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System and setting interaction: an example


RosenMcStern

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I have had some debates during the last weeks on rpg.net about how the various incarnations of BRP/RuneQuest rendered the various sub-genres of fantasy – notably with John Snead and Loz, but several other people have read and commented. I think this is an interesting subject and deserves more thought, but it is also true that speaking in general is less effective than providing a good example. Which is what I am going to do here.

My thesis here is that any ruleset has a little bit of “impedance” when you apply it to a setting, meaning that an inappropriate approach to fantasy might be ingrained in the rules. For instance, a ruleset which is built around the idea that “everyone has magic” is a little bit problematic when you want to play Conan, who would not touch anything magic with a ten-foot pole, yet kicks sorcerous asses all the time. You need some tweaking, let us admit it. And sometimes game designers tweak the setting to the rules, rather than the opposite (think of Rolemaster Middle Earth…).

On the other hand, a ruleset with even minor variations might make your life extremely easier, requiring little or no adjustments to evoke exactly the feeling you are looking for.

Here I will provide an interesting example: a setting that I have packaged with four different versions of the rules over time, three of which published: Stupor Mundi. Here we will see how the difference between what I wanted to render in game and what the ruleset provided “out of the box” changed with the evolution of the rules, and how this tells you a lot about the “sweet spot” of the rules.

Please note also that I am not implying that any of these rulesets are “impossible to use” with historical fantasy. All of them ultimately work. It is just a matter of how much you have to change until the rules are adapting themselves to the setting instead of the setting being adapting itself to the rules.

Even though all rulesets mentioned were labeled “RuneQuest” at the time, I am posting this in the general section because it applies to all d100 rulesets. Please understand that all of the examples are out of print, so you must trust the report a little bit (or skim ebay for old copies).

 

Version 1 (unpublished): Avalon Hill RuneQuest 3 (1984)

This is the original version of the setting from the 90s. And it is the least successful one, although the concept was successful enough to persuade me to repackage it 15 years later. Some assumptions in weaponry and armour in the AH ruleset make it less effective in a medieval environment (swords being thrust-oriented weapons, and chain mail being almost impervious to one-handed weapons). But above all, the magic rules are completely out of context: Christians and Muslims are not supposed to have ubiquitous battle magic, and the system labeling it as “coming from spirits” does not match the cultural environment, either. Migrating towards a model where only Divine Magic exists and is reusable and widely available to clerics is a necessity, but this is a major tweak to the rules. Sorcery, being unaligned with any deity, is instead appropriate to depict Ariosto-style evil magicians.

Version 2 (published in English under the OGL): Mongoose RuneQuest 1 (2006)

This version required fewer tweaks. Some adjustments for combat equipment were necessary, but this is due largely to some unfortunate design decisions that plagued that version. Divine Magic is reusable by default, although the dedicated POW mechanic is a bit clunky, so it becomes easier to model priests, monks and imams and leave laymen without magic. The existence of Hero Points helps keep people alive when they lack the ubiquitous Heal spell of other versions of RQ. The big trouble is the basic magic system, based on physical runes and the Runecasting skill: it is much more appropriate to depict pagan magic, and this shows in the published scenarios “The Hounds of Adranos” and “The Lord of the Golden Eagle”, where the party finds runes representing leftovers of pre-Christian worship of natural forces.

Version 3 (published in Italian under a standard license): Mongoose RuneQuest 2 (2010)

This version still required some work. First of all, I had to adapt the concept of combat styles to how medieval people actually used to fight. Magic was easier to represent as the Pact/Allegiance mechanics is a much better representation of how monotheist religions work, although it is still very effective for polytheism. However, some implementation details in how Allegiance works in this version made me choose to introduce an alternate mechanics based on Vows, which I had developed for Merrie England with the help of Simon Phipp and Pete Nash himself.

Version 4 (published in English under the gateway license): RuneQuest 6, aka Mythras (2012)

To my surprise, this version required virtually no tweaks. The standard treatment of combat styles required no adaptations, just the introduction of a couple of special traits beyond the standard ones provided in the core rules. The standard Allegiance rules are appropriate to a monotheist historical context, so I could afford to drop the custom magic system and apply the standard one with extreme effectiveness. For the first time, I could focus on the setting and not on adapting the rules.

I think this is a good basis for discussion. It shows that not all rulesets are equally effective at modeling one specific sub-genre, and that the work of the design team can do amazing things to improve the suitability of a particular version of a system to a game world.

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I don't disagree with the thesis here. I think that there are soektimes assumptions about genre that get incorporated into the core of the system. Once these are there, it starts to make the system less genre flexible, and require more changes for it to work with it. 

This is not to say that those changes or having to do that is bad or good, but it is a consideration. 

I think there are other considerations as well. Consider class based games and the notion of a healer. In most (but not all) examples, someone has to play the healer or assumptions in the core system are tossed out. There is little flexibility in the ability to recover damage. 

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I think your "thesis" is correct. I also think it explains why RQ was always tweaked to adapt it to whatever the setting was (Stormbringer, Elfquest, CoC, etc.). It also explains why most d20 doesn't really handle most established settings very well, since it almost always keeps the same rules, regardless of the setting. 

 

It's also why RQ/BRP/Superworld really doesn't handle Supers all that well.

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3 hours ago, groovyclam said:

Not thinking this through too much but doesn't your example just prove that Mythras is the "best" (most flexible/adaptable) version of the 4 rulesets ?

Is there a setting you can think of where Mythras is not as appropriate as, for example, AH RuneQuest III ?

I think it also depends on your own preferences, biases, and priories. For example, I could easily see someone completely ditching magic and religious "powers" in a medieval setting, making most of Rosen's required tweaks for the various game systems moot. 

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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14 minutes ago, Atgxtg said:

I think your "thesis" is correct. I also think it explains why RQ was always tweaked to adapt it to whatever the setting was (Stormbringer, Elfquest, CoC, etc.). It also explains why most d20 doesn't really handle most established settings very well, since it almost always keeps the same rules, regardless of the setting. 

 

It's also why RQ/BRP/Superworld really doesn't handle Supers all that well.

having never done supers with BRP, why doesn't it?

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Mostly because of BRP's inherent deadliness and it not being all that forgiving. For instance, let's look at the Hulk. According to the comics he is considered to be able to lift over 100 tons (say STR 100) and weights "over 800 pounds"  (say SIZ 32) for about a +7D6 damage bonus. Now, if the Hulk manages to hit a character such as Hawkeye with a punch, the odds are Hawkeye just got a body party horribly mauled, and is most likely dead or dying. This is probably fairly realistic as to what should happen to a (nearly) normal human who gut hit by something with so much force, but is isn't how things tend to work out in the comics.  

Now what you really need for supers to "work" is a way to make the combat less lethal. The boxed Superworld RPG had some stuff to do that, but even so, it wasn't such a great fit. In the end they were trying to recreate the wheel (that is Champions). It is usually much easier to use a less lethal setting that better suits the comics that try to shoehorn a system that doesn't fit so well. 

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19 hours ago, Atgxtg said:

Mostly because of BRP's inherent deadliness and it not being all that forgiving. For instance, let's look at the Hulk. According to the comics he is considered to be able to lift over 100 tons (say STR 100) and weights "over 800 pounds"  (say SIZ 32) for about a +7D6 damage bonus. Now, if the Hulk manages to hit a character such as Hawkeye with a punch, the odds are Hawkeye just got a body party horribly mauled, and is most likely dead or dying. This is probably fairly realistic as to what should happen to a (nearly) normal human who gut hit by something with so much force, but is isn't how things tend to work out in the comics.  

In a supers setting, your characters probably need abiliities like "roll with the blow" instead of parry - taking most of the impact as knockback damage rather than wounds. You'd probably need to introduce something like stun damage as default when applied to supers.

In case of The Hulk vs. Loki in Iron Man's apartment, you might need rules for characters as weapons against inanimate objects like the floor.

This problem isn't limited to supers. Take your classical werewolf impervious to any weapon not of silver (or magic). How exactly does this play out?

 

But I agree, the most difficult position to adapt a rules system to a setting is the magic/supernatural component. The POW economy of RQ hasn't really worked in my games - lots of opportunities to lose POW, hardly any to get it. The magic point as currency isn't really fine-grained enough if you want to play a magic wielder without oodles of external MP sources, or a massive use of the Tap spell rules to be applied on components like mineral crystals, meditative scrolls, ley lines, or the like.

Conan or his entire world may have a magic of refutation (or a Cold Iron effect). It is his raw will or stubbornness against whichever sorcery he struggles against, or as per Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser the Laugh which weakens even whatever the gods may sling at these heroes. The Laugh might be a use of passion.

In order to run a game with Conan- or Mouser-like characters, you might have to give them effective 100+ skills for their major abilities in systems like RQ3 or RQG (the latter possibly through use of passions).

 

Telling how it is excessive verbis

 

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20 hours ago, Atgxtg said:

Now, if the Hulk manages to hit a character such as Hawkeye with a punch, the odds are Hawkeye just got a body party horribly mauled, and is most likely dead or dying. This is probably fairly realistic as to what should happen to a (nearly) normal human who gut hit by something with so much force, but is isn't how things tend to work out in the comics.  

Now what you really need for supers to "work" is a way to make the combat less lethal. The boxed Superworld RPG had some stuff to do that, but even so, it wasn't such a great fit. In the end they were trying to recreate the wheel (that is Champions). It is usually much easier to use a less lethal setting that better suits the comics that try to shoehorn a system that doesn't fit so well. 

I cannot remember any occurrences of the Hulk hitting Hawkeye either in the comics or in the movies. Yes, he could reduce him to a pulp, but this simply does not happen. Superhero comics are regulated by genre tropes and not physical laws.

The problem here is the attempt to use the typical D&D concept of "you are hit but you have enough HP" to emulate the comics. But in fact you are creating a totally different narrative, which might break suspension of disbelief .

A good simulationist ruleset for supers is one based on the concept of "not being hit" rather than "hit point inflation". In this sense, BRP is under some aspects a good system for supers because you know that your character is not supposed to survive even one single hit, if the opponent is too strong. The big problem is that a bad roll might kill your character if you adopt the realistic BRP combat model. In this sense, a superhero game of BRP would necessarily have to include Fate Points, to make sure that events inappropriate to the genre do not take place.

 

36 minutes ago, Joerg said:

Conan or his entire world may have a magic of refutation (or a Cold Iron effect). It is his raw will or stubbornness against whichever sorcery he struggles against, or as per Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser the Laugh which weakens even whatever the gods may sling at these heroes. The Laugh might be a use of passion.

In order to run a game with Conan- or Mouser-like characters, you might have to give them effective 100+ skills for their major abilities in systems like RQ3 or RQG (the latter possibly through use of passions).

I do not think RQ classic can really do Conan. The assumption that you need use magic to stay alive is too ingrained in the system. Even if you give them defenses against direct magical attacks (which requires major tweaks in RQ classic, as you use the Resistance Table - a hero should have 20-25 POW to be magically hardened), the combat model that uses sheer damage to determine whether your parry actually worked makes it difficult even for a 100% combatant to face a monstruous construct or a warrior with really heavy weapon magic.

On the other hand, effect-based combat achieves exactly this: Conan or  the Mouser's superior skills and the relative ability to generate effects on a successful exchange can compensate a monster's ability to deal a huge damage, even when the hero scorns using magic himself. Oh, and Luck Points are a big factor, too. Again a feature that compensates the non-ubiquity of magic.

Edited by RosenMcStern

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On 6/25/2017 at 3:38 AM, RosenMcStern said:

My thesis here is that any ruleset has a little bit of “impedance” when you apply it to a setting, meaning that an inappropriate approach to fantasy might be ingrained in the rules. For instance, a ruleset which is built around the idea that “everyone has magic” is a little bit problematic when you want to play Conan, who would not touch anything magic with a ten-foot pole, yet kicks sorcerous asses all the time. You need some tweaking, let us admit it. And sometimes game designers tweak the setting to the rules, rather than the opposite (think of Rolemaster Middle Earth…).

In general, I agree with your thesis.  Some rules mesh with and enhance a setting; some clash with the setting (use of cards & poker-chips in original Deadlands was sheer genius, despite other broken-ness in the mechanics).

I will suggest that in fact Conan DOES have magic.  Mighty thews notwithstanding, Conan often achieves -- not just the unlikely -- the impossible.  Call it a "genre convention" if you will, but as I read them, the stories are clear portrayals of a man whose abilities are more-than-human; and in that setting, that means magic.

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24 minutes ago, g33k said:

I will suggest that in fact Conan DOES have magic.  Mighty thews notwithstanding, Conan often achieves -- not just the unlikely -- the impossible.  Call it a "genre convention" if you will, but as I read them, the stories are clear portrayals of a man whose abilities are more-than-human; and in that setting, that means magic.

This is usually referred to as "being larger than life". What would kill a commoner is not able to stop me. But in a context where magic does exist, you cannot conflate "doing the impossible" and "using magic". The game mechanics should work differently.

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9 hours ago, Joerg said:

In a supers setting, your characters probably need abiliities like "roll with the blow" instead of parry - taking most of the impact as knockback damage rather than wounds. You'd probably need to introduce something like stun damage as default when applied to supers. [/quote]

Yes, and the Superworld boxed set has stuff like that, but it's not something that is a natural part of RQ/BRP. This is the RPG where a punch to the head from a normal man (1D3+1D4db) has a pretty good chance of being fatal. There really was very little provision for non-lethal combat.

 

9 hours ago, Joerg said:

This problem isn't limited to supers. Take your classical werewolf impervious to any weapon not of silver (or magic). How exactly does this play out?

It's not as much of an issue. In a horror setting it's okay for a character, even a manor one to be virtually defenseless and slaughtered by a monster. Now it's generally not okay to do this to the hero is a film or a PC in a RPG, but that's much more a matter of GMing and stroy pacing than one with the rules. To boil it down, if you going to include such monsters you need to include their Achilles heel so the PCs have a good chance of success.

Oh, BTW, the whole werewolf's imperviousness, and vulnerability to silver is not a "classic werewolf"  trait but a "Hollywood werewolf" trait. 

 

 

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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9 hours ago, RosenMcStern said:

I cannot remember any occurrences of the Hulk hitting Hawkeye either in the comics or in the movies. Yes, he could reduce him to a pulp, but this simply does not happen.

Neither do I, although I'm not so certain that it never happened. I used the Hulk and Hawkeye as a way to illustrate the point. There are certainly situations in the comics where characters get hit by overpowering attacks and doing much better than would realistically be the case. 

The problem also exists when two superpower characters such as Hulk and Thor fight each other. In the comics if one of the other gets a good hit on the other, it will send them flying into something and might leave them bruised and stunned. In BRP getting a critical could turn such an occurrence into a lethal event.

9 hours ago, RosenMcStern said:

 

Superhero comics are regulated by genre tropes and not physical laws.

They do have their own internal physical laws. For instance is a superstrong/tough character falls out of a skyscraper to the concrete sidewalk below, he breaks the concrete and leave a crater, but is usually okay  since he is tougher than the concrete. 

9 hours ago, RosenMcStern said:

The problem here is the attempt to use the typical D&D concept of "you are hit but you have enough HP" to emulate the comics. But in fact you are creating a totally different narrative, which might break suspension of disbelief .

A good simulationist ruleset for supers is one based on the concept of "not being hit" rather than "hit point inflation".

Not really. Characters get hit in the comics all the time.Not everybody lives by dodging. And the super powered ones usually keep on fighting. And from a gaming standpoint if the Hulk can't ever hit Hawkeye then that itself causes a lot of problems. The Hulk still needs to be a threat. 

 

Yes, characters such as Haweye and Spiderman do focus on dodging the attacks of superstrong characters rather than trying to soak the blow (good thinking, too), but thats' not something that BRP emulates all that well, either. If a fight goes on for a few round, the superstrong character will eventually score a high success level attack and the dodging character will eventually not make a good enough dodge, and that can get rather nasty in BRP. Iron Man is another problem character. Chances are in an attack is strong enough to get partially through the armor, it's enough to incapacitate the man inside the armor. An no, it doesn't usually work that way in the comics. 

 

In comparison, most Supers RPGS tend to not only make the dodging more reliable, but also have mechanics in place to mitigate the effects of being hit

9 hours ago, RosenMcStern said:

 In this sense, a superhero game of BRP would necessarily have to include Fate Points, to make sure that events inappropriate to the genre do not take place.

Or something that helps ensure the appropriate outcome, yes. But I also thinks there needs to be a bit of softening on attakcs and defenses. In BRP if anew character shows up who uses a power that does a different type of damage (like a laser), then any character who wasn't created with some sort of laser defense in mind can be vulnerable. For example, if you didn't add armor vs. lasers to the Hulk, he can get zapped and killed by a laser pistol (or, if you want an example that could/did happenin the comics, consider the laser/living laser vs. Iron Man if IM's didn't buy enough laser protection. I think there would need to be more of a carry over for armor to prevent this.

9 hours ago, RosenMcStern said:

I do not think RQ classic can really do Conan. The assumption that you need use magic to stay alive is too ingrained in the system. Even if you give them defenses against direct magical attacks (which requires major tweaks in RQ classic, as you use the Resistance Table - a hero should have 20-25 POW to be magically hardened), the combat model that uses sheer damage to determine whether your parry actually worked makes it difficult even for a 100% combatant to face a monstruous construct or a warrior with really heavy weapon magic.

On the other hand, effect-based combat achieves exactly this: Conan or  the Mouser's superior skills and the relative ability to generate effects on a successful exchange can compensate a monster's ability to deal a huge damage, even when the hero scorns using magic himself. Oh, and Luck Points are a big factor, too. Again a feature that compensates the non-ubiquity of magic.

I think it could be done in RQ3. I used to run some low/no magic campaign using RQ3 and it worked. Add in something like a Hero/Fate point mechanic and I think it would work. 

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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  • 2 weeks later...

My take is, it all comes down how much hand-waving you and the players are willing to do. If you play a rule system -does not matter how generic it is- by the book, it usually does not leave a lot of room to fill some gaps in the setting. If you use the rule system as a guide, it is my thesis that any rule system can fit any genre. 

Saying that, I agree some rule systems fit a setting better than others. Although I never had an issue with the BGB using it for any modern or urban fantasy setting. Might be, most rule systems are created with a certain Magic component in mind, instead of adding it later, so it depends on how interwoven the Magic part is in the rest of the rules.

It is easier to take a very simple rule system and bolt on additional options, than using a complex rule system and throw everything out you do not like.

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6 hours ago, pansophy said:

If you use the rule system as a guide, it is my thesis that any rule system can fit any genre. 

Umm, I suspect that isn't quite true. It's pretty close, though. I think it is probably more along the lines of any GM/group can probably adapt any rule system (or genre) to their style of play. Some systems might be easier or harder to adapt to a given system, but that also depends on just what things a given GM and/or set of gamers consider to be important, and what they don't. In the end, it's the GM that is running the game, and the system is just a toll that aids them in doing so).

 

I remember years ago I was running the first Doctor Demento adventure for D&D at a convetion and one guy brought in a character written up in Traveller, rather than AD&D. Since I was familiar with Traveller, and since the adventure is pretty much a total farce, I ran the adventure using Traveller rules for him, and AD&D for everyone else. It worked, partially because I could adapt things, but mostly because the group knew not to take things too seriously and just played things for laughs. 

 

7 hours ago, pansophy said:

It is easier to take a very simple rule system and bolt on additional options, than using a complex rule system and throw everything out you do not like.

Maybe. It depends on how much you have to add on or take off. For example, If I wanted to run a campaign set in Medieval Europe, I'd probably find it easier to start with RQ3 and tweak the background, magic, and equipment a bit to suit the setting, than to start with BRP and bolt on stuff. Then again, with the BGB, I would have to throw out a lot of stuff, too, so maybe that wasn't the best example.  Okay, how about this, I used to use RQ3 to run a Young Kingdoms campaign, because RQ had a lot of stuff that Stormbringer lacked. 

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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