Tag Archives: RPG

Simple D&D 4th edition character sheet

I’ve been thinking more and more about running with my slightly silly idea for a D&D4th edition card-based dungeon crawl game. It would certainly have some challenges – managing the number of Encounter powers, for example, and how to balance simplicity with the exception-based rules of Feats – but I’ve decided to go for it.

With this in mind, I’ve created a simple Excel version of a D&D4 character sheet. It is designed to show little-to-no workings, just highlighting the important numbers that inform game play.

You can find it here: <link to character sheet>

D&D5 – Mucking about with Proficiency

One of the simplifications that lies at the heart of D&D5 is the Proficiency mechanic: one central value, derived from Character Level, added to your die roll. Whether you’re hitting stuff with a pointy stick or trying to remember the name of that ancient carbunculous statue: roll 1d20 and add Proficiency.

So obviously, that’s RIPE for complication!

So here’s a few proposals on how you can muck about with Proficiency, adding complexity and individuality without breaking the game (too badly!)

 

Proficiency: the five core functions

To begin with, let’s split Proficiency into its main functions:

  • Skill rolls
  • Saving throws
  • Spell-casting rolls
  • Combat (and here I’d suggest further diversifying into Melee Combat and Ranged Combat)

Every character will now have five separate values to represent their relative skill in different areas. So, as a Barbarian you may favour Melee Combat, Saves and Skills; as a Wizard you’ll want to focus as much on Spell-casting; a Bard may go with a more even spread.

Now for deriving and increasing these values. Here’s a few ideas:

Method 1: Simple Level Proficiency

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. You can’t add more than Level / 3 to any one value (rounded up to 1 for L2, with an absolute maximum of +8).

This allows a generalist character to have +6 in all five areas by L20, or a specialist to have a spread of +8/+8/+8/+3/+3.

A simple progression and easy to manage, but leads to over-powered specialists.

Method 1A: Capped Maximum

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. The highest value must be within 2 points of the lowest value.

This reduces the ability of a Specialist to run ahead, with a maximum spread of +7/+7/+7/+5/+5 at L20.  However, it does allow someone to have +4 to one ability at 2nd level. Almost certainly not game breaking, but does stretch the underlying assumptions of the mechanics a little.

Method 2: Points-buy

Each level you get a number of Proficiency Points equal to the new Level (i.e. at 3rd level, you get 3 points). Increasing Proficiency values costs as follows:

Value +3 +4 +5 +6 +7 +8
Cost 2 8 15 25 50 100

You can only increase 1 value per level. This allows for the following progressions:

  • Generalist:  focusing equally on all Proficiency values, you get +1 to one Proficiency value every level (except 18th). At 10th level you have +4/+4/+4/+4/+3 and end up with +6/+6/+6/+5/+5 at 20th level.
  • Ultra-specialist: focus on a single Proficiency, you hit +6/+2/+2/+2/+2 at 10th level and +8/+2 etc. at 20th level. Good luck with those Saving Throws…
  • Dual specialist: 10th level is +5/+5/+2 and 20th level is +7/+7/+2.
  • Priority 3: +5/+4/+4/+3/+2 at 10th, +7/+6/+6/+4/+2 at 20th
  • Focus 4: +4/+4/+4/+4/+2 at 10th, +6/+6/+6/+6/+4 at 20th

More granular, more choice, but complex book-keeping. And in reality, would anyone not go for something akin to Priority 3 or Focus 4? Might be better just defining some possible progressions at Level 1 and having players pick them.

Method 3: Class-based Proficiency

If you’re going to define Proficiency up front, why not just set it by class a la D&D3.x?

Firstly, change the default assumption back to 4 Proficiency types, dropping the split between Melee and Ranged combat. Set four core progressions:

  • Strong: +3 at 4th level and further +1 every 4 levels, until +7 at 20th
  • Standard: as per usual
  • Moderate: +1 at 1st level, +2 at 2nd level and +1 every 4 levels until +6 at 17th
  • Weak: +0 at 1st level, +1 at 2nd level and +1 every 5 levels until +4 at 17th

Then allocate classes one of two possible arrays:

  • Specialist class: Strong, Standard, Moderate, Weak
  • Generalist class: Standard, Standard, Moderate, Moderate

E.g. A Fighter would be Strong Attack, Standard Save, Moderate Skill, Weak Magic. A Bard could be Standard Magic, Standard Skill, Moderate Attack, Moderate Save.

Method 4: Simple Proficiency, revisited

Start with spread of +2/+2/+1/+1/+1. Maximum value of any Proficiency is 3 + Level /5 (rounded-down). Add one point to one Proficiency value as Method 1. At 5th level, a specialist could be +4/+3/+2/+1/+1. But by 20th level it’s evened out at +7/+6/+6/+6/+1.

Why put this last, rather than as Method 1B? Well, because if I were to implement one of these ideas, this is the one I’d go with. Balances customisability with simplicity. What’s not to like?!

Power Ranks – combining absolute and variable resolution mechanics

Time to throw a log of contemplation into the cold dead ashes of this blog burner.

Earlier this week, I read another excellent blog entry by always thought-provoking Rob Donoghue, one of the creators of Fate, around resolution mechanic based on TV tropes. Read it here:

http://walkingmind.evilhat.com/2015/11/02/the-tvgame/

The idea of rigid tiers of ability is something I’ve considered myself on many occasions, and it is one that pops up from time to time in RPGs. For example, Jonathan Tweet’s Everway. The actual model described by Rob, with near-automatic success over lower ranks, a small chance of beating a higher rank, and more nuanced conflict resolution within ranks pretty much describes Robin D. Laws HeroQuest / Hero Wars system to a tee.

This got me thinking a little about Superhero games. Building mechanics that allow you to reflect Awesome Man’s planet-moving abilities alongside Sneaky Man’s street-level gumption and then bring them together in satisfying game play is notoriously difficult. However, it strikes me that retrofitting a rank-based model into existing superhero games could go a long way towards solving this issue. There are numerous ways this could be done, but as food for thought, I’ll set one out below.

 

Rank Concept

Every character, power and ability is given a rank. These range from 0 to 5:

  1. Incapable. This character simply doesn’t have this ability in a way that can be used game-mechanically (e.g. physical strength for a 3 year old child)
  2. Normal human
  3. Above normal human (street-level hero or villain)
  4. Super-human
  5. Powerful super-human
  6. Cosmic super-being

Every character has a core rank. This is the default for every stat, skill, ability and power they have. However, you can also increase or decrease abilities on an individual basis.

  • An ability of a higher rank always beats an ability of a lower rank
  • An ability of a lower rank can only affect an ability of a higher rank if there is some kind of advantageous or aggravating factor (e.g. overwhelming odds, team work, a critical hit mechanic, exploiting a stated weakness)

To illustrate this by example:
Superman is a Rank 5 hero. It is impossible for any attack from a Rank 3 to hurt them (whether they just don’t hit, or they bounce off his Uber-tough skin, or whatever).

Batman is a Rank 5 hero* with Rank 3 physical strength. Although he can mix it with the big leagues, his physical attacks are impotent against many bad guys so he needs to find other solutions.

Wolverine is a Rank 4 hero with Rank 5 Claws. Those things can cut through anything.

*or could be. Other builds are available!

Ranks plus Conflict Resolution

The impact this has on the conflict resolution mechanics can potentially be quite dramatic. Points-buy systems typically give tough Heroes high levels of invulnerability or defences to reflect the fact they aren’t easily hurt. They then need to give equivalent high levels of damage to reflect the opponents that can sometimes hurt them. You then end up in a situation where any Villain that is a challenge to Superman will kill Batman in a single blow.

However, with a rank system you don’t need to do this. Instead of giving Superman a 25d6 punch attack, you can give him a Rank 5 8d6 punch attack. With that punch, he can damage any opponent he fights. But he won’t insta-kill a street-level thug just because he’s forgotten about the pulling-your-punch mechanics. Similarly, you can build a Captain USA character who looks like he’s just a normal human, but because he’s a Rank 4 hero, he can dodge bullets and duke it out with super-powered foes without needing to break in-game scaling mechanics.

Similarly, Batman has rank 4 Intimidate. Against ordinary bad guys, he doesn’t even need to roll. Against average super-villains, he uses his (high) skill. Against Justice League-level baddies he just glowers moodily.

To work at its very best, you need to separate out Combat mechanics from Non-combat mechanics. For example, Strength should reflect the ability to exert force on the game world but NOT reflect damage. This is a fundamental requirement to ensure scaling for things like Lifting doesn’t break scaling for Combat. It’s something I used to hate, because it broke my simulationist view of the real world, but the reality is we’re not simulating real world, we’re simulating comic book world and to my knowledge Superdude hasn’t punched anyone’s head off to date. As I recall, Silver Age Sentinels and related tri-stat games did just this.

Finally, a beneficial side-effect of this is that it can increase how much you are able to play in the game mechanical sweet spot. Hero System, for example, with its buckets of dice approach, offers quite different game play when the typical attack does 4d6 damage to when it does 15d6 damage (not least, because more dice reduces the likelihood of rolling extreme values). Using ranks, you can pitch the game at the level your group most enjoys whilst still allowing for apparently vast differences in powers and abilities.

 

Playing with the concept

The other fun thing about the Rank concept is it offers different ways you can play with it to make it work for your game.

For example, instead of linking it to hard-and-fast power levels, you can just use it as a relative scale. Rank 6 means you are the best at that in your campaign universe. Regardless of any other PC or NPC, you are the best. Want to be Usain Bolt? There ya go.

Another, related, way to use it is for niche protection. According to the canon, Superman has a genius-level intellect, yet in the Justice League he invariably plays second-fiddle to Batman – this is because Bruce invested points in Rank 5 intellect, giving himself niche protection as “the clever one”.

One option is to introduce rank auctions as part of a collaborative character generation, for a bit of competitive tension in the creation of the PCs. Not suitable for every group, or indeed every game, but forces you to ask yourself just how much are you willing to give up to be the best warrior in the kingdom?

Finally, for those characters like Batman who seem able to effortless scale up and down as befits the story, you can do away with multiple character versions or complex power-builds. Simply vary the character rank based on the story you want to tell and nothing else needs to change. (“Today, we’re playing a Rank 3 scenario”). Or create a power that allows a character to more easily raise his Rank: you don’t need a mob of Batmen to duke it out with Superman, you just need to remember that he can knows your weaknesses and he always has a plan…

Torg: Spreadsheeting the Possibility Wars

With the second bundle of discounted Torg PDFs over at bundleofholding.com, it seems like a good time to post up a couple of my old Excel sheets.

In this case, two of the first that I ever put together:

  • Firstly, a Spell Design sheet, using the rules contained in the Torg Aysle sourcebook
  • Secondly, an interactive character sheet. Not many bells and whistles, just a few options to pre-populate some of the numbers.

You can get them via dropbox using the links above. Please do let me know if you come across any problems, I gave them a quick update but they’ve been sat moth-balled for a good few years!

 

 

D&D Deck Building Dungeon Bash Boardgame

When Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition was published, as a fan of game mechanics, I thought it was a work of beauty. OK, it wasn’t D&D as I knew it, but with so many fun crunchy things inside, I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I loved the way each Class had multiple unique powers. I loved the options they gave the players, the way the mechanics integrated and complemented one another, how they gave different classes a distinct role and feel. However, my first play experience soon put things into context, as my group found combat was slow and the exciting choices hinted at by the range of powers lost their sheen after the third encounter. My group plays infrequently, jumps system regularly, and it’s not unusual to never play a game twice. So we waved farewell to D&D4 and never went back.

I stand by this decision. I don’t regret it, except for one thing… all those lovely untouched powers, sitting there, waiting, calling to me… On the one hand, I’m disappointed that I only scratched the surface of the powers. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be prepared to put in the time commitment to do any more. But what if there’s another way?

Deck Building
Get your hands on the D&D4 power decks that were published. Several sets. Or make your own. Create D&D4th edition characters. Then give every character at least 2 classes. Maybe 3.

  • Give every character all of the 1st level powers of those classes. Give them as cards, in a deck.
  • Allow each player to draw a hand of 3 or 4 cards.
  • Every time you’re in combat, you can draw a card and play a card. If you don’t play a card, I guess you can probably draw 2. Dunno. Maybe.
  • If you play an At Will power, it goes into a discard pile that forms the new deck once it’s exhausted.
  • If you play an Encounter power, it goes into a different discard pile that is shuffled in once the encounter finishes.
  • If you play a Daily power, you could have a third discard pile, but I actually think it would be more fun to treat it as an encounter power, but you don’t get to draw a new card. Or maybe you have to discard another card to fuel it. Or both. Or something.

Dungeon Bash Boardgame
Nominate a DM. Create a 10 encounter dungeon. Start at 1st level. Finish with the 10th level Big Bad Boss Encounter. Create a bit of story and a few puzzles to link them together. Drop the characters in, kick down doors, kill things and take their stuff.

After each encounter, give every character a heal and level them up. Keep things moving quickly, see how far you can get in one night. Strong on dice-rolling. Weak on story. And using deck-building to mitigate some of the issues of encounter speed and analysis paralysis.

Hey presto. D&D4 as a deck-building dungeon bash pure combat board game.

For a one-off, more complex, version of a typical dungeon-bash board game, this actually sounds rather fun to me. Normally, following an idea like this, my inclination would be to get into some really detailed analysis. Check whether every class and every power would work properly with this. Plan it, write it, think about it, rewrite it. On this occasion, I think I’d rather just play it and see what happens. After all, it’s not like we’d ever do it twice.

NB: Ok, it’s not really very deck-buildy. I just like the alliteration. The rapid levelling and adding more cards as a result after each encounter does give it a sort of deck-building element. But I accept, it’s no Dominion.

Skills as Resources – the Genius of GUMSHOE

The GUMSHOE system, as designed by Robin D. Laws and used in a number of RPGs, Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues being but two, has been widely praised for turning the standard approach of how role-playing game systems dealt with the issue of clues and information on its head.

Traditional RPGs doled out clues and information to the players only if characters completed a successful action of some kind – did you notice the single blonde hair in the victim’s hand, did you find the relevant newspaper clipping in the library, do you know anything about ancient Aztec murder rituals? On the plus side, this gave players a sense of positive achievement if they managed to find a clue; on the flip side, a failed roll could stall the adventure and bring the entire story crashing to a halt. So GUMSHOE does what many GMs ended up doing anyway: if you have the necessary investigative skill, you get the clue. No roll necessary. You just get it. Simple and, in hindsight, so obvious.

But that’s not the genius of GUMSHOE. Well, ok, maybe it is. But it’s not the genius I want to talk about today.

Ingredients for dramatic tension
One of the challenges in RPGs is creating dramatic tension in an adventure. Certain types of scenes have dramatic tension in spades, typically those governed by detailed conflict resolution mechanics – such as combat. In large part, it’s because these scenes have six in-built mechanical elements:

  • Objective – the players must have some firm goal that they’re looking to achieve.
  • Challenge – a clear obstacle between the players and the objective.
  • Risk – the scene presents some sort of negative consequence for failure.
  • Reward – the scene presents some sort of positive consequence for success.
  • Choices – the players have to decide how best to overcome the challenge.
  • Resources – the players have limited resources that inform what Choices they can exercise.

The best, most dramatic or dramatic scenes have all six of these elements. For example, a good combat scene in an D&D-esque fantasy game might have:

  • Objective – the heroes want to save a Princess, locked up in a far-away tower.
  • Challenge – the tower is being guarded by a Dragon.
  • Risk – the dragon will eat you. Or maybe eat the Princess. Or both.
  • Reward – if you kill the dragon, rather than just avoid it, you get its huge pile of treasure.
  • Choices – you have potions, spells, different types of weapons and a range of combat maneuvers that you can exercise to take down this hideous monster.
  • Resources – you have a limited number of potions and spells. In addition, you have a finite number of Hit Points and when they have gone, you’re dead.

This example has all of the mechanical ingredients to be a great dramatic scene. To become the finished article, it probably needs one other thing, which is to be interesting, but it’s got all of the basics.

The Dramatic Rock
Other scenes frequently lack one of more of these ingredients, and the more of these that are missing, the more it is difficult to capture an appropriate level of drama. A classic one of these is the simple binary obstacle.

Take a rock in the path. You can move it, or you can go back and find another route, which will waste time. You have an objective. The rock is the challenge. The risk is losing time. There’s no clear reward. You may have multiple ways of dealing with the rock but nothing to stop you potentially trying all of them, so there’s limited decision-making. Resources may be used, but that depends on what Choices you exercise. In the absence of real pressure, its unlikely to be an issue.

In D&D, we could ask the players to make Strength rolls for their characters. They succeed or they fail. They could use a potion of Bull’s Strength, but it’s unlikely that any party would do so. So it becomes a straight roll. Succeed. Fail. Basically, it’s a rubbish obstacle. Unless your aim is just to annoy your players, you should just narrate your way through and let them get onto the next really dramatic challenge… which, knowing D&D, is probably another fight.

Resources require Decisions, so if all Skills are Resources…
However, this is another area where GUMSHOE really cleverly changes how we think about simple binary obstacles. In GUMSHOE, each skill has a numerical rating. If you want to use that skill, you have to spend one or more points, reducing its numerical rating in return for getting a bonus on your die roll. So having a high skill level doesn’t mean you’re always better at something, it means you have more opportunity to choose to be better at something. But once it’s gone it’s gone. All of a sudden, we’re embuing every single skill roll with the elements of Choice and Resources.

In GUMSHOE, we still have that rock. My character has the Athletics skill. I could spend some points to improve their chance of success, but how many should I spend? Spending 1 doesn’t improve chances that much, so I might have just wasted it. How important is this rock anyway? If I fail, is there someone else in the party who might be able to succeed after me? I only have 2 Athletics points left, what if I need some later on?

With GUMSHOE’s resource-based skills, every single skill-use is embued with inherent dramatic tension. It’s only modest, not over-whelming. It’s unlikely to lead to analysis-paralysis. But it does mean that the players are constantly thinking about what is important to them, trying to think ahead to future challenges, trying to juggle their choices and balance the limited resources available to them. Just as with how GUMSHOE handles clues, it’s a really simple mechanic that has a huge impact on game play.

Complications
Other RPGs have suggested bringing tension into simple obstacles through the use of complications. This is basically a way of ensuring that even simple tests have a heightened Risk and/or Reward. So it’s not a question of whether you can move the rock – of course you can, given enough time. It’s a question of whether you can move the rock before the mob of ravenous ghouls descends upon you and feasts on your weak, scrawny, unable-to-shift-a-rock-fast-enough bodies. Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel puts this concept at the core of its conflict resolution mechanics, requiring that every action is framed in terms of not what you do but what you want to achieve: you don’t say “I try to move the rock”, you say “I move the rock before the ravenous ghouls can get to us”, placing the onus on the player to set up the consequences for failure.

So if you really want to make simple skill checks dramatic and exciting, go the full whammy. Combine the use of consequences with GUMSHOE’s inherent Choices/Resources aspect. Now you have the tools at your finger tips to turn every non-combat obstacle into a dramatic challenge that tests, excites and challenges your players.

NB: Just realised I should add a citation to the end of this. Main inspiration for this was listening to discussion on obstacles in RPGs in Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff podcast, episode 103. If you haven’t listened to it before, there’s no time like the present!

The Sanctity of Genre

I’m going to take a quick diversion away from mechanical aspects of role-playing games to talk about something else very close to my heart: Genre.

Apologies. This is a long post. I’m afraid I got on my ranting horse and took it for a bit of a ride…

I’m not going to go into detailed dictionary definitions or analysis of the origins of the word. Nor am I going to dwell on the distinction between Genre and Setting, other than to acknowledge that “Fantasy” isn’t so much a genre as a broader label in which a wide range of genres can exist. No, what I want to talk about is the apparently inexorable descent to a single unifying genre and how this is damaging to story-telling and the bounds of imagination.

The Assassin of Middle Earth
What has sparked this off for me is the new console game, Middle Earth: Shadows over Mordor.

Now, to check my prejudice from the start, I’m what could be described as a soft-core gamer. I’m usually a few years behind the latest thing and prefer to play slower-paced games that I can engage with on the sofa on my laptop, such as CRPGs or Civilisation, rather than shooters and action games. I am also a big Tolkien fan, a long way short of the buffs of the Tolkien society for sure, but nonetheless a keen reader of his works.

By all accounts, Shadows over Mordor is a pretty good game. Maybe even excellent. For the reasons I’ve said above, I’m unlikely to play it myself, but it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Except that it has no place in Middle Earth. For me, this is a big thing.

Don’t let facts get in the way of story
No place in Middle Earth? That’s a bold statement! I have two main issues. The first, judging from the game synopsis (thank you Wikipedia), is that the premise of the game itself is something that makes no sense based on the setting and cosmology that Tolkien created. This includes, amongst many others:

  • The game’s protagonist is a Ranger stationed at the Black Gate. The story is set between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, c. TA2941 and TA3017, but the Black Gate was reclaimed by Sauron’s forces some time before TA2002, at least nine-hundred years before the timeframe of the game.
  • Mordor is not yet a barren wasteland in the game, which may conceivably have been true before the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3434), but certainly not true at any point in the Third Age.
  • The main character comes back to life to seek revenge, despite Tolkien explicitly stating that Beren was the only human ever to return from death. He is revived by the wraith of Celebrimbor, one of the Noldor Elves. But Elves cannot be wraiths – after death, their souls return to Valinor, either dwelling with Mandos or re-embodied if they choose (see here and here)

OK, the reality is that these factual changes don’t really matter that much, other than one thing: if you need to change the facts to tell your story, why set it in a world that has such a strong predefined history? Just create a new world in which to tell your story: it certainly didn’t harm the sales of the Dragon Age games.

What is the “Middle Earth” Genre?
More significant to me than the factual questions around the setting is the question of genre. In any creative work of fiction, the writing doesn’t just describe a place, it also provides a description for how that world operates, how characters behave and interact. In other words, what sort of stories can and do take place. Nothing in Tolkien’s writings suggest that Middle Earth is a world where protagonists sneak around Mordor slaughtering and torturing Orcs to avenge their families. On the contrary, Middle Earth is a world where great power almost inevitably corrupts and where the exercise of strength can never do more than merely delay the ultimate victory of evil over good. In the end, Evil is only defeated because the humble (Hobbits) exercise mercy (both Bilbo and Frodo staying their hands when they had the opportunity to slay Gollum). These fundamental tenets are the genre of Middle Earth and for any creative work to be consistent with Tolkien’s creation, they need to reflect this. It’s why the Numenoreans could never destroy Sauron; it’s why Aragorn or Gandalf could never wield the One Ring; it’s why a flight of eagles would never be able to lead a commando raid to drop the Ring into Mount Doom: the exercise of strength alone cannot win. This, more than anything, is Tolkien.

What is also important to recognise here is that Middle Earth is more than just a setting or a place. Middle Earth was designed in a specific way, with a specific cosmology, with unique mythological metaphysics that support certain kinds of stories. In the case of Tolkien, Middle Earth is integrated with the genre in a way that isn’t true with stories set in modern day Earth. The use of stealth, murder and torture to extract revenge can never lead to a positive ending within Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as Turin Turambar can attest.

The Action Movie Genre
For me, this comes on to a wider problem of Genre recognition across mass media and consumer culture. Increasingly, it feels to me that public criticism is dominated by a single genre that perhaps can be best described as Action Movie. We don’t question when a hero leaps from a burning helicopter onto the back of a moving car, taking a couple of gun shot wounds as he goes, punching through the rear windscreen of the vehicle to drag his opponent out. The impossibility of the human form to withstand this sort of punishment is an inconvenience.

However, just because most Action Movies are set in something approaching the real world, doesn’t mean that the genre is any more real. In the Action Movie genre, people can accomplish acts of impossible stealth, kill without guilt or hesitation and torture with impunity because the end justifies the means. However, that doesn’t justify bringing those tropes into other genres on the basis that although equally impossible, they are somehow more “realistic”. This is like mathematicians talking about different sized infinities – the infinity of odd numbers is bigger than the infinity of prime numbers, but both are still infinite. Instead of using different genres to tell different stories, we risk retelling the same stories but simply in different settings.

Genre rules are fundamental to telling certain types of stories. The horror genre require protagonists to act in ways that are distinctly illogical, yet the power of those stories relies on that. Noir has its own distinct set of bleak narrative rules that allow us to create dramatic stories. Romance requires impossible coincidences and a sense of optimism to bring about powerful positive emotional states. The Superhero genre has been particularly targeted by this genre normalising, as if somehow Superman killing General Zod is a better story than a near omnipotent having to work twice as hard to find solutions consistent with his commitment to the sanctity of life.

Genres in Gaming
I suspect there is something fundamental about the human imagination that makes it easy to accept impossible individuals, but harder to imagine that the rules of the world around us can be different. Bringing this back to RPGs, one of my favourite games of all time is Torg. This classic 1990s game not only brought together individuals from different settings, but had rules to embody different genres within the one game world. Some gamers couldn’t handle it. They had no problem with the idea that Wizards, Pulp Heroes, Cyber-warriors and Victorian Occultists could co-exist with their incumbent physics-breaking powers. But they struggled to understand why, in the Fantasy world, guns didn’t work. It’s a relatively simple chemical reaction, and the game rules were explicit that the laws of physics weren’t any different, so why wouldn’t the bullet fire? Because Genre. Genre trumps the laws of physics every time. If it didn’t, John McClane and James Bond would both be long in the grave. You believe a character can heal from critical injuries over-night, why can’t you believe a gun won’t fire?!

The idea of using rules to emulate different genres is something that is now widely accepted in table top roleplaying, from Ron Edward’s System Does Matter through to myriad indie rule sets that support very specific types of stories.

We can burn down the Haunted House at the first sign of something eerie.
We can strangle the Bandito in his sleep before the high noon showdown.
We can give Batman a sniper rifle and watch Gotham’s crime rate plummet.

But how do any of these things enhance the stories we’re telling? By trying to apply a single genre to different settings, all we’re doing is telling the same unimaginative story, using the same unimaginative solutions to different problems. I’m also reminded of Robin D. Laws “something he always says”, regarding the drive in modern mass media to turn Iconic Heroes into Dramatic Heroes and by doing so changing the very nature of the stories that they tell.

It’s by accepting differences not only in the characters, but the world in which they exist, that we can tell different, exciting, creative, challenging stories. As the author Saladin Ahmed said on Twitter, not using violent solutions is the essence of heroism in the Lord of the Rings. Finding a way to make that into a core mechanic, now that would be creative. That’s a game I’d definitely play.