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Oddest pairings of mechanics, setting, and intended player market?

So this thread is inspired by a particular system I picked up in the last year, and am totally enthralled with most of the core mechanics, but find myself baffled around some of the design decisions and the implied setting.

The system in question: Spellbound Kingdoms

The reasons I love the mechanics:

  • It's very clearly taking inspiration from the best parts of Savage Worlds, but with a few twists. It's a die-step system with exploding dice, but much, much less swingy. You don't simply re-roll and add when a dice explodes, you grab another die of the next largest size, roll the larger die, but still keep the highest result of the two. There's literally ZERO adding of modifiers. It's all die-step, explode to toss an additional die, with an advantage/disadvantage mechanic to roll more or less dice---but there's never any numeric addition. Whatever dice you rolled, find the highest number, done.
  • It uses a free-form skill system, largely based on "whatever fits your character background, you get advantage on that roll."
  • The combat system is the most unique I've ever seen. It uses maneuver charts to give characters their available attack and defense rolls for any given action round. It's a fast, tactical way to represent combat styles, creates a fun tension in trying to plot/outthink your opponent. It's somehow both gamist AND simulationist in a way that's never been done. Once you see it, it's highly compelling.
  • There's built in social combat, mass battle, and "shadow war" mechanics, built using the same principles as the baseline core, and it looks excellent.

As a baseline core mechanic, it's utterly brilliant. It's like Frank Brunner, the author, took the cool things I loved about Savage Worlds, found a unique way to create engaging combat without having to have a million feats and modifiers, and threw in a strong dose of narrative flair.


But . . . .

  • Character progression is class/level based. And like, nngh, mehhhh, ungh, grrr, WHHHHHYYYYYY? Whhhhyyyyy? Why in the world would you marry a brilliant, innovative core game mechanic to an anachronistic straitjacket of character progression?
  • The setting itself, while cool, is so far removed from anything remotely resembling "traditional" fantasy, that it had zero hope of reaching any sort of critical mass of mainstream adoption, investment by third parties, or word of mouth.
  • However many people were interested in it in the first place (not many, based on the kickstarter performance), a lot of that small number were probably like me and found themselves thinking, "Well, I would LOVE to play this game, but I'll probably have to just ignore 90% of the setting, quickly write up a few 'traditional' races, tweak the spell combat styles, ignore the combat styles/magic archetypes that just don't fit, and maybe, just maybe pray it holds together."
  • The interior layout of the book is quite obviously the work of an amateur. Typography is inconsistent, layouts and spacing are inconsistent, the page border art is literally two squiggly vector art lines with a gradient and bevel effect.
  • And if the layout isn't enough of a problem, rather than just accepting that paying for art is expensive and shrinking page count to reduce costs, Brunner instead chose to scour the internet for free/public domain images of 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th century art, but apparently didn't realize just how high resolution those images need to be to actually look good in print. So the book ends up being this weird mish-mash of a few pieces of commissioned art that are actually good, but sidelined by the inconsistent typography, and further marred by the blurry, low-resolution public domain images that really don't have any business being there in the first place. It's not overwhelmingly bad, but it's bad enough that I've seriously considered throwing it into Affinity Publisher, giving it my own dash of spit, polish, and shine, handing it back to Frank and saying, "Here, you can have this free of charge, if you want it."
All of it together is enough to make me ask myself, "Who was the intended market for this game?" Certainly not D&D players; they're not going to take a second look, as it's too far removed from what they know (even if you did try to throw them a bone with the class/level thing). It's clearly not for world builder GMs, because the implied setting is so ingrained that it's nigh impossible to create your own vision of it that isn't just a different coat of paint. It's clearly not for hardcore combat tacticians, because it's supposed to be highly fluid, theater of the mind combat with just enough tactics inspired by the combat maneuver system to keep it interesting. It's not really a full-on "narrative" system; it has quite a few nods to narrative / scene based mechanics, but the core itself is still fairly traditional process-sim.

Now don't get me wrong, there's absolutely nothing wrong about having an artist pursue a passion project for its own sake. And clearly, this is a work of passion for Frank Brunner. And it's not exactly a "heartbreaker," as it's not really trying to be D&D, or White Wolf, or a revision of Fate, or anything like that.

But it was one of those things where I thought, "You've made this incredible core system with tremendous promise. And you've clearly made it class/level based because you're trying to appeal to the D&D market. But if that's the case, why did you make the baseline setting so far away from mainstream fantasy? If you're going to give this weird nod to 'traditional' D&D mechanics using class/level, why not also do the same and make the baseline setting more 'mainstream' to gain traction? It's not like you can't release your own setting material as a supplement later!"

On a certain level, I look at the core mechanic and think, "Why didn't this thing get more traction in the market???" And then I look at all the mitigating factors and go, "Oh. Yeah. That's why."
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
  • The interior layout of the book is quite obviously the work of an amateur.

The guy has some solid credits with WotC in the past, but that implies a support system that does a lot of things for the designer. On those projects, the base mechanical choices, settings, and market were handed to him. So, for this project, he may not have had experience with the kinds of questions a designer needs to ask in a consistent way to bring about a coherent system, nor a testing and feedback regimen that could give him insight on answers.

Why did some of these choices get made? Maybe because nobody told him they didn't work so well.
 

MGibster

Legend
Why did some of these choices get made? Maybe because nobody told him they didn't work so well.
I'm not super familiar with Spellbound Kingdoms, but I'm going to work with the assumption that the author made deliberate choices about what to include in their game. And I suspect those choices were made because the author had a desire to see their particular vision executed.

But it was one of those things where I thought, "You've made this incredible core system with tremendous promise. And you've clearly made it class/level based because you're trying to appeal to the D&D market. But if that's the case, why did you make the baseline setting so far away from mainstream fantasy?
This is a boutique product produced by a very small company in an industry that is itself very small in the grand scheme of things. I don't think they were that concerned about producing a game that had the broadest possible appeal. And levels are used in many other games besides D&D.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm not super familiar with Spellbound Kingdoms, but I'm going to work with the assumption that the author made deliberate choices about what to include in their game. And I suspect those choices were made because the author had a desire to see their particular vision executed.

I can totally accept that the author had a desire to see their particular vision executed.

But that doesn't mean the choices were particularly deliberate - when one is seeking to implement a vision, one often takes core assumptions of that vision as granted, rather than deliberates over them.
 

It's not the only game with "WTF Were You Thinking"... in fact, quite a few such games exist. A couple more to consider...

ICE's Middle Earth Role Playing. MERP. AKA Rolemaster-lite. Great system. Great Setting development. Poor fit to each other. Middle Earth only has a handful of full power wizards; the 5 istari. Having a pure spell user was a baffling choice; a disruptive D&Dism.

ALIENS Adventure Game (Leading Edge) - an excellent setting treatment. A slow but gritty game engine - a narrowed version of Phoenix Command. A medium to long character gen process. A setting where PC's are expendables, and the action is supposed to be fast and furious... and a combat system where a single player's shooting action can take upwards of 5 minutes for new-to-the-system GMs. They streamlined the wrong areas - the skill system, the ship rules - while minimal streamlining was applied to combat and character gen. (The more recent ALIEN from Fria Ligan is streamlined in both combat and character gen... a typical player's action can be resolved in under a minute if the GM's on his game.)
 


Spycraft

I mean, basically the scenario is the same as a lot of the d20-boom RPGs, but Spycraft, which we played a bit, just always struck me and I think eventually the whole group as particularly bizarre in how it all fit together, and worked/didn't work. The game was clearly directed at people who wanted to run/play Mission Impossible or James Bond or similar super-spy antics - stress on the antics, it wasn't a game about serious spying, though also not broad to the point of comedy. In service of this, they had a fairly decent backstory/setting, and a lot of novel and actually quite effective mechanics outside the main body of the mechanics, which were d20 class/level based, and pretty standard. The d20 stuff did not work at all well for running something like MI or Bond, because even with what they'd added, d20 is simply too random a system, especially with levels involved, and so it always ended up feeling like chaos, which meant it was more akin to Archer, in practice, than say, James Bond. Which is not necessarily awful but definitely a different kind of thing. I feel like if they'd leaned in to more of an Archer-ish parody-ish vibe the rules might have been fine, but as it was, there was a serious mismatch between the rules, the vibe, and the target audience.

Oh god even better and in the same vein:

d20 Modern

My god that's a bizarre one. Really cool, really up-to-date art. Great visual design within the book. Clearly, in those senses, I was absolutely the target audience. Me and people like me - people who have played D&D, but maybe want something which is familiar mechanically but set in the modern day and allowing a whole other bunch of adventures (from stuff in the text it particularly seemed like they wanted us to be thinking of Jurassic Park, Die Hard, and so on, but weirdly this mismatched hard with ultra-modern visual style - they'd do a much better job today, like with Morrus' ACE stuff).

So you've got this target audience of teen and twenties D&D players, but you're pushing a game that seems written more about a slightly older era, but doesn't look like it is. And then you have the rules, which were just even more of a mismatch with both the system and I think the audience than Spycraft, which is saying something. The target audience didn't need rules anywhere near as close to "stock 3.5E", but it got ones that were. We got a very "straight" take on d20, like excessively so, and without really any real admission that this just wasn't going to work for a lot of what they wanted to do with it. Again it suffered from the d20 system's inherent tendency to descend into farce, due to the fact that vital checks will be missed, and nothing can be done (because it was so close to stock). You could use D&D stuff with it because it was so plain, but there was little incentive to do so, because they didn't have the game built out in such a way that it made sense.

So all you really had was a clunky modern-day RPG, with odd mechanics for that, really modern art, and a severe lack of direction, because it was trying to be too many different things at once. And clearly so much effort had been invested in making it "cool", but it just wasn't something anyone I knew could get excited about. Like all RPGs (no matter how bad or weird), it has the odd fan, but really, it was very strange as a product.

Like with Spycraft, if they'd leaned in to the design, and maybe made it d20 Action Movies or something, and made it a little broader and accepted that the design was likely to lead to a certain amount of farce, and to be True Lies not HEAT, and that on a good day, made the feats and classes reflect an action movie vibe, it actually might have been a weird classic.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Fate Freeport. I believe it was made by the same folks who put together SCAG. Take the most simplified version of fate, change the skill names from careful clever flashy forceful quick sneaky to the familiar str dex con int wis cha. Toss in a few extremely basic stunts. Ignore the fact that fate accelerated is too slimmed down for a d&d type game & make no attempt at creating things like race/class/equipment on top of fate like modiphius did with their 500ish page mindjammer's fate core product.
 

Bagpuss

Adventurer
Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game White Wolf known for the World of Darkness, gets the license to write an RPG for a beat 'em up computer game? What the heck is going on there? Actually it turned out to be pretty good. It simulated the fast, medium, heavy punches and kicks with an innovative new mechanic allowing for special moves from the game to be learned. But I don't think there was a huge cross over between people that liked a beat 'em up computer game and White Wolf's traditional WoD audience. If you wanted to play Street Fighter you get out your console, not your 10 sided dice. Still the game itself was pretty good, the new combat system worked really well in a Street Fighter RPG, it just didn't translate as well as the Combat supplement for WoD when they tried to port it back into that setting. WoD storytellers weren't really wanting a hex based minis combat game to break up the flow of their storytelling.
 

Spycraft

I mean, basically the scenario is the same as a lot of the d20-boom RPGs, but Spycraft, which we played a bit, just always struck me and I think eventually the whole group as particularly bizarre in how it all fit together, and worked/didn't work.

Oh god even better and in the same vein:

d20 Modern

. . . that's a bizarre one.

Oh my gosh, d20 Modern is the perfect example.

The two sessions of d20 Modern I ever played were some of the most strange, random, off-putting spurts of gameplay I've ever seen. As you described, it's just this total mishmash of ideas that barely hold together, if at all.

And the funny thing is with Spycraft, is Crafty Games went the exact opposite route with Fantasy Craft and completely retooled the d20 system from the ground up to create what I consider to be the ultimate expression of the D&D 3-era rules. Fantasy Craft is the exact opposite of Spycraft---it's thoroughly elegant, well thought through, highly integrated in its approach to both player and GM mechanics.
 

Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game White Wolf known for the World of Darkness, gets the license to write an RPG for a beat 'em up computer game? What the heck is going on there? Actually it turned out to be pretty good. It simulated the fast, medium, heavy punches and kicks with an innovative new mechanic allowing for special moves from the game to be learned. But I don't think there was a huge cross over between people that liked a beat 'em up computer game and White Wolf's traditional WoD audience. If you wanted to play Street Fighter you get out your console, not your 10 sided dice. Still the game itself was pretty good, the new combat system worked really well in a Street Fighter RPG, it just didn't translate as well as the Combat supplement for WoD when they tried to port it back into that setting. WoD storytellers weren't really wanting a hex based minis combat game to break up the flow of their storytelling.
Of the games popular at the time¹, it was one of the best fits to the source... but that source was not the videogames. The game was a movie-tie-in. (There are 3 Streetfighter movies².) Yes, I've run it. Yes, I was aware of the videogames. But the RPG is very much tied to the movies in tone and fluff. In a small irony, the rules were kept in print in a de-IP'd form for a number of years on as World of Darkness: Combat. Oh, and Streetfighters count as awakened avatars in oWoD, Chi-powered special abilities do aggravated damage to other supernaturals.

¹: Major game engines at the time:
Tier 1: AD&D 2E,
Tier 2: WWG Storyteller(old WoD, not new WoD), GDW-house system (T2K2.2/TTNE/DC), GURPS, CoC
Tier 3: AMSH, Warhammer FRP 1E, Hero System 4e, Rolemaster, Non-CoC BRP, FASA-Trek

²: And they were all equally campy and low budget. Fun, but silly.
 

Bagpuss

Adventurer
Of the games popular at the time¹, it was one of the best fits to the source... but that source was not the videogames. The game was a movie-tie-in.

Admittedly they came out in the same year, but that's the only connection I can see, all the art work is from the games, no stills from the films. The copyright notice makes no mention of the distributors which it would do if they were involved, even the rules are pretty closely tied to the mechanics of the video games. There very little that makes it a tie-in, the tone and fluff of the movies came from Street Fighter II.

If you were going to do a Movie Tie-in, then WEG Masterbook system would have been the one to go with they had The World of Indiana Jones that year, The World of Tank Girl and Species the following year. Happy to adapt anything to it.
 

Admittedly they came out in the same year, but that's the only connection I can see, all the art work is from the games, no stills from the films. The copyright notice makes no mention of the distributors which it would do if they were involved, even the rules are pretty closely tied to the mechanics of the video games. There very little that makes it a tie-in, the tone and fluff of the movies came from Street Fighter II.

If you were going to do a Movie Tie-in, then WEG Masterbook system would have been the one to go with they had The World of Indiana Jones that year, The World of Tank Girl and Species the following year. Happy to adapt anything to it.
I think you are misreading my statement.

The license was acquired during the dev of the second SF movie. It was a license built on the franchise, but the videogames provided very, very little to build upon; the first movie provided more on screen than 3 different incarnations of arcade game. If they had released at the same time, it would have had a much bigger sales presence.

Many movie or TV tie ins avoid live-action footage - each included image is a royalty to the actor, plus tie-ins need either early access or to be laid out after the release. The new SG-1 is all paintings. FFG Star Wars, all paintings. WEG's MIB was almost all new drawings, rather than movie frames. It was a matter of cost savings. Modiphius' Dune and Star Trek Adventures both use paintings, as well. Chameleon Ecclectic also used paintings for The Babylon Project.

Back in the day, WEG Star Wars was mostly new art. Movie frames were few.
 

Admittedly they came out in the same year, but that's the only connection I can see, all the art work is from the games, no stills from the films. The copyright notice makes no mention of the distributors which it would do if they were involved, even the rules are pretty closely tied to the mechanics of the video games. There very little that makes it a tie-in, the tone and fluff of the movies came from Street Fighter II.

If you were going to do a Movie Tie-in, then WEG Masterbook system would have been the one to go with they had The World of Indiana Jones that year, The World of Tank Girl and Species the following year. Happy to adapt anything to it.
He's just wrong. It had nothing to do with the movies.
Of the games popular at the time¹, it was one of the best fits to the source... but that source was not the videogames. The game was a movie-tie-in.
This literally just not true. It's not in any way, shape or form a "movie tie-in". That term has a specific meaning and that's not it. It's inspired by the games, which have a hell of lot more lore than you think, and did even back in 1994. Sure, you had to be a serious Street Fighter nerd to know it, but some of us were - including people at White Wolf.
Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game White Wolf known for the World of Darkness, gets the license to write an RPG for a beat 'em up computer game? What the heck is going on there? Actually it turned out to be pretty good. It simulated the fast, medium, heavy punches and kicks with an innovative new mechanic allowing for special moves from the game to be learned. But I don't think there was a huge cross over between people that liked a beat 'em up computer game and White Wolf's traditional WoD audience. If you wanted to play Street Fighter you get out your console, not your 10 sided dice. Still the game itself was pretty good, the new combat system worked really well in a Street Fighter RPG, it just didn't translate as well as the Combat supplement for WoD when they tried to port it back into that setting. WoD storytellers weren't really wanting a hex based minis combat game to break up the flow of their storytelling.
There is actually a specific reason it happened.

White Wolf, particularly, it seems, Joshua Gabriel Timbrook, were close with the Capcom people in the US, like actually friends with them. And many WW designers were fans of Street Fighter 2. As such they were able to acquire this licence when Street Fighter was really hot, as an IP, and for a relatively low cost.

This relationship continued a little way, and Capcom were, reportedly, in like 1996 or so, genuinely working a Werewolf-based brawler (not to be confused with Vampire Saviour etc., specifically Werewolf: the Apocalypse). But that didn't pan out. And I think people who were friends with the Capcom lot gradually left WW over the next few years.
 

Jaeger

That someone better.
I'll bite...

Mongoose Conan d20, and 5e Adventures in Middle Earth.

HP inflation does not mix well with the tone of LoTR or Conan.

That's right, I said it.

Not that the underlying d20 mechanics couldn't be made to work; but when you keep the per level HP inflation, all you are doing is making a slightly different D&D zero to fantasy superhero game with a different setting veneer.

That being said; People do not seem to mind at all that what they are playing is just D&D with a different setting veneer.

Both lines sold rather well!
 

I'll bite...

Mongoose Conan d20, and 5e Adventures in Middle Earth.

HP inflation does not mix well with the tone of LoTR or Conan.

That's right, I said it.

Not that the underlying d20 mechanics couldn't be made to work; but when you keep the per level HP inflation, all you are doing is making a slightly different D&D zero to fantasy superhero game with a different setting veneer.

That being said; People do not seem to mind at all that what they are playing is just D&D with a different setting veneer.

Both lines sold rather well!
There's an old saw that goes, "There's no accounting for taste."

I know of people who like and can rattle off the differences of the Conan d20 to standard 3.x, and ccite that they change the feel enough. Thing is, tho', playing Conan himself isn't what the game's actually about. It's about Hyperborea, and not about Conan himself, so the adaptation's not as bad as it could be. Similar for Modiphius' Conan - you're not playing Conan, you're not working for nor against Conan... you're just In the Hyperborea described in the Conan novels. Same also goes for the old TSR Conan game (using the color chart).

A lot of incongruities can arise when a game is set in a milieu that is written specifically to highlight a particular few characters at their peak.

As for AIME... there is that large swathe of D&D players who will never play anything that isn't D&D. So, for them, AIME. Sadly, that group's as big as or bigger than the ones for TOR... but AIME suffers not only from being Class&Level with boolean skills, but also not being a terribly well written adaptation (in terms of word choice, layout, etc), as well as being a very straightforward "Keep it like 5E" in the HP arena.

Which makes for another... Stargate SG-1 d20 and 5E flavors. Same kind of issue. Still, the 5E version plays well...
 

Jaeger

That someone better.
As for AIME... there is that large swathe of D&D players who will never play anything that isn't D&D. So, for them, AIME. Sadly, that group's as big as or bigger than the ones for TOR... but AIME suffers not only from being Class&Level with boolean skills, but also not being a terribly well written adaptation (in terms of word choice, layout, etc), as well as being a very straightforward "Keep it like 5E" in the HP arena.

Oh yes, there is a big market for D&D + Tolkien/Conan/"insert Ip here".

Can't hate the hustle, people got to earn that dollar.

The Symborium rpg d20/5e conversion was a game I was rather enthusiastic about when I heard they were doing it.

I figured they would convert it from a roll under d20, to a roll over, d20 system, and hell, I don't even mind classes or 'level style advancement' added either to entice 5e players to take a look at it.

But guess what they went and gone done... Yup, you got it in one: They added HP every level... and are making it into just another 5e clone with a 'symbroium' setting veneer...

What a waste.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
On a certain level, I look at the core mechanic and think, "Why didn't this thing get more traction in the market???" And then I look at all the mitigating factors and go, "Oh. Yeah. That's why."
Most games are going to look odd if you expect them to be D&D.

I wrote a game for myself, with no official setting, and minimal rules. Pretty odd, considering that I love cool settings (Zweihaender, Tales from the Loop, Final Fantasy d6) and mid-crunch rules (D&D 5e, Numenera, Fantasy A.G.E.). Luckily, my target market plays the game consistently, and will probably pick up the setting book and rules expansions when they debut.
 

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