I’ve been thinking about fantasy RPG systems. In particular, it’s the age old question of what FRPG system I would want to use. Hardly exciting. Can already predict talking about L5R’s sweet spot with mechanics and flawed world. But, I started thinking about some specifics.
First of all, what games are FRPGs? I don’t mean so much whether Shadowrun counts as fantasy or whether mixed genre games should go in their own, though this is relevant. I mean more that there’s a particular subtype of fantasy role-playing that I have in mind.
Conan d20 is certainly a FRPG, but it isn’t what I’m concerned with at the moment. Conan simulates swords and sorcery, a genre with limited magic and where supernatural elements are typically rooted in the “bad”, the enemy. Or, if “good”, only show up to counter evil.
What I’m wondering about these days is what system would I play something like Wheel of Time in or Spellsinger or Young Kingdoms – worlds where magic is in the hands of the heroes. There is a Wheel of Time d20 supplement, yet there’s no way I would want to use d20 as a base. Young Kingdoms is covered by the Chaosium model, which I have no interest in either.
Why not these systems, though?
Too mechanical. Too much accounting. I feel like I’m playing a MMORPG, which should give an idea of how pointless I view 4e D&D, which is an obvious MMO ripoff.
Starting characters are too weak. Experience benefits are too slow and awkward. Feats are boring. The only thing I actually like about d20 is the skill system and “improvements” on d20 keep trying to “fix” the skill system. I don’t even like how d20 or any D&D version does attributes, even though it’s the 3-18 system that I was first introduced to and has been used extensively in RPGs. I hate using a d20 for resolution as to me it produces far too much variance and too many dull rolls.
I can’t speak to how well the magic system works for D&D d20, too little experience too long ago.
RuneQuest, Stormbringer/Elric, Call of Cthulhu, Basic Role-Playing, etc. d100 resolution has the same problem as d20 resolution, only providing more “empty” values – rolls that don’t interest me in any way.
All of these games are far too crippling to PCs in my experience. In our RuneQuest play, I just figure that a limb will be lost every fight, that death is two or three hits, that combat doesn’t really work unless you are superior to the enemy, have a bunch of potions (mainly Heal 6’s to restore limbs), and enough PCs know Healing 2 or Xenohealing 2 for recovery and stopping bleeding.
It’s RQ that inspired me to about a few things. The first is the usual problem I have with features such as hit location, bleeding, fumble charts that screw over PCs. Other than building the “there’s no symmetry between PCs and what they fight” arguments for why these things suck, which is kind of interesting when you think about just how much difference there is and how that impacts game design, there’s not much gained from this line of thinking.
The more interesting line of thinking for me that got me on this kick was two-fold: what sort of magic system I want to see when the PCs are expected to be spellcasters; how games should handle recovery.
The more I’ve come to participate in RQ’s magic system, the less it makes sense to me from a marketing standpoint. Much like Vampire: The Masquerade made a mistake by having variety of abilities at discipline dot levels PCs wouldn’t have and not at the levels that players care about, RQ is all about having this giant world of magic that PCs barely touch.
Even Battle Magic, which is readily attainable, depletes power points in a death spiral way and the costs of learning it are absurd relative to our income. My recollection is that, in fact, the intention is to limit each PC to a few spells. Unfortunately, that rules out the focused spellcaster and just causes everyone to look the same, which is the number one thing that I complain about.
Then, there’s Rune Magic, which seems like it would be important. It’s laughable how poor the incentives are. Sure, we are dumb and don’t sacrifice to learn Rune Magic every chance we get, which seems to be the way the game is supposed to be played. But, even so, when I knew a Rune Spell, I never wanted to cast it, just like any one-shot effect that seems good is something no one wants to ever use. Even at Rune Lord, every spell is a one-shot. To actually play the game they talk about requires a bunch of Rune Priests, which I’ve been told shouldn’t be adventuring, anyway.
So, what should a “PC magic” system look like? Daily spell slots? It might get tiresome to hear, but I do think it works with L5R, though maybe only because the need to cast is relatively rare. I actually have found, in my not so recent experiences, that D&D spell slots work okay.
Power points? I don’t find this to work. It’s all about replenishment rate. In games with this mechanic, I find someone blows their wad out in a fight and, then, can’t do anything forever. In Conan, sorcery is better suited to bad guys as they can replenish with human sacrifices. But, then, Conan isn’t a “PC magic” system.
Which brings us to Fantasy Hero. The Hero engine was intended for Champions, and it often shows in how the system often doesn’t capture the flavor of genres without a lot of work under the hood. On the plus side, the engine is so customizable from a power standpoint (the skill system blows), that you can eventually find a particular flavor.
Anyway, if you play it without a bunch of limitations, casting a spell is pretty much just a factor of making a skill roll (which blows) and spending END. Rechargability is easy, so you can produce consistent effects (depending upon making skill rolls) each and every fight. This is more what I’ve been thinking of when it comes to recovery.
I find that recovery can be a huge problem. In Conan, sure, you will get your hit points back after three days of rest, but fighting back to back major fights is crippling. L5R is not remotely designed for multiple battles in a row – shugenja will run out of Water slots for healing fast and possibly all slots; Void Points will be gone by the second fight. Another case of how D&D does things better, as the whole engine was built around the idea of multiple fights.
Take an extreme example. You fight a major battle with everyone a mess and half your offensive spells gone. Clerics replace enough hit points and the other half of the offensive spells enable a second engagement of the same level. When tapped out (spellwise), you are done for the day. Now, of course, D&D’s dungeon crawling philosophy is predicated upon the idea that you can secure a part of the dungeon long enough to refresh, which is not different from other situations where you know when you have to stop and you stop.
With Fantasy Hero, if you want to enable an easily recharged battery, it’s simple to have that recharged battery. Can take five phases, or whatever, to replenish END every fight. I think a lot of people are opposed to this. I’m not sure if they’ve thought it through or not, but I can see how it sounds wrong.
If you can instantly recover (heal, have full spell options, etc.) after every fight, then what’s the real cost of a fight? Preventing death could be, though death is not a viable option in some worlds, like worlds that make any sense. A lot of adventures don’t have a viable alternative to winning a fight. In fiction, you would just get captured or you would fail some mission critical objective, like preventing the damsel from being whisked away or a village being burned to the ground.
Being captured has often been considered worse than death in the hack and slash world. After all, can get resurrected, but being captured means losing stuff, and stuff is the game’s god.
Okay, I forgot to mention earlier another thing that always bothers me in FRPGs that I’m choosing to dredge up. I hate stuff. I hate external power. To me, characters and not just fantasy characters should be defined by what makes the character special and not how special their stuff is.
Admittedly, in certain cases, a character is tied to stuff. Elric is tied to Stormbringer, even if he is special without it. There’s a certain allowance that can be given to a character, though only when the stuff is unique.
I particularly hate armor. I quickly got tired of AD&D’s armor system where you always chose the heaviest armor you could. RuneQuest is exactly the same way. I don’t care if it’s realistic or not. It has terrible flavor, and again, it makes everyone the same. I find that in RQ, every single one of my characters gets exactly the same armor because any other choice is moronic. For a variety of reasons, Conan has grown in my esteem, but one thing I always credited it with was that armor was something to be minimized. Sure, it’s hecka useful to have some, more so than I thought for quite a long time, but in a world where the outdoors matter, anything above light armor is suicidal.
So, what system succeeds in the stuff department? Conan does a very good job, even though some weapons are much better. L5R does well enough, though 4e is a step back with how powerful armor turns out to be.
None Of The Above
And, so it goes. I may really like L5R at the moment, but I have major questions as to how adaptable it is to more generic fantasy with even just the system. I suppose anything can be house ruled, with house ruling the closest system being more sensible than another. I could change basic healing in L5R to something where you pretty much restore all your wounds after every fight without Path to Inner Peace.
But, I wonder. I wonder if I’m overcomplicating things and missing an obvious choice if all I wanted to do was dungeon crawl or reflect a specific fantasy genre where magic resided heavily in the party. AD&D or oD&D would probably be fine for dungeon crawling. As for high fantasy, I’ve already argued that the nature of it is antithetical to mechanics. Medium fantasy, for lack of a better term, is not even something I have a clear grasp on. Maybe Spellsinger would fall into it. Maybe when you cross swords and sorcery with high fantasy, as Moorcock does, you get a balance rather than two different genres.
Maybe if I understood Ars Magica better. Maybe if I went to the trouble of playing around with Fantasy Hero (and just ignore how much I hate skills in Hero). Savage Worlds isn’t going to do it – I never developed a good sense of the mechanics. RQ, in theory, could be made more palatable to me, but it would completely change the nature of the game, and it would likely be less palatable to others.