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Author Topic: Adventure System  (Read 2284 times)

Spike

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Adventure System
« on: April 04, 2020, 05:50:52 pm »
Disclaimer: I was contacted via PM by the creator of Adventure System offering me a free copy to review. However, due to the timing (It arrived after I had taken a hiatus and thus was over a month old before I returned), I did not accept. However, I feel I should advise you, the reader, that I do feel some minor obligation to not be utterly savage in my review out of respect for the offer.  On the other hand, I also still hold that the best reviews are fundamentally focused on the flaws and failures of a product, regardless of its overall quality.   I do not feel my review is, in fact, compromised, by integrity demands the disclaimer, and so here we are...


I purchased a copy of the PDF on Drivethru for a mere 9.99. I hate reading PDFs in general, but my current circumstances and a desire to expedite this review prevented me from splurging on a full book at this time.  As is my wont, I will review the product as a physical (digital, anyway) object first before delving into the contents.  Obviously there isn't much to say... its a PDF. It does have more than adequate bookmarks, and the cost was very reasonable.  The artwork is acceptable, clearing falling into a single cohesive style, full color.  It has that 'blurred painted artifice' that I generally dislike, but my personal preference is merely that, though I will note that one or two pieces were much worse in this regards than usual.

It is rare that I read the Editor's essay that traditionally accompanies many books, but in this case I made an exception. I found it mildly enjoyable and unfortunately it raised some false hopes for me, as it references 2d10 mechanics for RPGs, and several other comments about play-style that fall neatly into my wheelhouse... which unfortunately does not reflect the mechanics present in this game.

Normally I would divert directly into said mechanics, though I do like to go in order with the book, but I would be doing a disservice to the game if I did not mention the opening fiction.  Game Book Fiction is an often risible topic of conversation, and the overly long and pretentious short stories favored by White Wolf don't help.  However, while the opening fiction itself is rather unremarkable and over-long, it is also, so far as I can tell, the ONLY example of such fiction in the entire book, and more interestingly, later in the book is in fact references explicitly to explain the mechanics of game play at the table. I like this, a lot.   Unfortunately, we need to put a pin in this, as I will be complaining about it a bit later with regards to integral, or perhaps implied, settings.

Mechanically the Adventure System is a very stripped down take on the original Deadlands (or perhaps the Margret Wies Cortex system), as viewed through a lens of 5E D&D.  This is... unfortunate, and there is a lot to unpack here.  

For those unfamiliar with my references, The Adventure System rates a character by using the various Polyhedral Dice common to gaming. Your attributes are rated in die sizes from D2 to D12, your skills are ALSO rated in die sizes from none to d12.   You also have the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic most famous from its implementation in D&D 5E (though I believe Mongoose 2E Traveller beat them to the punch with Boons/Banes by a few months...).  This is the very first system I've seen designed around that mechanic explicitely, and it reveals the horribly shallowness of the concept as nakedly as you can imagine. Mind you: In MongTrav I could appreciate the simple addition, which was almost literally bolted onto the existing mechanics with no other changes, and having (at last) played 5E a few times in the last year, can see how and why D&D was fundamentally altered to bring, for the first time in decades, the numbers into alignment with the dice... in a game where there were no underlying mechanical structures, the Advantage system essentially replaces ALL aspects of game design, and its fucking tragic.  Yes, that obscenity was quite deliberate.

I am a fan, perhaps rather guiltily, of the old Deadlands, and the Margret Wies house system (I was playing a Sovereign Stone campaign with 3E came out an crushed the fantasy market utterly, as well has owning my second copy of Serenity at this time...).  I can fully admit these games are not necessarily mechanically very good, but they are fun and satisfying to play.  But here is a key: You have a number of mechanical systems to augment the core concept of using 'all the polyhedrons', from rolling multiple dice, to adding bonuses to the die total, and often came up with very creative methods to manipulate the dice along the way.

All of that is utterly stripped from Adventure System. You get ONE die and no means to manipulate your odds other than 'Advantage', which is, of course, to roll two dice and take the better, or worse, of the two. That is, fundamentally, the entire system.    Words cannot express the devastation, the wasteland, of gaming potential I see when I look upon this system... and it boils down irreducibly to that singular mechanical idea.

That isn't to say that Adventure System doesn't have other poor ideas in it, mechanically. I can talk about the Fate/Destiny mechanic, where you... again somewhat like OG Deadlands... you spend your potential experience points for benes in game, or the christmas tree talent system, which to be perfectly fair, is one of the better and less annoying implementations of that system.  It also uses toughness checks for hit points, and implements a 'wealth stat' instead of tracking money, which for me has never worked outside of large-scale organizations (Rogue Trader, for example), and even then never without hickups and idiot-ball failings.

Since the actual in play mechanics are stupid simple, lets focus entirely on the components of a character instead.  I have my own well worn prejudices in these regards, so I'll use those as a baseline in discussions

Attributes: Called Statistics here. Whatever floats your boat.  I find that a range of 4 to 7 is ideal, generally, but I'm quite flexible.  Adventure has 12... four physical, four mental and four derived. Though a bit bloated by my standards, the breakdown and 'neatness' of the pattern makes up for that.   Here we are introduced to the basics of the system, so it should be noted that any time you see a +/- 1 in this game it refers only to changing the size of the die, this comes up with surprising frequency in creation.

Skills: Again, I find there is a general 'sweet spot' in the number of skills, lets say 22-36 or so, too few skills and characters are hypercompetent as the skills become unreasonably broad, too many skills and the game devolves into pixel-bitching and convincing the GM to let you roll your Advanced Physics Skill rather than demanding you roll Sub-Orbital Physics, which no one in the party possesses... yes, I do like GURPS, but I am not blind to its flaws.  Adventure System has, at my count, 38 skills, which is 'close enough' to the Sweet Spot that we can let it pass. Here we run into a problem of sorts, one that is the eternal thorn of game design... how to get Stats and Skills to synergize without one overwhelming the other?  Adventure System does not solve this problem... in fact it probably solves it worse than many others...  your Stats merely alter the Destiny (XP) cost of raising your skills.   This is marginally worse, in my opinion, than simply having them not interact at all (say, as in Fragged Empires, among others), but better than having the stats overwhelm the skills (GURPS does this, especially in high point games...).  I think the worst I can say about it is that it is 'too damn fiddly'.

Talents: This is a... topic.  I was an early fan of Feats, a la 3E D&D, before the bloat set in, before the process of chaining feats set in (where you had to commit to buyign the same feat at subsequent levels on some sort of treadmill), and before playing games (Rogue Trader, since I've already name-checked it, or anything like the Savage Worlds system...) where your ever-growing list of 'stuff'... anything remotely descriptive about your character, was relegated to a Feat/Talent or other you had to buy to access.  Have a pet wolf? That's a talent, bub. Three arms? Talent. Steely Gaze? Talent. Last survivor of a doomed race that is utterly identical to humanity? Talent. Able to aim down the barrel of a gun? You better believe that's a motherfucking talent!

Adventure System is, honestly, one of the best implementation of Talents as a growth mechanic I've seen, and that is saying something.  It isn't without its flaws (Literally: Aiming a weapon is a talent, but I think that's the biggest offender in the entire list.).  Mostly, talents are used to track your supernatural abilities, both in accessing them (I has Magic!), and what you can do with them (I has Fireball!), and honestly that is the best possible use for a Talent System... though mixing and matching relatively mundane abilities in with actual magic power is dicey at best, I think Adventure System does a reasonable job in making it work.  

Having got that triad of building blocks out of the way, lets delve a little deeper, shall we?  Full credit to the designers, they do strive mightily to provide a complex and interesting system within the self-imposed limits of their mechanical choices.

Races:  This is rather mixed. The default listed races are almost bog-standard fantasy race material, though some credit goes to being more inclusive by including smart 'monster' races like goblins and full orcs and even 'trolls', rather than just, and somewhat inexplicibly, relegating them to 'sword fodder'.  Simply making your elves 'tall' (6'4") isn't very creative... in fact the heights listed for the races is rather amusing in the wrong way.... our big, menacing Trolls average... 5'10", the same as Humans, while our presumably less big, but still big and menancing orcs are... six foot even.  With the exception of the dwarves, none of the fantasy races really stand out as particularly... not-human sized.  Mechanically they are boring but servicable, with that near obsessive fixation on balance that has come to dominate game design for the last two decades. Again: As a purportedly Universal Game, there are rules for Sci-fi races as well, and thankfully they aren't 'space Furries', but more classic staples like 'Heavy Worlders'. I guess I should note that Adventure System... how to phrase this delicately... pays homage to a lot of 'nerd settings' that you would recognize.  This isn't a complaint... by all means if the existing rules for gaming in certain settings don't 'do it' for you, and you like Adventure System... play them in Adventure System!  Its not like I've never praise Fading Suns for being a 'Serial numbers filed off' for, oh, Star Wars, Dune and other settings all blended together.

What IS lacking in the Sci-Fi races is, well, any actual alien races. I've got a rather uncharitable theory or two as to why, but I'd rather just point out they are missing and move on.  Instead we do get a functional race creation system. Functional, because it essentially is the mechanics of character creation/advancement distilled down and exposed for this purpose. Its a nice inclusion, but in a rather tragic way it also removes any sense of immersion in the various races.  Suddenly Elves aren't mystical creatures, they are humans with certain talents and pointy ears.  THis isn't a failing specific to Adventure System, but rather a side effect of the 'balance uber alles' game design mentality that I mentioned elsewhere.

Alignment: Here I will heap some praise upon the heads of hte designers for their efforts and creativity.  Rather than having an alignment system that is binary and often utterly ignorable, or alternatively a 'be good or else' moral hit point system,  Adventure System tracks three aspects of behavior in positive and negative ratings, with benefits and penalties for moving up or down each leg of the scale.  While it didn't blow my mind, per se, I'm hard pressed to say any morality mechanic ever has, but they seem proud of it, and I honestly can't say their pride is unjustified.  At the end of the day it IS an alignment system, with all that it implies, but it is not binary and static, but rather a dynamic measure of how your character has acted, and that alone is worth noting.

To leaven my praise a bit, one of the three legs is Sanity, which just seems really odd when you think about it. You can make your character less crazy by acting more sane?  In fairness, if we use game mechanics to simulate the 'reality' of fiction, rather than attempting to accurately reflect reality itself, it does work, but we are still implying that Hamlet literally drove himself mad because he pretended to be mad too many times?  Eh, this feels like it might devolve into either a chicken/egg argument or an internet war over the three-fold model, so I'll just stop...

Wealth and Equipment: In general I despite abstracted wealth mechanics. As I get older I increasingly see a fundamental flaw in the paradigm of gaming we have (for the main), where wealth is seen as the only true measure of power, and thus needs to be restricted or abstracted out.... but I digress, and poorly at that.  As Adventure System is, or rather purports to be, a universal game system AND it has no mechanical complexity beyond Advantages, the equipment chapter is about as inspiring and insipid as you can get.  You've got bronze age untanned hide armor listed alongside space age power armor, and none of it rises above mere character color.   In all honesty there is a little more to it than that (power armor is mechanically better than hides, obviously), but not so much that it would strain the very limited, constrained, mechanics of 'fit into this simple die schema'.


To Sum up the Mechanics:  Adventure System feels like a good game that had all the good bits stripped out of it and replaced with a crude One-Size-Fits-All solution.

Now, lets talk Setting. It might seem a bit odd, because Adventure System attempts to set itself up as a sort of universal game system, but it really isn't.  GURPS and HERO, or even CORPS (I do not stand by this last choice...) Can get away with being Universal Systems because they focus on mechanical effects. This can make them a bit bland and 'samey', which is why game designers occasionally run ads 'against' that sort of effects based design.  Adventure System, however, has a metaphysical underpinning baked right into the design, wether the designers intended it or no. By building your supernatural effects as 'mechanically balanced' sets of talents all using the same resolution system, you wind up instead with a very specific implied setting (with, admittedly, flavors), where all these supernatural 'powers' appear based in a single, unstated, metaphysical system.  More: you build right into the system fantasy races, supernatural powers, and high-tech... instead of having a unversal system where anything is possible, you wind up with an implied setting with different timelines. Fantasy past, urban-fantasy present, space-fantasy future, where Orcs and Elves and Dwarves, and elementalist spell casters and Psychic Mindbenders all coexist.

Worse: That in-game fiction that started the entire book (and review? Remember what I said about putting a pin in it? Yeah, I didn't...), gives us exactly that sort of setting, a grim Urban Fantasy modern setting where undead gunslingers face off with goblins in Central Park while a Necromancer harvests magic crystals to trade for an orc shaman's totemic magic...

There is nothing wrong with this setting.  This is an interesting, evocative setting, with lots of playability to it.

But, because they want to be 'Generic Universal System', they won't commit to it, and it is precisely that lack of commitment that galls.  It isn't Generic or Universal, that's not a label you can just slap on something and have it be true.  And honestly? I've got a few big name 'generic' urban fantasy books on my shelf right now, and they all suffer this exact same problem: They give you a very specific setting, only with all the interesting details filed off so they can claim its generic.  Gnoll pimps in D20 Modern are Setting. Undead Gunslingers and goblin gangbangers, and crystal harvesting, are all very specific to a setting, and the game supports that setting reasonably well.  Its that qualifier word, reasonably, that annoys. Commit to the damn setting or actually design a system that truly lacks a setting. We have plenty of examples of how that can be done.

Because once you strip out all the Fantasy Elements you are left with much less of a game. If you include the Fantasy elements you are now stuck with a very specific flavor of fantasy. Its not a bad flavor, but unless you buy the settings also produced (or at least advertised in this book) by this company, you've only got 'half a meal'.


Before I close this out I will have to say that the GMing tips and advice in this book were on point.   As a veteran GM, and one who took to GMing after too many incidents of poor GMing, I found I had nothing bad to say about the advice in this book, and that is saying something.   I will also point out that there is a LOT of stuff in this book that I didn't even touch upon, such as the actual sub-systems of supernatural power, the chapter on Divinities, the massive list of 'Allies and Enemies' and so forth.  Part of that is a simple acknowledgement that nothing in those chapters redeems, or destroys, what I've already covered. If you like the game system presented, you'll probably appreciate all the work that went into supporting it. If you don't like what I presented, then these aren't going to save it.  It would be grossly unfair not to point out that this is a fairly weighty tome, and you are getting an awful lot of book.
For you the day you found a minor error in a Post by Spike and forced him to admit it, it was the greatest day of your internet life.  For me it was... Tuesday.

For the curious: Apparently, in person, I sound exactly like the Youtube Character The Nostalgia Critic.   I have no words.

Mah Book

kennystone

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Adventure System
« Reply #1 on: June 22, 2020, 02:04:31 am »
Thank you so much for the great job well done!