I was sent a link recently to a kickstarter for a new roleplaying game called Circle of Hands. I was really intrigued as doing a kickstarter to try to print Heroes By Trade is something I have been seriously thinking about. I won't be doing that until I feel like the game is complete though as I can't see the use in putting a half baked effort out there. It has to be right before I will be willing to ask people for chunks of money to produce it professionally.
Unfortunately the creator of Circle doesn't share the same ideals I do it would seem. It is pitched as a gritty, realistic, fine grained system that simulates Iron Age combat in a fantasy world. All well and good that, but unfortunately the system has egregious examples of balance issues and the production quality of the document is ... sad. I am not expecting gorgeous full colour pictures and professional layout but I was hoping that examples would actually contain, you know, examples, instead of just the word example. An example should be more like the following:
Two handed axes are pitched as extremely dangerous, brutal weapons. They add +1 to damage. Swords are pitched as less dangerous weapons that can be paired with shields. Swords also add +1 to damage, but that +1 could also be applied to defense instead and the shield they are paired with reduces damage taken by 4. So what use is that giant axe again?
I don't know exactly what fine grained combat is meant to mean, but I think Circle fails. Because the system doesn't have a hit point basis but instead reduces physical stats when you take damage, and then your stats suck so you can't win anymore, what it amounts to is the first person in a combat to take a hit just dies. Brutal is certainly accurate, also short, but when a fight simply comes down to rolling 2d6 against the opponent and if you roll low you make a new character I don't see that as 'fine grained'.
What it comes down to is that if you are actually going to build a system with no tactics, no relevant combat decisions, and a massive reliance on luck you should pitch it as such. There are system out there that work this way, where combat is a simple contest of skill without actually working out each hack and slash. There are also systems totally based on roleplaying that presume that combat simply isn't something that will occur at all. Those systems are fine, and detailed combat systems are fine. Circle, on the other hand, is a DnD derivative with terrible mechanics.
The author has value to bring to games but it is wasted here. He obviously has a ton of knowledge of history and lots of creative ideas for world building and magic systems. Blog posts he has written indicate an understanding of some of the flaws of DnD and other similar systems. Unfortunately he does not have talent for writing game mechanics and figuring out numbers. This is the trouble with small productions; it is hard to have a single person talented enough to do a good job at all the various parts of building something as complex as an RPG. I suspect he and I could do wonders building a game together as I would make the math work and he could write flavour.
If Circle can get six grand of funding even with all of its manifest flaws then I really ought to get HBT in shape. The trick for me is getting the initial pitch and the taglines right as the author of Circle has certainly done that.