April 30, 2009

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Intro

Quick Introduction: 'names Tom, 32 years old, fairly grognard on the continuum, though I often follow the Rule of Cool as made famous by Chatty DM.  I have played D&D since basic, but I must admit its not my favorite system, though it is rather easy to pick up and play. I have been encouraged to blog-ize some thoughts and musings on RPG's and RPG mechanics by a good friend, so well here goes. What I am interested in and what I will be sharing are feelings/ideas/improvements on the building blocks of a good RPG. The ultimate goal would be a mechanic that was easy to use while keeping the players sense of 'reality" (i.e. suspension of disbelief) towards the end of having more engaging, interactive, and thrilling adventures.
Lets face it, D&D and RPGs in general are basically the ultimate choose-your-own adventure. Each player plays a character they could imagine in a Lord of the Rings movie (or Blade Runner etc.) and acts out both the personality and actions of that character. It goes without saying that the reward is to see what your character would accomplish and what friendships would be made if you were "there" in that campaign setting. Can you find your sister? Save the princess? Stop the raising of a long-dead Cthulu god? Make it from rags-to riches in post-apocalyptic earth?

OK, we go: Yeah, you search and then you find her. Then you save the princess from a dragon. Then you stop the cult from raising Cthulu just in the nick of time. And yeah... you get rich and become ruler of the world. OK campaign done.

Happy? No? Which brings me to my first point.

The story is no fun without struggle and problem solving. No matter how cool the story is, its just a cool novel unless it is driven by player decisions. If the mechanic is good enough, the outcome of the dice/rules will fit with the players mental image of the scene being played out.  If the mechanic is good enough, even the most humble goal is still exciting to achieve. A lousy mechanic just breaks the feeling that you are "there" and then it is just your buddy telling you arbitrarily whether you succeeded or not.

I have played a decent number of RPG systems, I’m sure some of you have played more. D&D since basic, Marvel Super Heroes, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Judge Dredd, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, whatever.. theres no need to belabor the list. And I think we can all agree there are things we like about each and every system. The merit/flaw system from GURPS. The success chart of Marvel super heroes. The wounding mechanic of Judge Dredd. Destiny points first done in Warhammer Roleplay over a decade ago. The skill web from Shadowrun. Vehicle combat from the latest WotC Star Wars RPG.

So why do we like these elements? Is there something in common? Is there a way to combine or adapt them?

Can we come up with a better core mechanic? (An can we come up with one that uses d20 at its underpinnings?)

This is what I have been musing on with old college geek friends for over a decade. Please be sure there is no vanity here. I'm sure my musings are just as flawed as anything else. There not even really mine, sort of an amalgam of discussions and thoughts from many friends and an entire childhood of gaming. I am really curious of other peoples thoughts and solutions.  On the other hand, D&D 4E has a solid system right now, that is easy to get into, so if you are satisfied with it, just stop reading and go have fun!

But if you are like me, you feel hindered by the current rule set. All too often the results of the dice feel random and arbitrary, and more like I am playing WoW than actually _being_ Lothar, Barbarian of the Hill People.  The 'official-ness' of the rules brooks very little deviation from them.  Just take the 60 year old Regent, level 12 hero, who no matter how the dice lay, can survive any fall short of a few hundred feet. Hell why even build stairs?

Similarly, many times in my current campaign (as a player) I say something I want to do, and there’s no mechanic or even a guideline on how to handle it. At least 50% of my actions and decisions never end up having any meaningful game effect. Unless I fit exactly into a 5' by 5' square, have the appropriate feat, and never move diagonally, the game doesnt know what to do with me.

OK moving along.....

What I hope to discuss in future posts are the following, in no particular order
  1. statistical distribution (flat vs. bell vs. Poisson vs. logarithmic)
  2. target hitting vs. damage (i.e. the blow dart vs. the sledgehammer)
  3. Overbear rules
  4. Fate / Force / Destiny
  5. Feat design and merits/flaws at character generation
  6. Luck based skills vs. experience based skills (i.e. firing a crossbow vs. speaking French)
  7. Magic mechanics
  8. Vehicles / large monsters
  9. Wounding, healing, and dying
  10. Shock/blood loss
  11. High level characters and skills
Once again, the goal is not to make a stat400 course. Ideally I would like to use the D20 system as the base from which to build on. The goal is to come up with house rules, or an alternate mechanic, that more easily and flexibly lets player input affect game outcomes and more closely fit the cinematic expectations and likelihood of success or danger players imagine in their heads during a game. Storytelling takes ropes the players in emotionally (if your  a good DM), while the closer the fit between characters attributes, danger, and outcome, the greater the thrill intellectually. Most people love the Lord of the Rings, and in that movie the most impressive feats are walking on snow and a grey colored cloak. Hell the final battle is just to drop a ring in some lava. It was the struggle of the characters through perceived danger that was so endearing and made the story so rewarding.

More to Come. -- Tom W.

The above image was taken from Rory's Story Cubes. They looked so cool I just had to order a set for myself - we'll see how they turn out. -- jonathan.


  1. I very much look forward to this series. My friends and I have struggled with this same concept lately. We all are quite limited in our experience. Mostly D&D and Star Wars Sagas.
    To us, there's a bit of a Catch-22 in the system mechanics. For people who crave the level of detail you're discussing, but don't have the time to play more than 2 nights a month, it's difficult to deny that the oversimplification WotC has done is a positive thing. It makes for a more lasting experience. But if we gamed any more frequently, yes it would be quite disappointing, and a lot more taxing on the group to push beyond that box the rules draw around you. My personal main concern with the direction of the mechanic is that it caters to lowered expectations. It caters to not pushing yourself to "think." And it makes D&D nothing more than a board game. Younger generations who pick up 4E as their first D&D experience won't know better. But I digress. As I said, looking forward to future posts. Sounds like similar conversations we've had. Oh, and sorry for the wall of text. I'm not HTML savvy.

  2. To tell the truth, I have always liked WoD's dice pool resolution mechanic to the d20 system.

    Not entirely sure why, but their character sheets have always felt more "alive".

    One DOES get tired of playing whiny vampires and angry werewolves though.

    Wish they has a storyteller system for fantasy/sci-fi RPGs.

  3. CURSES! I wanted to preview this post as a draft but didn't get the time to last night. It lived up to my hopes though.

    Anyhwhoo.... I'm actually in the final stages of development on a ultra-realistic cinematic game system, that covers just about all of your basic fundamentals and addresses them very well. The only things we're missing is rules for animals and monsters (which are very hard when you go simulationist, I could just fudge up some numbers but that would be inconsistent with the high quality of the rest of the game) and the rules for any sort of magic (which will always be setting specific anyways).

    One thing I think you should look at when you ever want a rule set that maintains some degree of realism is throw levels and level-scaled hit-points as far away as you possibly can. That alone will improve game realism a ton.

  4. I am really pleased to see how much you all look forward to this series! I am finishing the edits on part one: statistics, I will finish it tonight. I similarly cant wait to hear your ideas on these topics as well!

    @ spitfire: wow, we feel literaly identical about 4E. not being a natural writer though, I think you said it best yourself in that lead comment.

    @ Donny: Its funny you say about WoD that becasue I was thinking of mentioning the same feelings in my upcoming statistics entry! I dont know what it is about the iterative dice model, but it certainly does make the the game feel much more 'alive'. I hope we can together figure out what exactly it is that does so, so we can incorporate similar changed into D20.

    @ Helmsman: *drool* I would love to get my hands on these rules you wrote. In the coming series I will share somne of the work-arounds my college gaming group came up with, but its easy to get your mind stuck in a rut. I hope you can share tidbits from your rules, I am really interested in your game system!

  5. @ donny - sorry was reading your post too fast, didnt see that last part ---> There are a few iterative dice model rulesets for fantasy/sci fi. Exalted fits the bill pretty well for 'mythic' fantasy setting. The old 2nd edition of shadowrun (not any of the modern editions which are a lot of rubbish) handles sci fi well.

    Tom W

  6. @ Tom Hey someone else who knows a thing or two about Exalted AND is interested in the game I'm working on, we'll have to talk sometime.


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