with things we feel passionate about, despite our best attempts to remain truly objective with the process.

Some systems do “work” better for certain genres of games, but I feel that there are unspoken elements behind these genres that aren’t necessarily considered in the grander scope of things. I’ll provide an example that immediately comes to mind: skill-based games in general.

In many instances, skill-based games are built on the default premise that all of the characters are human, or human in origin, or human-like in form. Skill-based games work great along the line of thought that anyone could potentially learn anything, and thus have a diverse grab-bag of skills and developed abilities over the course of their lives. Starting characters have a pool of points from which to build their characters, used to develop a character’s attributes, skills, and the like.

However, the mathematical balancing method of this approach poses a problem: it assumes everyone is human. In many cases, options implemented to show that the character is not human (whether an alien, mutant, or fantastical species) is done by providing unique traits that can be acquired through spending points, most often the very same points used to develop skills and attributes. Ultimately, this puts non-human characters at a disadvantage, because the very same pool of potential they draw from is lesser than that of a “typical” human character due to being not human.

I can understand the concept of game balance, especially if the creators of the game don’t want players all rushing to play a certain limited range of options because they provide more benefits or options than a typical “average” character. But to be fair, it is a bit of a balancing act. Recently, Dungeons & Dragons have changed a long-standing mechanic present in multiple editions of the game by eliminating set ability score bonuses for specific ability scores based on the race (or heritage) of the character. So, no more are elves, by default, more agile than humans on average, or dwarves sturdier than humans on average, or orcs stronger than humans on average and so on. You can have a frail dwarf or a clumsy elf or a feeble orc if you wish. It’s a nice change, and it helps break the habit of having specific race & class combinations exploited in the game. There’s some other changes as well, once again to allow players to create something other than the stereotypical version of a non-human character. However, this approach is by design, and it works for this specific game system. Rather than codifying every possible permutation of a character’s heritage, it allows the player to, within certain constraints, create their own heritage without breaking the system to gain an unbalanced advantage. So that human with elf, orc, angel, demon, dragon, and vampire heritage is something you can have, but it’s all going to be rather watered down and makes for more of an interesting family tree story rather than unlocking an ultimate power combo that “wins” the game.

The class-based system of D&D isn’t perfect, either, because there are realms of possibility that could be acted on if it used a pick-and-choose point-based skill system rather than having locked and set ability bundles as per a “class.” Once again, for the concept and original play style of the game, the class-based system worked because it allocated specific abilities to certain characters who played a defined role within a group experiencing the events of the adventure.

And that’s the key behind it all: what the possibilities, demands, and challenges of the imaginary world are, and how the players may navigate them. Having a group consisting only of agile, stealthy characters may be great for a heist-themed adventure or a reconnaissance-mission adventure, but they are most likely going to be wiped out if they are stuck in a brutal face-to-face confrontation with a powerful foe where their advantages are rendered useless or even are considered disadvantages. In those instances, the players built their characters off an assumption that their selections would allow them to dominate or avoid most of the challenges they expect to face. The only problem is that what they expect to experience versus what they will experience can be substantially different.

And regardless of the system, it’s player attitudes and approaches to the game that impact how well a game plays. In many instances, role-playing games tend to have an “ensemble cast” outlook to play—everyone contributes something notable to the game, at various times. No one character outshines the rest of the group, and thus no one character can be proclaimed the “hero” of the story with the rest of the group thus being relegated to the role of “sidekicks” or “supporting cast.”

I feel that the best analogy for the play style for role-playing games in general is the various Star Trek TV series. Problems arise when players try to treat the game like an episode of TOS Star Trek; they see themselves as a starring role (most likely Kirk, but also Spock, or even Bones). Other characters in the group are seen as part of the bridge crew—frequently present but not the focus of the narrative.

However, a well-run game or campaign, in my view, is more akin to episodes of TNG Star Trek; any and every character can be the focus of an episode of the show, and all of the characters who get to be in focus have their moment to shine. Picard is not Kirk, nor is Riker Spock (or even Data Spock), or Geordi Scotty—they are who they are, more than and above the stock character concepts the previous generation filled out. (Looking at the original pilot for TOS Trek shows this—Kirk isn’t far from pilot Pike, nor 1st Off. Spock from Number One, or even Bones from pilot Dr. Boyce.) The TNG series reflects the “ensemble cast” concept much, much more than TOS did. The opening credits for each series pretty much reveals this: only Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley had opening credits, while all of the TNG regulars had them, whether they appeared or were the focus of the episode or not.

But that also is based on the assumption that the game is a collaborative endeavor. It’s very possible for such games to have inter-player competition present, and as such each player has other players to potentially contend with alongside any of the threats by non-player characters or monsters. That’s a whole other dynamic that I’m not going to delve into, though I will say it’s more in line with “traditional” board games and war games where the objective is to succeed despite obstacles and competition. (It’s also a playstyle I don’t often enjoy or seek out because of more than enough experiences of gameplay with others who display poor if not atrocious sportsmanship, being sore losers or even worse winners.)

Ultimately, it’s the playstyle, players, and presumptions of a game that dictate the system used to implement the game. Is the game collaborative or competitive? Does the game encourage or require teamwork to achieve success? Is everyone playing a default human-like character, or is the range of possibilities greater? What is possible in the game? What isn’t possible in the game? It’s these sorts of questions that shape a game, and thus those sorts of questions that should be considered before decrying a game because it doesn’t use a system you prefer.

One thought on “Can of Worms: Systems

  1. Agent [Redacted] says:

    I’m still pretty on the fence about the D&D racial changes. On the one hand, I felt Humans typically got screwed against other races who came with Darkvision or other bonuses that had very cool implications for the RP or combat. With these new changes, my Human Paladin can be buff AND have a heritage that gives him Darkvision or possibly some other cool racial feature that came with other races, (like a bonus cantrip, etc.) But on the other hand, I just don’t believe that a gnome can have 18-20 strength without magical assistance or that a Goliath can stealth as well as Halfling, which is just a smaller creature.

    As much I like the flexibility they’re trying to go for, I think it’s going to be one of those “optional” rulings by the DM at the table, because some combinations simply don’t make sense even within the flexible nature of the games’ setting. There has always been wiggle room, of course, but I think making it all modular takes some of what was special about having to choose between particular options. I think you’re right that some people leaned towards optimization to a fault, but I also think it made choices meaningful. If anything, I think it was really just baseline humans that suffered the most under the old rules, (aside from the extra feat or bonus to stats, there really was no reason to play as one mechanically when you could get specific stat bonuses with certain racials AND possibly a cool power/look/mechanic to play with).

    On a different note, I love that Star Trek TNG analogy for a campaign! Couldn’t agree more, and I hope you don’t mind if I borrow that example! That’s a nice, classy way of describing how the focus should shift during a campaign and an easy way to describe it to players in a form that shows the whole group is important, just not always the star at any given time.


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