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23 April 2013 @ 08:43 pm
Dungeons & Design 2: Realism or "realism"  
Here's the thing--I love fiddly subsystems, mechanical distinctions, and options. I love Elder Scrolls-style alchemy with dozens of ingredients and mixing effects. I love New Vegas-style gun and ammo crafing, with each gun having 5-6 different ammo types and reasons to use them in different situations. I love modifying weapons individually with mods that are specifically designed for them. I love mods like Imp's More Complex Needs that individually track your nutrient intake separate from your total caloric intake so my post-apocalyptic warrior can't survive by eating five boxes of Sugar Bombs every day. I love tactical combat on a grid (square or hex) with facing, flanking, maneuvers like disarming and tripping and shield bashing, combined attacks from multiple opponents, etc.

The problem is that doing most of that at the table is a giant pain in the ass.

It is a truism that most fantasy heartbreakers start with people who don't know anything about RPGs other than D&D look at D&D, think something isn't "realistic," and decide to make it more so, usually by making it more complicated, and pretty soon you're using calculus to calculate falling damage so that the 20th level fighter can't just tackle a guy off a mile-high cliff and walk away from the impact[1].

As much as I love fiddly bits, that's a trap I don't want to fall into. It does help that I've played plenty of other RPGs before, so there's stuff I can borrow from them, but my instinct is always to come up with a comprehensive, cohesive, and detailed system to cover any case I can think of. The problem is that doing too much of that leads to a sprawling, unwieldy mess that just gets ignored in actual play because it's too hard to remember everything and too slow to look everything up.

This is the tension I have. Any rule in a tabletop game is always a push and pull between complexity and speed. Computers allow you to combine both of them at the same time, but lose the adaptability that a human GM provides.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of RPGs (clearly wrong, but let's go with it for the purposes of this post). The first are those that use the rules to attempt to model the physics of the fictional world, which is followed by D&D 3.x and Rolemaster and Exalted, to the degree that Essence motes are both the resource used to fuel the Exalted's powers and an in-game known quantity--the study of Essence is called "Motonics" in-setting. The second are those that use the rules to model the way the story should flow, which is followed by FATE or Tenra Bansho Zero and most focused indie games like Fiasco or It Was a Mutual Decision or Mountain Witch.

Or Jenna Moran's Dreaming Waters, which has two sets of five stats each, with one group including "Harm" and "Teach" and the other including "to superiors" and "to friends," and you match one from each set when you do anything. It's a neat system to read, but I'm not sure I'd want to play it because there's nothing concrete that any particular set is modeling.

The first kind of RPG trend more towards complexity, and the second kind trends toward speed. Most of my experience is in the first category, because that's explicitly what I view as more "realistic," and I use quotes there deliberately. Defining realism in any kind of fantasy setting is a near-impossible task, both because of Argumentum ad Fireballum and because there's plenty of mythic examples from our world where people kill gods in battle or go into unstoppable berserk rages that literally turn them inside out or use their mighty thews to divert rivers, none of which is defined as "magic" as modern people would recognize it.

Anyway, I did start with that kind of fantasy heartbreaker approach I mentioned earlier. Classes and levels are "less realistic" than a skill-based system, so I'd rather have skills. Hit points are "less realistic" than meat points, so I'd rather have being hit represent an actual injury. That kind of thing. This all started when I found Kenneth Hood's Grim-n-Gritty, so that's obviously going to be the direction I'm taking, but I don't want to descend into the point where I need a laptop with me to figure out anything that's happening in-game.

This is more of a philosophy or a bunch of random scribbles than an actual design post, but I figured I'd lay it out at the beginning. The next post I'll deal with why I don't like d20s and what I'm planning to do about it.

[1]: Of course, since Reality is Unrealistic, there are people who have done just that.
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