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Author Topic: The least-worst RPG system.  (Read 2172 times)

Valatar

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The least-worst RPG system.
« on: August 02, 2021, 04:35:20 AM »
I'm a picky bitch about my RPGing, striving for a crunchy system that strikes the best blend between verisimilitude and usability.  D20 in particular has always bugged me for a few of my opinions:

Ablative HP per level as a health mechanic sucks.  Higher level characters shouldn't be able to roll around naked in a minefield just because the mines only do 1d10 damage apiece.  A person's health, in the sense of incoming damage they can absorb, shouldn't be constantly increasing for no good reason.

Levels kind of suck.  A corollary of the above, character growth being paired entirely on a concept of levels leads to things like higher-level people being able to ignore being constantly stabbed.  I'm also not a fan of long periods of zero advancement followed by a sudden leap in power when you ding the next level.

Skills as a pass/fail single roll aren't interesting...  D20 has fairly lavish attention to spellcasting and some interesting mechanics for combat, but almost no complexity whatsoever for non-combat skills.  Doing surgery?  Roll 15+ on a d20.  Underwater lockpicking?  15+ on a d20.

...but Powered by the Apocalypse blows.  You might be tempted to think, "Oh!  That new-fangled PbtA system doesn't use a pass/fail skill check..."  Let me stop you right there.  Powered by the Apocalypse is a sham.  The way it's set up, roll 2d6 and the most likely result is that you semi-succeed, is intentionally aiming to get every action a player takes into a bargaining scenario with the GM.  2d6 is so swingy that even if you have a specialized character with every conceivable bonus, you're still pretty likely to halfway botch the thing you're best at, which ruins the world for me.  Since you have to have a total of 10 or better to uncompromisingly succeed at something, even if you have a +3 bonus, which is a very large bonus, you have to get a 7 or better, leaving a 41.66% chance of partially failing.  That is fucking terrible.  And it's terrible in service of the belief that having to go back and forth with the GM to negotiate the result of every roll is making the game better somehow.  It's not.

Weapon damage being static is bad.  A weapon that can only ever do a fixed amount of damage lead to scenarios where a given weapon cannot possibly defeat a given opponent, even taking a critical hit into account, barring houserule stuff like three nat20s being an instakill.  You can have the best swordsman in the world and he won't ever do better than 2d8+8 damage with a 1d8 longsword and a +4 strength bonus, no matter how amazingly he strikes.

What systems do I like better?

Alternity  A colossal failure that crashed and burned, but I think it did a whole lot right.  Your health pool is based off of your stats, not your level.  It does have classes and levels, but those serve more as a framework for what skills and feats one can buy than anything else.  A character's skill ranks have much more bearing on what they're doing than their class level.  Plus the skill checks aren't just pass/fail, there are different degrees of success and failure depending on the roll.  And as a side-benefit, weapon damage scales on how good of a result you get on your attack; you can't ever ignore a random person with a dagger, because getting a dagger stuck somewhere sensitive is bad.

Shadowrun  Since I'm not a fan of level-based systems, it shouldn't be a shock that I like skill-based systems.  Shadowrun has its own issues of course, but I approve of its progression where you can purchase character upgrades piecemeal rather than the all-or-nothing of playing multiple sessions with no advancement, then getting lots of new stuff because of a level increase.  Also has successes on attacks directly feed into a weapon's damage, so like Alternity the better your skill the more likely you'll take down a target.

Fantasy Flight Star Wars/Genesys  I'm not big on custom dice, but that aside there're a lot of good things here.  The system is geared for murky resolutions of imperfect successes and failures with upsides, which is far more interesting than pass/fail binary results.  And the important distinction between Genesys and PbtA is that the "you succeed but there's a downside" is not a foregone conclusion with every roll, but a result of situational disadvantage dice added to the pool for challenging conditions, and can be negated by advantage dice for having good tools/people helping/etc.  If you partially fail it's for a specific reason and not because every roll has a high chance of it.  Advancement is through purchases of skills and talents in bite-sized XP spends, so you can usually upgrade your character with every session.  Character health can be upgraded but not to such a degree that they can disregard incoming bullets, and the system does a good job at capturing a cinematic adventure feel by having disposable minion NPCs, decent challenge rival NPCs, and downright scary main villain nemesis NPCs, and it does so without any of them being HP batteries.

(New) World of Darkness  Old WoD was clunky as hell, a single combat would take all night with roll to hit, roll to dodge, roll to damage, roll to soak, the nWoD update helps hugely with streamlining things.  I prefer the oWoD settings, but it's pretty undeniable that the newer ruleset is a big upgrade.  Like the other systems, it's more skill-based than level-based in progression, attack damage scales with attack roll successes, etc.

2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying/40K  The percentile roll is refreshingly easy as a mechanic, while still having a degrees of success mechanic instead of just pass/fail.  I'm also a big fan of the advancement system where characters can easily purchase upgrades within a career and change careers at will, it's considerably more organic than locking into a class and gaining levels.  The over the top, gory critical hit tables are also a guilty pleasure.  The system is geared heavily towards the setting, I don't know how well it would adapt to a non-Warhammer game, but it does a great job of being a gritty and uncompromising ruleset for a dour setting.


So now that I've gone on at exhausting length about my opinions on rule mechanics, can anyone recommend a system that I have yet to mention that could also fit the bill?  I'm always on the lookout for interesting ways to play.

Pat

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #1 on: August 02, 2021, 07:47:16 AM »
Sounds like almost any game that isn't D&D or PbA, and has a fairly developed skill system, would fit.

Wrath of God

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #2 on: August 02, 2021, 08:11:42 AM »
Also I'd point out - PBTA games don't have skill rolls. They have moves which are like in 88% meta-moves pushing narration in some direction, not fail/win situations. I mean in most cases if you're character simply have being professional of some sort in background DM should just allow do things, unless they trigger moves in fiction. If you play PBTA to win skill challenges... well that's original sin for you. Not that I'm great fan of this style - but this style exists with specific purpose, and this purpose is not catering to quasi-realistic simulationists. Like sure there is high chance for partial success/complications specifically to push story forward with complications, as it's meant to be total impro on GM side based precisely on which moves would go into problematic situations.

I mean I dunno why you even bothered to mentioned it because it never even pretended to be crunchy system with high versimilitude :P

Quote
2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying/40K  The percentile roll is refreshingly easy as a mechanic, while still having a degrees of success mechanic instead of just pass/fail.  I'm also a big fan of the advancement system where characters can easily purchase upgrades within a career and change careers at will, it's considerably more organic than locking into a class and gaining levels.  The over the top, gory critical hit tables are also a guilty pleasure.  The system is geared heavily towards the setting, I don't know how well it would adapt to a non-Warhammer game, but it does a great job of being a gritty and uncompromising ruleset for a dour setting.

If those are elements you liked in 2e you should check 4e. Way more streamlined profession system (which I admit sometimes seems bit wonky because of it) but you also have really gradual 1% per buy advancement of skills and stats, with easy to get, hard to master philosophy (advancements to become competent are way cheaper than advances to become master), professions are not closed with cap - if you are a soldier you can remain low-level soldier and grew into veteran without profession change simply by honing your WS, rather than need to buy sergeant to change +10 into +20, like sergeants were getting some superior sword training or smth. So you can stay all life in one profession and still be powerful (though without much societal push as almost all professions of 1 lvl are not well respected). You have various levels of success and degree, opposed rolls on melee which eliminated 2edition swing and miss situation, the only thing I must say I really dislike is basing magic on skill (Language Magick). Settingwise it's more return to low-humour of 1e, over wargame inspired military post-apo of 2e (though I think it's banal to mix editions with overall Empire situation). Also for better and worse it lacks damage rolls. You have innate weapon bonus + Str Bonus + difference between SL of Attacker and Defender. Give it a check.


Steven Mitchell

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #3 on: August 02, 2021, 08:16:19 AM »
Have you tried any of the Rune Quest variants?  Based on your criteria, I'm not sure which one to recommend trying, but they all hit a fair chunk of your criteria.  Whether or not you'd like Glorantha setting material tied in or not is an orthogonal question.

HappyDaze

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #4 on: August 02, 2021, 08:31:27 AM »
By halfway through your post I was going to suggest the EGG Star Wars system, but I see you got there on your own. Take Genesis and adjust to whatever setting you like. Sadly, the vehicle rules (particularly the interface between scales) leaves much to be desired.

tenbones

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #5 on: August 02, 2021, 09:04:35 AM »
Have you heard of... Savage Worlds?

/puts on hat, whips out his cane, get up on his SWADE Collector's Boxset

Gather round! Gather round, (hey kid, get out of here with that d20... ) Let me tell ya about Savage Worlds....

Small Wound Track 3 levels (Well 4 I guess Incapacitated is the last)

Ranks Well "Levels" kinda sorta. Basically the inevitable reality that your character is going to progress, and when you're made some progression through play you get to choose how your character advances in skill. After so many advances (5) you're considered a new Rank, which might qualify you for some new abilities. Because the advances are so chunky, the difference between "Levels" in most games is more granular and anemic. There are only 5 "Ranks" in Savage Worlds and you can play WAAAAAAYYYY into the 5th Rank (Legendary) where doing so in most Level-based (D&D) games, you'll peter out long before then. Savage Worlds scales in power much better (in relation to D&D).

Roll Skills when it matters Savage Worlds is about keeping it fast and fun. You make your Skill checks only when it matters if you fail. OR you want to dunk on a success. Levels of success matter! Savage Worlds is notorious for its exploding dice, which for swashbuckling adventure is a FEATURE not a flaw. The Skill list is small. The output it very high in versatility. You can dial it up or down in granularity as you see fit.

Static Damage? Can I introduce you to the Explodie? Because Savage Worlds has fairly static Wounds, it allows for the scaling of damage opportunities via skills, Edges, and mechanical options to be much more dangerous. A players is expected to make Called shots to hit that unarmored body-part, to pick up that Combat Edge that is going to let you raise that damage cap, etc. And it's CHUNKY. Yes your longsword does Str. + d8 damage. But when everyone is running around with 4-hp, and the only thing between you is the scaling capacity of your Parry and the ablative effect of Armor (you didn't think it makes you harder to hit, did you?) Combat is dangerous. The better you roll the more bonus damage you do. Then... there is the fact that damage dice Explode.

This combat system scales from kids fighting with sticks in the practice yard, to your super-powered PC's fighting Godzilla Kaiju one-on-one knocking down buildings and everything in-between. It also allows you to do mass-combat of up to planetary scale if you want in ridiculously fast order.

If you want something more "crunchy" - I'd totally recommend Mythras/RQ6

Ghostmaker

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #6 on: August 02, 2021, 09:22:44 AM »
tenbones, I swear to God I think you own stock in Pinnacle. :)

tenbones

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #7 on: August 02, 2021, 09:48:06 AM »
tenbones, I swear to God I think you own stock in Pinnacle. :)

LOL if only I could convince Shane to adopt me.

I'm actually planning on publishing with them. I'm getting my shit together.

Plotinus

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #8 on: August 02, 2021, 09:59:00 AM »
I also thought of Savage Worlds. It does seem to tick all of the boxes the OP listed.

  • No hit points. The number of wounds you can take doesn't go up (or barely goes up), and even a high level character can get crushed by a very lucky roll
  • Frequent, flexible advancement
  • Non-binary check results, except the possibilities are fail/succeed/extra success rather than fail/mixed/success, which both feels better for the players and generally leads to less negotiating with the GM
  • Variable weapon damage, plus exploding dice

But Savage Worlds has a lot of fiddly bits of exception-based mechanics, so I wouldn't be surprised if Valatar can find something to hate. He seems a bit grouchy.

Kidding, kidding! We all have a lot of loud opinions about RPGs around here.

Wrath of God

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #9 on: August 02, 2021, 10:23:33 AM »
Quote
Non-binary check results, except the possibilities are fail/succeed/extra success rather than fail/mixed/success, which both feels better for the players and generally leads to less negotiating with the GM

But also is slightly less interesting.
"Yes, but..." and "No, but..." are usually most interesting.
Like critical success - even D&D have it really :P That's not level of granularity clearly OP was asking about.

Eric Diaz

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #10 on: August 02, 2021, 12:01:00 PM »
There is a number of systems that would work GURPS being the first that comes to mind, including its "Lite" version and the "Dungeon Fantasy" line.
Chaos Factory Books  - Dark fantasy RPGs and more!

Methods & Madness - my  D&D 5e / Old School / Game design blog.

rgalex

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #11 on: August 02, 2021, 12:20:22 PM »
The Dark Eye might be interesting. 

HP are based on your race and Constitution.  Advantages and Disadvantages can modify that a little.  They don't go up unless you raise your Con or buy them up with xp.  Buying them up with xp has a max number of times (7 I think) and you only get +1 each time.

As you lose HP you start gaining Pain.  One level at each of 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 and <5.  Each level gives a penalty to your actions.  There are ways to mitigate this but things can go south real fast with one bad hit.

There are no levels.  You get xp and spend xp.  Everything costs xp.  Raising stats, raising skills, spells, prayers, combat ability, everything.  Certain things cost more than others.  The only thing that is level-like is that characters have an Experience Level at character creation (inexperienced, ordinary, masterly, etc).  This limits your numbers at character creation only.

Skills work on a 3-stat d20 system and results have quality levels.  Every skill is tied to 3 attributes and you have a skill level.  You are trying to get equal to or under your attributes on 3d20.  This isounds like a handful, but it works pretty quick in actual play.

For example, you want to Fast-Talk someone.  You look at the Fast Talk skill and see you have an 8 in it.  It uses Courage, Intuition and Charisma. You have a Courage 12, Intuition 15 and Charisma 14 so you roll (there are a bunch of ways to do this to make it fast, color coded d20s to match the stat color, roll all 3 and just take results left to right, 1 at a time, whatever) and get a 13, 4 and 16. The 13 is one over your Courage so you spend 1 of your 8 skill levels to make is a 12. The 4 passes as it's less than your 15 Intuition and you spend 2 more points to make the 16 a 14.  You pass the roll with 5 points left over so you succeed with 2 Quality Levels.  Each QL can get you extra effects, longer durations, quicker completion time, more damage on spells, depends on what you were rolling for.  If you can't get all three d20s at or below their associated stat, you fail the roll.

Weapon damage is kinda static.  Weapons generally have a 1d6 or 2d6 + a fixed value.  Dagger is a 1d6+1, long sword is 1d6+4, 2-handed battle axe is 2d6+4.  Critical hits exist, as do fumbles, and things can get modified by your combat skill level. There are combat techniques that do things like take a penalty to hit for an equal bonus to damage, charge a foe, feint (penalty to hit for a penalty to their defense roll), etc.

Overall, after running it for several months now, I'd say it is about as crunchy as D&D 3rd or Pathfinder, but the numbers aren't nearly as ridiculous.

Valatar

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #12 on: August 02, 2021, 12:35:12 PM »
I'm definitely grouchy and overly-opinionated, it's how you can tell I'm a nerd with a hobby.  Thanks to all the replies thus far!

As far as PbtA goes, I know that technically a roll is supposed to be representing a whole series of events and isn't as granular as a single skill roll in d20, but the fact that Zorro would have a very high chance of stumbling on any given attack ruins the simulation for me.  The 5% nat-1 auto-miss in d20 already doesn't sit very well with me, so the much higher chance PbtA has of the best fighter in the world not managing to stab a goblin without repercussions completely curdles my milk.

I played an older edition of Savage Worlds back a decade-ish ago in a Deadlands game, I don't clearly recall the ruleset but tenbones certainly piques my interest!  I'll have to give it a look.

Dark Eye is also something that's been on the edge of my radar, but the scarcity of resources for it in English have kept me away thus far.  I need to get off my butt and actually dig deeper.

And yes, WoG is dead on with my love of granularity.

D20:  Miss/hit/crit or pass/fail for skills.
Alternity: Crit fail/fail/ordinary success/good success/amazing success.
Shadowrun/WoD: Botch/fail/success/more successes usually betterer.
Genesys: Sliding scales of successes vs failures, threats vs advantages and occasional triumph or despair.
WHFRP/Savage Worlds: Fail/success/increasing degrees of success for more result.

The more the system can narrow down exactly what happened when I did a thing, the happier I am.  If a player gets a super awesome roll, there should be a super awesome result.  A thing I especially like about Alternity with the control die and Genesys with the boost and setback dice is that getting the super awesome result isn't just randomly rolling high, but often a result of the player needing to arrange as many advantages as possible.  You can still just get a lucky or unlucky roll, but the player has control over the circumstances around the roll and can try to improve their odds.

tenbones

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #13 on: August 02, 2021, 01:47:15 PM »
I'm one of the few Genesys/FFG SW advocates around here as well.

I know exactly what you're talking about.

My pitch about Savage Worlds (I highly recommend you check out the current edition - Savage Worlds ADventurer's Edition, or SWADE), comes from the fact that on its face, it's *extremely* easy to customize. Most of the system is neatly packaged with small numbers, so a tweak can have really large results.

By comparison in D&D, where a basic +1 To Hit is fairly common place, but the numbers in Savage Worlds, a +1 To Hit is equal to a D&D +4 to hit. There is a mathematical compression that gives you mechanically more for much less. And it keeps the bloat down. It can get as fiddly as you want it to be, and it expands its rules via the settings that are produced for it.

This is why I'm particularly excited about SWADE these days with the release of Savage Worlds Pathfinder. It's D&D on a much more flexible and scalable system. Combined with all the other Savage Worlds settings out there... you can get *really* crazy. Savage Rifts is *excellent* and the power-level there is insanely high. The mechanics are exactly the same and there they're not, they're modular so you can plug-n-play.

It's not a perfect system, there are things that I can give or take (Action Deck mechanics, for instance, but they've grown on me, and if I really didn't like them I could replace them with simple dice mechanics). Their is a lot of genre-mileage you can get out of the system.

I'd also give Mythras a look too - since you're a fan of WHFRP2e. It's percentage-based and I feel they share a lot of DNA.


Valatar

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Re: The least-worst RPG system.
« Reply #14 on: August 02, 2021, 04:38:45 PM »
I'm going to wax poetic about nerdy mechanic things because I like them.

Here is Alternity's core resolution mechanic:


You always roll a base d20, called the control die, and possibly other dice to modify the base roll, called the situation dice.  Alternity's a roll-under, so subtracting is good and adding is bad.  The GM sets the difficulty, there are some generic modifiers in the book for things like being wounded, assistance from other characters, etc.  But also of interest, the target numbers are always static.  If your stat+skill is 16, you succeed at <=16, get a good success at <=8, and an amazing success at <=4, always.  Opposed checks against someone else alter your situation dice depending on their stat rather than changing the target you're rolling for.  Trying to hit a slippery little bastard might give you a +3 step penalty, for example.

I find this setup extremely elegant.  High stat and skill improve your chance at success and also improve your chance of better successes, so a character who sucks at something but gets a lucky roll is still probably not getting a good or amazing success.  On the other hand, you can always snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if the situation dice are bad, so it's in a character's best interests to try to stack the deck as much as possible.  Trying to shoot a ninja in the dark when it's raining and while you're bleeding out is not a recipe for success for even skilled people.

Another cool item for Alternity is the health system.  It uses stun/wound/mortal health tracks, somewhat like Shadowrun's stun/lethal health track setup.  If you take any mortal damage, you will die without medical care, full stop.  There's no walking off a bullet in your liver or eight hour resting away a knife in your lung.  Mortal damage doesn't necessarily incapacitate a character, but it will inevitably progress to death if untreated.  Fortunately taking mortal damage isn't common, you need to be hit with a big nasty weapon, be hit with an amazing success with a normal-ish weapon, or fill your whole wound track.  Armor is ablative and mitigates damage rather than making you harder to hit, also nicely realistic, and even if it completely absorbs an incoming blow some secondary stun damage can get through from you being rattled around.

So much about Alternity was amazingly thought out, it's a terrible shame that it was released in TSR's death throes.  If it had come out under another, healthier company, I think it could've been a real contender.