Preamble You Can Skip:
I was looking at Green Ronin's DC Adventures game (based on Mutants and Masterminds) yesterday and mentally comparing it to the old Mayfair DC Heroes game* (Ray Winninger did work on both) and being a little disappointed.
Now this post has a point, and the point is not "this game sucks", it is also not "gee I wish someone would justify why they play this game in the comments" or "gee I wish someone would point me toward another supergame that didn't have these problems in the comments", so while I'm giving this one example of something I don't like about this game and it infuriates you please do hang on until I make my actual point...
So in DC Heroes (Mayfair, old game) the martial arts mechanic was you had a rank in martial arts and could, in any given round, replace any physical stat with your martial arts stat. It's a very nice mechanic for martial arts in a superhero game. Its not detailed enough for an all-kung-fu game (ninjas and superspies, etc.) or any other mostly-normal-people fighting game, but it does seem to match how martial arts are used in actual comics and it gives the martial arts player something active to do with their skill every round and it's fast in character gen because it's one thing you buy and it's called "martial arts". Not enough to show the difference between Jade Phoenix and Boxing Man, but, still, a decent mechanic and one I would consider importing to other games.
In DC Adventures (Green Ronin, new game) here are a few advantages you can get--"Improved Disarm", "Improved Trip", "Improvised Weapon". Batman doesn't have any of them. He has a whole raft of other combat skills. If Batman doesn't have "improved disarm" who does? Jimmi Disarmer, Private Eye? "That was amazing, Jimmy." "Well, ma'am, disarming is my specialty! I can't feint, evade, or trip but I can disarm with the best of them--though, note, I can't fast grab and I don't have grabbing finesse--those are different things."
Put simply, it seems too fiddly.
Now I get why this is so...
-This is a d20-derived system. Meaning, ultimately it was derived from Type 3 D&D, and, hey, if people can have Improved Disarm in the middle ages, why not now?
-It allows a low-powered but combat-capable character like Catwoman and another, similar low-powered character like, say, The Penguin, to have a completely different combat profile.
-also, not having played the game, for all I know, these fiddly differences make combat into some sort as-yet-unheard-of megafunzone with which only the stodgiest of stooges could find fault.
And now I will tell you the point of the post...
My problem isn't that this system's actually bad. I would, myself, play just about anything and not complain. It's that it doesn't match my group's design specs. If Mandy was statting up Black Canary, any game that makes me have to go "Now do you want 'Fast Grab' or 'Grabbing Finesse'?" on day one of playing the game is getting in the way.
So, I figured I would figure out...
What My Group's Design Specs Actually Are:
(Not that D&D, Call of Cthulhu and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are always all these things, but that, when they aren't, I try to hack them so they are)
(This also goes for new house rules--like if I put in a new a new social interaction mechanic, it would have to fit these specs in order for my group to be able to use it...)
-Fast Character Generation. Last I counted (and this may have gone down since then, but not by much) 80% of games I run involve at least one new player. New to role-playing entirely. Plus, we travel a lot, so about 25% of them are run in some other city and people who played last time have lost their character since last time I saw them, a year ago.
I want to get everyone up and playing as soon as possible because until we are, the new players have no idea if any of this will be worth it.
-Easy Character Generation With An Option To Do It The Hard Way For People Who Are More Comfortable With The System. If someone who's never played an RPG before has to choose between Improved Grab, Grabbing Finesse, and Fast Grab, then they may run away immediately. If I have to pick those options for them then character generation doesn't turn into a quick introduction to what their PC can do, which it should be. However, the system (or my hacks to it) should be flexible enough to allow PCs to play anybody in the genre once they really sink their teeth into the game.
-Characters Made The Hard Way Shouldn't Be Automatically Better Than Characters Made The Easy Way Newbies shouldn't feel cheated because they chose an inferior "build".
-That Having Been Said, Game Balance Is Not Such A Big Deal. The GM is experienced, the adventures will be built and run so that nobody gets lost in the shuffle.
-Character Generation That Gives New Players Ideas Is More Important Than "Being Able To Build Anybody" One of the obvious design goals of very fiddly systems is everybody in the genre (Elric is the classic example) can fit into it. Believe it or not, I can do that myself. What I'd prefer is that character generation give new players some interesting options and combinations of options. Like in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the fact that the game suggests possible mutant animals to you and makes them seem worth playing is more important than the system being able to handle a 2-headed whale or a prairie dog seamlessly. If somebody wants to make a sword-wielding wizard, I can bend the rules, but if they look at chargen and it's a heap of elemental particles saying: "Decide what you want and then join these parts together to fit that" the system isn't helping.
-The System Should Provide Lots of Optional Rules That The GM Can Use. The players may be new, but their GM isn't. (If you count Mandy and Cameraman Darren, then 2 of their 3 GMs aren't new.) The GM likes to fiddle and tweak and design new things, and so toys that only the DM needs to understand in order for them to work--like random tables--are appreciated.
-A Generic Setting That Is Easy To Communicate. Again: new players all the time who we want up and running fast. I want to be able to say: It's like The Lord of the Rings Movies. It's like Star Wars. It's like The Road Warrior.
I'm the GM, and the creative, innovative setting-ideas can be provided by me, I don't need the game designers to be creative for me. I need them to provide clear genre goal-posts (preferably with nice pictures) so that I can say "What's a witch? A witch is like this...." and THEN make it weird once the players know where they are and what they can do. If they're fallen angels and need to call on one of 7 distinct powers in order to evoke the energies of one of 5 distinct elements then the setting buy-in is too high.
-Fast, Obvious Ways To Make Villains. Improvisation happens a lot and people need to be invented fast. Some fairly clear things you can do to make a monster or villain scale vs. the PCs are appreciated. In D&D, hit dice is a decent measure, in Call of Cthulhu, giving a villain any special powers at all will make him/her scary, etc. (in the Green Ronin game, a lot of pages are given over to generic sample characters--"gadgeteer" "mimic" "mystic"--perhaps because the designers knew how fiddly their game was.)
-Creative Problem Solving Prioritized Over Creative Writing. New players all the time. Unsure about this whole RPG thing. Socially awkward. They like being given problems to solve and finding innovative ways to solve them, but in more freeform play they can easily choke and feel bored if asked to provide a lot of character background or creative initiative ex nihilo. More details here.
-Lots of Setting Room To Maneuver For The GM. If it's a game where you always play ____ working for ________ in order to find and destroy _________ then I will get bored and stop paying enough attention to run the game properly. Or redesign it so thoroughly it's no longer recognizable and then so why are we playing in the first place?
-Despite All This Easy-Access Stuff It Has To Have Long-Term Campaign Potential If it doesn't, I get bored thinking about it, and if I get bored, I won't GM, and if not me, then who?
-It Can't Be About Mormons. Thought the fact that they all think their messiah was attacked by a giant toad-demon is cute, Prop 8 has kinda soured the Mormon experience for everybody around here. Also, if you invent a hip new indie game where you play cowboy Scientologists we won't be playing that either.
-It Should Involve A Lot of Fighting or Investigating Or Something Else That Can Kill You Quickly If You Do It Wrong. The tension of whether the story will be a good story alone is not enough to keep any player I've met interested.
-PCs Options That Are Immediately Distinguishable From One Another Due To Obvious Stylistic Differences. Games where everyone in the group's a WW2 soldier or a vampire do not immediately seem to spark the tentative new players' will-to-invent. The specs: "I'm a wizard with a demon familiar and so are all my friends" eats up so much design space that not much is left to the imagination--unless you're used to thinking in RPGs, which most of my players aren't.
-PCs That Do What You Think They Can Do Without Knowing The Rules. If your character has "sneak 80%" written on it, then the character is actually pretty good at sneaking--with no further investment in the rules.
-Don't Require Players To Know Fiddly Details of The Setting In Order To Make Decisions During Character Generation
-A System Where Player Innovation Requires Imagining The Situation In Detail Rather Than Knowing The Rules Back-To-Front Only my most experienced players have sat down and read through the rules and--more importantly--none of them think this is a rewarding way to spend their free time. The system should reward thinking about how a spell would work more than remembering how many squares your area-effect power covers. Or at least communicate very clearly how many squares your area-effect power covers to anybody who has it.
-GM Supplements Should Have New Ideas In Them Rather Than Just Providing Crunch For Genre-Expected Stuff. "Roanville is 10% elven and its major exports are wheat and iron ore". Fuck you.
-It Can't Resemble Our Actual Life So Much That It Constantly Reminds Players They Have To Go To Work Tomorrow. Shadowrun isn't terribly exotic if you're a tattooed pornstar living in Hollywood in 2011.
Ok, these are the specs for a semi-nomadic group of players many of whom are new and some of whom aren't who have an experienced GM and none of whom are theater majors or want to be. What's your group's design specs?
Yes, this is an explicit attempt to start a meme. I think it'd be interesting to see what the invisible parameters all these bloggers are judging rules by actually are.
*Yes, I know all about how you preferred TSR's Marvel Super-Heroes either because you are Old School and it had random power generation or because you are New School and it had karma points or because you are fiercely independent and so for some other reason. Also, I know how much you like Champions. And Villains and Vigilantes. That's great. I liked those games, too. Anyway...