Mini-reviews from pandemic gaming
I recently talked about how I’ve been able to play longer game series during the pandemic; this provided me in-depth views of several systems. Today I focus on “trad” games, RPGs rooted in the early years of role-playing even if they have been published in the last decade: 13th Age, Paladin (Pendragon),Cypher (Numenéra), and Dragon Age and The Expanse (AGE).
Buckle up, if you know my tastes in RPGs you know this is going to be rocky.
What do you mean, “trad systems”?
I played in four campaigns, and ran one, using systems that have a direct lineage to the early days of role-playing and still foster the same kind of experience. I would characterize them thus:
They use pass/fail mechanics: you succeed at a task and advance in the story, or you fail and nothing happens. In limited cases, you can get extra-good successes (“critical” in common RPG parlance) where you get a cherry on top, or extra-bad failures (“fumbles”) where disaster strikes.
Player ideas and narrative authority are filtered through PC skill rolls: you may have a brilliant strategy or a rousing speech but the impact on what happen in the fiction depends on a skill roll result, not player creativity.
The GM is the primary author of the game. By default, information is secret until revealed by the GM. The players’ decisions on the fictional background is limited to their characters.
PCs can only accomplish things that their character sheet and the rules give them explicit permission to. PCs are presented with challenges (e.g., a locked door or an adversary in their way) and players check their character sheets to find out what they can do about it. Do you have the lockpicking or fighting skill? Then you can roll. Some games may let you roll certain actions unskilled at a penalty (i.e., the explicit permission is in the rules.)
This latter point is the sharpest contrast with more modern or story-driven games: in PbtA or Fate games, for example, you figure out what you want to do and then determine which mechanics to use in order to support the fiction, in other words, you do what makes sense in the story. In traditional games, you figure out what you’re mechanically allowed to do, and the fiction is what is left after the dice are rolled, in other words things happen because of the way the rules are written regardless of whether they make sense in the story.
Pendragon (Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne)
Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne (Chaosium/Nocturnal Media) is based on the very lightly tweaked system from Pendragon (Chaosium). Pendragon has been around since 1985 and has not changed much even in its 5.2 edition, which Paladin is based on; a lot of the text can be found word for word in the 1985 original.
In short, it’s a roll-under system which you start with very low skill and attribute scores. Whatever you are trying to accomplish except maybe one or two among 35 skills, you are more likely to fail than succeed: most of your scores are under 10 on a scale of 1 to 20; many will start at 1 or even 0.
In fiction, you are starting as a young squire so it’s not completely outlandish, but it does make you feel small and ineffective. It’s meant for long sagas where your characters age between adventures, and even for generational play where you may retire your original PC and play their descendants over time.
I have posted a few times about our campaign, which has since been abandoned when the GM could no longer stand the system. Our group of players never took the system seriously; we laughed every time we had to roll on a ridiculous random table. Much of the work of this aging process, the “Winter Phase”, requires rolling on tables that feel like “Oops, we forgot to role-play this year, let’s see if our characters would have had any social or emotional development. Let’s skip over all this icky drama with a few die rolls so we can go back to not be able to hit things with our swords.”
I loved the group, I loved our story, and I thought the Paladin book was very well written by author Ruben in ’t Groen; but there is no denying that system-wise, we were still in 1985 or worse. It’s very demanding on the GM in terms of character sheet crunch for every NPC and in book-keeping to age every one of them along with the PCs.
There is one thing I liked about the system, though: it encourages you to try things you aren’t good at rather than keep relying on a few higher scores. The only way to get experience is to use an attribute; you note this with a checkmark when you use it, then upon reaching the Winter Phase you roll a die (1d20) for each stat with a check. If the roll result is equal or greater than the current attribute score (or if you roll a 20 for scores already over 20), then the character learned from experience and adds one point to that score. In other words, it’s much easier to improve low scores, incentivizing efforts to use those poorer skills.
13th Age (Pelgrane Press) is a d20-based game that files off some of the edges. For example, instead of a long list of skills PCs have a handful of “backgrounds” such as acrobat, con artist, etc. with a wide penumbra. In addition, all PCs start with ties, however distant, to two or three of the movers and shakers of the settings, the “icons”. Finally, every PC has “One Unique Thing”, something that sets them apart from every other hero.
Honestly, if this had been the original version of D&D3, it probably would have taken me a lot longer to get sick of d20. It’s definitely less cumbersome and stilted, and character creation is faster. Ultimately, though, it stumbles through most of the same pitfalls, including:
- Confusing proliferation of special abilities, feats, and powers;
- The need to script long in advance the advancements you plan for your character in order for the feats and other advancements to synergize;
- Supplement bloat, where the stuff in the newest splatbook always has to be better than previous books;
- Strict constriction to the letter of how abilities are written rather than the spirit of the character concept or the fiction unfolding at the game table;
- Advancement tied strictly to the number of combat encounters PCs go through, regardless of role-playing;
- Failed rolls are boring.
In addition, the default setting is a hodge-podge of fantasy gaming trope; fortunately for us, Edmund rescued this part by reskinning it and tightening it around a fantasy China setting he called 13th Dynasty, which vastly elevated it.
AGE (Dragon Age and The Expanse RPG)
AGE has nothing to do with 13th Age above. Instead, it’s a game system created by Green Ronin Publishing on the shoulders of their earlier True20 improvement to d20, first used in the Dragon Age RPG., and using 3d6 instead of 1d20.
I reviewed the original version some years ago and almost everything I said then is still true except for one thing: the best part of the system, the stunt (Dragon Die) mechanic, was indeed expanded to cover non-combat actions in subsequent releases. In short, it’s a good choice if what you want is a trad game.
Dragon Age was the last game we played in person before the pandemic shutdown, less than 36 hours before the first stay-at-home order hit the San Francisco Bay Area. We continued online for a little while, but the high stress of pandemic times made it impossible for some of the players to keep gaming for a a long while. I talked a bit about the campaign back when it first started.
Earlier, I had run the second edition of Green Ronin’s Blue Rose setting which also uses the AGE system. (Fun fact: lack of satisfaction with the system drove my player April to write her own delightful game of queer swashbuckling, Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Go get it, it’s awesome.)
In addition, I also started running The Expanse RPG last fall and rapidly decided there was No. Way. In. Hell. I was going to run it using AGE. It’s bad enough to have corset-like constricting trad systems for fantasy, but bringing them to higher-tech level settings, as in Modern AGE or D20 Modern, is doubling down on irritation. As a GM I want systems that make my life easier, not increase my work load.
Changing gears to power the game with Fate instead made so much sense. It empowers both the players and the GM, giving us all tools to achieve dramatic results without bogging down in the minutia of character sheet accounting. In addition, the method I chose for the conversion, keeping the skill list from the AGE version, makes it easy to use the ready-made stat blocks as I go. Here are some of my writings on the conversion to the Fate system.
Frankly, my players are so much more centered on intrigue and character interactions than on combat that I would have had a very difficult time running in a trad system; I likely would have had to say “no” a lot because of failed rolls instead of using the Fate system’s tools that turn effort toward success into plot elements (create an advantage, succeed at a cost, etc.).
Numenéra (Monte Cook Games) uses the Cypher system also used for The Strange as a standalone setting-less system. Unlike the ones above, it’s not necessarily a direct descendant of an older system; however, the publisher and designers are firmly anchored in traditional gaming. Numenéra has all the messiness of these systems (see for example my criticism of 13th Age above) but tries to bring some refinements.
For example, all rolls are made by players; the GM presents them with difficulty ratings. This is not a bad idea, I have used similar approaches to streamline my task as GM, and some games like Hollow Earth Expedition also do somethin like that.
In the Cypher system, difficulties are set by ratings but the target number to beat on those difficulties is the rating multiplied by three, so for example a Difficulty 3 (“demanding”) climbing roll has a target number of 9 on a d20.
- Having an applicable trained skill reduces the difficulty rating by 1, so in this case if a PC was trained in climbing the difficulty would drop to a 2 and the target number would be 6.
- Having the skill specialized rather than merely trained reduces the difficulty by 2 levels instead, so in our case if a PC is specialized in climbing, the difficulty would become a 1 and the target number a 3.
- Having an inability with a relevant skill raises the difficulty by 1 instead, so here a PC with an inability in climbing would face a difficulty of 4 with a target number of 12.
- Other relevant advantages you can bring to bear, such as assets (e.g., climbing gear) may also reduce the difficulty rating by 1.
- Character can use effort from one of three pools (Might, Speed, and Intellect) at the base cost of 3 pool points per level, sometimes lowered to 2 pool points per level (there are rules on how much you can spend based on character level, etc.).
Most traditional games discourage you from doing anything but what your character is absolutely best at, particularly if it’s combat (though note the exception to this in Paladin‘s experience rules as described earlier). Most of the time, if you fail a roll you can’t retry it, or the difficulty increases. The purpose of this sort of rule is to avoid bogging down in endless retries; but the result is often to bog down in frustration and lack of options instead.
Here is the catch, though. In the case of the Cypher system, it’s not just frustrating and increasingly difficult but actually detrimental to your character’s survival to try difficult things because the effort you put in comes from the same pools that also serve to absorb damage. The more you try to do things that are difficult, or that your character is less good at, the faster you will go down in conflict.
This is where someone starts mouthing: “But a good GM…” I’m gonna stop you right there, my dude: I know very well what a good GM can do, and I have plenty of posts about GMing on this blog. But today, I’m talking about systems. In this case, the system is actively punishing PCs for trying to be anything but murder hobos.
Not in my backyard
Traditional RPGs bore and frustrate me as a player, and exhaust me as a GM. They require so much work for so little payoff. They serve as barriers to bringing in new people, and discourage those who play them from trying other games because of the sunk cost to recover.
I find that the best of them take slightly longer to exasperate me, but in the end the systems are a chore to wade through, only endured in order to be with the excellent people in my circles. I’m still grateful I got to play so much during pandemic times, and I would actually jump on the chance to resume Paladin, for example, because it was such an excellent group. But as GM I’m done saddling myself with clunky, frustrating systems.