It’s Labor day, and I wan’t sure whether or not to pick up the next section of 13th Age on a holiday. I ultimately decided against it, so I’m going to riff on something that’s been bugging me.
It should be clear by now that I like 13th Age and Numenera enough that I’m willing to write a crapton about them. As I take a moment here to talk about something they both do purely from the perspective of a writer of games, I want it to be clear that this is not a criticism of either game, but rather an observation of a particular phenomena.
Both games cheat.
Specifically, both games have player defined skills (whether they call them that or not). There are many positive elements to do this, but from the perspective of writing, this vastly simplifies a lot of rules writing. Handling skills (or, more specifically, handling the things that one does with skills) is something that often ends up eating a lot of page count in RPGs, especially RPGs that aren’t entirely combat focused. By dropping skill lists, you drop a lot of that verbiage.
There is a cynical practicality to this, because there is a correlation between how contentious an action is to how many words it burns. Which is a polite way to say that if you have some weird ideas about how perception or social interaction should be handled, then they’re going to take a lot of explaining and they’re going to hit a lot of resistance. By simply not addressing those issues, the designers implicitly say “use whatever conventions your table is comfortable with to address those issues.”
This is not a terrible solution. If you like Gumshoe inspired clue handling or don’t like rolling for social skills in favor of letting players talk then you can just do that thing. Rather than challenging player assumptions at every turn, the designer can focus on those core ideas that he or she considers worth pushing the player on and makes sure that those get the focus they need.
But it’s still a cheat.
Now, take this with a grain of salt. You should know by now that I’m pretty verbose, and my instincts tend towards complete explanations. The ultimate expression of this was probably Spirit of the Century’s handling of skills, which was as comprehensive and play-focused as I can imagine skill writeups to be and was also too damn long.
So it’s possible that the cheat is the right answer. I’m not totally convinced of that, and my instinct is that either game would benefit from at least some general guidelines on skill building (perhaps some Structured Skills in the spirit of Feng Shui and Bulldogs!, paired with some Rich Skill thinking). In fact, it was thinking about such guidelines that highlighted to me the power of the cheat. Even if I were to present some guidelines for these make-your-own skill lists, they would only be as compelling as people want them to be.
And that’s good. I’m a big fan of rules or techniques needing to be exciting enough to make you WANT to use them.
Which only leaves the question of the novice player, the one looking to learn from the game. I’ve said many times that an RPG needs to be 3 things – an instruction manual, a reference book and a good read. The problem is that it’s impossible to be all 3, so you decide where to make you’re tradeoffs. I think that 13th Age and Numenera have both jettisoned #1 in favor of #2 and #3. It’s an interesting choice that strengthens both books in many ways, but also demands that the game either be your second (or subsequent) RPG or that it will be taught personally. I think both games really feel like they’re written to be someone’s second RPG (probably after D&D/Pathfinder/D20). This definitely creates some weirdness, but the more I think about it, the more it feels like it might be a very smart play. So we’ll see.
- And to be clear, these are far from the first games to pull this cheat. It is one of the oldest cheats in RPG design. ↩
- SOTC is a large book – offputtingly large to some – and a big part of that is the handling of skills. There are, effectively, 3 skill chapters. One is stunts, so whatever, but the other two are basically the Player and GM chapters. They’ve very extensive because each skill was written up as if this skill was the most important skill in the game, with a player section focused on all the awesome things you could do with the skill and a GM section dedicated t how you make cool adventures for a character with that particular skill. Do this for every skill on the list and it runs long.
To this day, I still think this is a really useful approach, but the simple reality is that, based on feedback, readers don’t dig it so much. I can’t blame them. Even if it’s super useful for the one or two skills that you’re interested in, that’s offset by the apparent noise of the stuff that doesn’t grab you. The problem is that if that material doesn’t go in core rules, I’m not sure where it does go.
Maybe on blogs. ↩