Critical reinterpretation at its worst


Many people in the RPG world think what I’m about to say is heresy, but I actually think that board games and computer games have some interesting ideas to teach RPG makers and players, and a lot of them are based on making available new and specialized content – that is, objects and purcahsable add-ons – that can provide additional opportunities for role-playing, or tools to help the GM and the players manage the game. A lot of these ideas are common in Japanese RPGs, and some of these tools when combined enable the game to improve the number of rules options available, and to have incidental rules – like fatigue, encumbrance and the like – that people typically hate to use because they’re fiddly to manage.

As an example I give Warhammer FRP 3rd ed, which I’m using now. It has 5 ideas which, used together, enable both improved role-playing opportunities to emerge from dice rolls, and give better management of in-game actions, which in turn allows Warhammer 3rd ed to use a wider range of resource types for players. They are:

  • Special dice: these enable actions to be resolved on two dimensions, with one dimension the standard success/fail and the other a good luck/bad luck dimension that is largely used to add role-playing hooks and interesting side effects to actions. These two dimensions offer the opportunity to succeed but have a bad or annoying side-effect, and to fail but have some minor quirk of luck. They also enable success in one action to affect another. For example, good fortune on a successful Sword and Board action enables  a fighter to reuse their Block defense. Such a dimension in, for example, D&D might mean that a Cleric rolling good luck on a Bless spell might regain one of their daily Turn Undead uses. In D&D 4th edition, good luck on an at-will power could lead to a recharge of an encounter power; or success on an encounter power might recharge another encounter power, or add to the tally of available healing surges. Of course, all of these extra effects in combat can be hard to keep track of, except for the additional use of Action Cards…
  • Action cards: which enable you to pull all your main effects out of a book and put on the table for easy reference,  so players do not have to constantly reference the books. This would be useful in D&D for wizards and clerics but even putting a character’s to-hit table on a card would make that action resolution very quick. I’ve given the rather trivial example of Magic Missile here (the text is from Greyhawk via Grognardia). Obviously Magic Missile is trivial, but it seems uncontroversial to me that having things like hit tables and turn undead rules on easily-accessible, attractive cards is really useful, especially in a game like D&D where lots of rules (e.g. surprise, finding secret doors) that are used a lot may differ by race, class or situation. The downside of attractively-made cards is that they add to the cost of a product in art and production[1], so they’re hardly justifiable in and of themselves[2], but in WFRP 3 they are justified by a useful mechanical tool, cooldown, which is only possible as a mechanical technique due to the combination of Action Cards with Recharge Tokens.
  • Recharge tokens: this enables actions to be limited in terms of available power (for spells) but also time to reuse, i.e. cool-down, which is something I think 4e D&D wanted to use but couldn’t get working because they weren’t thinking board-game-y enough. In WFRP3 each Action has a recharge time written on the top right corner of the card, and you track recharge by putting recharge tokens on this spot, then removing one at the end of each round. These tokens can also track other sorts of recharge. For example the Morr’s Touch spell is discharged after a certain number of hits, which are tracked using tokens in the recharge section of the card. If an Initiate of Morr gets a lot of luck on another spell roll they may be able to add recharge tokens to this card, adding to the number of hits they can deliver. But they don’t need to track these on paper using a pencil and crossing it out, because the tokens are right there. These tokens also track fatigue and stress, which can be accrued for any action and are an important consideration in the development of insanity. They are also used for tracking the duration of conditions. When I first read about this method I thought it would not be an improvement on just writing numbers on a sheet but it really actually is, both because you don’t have to keep track of actual  numbers (you just move tokens around) and because it’s trivial to keep track of 6 or 8 recharge processes at once when they’re combined with cards, while keeping track of recharge next to multiple effects written on a paper is messy and easily confused. The upshot of this is that the WFRP system enables continual use of magic, but through the combined management of power points and recharge. Power points can be redrawn after use, but this takes a round, and spells may take several rounds to cool down. This means that Wizards and Priests always have their spells available to use but can’t use them at will. I think this is the approach Wizards of the Coast wanted with D&D 4e, but without cards and tokens a truly flexible cooldown system is impossible, so they went for the more basic form represented by at-will/encounter/daily powers. I think cooldown is a natural idea for both spells and non-magical actions, and keeps the game fun for everyone because they always have the actions they want, but usable at a frequency that is balanced by the system. I don’t think recharge has much use in pre-4th edition D&D, but I’m sure there are other uses for tokens – for example, after casting bless you put a number of tokens equal to its duration on the card, and remove one per round. This frees up the GM from a lot of management issues.
  • Progress Tracker: a really simple idea for keeping track of contests between PCs and enemies that span long periods. e.g. chases, building armies before a deadline, etc.This is system-independent but really useful. For example, suppose that the adventure requires that the PCs find the location of a secret cult before the cult sacrifices the Mayor’s daughter. The GM can decide how much leeway to give the PCs and then constructs a progress tracker with a number of spaces corresponding to this leeway. Halfway along is an event space. Every time the PCs make a mistake (raid the wrong building, or screw up a negotiation with a potential informer) a token is moved one space along the progress tracker. When it reaches the halfway-point event space the cult become aware of the PC’s investigation and send assassins against them; if the progress tracker reaches the end before the PCs have found the Cult HQ, the girl gets sacrificed and the PCs have failed. This gives the GM a method for relating failure in the investigation to the outcome, and a way to construct limits on how many mistakes the PCs can make. I think this is a really useful tool for managing competitive tasks of this sort, and can offer really interesting plot triggers. In a longer adventure event spaces could be scattered through a progress tracker to indicate incidental events (unrelated to the adventure) or just spots for the GM to roll up rumours/weather/adventure hooks (this is how the progress meter was used in the Scenario Craft adventure I played). This is system-independent and again, although it doesn’t need a purchasable product, a solid cardboard progress meter with a style that suits the game is nice to use. The Scenario Craft adventure had a double-page spread in the book that could be photocopied and contained the progress meter and all the associated random charts, for easy reference.
  • Party character sheet: used to build up tension between party members. The tension meter increases with every failure, and at some point triggers a negative effect that depends on the type of party the players have chosen to play. There is also a pool for storing fortune points, which are added to whenever the party gets a success, and then distributed amongst the party whenever the number of points equals the number of PCs. I think fortune points are a system-independent idea as well, being basically a house-rule to enable players to get out of trouble. The party character sheet also has a special skill for the group, and two slots for a talent that anyone in the group can activate. In D&D3.5, there could be a special set of feats that go on this character sheet and that players can choose to purchase for their PC in place of normal feats. This would be particularly suitable for bard, rogue and other support characters (or could even be used to make bards desirable as party members!) My current party are playing “Brash Young Fools,” so when their tension reaches 4 points the party have an argument and everyone’s stress increases by one. The “Hired Thugs” party take a wound at that point, indicating that the increasing tension of continual failure has led to recriminations that actually came to blows. In this group, continual failure can be deadly. Again, this sheet benefits from the use of tokens, and is also at its most basic completely system-netural.

These ideas are all things you can make yourself and import into OD&D, but most of them are ideas from computer games or board games. Most of them enhance options for role-playing. The current version of WFRP was made by Fantasy Flight Games, who are a board- and card-game company too, and I think they’ve incorporated the lessons of those other genres into their work. In this blog, board games are credited with improving the rules of modern wargames, again through the incorporation of ideas from outside the world of wargaming itself.

I think RPG players and makers have an objection to “additional content” that is often quite visceral and reflexive, and has a lot to do with the way in the past companies like TSR and Wizards of the Coast have tried to sell all sorts of useless crap via splat books. But this stuff often didn’t improve or change our play at all, just gave us ever-increasing numbers of meaningless choices. Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) did this with Rolemaster – I had maybe 3 companions, but the only useful one was the first (with the addition of the Nightblade character and a few new open spell lists); the rest were useless fluff. Of course, ICE and TSR produced some very nice world settings, but along with these useful additions came a bunch of useless stuff (especially from Wizards of the Coast) like Fighter Handbooks and The Complete Left-handed Basket Weaver, etc. However, in amongst this useless pile of accrued crap is a simple truth – sometimes the stuff that gets added on is really useful and enhances the game, regardless of its financial advantages to the original company. Even though the additional content in WFRP3 presents Fantasy Flight Games with an excellent vehicle to sell more stuff, this is neither a new phenomenon, nor something unique to card games, nor a cynical money-pushing decision on their part. The material added to WFRP makes for a genuine interesting improvement to both that particular game and to the practice of role-playing generally, and I think it’s a sign that there is a lot of gaming practice outside of RPGs that we could stand to learn from – including (shock horror!) in computer games.

fn1: Don’t I know it! I’m currently translating all the Warhammer 3 cards to Japanese and printing them and it takes a huge amount of time and effort.

fn2: A lot of Japanese games seem to present actions/effects in card form in the book but don’t present the cards themselves. I think it’s assumed the players will make their own cards with a photocopier, or maybe in some cases they’re sold separately.