Rules VS Setting

A lot of RPGs have their own painstakingly detailed setting and core adventures which the players are intended to at least read through beforehand. I have never run a pre-generated encounter. To me, over half of the fun of GM-ing is world building. So using someone else’s world is just not as engaging to me. On top of that, using a premade world usually means I have to learn about that world. I tend to make up the characters, plots, encounters, and most other things on the spot tailored to what the group seems like they want to do. Doing that in a set world always concerns me, because I don’t want to contradict an established piece of lore, or character. I use general settings as a basis for the stories I tell, but usually change what appears on the map.The players may be on a different continent than any that are listed in the book.

Everything I just mentioned falls under the setting of a game. Separating the rules from the setting can be fairly difficult, or incredibly easy. In the case of Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, as long as the world you make is in a fantasy-esq setting then you are pretty much good to go. What if you wanted to run a modern era game with the Pathfinder rules? That is also fairly easy. Make up the stats for guns and other technology, decide if magic is present, then limit some of the gear (walking around in a full plate suit of armor is not normal in the modern era… usually). Dungeons and Dragons usually has its rules slightly separated from the setting, at least enough so that it is easy to fudge them to fit into a new world.

The interesting challenges come up when you’re dealing with a game where the setting influences nearly every rule used. Eclipse Phase, Shadowrun, and (to a lesser extent) Numenera come to mind for me. In the first two games the setting is a post human society either with technology (Eclipse Phase) or magic and technology (Shadowrun) having a huge impact on the world. In these cases, the rules are what I wanted to lose. The settings were ones which I actually wanted to make stories for.

Running an Eclipse Phase game in a custom setting is nearly impossible. One of the key features is that your mind can be separated from your body in the form of a digital back up (think Ghost in the Shell), when you die you wake up in a temporary body somewhere at the last time you backed up you memories. It becomes incredibly paranoia driven as you try to find out how much time you are missing and how exactly you died. The setting is one of the coolest I have ever read about, and just writing this now makes me want to play it again. The downside, because of course there’s one, I’m not a huge fan of the rules. Well, I nearly completely hate the rules. It uses a percentile system, something I already don’t like very much, which is varied in slight ways that I don’t fully understand. It’s essentially entirely my own fault I don’t like the rules, but still… percentile systems are lame! The creators have good heads on their shoulders, but my personal dislike of percentile systems makes this game not as appealing to me as others. Though I think I’m going to convert the setting to a D20 system simply because it’s so incredibly cool.

Shadowrun has a similar issue to me. The setting is also super incredibly cool. Essentially, technology has reached new heights and corporations own the world. On top of that, dragons returned to the world bringing Mana with them and re-infusing magic with the Earth. Technology and magic play off of each other in interesting ways throughout the world. You have some pretty cool interactions as a character may pilot a laser tank into a hail of gunfire, fireballs, and magic missiles trying to commit corporate espionage (gone wrong, in this case). Again, I love the setting, but the rules leave much to be desired. This is a dice pool system. Say you attempted to shoot a gun, for instance, you total up the value of the ‘shooting’ skill (we’ll say 4), the value of the ‘aiming’ stat (2, maybe he’s got crappy eyesight),and any additional modifiers (-1, it’s raining. Probably acid rain because it’s the future) to get the total for that skill (5 in this case). You roll that many d6s and total up the ‘hits’ you receive. Hits are usually 5s and 6s, though sometimes they can be 4s, 5s, and 6s. You then total up the ‘misses’ you roll, which are usually only 1s. Then the number of hits minus the number of misses determines if you are successful, and the degree of your success. This system is better than percentile to me, but it can be very punishing. it sucks having a total of over 10 and still rolling 8 1s. In a D20 system you usually only have a 1 in 20 chance of automatically failing (rolling a natural 1), so adding modifiers to your roll has a much more noticeable effect on the game.

The cypher system (used in Numenera and The Strange) is great, they have done a fabulous job making the rules just vague enough to enhance play more than hamper it. There are very few things which actually alter the D20 roll, instead you alter the number you have to match. As the difficulty decrease (because of training or having your character focus on the task) the target number decreases in turn. This makes each encounter much faster to make and run as you essentially pick a bunch of numbers instead of looking up stats and variant rules. In the cypher system character creation is streamlined into writing a sentence about your character. I won’t go in depth into what that means, but just know that it’s really super easy. Making different options for characters in the Cypher system is simple, just follow the power level given by the other options and try not to make the characters incredibly OP (but, again, OP in Numenera is kind of hard to determine). The more challenging part of adapting the rules in Numenera to a new world is all the equipment. It’s not so much a challenge as it is a disappointment. The little items that you can randomly find throughout the world are one of the more fun parts of the experience. Removing the setting from them takes away some of the character they have. Throughout the game characters are intended to find small objects, fittingly called Numenera, which usually have 1 and done effects. Grenades, pills, and single shot guns come up frequently, but sometimes you find something more interesting. Gloves that accelerate someone along a surface, a belt which prevents ALL metal from coming within 5 feet of you, and an emitter which gives everyone around it hallucinations are just the ones which I can remember off hand.

Some RPGs have great settings and poor rules, while some have cruddy settings with fabulous rules. Some have both! To me the setting is more important than the rules for a game. I like learning new rule sets and seeing what different designers come up with for common issues, but what’s most important to me is that the players are having fun. If they are engaged in the setting then, to me, its good enough. It is also important to note that nothing is going to be perfect. There is no ‘quintessential’ RPG world, just as there is no pinnacle of RPG rules. There doesn’t need to be though. The rules just need to be good enough and the setting needs to be interesting enough. The rest is up to the players and the GM.

Age of Sigmar Issues


Games Workshop’s (GW) newest game, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar (AoS), was released to very mixed reviews. Some people were willing to try out the drastically different game while others had a more explosive reaction. One of the key points of debate is the absence of points values for their models, a metric which has historically been used to balance two armies into roughly equivalent forces. Having spoken to a representative of the company to hear their defense of why they were abolished I spent some time pondering what felt off about it.

In a nutshell, GW no longer wishes to put any sort of restriction on how players use their models. They confessed that none of the previous rule sets were 100% balanced and they do not endorse any of their games as being fully competitive. Over the years many of the games created by GW have been used in a competitive setting. Whether it’s in smaller more casual tournaments or the official ‘Ard Boyz tournaments sponsored by GW, people liked using their armies in a roughly fair setting. Recently though, they stopped supporting the tournament scene. They no longer host the ‘Ard Boyz events, they don’t provide prize support to smaller venues, and their rulesets are more open to having incredibly unbalanced army lists. Every codex, army book, and rule set which is released has a certain amount of backlash from the existing community over the differences between the new and the old. To combat this they went in the completely opposite direction for the new game. The core rules for AoS are very, very, simple. Instead of the 200+ page tome which normally accompanies a new edition of one of their games, AoS’ rules are 4 pages long. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game, but could not shake the feeling that something was missing.

It occurred to me that outside of pre made campaign-style battles, there is actually no way to start playing a single game. Before AoS, to play a game both players would agree on a points total for their armies. Then the players would reference their army book, or codex, to create a list of models that was less than or equal to the agreed upon total. Each army had little quirks associated with them which gave them a unique feel which was incorporated into how you made lists. Some armies would be more elite, so they would have smaller units of models who were stronger than average. Others would be swarm armies; they would have many more models per unit. For AoS, there are no point value for the models. Creating a list of any kind is no longer possible. Players can grab any number of models for any number of units with no limitations of any kind. There are several suggested methods of balancing the games (starting with one boxes’ worth of models, or using the ‘wounds’ value to try and make points for the models), but in the rules pamphlet all it says is ‘you may use as many models from your collection as you wish.’  Games Workshop has said that they no longer want to put any sorts of limitations on what players may do with their models, but I believe this is not an effective method of making a game more fun.

A large portion of many player’s enjoyment of the game comes from a sense of ‘fairness.’ No one thinks that the rules for all the armies are completely even, but they don’t need to be. They just need to be even enough. When testing AoS I looked into my case of Skaven models, then to my opponent’s Ogre Kingdoms force, back to my Skaven, and so on; and actually had no idea where to begin. Do I grab a handful of clan rats and toss them down? Do I grab only the largest models I can find? These questions are answered by GW with a slap on the back and a smile, “Do whatever you want!” What if I want to have a fair starting point? What if I don’t want to demolish my opponent easily or be demolished in turn? These things could potentially happen in any of the previous GW games, but they were mostly up to chance (i.e. dice rolls).

One of the aspects of miniature games I enjoy is the duality between random chance and known quantities. While the amount of points a model is worth is constant, the effectiveness is not. A lone wounded soldier could take out an entire alien battalion, but it is very unlikely. Just as a whole squadron of machines could somehow miss that one Marine twiddling his thumbs out in the open. The inherent randomness of dice makes for very interesting and fun scenarios which occur naturally. AoS has removed the known quantities from the game. There is no longer any way to play a game on equal footing with an opponent, or even play a game separate from a larger campaign or story line. The random chance is still present, but now it is random chance piled ontop of random army combinations.

Losing is never the most fun thing that can happen when playing a game. Losing in a previous GW game is particularly frustrating because of how long the games can take, but at least usually there were funny stories which came out of it. On top of that the losing player could ask themselves “What did I do wrong?” They could go back to their list and see what was not effective, see what worked well, and tweak their army for the next game they played. They could learn which upgrades were effective against which armies, they could see what was ‘too many points’ for a given upgrade, and they could learn how their army functions on the table. The equal starting point made it so that the players could generally know where the mistakes were made. Did they play the army poorly? Did they choose to attack the wrong target? These questions are reasonable and can turn a loss into an opportunity for growth. It is the known aspect of the game which acts as a grounding point for what went wrong. Without the point values for the models losing in AoS is just frustrating. I don’t claim to be a mathematician, but I can generally understand the logic of some theories. If you have 2 variables in an equation and one constant, then it is easier to figure out what the answer would be. In GW games, the two variables are list building and playing the game and the constant would the point values for the models. You can tweak the variables to find a winning combination and the constant gives you a sense of security. “At least I know my opponent is only bringing 2,000 points worth of stuff.” With all aspects of AoS being unknowns there is no sense of security.

There are many interesting things that GW attempted with the AoS release. Most notably, they managed to successfully cater to both their old crowd and to new players. AoS replaced Warhammer: Fantasy, but GW put out updated rules for all the older models. They also made it so that the square bases from Fantasy are compatible with the round bases in AoS. On top of that, the rules are so light and easy to understand that new players won’t be intimidated away from trying out the game. All this would be great if there were a straightforward way to start a game. Without the points system all the other changes to me are irrelevant.