Sep. 8th, 2017

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You can tell how much an RPG system cares about a thing by how granular the rules for it are.

I’ve known this for a while, of course. RPGs evolved out of historical war-gaming, so many of them have incredibly detailed rules for combat, and much less detailed frameworks for other activities. But there’s another angle on this that I don’t think about as often, which is: when you get a bonus, how restrictive vs. broad is the application of that bonus?

In L5R, there’s a spell that gives you a boost to Perception-based rolls. All Perception-based rolls. Vision? Hearing? Scent? Reading people’s behavior? Commanding an army in battle? (For reasons of setting philosophy, that’s based on Perception.) This spell boosts all of them. Because although L5R is better at caring about non-combat stuff than some game systems, it’s really not all that interested in the finer-grained applications of Perception. Instead of having many spells that give you bonuses to different kinds of Perception, there’s one that hits them all.

Or Pathfinder. My PC has a magic item that gives a +3 to all Charisma-based skill checks, because Pathfinder, like most D&D, fundamentally doesn’t give a damn about social interaction. There is not, to my knowledge, a magic item that gives a +3 (or a +anything) to all Dexterity-based skill checks, because that would include Stealth (good for avoiding combat or taking the enemy by surprise), Acrobatics (good for avoiding attacks of opportunity in combat), Ride (good for anybody engaging in mounted combat), Disable Device (good for picking locks and disarming traps), and Escape Artist (good for escaping entangle and grapples in combat), among others. But handing out a cheap blanket bonus to Bluff, Diplomacy, Disguise, Handle Animal, Intimidate, Perform, and Use Magic Device? Eh, why not. That last is pretty much the only one that will often matter in combat, unless you’ve taken all the feats necessary to make feinting via Bluff a useful thing to do. And the game is relatively uninterested in what happens outside of combat.

And then you get players arguing that doing X isn’t very interesting. They’re right, in a way, because the rules have made it uninteresting. All you need is this single effect and you’re great at the whole shebang. But if the rules started from the assumption that X is interesting, and treated it with the same care and complexity of flavor they use for other aspects of play, it might be a different story.

(No game can do that for every single aspect, of course. If you tried, you’d wind up with something of unplayable complexity. But it would be nice to see that care and attention given to things other than combat more often.)

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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