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In Which I Consider Peanut Butter

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The great dilemma, as revealed in the last post, is the system which I’ll use for a new modern military, Covert Forces-style campaign I’m plotting out.

Crunchy/robust or smooth/light? How do you like your peanut butter/RPG?

In order to answer this question, I need to decide what I am doing with this game. What is it going to be about it?

Here is the sequence of “scenes” in the initial session/adventure: mission planning; movement to area; movement to objective (which will require acquiring transport, and this may involve combat); infiltrate objective (which may include combat); acquisition of package which will include combat; exfiltration from objective (which may include combat); delivery of package.

While there is a lot of possible combat there, there is only one sequence of assured combat. The rest—the acquisition of transport, the infiltration and exfiltration—may be accomplished using other skills/talents/abilities. I’m thinking there could be a fair amount of stealth and/or social manipulation.

And for the use of skills/talents/abilities, I can’t say either is superior again—they are just very different. The crunchier games are about resource management and mechanical builds—optimization if you will. This can be extremely enjoyable, but I’m not sure it works for what I envision.

I’ve built a fair number of special operations force characters, and in systems like d20 Modern or Savage Worlds, the characters need to be relatively high level (10th level or Veteran) in order to be as competent in the general skills SOF personnel require. True20 and Modern20 were better, in that I could design relatively capable SOF characters at a medium level (6th level). High and medium level characters aren’t bad per se, but the time to build the characters is discouraging.

What I appreciate about lighter systems is that there is less concern about building it right. A general focus will work fine when it comes time to use the skills. In something like PDQ or SES, I can argue how the question applies to my character’s concept, and would likely be able to pile on other bonuses through the use of Qualities.

But what about combat? I had a general unease in approaching modern combat with abstract rules. I needed to quantify what it was I wanted when I ran combat. Was it lethality? Was is complexity? Was it tension?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: there is no way for RPG rules to replicate combat in any meaningful way. Even the most complex mechanical algorithms are not going to give the feel or sense of combat.

So what did I want? I looked to my inspirations for combat scenes: Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers. To a lesser degree, the movie Tears of the Sun and the TV series the Unit and Ultimate Force inspire me when I’m planning or running combat. So what do these shows and films present that is inspiring?

Competence and tension.

There are characters in these movies and series that have exceptional combat competence, and that is great for RPGing, because we want our characters to be competent. There is exceptional levels of tension, especially in Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers, as there is no guarantee that any given character will make it out alive.

As mentioned above, it is easier to build a competent with a lighter set of rules.

For tension, there needs to be a real threat that the characters could die, and that is frankly present in all the rules discussed. I have to say I found that d20 Modern’s Massive Damage Threshold instilled a lot of tension into combat, moreso than any other crunchy game I’ve ran. They all do it, but MDT seemed to do it best. One shot kill is not always a part of lighter rules, but I know one set of rules in which it does play a part—my own! Probably because the tension that lethality creates is so important to me when I rune combats.

So I think I can go with a lighter system to run this campaign. I think I just might be able to pull it off.

But there are two further factors that concern me with using a lighter system, especially my own: gun pron and cool kit.

But that’s another story. Stay tuned.

Here are links to the games mentioned:
d20 Modern
Savage Worlds
And, of course, SES.