Thursday, August 12, 2004

Role Playing Game Systems - A Look Back

I had originally put these comments in another forum, but I thought you gents might be interested as well.

RPG systems.

I'll be the first to admit I'm pretty finicky when it comes to RPG systems. I've designed three (well, the first two got rolled into the third) and I'm pretty happy with the final result. It's still amateursville compared to most complete systems, but I like it better than most.
I'll just run through the systems I've tried and run through the pros and cons of each. For fun, I'll list them in the order that I played them.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
My first ever, at age 10. Was completely at sea, since our DM was 10 as well. I think this is a fair to middling system, but it's popular.

PROS: Great for fantasy play - lots of spells and magic items.
CONS: Poor combat, action and skills systems, even with recent d20 make-over, plus my personal nemesis - hit points.

Star Frontiers
I played maybe three sessions of this game. I can hardly remember anything about it, other than the name of the bad guy Sathars, and that the other alien races seemed interesting.

PROS: Nice diversity of species - humans didn't seem like the be-all and end-all.
CONS: Forgettable

Gamma World
I'm a huge sucker for post-apocalyptic settings, especially in a sort of Mad Max future. This one was different in that the apocalypse happened about 75 years in the future of our time, which made for very interesting lost technologies.

PROS: A whole system for figuring out how to work pre-war gadgetry was a nice touch. The mutation system was extensive and interesting. The game world was pretty neat - my 2nd edition rules had a great map of post-war North America
CONS: Suffered from most of the same problems as D&D, since it was based on the same system.

Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP)
One of the most complex and detailed RPGs I've played, which sort of fits the whole Tolkein mystique.

PROS: Great diversity of skill advancement and roll modifiers. Fantastically funny critical hit tables. Interesting that critical hits are divided by type of damage.
CONS: Super-kludgy character generation and skill advancement, thought I'll probably revisit it now that I'm not 11 and know a lot more about RPGs in general.

Top Secret
I liked being a superspy, what with the gadgets and the cars and the near-death.

PROS: Nice theme. It was a lot grittier than most RPGs, which meant it was easier to get hurt or die. The luck point mechanic helped out a lot with that.
CONS: Too many tables. When you've got a table for escaping death traps and torture, there's a problem. Also, the background info provided in the basic game set didn't provide a good framework for getting campaigns off the ground, unless you know a lot about world espionage and politics, which I didn't at the age of 12.

Robotech (Palladium RPG system)
Ahhhh... megadamage. A kludgy way to deal with the fact that you've got some things which are small and puny, like humans, and big and mighty, like veritechs.

PROS: set in an interesting and pre-made universe, with lots of depth and variety of enemies, especially with the multiple expansion rule books. Plus, any game where you can fly a veritech and fire off salvoes of AP missles is supa-cool.
CONS: Palladium level-based skill/percentage plus combat systems is clunky, with the need to cross reference a lot of abilities that affect skills, and skills that affect abilities. This is a cross-the-board criticism of Palladium games, not a specific swipe at Robotech.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

PROS: Mutating animals with BIO-E is cool.
CONS: See Robotech critique above.

Call of Cthlulu
Super creepy. Insanity sucks.

PROS: Very atmospheric. Super easy to die. You had to really ROLE-PLAY to stay alive. H.P. Lovecraft world is great to muck about in.
CONS: Sometimes TOO easy to die or go mad.

Star Trek (FASA version)
This was actually the second role-playing game I bought, but when I first got it, I had no idea of how to figure out the character generation system, so it sat on my shelf for several years until I could figure it out. When FASA lost the license, a lot of the modules and supplements went for super-cheap, so I've got a lot of books for this game.

PROS: One of the best character generation systems around - it really feels like a Star Trek character career. I cribbed this system for use in the home-made Aliens RPG mentioned above, then modified it until it wasn't quite as derivative in the Void Angels iteration. Once we got a campaign going, it felt like we had our own ship and familiar cast and crew which made for some fun evenings.
CONS: Action point movement system never really worked. Playing "goody-goody" Fed types can be very limiting, as can the resources available to a big Fed starship. I don't really comment often on manual and module artwork, but FASA had a really poor artist for a lot of the illustration and manual work.

Twilight 2000
More post-apocalyptic goodness - basically role-playing as former soldiers in the wake of WWIII Europe trying to get home to North America. Poor GDW, we barely knew ye.

PROS: Fantastically realistic post-war world. Great character creation system. Excellent volume of supporting modules and supplements. The vehicle guides and attendent colour plate explanations were excellent. Every module that I bought was well thought out and chock-full of great NPCs, settings and plotlines. Just about the grittiest game I can think of - any game where typhus and dystentry is covered as a real danger in the rules just about wins for the blackest sense of doom category (with Wraith: The Oblivion a possible contender)
CONS: Piece of crap combat and ammunition system. The only thing that seemed to make sense was the range and penetration values - damage and ammo were based on some weird burst/grouping method. A combat round took a long long time to resolve. Vehicle combat was better done, with component specific damage, but also a lot of time to figure out.

Star Wars
Everyone knows the Star Wars universe. You can role-play in it.

PROS: Great cinematic feel - very fast paced and very role-playing oriented. Star Wars universe is a fun place to beat on Stormtroopers.
CONS: Sometimes dice-rolling got a bit much. As easy as addition is, adding more than 8 dice slows down the game. Character templates ease character creation, but more options for custom design should be given.

Marvel Superheroes
Also familiar to most.

PROS: Super simple task resolution chart. I stole it, with modifications, for all three of my homemade games because I liked it so much. Super powers and character generation well thought out and fun to play. Surprisingly, this is probably the game that I have fewest beefs with - it's simple, easy to play and goes quickly. Character generation is easy.
CONS: I'm not a huge superhero fan, so this game didn't really have a lot of appeal for me. I don't recall at all the advancement system - which probably means it wasn't anything of interest.

Shadowrun - 1st Edition
This is the best RPG setting ever in my opinion, with the possible exception of Twilight 2000 and the "World of Darkness" series. Cyberpunk meets fantasy, with a lot of other influences thrown in.

PROS: Fantastic - literally and figuratively - game world. Art - layout, graphics and illustrations were fantastic, with the very rare exception of the one FASA artist from Star Trek (I guess they kept him on out of pity or something) who wasn't very good at all. Fortunately, he didn't get many pictures in. Very interesting spell system, which brings us to the cons...
CONS: In its first edition incarnation, Shadowrun had to have the most klugdy ruleset I've ever encountered. It improved in 2nd (and 3rd, I think, though I haven't looked at it) editions, but by that point the damage had been done. Combat was clunky, spells were very interesting but took a while to figure out and opposing skill checks were arcane. I had only the briefest of looks at 2nd Edition rules, but they looked much improved. I'd like to try this one again some day, if only for the game world.

Ninjas and Superspies
Another Palladium offering - Shemp cobbled together elements from this game and Beyond the Supernatural to make a very interesting game world.

PROS: Interesting concept - sorta Hellboy/Buffy idea.
CONS: Palladium system.

Traveller 2300
Picked this up cheap after GDW went under. Like almost all of the GDW games I ever looked at, this had a very "real" feeling universe, with really "alien" aliens that weren't just humans with forehead prosthetics.

I guess for my own games I grabbed elements from a number of games that I found interesting.

From Marvel, I took the task resolution chart.

From Twilight, Star Trek and MERP I grabbed the concept of developing the character from childhood through a career to present times.

I drew inspiration from Traveller 2300's take on the future, if only because it seemed the most likely of the many futures I've seen presented thus far.

From Star Wars I took the cinematic mechanic of FPs, which are very helpful in a high-fatality setting like the Void Angel universe.

The main thing I've learned from three attempts at RPGs (plus one or two others which were never really completely baked) is that the temptation is to make things over complex, when in fact, simplicity while still maintaining the flavour is what makes a game shine. If your game has too many mechanics, it collapses under its own weight - you're spending all your time looking up charts, modifiers and tables.


  1. Thanks for the very interesting post. It's great to hear a German gamer's take on RPGs. I played nothing else from 9 to 15, but got disillusioned with the time requirements.

    I'd like to play again, but I want to be lazy about it. I don't want an overly complex system - I never understood MERP. I don't want to have to design scenarios. I would like low commitment requirements - adventures that finish in a single 3-4 hour session etc. Most importantly of all the system has to be good. I liked GURPS very much, because the complexity was scalable and because the combat and character rules really worked. Unfortunately its generic nature made the settings seem flimsy and there were never enough pregenerated scenarios.

    Can you recommend anything else more modern than GURPS?

  2. Kozure,

    You are a madman.
    Get back to work.

    oh, and here are the ones I've played which you have not:

    This game distinguishes itself as the most GM oriented system in my opinion. Why? #1, the rulebooks and modules are very funny #2 the system is simple #3 you are encouraged to be really mean and unfair to the player characters (although they'll barely notice, as they are too busy plotting against each other)
    You can't play for long, because it can be taxing for the players to suffer so much, but it is a good time when you are in the right mood with the right players.

    Dungeons and Dragons

    I have always been surprised at how few people have played this. It is essentially a simplified version of AD&D (Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that AD&D is a more complex verison of D&D, but whatever). Demi humans have no classes, they just are what they are. humans come in four varieties (magic-user, thief, fighter, cleric) and no character can ever exceed level 36. Much fewer spells (12 per level, I beleive). Still, there was a clarity to the game which I always thought was superior to the muddled and complex manuals of AD&D. Sadly, most of the faults of AD&D are present here (if Kozure's personal RPG rules nemesis are hit points, mine are AD&D levels of experience).

  3. p.s. what other forum?

  4. Hi Iain - welcome to our little corner of the Blogging universe.

    My first love was boardgames, but the games that I spent most of my leisure time in my teens to early twenties were role-playing games.

    I only recently got back into board games and german games in 2001, having missed most of the renaissance in 1997-2000 due to having my head down in work.

    I'm really surprised to hear from someone else who's heard of MERP - I have met only one other person who did.

    As for more modern games, your request was one of the reasons why I made this post - I've been out of the new RPG loop for so long, I really don't know any of the new systems. I only recently took an in-depth look at the d20 system, even though it's been around for a while now.

    Apparently d20, GURPS and this other system which I'm not entirely familiar with, "Silhoutte CORE" by Dream Pod 9, are the big contenders now, with Decipher's system (used in Star Trek and Lord of the Rings) pretty close behind. d20, which I don't really like at all, is a big thing these days. Even the new, post-West End Games version of Star Wars RPG is based on it.

    d20 Modern is apparently popular as well:

    d20 for D&D (comparison)

    GURPS has a new edition coming out:

    here's Silhouette CORE rules overview:

    Once again, I'm pretty out of the loop when it comes to RPGs now, so I could be dead wrong about what's popular. I'm only basing these observations based on what I've heard.

    Easy, the "other forum" is one for my WWIIOL gaming group, the 1st Guards Brigade:

  5. It's intersting that your first love was board games, for me it was RPGs, it's just been 17 years since I played properly.

    MERP was popular in Britain. Maybe because we're all Tolkein-junkies? The source-books were *superb*, it's just a pity the rules were such a mess.

    I recommend the GURPS system, it's just a lot of work writing adventures. It's the opposite problem to MERP. I suppose my ideal would be the MERP setting and GURPS system and lots of adventures available to buy.

    Silhoutte CORE and Decipher look interesting. I'll check them out. Please let me know how you get on.

    Iain (