Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What is the "perfect" game system?

I've been trying to answer the question "what is my perfect game system" for years. And I keep failing to find one or develop one for myself. But I was asked again recently and figured I'd actually write it out. All thoughts, statements, what-have-you, discussed here can be assumed to be prefaced with a "for me" as there's no perfect for all people system.

This got long.

Primary Want: Conflict Resolution

At a high level, the purpose of a tabletop system is to resolve conflicts - whether it is person vs person or person vs. environment, I want the system to provide me the means to answer who gets what they want and to what degree and what does it cost them to have gotten it. I've touched on this before, discussing how a conflict needs to have rules for how does it start, how does it resolve, and how do we know when it is over.

Most conflicts fall into different types of desires:

  • I want to get somewhere. These are skills of movement and action - athletics, sailing, piloting, or driving. Depending on how I'm feeling larceny/burglary fall into this category.
  • I want to hurt someone. The skills of combat - dodge, hand-to-hand, melee, or missile weapons.
  • I want to discover something. The skills of research and investigation - search, forensics, or empathy.
  • I want to convince someone. All your social manipulation skills - persuasion, intimidation, or haggle.
  • I want to know something. Who and what you know - contacts, history, mystical lore, academics or the sciences.
  • I want to create something. Crafting - whether in dance, song, or sculpture.
  • I want to cheat. Magic. I'll leave this broad enough for right now, but basically magic, in my eyes, allows a caster to subvert the "rules" of reality and get around what would be normally allowed.
Ideally, I'd like a close to universal resolution mechanic for resolving these problems for ease of you. Yes there are going to be variance in how different conflicts resolve themselves because there are different things important to each conflict type; however, the core system should be the same with the exceptions easily notable.

I want my combat to involve tactical choices, mostly regarding what does the character do, when do they do it, and who do they do it to, with only a little consideration of the consideration of "where".

I want my social conflict to have a resolution system that provides incentives to behave in certain ways, while not acting as mind control, but there should be some sort of stick as well as a carrot.

I want my mental conflicts to be something beyond information dumps; Fate does this extremely well with assessments/declarations allowing the players to say that something is true versus "I rolled X, what did I find out?" Yes, that's important because the GM is the primary source of knowledge/information within the world; however, I'd prefer the GM not to be the sole source of information.

Secondary Want: Character Differentiation

Another want I have of systems is a way to differentiate characters in a systemic manner. That means the differentiation can be seen on the character sheet in how the character will approach and resolve conflicts. This is where many rules-light systems fall down on me because there's not enough inherent differentiation to keep me interested. All of the fighting types have "Combat+5" and there's nothing except the descriptions that differentiate the characters for me. And that's okay, the system just won't work well in my head for long.

One way to do this is through the use of a variety of skills. Somewhere between 15 and 30 skills (depending on the specificity of the campaign setting) will probably do what I'm asking for them to do. Depends on the complexity of the skills.

I'm also going to look for something like stunts or feats to differentiate within a skills how two different characters approach using a skill to solve a challenge. Admittedly, this can be a case of "couldn't you just use multiple skills and do something similar"; however, I can see skill overload happen, so I'd rather group skills in broad categories to create an underlying base competency in a field, and then use stunts to expand on that competency in specific arenas. Whether it is using a skill for another purpose, or being very good at a particular usage of a subset of that skill.

And I want that differentiation, especially in a limited skill set environment.

Secondary Want: Characters Become More Powerful

I like being able to do more things with my character when playing then I was able to do 4-5 sessions ago. I like my character being more competent than they were the last time they tried to accomplish something. The mechanic doesn't truly matter - but I generally tend to prefer larger and more infrequent jumps in accomplishment than small incremental growth - a percentage here or a percentage there. It just needs to be somewhat steady growth, potentially, and preferably lots of room for growth - so alternate expenditures for XP versus just skills, attributes, and stunts would be appreciated. I liked what Marvel RPG did, and used XP for the purchasing of things like accolades and access.

Tertiary Want: Metagame Currency

I've fallen in love with the idea of plot/story/drama points and the ability for the players to affect the narrative of the game with some sort of currency. It just works for me and giving the players an overt, mechanical way to create and change the game. There are ways around it; however, I like there being a way outside of "How well can I convince the GM that this'll work" to do it.

Note: These are just my big four items; there are other things I prefer, but these are what are major determinants for whether I'm happy with a system or not - I can, and do, have fun without them, but that tends to be in spite of the system versus because of the system.


  1. I've never encountered this game, either.

    That just means you should write and publish it with all that extra time you have. Right, guys?

    Incidentally, I have yet to read Lorefinder (it's certainly on my list), but it sounds a though it might mesh with some of these requests — it ties GUMSHOE to d20.

    1. *as though

      Stupid grammar.

    2. Yeah, working on one right now that's heavily inspired by Cortex Plus (Smallville, Leverage, Marvel RPG, etc.).