Introduction

This is the new Wednesday content for as long as I can keep up steam on writing it.

These posts are not about a game in general. You can find many fine reviews of any game of your choice at RPGnet. Instead, these reviews are focused on two questions: what are the core game mechanics, and do they accomplish their intended design goals? I’m not really concerned with layout or presentation (though I may complain if this makes it hard to learn the system), or any kind of prose elements. Instead, I’m simply looking at the system and whether it’s interesting, appropriate, elegant, and functional.

My belief is that, while a game in a pretty, well-written book is a clearly better read and will sell better, the longevity of a game primarily depends on the quality of its systems. Eventually, your game book will only be opened when the players can’t remember a rule, and your system will be used every time the dice come out. (Unless your primary focus was a really cool setting, of course, but, even then, it mostly takes one read to internalize that.)

I’ll try to focus these posts only on games I’ve had the opportunity to play, as, sometimes, the utility of a system isn’t obvious until it happens to come up in a game. However, sometimes I’ll feel confident enough in my ability to intuit how a system will work out in play to visit an untested system. I’ll call those out specifically to give people an opportunity to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Speaking of which…

Biases

As I’ve mentioned before, when I run games, I tend to prefer toolkit systems over designer systems. Specifically, I’m a simulationist at heart, despite my situational enjoyment of gamism and narrativism, and prefer game systems that I can internalize as a GM. Ultimately, when running a game, I want to describe the world, have the PCs roleplay with each other and my NPCs with minimal need for systems, and be able to quickly resolve any other scenario that comes up by a small number of core systems. The system should clearly guide the kind of actions that are appropriate to the setting and genre, but the actual mechanics should be non-intrusive.

However, as a purely abstract concept, I enjoy a well-designed system, even if I wouldn’t want to run it. I can visualize other play styles than my own, and many of the games I review without playing may simply be based on whether I imagine the system working for a group that is not mine. In particular, I intuit that a lot of indie systems actually expect the players to be at arm’s length from their characters, describing what goes on within their sphere of control in much the way the GM describes the rest of the game. I don’t really enjoy that mode of play, but I can wrap my head around it, and don’t intend to unfairly dock systems that support it.

For purely mechanical biases, my main tick is that I despise “swinginess.” Any system that uses one die (or two big dice) to generate a result can fall into the trap of mistaking probability for actuality. In play, I’ve seen too many experts fail when the chips are down and beginners get lucky time and time again. Many gamers enjoy this fickleness of the dice, but I don’t consider it a virtue. I will probably be extra hard on systems that I don’t feel adequately compensate for their swinginess (one way is to make certain GMs are encouraged to make vital tasks rely on a series of rolls rather than a single one).

And that’s all I can think of that’s important for now. Next week, we start with a system that certainly can’t be accused of being overly swingy, as it’s the great gothic-punk granddad of fistfuls of dice.

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