2012-05-22 Thinking About Solar System RPG


A while ago Harald posted on Google+ and wasn’t too sure about the system. We had talked about the Solar System RPG before and so I asked him what had made him change his mind. After all, he had done the German translation of the system. Harald turned the question around and asked me instead: Looking back at the game I ran from character generation to transcendence, what had worked well and what had not?

I want to preserve what I said back then on my blog instead of loosing it in the depths of Google+:

Without thinking about it too long, it seems to me that the system is not quirky enough for me. If the rules are too simple, too unified, then results end up being predictable. With results I’m referring to the game experience at the table. With D&D and other traditional systems, it’s hard to figure out how your game play will change. There are weird spells, weird monsters, all of them with little extra rules that cover their specialty. In their totality, the systems are not rules-light, even if some of them such as the old school D&D variants have simple character generation.

I think this is also related to Changing Gameplay Over Time.

I don’t have much D&D 4E experience, but I’ve seen people complain online about the perfect progression of character’s abilities and monster’s abilities. Old versions had asymmetries over time such as attack bonuses growing faster than armor class, save or die effects eventually dominating hit points.

Furthermore, non-quirkiness promotes abstraction. Abstract combat, abstract conflict resolution, and I’m wondering whether as a gamer, I might prefer more grounding. I’ve heard the same argument from other people, too. Sometimes it is also discussed under the label of Dissociated Mechanics. I end up not liking the abstraction of chess and prefer the speculations at the table that come with such questions as “what do you see when invisible people walk through water” or “can the fire reach me around the corner?” If you have quirky rules such as how fireballs work, then you can draw conclusions as to what happens if obstacles block the fireball’s path and use them in play. If the system is very abstract, then we roll first and interpret or explain the result afterwards.

The end result, therefore, is that the game felt a bit blander than before. The story felt like epic high level D&D without all the pain that high level D&D 3.5 would add, but the actual game experience felt blander than the simple Labyrinth Lord games I like to run.



This made me think... a lot.

I feel the same about Solar System, TSoY, Fate etc. But I think the main reason for the different long-term experience compared to D&D/clones is not really the lack of leveling up and related changes in the system. Case in point: I suspect most groups keep returning to play in a specific same range of class levels. According to their tastes. For example I prefer the lowest levels where every goblin matters and some PCs really use short swords, slings or other less-than perfect equipment.

Classic D&D-ish systems are designed from the bottom-up: you have some mechanics for low-level effects (like striking, skill attempts, knowledge checks). It is left to the players to sort out how those effect interact with each other or with the game world. This approach automatically leads to a myriad of possible permutations. Whats more, because classic systems come with huge lists of elements (equipment, skills, spells, monsters, artifacts...) or are easily extended with DIY elements, they also project different possible play flavors to the players. Its not just that fighting the Mummy Contraption in the Marshes of Yuck is very different from any fight you are likely to have experienced before: You know that the GM will introduce new elements with new, possibly weird properties if you go after the Mummy Contraption in the Marshes of Yuck. And those elements will matter mechanically, very much so. That is practically a new game lurking there in the yuck.

Compare that to games like Solar System or Fate which have a top-down design: Here is a generic way of handling everything. Now you can do anything, but mechanically it will feel the same. This is OK, because the events are supposed to mean something different every time. The change in flavor comes from the change of meaning of what your PC is doing. That is great for grand, dramatic play. You have to constantly shake up the PC and her immediate surroundings to make every other conflict really meaningful. Over a sustained period of play, I think this will get tiring. Are you excited to fight the Mummy Contraption in the Marshes of Yuck? You know that mechanically, you’ve probably seen it all so there will be nothing new from that department. What motivates you to really to do it in the end is the meaning of the quest. It is important to your PC (do you have a “best interest” or a “belief” or does it hit a “key” or is you PC motivated by design as in Dogs in the Vinyard and My Life With Master?) or it is important to the game world or maybe you are compelled to act by the system itself (You are supposed to get more XP or you need that loot)?

This is not a simple dichotomy. Some game elements in D&D are not very interesting mechanically (like weapons) and a top-down system can have mechanics that produce interesting variations. Fate has skills, but they all use the same mechanics. And of course, you could mix top-down and bottom-up design, to try to have the best of both worlds. I think Burning Wheel might be an example with its beliefs and Artha on the one – top-down – hand, and its life paths and lists of skills and spells on the other.

lior 2012-05-22 15:38 UTC

I agree. The only importance of “changes over time” is that this introduces yet another element to complicate the game mechanics. I also agree that there is a sliding scale between abstract, unified, dissociated mechanics on one side and the detailed, additive, quirky, diy mess of rules on the other side.

All I can say is that the games that have tried to have the best of both worlds didn’t do it for me—but I’m not sure this is due to their position on this slide. Role-playing games are themselves a multi-factored experience depending on other people at the table, setting, adventure, character, yourself, and many other things. Compared to that, the handful of sessions I have played offer no insight.

You already mentioned Burning Wheel with it’s complex life path character generation and it’s many detailed rules for various elements (fighting, talking, shooting, sorcery, miracles, artha, the sheer number of skills) and a very simple core dice mechanic. Rolemaster, Harp and Merp are similar games with long lists of things (equipment, skills, spells, classes) and a very simple core dice mechanic.

I guess in the end this just means that it’s a small, nameless element of game design that I can use to describe why my next campaign is not going to use the Solar System rpg rules; I might also use it to argue why my next campaign is not going to use Fate; I think I can’t use it to predict whether I will like a new set of rules…

AlexSchroeder 2012-05-22 16:31 UTC

Awesome, insightful thoughts. I am still trying to pull my thoughts about why I don’t want to do Solar System as originally planned, but it seems you two nailed it pretty well so far.

That said, tastes change over time, so my verdict is anything but final (but probably valid for a couple years).

Harald 2012-05-22 18:00 UTC

Neat! I’m trying to get some friends to play a cyberpunk themed Solar System game. I know what you mean about over-unification of systems. I think that I feel that way about FATE.

I know this is old, but I just wanted to add, and perhaps you had already taken this into account, that Solar System encourages the creation of custom systems (crunch) both for thematic purposes and because it adds cool new wrinkles to the game that can ameliorate some of that “blandness”.

I figure this might be a useful consideration for other people who wander onto this article. Of course, I’ve only played twice before, so I may be missing something. :)

Ludanto 2016-10-20 21:45 UTC

Come back after a few more sessions and let me know! I just created new keys, new skills and it wasn’t enough. It was more of the same. Like new feats don’t help if you don’t like complex character generation, or new spells don’t help if you don’t like Vancian magic, or new monsters don’t help if you don’t like D&D combat…

– Alex Schroeder 2016-10-21 11:13 UTC

Will do!

You didn’t mention Secrets there. I think that’s the key to it. That’s where you add the weird rules and subsystems. Maybe that would fix it.

Also, there’s scope and propriety. If the conflict is too abstract, propriety suggests that maybe shrinking the scope or going to mandatory extended conflict might help.

Of course, in the end, it might be a matter of wanting concrete handles to pull and buttons to push. I think I probably feel the same way most of the time, but that’s why I’m the Game Master or Story Guide all of the time. I’m an AWFUL player.

Ludanto 2016-10-21 18:03 UTC

Sadly, our campaign wiki is all in German, including the specific rules we used. If you write up crunch, specially if you do it as the game goes on, I’d be super interested in hearing how it goes.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-10-21 19:40 UTC

OSR Module O1: Against the Ultra-Minimalism is a blog post by +Gabor Lux where he talks about minimal adventures and minimal rules and he’s not happy: «Sure, the monstrous character sheets and column-sized stat blocks of much of modern D&D are mechanics for their own sake, and putting player skill above character skill is one of the great points made by the old-school approach. There are lots of ways where clear, simple and concise rules can make for a rewarding game experience. Beyond a certain point, however, games also start to lose interesting ways of engaging with the fantasy world, and you lose some of the payoff of the creative friction among rules, participants and setting. By pushing everything into the realm of subjectivity, there are no sure points left to anchor a character. Can I hope to climb a steep rock? Is there a way to wrestle that guy to the ground? Can I bash down the door? [...] Some super-lite systems [...] try to provide a sensible answer, but there is still something lacking in them. If you have seen one, you have seen all of them.»

– Alex Schroeder 2017-01-14 09:56 UTC

When I ran my Solar System campaign, we had keys you picked for your character to generate XP and I felt it didn’t make the game very exciting. Somehow I think I like it better if the reward mechanism is actually slightly at odds with what you actually want to do. If it’s totally aligned, then picking the next action is always easy.

– Alex Schroeder 2017-02-09 18:30 UTC

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