Cost in Translation

So, I whine a lot about how some RPG system does things better than some other system. My latest thing, perhaps it will change, perhaps not, is to laud L5R (3e or 4e). I’m finally taking a look at adapting roll and keep to something else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with Solomon Kane (Savage Worlds engine). It’s way better than alternatives such as d20. I have the sense that my players (in my campaign, not the flawed one shot I ran of Victorian Age SK) don’t find combat as tedious as I do, so it’s not exactly necessary to switch. It’s just that, rather than running something new when I’d much rather play than GM, taking something I theoretically run (um, September wasn’t that long ago), I can see what’s what with a system switch on something I’m already involved in.

But, let’s look at some things to try to figure out why I’m so enthralled with L5R. Savage Worlds tries to divorce attributes from skills in that attributes limit rather than support skills, and attributes aren’t rolled all that often. Admittedly, attributes in d20 aren’t rolled that often either, but whatever. This is counterintuitive. The idea of attribute + skill for resolution is incredibly powerful, whatever spin a game puts on it. Both games explode dice, which I’m in favor of, but I have little feel for SK as to what is good, bad, expected. I don’t feel like a d8 skill is all that much better than a d4 skill, yet from an XP or flavor perspective, it’s rather important. Meanwhile, there’s a massive difference between 3k2 and 4k3 or 4k3 and 8k3+5.

SK is loose about things, a lot of Hindrances have no defined mechanics; it has an “open to GM fiat” feel to it … which I like. However, the more I play systems designed to be rules light/lite, the more I realize that too few rules creates greater!! complexity. FATE pretends to be rules light and is a disaster of trying to figure out what you can/should do, at least in my experience, so different from FUDGE games I’ve played where it’s just roll your dice and that’s what level of success you got. Even if you don’t have a bunch of weird “these aren’t really complicated, no really, rules” tacked on to make a system more than just “GM says so”, you still get systems where it’s basically “GM says so” as so many things are left to interpretation.

Meanwhile, I, of course, rather disdain a lot of fiddly crunch. To me, L5R hits the sweet spot in terms of putting mechanics on things you do and not making it a chore to resolve things. Perhaps I can steal a term thrown about at work all of the time and call it scalable – simple things are handled simply, complex things are more complex; the huge selling point of Magic as a CCG is that it scales really well, where most CCGs (worth playing) are too complicated at first. It’s not that SK is that far from that spot, but I’ve already noticed with translating characters that I can put defined mechanics on things that have none in SK a lot more easily without also having to make a mechanical mess out of what characters should be able to do.

It’s been interesting so far getting into the details of the migration. I always forget just how hard it is to house rule RPGs on a wide scale. The porting over of attributes and skills is relatively easy, though I’m using SK skills rather than L5R skills for the most part. Honor, Glory, Status – also not much of an issue. It’s Edges, Hindrances, what to do about Bennies (they aren’t going away!), stances, magical powers that I’ve been really loose about in SK, Initiative – keep cards? switch to dice? try both? – and so forth that keep making me think. Also, I’m realizing that I want some of 3e and some of 4e L5R. I like Defense Stance (can easily dispense with Center Stance) and how the Defense skill only matters when Defending, though I could use the 3e rules here to simplify and try to avoid having to juggle three rules sets.

One of the things I have the least idea how my players feel about is the mystery Edges I’ve given their characters. I suppose I could just ask. To me, uniqueness/specialness of PCs is fundamental and every PC should break the rules. On the other hand, not knowing what you can do and having problems solved by something out of your control is something I can find grating, so I can see it coming across as heavy-handed. I also have the tendency to try to hide too much information and make the players guess. While I’ve dropped hints about what their mystery Edges have to do with, it may not be interesting to try to figure out, and there’s still the issue of putting mechanics to something so that it feels like a resource rather than a “thank you, GM” situation. While I could have done something about putting mechanics around the SK versions, I think part of not doing that is that I don’t really have a strong mechanical sense of the system and so many other things are not defined. In translating to L5R, I find that I can at least come up with some mechanics for these mystery Advantages to where the players have some control.

One of the things I find somewhat bewildering is that people seem to think that using L5R for another genre than fantasy pseudo-Japan means removing the Honor mechanic. I find that the Honor mechanic is great for defining things coherently. Conan? How do you determine whether you should lose your Code of Honor? How about by tracking actions on an Honor scale? What should being Honorable do for you (that isn’t stupidly broken like Conan’s CoH rules)? How about using your Honor scale for some sort of mechanic? One of my SK PCs has Code of Honor – now I have some idea of how to mechanize that rather than say “I don’t think you would do that”. It’s also rather easy to decide what Honor some character should have even though they don’t live in a homogenous society like Rokugan. It’s Status that’s the hassle, since being a European muckymuck doesn’t necessarily mean anything to tribal natives, nevermind that the scale for Status (and Glory, oddly) in L5R is weighted oddly to reflect Rokugani society. While determining Glory is not so clear at the moment, how to use Glory is pretty easy (3e style, not 4e where it does nothing, which, admittedly, is very easy).

That I’m also messing around with XP costs, since I hate rising costs, and wound charts does not make the process any easier. Given how many wounds people seem to be getting, now, it seems like damage isn’t high enough, which is not only the precise problem I was looking to address but also the usual problem I have when coming up with my own house rules on games – everything is way too hard to k- … incapacitate.

I’d have to say that the number one reason not to try to fix a RPG system is that it leads you down a rabbit hole of constantly fixing more and more things. Why do SK characters use rapiers when they kind of suck? How about not making them suck? Well, then, what’s the relative damage on firearms? Is this Advantage worth N pts.? Undercosted? Can’t ask for help from anyone else since the rules aren’t familiar to them anymore. So much time spent on mechanics when people just want to roll (and/or role) play.

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One Response to Cost in Translation

  1. Azel says:

    Ew, wound charts. That’s like hit tables, no? God, hit tables used to drag gameplay down, unless you had a few Calculator Players playing, who memorized all the charts and tables. Definitely placed combat out of most players hands and into either min/max players or “Xtreme” dice randomness.

    L5R honor system reminds me about AD&D 2.5 Dragon articles about using Piety in one’s game. I thought it was an awesome idea, and not just for priest/paladin players. In fact, playing Crusader Kings (video game published by Paradox) makes me think of L5R’s Honor, Status, Glory relevance even further. Crusader Kings uses some European titles (King, Duke, Count, etc.), Prestige, and Piety. Higher title status gave one more potential control over domain, whereas Prestige was really where it was at in terms of people relating to you.

    But back to piety. Piety became a powerful way to further distinguish oneself among European nobility. And since Papal control went to the noble with highest piety (their diocese bishop gets installed as Pope), even a lowly, backwoods count could end up with Papal influence (and excommunication power!). Seeing that so much of traditional AD&D defaults to a pastiche of European Middle Ages, I could easily see the utility in porting over L5R Honor, Glory, and Status rules. Perhaps I might lean honor more towards an interpretation of piety, but otherwise quite compatible.

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