May 202013

We buy rule books for role playing games at the drop of a hat. We buy for them for the interesting setting, the pretty pictures, and the promise of the fun we can have when we get together with our group of friends and throw some dice. What’s strange though, is that in almost every case, most of the pages are given up to something that we are told fairly early on is optional. If we don’t like the way a rule works, or if it doesn’t fit in with our style of play, chuck it out or change it. And today, this is what I want to talk about.

As the keenly observant amongst you may know by now, I’ve spent a good few months running a Cyberpunk 2020 game. I have spoken briefly about one little addition I have made, but since it doesn’t really change the rules at all, rather the way in which the outcome of a ruling is described, I can’t really include that in this larger discussion. I have changed a few things however, and they fall into two vague categories; things changed before the game began, and things made up on the fly. As for the former of those, it came down to combat.

I like my combat to be quick, involving as few die rolls as is possible, but still giving a nice range of options and probabilities. I think to this day, my favourite combat system comes from a game that a couple of my friends are putting the finishing touches onto now: Orbis. One percentile roll – modified by your opponent’s defense score – lets you know if you have successfully hit, where on the body the hit lands, and how much bonus damage you’ve done as a result of hitting stronger/more precisely. After that, you roll the actual damage dice – modified as mentioned above – and you’re done. Bloody simple, but still gives plenty of room for tactical combat if that’s your bag. I wanted to make CP2020 a bit more like that, but keeping the essence of the system.


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As it stands, the rules require a combat “roll off”, with attacker and defender trying to get the higher result. Then hit location, followed by damage. This takes just a bit too long, so I figured out a rough formula for calculating a “Dodge/parry” score based on skill sand stats already in play, wrote that on the character sheets, and combat had one less dice roll to worry about. Not the most all encompassing solution, but it worked for me, and the players seemed to like that combat was less about rolling and counter rolling, and more about trying to engineer the encounter so that their Parry/dodge score was higher than it should be. Now, that’s all well and good, but I think the harder part of the GM’s job comes about when a rule call needs to be made mid-game, and the time it would take to flip through the rule book for a long forgotten bit of trivia is time wasted.

This is when you need to be a games designer in the heat of the moment. The reason for this is that the ruling you make shouldn’t be made for that one situation. If something like this happens again, then you’re going to want to make the exact same calling, and for it to still make sense. If you’re wondering why this is so important, the simplest reason is a complicated word: verisimilitude. You want your players to know that if the world works in a certain way one day; then the next week, it’ll still be the same. So, it needs to make sense in the wider context of the system that exists, and also the way the game is currently being played.

In the past few years I’ve returned to being a GM much more frequently, and I find the challenges invigorating, but I was surprised at how often I was having to make such calls. Years back, I would have had a much higher degree of familiarity with the rules system, and would only really need to make on the spot rulings if a situation arose that simply wasn’t covered by the rules in any way, rather than because I couldn’t exactly recall something. The more I have been doing it though, the more comfortable I became, and the more I was happy to make calls, knowing that they would be consistent and fair. Even things that weren’t really rules calls, such as the price of an item that wasn’t covered in any of the massive shopping lists that are a huge part of the Cyberpunk 2020 game books; I came close to asking my player to hang on while I tried to find out the price, but then a few seconds later realised that most expedient way to continue was to just name my own price, jot it down in the book, and move on!

So, all that said, is this something that other people enjoy, or are you happier to hold off on a ruling and look it up later? I’m not going to ask if you’re happy to pause the game while you look it up, as I imagine that you all know better than that by now.