Sunday, June 24, 2012

Thoughts on Gaming Systems (Part 1, definitions)

Before we go any further, note that this is not going to be about console gaming systems. Also note that I'm a horrible, horrible English person because I'm just now learning the difference between console/council/counsel (I knew they existed, I just didn't know which one was which so confusion lead me to try and avoid the words). This is an analysis of my favorite (and not so favorite) pen and paper RPG game systems.

First, some gaming terminology:

System: a set of rules determining how you play the game. Specific systems are usually known by a brand name; for instance, d20/3.5 D&D and GURPS are two popular systems. Sometimes, a system might spin off - for instance, true d20 is a spin off of d20.

dXX: d20, d8, d10 - this refers to a die with that many sides. So a d20 is a polyhedron with 20 sides (a dodecahedron). A d8 is a polyhedron with 8 sides (an octahedron). The die that everyone is familiar with, the six-sided die that you use for games beyond RPG games, is referred to as a d6 (die with 6 sides.).

1d, 2d, 5d - some systems use only one type of die. These systems get away with this type of numbering; where you have the number before the die. For instance, GURPS uses d6 exclusively. As does Shadowrun. Thus, they can get away with 3d - which means 3d6. The only time I'll use this is if the system uses only one die, and I've established what the die is.

d%: percentile dice. Two d10s, one with the ones place and one with the hundreds place. Alternatively, you can use a d20, so long as you count each side as 5%. You can often switch between the two so long as you convert (which isn't hard); you can play a d% game with a d20, although you don't get the wide range of rolls and it gets done in increments of 5, rather than increments of 1. Thus, a roll of 17 on a d20 is 5*17 = 85%, where a roll of 5 is 5*5 = 25%.

Six basic stats: The names change, but the concepts remain the same - almost every game has them, thanks to d20 and D&D being the template that all games are hewed from (especially because of the OGL): Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom (or Willpower), Charisma (or Personality). These are different aspects of your characters - it's an abstract system to measure your character's strength, or their constitution, or their intelligence, or what have you.

OGL: An example of Wizard of the Coast's marketing genius; they opened up the basic core of D&D 3.5 for the fans to use and make their own games around, and modify to fit their own needs, so long as said games were marked under the OGL - Open Game License. Any game referred to as an OGL game is usually a derivative of 3.5 D&D. For instance, d20 Modern is a derivative of 3.5.

D&D X.X: The venerable, the classic, not just any RPG but the RPG - Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has had about 10 editions so far; the classic Dungeons and Dragons (sometimes called D&D 1st ed.), Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1st ed.), AD&D 1st ed. revised, D&D 2nd ed., D&D 3rd ed., AD&D 2nd ed., D&D 4th ed., AD&D 2nd ed. revised, D&D 5th ed., D&D 3.0, D&D 3.5, D&D 3.75 (Pathfinder), D&D 4.0, D&D 4.5, and D&D 5 (or D&D Next). D&D is also a metonymy/synecdoche; when someones says D&D they could be referring to the game itself, or any RPG. 

Skills and Attributes: Attributes are another word for the six basic stats. Skills are minor abilities that characters can pick up - skills are usually relevant to the setting; for instance, D&D has Dungeoneering and Nature, which allow you to make Dungoneering rolls to determine if, yes, this thing standing in front of us can not just kill us but do so horribly. Nature is the same thing, outside of the dungeon. Other skills include Lore, Thievery, Swimming, etc.

Talents, feats, perks, flaws, advantages, disadvantages, quirks, etc.: vary from game to game, but these are usually different specialties that you can pick up to help distinguish your character from other characters that might be mechanically similar. Minmaxers love these, and a GM has to be careful becomes sometimes they stack in bad ways.

Vancian Magic: Named after Jack Vance, an author, the term isn't so much a gaming one but it's had an impact on the gaming community nevertheless. Vancian Magic refers to magic where the spells have prepackaged effects. For instance, a fireball spell fires off a fire ball and does just that, and nothing else. Vancian magic is classic D&D magic; it's a type of 'fire and forget' magic. The mage memorizes so many spells at the beginning of each day (however many their level and their spell book/INT mod will allow them to learn) and use their spells throughout the day, requiring memorization the following day to use them again. Spells that don't require memorization are called 'cantrips', and they're usually level 0 spells. Not all magic users have to memorize it; sorcerers in 3.0 and 3.5 don't require a spell book or memorization; they innately know the magic. However, Vancian magic refers specifically to spells with prepackaged effects. It's a form of rules magic.

Minmaxer and Munchkin: A related term is "optimized". These are people who work their hardest to make their characters the "best" at what they do. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but some systems make it harder for the GM to present a challenge to optimized character. Munchkins are those who take the Minmaxing philosophy too far, and try to "win" the game.

GNS Theory: A debated concept, nevertheless one that I use, it stands for Gamist Narrativist Simulationist theory. It divides games into one of the three categories; Gamists, who try to win the game, Narrativists, who are there to tell a story, and Simulationists, who try to use the game to recreate an aspect of a genre. For full disclosure, I'm a simulationist GM. Rules heavy games are usually Gamist or Simulationist games, while rules light games tend to be Narrativtist games.

Rules heavy/light (lite): A rules heavy book is one that, when you pick it up, is like picking up a sack of concrete. A rules light game is one where you pick it up and ask "is that it?" because it looks like a travel brochure. In short, one has a bunch of rules and the other has next to none. This is a sliding scale, and it's very subjective - "rules heavy" tends to imply there are a lot of (unnecessary) rules. For example, GURPS vs. any indie RPG.

Class/Profession: Your character's class/profession is what they do for a living. For instance, thief, paladin, warrior, mage - these are all classes. Some games refer to them as professions.

Level: An abstract concept to determine how "skilled" your character is. As you move up in levels, you become more skilled and harder to kill, in addition to more powerful.

Class/Level-based: A game that's class/level-based is a game where the vehicle of character advancement is almost exclusively vertical. This is a game that puts a lot of emphasis on the class and a lot of emphasis on the level. For instance, D&D requires you advance in levels to gain new benefits granted to you by your class. A mage might learn new feats at a certain level to assist with the spells that they're learning. Skills tend to be an afterthought in a system like this.

Level/Skill-based: The opposite of a class/level-based game is the level/skill-based game. The skill/level-based game is a game where the bulk of character advancement takes place not by moving forward into your class, but by gaining new skills. In these games, levels usually award you "skill points" or "advancement points" that you can use to purchase more ranks inside of your skills, improving that skill. This allows for both vertical character growth and horizontal character growth; you improve in existing areas and you branch out to improve in other areas. You have to wait until the next level to spend your SP, however. Class tends to be an afterthought in these systems.

Classless system: Any system where there is no class or profession system. Such systems, if they have levels, are level/skill-based. If they don't have levels, then they're purely skill-based.

Levelless system: A system without any levels. Improvement is usually horizontal and vertical in these games. You don't improve in levels so much as you get advancement points/skill points at the end of each adventure that you spend right there on the spot. These systems are almost always classless.

Classless/Levelless System:
These are really rare, but they're a system that's both classless and levelless. Eclipse Phase is a good example of a popular system, while most rules-light indie RPGs are also classless and levelless. Such systems are usually (but not always; see Eclipse Phase) narrativist systems.

Splatbook: A specialized book that deals with a certain part of the game setting without getting into the main book itself. Such books usually deal with one feature - usually a class although racial splatbooks exist, too. For instance, Complete Arcane, a 3.5 supplement for the spell user, is a splatbook. Also shortened to "Splat".

Fluff: Fluff is the stuff that's not crunch. More to the point, it's stuff not related to mechanics directly; for instance, fluff is usually information about the setting - King XX lived from 30pe to 160pe, and during his reign he did X, Y, and Z. That's fluff; it's text, it's story, it's what Rifts is famous for (seriously; 90% of their books are fluff).

Crunch: Mechanics; the rules. The system itself.

Color: A broader term that includes fluff, but also includes the way that the GM RPs the NPCs and any atmosphere that the GM might create. Some GMs are better at creating atmosphere than others; sometimes, books come with their own atmosphere predetermined (for instance, Vampire's atmosphere is ANGST).

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