Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Has that problem come up in actual play?"

One of the more annoying questions I ask on forums, in playtests, and in real life is this one:

"Has that problem come up in actual play?"

Sometimes I use a variant, like "How has that played out in your game?"

Why this gets annoying is that I bust this out early and often in discussions.

Someone: "I found this problem in GURPS that breaks the game."
Me: "Did that problem come up in actual play?"

If the answer is yes, well, let's get down to figuring out how to fix it, house rule it, change it, adjust it.

No, it hasn't?

Then I am not convinced it's a big problem.

When playtesting, when house-ruling, or when thinking about changes or non-changes to a game, I place a very high premium on actual play outcomes.

A good example of this is the Committed Attack option in GURPS Martial Arts. When the book was in development, I convinced my players to let me try out lots of the rules in actual play, on their actual characters, with results that would stand in the campaign. So we tried out Committed Attack in play.

During the alpha testing, it got used a lot by some of my NPCs (me, trying it out in play) and especially by one of the PCs (a player who thought it was awesome). During the playtest, a playtester commented that it was basically useless because it traded off too much defense for too little offense, and no one would use it. But I had actual play experience that said, yes, it's a potentially dangerous tradeoff, but sometimes that's what you need and some players will take that risk. So it stayed in unchanged. Had there been a wave of actual play results where people said, no, it never gets used, and then we tried this variation and it got used more and worked out well . . . I'd have been much more willing to tweak it or change it in some fashion. So it was "actual play" vs. "in theory." Play trumps theory, because it's a game.

Sometimes what is bad in theory - or bad for one group in play - isn't actually different from the rule's intention. At least in that case, you get what you aimed for even if not everyone wants that result.

Sometimes what happens in actual play with a rule or rules change is different than what you expected. This can be good, or bad.

The Good: Doug Cole has a great example of this, what he refers to as "emergent behavior." A set of rules meant to make grappling more realistic not only gave results in line with reality checking and actual grappling, but also with ass-kicking over-the-top movie scene grappling. It wasn't what was planned for, but it was what happened.

The Bad: The original writeup of Beat (also GURPS Martial Arts) just let you substitute ST for DX when making a Feint, and didn't require any actual contact with the defender - contact was assumed. The goal was to reflect real-world beats, and to allow people to leverage their strength to push a defender's weapon (or shield, or arm, or body) out of a good defensive line to open it up to a follow-on attack. On paper, it looked fine.

So in my campaign we had a massive, multiple-session fight involving three pirate ships, at least 150 combatants, zombies, an ifrit, invisible weapon masters, light siege engines, sharks in the water, and magically summoned critters all over the place. One of those critters was a Dodge 15, ST 1, DX 15 flying eye monster - which was simply killed outright with a Beat followed by an Attack. Nevermind the guy couldn't have laid a finger on the critter in most circumstances - he couldn't land a telling blow because it would Dodge with ease. But mystically he could push it around physically without making contact. He did a Beat, won the ST contest by a huge margin (ST 1, it's just a flying eye), and then whacked it. It made no sense . . . but it seemed fine on paper. In actual play, broken. So it got fixed. What emerged from having this rule was strong guys using Beat to make physical contact with guys they couldn't otherwise touch and easily trashing them - not fun and probably not realistic. It needed even more revision as new versions got tried out in play and also spat out odd results or strange results, until we got the now-canonical version that does what we were trying to have it do in the first place. Again, actual play mattered a lot.

I can be really annoying with that question, but it's always worth asking about a rule. "X is broken." "Broken in play?" Sometimes what comes out of a "broken" rule in play is fun or interesting. Sometimes what comes out isn't, in fact, broken. Sometimes what comes out of a fix isn't fun or interesting, either - the law of unintended consequences doesn't care much about why you changed something.

It's a game, so actual play feedback is critical when evaluation the rules. So, almost inevitably, I ask my annoying question whenever I'm confronted with a question about a rule or a house rule. I think the answer is valuable, and not asked often enough.


  1. This post marks the point where your blog has achieved a preponderance of awesome.

    1. I have to agree with jeffro here; this was a great post.

      Another playtest story, again from TG.

      One of the things that'll show up in the TG rules (as you know!) is that you can only crank on someone so much. Grappling effect is variable, but limited by strength and skill (very much in that order).

      Just like a "theoretical that's broken!" comment, one of the things that got me a wee exasperated was when someone would start a comment with "assume that grappler A has maximum effect on grappler B. What follows is unrealistic!"

      Yeah, but grappler B is stronger and more skilled than grappler A. You're assuming an effect that would require many turns of grappler A owning grappler B and maybe a couple crits for good measure.

      Probability? Near zero. Broken? Not broken . . . *an unlikely edge case." This is the hand-to-hand equivalent of "I set up with infinite time a full-auto weapon and shoot at a barn door, and only hit with [blah] percent of my shots! Broken broken broken!

      Oh, and Committed Attack. I LOVE it. Cadmus, who has Axe/Mace-21 or 22, Combat Reflexes, a DB +3 shield, can easily eat the defensive penalties in exchange for a +2 that gives me the ability to strike with a bonus -1 Deceptive Attack.

    2. Thanks Jeffro! And thanks Doug!

  2. Amen, brother!

    Something similar happened to me: On the Two Hour Wargames mailing list, a person claimed his play group "broke" 5150: Star Navy (it's a spaceship combat game, and I'm one of the authors)--but they hadn't even played it! Because one of his friends worked the math out in his head, they decided the rules were broken without even rolling the dice once.

    So I agree, before you declare a rule (or a game) broken, try it out in actual play!

    1. Or at least just say, we checked out the rules, ran some numbers, and decided to pass on it. Or say, we ran some numbers and the results look odd - does this make actual play suck, or not?

      I find the reverse even more odd - when I propose a fix based on my actual games, and how it worked in play, and people say "No, that won't work." Er, it did work, I'm not reporting an idea, I'm reporting results.

    2. I've been playtesting and writing rules for a while now, and this still bites me from time to time. I recently tried out Heavy Gear Blitz for the first time; reading the rules, there seemed to be a huge amount of detail put into how you choose among the various movement modes, for a tiny gain in interest. But in actual play it produced a bunch of interesting tactical choices...

    3. That's interesting - looked bad on paper, played well.

      That won't always happen, of course, but it's at least worth trying.

      Or not posting on the internet about how much it sucks without bothering to play it. ;)

  3. The problem with emergent behaviors is that they can create as much awesomeness as they can cause disbelief. This is why there will be always room for abstraction here and there... and the executive power of the GM to set things right.

    I agree, however, it is unfair to pass a judgement without real playtesting.

    Great post!

    1. In Peter's mention of my example, the issue at hand was that right now, grappling in GURPS, once you have a high enough skill to get past your foe's Active Defenses and get your hands on him (or with a high enough Judo Parry), there are a few fairly low point-cost pathways to having it be nearly an "I win" button - though once again, I have found this true IN THEORY but not as much in practice. That being said, Cadmus' (my DF Warrior Saint) grappling skills are not high enough to tip the scale.

      TG was designed around putting more struggle into grappling, and uses a mechanic that says the more you successfully grapple your foe, the more you can do to him. This was playing out pretty well in high-grit environments.

      I then said "what about Black Widow? From Iron Man 2?" and proposed a mechanic. We added a cinematic switch that doubled the effect of successful grapples.

      Holy. Cow. It was TOTALLY Iron Man 2. It worked great. As Peter noted, I would not have guess that; I thought "well, this will squeak round the edges."

      At least in the tests we ran, it didn't. The behavior of the rules emerged from the situation at hand, and the feel of the result was extremely desirable.

      The post I made on dodging lasers is an example of emergent behavior the other way. You can justify the rules however you like . . . but they just don't feel right in play.

    2. I did enjoy your post on dodging lasers. It reminded me *vaguely* of when we were playing D20 modern in a tactical gunfight campaign. The mechanics just didn't added up to something believable. We didn't fix D20, and switched to Twillight 2000 instead.

    3. That's a great point, Doug. Actual results even trump good rules - if the results you get from them make for bad gaming, it doesn't matter how good or defensible they are. They aren't the rules you need. Make new ones.

      But that doesn't make the rules broken, per se. It does if everyone gets that result from them, or if better ones give a lot better fun-to-frustration ratio. Then you need to replace them.

  4. Great post. Despite having written a rule supplement for Swords & Wizardry, I am not that good at the math of writing rule mechanics. What I am good at is finding rules that successfully emulate some feature of my setting.

    One reason I like using GURPS is that its combat system is a good design for emulating realistic combat. And realistic combat is part of the Majestic Wilderlands.*

    My criteria for GURPS sub-system or house rule makes the cut is whether it successfully emulate how things work in my setting. For example if cleric types are supposed to be powerful in your setting it not unbalanced to have magic rules for them that mechanically are a better choice than arcane type magic.

    *After thirty years, I finally learned to cope with older edition Dungeon & Dragon combat by thinking of it not as unrealistic but more abstract.

    1. What I am good at is finding rules that successfully emulate some feature of my setting.

      That skill alone will net you years of good, enjoyable gaming.

  5. How does one get involved in GURPS playtests? I'm sure there must be MIBs in Denver, but I'm not sure who they might be... I would love a chance to help shape future game supplements like that, because I'll stand right up and say that I'm guilty as hell of nit picking rules that I've never seen in action before, and I'd much rather have a leg to stand on. :)

    1. 1) Be a member of the SJG Forums (that's usually where the announcements are made, but you can usually check Daily Illuminator too)

      2) Spend $50 over the last 12 months on e23 products.

      3) Apply and be selected.

      Here was the Technical Grappling playtest announcement:

    2. To be fair, though, it's worth saying that no so many playtests have been going on recently. A lot of things are peer reviewed rather than put to a big open playtest.

      This isn't necessarily bad, since it still results in authors looking at other author's work (and sometimes trying it out in play). But don't plunk down money just to playtest because there are not a lot of them going around right now.

  6. Another great post! There's a reason when I wake up in the morning, my browser goes to Dungeon Fantastic (and now also Gaming Ballistic).

    I think that this is a point that often gets overlooked on the forums for any given game, especially. People will start threads and declare rules "broken" and then you find out that they haven't actually PLAYED a game...sometimes not ever!

    It's also a reason GURPS is such a good game--it actually gets playtested! I have actual hopes for D&D Next because of the extensive playtesting they are doing, something that I believe was ignored for 4E in favor of "theory." Well, we know how that worked out!

    I look forward to TG as well...hope it's out so I can use it for my THS game starting in March/April!

    1. I'm sure the Big Damn Ogre will hop out of the way for it. :-\

    2. Did you remember to include a Technique for judo throwing enormous cybertanks in it??

    3. If you can figure the ST, DX, and Wrestling skill of an Ogre Mark V, you can certainly use TG to figure out if you can throw it.

    4. Or, in this particular case, that you can't, since the Weight/BL of Ogre/Character is probably on the "HAHAHAHHAHA" scale. :-)


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