A Tool in the Box

I have a friend who’s making his own RPG system. This week, instead of playing 7th Sea, we just talked a bunch about things and stuff. A bit about his game, a bit about games I’ve played, and so on and so forth. And he asked me a crucial question: “What do you want in a game, Matt?”

It’s a hard question, in part because I’ve played a bunch of games and I’m slowly coming to terms with the idea that there isn’t a perfect game. Maybe I just haven’t found it yet. There’s still a lot of games I haven’t read or played yet. I have three coming in the mail this week, even. So there might be a perfect game.

The snark says: “It’s definitely not FATAL…

I’m not looking for one game to rule them all. I still have fun in D&D. I have fun in most games. Games, almost by definition, are designed to be fun to someone, even if it isn’t me. I can be okay with that. Sure, there’s some games I’m never going to play, but in my experience, I’m not likely to play all the games I want to play. Up until about a year ago, I’d basically just played the one. Maybe if I was doing this as a full time job, and managed to get a group of friends who could also do it as a full time job, and we did nothing but catalogue our attempts to play all the games, maybe would could take a stab at playing all the games we want to play. My master spreadsheet of “games I want to buy” has just shy of 500 entries. Granted, some of them are source books, but how many kickstarters for RPG books finished in the last week? I’ll never be able to keep up with production.

So why do I buy new systems, filling my shelves with various books and ledgers? Partly, because its fun, but also in part that those books are useful, even if I never play the systems.

When all you have is a hammer…

Let’s take a detour and explain my analogy before we start. Humans are a species that uses tools. It’s what separates us from the animals!

The snark says: “Except for chimpanzees, gorillas, other monkeys, elephants, dolphins, otters, crocodiles, a bunch of birds, some octopuses, and ants. Go ahead, wiki it!

But not all tools are created equal. I enjoy watching some crafting videos, like Adam Savage or Jimmy Diresta, because they do cool things that are relaxing and fun to watch. But often, they’ll be working on a project and go “Oh! You know what would do this better?” And the camera pans to follow them off screen, they grab this dusty, crazy looking tool from a box, and the task goes from super annoying to super easy, because they’re using a tool designed around what they’re trying to do.

On the other hand, sometimes all you have is a hatchet. And you can do some pretty amazing things with it. But nothing as elegant as having the right tool for the job.

Such is RPG systems, as if you couldn’t see that coming back around thusly from a mile away.

All in all, its just another tool in the box

D&D is the Hatchet! There. I said it. Its a useful tool. Nice to have one around the house, (or camp, I suppose. Not quite sure where I want to steer this metaphor too..) they’re usable as a small axe, a mallet, a weapon, Gary Paulsen asserts that you can start fires and scrape hides and I’m willing to believe anyone with such a particular set of skills, who knows a lot about remote places where my body will never be found.

But there is things that its not really designed for. Have you ever tried doing an army sized battle in D&D? How about a navy battle? Or chase? How do you feel about your Grappling rules?

Now, there are ways to make D&D work for such things. You can cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring hatchet. Its just going to be a bit arduous. You might want your boat ride to be more “Loading… Please Wait…” rather than “Release the Kraken!” Sometimes, a murder is straightforward and we don’t have to dive deeper and deeper into a web of intrigue and evil. Sometimes, its okay to have a single die roll control the fate of a war.

But, other times, that’s not what we want. The players want to be pirates, generals, detectives and professional wrestlers. And while the rules may try, they can come up short and leave us as GMs and players having to either sit back, unsatisfied with the tool in front of us, or go into new, uncharted territory of home-brewing our own material, a jagged road of playtesting and unbalance.

The trick, of course, is that we can reach into another system’s book and see what tools they’re using. And if it looks like no one will notice, we can grab a mechanic and run back to our game before anyone is the wiser.

You can, of course, play the full game. If I’m running a mystery, I might as well run something in GUMSHOE, because I’ll be stealing so much from that framework. If I want to run something with Pirates and Musketeers, I’m reaching for 7th Sea, because its built for that. I recommend playing the full game, actually, as its hard to see what works and doesn’t from just reading. A full system can be a tool to add to your toolbox, but sometimes, you can take something more portable and bring it to your own game.

Taking a Run at Chases

Look, let me show you an example of something lackluster in D&D: Chases. The main problem is characters have a built in movement speed, so it becomes a straight numbers game. The Monk with 40′ of movement, who can Dash as a Bonus Action, gets to move 120′ in a round, while the Human without that tasty BA option can only go 60′ in their full running round. And in D&D, you basically add up all the numbers and see who’s fastest and that’s really it, in the basic rules. Sure, you can add some complications, but even with a Screen, the GM can’t cheat hard enough to get away.

So let’s take a glance at another system. TimeWatch, in the GUMSHOE system has some great mechanics on chases, partly because they need to know what happens if you try to flee across time. In TW, the basic chase rules- (because they have 3 types of chases built into the core book) -the basic rules are very simple. Every character in the chase makes a ability test (aka skill check). If you meet the DC, congrats, you’re still in, If you don’t and you were running, you’re caught. If you didn’t make it and you were a chaser, your prey got away. If you want to do something more than just running, you make that skill check and the next run check with a -2 to both checks.

That’s it. No fancy charts of obstacles, no having to compare speeds, just contesting skill checks until it’s decided.

This is a super simple example of how to convert a mechanic to your game. You see that -2? Replace it with “Disadvantage” and that’s 2/3rds of the work. The other bit is to say to people if you want to dash as a bonus action, you have advantage on the roll.

And that’s it, other than one or two things for the DM’s eyes. Ain’t that elegant? (A cleaner, easier to parse version is in My Toolbox)

Why is this set up better than what the DMG tries to offer? First, Flexibility. If I want, I can move the DC up and down based on environments or where i want to lead the party. I can also reward party members for clever actions. Ninja guy can jump on the roof and suddenly, he can use Acrobatics instead of Athletics. And if the streets are full, he’s rolling to hit a lower DC. I can also use the DCs to control the length of the chase. The DC is a knob I can tweak in the middle of the chase to make things faster or slower, without touching a monster stat block. And the looseness of the mechanic makes it really really good to be more of a role-play/storytelling scene reinforced with die rolls, as opposed to a mechanical foregone conclusion.


I think every game has things you can steal and weld on to the system you play to make things better. You can’t ever find them if you sit behind a sole game and snobbishly proclaim its the best. Every game has it’s weak spots, hopefully the game has some strengths. And the more games you learn, the more mechanics you can steal, and your tool box will swell in size and you can deal with a lot more challenges, because you’ll have options.

And I told my friend this, more or less, and he sat back and thought over his game and told me he would try to find a niche for his game to be in. I nodded and told him it would be interesting to look at design like that.

He then paused and asked what sort of tools I was looking for.

We don’t have time for that can of worms today. Maybe later.

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