Dedicated Mechanics

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I'll just add a thought about the flashback mechanism is Blades. It is somewhat metagamey, no question, but the explicit point of the mechanic is to elide analysis paralysis on the part of the players (which is bloody painful). My experience there is that once this is made explicit most players are cool with it, even if they aren't generally fond of metagame-type rules.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
Well said ... however you run into the issue I discussed above.

Answering your assertions in a slightly different order than you make them, while this is inevitably true, I find it is less true of dividing the game into minigames than in games that try to offer single overarching mechanics.

The reason I bring this up isn't to throw cold water on your preferences- I enjoy these types of games as well! Just to point out that the accretion of subsystems has its own particular issues.

It does but in practice what you end up with is that each session you are playing or focusing on the play of what is effectively a different game modelling the same universe. And, aside from the games that are core to that tables play, these sessions will be rare but welcome breaks from the core game play. For example, the core gameplay might be tactical combat and exploration of setting, but every once in a while that game is put on hold while the characters become captains in a mass combat game maneuvering armies over the field. While the rules of this minigame may be different than what they are used to, they can put down the mental apparatus of one minigame while picking up the other one.

The trick is getting these minigames right, which I think is the hardest aspect of this approach. Often this approach leads to tacked on and poorly thought out minigames that are either not engrossing in their own right or spoil the core game in some way such as by leading to even greater absurdities in the simulated reality.

Eventually, you end up with a morass of minigames with different rules.

Absolutely. You will end up with a much fatter game system. But no one session or portion of session will need to depend on the whole rules. And while there is a problem with massive amounts of text and needing to lookup rules in play, IME, this is less of a problem than having no guidance and needing to make up rules in play or attempting to fit a minigame to a situation it doesn't handle (thus discouraging the players from interacting with the fiction) or attempting to have a single more complex set of rules with as few abstractions as possible.

Which leads to the second problem- while this works great in theory, in practice people will have trouble defining the edges of these minigames. If you have a "chase" minigame and a "combat" minigame, what happens when someone wants to shoot an arrow at their pursuer (combat while there is a chase).

This is usually not a problem. Combat within a chase is usually a defined step of the chase and can use a subset of the standard combat rules since the main thing that has changed is not the combat but the movement.

If there is a chase minigame going on, and someone wants to use a general spell, how is that adjudicated?

At least in D&D, the fact that spellcasters find that they often have to fall out of (or fall back in) a chase in order to cast a spell does not prove to be a balance issue, as D&D and many systems need ways to balance mundane skill with the spellcasters power to control the narrative as an act of will. And if your system didn't need to do that, then either you should have thought about it or if you did probably casting a spell is just a different color of standard action.

The bigger problem is probably that when you have a lot of minigames, you have these inelegant transitions between them. Do duels work different than group tactical combat - maybe because you really want to have a quickdraw minigame for your Old West inspired RPG or some such? Do chases work different than either? If they do, then the GM has to declare which sort of rules are in effect in this scene. The metagame needs to intrude into the play, in the way that for example, in Exile III you could manipulate the game by deciding when to switch between the combat minigame and the exploration minigame. Handling those transitions becomes a GM problem.

But again, IME that's still a better problem to have than trying to run a chase scene without rules suited to it, or not having a way to run ship combat in a setting that implies the need for it, or not having strong guidelines for adventures based on social interaction, or having stealth and movement rules that work only for time period measured in combat rounds, or having crafting minigames that are unbalanced (powerful magic items are too cheap to manufacture, or trade goods can be created much more cheaply than standard prices allow), and on and on. Because all of that becomes headaches that the GM has to manage, usually by adopting complex and unwritten processes of play or by attempting to tack on house rules themselves to fill in the gaps.
 

Reynard

Legend
I'll just add a thought about the flashback mechanism is Blades. It is somewhat metagamey, no question, but the explicit point of the mechanic is to elide analysis paralysis on the part of the players (which is bloody painful). My experience there is that once this is made explicit most players are cool with it, even if they aren't generally fond of metagame-type rules.
I don't know how many Shadowrun adventures ended up being 3 hours of planning followed by 5 minutes of throwing the plan out and the rest of the session in a firefight. If any game needs a FitD hack, it's Shadowrun.

But that's because that is essentially what SR is about: jobs. But I don't need a heist subsystem to do one heist adventure out of an entire D&D (or whatever) campaign.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I don't know how many Shadowrun adventures ended up being 3 hours of planning followed by 5 minutes of throwing the plan out and the rest of the session in a firefight.
In my experience, a lot. More than D&D games that have a long planning session only for the plan to die at the first encounter with the enemy.
If any game needs a FitD hack, it's Shadowrun.
Or a PbtA hack.
But that's because that is essentially what SR is about: jobs. But I don't need a heist subsystem to do one heist adventure out of an entire D&D (or whatever) campaign.
You’d just need something to subvert the inevitably discarded plans. Like stress and flashbacks. D&D can handle the rest with ability and skill checks.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The use of specialized rules is generally unwieldy, and in my opinion only works for highly-focused games. Essentially, people can (and do!) argue about the "fitness" of the rules (how applicable the rules are to the fiction) in modern games like BiTD, but the reason that the fitness exists is because these are incredibly focused games; the more focused the game, the more easy it is to have bespoke rules for the situation that are not unwieldy.

We should note specifically that highly focused games have the freedom to, and really should, ditch rules that are not within their focus.

For example - D&D has a large chunk of rules for tactical combat. If we look at a heist-focused game (the Cortex-based Leverage, for example), we don't need, or have, such. There are rules for combat, but they don't vary much from the rules for overcoming any other obstacle.

Mind you, having said that, we can see that this is an awkward example, because in the pair of Leverage and D&D, it is totally D&D that is carrying around a lot of specialized rules, while Leverage - very close to the Cortex root, which is very general - has few specialized rules, though it is a genre-focused game.

For historical reasons, D&D is almost always going to be a bad example, because it comes from the time before there was a clear concept of "general" and "focused" in RPG play, and D&D doesn't really have a "general" implementation underlying it, in the same way that Fate, Cortex, or Savage Worlds does. D&D is itself a highly focused game, to be honest.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
For historical reasons, D&D is almost always going to be a bad example, because it comes from the time before there was a clear concept of "general" and "focused" in RPG play, and D&D doesn't really have a "general" implementation underlying it, in the same way that Fate, Cortex, or Savage Worlds does. D&D is itself a highly focused game, to be honest.

I would say that for multiple reasons, it is difficult to have conversations about TTRPGs because of D&D.

It is sui generis in many ways. To not try and take it into account is to ignore the 800lb gorilla. On the other hand, it is also equally difficult to generalize examples from D&D simply because it's combination of history, longevity, and critical mass of popularity (which means that it has the use of norms in a way different than most TTRPGs) make it different from other TTRPGs in a way that makes it difficult to fully discuss at times.

D&D isn't highly focused. But it's also not a general game.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I don't know how many Shadowrun adventures ended up being 3 hours of planning followed by 5 minutes of throwing the plan out and the rest of the session in a firefight. If any game needs a FitD hack, it's Shadowrun.

But that's because that is essentially what SR is about: jobs. But I don't need a heist subsystem to do one heist adventure out of an entire D&D (or whatever) campaign.
No, you absolutely don't, but it's useful in targeted games.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
(which means that it has the use of norms in a way different than most TTRPGs) make it different from other TTRPGs in a way that makes it difficult to fully discuss at times.

D&D isn't highly focused. But it's also not a general game.

Well, it does give us an example that we can use though, to hash out things.

For example, what is the base upon which we decide the level of focus a game has? Are we using D&D as the base unit of comparison, like the SI kilogram used to be defined by a particular hunk of platinum, such that we are talking about whether a game is more, or less, focused than D&D? Or is there some other standard by which we decide?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Well, it does give us an example that we can use though, to hash out things.

For example, what is the base upon which we decide the level of focus a game has? Are we using D&D as the base unit of comparison, like the SI kilogram used to be defined by a particular hunk of platinum, such that we are talking about whether a game is more, or less, focused than D&D? Or is there some other standard by which we decide?

Well, first of all, I would love to use D&D as a metric unit of measurement.

Why, yes, I think that this new game measures about 3.8 Decadeeyundees.

Again, though, I don't think it's a very good example simply because it is so different. Its advantages and drawbacks from being the most popular mass-market TTRPG with a long history of prior editions means that ... it's going to be different that BiTD, or Fate, or Mork Borg, or any of a number of different games that neither benefit from nor suffer from the baggage of D&D.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
D&D isn't highly focused. But it's also not a general game.
I agree with most of the rest of your post, but not this bit. D&D is highly focused. It’s a combat simulator with a few vestigial bits of a dungeon crawler resource management game and some tacked on elements to make it appear more rounded and less focused. But it’s still a highly-focused combat sim at its core.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I agree with most of the rest of your post, but not this bit. D&D is highly focused. It’s a combat simulator with a few vestigial bits of a dungeon crawler resource management game and some tacked on elements to make it appear more rounded and less focused. But it’s still a highly-focused combat sim at its core.

See, that's a common perception that I don't agree with, because D&D is sui generis. To go back to the book that I often reference (and you are familiar with) ... D&D wasn't a ruleset to begin with, so much as it was a toolkit to make TTRPGs.

And that DNA has continued within the game.

Was D&D a combat simulator? Kinda, but not a very good one.
Was it just a "golden hole" dungeon explorer? Sure, but not really.
Was it an excuse to get yer freaky roleplaying on? Yes, but also not just that.

And so on. D&D is both a desert topping, and a floor wax! That's really what gets at the heart of so many debates ... there are a lot of people who hate D&D because of that lack of focus. And there are others that love that same aspect. And really, it's the exact same thing that these people love/hate - that lack of prescriptive demands as to what you play.

If you're one of those people that prefer crisper modern rules, you might go on about how there are these combat rules, and undefined social rules. And while that is completely correct, that also misses the point of why other people like it.

As I said- it's hard to generalize examples from this game which has a history and player base that's different than that of almost every game around.
 



overgeeked

B/X Known World
See, that's a common perception that I don't agree with, because D&D is sui generis. To go back to the book that I often reference (and you are familiar with) ... D&D wasn't a ruleset to begin with, so much as it was a toolkit to make TTRPGs.
D&D was unique. For a few years at least. Other games have come along since. Including other toolkit games. The only thing unique about D&D once those other games came along was the market dominance it's maintained, essentially unchanged, ever since.
And that DNA has continued within the game.

Was D&D a combat simulator? Kinda, but not a very good one.
Was it just a "golden hole" dungeon explorer? Sure, but not really.
Was it an excuse to get yer freaky roleplaying on? Yes, but also not just that.
Sure. And the same can be said for a lot of games now. Most of the early games tried to ape D&D and were also toolkit games. The ones that lasted until today (like Call of Cthulhu and Traveller) have similar paths and similar vestigial DNA. What they lack is D&D's status as the 800lbs gorilla.
And so on. D&D is both a desert topping, and a floor wax! That's really what gets at the heart of so many debates ... there are a lot of people who hate D&D because of that lack of focus. And there are others that love that same aspect. And really, it's the exact same thing that these people love/hate - that lack of prescriptive demands as to what you play.
But it doesn't lack those prescriptive demands. It has them in spades. It's a common refrain that games are about what they reward. D&D's long history has included mainly two sources of reward: murder and gold. Sure you can house rule the game to reward other things, but the bulk of the game mechanics are focused on murdering things (i.e. creating corpses) and recovering gold from various places (mostly ruins and corpses).
If you're one of those people that prefer crisper modern rules, you might go on about how there are these combat rules, and undefined social rules. And while that is completely correct, that also misses the point of why other people like it.
Personally, I'm in the middle somewhere. If you have to have rules (you don't), I would prefer crisper, modern rules...but I also think the focus is fine, basically.
As I said- it's hard to generalize examples from this game which has a history and player base that's different than that of almost every game around.
The only significant difference is the size of its fanbase.
I don't even need that. The GM can always guide the game without that stuff. It's sort of the job.
Eh. I wouldn't say I need it either, it's just helpful. I'm very much in the emergent storytelling camp for RPGs so I want the referee "guiding" things as little as possible. But I've also played through enough sessions wasted on pre-planning things when those plans suck and fall apart instantly when put into practice. So something like BitD's flashbacks is a good middle ground. The majority of session time isn't wasted on a plan that won't work. The plan isn't wasted because the plan isn't made ahead of time. The players get to keep their agency and decide which obstacles they want to overcome via flashback and resource expenditure and what obstacles they want to overcome in the "here and now" of the session. I don't see a downside to it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well said ... however you run into the issue I discussed above. Personally, I can enjoy a game with a number of bespoke subsystems (the "1e approach" for example), but the issues that style of game always run into are the same-

First, increasing numbers of differentiated subsystems adds to the overall complexity of the game. Each time you add a new (and different) minigame, you are asking people to learn that minigame. Eventually, you end up with a morass of minigames with different rules.
Yes, and IMO that's what the DM is for: to deal with as much of that stuff as possible* and keep it out of the players' way.

* - particularly the corner-case stuff that maybe comes up once every year or two e.g. Reincarnation rules and rulings. Discrete subsystems that come up all the time e.g. turning undead, or our homebrew initiative system, are IME pretty quickly picked up by the players through repetition and familiarity.
Which leads to the second problem- while this works great in theory, in practice people will have trouble defining the edges of these minigames. If you have a "chase" minigame and a "combat" minigame, what happens when someone wants to shoot an arrow at their pursuer (combat while there is a chase). You always end up with different subsystems colliding. And then you end up with the overall system- how to adjudicate the other rules (especially if you are using exception-based design) when it comes to the various mini-games. If there is a chase minigame going on, and someone wants to use a general spell, how is that adjudicated?
Ideally, the chase subsystem would include some guidelines on handling such obvious what-ifs.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I wouldn't actually agree that D&D, of itself, is a toolkit game. It really isn't. The basic engine certainly is, but the not itself. This is even true of the first handful of editions, all of which have been used to accomplish all manner of genre work, but only once the D&D was stirpped off the mechanical engine.

I'll add here that the plethora of genre-switch 5E games predominantly don't even meet the criteria of 'hack' being rather 'reskins'. For some value of X depending on the exact game. 5E does have some great hacks, but again, it the 5E engine with the stickers taken off the matters.
 
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MGibster

Legend
I would say that for multiple reasons, it is difficult to have conversations about TTRPGs because of D&D.
I find that I often have to talk to players about other games in terms of D&D. "In D&D they have classes and levels, but in this game you have no classes and use points to buy whatever abilities you want."
It is sui generis in many ways.
I don't think it's really necessary for you to swear at us like that.
 

MGibster

Legend
But it doesn't lack those prescriptive demands. It has them in spades. It's a common refrain that games are about what they reward. D&D's long history has included mainly two sources of reward: murder and gold. Sure you can house rule the game to reward other things, but the bulk of the game mechanics are focused on murdering things (i.e. creating corpses) and recovering gold from various places (mostly ruins and corpses).
And ruined corpses. And I expect this historical tidbit is the raison d'etre (Snarf eat your heart out) for 5th edition rewarding PCs so much gold. It's just expected, even when there's nothin to do with it.

wouldn't actually agree that D&D, of itself, is a toolkit game. It really isn't. The basic engine certainly is, but the game itself. This is even true of the first handful of editions, all of which have been used to accomplish all manner of genre work, but only once the D&D was stirpped off the mechanical engine.
And this I agree with. Way back in 2nd edition days, I tried using AD&D to run a Wheel of Time campaign. It was then that I came to the full realization that D&D was good at running D&D games but not so great at running other fantasy games. I'm sure I could have adapted AD&D if I'd wanted to, but the system would have worked against me.

And please nobody interpret this as a dig on D&D. GURPS is a toolkit, and my players would rather shave with a cheese grater than ever play it. D&D doesn't have to be a toolkit.
 

One observation I will make is that more than simply the binary of having mechanics, or even the binary of focused/unfocused, a lot of this issue comes down to the actual substance and texture of the mechanics and how they mesh with what you think that activity should actually feel like.

For example I have a lot of admiration for Blades in the Dark because it seems like a great heist game, but I'm also aware that for some people it would simply be a terrible heist game. The reason has to do with what each person sees as the core activity of a heist game, like what parts ought to be emphasized and what parts wouldn't-- it would be a lot less good if you want a heist game to be a thing where you actually sit down, go over extensive information you've gathered, and plan a meticulous heist with strict simulation mechanics that force everything to be a strategic puzzle. But if you're comfortable with flashbacks and the greater focus on stress and momentary complications, its great.

This is why mechanics that influence the emotional lives of your characters (thinking about Masks) have been very hit or miss with my players, some want much more control of their narrative than it affords them, and get annoyed at the complication and emotional drama oriented game play, they want the team to be very cohesive because characters who introduce drama or who have collisions due to emotion are more problem player symptoms for them than exciting parts of a narrative. So rather than who has influence over who, and who had a fight with someone else, they want to focus on the idea of a group of teen supers who fight baddies and solve problems, and maybe give some heroic monologues and stuff along the way.

Meanwhile they're stoked for Lancer and Battlegroup cause like, they get a mission objective, and everyone just goes to complete it. They might have scenes that contextualize the action and their character's feelings during downtime between missions, but their goals are shared in a very upfront sort of way that never collides with the stated goals of the characters as a collective.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
...it would be a lot less good if you want a heist game to be a thing where you actually sit down, go over extensive information you've gathered, and plan a meticulous heist with strict simulation mechanics that force everything to be a strategic puzzle.

So, that's a great point. It leads us to then ask the question "What is a heist game?" Or, to generalize, "What are the key elements of whatever focus a game has."

One major trope of heist genre media and fiction is that the planning and preparation is generally glossed over with a montage - the characters case the joint, come back with information, and a plan appears pretty magically, often by invoking a made-up name of the style of heist/grift the characters will use.

Someone entering a heist-genre focused game expecting to actually do the planning is walking into a play expectation mismatch. And that's not the game's fault - that's a Session Zero fault.
 

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