Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The bar is kinda low

I have been hitting up my friends to get my hands on their old, worn, outdated roleplaying manuals.  While much of what I would find in the tabletop RPGs of my youth is terrible, thought I, there will certainly be gems of insight, useful ideas or mechanics I can incorporate into Heroes By Trade.  I had forgotten just how bad these old games were.  Not just the mechanics, which I remembered as being bad but are worse than that, but the awful old black and white line drawings that pose as 'art' and the layout which leaves much to be desired.  You would think that in the 4th edition of a manual it would be highly readable, well organized, and properly referenced... you would be wrong.

In particular I have been reading Palladium's Ninjas and Superspies and Cyberpunk and have just been floored at the complexity of character design.  Huge numbers of skills, immense lists of gear, incomplete or inconsistent rules descriptions, and a 'realistic' combat system combine to leave new players gasping for air.  The assumption was, I suppose, that new players would hack together something at random, be killed by the 'realistic' combat and then set aside six hours or so to make a new and better character.  Coming from recent play experience with DnD where characters start off with only a few options and gradually add new ones the idea of having 20 different combat maneuvers for a new player seems absurd.

It is a massive cultural shift.  The old games were happy to be niche products, well designed for obsessive twinks with huge amounts of time to memorize enormous rulebooks.  Being accessible to new players was obviously not a design priority and it was clearly fine that some characters would be five times as good as others.  The books say as much very explicitly "If you feel like a character is out of line, go ahead and waste them.  That is the Cyberpunk way."  Rather than setting up a system where people have some guidelines you are instead supposed to just let people do whatever and then kill off their characters if they cross some invisible line in the sand.

I am not much of a fan of that sort of design.  As a player I found it frustrating when I built a character to do something well and the DM decided I needed to be punished.  As a DM I hated it when people who built a character by some reasonable set of standards felt utterly useless as twinks eclipsed them.  Being good at some things and bad at others is fine; being useless all the time is not.  I feel like extremely complex, unbalanced mechanics that massively favour experienced, obsessive types (which describes me perfectly) are really only good at stroking those people's egos and are crap for making a good game.

Some credit is due, though, so I should give it.  The lore and fluff in these old manuals is really good.  They had great imaginations, these folks, and could write.  Unfortunately their mathematical and organizational talents weren't up to the same standard.

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