Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Subsystems and Character Differentiation

Mechanically, characters in RPGs are differentiated by what subsystems they use. All of the fiddly bits of the rules that you get to use make your character mechanically interesting to play. 1st Edition AD&D is a great example of this concept. If you look at the 4 main character classes in that game you can see how the characters use different parts of the rules:
  • Clerics -- have a subsystem for turn undead; use spells, but unlike the magic-user, do not have to deal with memorization, or spellbooks
  • Magic-User -- they have spells; a memorization subsystem; rules for scribing spells in their spell book
  • Thief -- backstab; all the percentage-based rules for thief skills (hide in shadows, climb walls)
  • Fighter -- ???
Ahh... the lamentations of the poor, neglected fighting-man. To me, this is a great example of one of the interesting characteristics (flaws maybe?) of the early days of gaming. In AD&D, everyone can fight and everyone uses the same rules and the same sets of tables to fight. The fighter just has more hit points and uses an advantageous table to determine his chance to hit. So, the cool thing the fighter can do is... the same thing everyone does, but a tiny bit better. There isn't that much to make fighters different from other characters in AD&D... just better stats, really.

AD&D is a class system and indeed, each class (fighter excepted) brings its own subsystems to the game. Rangers and Paladins are more interesting than fighters because they have more systems to play with. In some ways, I think skill-based systems have a harder time creating character differentiation. Sure, characters buy different skills and thus, their characters are different, but the mechanics used are very often the same, just applicable at different times in the game.

Take Traveller, for instance. There are dozens of skills, and each character is bound to have a different set of them. However, the mechanics for pretty much every skill use is roll 2d6, add your skill level, if your total is 8 or more, you win. So, you are running down a hallway and come to a locked door? Roll 2d6 and add your lockpick skill. You need to hack a computer? Roll 2d6 and add your computer skill. You need to pick up some information in a bar? Roll 2d6 and add your carousing skill.

I am not really giving Traveller enough credit; not all skill use is so monotonous. Traveller has several subsystems where the character's skills allow them to interact with the game -- starships and commerce being two of them. The advanced books like Mercenary and High Guard added even more subsystems. Nonetheless, the basic game does suffer from characters feeling samey and I think a lot of that has to do with the lack of subsystems.

My mention of Traveller stems from a conversation I had yesterday with my friend, Phil. We were discussing Traveller and came to the conclusion that even though it held a special nostalgic place in our hearts, it hadn't aged well, even considering the relatively recent Mongoose re-release. Why was that?

I came to the conclusion that Traveller hadn't aged well because gamers today expect more mechanical character differentiation. We want "builds" and we want different "fighting styles". Traveller doesn't really have a character build. You have skills, that's it. Barring stats and gear, everyone fights exactly the same way. We may be statistically different, but mechanically, we are exactly alike.

In short, D&D 3.x spoiled us with FEATS.

Feats solve a lot of the differentiation issues suffered by earlier rpgs. Each feat is a mini set of rules (or ways to break the rules) that can be used by that particular character. Fighters get tons of feats and so now, finally, after numerous editions, fighters get their own little subsystem and can break the rules just like the wizards can.

(Of course, mages and rogues get feats too, but it is obvious due to the fact that most feats are combat-oriented and fighters get so darn many of them, that fighters are meant to be the "feat-guy". Much like mages are "spell-guys" and rogues are "skill-guys".)

Feats also act as a means of differentiating combatants and creating combat styles and builds. One fighter might build to be the "trip guy", taking feats that allow him to trip his opponent. Another fighter can build to be a two-weapon fighter. Another can build to be great with bows. Feats give us mechanical ways, besides just a boring +1, to specialize with a weapon or a set of maneuvers.

This is one reason I find it hard to get back into some of my older games. I fantasize about giving Traveller, Rolemaster and Aftermath and  another go, but I would miss the interesting character builds possible when everyone get their own subsystem.

I think tomorrow I will talk a little about Runebearer's "feat" implementation, talents and how that all came about.