If you have a quick browse through RPG e-tail site, DriveThruRPG, you’ll notice there’s a metric fuck-tonne of systems available on the market. These range from systems that are all about the crunch (lots of rules, very simulationist, and usually lousy with tables, sub-clauses and indexes often longer than the core rules), to the more touchy-feely systems, one where it’s all about narrative flow and permission, rather than working out if your punch is capable of bending plate-steel.
If we’re going to look at this in video gaming terms, it’s a similar range between, say World of Warcraft, with its talents, raid/PvP/PvE builds and heavy focus on stats and gear, and Journey – a game that’s more about setting, feel and emotion than anything else.
And that’s the challenge about picking a system for a game – you want the rules to support and enhance the kind of game you’re planning on running. You would never want a levelling and talent tree system in something like Journey, in the same way you would never want to use Dungeons and Dragons when you’re trying to tell a personal story of quiet family tragedy (don’t laugh, I have played some EPIC games about quiet family tragedies).
To dice, or not to dice?
If the sum of your tabletop roleplaying experience adds up to DnD, then this may seem an odd question. After all, isn’t roleplaying all about rolling those dice?
Systemless roleplaying is a curious Australian invention, actually, that came out of the convention roleplaying scene. It’s usually intensely character driven, very dramatic, and more about story and setting than getting a sweet critical when you hit that Goblin with your mace. It also goes hand in hand with what’s called multiforming, which is essentially a freeform (or LARP, if you want to make a roleplayer angry) with less people.
And that’s the Star Trek sweetspot.
You see, Trek is one of those wonderfully rare settings where it’s not only relatively easy to set up a pretend bridge, but one where even a minimum effort in rearranging the furniture (so you can have the captain sitting all by themselves, and engineers at the dinner table) and putting on a soundtrack CD delivers massive benefits in terms of immersion and drama. In previous Trek games I’ve run, there’s been props, costumes, pretty good fake LCARS panels, sound effects and music; hell, I’ve even played in a friend’s game where he used a smoke machine to amazing affect!
However, this kind of game does not play with dice or character sheets – in a game which is all about suspension of disbelief, stopping the action to consult a character sheet and roll a few D20s can really harsh your buzz.
The flipside of this problem is that, basically, dice are awesome. Some of the greatest moments in gaming I’ve been a part of have been complete random incidences where the dice take on a mind of their own, where one player fumbles their attack, then manages to hit a friend, which in turn is a critical, that does max damage, that kills the poor friendly character, but... you see what I mean. Dice generate situations that I, as a GM, could never conceive.
The challenge, then, in running a game without dice, is that all the decision-making of success and failure comes down to the GM. It’s possible, and very rewarding, but it does create a lot of pressure, and remove a certain level of spontaneity from the game.
And here’s the thing – this time around, I want to involve dice somehow.
Over the Edge
So here’s what I need from a gaming system – it needs to be pretty light, use few dice, and have a very simple resolution system, and very few stats. It needs to be something that a player can memorise, both in terms of rules and regarding their character stats, so they too can be memorised. Which pretty much describes Over The Edge, published back in 1992 ago by Atlas Games.
It’s a very rules-light system (and a setting, but the rules are setting-independant). In it, each character has three or four stats (like Soldier or Con-man, etc), rated at either three or four dice. You roll the stat, get over a number (the higher this number, the harder the action), done. Rolling against another player? They both roll off, and the higher wins. There's a little bit more to it, but seriously, the rules fit on a single page!
A good friend of mine’s come up with a neat homebrew version of the rules that’s even more useful; it works great for our angst-fest Amber games, being both flavoursome and remarkably unobtrusive.
So with OtE, I can have players carry a few D6s, they can remember their stats easily, and I get some nice random stuff without having the system overshadow the drama of the game itself.