Nervous System – Choosing an RPG System for hACCESS

Nervous System

So I’ve decided on Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) which is the system behind Blades in the Dark. I figure that the clandestine nature of Blades lends itself towards hACCESS compared to FATE. While FATE is more open ended, it is better for shorter, more hands off type games and Blades borrows enough from FATE to keep that part of me happy. Blades skips over minutia to focus on the dynamic actions that directly effect the outcomes.

That said, I am still extremely inexperienced with Blades so feel unsure if I should be writing a system hack, even though I know that it’s the best system to cover the source material and capture the feel of the game.  Though the reality is that I need a place to start from, if in time I end up revising the main system to a different one or a bespoke one so be it.

Anyway I’ve been looking over the System Reference Document for Blades in the Dark, which itself is using the ‘Powered by the Apocalypse‘ system of mechanics. To utilize the Blades variant of PbtA, the licensing is referred to as ‘Forged in the Dark’. Most of the derivative systems seem to make light of the name such as ‘Glow in the Dark’ (Post Apocalypse) etc.

Mechanics of the System

CHESSEX LUSTROUS DARK BLUE & GREENThey say the best way to understand something is to explain it so here goes: The system is a d6 based dice pool. You roll a number of dice equal to a skill or attribute rating, choosing the highest single outcome. 1-3 is a failure, 4-5 is a partial success and 6 is an outright success.

Depending on the complexity and danger of the task the protagonists may suffer setbacks or take injuries. Any of these can be bought off by paying with stress which can also be spent in advance to gain bonus advantages or rewrite minor details via flashbacks. In this way its quite similar to Fate points.

System Rewrite

So to use this system I need to, at a minimum, reframe the 12 core skills and corresponding attributes (probably into insight, logic & physique). In addition the Playbooks for each ‘class’ and type of crew (working name: collective) need to be run. Then the additional world building aspects such as gear and types of jobs. But that’s par for the course. The main take away point is that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to start fleshing out my RPG and I can build on the mistakes and experiences of others who have made their own hacks via the Forged in the Dark licence.

Even the writeup licence allows one to essentially copy over their core rules and system, and then chop and change it. I have started but the main difficulty is keeping it all organised – it’s about 15,000 words and that’s without any of the worldbuilding, fluff or unique mechanics that I need to tie into the system.

Finally, it’s taken a little bit of time to get here and to have the courage and conviction to actually start working on this in an organised fashion. I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of my good friend Simon, who’s an aspiring author. If you want to read some interesting sci-fi (and other stuff) check out his blog.

RPG Mechanics

By far the most difficult part of attempting to craft an RPG is deciding on the resolution system, aka the ‘mechanics’. I’ve encountered many varieties of systems using different dice, cards or other ways of resolving issues. There are systems which rely on narration and don’t have dice all the way up to massively crunchy systems where there’s a dice and chart for almost everything!

Part of the reason for writing this is to help me flesh out and clarify what makes each system unique, and analyse their strengths.

Dice System

Generally there’s 2 main approaches involving dice in an RPG; a pool or a variable target number. The major approaches are succinctly covered here.

Dice pool methods involve rolling a number of dice depending on the situation and counting some results (say all values over 5) as successes. Depending on the specific system, a player may require as few as one success or perhaps as many as four or five are required to mean total success of a task. Some systems allow for varying the target number -so in a d6 pool 4+ might be a success in a normal task, whereas only 6+ are successes for a very difficult task. Others change the number of successes required to moderate the difficulty but leave the value for success untouched. An example of games that use this are Vampire/WoD (d10), Shadowrun (d6), and Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA – d6).

The other general system, variable target number, is again determined by rolling one or more dice which are (usually) summed along with modifiers and then the total compared to a value. The most well known example is D&D; a player rolls a d20 adds modifiers and the total is compared to a target number (such as armor, or a spell’s save difficulty).  If it equals or beats the target number the sword hits or the action succeeds. This has the advantage that bigger numbers are generally better (a +9 to hit is much better than a +4 to hit) and that modern game theory ensures that sane control is kept over the target numbers. (Bounded accuracy!)

Variations on this method include percentile systems (d10/0) which again are calculated with modifiers and compared to values (often the users abilities), a 3d6 system (Song of Ice & Fire or Dragon Age) where you simply sum the dice and compare to a skill or value as well as the FATE system which uses bespoke dice (+1,+1, +0, +0, -1, -1) known as dF, to give a  nicely bell curved range of results from -4 to +4, with +0 followed by +1 or -1 being the most common occurrence.

There are also hybrid systems – the one that springs to mind is Mophidius’ 2d20 system which combines a pool of d20s (not always 2!) compared to a derived target number. While the system has it’s own issues – it seems to draw a lot from FATE in terms of feeling but implements it with a pool system – it is an example of both a pool based system combined with a variable target system.

Other Bits

However dice alone do not a great game make. Without classes or races or equipment you couldn’t generate the numbers required for D&D to run smoothly. By way of contrast, dice pool systems often tend to lean away from classes and equipment for a less detailed but more fluid skill based narrative system.

My main concern with a d20 or even percentile based system is that there are a lot of details and modifiers which I would not only need to write, test and balance but that players would also need to record and remember. An example that springs to mind Starfinder by Piazo. On the surface is this is another d20 system similar to D&D, but it has an almost impenetrable level of class features, feats, and abilities to the point where I struggle to imagine how I would ever play it, let alone GM a game.

In Starfinder there are a myriad of dense options for each class which make the game quite ‘crunchy’ which I’m sure appeals to some, but makes me concerned because you’re constantly having to reshuffle your numbers every time you get new equipment or abilities. Equipment is also level scaled so it is necessary to be constantly upgrading gear or risk falling behind.

Contrast this approach with 5E D&D where the numbers are more restricted due to ‘bounded accuracy’, where character options are more streamlined (restricted?) and you’ve got a system which is easy to pick up, scales well and doesn’t require massive amounts of bookkeeping.

Because the system is well established the game is easier to run which to me contributes to the most important thing  about any game – playability.

Dice Size

Another question is which dice to use? Rolling dice is a very tactile experience and in a game that occurs ephermally it might be the only physical ‘component’. Certain dice are easier to roll in large numbers (d6, d20s) whereas others are quite difficult to roll en masse or read (d4s, d8s).

D20 – have a wide range of values allowing modifiers to be calculated according to how much impact you want them to have in 5% increments.

d12 – unfortunately there’s very little  that a d12 brings mathematically that a d6 or d20 doesn’t really bring. I guess unless you want to go for a 7/12 ratio for success or something, there’s really very little reason to use a d12. There is a Lord of the Rings system that has a special d12 ranging from 1-10 with an evil and good symbol – presumably some sort of special effect.

d10 – have the advantage of being decimal, being easy to roll in a pool system and by being in 10% increments makes the maths easier to calculate

d6 – easy to roll but with limited outcomes and so needing a number (2d6,3d6) to distribute out but at that point you might as well use a d20? Great for pool systems though where more dice = better.

dF- hard to find (and expensive) but providing a nice distribution of results tending around +/-1 or 0.


I am strongly leaning to a pool based system since it is less ‘blow by blow’ and can be a slight bit more abstract giving players and GMs room to forge story elements without being too constrained. I do like the FATE system generally since it’s highly narrative although logicistally the bespoke dice can make the game hard to access. A variant D6-D6 system might be an option (ranging from -5 to +5) but the numbers aren’t as good as 4dF.

PbtA systems like Blades in the Dark seem to strike the balance between adding dice and pooling them, but Blade hacks need ‘playbooks’ to be written and defined. While I’m not shying away from work, I’m concerned that it pigeonholes players into stereotypes which defeats the point of being able to ‘hack’ and redefine your character.

To that end I’m leaning towards a classless/skill based system (like Vampire) with narrative elements (like FATE) – so right now a toss up between PbtA (of which I have very little actual play experience) and FATE. The plus side is that these systems are both ‘open source’ which is a great thing in terms of RPG advancement.

Boldly Going…

A bit of context: Since 2009, before I even lived in Southampton, I ran a game of D&D there and made friends with some people, one of whom I consider a close friend and who I still meet with weekly to play RPGs.

Usually we play D&D (4E, now 5E) but after unsuccessfully ending our excursion into Ravenloft in a TPK (Every time he DMs the party dies!) we opted to try out the relatively new Star Trek Adventures by Mophidius.

I must admit that I was slightly offput by the Mophidius affiliation. I used to play Infinity a lot, and saw their alpha/kickstarter preliminary release for that as an RPG. Frankly I thought it sucked. Clunky and generic, it didn’t inspire me to even give it an attempt at playing so I didn’t bother with the kickstarter.

I was also afraid at the rate of which they seemed to be acquiring licences to various IPs and churning out RPGs based on them using their ‘2d20 system’. It’s not that I have anything against them as a company, I just wonder how focused a small company can be when they’re producing new games at a rate of knots! However despite my apprehension the system looked interesting. It seemed to draw on mechanics from FATE and used a d20 pool based system which in itself is a bit novel.

Aside from D20s the game uses special 6 sided effect dice that are marked 1/2/-/-/*/*  You can get a set of 4 of these and 3 d20s for about £18 retail which is about twice what a sensible price point should have been. I made my own using blank dice and a handheld engraving tool. I get that it’s got the Star Trek licence, but at the same time it’s not an excuse to gouge prices.

Additionally despite the sexy LCARS computer style of the layout and design, the game lacks Klingons which is clearly being held for a future splatbook. Considering they are a protagonist race I was surprised. I understand that they’re not in the federation but again they must have realised that players would want to play a Klingon – although it would probably require a lot of exceptions and become the ‘drow’ of the system!

Anyway onto the system – the core mechanic – an attribute + a skill to determine the target number which you have to roll equal to or under is fine. It’s all of the other stuff stapled on – there’s values, momentum, determination, talents and traits. All of these are basically FATE aspects and fatepoints with a different name and made much more confusing. Momentum is something you get by achieving more successes than you need and can be used to buy extra dice or re-roll damage and other effects. Basically FATE points. But they are applied in a very metagaming heavy method.

Case in point are the skill challenges – some of them are literally unachievable unless you have maxed out stats and the corresponding focus and pump a lot of momentum into it. They get easier as you succeed but the odds of succeeding initially are extremely low. Add to that a time factor and if you screw up the first roll you might as well be toast!

Ship to ship combat is a nightmare too. We have been playing pre-written adventures so it’s not a case of a bad GM.

That being said, I really like the setting and it tries to incorporate a lot of Star-Trek like themes. However, we’ve decided to axe the system and use FATE instead because ultimately that is what the system obviously was based on before it got ‘2d20’ stapled to it’s face!



Computer RPGs vs Tabletop RPGs

I Never Asked For ThisGame Theory

You might have noticed the slight Deus Ex theme. I recently managed to finish the game on the uber-hard, perma-death, one-save-only mode aka ‘I never asked for this’. So in this post I’m going to discuss the game theory and key differences between computer based RPGs and tabletop RPGs (ttRPGs)

What has this to do with regular RPGs you ask? Unlike tabletop RPGs, video games usually have a save game feature, if you die, make a mistake or regret a choice you can undo it by reloading.

For some, this mentality has carried over to ttRPGs. I can specifically recall a game of Deathwatch where a players reaction on meeting a merchant was to kill him and take his stuff (which was worthless compared to his equipment). As another player it was frustrating for many reasons. Needless to say it didn’t end too well for that character (or game) but wasted a lot of time. This sort of behaviour is generally known as acting like a ‘murderhobo’.


Whereas computer games can sometimes render player decisions meaningless, ttRPGs usually result in decisions that are important and have in-game consequences. I’m a firm supporter of the games theory which believes that meaningful choices (that at least give an illusion of choice) are what make players happy. In a tabletop RPG if you kill a dragon in a lucky few hits, it is still dead when you leave and return the the area.

Computer games are riddled with funnels, railroads and invisible walls to force players to be in the right place, which we accept because computers have limited options.  If the game doesn’t want you to kill that dragon yet then you simply won’t be able to. Similarly if that door is unopenable yet there’s almost nothing you can do to open it earlier. If we come up with ingenious solutions (stacking boxes to jump over a wall, or taking massive steps to defeat a much superior foe) then we’re more surprised if they work than if they don’t.

That being said, a poor GM might also heavily fudge things and shift the goalposts behind the scenes to overcome player solutions, although one hopes it’s to keep the game and story fun. We’ve all heard of the ‘DMPC’; author-insertion fantasy style NPCs that are invincible mary-sues which ultimately ruins the fun of the players.  On the other hand a good GM can roll with the punches and use what the players throw back to challenge and change the game for the better.

This all leads me, in my quest for better RPGs, to always consider the choices available and to help players with their decisions. Players by mission of action generally want to influence the world their characters inhabit. Even slaying some goblins is changing the world in a small way, so similarly their bigger decisions should have a bigger and more meaningful impact on the world.

This isn’t to say that every time they hit the tavern post adventure that there needs to be an earth shattering choice, but simply that overall players exert some influence on their situation. Even in dark RPGs like WFRP or Darksun, where things are more ‘grim’, players are special and that should mean something.