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Friday, February 28, 2014

Game mechanics effect pacing, Your system choice depends on goals.

Been quiet around here lately.
I know ... Monday, Wednesday, Friday blog scheduled only lasted a short while.
Truth be told real life has been busy as of late and I have just not had the zest for blogging that I normally do.

Today I want to go on about my thoughts on mechanics, and games and how they interact. Specificity in terms of game pacing.

Currently I'm participating in three online games using the roll20 game client. One is a 4th edition D&D game run by a friend, the second is a Numenera game run by a different friend, and the third is an AD&D 2nd edition game that I am running.

I enjoy all three of the games, the ones I am playing in are both well run and I have characters I like. My 4th level fighter “Armed Sage Oka” in the 4th edition is starting to round out and become a useful part of the party. 
Like a Truck...

Benthree my “Charming Jack who fuses Steel and Flesh” just had what I felt was his breakout session in our Numenera game.
 The game I am running is moving along nicely, I'm a big fan of the sandbox concept of running games and giving as many characters as I can their own story thread that is about them and their interests. After a few games I am starting to get some of that rolling, I'm satisfied.

Using these three games I want to talk about mechanics determining pacing.
Our fourth edition game is a dungeon crawl, the DM has set it up as such and has picked one of the three “mega dungeons” or our campaign setting as his main venue. In other words he can add caverns and halls forever, and he's not stepping on anyone's toes setting wise.

Here are my observations. In fourth edition every character gets cool at will powers, cooler encounter powers and “Rock your world” daily powers. Some of them do damage over time, some of them Mark enemies, curse enemies and so on. When one figures in feats and bloodied states, there really is a lot to do in a typical fight.

The last game we played we fought ghouls, in a typical game of 2nd edition  four ghouls would be lawn mulch to a group of well equipped 4th level adventurers, but fourth edition is built so that the Players get to use and show off their powers. One of our players even said, paraphrasing a bit,“I have a skill that does damage over time, what good would it be if we offed the ghouls in one round?”
One round? Really?

The mechanics of the game automatically zoom in on the action, the combat action and “slow time“ by raising monsters Hit points, Armor class, and generally standardizing damage dealt by characters and monsters. The 4th ed of D&D caught heat in some circles for being a “table top MMO.” I admit I have said it my self a few times, but the more I have played the more I see that at its base design is clever in how it uses combat pacing to put the focus on what the characters can do. When Chris uses his Shard mind to move an enemy and give every one in the room an attack of opportunity, we all go “Kewl Power Chris, good job!” that sums up the design aesthetic of 4th ed perfectly.

With our second edition game we see a different approach. A ghoul in 2nd ed has up to 16 hit points, and AC of 6 and three attacks per round (claw, claw, bite.) An average fourth level fighter can take one down in round with a good set of rolls. However lets look at the combat options of a standard 2nd edition Fighter. Attack or not. No matter how much description goes into the attack, no matter how flowery the prose, it still comes down to “swing or not.” Spell casters get more choices, but again they are limited by the much loved or hated  D&D spell caster resource management mini game called “number of spells per day.”


As a product of its times (published 1989) the game was created with a different audience, set of external influences, and goals. With the fights taking up less of the game a system like AD&D2nd grants the players more space around the fight, but robs them of the laser focus on how cool they are.

At one time parties used to crawl down dungeon halls rolling check for traps every few feet, and opening every door with wooden poles. All that crap took time, time where unless you were a thief the cool stuff you could do was in the back ground. AD&D was more a game of how do we get there, how are we going to manage our resources (spells potions hit points) and why are we going? The focus was broader, but being broad that focus could at times be fuzzy. The Gm must crate the focus when he or she wants it. The game does not mechanically zoom in on combat like 4th ed does, the Gm has to do that work. This gives a GM a lot of room for Role Play, and more control of the dramatic pacing of the fiction, but it takes a deft touch.

From our Numenera game I see the results of the most modern of the game designs we are talking about.
From what I can grok as a player Numenera drops the pacing of a game right in the lap of the GM, while letting players grab focus when they want. Mechanically the Gm can control the “level” of an encounter which will control how many whacks with a stick that encounter will take to get through. You want a climatic battle, up the level, you want a blow through ghoul, lower the level. 

The Game mechanically and I think cleverly also packages the 4th edition idea of combat focus through Kewl powers in the cypher system. Every character can do cool stuff because they find cool stuff under every rock, and they are all quick hitter items with one use and a flashy effect. Perfect, if the player wants to show off how clever, effective or, just plain cool they can be, bust out that telleporter helmet cypher. The combat slows down the focus is mechanically zoomed in on that character for a few seconds and they get to shine in the spot light. Nice. 
Cyphers , You're doing it right.

Wherein D&D some GM's are stingy (me) because once you give out a “magic item” you are stuck dealing with it for a long time. In Numenera the dam dust in the air is likely an item of some kind. The genius is making cyphers limited use / limited carry items so player's don't hang onto them forever, fire and forget. Drop the cypher and find another. 

It's a reward cycle that is mechanically built into the game and it allows the Gm to determine pacing and the players to determine when they want to grab that combat spotlight. In my eyes it works very well. I have things I could complain about in Numenera, but the cypher system and how monsters are handled are a real winner.

So where am I going with this?
Game pacing is a matter of taste, I have determined I don't think I could ever run a game of 4th edition. Not that I don't like the game, I enjoy playing it, but the combat system and it's intricacies would drive me insane if I were on the other side of DM's screen.
I do run AD&D 2nd ed currently, I originally wanted to go back even further and use the basic D&D rules cyclopedia for our throw back game, but that was not to be. For my game, I want combat to be brief when I can and encounters with the big-bads be the fights that take some time. My game is more about what goes on around the fights than what goes on in the fights. Mechanically AD&D 2nd fits that bill. (so do a bunch of other things but that's for another wall of text at another time.)

As for Numenera, I think I could run it because the system is pretty straight forward. As far as pacing and where the focus of the game is centered, I feel that of the three games looked at today Numenera gives the GM the most tools to control ebb and flow of a session.

Another consideration is that theses three games are being viewed though the lens of relatively short Roll20 sessions, three to four hours max. In a full day session any games pace could change radically from start to finish, but again the pro's and cons of online gaming is a topic for latter.

What do you think?

Leave a comment.
As always thank you for reading.