Tabletop Systems: What I’m Missing 3

At present, the tabletop systems freshest in my mind are Arcana Evolved (a cousin of D&D 3.5), D&D 4th edition, Technoir, Mage: the Awakening, Over the Edge, and to a lesser extent A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. This odd melange of systems and genres naturally leads to a discussion of each system’s high points and what I’d want to take from each if I were to start work on my own tabletop rules system. Each one scratches an itch that none of them manage entirely.

AE, and by extension D&D 3.5

The long-term choices that I make for my character are particularly satisfying in this system, because they take a concrete form and typically carry implicit tradeoffs. Though it varies by ability scores, the type of armor my character will wear is a meaningful choice, and it makes sense to own more than one suit of armor and more than one set of weapons.
The nature of multiclassing in this system feels the best to me, in that my character really would be stopping his studies in one field in order to advance in another.

The scaffolding of the magic system, with its discrete spells, appeals to me. I don’t prefer AE’s automatic knowledge of all spells of a given level and rarity, because I like the way that wizards need to purchase, research, borrow, or steal spells in order to progress. (This has everything to do with why DtD ritualism is the way it is.) Were I to hack 3.5, nowadays, I’d rework the cleric and druid to have to learn spells the way the wizard does. I’m not sure what I’d do about the bard, but a relatively invasive rework is probable. Minor spellcasting classes with limited custom lists might or might not get changed.

For better and for worse, 3.x exists within the conceit that enemy NPCs follow the same framework of creation as PCs. This leads to a colossal amount of work that some of the best 3.x DMs circumvent with Excel-based character creation or by only running published adventures. This leads to its own kinds of weirdness, such as specific abilities that are only balanced if the character using them is probably only going to survive for one encounter (e.g., regenerating 3 hit points per round).

AE in specific has some pretty good races outside the standard array of elf-dwarf-halfling (well, mostly outside of halfling…), but its rules accommodate their sizes only poorly. I am of two minds on AE’s class list; sometimes you want a generic advancement that will let you have something from another part of the rules set that you want (feats or skill points) but you don’t want deeply-enmeshed setting flavor. AE won’t offer you that – all of its classes have strongly implied social roles that are very hard to overlook. As a result, multiclassing seems very odd here.

D&D 4e

As far as I’m concerned, the single best thing in 4e is the presentation and nature of powers and the way they represent different tactical choices in combat.

The second best thing in 4e is the way monster abilities, the variety of player abilities, and terrain leads to interesting, varied fights. Writing an interesting combination of monsters, terrain, and any other ambient conditions takes work, but it’s not terribly more work than previous editions of D&D. Some of the terrain is higher on the flashy magic and gonzo fantasy than I would prefer, admittedly.

The magic is often too solely gamist for me – while I’m happy that healers can heal their allies without sacrificing too much of their in-combat time to it, granting mystical protection to your allies by hitting enemies with a mace doesn’t really feel right to me, all in all. Bards and warlords work a bit better in that regard than clerics.

When 4e first came out, I was comfortable with the total divide between “how PCs work” and “how NPCs work.” As time has gone on, it has bothered me more. For actual monsters, I’m fine with things like Elite and Solo status, recharge mechanics, and so on. For things that should be like PCs (particularly NPCs intended to be allies or foils to PCs), I think it reminds the players that it’s just a game and they shouldn’t try to understand what the NPC is doing. It’s possible, in 4e, to design NPCs that do the things players do, but only in limited and awkward ways. This is more obvious in 4e’s spellcasting characters than anywhere else in the game.

Interlude: First Fusion

Oh, the rules I would hack. From talking to Kainenchen and Stands-in-Fire on a long drive this past weekend, I got the idea (I dunno, Essentials may already do this) of reworking spellcasters so that their powers are:

  1. 2-3 At-Will attacks
  2. A 3.x-style increasing progression of prepared spells. These are balanced as encounter powers, but are expended as daily powers. There are a mix of attack, defense, and utility powers here, though there might continue to be room set aside for utility power “siloing.” Players learn additional spells through research, capturing enemy spellbooks, revelatory experience, or whatever, and choose from those learned spells when preparing spells on any given day. Durations measured in rounds per caster level and the like would remain exiled from the system, because I hate tracking those kinds of durations.
  3. Rituals – but more like the rituals of 3.5’s Unearthed Arcana than 4e’s rituals.

Over the Edge

The best thing about Over the Edge, the thing to steal for other games, is the “okay at normal things, and good at a few things or okay at otherwise unavailable things” setup of stats. The crippling problem with D&D 3.x’s skill system is that some characters are, inescapably, just going to suck at almost all skill-based challenges. My warmain in AE has just reached 14th level, and there was no combination of stats and skill point expenditure that would allow him to be any good at the huge list of skills. Instead, he’s good at about three things, okay at about six things, and don’t-bother at everything else. I don’t feel like my character is sufficiently dominating (compared to other characters) in combat to justify the game making him a complete non-participant in skill-based sequences.

The second-best thing about OtE is the game’s reward for stunts. My experience with the game has been that players are very willing to describe their attacks in cool ways so that they can either gain a bonus die or negate a penalty die. This simple mechanic, along with player creativity, led to some of the most cinematic and engaging fight scenes I’ve seen in a game.

Mage: the Awakening

The rules component that I like most in M:tAw is the item that it has in common with other nWoD games – I like the breakdown of skills and attributes very much. My players are less than thrilled about the way these factor into their rote spellcasting, but the way attributes and skills can creatively recombine for mundane or mystical skill usage is good stuff. This is something that WoD has done all the way back, as far as I am aware, and that has led to some ludicrous but creative combinations of skill and attribute. I like the form and variety of skills available in nWoD.

Interlude: Second Fusion

So skills. I’ve written before about my issues with 4e’s skill system. I would like to see a hack of 4e with a skill list more similar to Mage: the Awakening, though for a medieval fantasy game I’d replace Politics with Religion. (This change writes its own snarky commentary, so I leave that as an exercise for the reader.) The tough part for this translation, then, is the skills Brawl, Firearms, and Weaponry. In just about any game I’ve ever seen, combat skills are flat-out better than other skills, simply because the consequences of failure are more difficult to shake off. This is true even in games that go out of their way to make physical conflicts the same as mental/mystical conflicts and social conflicts – Technoir and FATE come to mind here.

There are a couple of ways I could handle this, but all of them require me to pre-determine how players improve their skills. What I know I don’t want to do is use the 3.x skill point system – while it’s great for character customization, it’s a damned nightmare for a lot of other things. Something along the lines of what I laid out in the aforelinked post could work – sure, a lot of PCs would put a +4 in Weaponry and a -2 in Brawl, but I’d try to write powers and such so that +4/+4 or +4/+2 were really the place to be. Is this taking a page from FATE? Hell yes it is. But you’d add that to your attribute bonus and go from there. Yeah, there are still problems with this that I need to spend a lot more time analyzing. The important thing here is that characters have basic competency with most of the game’s skills, and are only markedly incompetent with a few.


Technoir has a lot going for it – I really, really like this game, and I may write about our experiences with it in a future post. The conflict-resolution mechanics, particularly with regard to applying adjectives and making those adjectives sticky, are confusing to explain, but they are fantastic once you’re playing with them. Ultimately, Technoir may be the best example I’ve seen of a rules system that sets up a compelling skill-based fight scene. (I’ve seen DMs who can make 4e’s skill system really sing in non-combat challenges, but I feel like they had to work harder to make the rules do that than they would have in Technoir.) The thing that makes Technoir work here is the way bonus dice shift back and forth between the player and the GM. The ball starts in the player’s court with a pool of bonus dice. When the PC does lasting, bad things to an NPC, the player passes those bonus dice to the GM. (The bonus dice have other applications as bonus dice, so this represents a cost to the player.) The GM, in turn, now has ammunition to do lasting, bad things to one of the PCs, and in this way the cycle of violence perpetuates itself. This generalizes to nonviolent conflict as well, and that universal mechanic is another part of what makes Technoir so wonderful.

Song of Ice and Fire

SIF likewise has a lot going for it, though the basic dice-pool mechanics are not easy to borrow for other systems. I am really rather surprised that I haven’t already written about SIF at great length in this blog – something I’ll have to rectify. Anyway, the mechanics that beg to be stolen are conflict resolution mechanics for courtly intrigues (central to that setting, and possibly suggestive of ways to make them compelling in other settings) and mass combat. The problem with skill challenges – diplomatic or otherwise – in a lot of games is that there’s not a fun sense of progress as you work at it. Either it’s a one-roll victory (D&D 3.x, nWoD), or it’s a “x successes before 3 failures” (D&D 4e), or… something along those lines. In SIF, you’re manipulating bonuses to your side and penalties to your opponent with various diplomatic postures so that you can damage your opponent’s Composure. This is pretty well in keeping with the combat mechanics, including the multiple stat dependencies for attack, damage, and defense.

(I don’t know enough about the SIF mass combat system to write about it here, as my SIF character was a complete idiot about Warfare, and I think our GM mucked around with the rules for heroes attached to units. I should buy a copy of the rules and mend my ignorance.)

Interlude: Third Fusion

This area of fusion into 4e-like rules is something I’ll be exploring more thoroughly in a future post. The short form is that I like games that award hero points when the GM does something that sort of arbitrarily screws you over, an idea I first saw in Mutants and Masterminds and most recently saw in Old School Hack. I’m thinking that many powers and/or feats might have an “if you spend a hero point” clause that involves a juiced-up version of the power. When you do this, you pass your hero point over to the GM, who can use it to power nastier versions of monster abilities. It will be tricky to balance this so that players are actually willing to spend points and, in essence, crank up both their power and the danger level of the game.

When Samhaine and I discussed this idea earlier today, he suggested that the GM gained this “juice” for monster abilities when players violated genre conventions in favor of doing something pragmatic. That could definitely work too. Yet another version of the idea was offering them to the players as a temptation to use a system’s version of Dark Side powers, Dark Sun defiling magic, Tal Shar, whatever. In this third version, the points or tokens become a mechanic of karmic justice, possibly one that only builds up over time and unlocks new monster abilities.


This has been some general noodling about a fantasy heartbreaker rules system, because obviously I’m now equipped to write the perfect system. What the world needs now is another fantasy tabletop game like I need a hole in my head. But anyway, it’s fun to play around with, and maybe this will give someone out there in the blogosphere a cool idea. This may also be a jumping-off point for future posts.

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3 thoughts on “Tabletop Systems: What I’m Missing

  • samhaine

    The problem with White Wolf's skill system has always been basically what you point out. It intends to be a low-combat, high-intrigue system by making combat attributes and skills a much smaller proportion of the whole than, say, D&D. However, that just means that it's really cheap to make a combat god and really hard to make a well rounded mental or social character. The converse is also true: in D&D, it's comparatively cheap to make a Diplomancer that can completely dominate any social scenes.

    The trick is probably that White Wolf games need to provide advice that they typically don't: how to make your game focus on a bunch of social/mental stuff where different skills are useful in different ways, and combat is only selectively useful. This would be the converse of D&D, where, sure, you CAN play a social monster… but you'll only dominate play a small and acceptable part of the time.

  • Kainenchen

    Samhaine's point is pretty much mine, as regards White Wolf– they don't make it easy to get you to plot for non-combat situations, or for different useful scenarios for skills. And they ought. You wind up with a situation where one's experience of the system itself will vary much more by DM than with, say, 4e.

    Also, I still wish I could think of some way where I actually liked the tradeoffs with Multiclassing… I think that my problem with it in 3.X was, indeed, that I wanted to play a caster, and I've been super frustrated with nearly every experience of serious casting in tabletop games, even the ones which have given me what I claim to want: access to the greatest number of spells. Part of this being early munchkinism on my part, part of it being really terrible and frustrating presentation of spell lists. I'm okay with 4e on the level of there being limits, but they're the same as everyone else, and they're understandable, and I'm… okay with AE, though only because my Int is so through the roof I can pick from everything I see, or take feats to unlock the rest. On which note, I think a system actually played like you describe– with research and spells as treasure/rewards– would be super awesome, and I would be into trying that.

  • Shieldhaven


    It makes my head hurt to realize that rules support also means it is more challenging to play correctly. When talked out, it makes sense, more or less, but on its face it is jarringly ridiculous. And yeah, I think WoD games could do a lot better in terms of giving practical advice on how to actually run the games they intend to support.


    4e set out from the beginning to solve for bad GMs more than it allowed for great GMs – there's kind of a safety net, but the game also does things that get in one's way.

    3.x's multiclassing was great for fighters, rogues, and barbarians. It was not-so-great for spellcasters. Then they introduced prestige classes to "fix" those multiclassing issues, and things really went to hell.

    If I ever sit down and write this fantasy-heartbreaker tabletop game, I'm sure I'll include some kind of rules for research, though it's hard to know what form they'd take at this stage. =)