Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Dice of Doom RPG Experiment

The guys at the Dice of Doom are doing an experiment where they run a different RPG every month for a year.  I think this is pretty cool for a lot of reasons.  One is that I despise having unplayed games on my shelf.  I consider it a major shortcoming that there are games I’ve wanted to play for over a quarter of a century that I simply haven’t gotten around to yet.  Though I have to admit, it’s easier to get use out of board games and single supplements that it is to actually get good use out of distinct role playing games.  Twelve is a pretty impressive feat.  Just in the past year, I have gotten significant use out of the following books for the first time:

  • GURPS Humanx (I finally ran the adventure in the back)
  • GURPS Martial Arts (for just one rule, though– but what a rule!)
  • GURPS Basic Set Fourth Edition (heavy, heavy use here… there’s only a couple of chapters I haven’t pulled anything from.)
  • GURPS Alien Races I (I used the Cyclopean lizard dudes)
  • Labyrinth Lord (It’s really old school Basic D&D.  I now understand the morale rules.)
  • Stonehell Dungeon (I just ran the upper area and the first quadrant of the first level.)
  • GURPS Klingons (Mostly for the subject races… and a Klingon patron NPC.)
  • GURPS Federation (I have used significant portions of this book– setting scope, races, maps, adventure seed, etc..)

Okay, yeah… I’m pretty proud of myself.  And yes, I’d probably try to explain this to a girl within the first for sentences of chatting with her.  But mastering two game systems and giving them a good run-through is a pretty serious amount of work, so I really admire the Dice of Doom crowd for not only taking it on… but to have so many people willing to take on GMing duties in the same epic rpg taste test.  Very cool.

There’s another angle on it, though.  Looking at their GURPS review, you can see this is just an ordinary group of gamers that have picked up the game and tried to make something out of it.  When I’ve participated in rpg playtesting in these past several years… I really don’t think that you could classify what we did as actual playtesting.  Proofreading is more like it.  Most of the people putting together “end all be all” type rpgs and supplements seem to have no concept of what might happen if an ordinary group of folks just happened to pick up their game.  (You can see some of the comments where people have said, in effect, “this is obviously what would happen if random people try to run a game without any expert advise.”  Good grief!  The game’s in fourth edition already!!  If it was that freaking obvious, why wasn’t a two page pointers section there to help save people some trouble!?)

Anyways, let’s look at some of the more critical things said about GURPS:

“Working out how much damage you do with a sword is painful, combat complex and time-consuming….”  If it was just figuring out what damage to roll based on weapon type and strength score, it’d be one thing.  If it was just a matter of choosing swing versus thrust and remembering to apply a damage multiplier based on what gets past the damage resistance, it’d be another thing.  But figuring out what constitutes a major wound when you’re using thing optional hit location rules… that can get confusing.  Shock and knock-back rules are pretty neat, though… especially when combined with the HT checks that are required when your hit points go negative.  No single rule in all of this is particularly complex… but they way they combine… it’s a lot to keep up with at first.  Once you get past the learning curve, it is not particularly time-consuming… but that’s evidently something that happens after the one month mark of playing the game.

“As a GM, I was annoyed that there were no encounter guidelines.”  Well… yeah.  The classless point-buy system is designed to build both the PC’s and the bad guys.  Also… it’s a generic system, so D&D style encounter guidelines are maybe pointless.  Of course, a seasoned GURPS GM would know that you just don’t need any stats for bad guys beyond core attributes, defence scores, and weapon skill/damage.  It looks like (based on what he says elsewhere) that he really should have started off with some more “mook” type encounters where any hit whatsoever would take them down.  For the climatic encounter at the end of the scenario, he could have then bust out a baddie that uses the exact same techniques/options/combinations that are available to the players.

“Magic in (core) GURPS uses Fatigue Points as mana, and requires learning each spell as a Skill. This means two things: firstly, mages are inexplicably tough from high Health (for the Fatigue Points), and mages have to sink a lot of points into spells if they want to accomplish much at the detriment of any other skills that they might like to take.”  Okay, that is weird.  But you can have fatigue points that can be used only for spell-casting, so you aren’t stuck with that premise.  Personally, I like the health is distinct from strength and hit points… and it’s useful in so many areas, the best build for a given set of points is not immediately obvious.  (This is probably a major design component of GURPS that was meant to improve on the worst facets of the old Fantasy Trip game.  Not that you care about that….)

“The Active Defences mechanic meant that many attacks were simply Blocked, Dodged, or Parried, which was frustrating: no-one likes succeeding in an attack roll only to have it thwarted.”  On the other hand… everyone has a “saving throw” for just about anything that causes damage… and it all makes sense.  But I understand the frustration.  Way back with second edition GURPS, I played out battles with Dai Blackthorn and the other 100 points sample characters included in the game.  Some of them couldn’t hit anything… or else needed to attack a very specific hit location to do any damage.  Even then, the combats seemed to come down to whoever made a critical failure first….  Maybe there does need to be something serious written up as to encounter guidelines….  And maybe a brief tactics article to boot for a few common combat situations….

“I have to say, [I] really didn’t like the overall rules systems. I was repeatedly cringing at how overcomplicated they were and how much time it took to do everything.”  On the other hand… every roll is a 3d6 and all the painful calculations are done before the game.  Once you are past the one month mark, you can run huge game sessions without cracking the book because of that.  Yeah, many rules seems complicated at first… but they are (a) optional, (b) realistic, (c) map to the attributes and skills in interesting ways, and (d) worth mastering.  Once you get the hang of GURPS, you can almost guess what the rule would be even for something you’ve never looked up.  The rules are that consistent.  The GURPS rules are really sort of an encyclopaedia of rpgness.  If you feel the need to look something up, you will find a solid rule that has been playtested and tuned for decades.  If you’re running a cinematic game, you will not need to open the book, though!  I agree, though, that it is not very clear to a novice what to leave out and what to hand wave on, so I fully understand the frustration.

“The entire Disadvantages system is very open to exploitation.”  Yes.  It is.  When I was running four Prime Directive sessions at Origins… there was maybe just one player out of twenty to actually play their disadvantages.  If people are actually going to play that way, they really shouldn’t have disadvantages beyond one or two easily played and enforceable shticks.  (This phenomenon is well known to the expert GM’s out there, but it came as quite a shock to me.)

“Needless to say, I’ve heard GURPS works better for high-tech campaigns where you don’t have to worry about half of this.”  Yeah, trying to play GURPS as a D&D style game is going to be frustrating if you’re new.  You’d do a lot better doing something like Humanx, Firefly, or Star Trek where it’s mostly humans fighting each other and where aliens are easily glossed with a signature advantage.  Stay away from Supers for a good decade, though.

“There is also no book of pre-built monsters / enemies.”  Actually this simplifies things.  Have you seen the stats for the classic Traveller aliens in the GURPS Aliens series…?  I mean seriously… who plays that game?!  And most templates, I spend as much time cutting things out of them as anything else, so they’re really just guidelines anyway.  But say you want a Cyclops.  ST 20, IQ 8, DX 9, HT 7, size modifier +2, skill 12 with a club.  Done!  (What are the exact point costs for this?  Do I look like I care?)  Dude will have a hard time hitting anything unless he does all-out.  Look up the grappling rules… make sure he has a decent chance to pull it off.  Let him grab someone’s henchman… then… if the guy fails his “save” to break away, have the Cyclops automatically bite his head off.  Then have everyone make a fright check at a serious penalty!  Look over the character sheets and see how many ways the players might overcome him without direct combat and see how you could set that up….  Sounds like a pretty good chunk of a con session to me….

“As I keep mentioning, it can do everything… which means it can get rather complex if you let it.”  Don’t let it!  Seriously, man… don’t let it!!

So, yes.  Your first month attempting to run GURPS cold is probably going to be a kick in the pants.  It doesn’t have to be….  Stay rules light, play to the system’s more-or-less realistic leaning strengths, and suss out new rules to learn and master only after actual play shows a need for it.

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4 responses to “The Dice of Doom RPG Experiment

  1. RupertG August 31, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Hi and thanks for commenting on our project and GURPS review.

    We started the 12 Games Experiment for a number of reasons. Mostly because the we couldn’t decide on a single game to run, and we figured, hell, let’s try them all. But also because between us we had 20 or 30 games that we had never played. And there were lots of games that we had ALWAYS wanted to play. GURPS was one of them.

    When we started the project we knew that a month was not going to be enough time to get to know a game intimately. It was more intended to be a taste test for as many games as we could fit into a year. We wanted to encourage as many people as we could to get those un-played games off their shelf, so we started blogging and podcasting about our experiences. We knew we’d miss things, and we’ve never pretended in our reviews to be experts in a game that we have only a month’s experience in. We just talk about what we have liked, disliked, and what we struggled with. This is important as the majority of people picking up a new game will experience similar things as us and we wanted to be honest and provide advice where we could. Mostly we were just hoping that we would be getting people to try new games.

    Over the 10 months we’ve been doing this we’ve discovered that some games are a lot easier to pick up in 4 weeks than others. For some games a month was barely enough to scrape the surface. GURPS was one of these. As we stated repeatedly, we knew we weren’t going to get everything right, but we were determined to try our best. We were certain a lot of our problems would disappear with experience, however, as we had Spirit of the Century (AWESOME game btw) to move onto, we didn’t get the chance to continue with it and prove this assumption right or wrong.

    At the end of the day we had a lot of fun with the system. We did experience some difficulties with a few things, but they were outweighed by the things we enjoyed. The criticisms we made (that you highlight above) you state for the most part are solved by experience. I am certain that you are right, and I hope to confirm for myself when we revisit GURPS sometime in the future.

  2. Karl Gallagher August 31, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    This is why I created the “one page GURPS” handout for my pick-up games at cons. That’s all a player needs. A GM can get away with GURPS Lite for most stuff. Use the big books for a few genre-specific items. Don’t break out the hex grid until you have someone good at the system playing. I always pre-generate characters for new players. That’s rough on a new GM though.

    And, yes, GMs should be warned to not bother point-costing their NPCs. Designing encounters is hard. I once send in a bunch of orcs and discovered that the players had optimized themselves to where they could defeat an infinite number of 25-point mooks. So they were followed by urukhai with crossbows. There are some pdfs from e23 that provide premade monsters (creatures of the night, dungeon fantasy monsters) but that’s not something you can get from the books.

    Starting adventures should keep it simple. I make the first fight a barroom brawl if I can. No armor, no weapons, no deaths.

    As for fantasy being harder than modern/future genres–only true if you keep the PCs away from grenades or automatic weapons.

    I think at this point SJG is in a trap: they have to keep the established player base happy, but that means specialized products that have too steep a learning curve for brand new GMs.

  3. Pingback: The Dice of Doom RPG Experiment « Jeffro's Car Wars Blog | BBGUniverse

  4. RogerBW September 1, 2011 at 3:30 am

    There are definitely ways to make the transition to GURPS easier – and one very usual piece of advice is “start by running a modern-day scenario with no special powers involved”, something like a spy or a cop story, so that you can get used to the way the system works before jumping into the weird stuff.

    I wasn’t very impressed by GURPS for Dummies, because there’s too much about character optimisation for my taste, but it does cover the basics reasonably well. (And yes, it does point out that if your players don’t play their disadvantages they may have to be pushed a bit.)

    The Dungeon Fantasy, Action and Monster Hunters series of books offer a low-complexity entry mode if you want to run a specific sort of game – most of the campaign design work is done for you.

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