I have a mouth, but can’t speak

A few weeks ago on a popular elf games forum at shitstorm erupted in our post-Weinstein world. Two incidents of sexual harassment were posted and then things took a turn for the weird, like mod stripped of status and banned weird.

Two weeks before this I got into an argument in another thread with someone I thought was being intentionally obtuse about a game’s presentation. I might have gone at this person a bit hard. I got red text and was asked to leave the thread. Bad because I really want to see where that game goes. Not saying the mod was wrong in giving me a warning though.

So back to the shitstorm that was eating RPG professional’s reputations and making lose a lot of respect and hope for humanity in general. I made a small post pointing out something in a post about how people had misunderstood who were mods and why some people might have made such a mistake. My post was only to point out that a current mod had made a hard run at an industry professional. I thought it was an innocuous post meant for clarification of the original misunderstanding. For my trouble I got a one day ban for a personal attack.

The only problem was I wasn’t attack the moderator I mentioned. To me it appeared the mods were closing ranks and saw an unbiased pointing to a fact as an adhomin attack. Ironically the bias was in the mods because they brought up my previous warning from two weeks before that.

The end result is I no longer feel that I can post anything but rainbows and fluffy bunnies without being moved up the warned/banned ladder. At the same time I see people sidestepping the don’t attack members by attack the company they work for or represent as proxy.

While the original thread made me sad and a bit angry about something that is supposed to make me happy and reduce my stress, this hesitation of posting to this elf game board that I have successfully not been disciplined for 15 years has become crippling.

Ironically I now feel a bit like I was harassed for pointing out harassment. There are people with much bigger problems than this. The originating forum post showed that, but a part of me seems like it has been silenced and I’m unwelcome in a place that would have been the last place I’d have ever thought it would.

Elegant vs. Simple

I’m play around with a game idea. I’m asking myself Jared Sorensen’s three questions and trying to make the nebulous more concrete. I am a firm believer that system matters, or as Adam Koebel would say if it isn’t in the game it’s not part of the game.

My outline already has some implied ideas, which I’m OK with. I want a light system that doesn’t care your attention to keep switching between role-playing and gaming. But I’m also kind of a system wonk. I especially love systems that can elegantly take a bunch of thinks and make them work together beautifully.

My problem with this is that a beautifully designed system on paper could grind to a jarring halt at the table. I love the original Shadowrun system (First to Third editions) because of the initiative passes and how amor interacts with damage and the condition monitor. I think it’s a very elegant system to make all the parts work together in a logical and satisfying way. I also admit I have no wish to play a game using it. Why?

The most successful games I ran were Rolemaster and Buffy. In retrospect these games were liked by my player for the same reason I believe people like Powered by the Apocalypse and Fate-based games. At their core is a very simple system. Often roll, add modifiers, check result, apply consequences. In many of these games the first three are so familiar to be thought of as one quick, albeit extended, action. And then it’s right back to the role-playing.

The appeal of modern indie games comes from all the other things that sit on top of a very simple resolution mechanic–and basically start skewing the results. It means all that “story game” stuff is just their to reward or punish the role-playing you already do via the core mechanic.

And so my revelation today is that most successful games often have a trivially simple core rather than an elegant or satisfying mechanic because most people don’t care if the system models the real world, but rather that their large gun does more damage or their crush on an NPC is what allowed them to win an arm wrestling competition.

Tune in next week when I argue that Fate is crunchier than Pathfinder, just because Pathfinder’s crunch is finite.

Rebuilding Shadowrun Anarchy

Many people were intrigued when news of Shadowrun Anarchy leaked out. While the setting has many fans, the rules are very dense and not to everyone’s liking. So the idea there would be a lighter or even narrative version of the game piqued a lot of interest. Then a preview came out and a bunch of people started to scratch their heads. By the time the full game came out most people were perplexed. Shadowrun Anarchy (SRA) seemed to be a simpler version of modern Shadowrun with some narrative elements glued on for decoration.

In fact looking at it with two lenses also one to see how it’s very much a thinned down fifth edition type game. It has attributes, skills, qualities and then dumps all the heavy crunch into something called Shadow Amps. All magic, hacking, even special equipment becomes an amp. I actually think amps are the best part of the game. The game has rules to make anything you want, so while it is the crunches part it’s not brain science. Also if you don’t want to make anything the game has numerous example of completed amps you’d find in a typical Shadowrun game.

But what about that narrative aspect you ask? SRA was originally based on a system called Cue. It wasn’t a d6 dice pool game, it was much lighter. From this lineage SRA got Cues and its damage system. Cues are statements that your character might say to help define who they are. Then they add in Dispotions which are “a character’s motivations and rules of conduct”. Sound familiar? Damage is a series of boxes that in SRA is based on your attributes. Amor becomes just more boxes to fill in. And if you liked Cues and Dispositions then they added Tags, which are just one work descriptors to also help define your character like Elf or SINless. Lastly turns are taken like a board game where the GM starts the scene then each person takes a turn before moving on the the next person beside them. Oh ya, SRA has Plot Points, which have predefined uses of which usurping initiative is the most common.

Remember when I said SRA had narrative elements glued on for decoration. Every character has a set of Cues, Dispositions and Tags which do NOT directly interact with the game on any real level. They are there purely for player and GM motivation. What’s really strange is the SRA has all the moving parts to steal one of the most loved narrative aspects of the new century, but just seems to say no thanks. In the end, SRA is a game that Shadowrun veterans felt was too light to play Shadowrun and outsiders felt was too rules heavy for them and never delivered on the narrative promise.

One can argue if merging narrative elements to a lighter Shadowrun is even wanted, but it is hard to understand why the final printed product seems to have missed the mark. The lighter Shadowrun is too heavy and the narrative elements aren’t really part of the game. What’s truly strange is that that are easy fixes for both these problems.

Fixing the narrative aspects are as simple as…Aspects. Remember when I said SRA had all the moving parts to steal a favourite narrative aspect. Yes, I mean Fate’s Aspects. What is maddening about SRA is how it has Cues, Dispositions and Tags, which are all clear analogs to Aspects, and it has a metagame resource like Fate Points; but it never links the two. The first fix is just as easy as linking Plot points to Cues et al and allow players to use Plot points to Invoke a Cue/Disposition/Tag to get a 2 Hit bonus to a relevant test. That’s a rules addendum that is small enough to be a Tweet that instantly makes the game much more narrative. OK, that’s a bit of a hyperbole because you need to include GM Compels as well and I’d like to look at the whole Plot point economy to not only deal with jumping the initiative queue but deal with other things like Dramatic Editing and such.

If the narrative aspect was relatively simple to “fix” then the other side of a lighter Shadowrun isn’t as easy. Make no mistake SRA is much lighter than Shadowrun proper. And I am firmly in the camp that while you could make a lighter game that there must be a minimum to make a Shadowrun game, Shadowrun. I am content with Shadow Amps to be that line in the sand. The rest of the game seems to be too focussed on being mini-Shadowrun.

What do I mean by that? I mean attributes, 40 skills (with specialization), qualities and Edge. In reality SRA isn’t a rules light game, but a rules medium game more akin to the cinematic version of Unisystem found in the Buffy and Angel games. But for the most part most of the move parts of the game add dice to roll or allow re-rolls.  Attributes: add dice. Skills: Add dice. Specialization: add dice. Qualities: add dice or give rerolls. See a point there? If one of the things people often complain about Shadowrun is how many dice are thrown about, you’d think a game meant to attract new players might cut that down a bit. I made a starting SRA character who can easily toss 16 dice on their specialty. SRA also enforces focussed characters by only allowing 5? starting skills. Each skill is matched to one of the five attributes, which means the things you do, you do very well. Add in the right qualities and Amps and you’ll never roll less than 10 dice on anything. It’s not an oversight since in SRA you don’t roll against static numbers, but against different levels of dice pools.

I love rolling a handful of six-siders! I am a bit less enthused by rolling two hands of dice though. It seems to me that the easiest thing to do with SRA is to go back to the beginning and delink skills and attributes. Voila, dice pool halted instantly. And maybe only one other category should give bonus dice while the other gives rerolls. It seems SRA has very tangled hair and no one wanted to take a comb to it. Further qualities tend to encroach on Amps territory, not cool bro. In my world Invoking a Cue (or Tag) would give you two hits to add to your Skill roll. Amps may add and preroll their own added dice or simply give a benefit. (I might add a Plot point trigger to lessen costs of some Amps.) Qualities, if they still existed, would give more mundane benefits or retools. Or to summarize: Skills give you dice to roll, Amps add to that dice total, Cues add Hits, Qualities allow re-rolls. Lower dice pools and each moving part does something mechanically different from each other.

So what about attributes and Edge and the other stuff? I guess this is where I diverge from the winning faction that produced SRA. I’d kick them to the curb. My rational is that in the first three iterations of Shadowrun that skills were what you rolled for dice and attributes were something that were either a limiter or something you roll against. In short we never cared why someone was good at something, they just were. But if I got rid of attributes, how would the races be differentiated from each other? Sure Orgs and Trolls could get more boxes to take damage. Maybe there’s a a bonus or re-roll for Elves when doing dexterous stuff. Or MAYBE we just Invoke that racial tag with Plot points when we need it. Maybe things like a Troll’s strength is a free Invoke. I tend to favour that more than attribute bonuses or purely mechanical benefits.

What about Edge? Sigh. Edge is a hold over from a time when Shadowrun had numerous pools. Ironically these pools existed because characters only rolled a number of dice equal to their skill. In modern Shadowrun you roll attribute and skill and what ever bonuses you can get AKA a bucket of dice. The real problems is the SRA has Plot points which already seem to be another resource that marginalizes Edge as a dice adder. Since I’d rather get rid of dice adding to pools from multiple sources and I’d rather just have one meta-game resource, I’d choose and expanded Plot point and jettison Edge. By keeping it you make modern Shadowrun players think they are looking at something familiar and misunderstand the redheaded stepchild it is. All hail the Bolt point.

Equipment is the only place I’d go the opposite direction, but not much. I don’t like that amor just gives you more “hit points”. It seems to be a hold over from the Cue system. I’d rejig amor to reduce damage, and possibly give other minor benefits a la Shadowrun Returns Outfits. OK, I’m going to rename amor Outfits to re-enforce the style over substance that is missing in modern Shadowrun. But Outfits like all other equipment would fir on a single line. POWER SUIT (AR:5) Re-roll two Persuasion dice. Weapons I’m fine with, but the other more common Shadowrun equipment should be listed with a single line of what they do. MAGLOCK PASSKEY Unlocks any residential or commercial door lock. If equipment requires a Plot point to activate or you want it to add dice to a roll, congratulations you just made a Shadow Amp…not a piece of equipment.

Shadowrun Anarchy was announced in spring and arrived before the end of summer. They game was admittedly rushed and there was serious tweaking going up until Gencon. Developers and play testers have indicated the game was in a high state of flux until the last minute. Many have commented it is not the game they wanted it to be. And if you only had read this from me you might think I have a very poor view of the game. That is only true in comparison to what SRA could have been. SRA as printed is a very serviceable game. Clearly two paths collided while making it and I think the wrong path won. Yet, with a few tweaks the game could easily live up to its billing of a lite narrative version of Shadowrun. Even that wouldn’t placate hardcore Shadowrun fans or the equal fervorant story game adherents. But for the rest of us we could have a game of Shadowrun that was not much more complex than Fate while still being accessible to tradition RPG players. Then again maybe that sweet spot is not as popular to make a game like SRA “successful”.