Game Design is Frustration

I know we all like to complain about the game design of our “favorites” but I’m not here to downplay anyone else’s work… I’m here to sympathize. Working out the specifics of a game is maddening.

Ever since I moved away from supporting the Adventurer Conqueror King System, I’ve had this hole in my life where old school D&D style play is concerned. I’ve looked at some of the others out there (okay, a LOT of the others) and I haven’t found any that really suit what I’m looking for. So I started tinkering with my own ideas a little bit. Maybe take some old design I’d worked on with Ryllia, mix it with all that I’ve learned since then, and work to apply it to a relatively low-magic, human-centric OSR-style game.

It only took me one afternoon to decide that I hated everyone and was probably going to have to throw my computer out a window and burn down a village to properly vent my frustration.

Why so serious?

It mainly comes down to trying to create a dice system I’m happy with… No one, in the history of gaming, has actually been happy with base-d20 systems (I’m sure I’m wrong, but I haven’t met those people). And looking at ideas like 2d6, 3d6, or even 2d10 introduces all kinds of other concerns about curves, etc.

But it’s not even that. It’s something deeper. Something that keeps me awake at night when I think about the games I play and what happens in the lives of ordinary people in those worlds. It’s about the guy who repairs your dryer.

Difficulty and Escalation are the two main issues. In order to have a system where heroes can grow and advance they have to be able to improve mechanically. Their “stats” have to get better.

But this is a real issue for me. Because I want difficulties to track in such a way that the guy who repairs your dryer – the baseline NPC with an appropriate professional skill – has a better than average chance of actually succeeding at fixing the dryer. Or at least correctly diagnosing the problem.

The problem becomes though – unless you go the route of Pathfinder and D&D where difficulties artificially scale along with PC growth – that you run the risk of having PCs who are vastly outclassing everyone else in the world to the point where they don’t really care about difficulties and just breeze through challenges. Restrict the range too much though and everything gets sorta muddy and just looks the same.

Now, the dryer guy… He might be at your house for hours. And making time a factor can certainly be interesting. I mean, even the professional is going to check for the simple stuff first, then run a few tests, then poke around in the innards of the machine, etc.

Time is a tricky beast in RPGs though. When it matters, it really matters, but when it doesn’t matter? It really doesn’t matter. So using time as a factor of difficulty, while it seems like a good solution, it really isn’t. Overall, wanting a pretty bounded range of capability seems incompatible with PC advancement in a world where the “norms” should also be competent.

Or maybe I just care too much about making sure that my dryer gets fixed?


2 thoughts on “Game Design is Frustration

  1. Dave Seletyn

    I have enjoyed playing d20 based D&D (mostly D&D 3.5), but your post touches on something that has bugged me about it. When the characters get into the middle tiers of levels like 8th and above, skill checks seem to matter less and less. The characters can, as you say, “breeze” through challenges for their specialized skill (survival for rangers, spellcraft for wizards, etc). Skill checks work very well for low level characters. A DM can present interesting challenges for a party based that aren’t combat focused where there is a risk of failing. That challenge (in the campaigns I have played in, at least) goes away as the characters become more powerful. The challenges become more focused on fighting and killing monsters.

    I wonder if the Shadowrun system (I forget which edition) is a better approach to the situation? The one where you gain more d6 dice to roll for a chance to succeed at a challenge? A character or NPC with minimal skill in something still has a small mathematical chance to make a high difficulty check with his or her 1d6 (I recall that even one of my dumb as rock characters succeeded at an intelligence check rating of 18 or so with just 1d6). For the guy who fixes your dryer, he would get a small handful of dice for his training and expertise. There can still be a chance of failure (which creates tension for our players) without having the difficulty rating extremely high.


    1. Yeah. I do like Dice Pool systems, but I was hoping to stay away from them for that Old School “feel.” Shadowrun is one of my favorite systems – and often handles things really well, but it is so complex that I often find myself wanting something much simpler at the table.

      I think that simplicity is the beauty of “roll high” systems. Just add up your bonuses and roll!

      But you’re right about D&D 3.x and Pathfinder. It’s long been the feeling that those games shine between 3rd and 9th level and outside of those ranges, they struggle.


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