Image by 8one6 used under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’ve spoken before about what makes a setting good for roleplaying, and I’ve reviewed a number of roleplaying systems here on the blog, so it’s time to lay out what makes the system itself good or bad. While each system is a unique snowflake, several factors are critical to all roleplaying games. Different people will care about some factors more than others, but if a system performs poorly across the board, it’s not very good.

How Well Does the Core Dice Mechanic Function?

Burning Wheel will never have enough dice in its pool to put out that fire.
Burning Wheel will never have enough dice in its pool to put out that fire.

Every roleplaying system has a mechanic used to resolve most issues in the game. It might be rolling a single d20 and adding bonuses; it might be throwing a handful of d10s and adding them together. This is the core dice mechanic.*

The core dice mechanic is often overlooked, even though it has a huge impact on the game. Consider the single d20 favored by D&D and its numerous spawn. This single die is just as likely to roll a 1 or 20 as it is to roll a midrange number, leading to a game where flukes of luck are far more common than they probably should be. At the same time, many d20 systems allow PCs to acquire so many bonuses as they level up that the d20 itself becomes irrelevant. Who cares if you get a 1 or a 20 when you’re adding 60+ to the total?

D20 systems are hardly alone. In systems like D6 Star Wars and Legend of the Five Rings, players must roll handfuls of dice and then add them all together. That’s more math than most players want to do in the middle of an exciting blaster fight or honor duel. Call of Cthulhu’s percentile dice present an entirely different problem. In that game, because a roll’s default difficulty is determined by the PC’s skill rather than the task being attempted, characters often succeed at rolls that should be prohibitively difficult and fail at rolls that should be quite easy.  

Designers commit another common foible when they try to reinvent the wheel with some wacky new mechanic. The One Ring muddies up its perfectly serviceable d6 dice pool system by adding a d12 for some reason. The Mistborn Adventure Game* introduces a strange matching system that adds nothing but confusion.

My favorite dice mechanics are success-based dice pools like Burning Wheel and World of Darkness, but your mileage may vary. Just make sure there isn’t some kind of hidden problem buried in the math.

Is the Game Easy to Learn?

The Primetime Adventure cover art.
As easy to learn as turning on the TV.

Buying into a new system is a big investment of time and energy.* If a system is obtuse in its language or confusing in its rules, getting your group to the table will be a real chore. Players only have so many hours in the day, and the less time you have to spend teaching, the more time there is to actually have fun.

Many otherwise great games stumble in this category. Tenra Bansho Zero and Torchbearer are both quite fun once you learn the rules, but learning them takes a major commitment. Even though the rules are good, they’re so complicated that they confuse new players. Then of course there are games like Eclipse Phase, which is difficult to learn and not very good once you finally conquer it.

Systems like Primetime Adventures (PTA) are easy to learn because they have very simple rules. In the case of PTA, all you need to do is describe a scene with characters doing something, flip some cards to determine how any conflict turns out, and move on.

But complex systems can be easy to learn if they’re expertly designed. Anima Prime is one such example. In that game, players only need to learn a handful of rules up front. The complexity only becomes apparent as the PCs discover various combinations in their abilities while fighting one exciting battle after another.

Is the System’s Complexity Justified?

Torchbearer adventurers fighting giant rats.
Torchbearer is so deep, it digs up giant rats.

The series Extra Credits has an excellent video about the relationship between complexity and depth, which I will now shamelessly steal from.* To paraphase, complexity is a resource designers spend to buy depth. A designer should endeavor to achieve the maximum amount of depth for the minimum amount of complexity. Complexity that doesn’t increase depth of play is wasted. In fact, it’s worse than wasted because it makes the game harder to learn and more prone to imbalance.

Systems like Eclipse Phase and Pathfinder are extremely complex, but for all that, they have very little depth. What depth they do have is almost entirely in character creation. Players can spend hours building the perfectly optimized character, but once play actually starts, the only notable difference between this new monster and everyone else is bigger numbers.

Very few options in systems like Eclipse Phase or Pathfinder actually change how the game is played or give the players meaningful choices at the table. Instead, the complexity of these games presents a barrier to less experienced players. If they want to keep up with the veterans, neophytes will also need to spend hours optimizing their characters, hours that many players don’t have to spare.

On the other hand, a game like Torchbearer (TB) absolutely justifies its complexity. Torchbearer isn’t an easy game to learn, but players who put in the effort find a wealth of meaningful choices awaiting them. TB’s light- and food-tracking rules mean PCs must carefully consider what supplies they bring into a dungeon. The robust economy rules make purchasing even mundane gear an integral part of the experience. Even the injury rules add depth, as a PC with a broken leg plays very differently than their healthy friends.

Do the Mechanics Match the Setting?

A Mouse Guard warrior attacking a giant snake.
It takes a lot of mechanics to fight a snake.

Each system has a type of game it’s trying to create, usually determined by the system’s setting. Some systems have a specific setting like Vampire: The Masquerade. Other systems have a general set of themes they follow. Burning Wheel, for example, provides a generic template for gritty high fantasy.

It’s important for a system’s mechanics to facilitate the type of story promised by the setting. Reading Vampire’s setting material, players will come to expect a game about fighting for control with their inner beast and hatching complex schemes to better their position within vampire society.

Unfortunately, Vampire: The Masquerade’s rules do not facilitate this type of story. Like many systems, most of Vampire’s rules are about combat and abilities that make the characters better at combat. This is why so many Vampire campaigns end up being about undead-superheroes rather than inner struggle and court intrigue. When so much of a system is concerned with fighting, the game gets dragged in that direction no matter the group’s intent.

A system like Mouse Guard, on the other hand, matches its setting beautifully. Mice are small and weak compared to most of their predators, so the game gives substantial bonuses to larger animals. Because mice are so often outmatched, they must use their wits to defeat stronger opponents, and the system provides rules to do so. Mouse Guard even has rules for weather, because an unexpected rain or sudden wildfire can be deadly to the fragile mouse civilization.

How Broadly Applicable Is the System?

The cover image for the Burning Wheel Codex
Burning Wheel is flexible on the setting but inflexible on the grit.

Flexibility is often undervalued in roleplaying systems. Once you’ve put the effort into learning a system, how many types of games can you run? Is the system limited to a single setting, or can it tell stories across worlds and genres? If a single system lets you run multiple types of games, you’ll get more use out of it than one that’s more laser focused.

Even though it has no fixed setting, Anima Prime is a very narrow system. In Anima Prime, all conflicts must be resolved through the combat mechanics. The system has no mechanics to deal with an issue via a single roll. The only type of campaign Anima Prime can easily work for is one with lots and lots of combat.

Burning Wheel is reasonably flexible within its themes of gritty high fantasy. You can use it to tell a story of intrigue in a noble court, a tale of peasants in a poor village, or even the classic adventuring party setting out on an epic quest. So long as your world has swords, bows, and brutally realistic combat, Burning Wheel will serve your needs.

Then there are systems like Primetime Adventures. PTA is meant to simulate any story that might end up on TV, so the possibilities are vast. One campaign might be a light comedy about friends working in the cloud harvesters of Venus. Another might be dark and gritty, set aboard an airship deep in enemy territory. Still another could feature the high flying adventures of pirate-sorcerers sailing the aether sea. Just about the only thing PTA can’t do well is horror, because it can’t deliver the necessary disempowerment.

How Balanced Is the System?

A giant robot from Tenra Bansho Zero.
One of the less powerful options in Tenra Bansho Zero.

Ah, balance, perhaps the most difficult aspect of game design. Entire articles have been written on the subject,* but the short version is that every element of a system should have an amount of power equivalent to its role. Sometimes this is simple. If the greatsword does more damage than any other weapon and it has no disadvantages, it’s clearly not balanced. Other times the issue is more complicated, like a chain of feats that lets a PC make twice as many attacks per round as anyone else.

If a system is imbalanced, it’ll lead to problems as some PCs are widely more powerful than others. Alternatively, if the whole group is aware of the issue, then the game will turn weird quickly as each PC buys the exact same abilities.

The more options a system has, the more likely it is to be unbalanced, because each additional option creates another potential combination that designers have to test. Tenra Bansho Zero is a prime example. Its character creation is incredibly deep and allows for almost infinite variety. Unfortunately, with that variety comes imbalance. An experienced player can show up with a flying robot-suit that has machine guns for hands, and that’s only if the player doesn’t feel like pushing the envelope.

Imbalance exists outside of character creation, too. In Mouse Guard’s combat system, the Attack action is clearly more powerful than any other option. Savvy players will quickly determine that the best way to win combat is to select Attack over and over again.

Anima Prime is a rare example of a system that is both well balanced and provides many options to the player. It’s a real feat of design, and it shows when the PCs start hurling fireballs and launching wire fu kicks at their enemies.  

How Fun Is Conflict Resolution?

An airshaper from Legend of the Elements
No one’s told this airshaper that their day is about to be ruined by fire and water at once.

Okay, I was wrong, balance isn’t the most difficult aspect of roleplaying design – combat is. In this case, combat refers to any form of extended conflict resolution, from actual sword fights to Burning Wheel’s duel of wits. Combat is a real problem for roleplaying systems, especially as players gain experience and demand more from their games. A three-hour slog to defeat the dungeon’s end boss might have worked when you were in high school, but adults with jobs* expect more from their time.

Fortunately, many games nowadays are specifically set up to let you resolve conflict of any type with a single roll. Burning Wheel even has a special name for this: the Bloody Versus Test. In Legend of the Elements, nearly every conflict is resolved with a single roll, but it still feels meaningful because the powers a player chooses to use will shape the consequences of success or failure.

Strangely, some games are actually bad at single roll resolutions. Until its most recent edition, Call of Cthulhu didn’t even have rules for opposed skill rolls. Dungeon World is another one, where the system insists that PCs must chew through their enemy’s hit points by using the Hack and Slash move over and over again.

But sometimes a single roll won’t be enough, and you’ll want to get into actual combat mechanics. A plethora of bad choices await you. You’ve got the aforementioned D&D-style combat that takes forever, or you can go with Torchbearer-style combat, which is more of a minigame. That’s better than the alternative, but it has the effect of making players feel disconnected from what’s happening in the story as they struggle to figure out how these abstract options translate into actions for their characters.

Anima Prime* is one of the few games with a combat system that’s both fun and intuitive. It does this by giving the players resources to manage during a fight. Players must decide how to allocate their action dice and what powers to activate in support. It feels more connected to the story than Torchbearer and avoids the boredom of D&D.    

Can Players Make Characters They Like?

A dark figure on an empty street.
Chronicling the darkness of character creation.

Countless types of character creation exist, from completely free form to rigidly structured, and each system has its own quirks. No matter the exact variation, the goal of any character-generation system is to help players create PCs they’ll enjoy playing. Some games do this by giving players a bunch of points and telling them to buy what they like. Others provide a firm structure to guide the player.

Both approaches have their good and bad examples. On the structured side, Burning Wheel’s lifepaths build the character’s backstory by detailing what careers lead them to the path of adventure. Fate’s system is also quite structured, linking mechanical traits directly into the narrative each player creates for their character. Opposite these are systems like Dungeon World, which promises players a game of D&D-style high fantasy but doesn’t allow for something as simple as a halfling-bard.

Freeform creation can have problems as well. In Eclipse Phase, the player is given over 1000 points and countless ways to spend them. All but the most experienced players suffer analysis paralysis, and in all the noise they often miss options vital to their character concept. Worse, the player might abandon their concept altogether and just dump as many of their points as possible into one area, creating a hyper-specialized PC who’s so good at one thing that they never try anything else.

Chronicles of Darkness* does a great job striking a middle ground. Players receive a more manageable number of points and a streamlined list of options to spend them on. Players can easily see what’s available just by looking at the character sheet, and they can realize their concept without having to find just the right lifepath like they would in a system like Burning Wheel.

What Support Does the System Offer the GM?

Three characters from the Burning Wheel RPG.
Looks exciting – are you sure you have the scenes for it?

The idea of providing rules for the GM to follow is still fairly novel among roleplaying designers, and it’s common not to provide any support at all. In fact, the “how to GM” chapters in many games contain such similar advice that they often blend together. Despite that, the idea of rules for the GM is catching on, especially among indie developers.

Sometimes, these rules are a disaster, harshly restricting what the GM can do. Legend of the Elements and Burning Empires are particularly bad in this regard. Both systems use a scene-construction system to strictly limit the GM’s ability to advance the story. In Burning Empires, the GM only has a limited number of scenes per session. Even if everything happening in the story points to an exciting gunfight, it can’t happen if the GM doesn’t have a conflict scene handy. In Legend of the Elements, the GM must spend a point of meta currency to advance between scenes, but there’s no guarantee of having that point to spend. Worse, both systems insist it’s cheating not to follow these rules.*

In the case of GM rules, no help is better than bad help. Most of us GMs have been running games without any support from the rules since we first got into roleplaying, and we haven’t suddenly developed a dependency.

Fortunately, some systems provide GM rules that are actually helpful. Mouse Guard is one such system. Mouse Guard divides the game into a GM turn and a player turn. In the GM turn, you throw all the challenges and obstacles you can think of at the players. Really let ‘em have it. Then in the player turn, they have a chance to regroup and strategize. Repeat as necessary until the adventure is complete. The turns create a natural pacing for the game, freeing up some of the GM’s thought processes to be spent elsewhere.

Roleplaying systems are difficult to judge at a glance. Even systems you’ve run for years can surprise you with a new rule you’d never noticed before. But unless you wish to play roulette with your gaming group, judge these systems you must. While every game has its own unique attributes, checking these categories will give you an outline of how well the system runs.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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