Let’s start this whole thing off with an embarrassing and personal admission on my part. When I sat down to write out this review, I’d had in mind to pull a book off my shelf and work through my opinion piece by piece, laying out my general opposition to the product as I went. No big deal; I already owned the book I was going to review, so it would be a fairly simple matter of just going back to the library and finding it.
That is, until I sorta got lost. You see, my library is laid out in a very specific manner, so I can readily visualize each shelf as it is organized and mentally find the book before I have to physically loo for it. This has worked well for me, to the point that my personal coterie could generally do the same. In their own odd way, they’ve memorized the layout with much the same precision as I have, since they’ve taken the time to peruse its stacks over the years.
So, when I went to snag the book in question, I was utterly mystified when I couldn’t immediately find it. The main reason was because I’m running on a spectacular amount of sleep dep at the moment (also why I haven’t had the time to reply to the various blog commentary; I’m not ignoring anyone, but it has been an extremely busy week on my end of things), and my confusion caused my brain to slip a cog for a couple of minutes. The secondary reason is that I’d put it on a shelf of fairly low import, where games that I’m not likely to run, ever, tend to get put.
The specific book is Pirates of the Spanish Main, the Savage Worlds conversion of the WizKids Constructable Minis game. I picked this one because, in a lot of ways, it’s the prettiest and most generally accessible of all of the Savage Worlds game books. I own a half-dozen Savage Worlds books, most of them bought in the hopes of learning to love a system I would end up generally hating. I’d like to think that it was a noble endeavor on my part, but an ultimately failed one, no matter how you look at it.
The other reason that I picked Pirates is that I’m less likely to compare it to any other product. The Deadlands book, while pretty, would have immediately earned my wrath as an unnecessary conversion. Solomon Kane would have spun me into a tangent on the far superior Witch Hunter game by Paradigm. And Necessary Evil would have put me in mind of better super hero games, which I’ve already covered. At worst, Pirates would make me think of 7th Sea, which is so far removed with its innate complexity and source material that there’s really no comparison to be made.
On the surface, there’s nothing to complain about. The production values for the game are top notch, having gone all out to create an extremely pretty book with excellent layout and illustrations. The pages are meant to evoke an old treasure map, and they do so with the idea of readability firmly in mind. The simple truth is that, were this a system that I liked, the quality and subject matter of the book would make it one of my favorites.
And that’s where it all starts to fall apart.
The original idea of the game was to be a simplified version of the Deadlands Classic rules, merged with the rules that governed the Great Rail Wars miniatures game. From what I’m given to understand, this was the general intent of the rules in the first place, allowing the tactical combat nature to integrate with a much quicker and simpler system of rolling. This is all fine and good, but the end result is that we’re left with a generic miniatures game, with some vague sop towards role-playing tacked on the end of things.
The section on Skills and Attributes offers the first indication of a problem, when the system is so heavily weighted towards combat that it seems to overbalance the mechanics to begin with. There are five Attributes for the game, with a scattering of Derived Attributes to round it out. The main Attributes are Agility, Strength, Vigor, Smarts and Spirit. We can already see that three of the five are physical, and a quick glance at the rules shows us that Spirit is meant to serve as both the Willpower and Social attribute. We’re already off-balance here, and this is before noting that there are nine skills associated with Agility and eleven with Smarts. This takes up a full 20 of the 24 skills, with the remaining split between Spirit (three skills) and Strength (one skill).
So, already we’re left with the understanding that the only important Attributes are Agility and Smarts. And Smarts is only going to come into play with characters that aren’t obviously going to be in combat regularly. (In reality, Agility is the only real Attribute of note, and as we’ll see, the Attribute itself isn’t important in the slightest.)
The Attributes and Skills are rated as single die types, with the least as a d4, moving up through D12 at the high end. The die type of the Attribute has zero bearing on the skill that it governs, other than determining whether or not it costs more to increase the skill (in the case that the skill exceeds the governing attribute). This is a system where an extremely fluid character (Agility of D12) goes to pick up a sword to defend himself. If he doesn’t have the skill, he’s reduced to rolling a d4 with a -2 penalty to his roll. This is, for whatever it’s worth, the exact same die type that’s offered to the clumsiest pirate on the ship with an Agility of D4.
From this, there’s also the Wild Card mechanic. This refers to the idea that Player Characters are a step above the madding crowd, with special powers and a universe that favors them specifically. Nothing wrong with that idea inherently, but the execution is a little weird.
Savage Worlds is ostensibly derived from Deadlands, at its core. With Deadlands, your Attributes were set out as die types, much like this. Then your skill base was however many of those dice you rolled, to then take the highest result as your skill check. Fairly logical and straightforward, I felt.
With Savage Worlds, your skill is still a specific die type, but you only roll one. All right. And being a Wild Card, you then roll a D6 as a Wild Die, no matter if you’re rolling a D4 or a D12 as your skill.
I literally have no idea why. It seems arbitrary on one hand, and somewhat nonsensical on the other. With a spread of five die types (D4, D6, D8, D10 and D12), it would logically make sense to pull a D8 out of the spread, as it’s in the direct middle of things, and use that as a Wild Die. Or it would make sense to use a second die of the same type as the skill you’re rolling. But using a D6 is just sorta weird. The best idea I’ve come up with is that everyone has an extra D6 laying around, but new players may only be sitting at the table with a set of the standard seven Chessex dice, unable or unwilling to borrow someone else’s dice for the roll. Seriously, that’s all I’ve got.
There are some varying attempts to change or ‘fix’ the rolling system of Savage Worlds, given the weird way the dice spread on given difficulties, but this lies somewhere well beyond my ability to care. No one seems to be happy with the way the dice fall if they’ve looked too closely at the system.
Then there’s the problem of anything that’s not based on Smarts or Agility. As I’ve noted, Social interaction is severely limited, to the point of seeming like it’s an afterthought. There is a Charisma Attribute, but it’s more or less Feat-based and mainly exists to alter Persuasion rolls. There’s also a Fame mechanic that goes into this. I see what the system was intending to do, but a lot of this strikes me as a weird throwback into early D&D rather than a modern game that has other examples to work from.
Speaking of weird throwback mechanics… Movement is specifically referred to in Inches, as in how far you’re able to move on a miniatures grid. Combined with careful Encumbrance rules, these rules have managed to scrub many of the innovations of the last 30 years, putting us firmly back into 10×10 rooms and reams of graph paper. Sure, this is essentially a miniatures game with Role-Playing elements grafted onto them, but so was the original White Box edition that grew out of Chainmail.
Finally, there’s the Feat system, herein referred to as Edges. I can bitch all I want about all of the previous aspects of the game, but this section was where I came to understand what a strangely unbalanced system this was.
Most gaming systems have a focus on specific skills that are important to the character over the course of his career. Level based systems like Pathfinder separate this between level-based abilities and a spread of skill points that can be allocated. Skill-based systems (most everything else) offer different directions to accomplish specific things. At the first glance, it seems like Savage Worlds is heading toward that as well.
The problem is that the Edges take up something like four times as much space in the rule book as the skills. Edges define the character and offer a variety of special benefits, depending on what sort of build the player is looking to create. And if the character has the specific spread of skills they’re after at the point of Character Creation, most of the earned Experience Points are going to go directly into Edges.
When I was playing Savage Worlds, I found that I spent no points on improving anything, since I’d taken a fairly high Fighting skill, and my character was free to just throw his efforts into increasingly unbalancing feats that kept my edge in combat unparalleled. It quickly became ludicrous, and my character made a point to never get any better at anything that he did, skill wise. The same was true for the rest of my crew, as they were free to specialize in whatever builds they saw fit, since I’d made combat a moot point for the most part. (Suffice to say, Dirty Fighting was more than enough for my build, given my background in knowing how to use Stunts in Exalted.)
The reality is that I really wanted to like Savage Worlds. I loved the entirety of the Deadlands line (with the only real exceptions being the Lost Colony card game and the various novels), and I tried my damnedest to give this system every chance I could.
But the reality is that it just sucks. In Deadlands, you could build a virtually crippled character with no physical abilities and flaws to back that up, and they’d be a playable character through Mental or Social means. In fact, they could be the most powerful character in the party, based on the build itself. The system for dice was quick and elegant, and the systems for Initiative and Experience were innovative.
Savage Worlds, in comparison, is a clunky system that presents itself as Fast and Fun, trying to graft Cinematic Action with Tactical Miniatures. And the end result is that it does neither one very well. The dice mechanic is generally bad, compared with modern systems and their elegance, and the skills system is something of a joke, overall. I appreciate that a lot of people love the system and the worlds, leaving me as something of an outlier.
What’s interesting to me is that, while researching public opinion on Savage Worlds, I found that most people assumed a dislike was due to inexperience with this system or others. For my part, I’ve got the opposite problem. I’ve played enough games to know when one is inferior.
In talking about the upcoming Deadlands TV series, I touched on the idea that the property was experiencing a bit of a comeback. It’s finally getting some long overdue exposure, and some of the things that made it great back in the day, like the Doomtown CCG, were returning. This is mostly true, but part of what I implied is seriously misleading. Deadlands never truly died as an RPG. It just died as far as I was concerned.
Deadlands was first published in 1996, with a much needed 2nd Edition revision coming in 1999. When Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000, they did so with the OGL, allowing whomever wanted to use the broad concepts of the D20 Rules as they saw fit the ability to adapt it into their own publications, thereby strengthening D&D’s brand.
And D&D 3.0 went huge. It was impossible to ignore.
In an industry like this one, a success story like D20 did not go unnoticed. Seemingly overnight, every company that had available resources placed their chips on some variant of D20, hoping to catch a little of the same lightning in their very own bottles. For a lot of companies, this meant coming up with compatible products. White Wolf, for example, licensed both Necromancer Games and Sword & Sorcery to come up with sourcebooks and material. AEG put out a line of mini-adventures, as well as GM toolkit books. Green Ronin and Guardians of Order started taking the system apart to see how it ticked and offered systems hacks for D&D players to use. There was a lot of great material available for D&D players to modify their home games, one way or another.
Other companies, like Holistic and Pinnacle, started to convert their products over to D20, thinking that this was the wave of the future. Deadlands D20 came out a year later, and there was such a push to support it for the gaming community that they started releasing books that were dual-statted between Classic Deadlands and the D20 version. They made a brave face of it, releasing seven books within 2001 in order to be able to properly play the game, but the interest simply wasn’t there. Whether or not the investment into a new system ended up bankrupting the company, production on the original games ceased shortly after the D20 books were deemed a failure.
Pinnacle did release one original product during this time, in amongst converting their original stable of products over to D20, but given its eventual resting place in the cheap bins of the gaming shops and conventions, I can’t say that it did any better than any of the Deadlands conversions. Weird Wars did an admirable job of building out Horror in World War II, but given that most of the source material for the game was lodged in somewhat obscure DC Comics fare from the 1970’s era, it’s not surprising that the game didn’t hit everyone’s interests. (That said, I realize that much of Deadlands owes its origins to the Weird Western Tales that DC put out at the same time. The difference is that in this day and age, a lot more people are familiar with Jonah Hex as a property than they are with the Haunted Tank stories.) From my own experience, I’ve come to believe that the Weird Wars RPG fared a lot better amongst gamers than the Deadlands D20 games did, but this is also from the response within my extended network of contacts. Like Deadlands D20, enough sourcebooks to play the game fully were released before the line died.
A few years later, Shane Hensley came out with the Savage Worlds rules, based on his perception of what had made Deadlands a failure of a system. According to his dev notes, he’d driven around to various player groups, gaming with them to get a feel for a new rules set based on the Great Rail Wars miniatures rules. Once he solidified these rules to his liking, they became the basis for all future games from what remained of Pinnacle Publishing.
Then once Savage Worlds had become enough of a mainstay in the industry, Deadlands was released with these new rules, adapting the concepts into the greatly simplified system. The classic Weird West setting was followed with Hell on Earth (the post-apocalyptic setting) and Deadlands Noir (the newly minted Pulp setting). Noir is specifically built with Savage Worlds rules in mind, where the other two settings are converted into the new system. As yet, there’s been no sign of the much maligned third setting from the original run, which set the action in space.
As a sidenote, it still strikes me as weird that Deadlands: Lost Colony went over as poorly as it did. At the time, the general reaction was that no one could conceptualize the idea of ‘Western in Space’ as a game concept, even though strange coincidence had it hit the market shortly before Firefly hit TV. Both products were cancelled before they were able to fully find their voice, but these days people actually remember Firefly. (And as RPG’s go, the Firefly derived products have a wider product base.)
So, while Deadlands still exists as an RPG product, it does so in a form that I’m not even remotely interested in. And if the Deadlands TV show takes off, it will be the Savage Worlds version that will get sold in the rush to see the origin of the world. While I could hope for reprints of the Classic Deadlands material, I’ve heard from enough sources that Shane Hensley himself has no interest in making those books available again, likely in favor of making sure that the Savage Worlds books stay in the limelight.
To say that I hate Savage Worlds is to minimize my distaste for it. And I appear to be alone in this thinking, if the internet is any arbiter of taste. I could go into specifics, but I’ll save that for its own subject, rather than tack an RPG review onto the end of a different commentary.
Recently, one of my friends linked me to an article on the upcoming Deadlands TV series, such as it is.
Apparently, it’s one of a second wave of new programming that’s being built for the XBox. This is all part of a move by Microsoft to create original programming for their gaming consoles in an effort to bring in a wider audience than they are currently holding sway over. Their philosophy is that they built both the X360 and the XB-1 as entertainment centers rather than simply platforms for video games, and this is the best way to showcase the idea.
As things go, it’s not a horrible plan. There’s going to be some stuff based on Halo, as it’s the main draw for a lot of people, and there’s going to be exclusive content for things like Bonnaroo. Microsoft has the money and influence to be able to swing exclusivity, so why not try to pull it into a new arena.
Predictably, there’s already a token amount of nerd outrage on the blog front. A few sites I skimmed over have the anticipated froth over ‘being forced to buy an XBox’ for things they want to watch, replete with the ‘I’ll just pirate it instead’ motif quickly following. I wish I could say that I was surprised by the reaction.
So, where do I stand on any of this? After all, I’ve made a point of selling Deadlands as one of my favored systems, partly because it stands as a solid example of horror role playing (usually a good sign, given my tendencies) and partly because it captures the flavor of the Old West with its cards and mechanics. The friend that linked it became an instant convert when I started running the game back in the day, and to see it rising again seems like something that should give me a cautious amount of joy, right? Especially since the announcement back in March that AEG was bringing back Doomtown, the Deadlands CCG from back in the day. It really seems like it’s a food year for Deadlands, crawling its way back from the dead like its signature Harrowed.
Well, that’s the thing.
On one hand, I’m glad that someone is finally recognizing Deadlands for how good it was. I’ve lamented its death in the early 2000’s, and it’s always seemed like there was a lot more that could be done with it. It was a good game, and everyone that has ever played it has raved about their experience of it.
But on the other hand, I don’t think the TV show is going to do anyone any good. There are simply too many factors working against it for it to hit big, and even if the writers manage to work some sort of unforeseen magic, the net effect of the publicity is going to do the exact wrong thing.
Let’s start with the obvious. Deadlands is a Horror Western, with Weird Science. This is an extremely narrow niche for source material. There have been a number of movies done with some of these as a theme in a Western, but they tend to rank as low as possible on the scale for movie quality. The high end of the scale will have movies like The Missing (which has vague supernatural elements) and possibly From Dusk ’till Dawn (if you rebuild the original into a proper Western, instead of the modern setting it has), and even these aren’t universally acclaimed like some of the more regular Westerns. From there, you have a whole slate of fairly awful movies that more or less fit the aesthetic of Deadlands. There’s Wild Wild West, which is probably the closest to the RPG, and no one thinks well of that one, save possibly for Deadlands players. Then there’s Ravenous, which actually deals with the supernatural in the form of a Wendigo and these days, I’m embarrassed to admit that I saw in the theatre. There’s Jonah Hex, Hangman’s Daughter, Tremors 4, Gallowwalker and so on. I will admit that I liked The Burrowers, but at this point, it stands as an outlier.
So, given the track record of Horror Westerns, it’s going to be a hard sell to get anyone to pay attention to Deadlands in the first place. Granted, it will be a captive audience of a sort, given that there will be a limited selection of new and exclusive content for the XBox users, but that’s hardly a draw to bring new people in.
There’s also a likely fear that it might not stay true to source. If you take the example of Jonah Hex, you have the title character being altered in the script to somehow have the power to speak with the dead. Part of the original draw of the comics was that Hex was simply a man with a grim history and a knack for surviving against heavy odds. There had been a well-regarded comic, Two Gun Mojo, that pitted him against zombies, but rather than adapt that, whomever worked up the script chose to do something notably different.
On the other end of the scale, there’s the fear that it might remain too close to source. There aren’t a lot of success stories when it comes to adapting RPG’s into movies or TV series, and one only has to look at the end result of trying to adapt Dragonlance into a cartoon to see where it could go badly. It’s worth noting that the guy responsible for getting the Dragonlance movie out was the same one that had tried to sell Dimension Films on a Deadlands movie back in 2001. For better or worse, he’s not involved in this venture.
And I’m specifically avoiding talking about the Dungeons & Dragons movie.
The best that can be hoped for is that whomever gets hold of the property has the sense to keep it subtle and paint it with a lot more of the Western aspects, rather than diving directly into the Horror parts. When it was first marketed, Deadlands took great pride in the zombies and the implied gore that went with it. “The Spaghetti Western With Meat” served as the tagline throughout 1st Edition, and I’m hoping that this isn’t the idea that sold Microsoft on the concept.
I had intended to cover the ‘chip’ system from Deadlands in my post on Character Points, but lingering cold that I’ve been annoyed by over the past week fogged up my connections enough that I was lucky to be able to get through the basics of Torg and Star Wars without lapsing into word salad. So rather than try to stretch a quick discussion of one aspect of one game into 1,000 words, I might as well talk about the entire game of Deadlands for bit.
Deadlands was first published in 1996 by Pinnacle Entertainment, the brainchild of Shane Hensley – a former West End Games and TSR writer. According to the lore surrounding the game, the cover art by Brom of the undead cowboy managed to both precede the game line and serve as the inspiration for the game itself.
And I’ll be honest, based on the industry at the time, it was a really weird decision to publish this game in the first place. Westerns have never been popular as role-playing games, and steampunk horror western seemed even less likely to succeed. For my own experience, it’s always been a hard sell initially, since there isn’t much in the way of movie or book source material to compare the game to. (And the movies that do exist are universally considered to be awful. No one outside of a dedicated Deadlands fanbase went to see Wild Wild West or Gallowwalkers.) But for whatever reason, it caught on. It didn’t hurt that the game had an extremely solid internet presence at the time, which had a stock of one-night adventures easily available on the web. For my own part, that was enough to keep me playing and running the game as I learned the rules.
The dice system is extremely solid, using mechanics that recognizably derive from other dice pool-based games with exploding dice. Attributes are rated from D4 to D12, with skills that note how many of the dice you throw. (There is a weird, counter-intuitive bit where the attribute has its own rating of number of dice thrown, which has no bearing on the skills it governs.) Any dice that roll their maximum ‘ace’ or explode, allowing that die to be rolled again and added to the previous. The highest result of the given dice is then compared to the total.
Being a western game, Deadlands hews close to its genre, putting as many of the mechanics that it can into poker themes. Character generation is handled by drawing twelve cards from a deck. Initiative is rolled, but the player draws a number of cards from a deck based on the roll, with actions passing in order of card value and suit. Magic is handled with dice to determine how many cards are drawn, and the player has to assemble as high a hand as they can from the cards they are dealt. And finally, experience points and luck are handled using poker chips.
Whatever faults you can find with Deadlands or Pinnacle, you can’t say they didn’t stick to their themes.
Characters started each session with a draw from the pot, randomly selecting which chips they’d have to influence their rolls. They could also carry over any unspent chips they had from the previous session and any amount of experience they had earned, as well, up to a maximum of ten chips. Anything above that was automatically turned into ‘bounty,’ which was the untouchable well of experience points. If a player chose, they could convert all of their extra chips into bounty, but it tended to be a poor idea.
Naturally, chips came in three essential colors – white, red, and blue. They all did similar things, but white chips were mostly worthless. Red chips were a lot better, but they allowed the Marshal to draw chips of his own to help the adversaries of the scenario. Blue chips were the best, functioning like red chips, but without the drawback of letting the Marshal make things worse.
Chips could be used to boost rolls, avoid wounds, and activate powers. Depending on which sort of personal mojo a Deadlands character was using, it often hinged on their ability to activate it with chips. This allowed the powerful stuff to be limited accordingly, as it was eating into potential experience, but it also offered a different economy than games like Star Wars or Torg, where the points had to be rationed out between skill rolls and powers. And for the most part, it worked really well.
There were exceptions, however.
As far as games went, Deadlands was not terribly well balanced. The two most egregious abuses of power that I found in the course of play were Harrowed and Blessed, oddly enough. The damned and the sainted were able to fuck over the experience system in ways that probably should have been accounted for.
Harrowed were the setting’s resident undead. Generally pretty zombie-like in appearance – although that was just the flavor most people were familiar with, as there were other options – Harrowed were the unquiet dead that had been brought back from beyond for some reason or another. There was a mechanic in the game (card based, of course) that allowed a character slain in the course of a session to randomly determine whether or not they were able to rise from the dead and return to play with a host of new powers.
The problem was that, by becoming Harrowed, they no longer worried about being killed the same way the rest of the party might have to. And on the surface, this seems wildly obvious. The problem is that, for a lot of people, chips in Deadlands were used mainly to reduce wounds. If wounds are no longer an issue the same way, the player that’s got a Harrowed character suddenly has a vast surplus of experience coming their way. It doesn’t take long for a posse of characters to be quickly overshadowed by the guy with the undead cowboy.
There were some vague ways to try to remedy this imbalance of points, but none of them did much beyond taking the character away or forcing the player to try compensating through role played angst. The dead guy may end up with long scenes lamenting his cursed state, but he’s also the best and fastest gunslinger in the group.
The other end of the scale has the Blessed breaking the game. Most of this came from the specific splatbook on the characters, but they were pretty good even in the main game. Blessed, logically, are the preachers of the setting, who are dedicated to smiting evil in a world gone wrong. They have a good stock of powers to back them up, and unlike the wizards of the setting, the Hucksters, they don’t have any real mechanical drawback to their powers. Where the Hucksters risk physical or mental damage in casting spells, the Blessed don’t have to deal with much more than a code of conduct that guides them.
Where it becomes game breaking, however, is when the less obvious setting rules come into play along side the new rules presented in the book for the Blessed characters. In the context of the setting, Blessed are usually preachers in the Old West. As such, they’re based mostly on their Spiritual abilities to power their supernatural effects, but they also have to be able to command an audience. (This falls into my usual contention that Social Combat in most role playing games is either poorly implemented or ignored, leaving it open to abuse by players that understand the system.) And buried in the rules are the effects of trying to fight back against the main villains of the setting with stories. Specifically, every time a story about triumphing over evil (y’know, what the characters did last week?) is told to an audience of specific size, the party is rewarded with a special kind of chip being added to the pot. And this chip can be used to invoke Old Testament styled Acts of God.
This is the high end of abusive power for Blessed. The more readily available perks allow them to substitute their Faith score (usually their highest stat) for most combat defenses, become empowered by their god to resist damage naturally, and gain spare experience points simply for converting people to their cause. A properly tweaked out preacher can have scores of experience points just for walking around money. When they add in the Acts of God nonsense, they become vaguely intolerable.
I say this from a position of experience, as I have played enough Blessed characters to give Marshals a lasting sense of dread. Yeah, I liked my characters well enough, but they weren’t especially fair to the other players.
I have an odd perspective on things. It is a known quantity for most people that have encountered me, either online or in real life. Perhaps it stems from weird brain chemistry, perhaps it’s a result of my upbringing, or maybe there’s a bit of mercury poisoning along the way. Short of dissection, I doubt there’s much way for any of this to be answered. And while I’d love to know why I think the way I do, I’ll hold off on the vivisection for the time being.
So when Dave comments about how different it is to create NPC’s for a level-based game like Saga Edition Star Wars, compared to WEG’s D6 edition, it’s something I’ve honestly not considered. I’ve spent so long working with various, unrelated systems that it doesn’t occur to me that one is harder or easier to deal with. It’s just a different procedure to get from point A to point B. I’ve played both sorts of games so much that most of the rules nonsense is internalized, and the creation of NPC’s is just another step. This is my experience, and as any social theories class will tell you, my experience is not universal.
A lot of what makes WEG’s D6 Star Wars so quick and simple for NPC generation (and really, that’s key to the whole discussion; creating adventures is the easy part) is that, at the end of it all, you only need to detail a couple of basic stats for an adversary, and everything else can sort of be glossed over. Sure, that Stormtrooper might have a rather advanced understanding of sociolinguistics or botany, but at the end of the day, it only really matters if he can hit your heroes or if he can avoid being hit himself. Those extra dice in ancillary skills are interesting, but they’re only going to come up in extremely rare occasions.
At different points, I’ve been accused of abusing skills-based games out of laziness. I’ll go out of my way to prep the details of an adventure down to the careful details, but more often than not, I’ll half-ass my way through the stats of an adversary. Most often this show up in the encounters when an opponent goes to attack one of the PC’s, and I thoughtfully pick up a couple of dice for their attribute, a couple of dice for the skill in question, and give them a brief moment of consideration before rolling. In the case of D6 Star Wars, it’s an internal discussion of how high the base attribute is (on a scale of two to four, where does this guy rate?) and where his skill rating goes from there (on a scale of one to five, where is this guy’s level of training?). If I’m running a White Wolf game instead, it’s the same sort of internal monologue, with only the numbers shifting a little bit.
Level based games, like the bulk of D20 products, don’t offer the same leeway. There are a whole host of different calculations and factors to keep in mind, especially for D&D and Pathfinder. First off, there’s ECL, which is factored against and encounter’s intended CR. Then you have to build out the NPC’s, taking into account level adjustment from the monster type, especially if the monster has been advanced through class levels or monster levels. Once this is taken care of, there needs to be skill and feat selection, hit point adjustment, factoring of magic items based on general CR, and so on. Logically, a game with a heavy base of magic gets pretty arcane in its rules. If you needed an NPC that had 12 Ranks in Diplomacy, you had to justify how he got those points. If you needed a character in a game like D6 Star Wars that had an equivalent amount of skill, you just gave them that skill and moved on.
A lot of it comes down to the basic history of role-playing games. D20 comes from AD&D, which in turn comes from the older Chainmail miniatures rules. (And so on, back to H. G. Wells.) D&D broke ground on the industry, giving us rules for the baseline of RPG’s, and we’ve grown accustomed to that level of rules arcana. Since it is such a mainstay in the industry, everyone has played it here or there, and for a lot of the older players, it’s the standard.
That’s not to say that skills-based rules are anything new or surprising. Off the top of my head, the first example of a skills-based RPG that went anywhere is Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, which debuted in 1981. It used a lot of the same mechanics that D&D had codified (namely hit points, base attributes, and a scale of weapon damage), but all of the relevant mechanics centered on a percentile system for task resolution. (And yeah, RuneQuest pre-dated C of C by three years, but I’d argue that it never managed to get much beyond niche status. Love Glorantha as I do, it’s not a game that casual gamers are terribly familiar with.)
Chaosium gave us a template to work from. The character generation rules were still pretty heavy, requiring you to factor your pool of skills from your Intelligence and Education. From there, you’d apply them to basic assumptions of skill levels, with certain guidelines, etc. Yeah, it was a huge step forward, but just like D&D, it thrived on its deep rules minutiae. It wasn’t until the late 80’s or early 90’s that game systems started to simplify.
Oddly, the two games that carried the industry forward, Ars Magica and Star Wars, were published around the same year, 1987. And oddly, they’re both games that refuse to die. Star Wars has gone through three separate publishers, with West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, and now Fantasy Flight. And Ars Magica started life out with Lion Rampant, which became White Wolf, got sold to Wizards of the Coast, and eventually ended up with Atlas Games (who had been instrumental in its early years). The difference being that while Star Wars has gone through three (arguably four) different sets of rules over the years, Ars Magica is still largely the same.
Both of these games shifted the industry forward by working with a dice pool (it can be argued that Ghostbusters, published shortly before Star Wars and using very similar rules, was what did it, but given the almost footnote status of the game, it only really exists in very comprehensive collections these days) that was based on the individual character’s skill ratings. In their own way, they set the stage for the way games would develop throughout the next ten years. The Ars Magica system would become the Storyteller System, which formed the basis of White Wolf’s World of Darkness games. It would later be modified for New World of Darkness, Exalted, Aeon/Trinity and Scion, all of which use very similar mechanics.
Star Wars, in the mean time, directly influenced such games ass WEG’s Torg/Masterbook system (which, despite being a far heavier maths-based system, still uses a similar scale of difficulty) and Pinnacle’s classic Deadlands system, which took the dice pool mechanic and broke it out of being a single type of dice. It’s no coincidence that Shane Hensley, the designer of Deadlands, was a WEG alumnus.
These days, skill-based RPG’s are a lot more common than their level-based predecessors, even though 4e D&D and Pathfinder are still industry mainstays. They’re a lot easier to use for the more casual gamer, they don’t require the same suspension of disbelief that level-based RPG’s necessitate (characters improve incrementally, rather than just suddenly learning something new), and they’re friendlier to GM’s who have to prep for their weekly sessions. (Of course, with enough practice in a system, prep becomes second nature, even with extremely complex systems.)