Day 2: #RPGaDay 2018 – “Hope”

Week One: WHAT? Prompt: What do you look for in an RPG?

The great Jeff Combos, creator of the Hollow Earth Expedition RPG and the Ubiquity Roleplaying System which has gone on from powering it to so many other excellent games shared in words a concept which resonated with me strongly. There is the idea that some people are primarily interested in games for their settings and character options, but others are drawn more to the systems which make them possible. In our conversation, he described himself as collecting systems, not games. While I see myself more as an explorer than an outright collector, the comment stuck with me.

What do I look for in an RPG? Most of my answers for this second day of #RPGaDay 2018 are connected to the system side of what makes a game.

The List
  • consistent mechanics and methods
  • opportunities to face “risk” in pursuit of “reward”
  • personality mechanics as well as physical
  • innovation

Can we be less vague than yesterday? Well… the list is shorter so we have decreased the overall opportunities for vagueness, right?


I like to feel comfortable with a central idea of how a game works, and I like people just starting the game to be able to get comfortable quickly. While I can have a lot of fun with games even if they lack what is called ‘unified mechanics’, as I play a lot of games, often in the same period, and with people of varying degrees of interest and experience in the hobby, having a consistent pattern to how action declarations and system come together to produce results greatly reduces effort. In a sense, it leads to that feeling we hear people mention all the time that, ‘the system gets out of the way of the action.’ It doesn’t – not really, but it can feel like it because the cognitive load of remembering what to do when it’s time for the dice is reduced so substantially. That lets people of all interest and experience levels devote more of their time to description and interaction, two things I value highly in an RPG session.

Long-term play of one system, whatever its design might be will get you to the exact same place, but given the choice, I want to be able to get there quickly and consistently with most of the games that I play, and so – the first things I look for in an RPG are the patterns it presents for how to play.

From the point of view of learning, clear and consistent examples that show both standard cases and edge cases are points where I would like to see game writing improve. When an RPG company takes the time to present the mechanics clearly so the group can see how they are applied, and backs that up with examples of that application and the process of interpretation, it is like a breath of fresh air. Learning to play is fun instead of that thing you have to do in order to get to have fun later.

What’s in it for me?

I am of the sort that likes there to be stakes which can have a permanent effect on the play of a character. I like the fictional tension that arises from fictional danger to fictional characters and how that can sublimate into actual tension among actual players. Assessment of and the taking of risks is something which is hardwired into us on some level, and games allow us to bring it out to a great degree. I don’t do much combat-oriented gaming anymore, and when I talk about risk, I am not generally thinking of the risks of death in a game, but rather the risk of permanent and unwelcome change.

Whether we engage in the exploration of a dangerous site, risking character life and limb to discover what lies inside, whether we try to leverage a noble house in a war for territorial expansion inside lavish map rooms miles from the battles, whether we are negotiating trade terms with an alien species, or whether we are trying to hide the horrible truth from a significant other – failure in our tasks can lead to change that we do not want. Risking that change, in hopes of pulling together some form of reward that further increases future stakes is an important aspect of play for me. Without it, play for me doesn’t quite satisfy as much as it can.

The previous point about clear-cut and consistent systems goes hand-in-hand with this preference. When I am looking at a new RPG, what I hope to see is one where the setting and system help me focus as much as possible on the risks and challenges of the game, and as little as possible on its administration under the fiction of play.

I’m looking at you, Cyrano

When I played my first few games that included forms of personality mechanic, Call of Cthulhu’s sanity system, Pendragon’s virtues, Storyteller’s Natures and Demeanors, light and dark side points in WEG Star Wars, I recognized that such things, and the more complicated and detailed things to come, were important to me. The added information about the character, the increased opportunity to have to improvise, intuit, and understand what was going on as the character was forced to change and respond to the impact of system and session, and the deeper sense of ‘character’ are an important dimension of play for me. One that I prefer to have linked to the game system than just to my own sense of the dramatic and appropriate.

Hand in hand with this comes social ‘combat’ and the mechanical teeth to cause actions and interactions between characters to me more about the characters than the players, and more capable of causing those risks, lasting changes, and fleeting rewards I mentioned above. One thing leads to another.

New is the new new

If I am going to buy or try a new game, the impetus behind that decision is often a new approach to an old process, or the detailed focus on something which has previously been glossed over or broadly abstracted. I am not so keen on change for its own sake, but respond strongly to innovation which reveals new insight into or utility for older practices that improves my experience of play.

I mention several examples in my short (really!) video response for today, but a different one I want to mention here is the conversion of the abstract concept of hot points such as in Basic Role Playing (d100) to more granular methods like the condition monitor in Shadowrun or Health in Storyteller. By adding a way to talk about injury simply and in character, while also providing greater detail for description and visualization, my experience of combat in play was greatly improved~


What gives a game ‘staying power’ is the #RPGaDay prompt for August 3rd. There are a lot of games which have crossed my table in 35 years of gaming, but just a few… or just a few systems at any rate, which have gabbed it and held it for long periods, or have consistently been returned to. It will be fun to look at what they are, and why that might be~

#RPGaDay 2018

This is the first week of the fifth iteration of the monthly roleplaying gaming celebration launched by Autocratik for all forms of social media. Share your responses however you prefer to share. If you want to get involved, grab and share the infographic with the prompts and jump right in!

@willbrooks1989RPG-a-Day 2018 High Contrast

2 Responses to “Day 2: #RPGaDay 2018 – “Hope””
  1. I collect settings and systems. I’m always looking for the set of mechanics that “do it better.” I used to like novelty in systems — “Oooo! It does this really well!” only to find out it sucks at something else.

    There’s been a few sets of mechanics that have really grabbed me. Despite doing so much material for Ubiquity, it’s not my op game”; Cortex (for wide-ranging character options and a simple, mathematically elegant base rules set) fits that bill.

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