Thursday, January 6, 2011

Design Specs

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...


mordicai said...

This came up when (for some reason) I took a bunch of newbies & tried to teach them how to play 4e. Why? I dunno, I wanted them to feel like they'd played the "D&D!" they'd heard of through their childhoods, & I think 4e is fun. Well-- now I don't? Or rather, like you say-- it wasn't in the design specs. As somebody who has gamed for a long time, who knows the language-- 4e is fun. Whatever your qualms may be. Trying to teach someone the game? Blech.

I think the best thing I can say about White Wolf's system (& many others) is that "Attribute plus Skill" is easily taught & intuitive.

Roger G-S said...

"Fast Villains" and "Problem-Solving" deefinitely ring it for me. Also, simple, transparent, intuitive stats and rules. Use real world knowledge and argumentation over trying to codify exactly how many whacks a foot-thick post can take with an axe before it parts (um yeah that's hardness 5 .... 20 hit points ... says here the axe gets a 1.4x bonus against wood ...)

Man, how much would I like to see a "sourcebook" that was like: This is how the medieval world works. This is how horses act. This is what's involved in making, wearing, maintaining chainmail. This is how long it takes a guy with an axe to cut a tree.

John Matthew Stater said...

Your design specs would fit my group as well, except we're not tattooed porn stars in Hollywood in 2011, so I guess Shadowrun would still be open to us.

Anonymous said...

Ack! You're talking about Mutants and Masterminds! Awesome! M&M has been my game of choice for the past 5 or 6 years all the way since 1st edition. With that knowledge I will point out that you are exactly right... it is VERY fiddly. The game itself plays wonderfully smooth for anyone with a passing knowledge of d20 but... and it is a big but.. you have to get past character creation first. There have been attempts at getting around that including the Archetype handbook (prebuilt characters) and M&M Lite which at its best is a framework to make NPCs fast but you really need to know the system already to use it properly.

Also, the 2nd edition Mastermind's Manual sounds exactly like what you're looking for in terms of a book of optional rules to tweak.

None of that solves your problem of character creation. In an ideal world they would create their powers book for 3rd edition such that it would give a bunch of premade powers to allow players who know the system less to just take their powers rather than having to design them. As a for instance it would be a fairly straight forward power to take Martial Arts (Array): Enhanced Prowess 5, Enhanced Strength 5, Enhanced Agility 5 and get the effect that you were talking about at the beginning of the post but you have to know the game to know the option.

I've argued for a while about the need for a quickie character creation document for M&M, I think otherwise it would fit what you want pretty good. Maybe it is time I got off my ass and wrote something.

Zak Sabbath said...


...or we could just play a different superhero game.

Adam Dickstein said...

Well, all I can say is that many of your group's design specs are the same as mine. Some are not.

I may do a version of this on my own blog.

Interesting post.

Zak Sabbath said...


I hope you do! It'd be a good read.
I think a lot of the back-and-forth about what rules are "best" comes down to people not being explicit about their design specs.

Anonymous said...

@Zak, Your asterix there at the bottom seemed to indicate a lack of interest in hearing suggestions regarding any other superhero systems.

Zak Sabbath said...


No, did you read it? It says:

"That's great. I liked those games, too."

This is not a post about whether to play a superhero game or which one to play, it's a post about what my group's specs are with a preamble explaining what made me think about it.

Pontifex said...

How about Errant?

Seems like it fits all these criteria to me, except the option to have really complex characters if you want to invest time in it.

Being free should compensate for this one shortcoming, I would think.

Zak Sabbath said...

@greg christopher

if i was in the market for a retroclone or another FRPG I might look at it

Pontifex said...

I am converting it to post-apocalypse futuristic sci-fi. I took a break from the process to write both this and my previous comment. So if you are interested in that angle, I can put you on the alpha review list and you can get a copy of the current version (~60 pages).

And retroclone doesnt really apply to it, actually.

Pontifex said...

To elaborate on that last sentence, retroclone doesnt really apply because I changed a lot of the system. It is definitely not Labyrinth Lord, or even LOTFP. Significant changes and incorporation of some inspiration from other games.

Zak Sabbath said...


I get it, Greg. Do you get what I'm saying?

I'm not in the market for a new game. I got enough games already. But thanks for asking.

Pontifex said...

If you are closed to the possibility of a new game, I don't understand the purpose of making specs then. Do the games you have perfectly fit the specs? If so, why have system discussions of any kind.... ever. You should be 100% happy if the games you have fit the specs.

If the games you have don't fit the specs, then why be closed to the possibility of new games. Just doesnt make sense to me.

But whatever, you are not in the market for new games. I am no drug pusher here, just suggesting you check out a game that might fit your specs better. Peace

Zak Sabbath said...


Did you read the post? Here is what the post says:

"(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...)"

I am always in the market for new rules. An infinite number of new rules could fit the specs I state.

If you have a rule or setting element you think would work in a game I play, go ahead and tell me what it is, but I'm not going to read through a whole new game just to find it. The only reason I read LOTFP was because I was helping edit it.

Pontifex said...

I wrote a whole defense of the game concept here:

It outlines the entire game design, breaks apart the rules and why the decisions were made to implement them.

You don't have to read the game to know how it works because I defended every major aspect in that post.

I would mention that the post is long, for a blog post, but it is actually on par with most of your posts. You tend to write bigger posts than most people.

Zak Sabbath said...


read it. some of the ideas seem maybe worthwhile but you;d really have to actually read the rules to see what you were talking about in usable detail.

I mean, if you're saying "Do I maybe have some good ideas" sure. If you're saying "Have I convinced you to read the whole game to see if you want to use any of these ideas?" then, no. But then, I haven't read any whole game in years. That's why I read other people's blogs.

Pontifex said...

I'm not trying to hard sell you on the game, Zak. I am merely saying that I think it would satisfy your specs.

If you can't bring yourself to read a free game in 12 point font with a layout designed to be read on a computer instead of printed that is only 80 pages long (a third of which is magic spells that wouldnt need to be read), then I don't know what kind of game could satisfy your needs. Maybe written on a napkin? j/k

I make no money whether you read the game or not. I am not going to lose sleep if you don't read it. My only point is that I seriously think it would satisfy your specs. If you don't want to read it, fine. If you don't want to even glance through it, fine. That's your call, dude.

I remain perplexed why you posted specs but are unwilling to read a few pages to see if something would satisfy them. You are a strange hombre.

Zak Sabbath said...


I posted specs as a reference point for when future discussions start about whether a particular game idea is good or bad.

Telecanter said...

I tend to have a lot of new players too (close to a college), and the specs are similar.

"PCs Options That Are Immediately Distinguishable From One Another Due To Obvious Stylistic Differences." is a weakness of 3d6 in order stats. I like it for other reasons, but I admit it can be kind of lame to have a group full of clerics.

As for "creative initiative ex nihilo," my players have a humorously difficult time choosing a name for their characters. But I suppose it makes sense if you think about all the context contained in a name. So, I carry a list of names they can look at to help them.

I think there is a GM spec running through this too. Roger mentions chopping down trees-- I've got a sense of that (used to cut down oaks with my uncle) but damn if I know anything about ships or sailing; never been on a boat.

That rule from DC Heroes sounds nice, been a long time since I read those rules, but I remember being impressed at the design.

Menace 3 Society said...

I think speed and ease of chargen depends on the genre; the more drawn-out chargen you get in Cthulhu or other real-worldish works IMO because you get more attached to your character and this helps discourage risk-taking.

In terms of my specs, I generally like things that include both a quick option and an in-depth option, for chargen, for handling situations in game, and for backstory: some people like fiddling with character options, while some like archetypes. Some people like attacking problems from multiple angles, others like a single plan and trust the dice. Some people like lots of background information on population and culture, others just want a 2-3 word summary of what people are like.

Odrook said...

My design specs are pretty similar in a lot of ways. The reasons are a little different. I do get newbies more often than I ever used to, but I've also spent years seeking out a game that would let me do pretty much whatever I wanted without getting in the way. I think it comes from my introduction to the hobby via West End's Star Wars, where role-playing was described as playing Cops & Robbers, with rules to make decisions that can't be settled by negotiation.

Further thoughts at

Nick said...

My specs:
Simple PCs with interesting improvements.
Fast, fun but potentially deadly combat.
Interesting magic that works out of the box but encourages thinking about it.
Simple but robust rules that are there to help us run the game but don't need to be looked up for exceptions constantly.

We've played a lot of 3e D&D and it fails the 'don't need to be looked up' part.
We played lots of WFRP 2e and the combat wasn't much fun (although it was deadly). And the magic is a bit dull.

So I think I need a new game. BRP perhaps?

Angry Wombat said...

That was scary reading that.
I think I agreed with every single point, except I AM looking for a game system to play. We've been doing lots of white wolf games and they are starting to get on my nerves. Been doing a lot of looking around for something else to be interesting. The hardest ones are being able make characters fast that make sense without having to read too much about the setting....

thekelvingreen said...

Right, I'll have to think about the meme bit. That will take some time.

In the meantime, I just wanted to mention that I keep forgetting that you guys are Cthulhu players. The game gets mentioned a lot, but in a sort of abstract fashion, unlike D&D and TMNT, so it slips my mind easily. I'd love to see more coverage of your group experiences with that game.

And the Shadowrun line was brilliant.

Anonymous said...

D'oh! My bad. I got too excited that you mentioned both my favorite game and my biggest pet peeve with my favorite game. And normally I make fun of the people who do that.

Anyway, since you said you'd like to see it as a Meme I've got about half of a post with my own design specs written up in my blog. I'll post a link when I finish (Looks like my site is blocking work again... and yes I have that the right way round).

Tom Lando said...

Implied Dogs In The Blogyard. Sounds pretty much just as interesting...

I was going to participate in the meme, but then I realized I don't really have any semblance of a regular group anymore. The regular groups I take part in are more about collaborative storytelling and improv rather than rpgs... it's weird that I hardly noticed this until now.

Jon said...

Zak, I'm the Mutants & Masterminds Line Developer and I just finished the initial draft of a quickstart (random) character generator. If you're interested in checking it out -- to see if it would work for your group -- drop me a line at: jon at greenronin dot com.

Zak Sabbath said...

It takes a big man to admit he didn't read the post.

@Tom Lando

IT takes a big man to notice the difference.

GrimJesta said...

You might dig Savage Worlds. Plus the $10 rulebook is cheap to replace and the small size makes it easier to lug around. I've been running and playing heaps upon heaps of games since 1984, but since finding Savage Worlds I don't care for anything else.


Chuck P. said...

I run a DCA game, but my game isn't so much in the DC universe as it is like Planetary meets The Authority. It's an easy system, but that core book is laid out poorly. It is also easy to get caught up in all the details that can be added, when it really just comes down to descriptors. I would hope when they release M&M 3rd, they'll fix/explain it. Someone has probably mentioned it already, but I think the designers themselves say the stats for DC characters are their interpretations, because no one will make Superman the same.

Steve Johnson said...


Have you tried QAGS? It won't meet all of your design specs, but (especially with the right mix of supplements), I think it would meet quite a few of them. The two biggest concerns are that it's generic, so no default setting (though there are plenty of supplements that cover specific settings) and it might not be as "crunchy" as you might want. If you'd like to take a look/give it a try, let me know and I'll hook you up with some PDFs.

Zak Sabbath said...


I didn't post because I was shopping for a new game--I'm too busy for that.

I posted specs as a reference point for when future discussions start about whether a particular game idea is good or bad.

Steve Johnson said...

Well, keep us in mind next time you are in the market for something new (though I make no promises that we will not release a Super Space Mormons of Zagathon 6 supplement between now and then).

AlessandroPiroddi said...

Sorry for the necro-posting, but I think you may find PERFECT for all your stated needs games such as:

- Apocalypse World

- Monsterhearts

They are not "superhero" games, strictly speaking, but other than that they rock :)

And maybe, if you're feeling bold, you mayb want to give a try to a new game still in development ... Tactical Ops
(yes, it's my little creature ^_^ )

Viktor said...

It's amazing how, even though Zak says repeatedly what he wants, and doesn't want, and what the explicit point of the thread is, people (wilfully?) ignore that. So, anyway...

Here's a new rule/play advice bit that I saw Fred Hicks point to that seemed like a great idea to me.

In 13th Age's rules (new game by Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo), they explicitly recommend that at the end of every session, players contribute a confirmation of one thing from the session that they really want to see re-appear in the future: could be an NPC, a location, an item, a situation, whatever -- some detail that they want to come back to.

Anyway -- the suggestion Fred pointed to was some guy saying: get the players to write these down on index cards: put player name on the card top-right, then in the middle write a short phrase of the thing you want to re-appear. During play, the GM keeps ahold of this deck of cards, and when stuck for "what to do next", flips up the next card or two, and goes with it.

At the end of every session, players get to contribute a new card, and get to take out any card they don't care about any more. (They can also write not their name, but the 'Group' in top right, for group things they want to re-appear.)

Seemed like a cool idea to me on a way to help GM's stay focussed on what players want to see, and maybe even keep good context for a group from session to session.

Zak Sabbath said...

Monsterhearts? Really? This blog is called "Playing D&D with Porn Stars" not "Playing D&D With Lonely Serial Monogamists Hoping To Re-Live High School As If They Were Cooler"

Those are the worst recommendations I have ever seen.

"You like pie? You should check out broccoli!!!"

I hate condescending indie game evangelists.

Zak Sabbath said...

The logic of that is too nondiegetic and non-goal oriented for me. If the party wants to see stuff they have to do stuff. The whole point of a high-lethality sandbox game is you have to _earn_ the ability to do/see things you like. YOu want to see Prnce Mormok--point your shiptoward him and survive.

As a player I wouldn't like it--it'd rob me of one of the reasons I play.

Sounds like the kind of technique Allessandro would like though.