Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Simple System: Heartbreaker for a New Generation

There’s a lot of stuff I like about Derek Matthews’ Simple System tabletop RPG. Mr. Matthews has clearly been hanging around “the community” (or, at the very least, Big Purple) and reading lots of game design theory. The result is a game that plays with some nice mechanical differences at the table.

The most obvious difference is using cards instead of dice. I’ve read quite a bit about how well using plain old playing cards works for initiative, since you can see right on the card who is next, which is why Savage Worlds uses them. Playing cards are also very easy to read, even from across the table.

Mr. Matthews takes this a step further by creating custom cards that include a lot more information than you can gather from suit and number. By making his cards square and putting a different “number” along each edge, he’s allowed a single card to provide results for four different difficulty levels. A second, more inner ring of “pips” offers additional numbers (primarily used for weapon damage and armour damage-blocking). The center of the card is dominated by a teardrop direction indicator surrounding a larger number whose primary purpose is initiative. In short, each card is packed with data that can be used in a number of ways and can be read fairly easily from across the table due to the bright colors chosen (though I’m a bit surprised about the repetition of colors; green and red are used both for results and as background colors which, I would think, would make reading the cards slightly more difficulty than necessary).

Another clever piece of design I’ve read about, but can’t remember actually seeing in practice before, is rewarding players directly for invoking flaws at the moment the flaws come up in play. When creating a character in the Simple System, you can have one skill for each flaw you give your character. When your flaw is invoked in the game, you get a hero card which can be used for “rerolls”, one-use buffs, as extra hit points, or turned in at the end of the adventure as experience points for leveling-up purposes. So instead of having to weigh and value such flaws in a vacuum, players can be encouraged to come up with whatever flaws they like; they only get rewarded for those character flaws that actually come up in the game.

(So far, the only mechanism Mr. Matthews has mentioned for acquiring hero cards is the invocation of flaws and the awarding of three cards at the beginning of each adventure. I imagine there will also be ways to earn hero cards by successfully completing adventures. If the invocation of flaws is the principal method for earning most of your hero cards, then Simple System games are largely about characters getting into trouble. That sounds, to me, like a recipe for very fun games.)

Beyond these innovations, Simple System looks like pretty much every generic RPG you’ve played before: six stats that map nearly perfectly onto D&D’s original six, more complex and detailed rules for combat, and a strong focus on gear (though as the rules stand now, it does appear that stats are the most important thing on your character sheet, with skills and equipment offering bonuses or dictating results). The game also encourages the use of miniatures and maps. While that encouragement isn’t maybe as strong as 3.x D&D’s, you can absolutely see how Simple System is going to feel very familiar to players of Type III D&D.

In fact, it’s easy to see Simple System as a reaction to 3.x’s failings. The focus on simplicity, the “~30 page rulebook,” being able to create a character in “5 minutes or less,” having everything you need to know about your character’s gear and powers printed on cards right there in your hands, and the eschewing of diagonal movement, all look like reactions against 3.x’s greatest sins. There’ll be no flipping through 200 page tomes looking for the exact wording of a rule or spending hours crafting your character’s development path.

It does appear to be similar to Type III D&D in that it assumes a lot of prep-work ahead of time, mostly in the form of preparing handouts (in this case equipment and antagonist cards in addition to gridded maps for the miniatures). There’s no reason you couldn’t play with all that stuff, of course, but the default is clearly prepared adventures with a focus on combat encounters.

That said, Simple System is, well, simple. And RPGs with simple rules just beg for houseruling. With today’s ubiquitous printing and production facilities, I suspect house-ruling and house-printing cards will be a common thing.

I’ve yet to get my hands on this one, but from what I’ve seen, I like it. If I were to run an RPG set in the 40k universe, Simple System’s miniature rules would be a nice nod towards the wargame elements without turning the session into a wargame. The card-flipping mechanic looks nice and quick, the math is negligible, and with all the rules for powers and gear printed on cards players have at the table in front of them, I suspect Simple System games will move at brisk clip, especially compared to more rules-heavy systems like WotC-era D&D or even Savage Worlds. It might even give Fate a run for its money in the speed department. Tailoring the cards for your particular campaign might even give a new shot in the arm to really bizarre settings, making the aesthetic elements more present at the table. I certainly hope we see more of the Simple System, and I hope it inspires others to stretch even further outside the box.

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