Systems Hunt II: The Winnowing Begins

Okay, I’m posting this and in all likelihood a series of follow-ups from my recent post on the subject. Cross-posted to

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I have taken the advice of this community, er, into advisement, and have begun reviewing a number of the various systems that were recommended to me. I haven’t gotten to them all yet, of course (since it’s been only a couple days and a man has to work, eat and such), but will provide the list of systems that I am either considering or reviewing. I’ll provide the list of systems below and a short explanation of why each was recommended, as I understand the recommendation. Following that, I will elucidate on the thoughts I have after doing a quick skim of two of the systems in question. Within the next few days, I’ll hit the others on the list and give them a similar treatment. Once I’ve narrowed the field a bit, then I’ll give the systems that remain a closer comb-through. Also, I will address some of the statements I’ve gotten on some of them.

I’ll post it here so you can see a bit of my thinking process (beware!) and to provide possibility of feedback.

Systems:

  • Scion/Exalted – listed here for completeness, though this is the system that I started this whole exercise with because I found it systemically unsuited to what I’m looking for. Status: Scion’s pretty much out, Exalted is absolutely out.
  • Unisystem (Both cinematic and standard have been recommended, though for different reasons) Also highly recommended, primarily the cinematic versions, for quick application of system and (in cinematic) for superhuman potential. No dynamic magic system. – Status: Probably out. see details below.
  • Tri-Stat Dx – This was the overwhelming favorite recommendation from before, so I’ll definitely give it a going-over. It was recommended for versatility and because it already allows for both the legendary hero stuff and the dynamic magic I’m looking for. Status: Pending initial review.
  • BESM 1st Edition – A similar, dissenting view of the above, offered for quicker, sleeker version of the above. When I go over Tri-Stat, I’ll be comparing it directly with this system. Status: Pending initial review.
  • Donjon – Quick, fluid and narrative, plus possessed of a dynamic magic system. Status: needs further review, but in contention.
  • FUDGE / FATE – Great toolbox systems with a solid narrative engine and massive, readily inbuilt customisability. – Status: Pending review but probably out in and of themselves. I may use a modified version of one of their descendants, however. (see SotC and TSOY below)
  • Spirit of the Century – A pulp offspring to FATE, and regarded by many as the definitive game for that genre. Status: pending initial review.
  • The Shadow of Yesterday – A romantic fantasy offspring to FATE FUDGE, with an imaginative and interesting mythology and metaphysics built in. Status: pending initial review.
  • nWoD modified to import some Scion material – Has the advantage of being a close but superior cousin to my starting point, and has a dynamic magic system that I have already built the basics of a modification to. (the current dynamic magic system I’m using is a bit of a hybrid between nMage, DA: Mage and Ars Magica). Plus, I’m already quite familiar with the system’s mechanics and have been building mods and house rules for it and/or prior related systems for over a decade, so even though it’s not an incredibly lightweight system I can run it pretty quickly and easily. Status: still in contention, though it’ll need a lot of modification.
  • WuShu – Recommended for its fast and furious nature (a boon to online play), high flying antics and easy adaptability, but panned for lack of structure or real ongoing, evolving heft. I have just the quickstart rules for this but it’s one I’d like to eventually grab the full rules. Status: Out. Great game, but out.
  • PDQ – Another light system with some potential, though I haven’t done more than glance at it. Status: pending initial review.
  • Burning Wheel – A fairly crunchy system, though some accelerating mods to allow for better performance online have been offered. I like a lot of what I’ve heard about this system, but it has the disadvantage of only being available in hardcopy. I don’t know as I’m willing to buy it at this juncture, though I do plan to pick it up at some point in the future. Status: Out for practical reasons, barring some really compelling counter-argument.
  • Inspectres – I like this one from what I’ve seen of the system from the quickstart rules and in particular the confessionals, but I’d rather keep a bit more of the narrative control in the GM’s hands for this particular game. Status: Out.

So far, of the games with which I was not already conversant, I have had time to review two: Donjon and Unisystem. My findings versus what I’m looking for follow.

First, Donjon. Donjon is a fast, furious little game with an interesting narrative mechanic where whoever wins a roll (all rolls are contested, whether versus a character or the GM) gets to state a number of facts or apply dice to later stuff (either as bonuses to self or penalties to opposition, depending on the roll type), but then whoever LOST the roll makes the actual narration, yet being required to incorporate the previously-stipulated facts. Hijinx ensue.

This game’s dynamic magical system strikes me as nothing short of brilliant, and I’m itching to try it out. It’s fast, it’s fun and while every spellcaster has to work within themes that are designed into the character via the medium of a few preselected magical words – every spellcaster has a certain number of magical words that are listed on their sheet. Essentially, to cast a spell you have to name it on the spot, and prominently built into that title must be at least one of your magical words, which may be used either literally or figuratively (for example, “fog” might be actual fog or might be fogging the minds of men). The more of your magical words are part of the title, the more powerful it is because each word has a separate but probably related effect, but the spell is also that much harder to pull off. Simple, elegant, expansive and fun. It’s a shame this game doesn’t get more press.

However, there is a problem for my aims specifically. Donjon was explicitly designed to capture the feel of old-school loot-and-pillage roleplaying, where to survive you have to literally loot and pillage because of the game’s equipment and wealth dynamics. This is great for the game’s stated aim, but a problem for the particular game I plan to run. I explicitly do NOT want old-school dungeon-crawl style play – that’s fine for pickup games and one-offs, but apart from that I lost all interest in sustaining this sort of gaming years ago. I intend the game to be more open-ended, and frankly the looting part isn’t something I want explicitly required in my game mechanics, because a lot of the time I don’t aim to give players time to loot or foes that are worth looting, and I’m planning on encouraging players to create characters that aren’t necessarily doing what they’re doing for a few coins and baubles. I am looking for more politically and socially-driven play, and especially the powerful yet malleable hand of Fate. It’s worth pondering how to fix this mechanic to better suit my needs, but I certainly can’t use the game as it stands. Pity. I’ll scan through the older sections of the Forge fora to see if there are any good fixes out there for this already. If anybody else has a fix, I’m glad to hear it.

A smaller gripe is related to the first, but it connected and easier to fix. Experience points are given on a per-encounter basis for killing and incapacitating the opposition. Foes that are defeated, driven off or similar are worth nothing. I have hated the XP-per-kill concept for ages, and will not use such a thing for a serious game. If I were to run a one-shot of pure Donjon, that’d be fine, but there’s not really any need for XP in a one-off. However, XP systems are easier to fix than in-game mechanics, so no big deal.

Ironically, my review of the Unisystem took less time to resolve, though the system and its rulebooks are longer than Donjon‘s slim volume. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I was reviewing CJ Carella’s Witchcraft, which is part of the standard rather than the cinematic unisystem, the latter of which is usually what was recommended to me. Second, I hit a roadblock much earlier in this one than I did with Donjon. Unisystem’s system seems fairly quick, simple and customizable, which is good. I can see how scaling it for a more cinematic and high-powered game would be quite doable. I can also see why this is a popular system, based on its core mechanic.

That, however, is the problem. I don’t like the core mechanic. It’s a roll of 1d10 + bonuses (usually stat + skill, reminiscent of a highly modified WoD approach using raw values rather than numbers of dice) versus target number. Apart from some limited allowance for the die to explode on either end of the D10, that’s it. I’m not a fan of the flat probabilities generated by rolling a single die, particularly a mid-sized die like a D10. Even though Capes (which I often say I adore) uses 1D6, that system creates much more complex probabilities due to all the dice-splitting (creating pools of multiple dice) and roll up/down shenanigans that happen to existing dice rolls via staking Debt, roll-reactions and Inspirations. Also, as has been said, a fairly powerful character is mathematically incapable of failure unless they’re up against a similarly powerful character in a resisted die roll. Suitable or not, I just don’t like this system’s fundamental die mechanic. That does critical harm to the odds of my using it for a game that I will personally GM, though I might be willing to play in a unisystem game at some point so long as it’s not a fandom game.

Now, I haven’t seen how the cinematic versions modify this, but I don’t see them saving it. At least one person suggested that I use the Witchcraft magic system instead of the Sorcery from Buffy (which latter I haven’t seen yet), but upon a quick scan of the Witchcraft magic system, it looks like a set of static effects, which rules it out right there. Does anything in the cinematic version (say, Buffy or Angel) have a more dynamic magic structure, or would I have to build a dynamic magic system from whole cloth? Please advise. Unless it does, I don’t think that buying them for this project is worth my while, particularly given that they’re licensed to media properties in which I have no interest (I thought Buffy sucked and so I never watched Angel). If I do ever buy a cinematic unisystem book, it’ll probably have to be Army of Darkness.

Commentary? Questions? Suggestions?

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