# Comparative Character Generation, Part 1: Generic, Lightweight Systems

Posted: 2006-04-14
Word Count: 11032

(With corrections and comments by Gary McBride and Ron Pyatt.)

Except for broken links and markup, and some commentary from 2020 in the footnotes, I've left this document as is.

## Introduction

For the past few months I’ve been thinking (and proclaiming) I’m going to run my own role-playing game, but I have yet to settle on a system, or even a genre. After some thought, genre is likely to be either low-magic heroic fantasy or modern “dark fantasy”/occult horror, but I still need a system for the style of play I settle on.

I haven’t gamed in a while, and I really don’t have time to learn yet another complex system with its own vocabulary. (Hey, kids, anyone know what a OAF RKA With Charges is? Yep, it’s a gun in Hero System.) So, I’ve been looking at a variety of systems with the following characteristics:

1. Straightforward character generation, with little or no fiddly arithmetic and as few numbers as possible.

2. A single basic mechanism for conflict resolution, perhaps getting slightly more complex for combat.

3. Simple rules that anyone, including me, can learn in at most a single evening of play.

4. At least a basic respect for the laws of physics and common sense.

To truly evaluate a system, I’m told, you have make up a sample character and put him or her through one or more conflicts. Since my goal is to compare systems, I’ve decided to define the same character in multiple systems, and put each version through the same conflicts. To be quasi-objective, I will therefore measure each attempt on the following criteria:

1. How long it takes to translate the character concept to a valid character in each system.

2. In each conflict situation, what are the character’s percentile chances of success. (There’s a lot of room for fudging here, so I’ll try to justify every assumption I make.) In writing this report I’ve found Harlequin Jones’s Dice Probability Calculator an invaluable aid.

3. A qualitative assessment of how well the system captures the character, and any seemingly unrealistic constraints or consequences of the system.

4. What style of play does the system support: gritty vs. cinematic, story-oriented vs. combat-oriented, etc.

Our character will be named Selena Vasquez, a character in a modern setting. (I’m leaning toward heroic fantasy at the moment, but it’s easier to relate to Ms. Vasquez than Arak the Conquering Barbarian.)

### Selena Vasquez

Selena Vasquez is a Private Investigator of African-Hispanic descent. She’s pretty good in a fight, and not bad with a gun, but prefers to use intelligence and persuasion to resolve situations. She’s tall, attractive, with a sultry voice; imagine Gina Torres portraying her in a TV series.

Raised by a single mom in a poor neighborhood, Selena has always had a keen sense that the world wasn’t “right”, and that she had to restore justice in some small way. Her natural choice was to be a cop, but after a few years on the force doing traffic duty while the neighborhood she grew up in became more lawless, she gave up waiting for John Forsythe to hire her away and joined a private detective agency. The Continental Detective Agency gave her far more opportunities to learn, not all of them strictly legal, but ultimately it served the interest of anyone with enough money to pay; after one particularly distasteful job looking for petty theft in a billionaire’s office building, she left and set up on her own. Now, nothing stops her from helping the poor and disenfranchised … as long as her bank account holds out.

I imagine her as a gumshoe in the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler tradition, updated for the 21st Century: seemingly shady, but ultimately committed to justice … not always the same as the Law, let alone Authority.

### Situation 1

Selena needs information from a local petty crook about a string of savage murders in her neighborhood. He was in the area of the last one, and sources say he might have seen something. The crook doesn’t like cops, nor people who like cops … but he does like pretty ladies.

### Situation 2

Through an old contact on the force, who was kind of sweet on her, she’s gotten reports on all the murders. They’re truly savage, with chunks of flesh torn out, almost like they were eaten by animals. Yet, could animals open doors, pull away burglar bars, enter homes fearlessly and yet leave not even a hair?

What is this, a particularly gruesome gang calling card? A psychotic killer like some bad 80’s movie? There’s some pattern here, something she’s missing …

### Situation 3

Visiting another key witness at home after dark, she notices the front door ajar. Drawing her gun, she cautiously enters the building, and checks all lines of sight before moving forward. Calling the witness’s name, she hears a growl from the living room, and sees a hairy thing feasting on the poor woman’s remains. Its faintly glowing red eyes lock on hers, and then it springs. Selena empties her gun at it …

## PDQ

PDQ, or Prose Descriptive Qualities is published by Atomic Sock Monkey; it’s the core engine behind their gaimes Dead Inside, Truth & Justice, and Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot: the RPG; it’s also used in the second edition of Ninja Burger: the RPG.

Each character is defined by “Qualities”, a freeform set of words or phrases that define the character. Each Quality is rated Poor (-2), Average (0), Good (+2), Expert (+4), or Master (+6), with Average being the default in most cases if the character lacks an applicable quality. In Dead Inside, a character can allocate four “ranks” to Qualities, with Master being maximum, and must also take one Poor quality to reflect a weakness. (The PDQ Core Rules are inconsistent, talking about “8 Ranks of Strengths and 1 Rank of Weakness”, but the examples seem to use the bonus numbers as strength ranks and the Poor level as a single “weakness rank”; here I’ll use “Ranks” as jumps from one level to the next.)

So, for Selena, let’s try this:

• Private Detective: Expert (+4)
• Ex-Cop: Good (+2)
• Sultry: Good (+2)
• Crusader for the Downtrodden: Poor (-2)

Note that the rating of “Poor” does not reflect her ability to act as a Crusader for the Downtrodden, but rather the way her focus on poor and minority issues may blind her to the risks she takes, or even to considering that the perp might be one of the “downtrodden” groups.[^s7s]

[s7s]: The successor system “PDQ Sharp!” replaced Weaknesses with Foibles, which were separate from Qualities. If a Foible comes into play, the player gains a Style Die, which they could spend to improve a later roll. – Frank in 2020

The task resolution system is fairly straightforward. The difficulty of most Situations is on the same scale as Qualities: Poor (5), Average (7), Good (9), Expert (11), Master (13).

• In Simple Situations, if the character’s applicable Quality exceeds the Difficulty, he succeeds.

• In Complicated Situations, such as when the character would fail in a Simple Situation, she rolls two six-sided dice and adds her bonus number to the result.

• In Conflict Situations, where two characters are in physical, mental, or social combat, each one rolls two six-siders, adds their bonus, and compares scores: the loser takes a number of “Damage Ranks” or “Failure Ranks” (in mental or social contests) equal to the difference between rolls; the loser subtracts ranks Rank from the quality of her choice, until it reaches Poor. The contest ends when one side has no Ranks to lose.

Now, going back to the three situations:

1. Selena decides that going undercover and mild flirting might get her what she needs more than playing the heavy, so she puts on a slinky dress, meets this crook “accidentally” at a bar, and uses her Sultry quality to try to seduce him. However, she’ll have to play it carefully, so that she keeps the crook both interested and relaxed; he might tumble to the fact he’s being played, or he might be too intent on getting her in the sack to answer coherent questions.

This is definitely a Conflict Situation. However, let’s assume the guy’s resistance to seduction is no better than Average. A little analysis (P(2D6+2 - 2D6) is the same as P(4D6-12)) shows that on each roll, Serena has a 9.65% chance of a tie and a 66.44% chance of winning. Nevertheless, a few bad rolls on Selena’s part, or a few good rolls on the crook’s, could convince Selena to try intimidation with cop/P.I. skills after all.

Ron Pyatt points out the “Being Badass” rule: if Selena’s player really role-plays the seduction, the GM could upshift her Sultry quality to Expert, giving her an 84.11% chance per round of coming out ahead. (Ties would only happen 6.17% of the time.)

2. In looking at the police reports, it’s unclear whether her P.I. skill might appply.

If it’s a procedural problem, e.g. incomplete autopsies or lack of followup on witnesses, she’d roll against her Ex-Cop quality of Good. Finding such a mistake would probably have a Good difficulty, which is defined as “Complex task, requiring attention to detail”. In her case, Selena would have to remember (or look up) police procedure, and compare it to the handling of this case. Her chance of getting 9 or more on 2d6 is 58%.

In this case, let’s assume the discrepancy isn’t a procedural one, but an oddity of when the murders occurred: spurts of three days, followed by 25 days of nothing. Maybe she could use her P.I. skills to at least think of plotting the times of the murders, which would give her an edge. If it’s still a Good task, her probability of success goes up to 83%.

Ron Pyatt also points out that, if both Qualities apply, their bonuses would add, and Selena would get an effective +6, or Master rating for this task. If the GM asks her to roll at all, she’d have a 97% chance of success.

3. The onrushing hairy thing is so very much a Conflict Situation, but for simplicity let’s say Selena gets off a few shots before the thing overruns her. She has no explicit Gun skill, but let’s say she’s gone to the firing range even as a P.I., so she can use her P.I. Quality instead of Ex-Cop. That gives her an Expert chance of hitting the thing, especially since it seems to be making no attempt to dodge (Poor Dodge). As phrased, this is a Simple Situation, so Selena succeeds automatically. If it were trying to dodge, we’d use the Conflict Situation mechanic against whatever Quality it used to dodge with.

### Discussion

Making up Selena’s character took about the same time as typing it in. Once you have a character concept, it’s simple to pull out the highlights and turn them into Qualities.

While superficially simple, PDQ requires numerous judgement calls for particular situations. While not necessarily a bad thing, it requires the GM to know his world intimately, to think on his feet, and improvise. (For example, in Situation 1, the GM might have assumed that Selena would have tried a heavy-handed approach.)

In Situations 2 and 3, we generously allowed Selena to substitute her P.I. Quality for the idea of plotting out times and for gun use, respectively. These aren’t clear-cut; we’d need detail on what she did as a P.I. to know whether she solved cases using her brains, or ever used her gun.

Another pet peeve about the PDQ system is how Damage Ranks or Failure Ranks come out of any quality. Why would Selena become a less effective P.I or Ex-Cop if this guy proved resistant to her charms? Is she annoyed? Is she falling for him by mistake? What?

Because PDQ uses the same mechanic for physical battles, which seems to rule it out for a “gritty” or “realistic” setting. However, Ron Pyatt points out a number of ways to make physical combat more deadly.

• Page 7 of the free PDQ rules has a section “Out For Blood?”, which states a character may simply kill a helpless or unconscious character.

• A parenthetical statement in the same section suggests a character may declare he intends to kill someone: if the target is “down” or “out”, the target is dying rather than simply unconscious. This may be the default in certain settings, or with certain weapons like guns or knives.

• PDQ also has a concept of “Continuing Danger”, which retards or prevents healing until the character is out of danger. The character could die from an accumulation of wounds. (PDQ distinguishes “Damage Ranks” from physical injury and “Failure Ranks” from social, intellectual, or emotional Conflict Situations.)

• Hostile environments, like fires or gunbattles, could chip away at the character’s health even further.

• The GM could declare a character dies from his wounds, based on the type of wounds and the attacker’s intent. Or, an unlucky event could kill the character outright.

Ron offers that these options are more realistic than “hit points” and many other artificial mechanisms. Perhaps he’s right, although some players (and GMs) aren’t comfortable with GM Fiat; they’d rather have a quantifiable reason why their character is bleeding to death.

## Fudge

Fudge is a system I’ve been looking at for a while. Unfortunately, it’s not a pre-made system; it’s more of a core mechanic with copious suggestions for use.

Like PDQ – and predating it by several years – Fudge uses adjectives to describe a character’s “traits”, each of which is tied to a modifier on a die roll. The standard ladder is

• Terrible (-3)
• Poor (-2)
• Mediocre (-1)
• Fair (0)
• Good (+1)
• Great (+2)
• Superb (+3)

Some systems add Abysmal (-4), and various levels of Legendary (above Superb), although others (notably FATE) expand the ladder from a -4 to +6.

Contests are either against a fixed “Difficulty Factor”, or a contest for who gets the higher roll. Unlike PDQ, Fudge uses “Fudge Dice”, which by default are assumed to be four specially-marked six-sided dice: two ‘+’ sides, two ‘-’ sides, and two blank or ‘0’ sides. Subtract the total minuses from total plusses, and you get a number from -4 to +4. One feature of this system is that one can decide a contest between two characters with one roll; subtract one character’s modifier from the other, make the roll, and see whether the roll falls above or below that number. You can also have both characters roll and add in bonuses, then compare the totals.

The Fudge rules don’t define a canonical set of attributes, abilities, or what have you; the GM or players define their own. There are various “flavors” of Fudge, some “vanilla”, and others more exotic. I’m going to consider one of these “vanilla” systems here, and two more interesting and innovative ones.

As an aside, though, I like the simplicity and uniformity of the Fudge mechanic a lot, so I may take something like PDQ and convert it to Fudge dice (with an explicit damage track).

## Terra Incognita

A number of Fudge “builds” are influenced by GURPS, RuneQuest, Ars Magica, and/or d20. They have about six “Attributes”, a list of non-ranked “Gifts” and “Faults” giving special abilities or disabilities, and “Skills” usually not connected to “Attributes”. Character generation in these forms of Fudge is usually some point system, perhaps with exchange rates between Gifts, Faults, Attribute levels, and Skill levels. Examples of this type are Fantasy Fudge, Hack-n-Slash, and Terra Incognita, which we will consider here.

Terra Incognita posits a society called NAGS existing from 1850 onward that explores the mysteries of the Earth … and keeps them under wraps for ten years or more until the world is ready. It’s a combination of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1920s pulps, The Difference Engine, and Wild, Wild West. It reasonably close to the modern era, so with a few tweaks let’s create Ms. Vasquez using their rules.

Terra Incognita uses the Five-Point Fudge system; the player allocates five points to different skill groups, which determines how many ranks she gets for skills in that group. For Ms. Vasquez, we’ll choose 2 points in Investigative Skills, 1 in Social Skills, 1 in Combat Skills, and 1 in “General Skills”. Consulting the handy chart that I won’t reproduce here, she can choose 2 Good and 4 Fair or 1 Great, 1 Good, and 1 Fair from Investigative Skills, 3 at Fair from any groups for her “General Skills”, and either 3 Fair and 1 Mediocre or 1 Good and 1 Mediocre for each of Social and Combat

• Investigative

• Discern: Good {note: Detect Lies + Sense Motive}
• Disguise: Fair
• Lock Picking: Fair
• Photography: Fair
• Stealth: Fair
• Surveillance: Good
• Social

• Dissemble: Fair
• Flirt: Fair
• Interrogate: Fair
• Combat

• Firearm (Handgun): Good
• Unarmed Combat: Mediocre
• General

• Spanish: Fair
• Research: Fair
• Profession (Cop): Fair

Next, we allocate two free levels among the six attributes of Perception, Reasoning, Resolve (Willpower), Strength, Dexterity, and Vigor (Health), and pick two free Gifts and two required Faults.

Attributes:

• Perception: Good
• Reasoning: Good
• Resolve: Fair
• Strength: Fair
• Dexterity: Fair
• Vigor: Fair

Gifts: Attractive, Contacts (Ex-Cops and P.I.s)

Faults: Deprived Upbringing, Quixotic (Underclass)

The foregoing took me about 30 minutes; admittedly some of that was flipping through the book and typing.

Now, going back to the three situations:

1. Selena decides Flirting might overcome the crook’s Resolve more than Interrogation, even though both are rated the same. Plus, Selena is Attractive, so that gives her a +1 bonus. If the crook’s Resolve is Fair (0), Selena has a slight edge. Using the same analysis above (Fudge Dice are equivalent to 4D3-8, so we get a statistical distribution of 8D3-16 + 1 for the level difference), we find that Selena has a 58.43% chance of beating his roll. If she ties, presumably it’s a stalemate, and she’ll have to rely on roleplaying (and Dissembling) to get what she wants.

2. Assuming once again that finding the oddity in the murders relies on charting the days they occurred, we could use her Reasoning of Good against a Difficulty of Good to give her a 62% chance of working it out. A lenient GM might give her second and third tries using Research or Cop skills (both at Fair, for 38%).

3. Normally this would be a contest between Selena’s Handgun skill and the thing’s Dodge. However, as stated before it’s not attempting to dodge, so we’ll consider it Unopposed, with a Poor (-2) difficulty because it’s coming straight at her, she can see it in silhouette at least, and she had her gun ready. With her specialty, she has a 98.77% chance of rolling at least Poor, so it’s all but automatic.

### Discussion

Having everything spelled out for you helps in some ways. Each ability, whether Attribute or Skill, has a definite rating, so there’s far less confusion of what to use when. However, particularly when choosing skills, I found myself picking through a laundry list rather than thinking what Selena might know. Nothing in her backstory indicated Lock Picking, Photography, or Disguise, although they’re unquestionably useful P.I. skills. Still, it would have been better to elevate one thing to Great, instead of the Mediocre-Fair range with a few Goods thrown in.

## Fudge ASCB

ASCB1 stands for “Aptitudes, Specialties, Culture, and Background”. That is, each character is rated in several of 18 (!) general aptitudes, and takes specialty levels for skills within those aptitudes. The first Specialty Level solidifies the Specialty at the level of its base Aptitude. If a character lacks a specific Specialty, its parent aptitude is used instead.

The “Objective Character Creation” system gives us one Culture, one Background, 18 Aptitude Levels starting with Poor (-2), and 6 Specialty Levels. After about 20 minutes, I came up with the following.

Culture: 21st Century Hispanic-American Background: Private Investigator

Apt Spc Item
2 Covert: Fair (0)
2 Intellectual: Fair (0)
2 - Criminal Investigation: Good (+1)
2 Kinesthetic: Fair (0)
1 Martial: Mediocre (-1)
3 - Gun: Good (+1)
1 - Punch: Mediocre (-1)
3 Perceptual: Good (+1)
2 Physical: Fair (0)
3 Social: Good (+1)
3 Urban: Good (+1)

Now our three situations:

1. In this version, Selena’s attempt to get information from the crook will use “Social” aptitude either way. Her choice will be mainly a matter of strategy, and what this guy is more likely to have his own Aptitude or Specialty in.

The base Fudge rules have no mechanism for extended social battles, although some have been proposed by analogy with the physical damage system. Here we’ll assume it comes down to one Opposed Action: Selena rolls against her Social Aptitude, and the crook rolls against Willpower … which, for the sake of argument, we will say is a Specialty at Fair (0). Using the same analysis above (Fudge Dice are equivalent to 4D3-8, so we get a statistical distribution of 8D3-16 + 2 for the level difference), we find that Selena has a 73.92% of beating his roll. Unlike the previous example, however, ties go to the crook, since Selena is using an Aptitude while the crook is using a Specialty.

2. As before, let’s assume the discrepancy isn’t a procedural one, but an oddity of when the murders occurred: spurts of three days, followed by 25 days of nothing. Also, assume it’s a difficulty of Good. It’s a judgement call whether her Good Criminal Investigation Specialty would allow her to think of this possibility: if so, she has a 61.73% chance of rolling Good or better. If not, she rolls against her Fair Intellectual Aptitude for only 38.27%.

3. Shooting at the onrushing hairy thing normally is an Opposed Action between Selena’s Good Gun Specialty and the thing’s Kinesthetic Aptitude. However, as stated before it’s not attempting to dodge, so we’ll consider it Unopposed, with a Poor (-2) difficulty because it’s coming straight at her, she can see it in silhouette at least, and she had her gun ready. With her specialty, she has a 98.77% chance of rolling at least Poor, so it’s all but automatic.

### Discussion

We didn’t touch on Complexity and Rarity, which each impose a modifier from 0 to -2 on the base level of a Specialty, or an impromptu use of an Aptitude. ASCB also refers to “Gifts” and “Faults”, a “vanilla” Fudge system similar to GURPS’s Advantages and Disadvantages, or Ars Magica’s Virtues and Flaws, but we didn’t consider them here. I probably should have, to model her “Sultry” quality through attractive appearance.

As with a lot of Fudge, the GM would probably draw up a list of Specialties and the Aptitude(s) each relies on; here I simply winged it. The GM also needs a good grasp of how Cultures and Backgrounds affect the Complexity and Rarity of each Specialty.

One thing that bothered me with this example is that Selena’s resulting scores varied between Good (+1) and Mediocre (-1). In the bell-curve distribution of Fudge dice around 0 the difference between one below the Difficulty and at the Difficulty is 38% vs. 62%. Of course, PDQ has the same problem: hitting one’s difficulty in a Complicated Situation (e.g. Good vs. Good) is 58%, while hitting the next one above (e.g. Good vs. Great) is 28%. Still, you’d expect Selena to have Good to Great in all her professional skills; maybe it’s my inexperience with creating ASCB.

Finally, translating a fairly well developed character concept into ASCB was less straightforward than with PDQ. Culture and Background captured the broad strokes, but the others were a combination of Aptitudes and Specialties. Gifts and Faults may have helped, but I still suspect the attempt to predefine orthogonal Aptitudes makes natural clusters of abilities trickier to define.

## Fudge FATE

FATE (pdf) is a popular “flavor” of Fudge that eschews Attributes, Gifts, and Flaws in favor of “Aspects”. An Aspect is a freeform adjective or phrase that describes an important part of the character: traditional physical or mental characteristics, personality traits, careers, relationships, memberships, titles, whatever. Notably, Aspects may be positive like “Strong” or negative like “Cowardly”. Aspects are rated from “Fair” to “Great” (or 1 to 3)2

The player may invoke the upside of any Aspect to improve a roll. Even a “Coward” might use his to hide more effectively, since he has so much practice. Conversely, the GM might rule that an Aspect hinders or prevents an action; the player can choose to accept the limitation in exchange for a number of Fate Points (used to alter die rolls) equal to the Aspect’s level, or buy off the limitation with the same number of Fate Points. Each game session, an Aspect may only be invoked a number of times equal to its rating, unless the GM agrees to a “reset” of all Aspects.

FATE expands the typical Fudge “ladder”:

• Abysmal (-4)
• Terrible (-3)
• Poor (-2)
• Mediocre (-1)
• Average (0)
• Fair (+1)
• Good (+2),
• Great (+3),
• Superb (+4)
• Epic (+5)
• Legendary (+6)

(Bold indicates a new term, italic indicates a term used in a different place.)

Another change from typical Fudge is that character generation occurs in “phases”, representing successive periods or events in the character’s life; in each Phase you pick one Aspect level and four ranks in related skills (the first rank gets you Average).

Skills at creation must also conform to a “pyramid”; the number of skills at each level must be one less than the number of skills at a lower level. For example, in order to have one Superb skill Selena must have two Great ones, which implies three Good ones, which implies four Average ones.

FATE suggests a list of skills more appropriate for fantasy, so after a little thought I’ll borrow from GURPS 4th Edition.

With all that in mind, let’s create Ms. Vasquez again.

Aspects

Name Level Phases
Champion of Poor Fair 1
Sultry Fair 2
Intelligent Fair 3
Ex-Cop Fair 4
Investigator Good 5 6

Skills

Name Level Phases
Spanish Fair 1 1
Streetwise Fair 1 4
Stealth Fair 1 6
Sex Appeal Fair 2 6
Research Fair 2 2
Fast-Talk Fair 2 5
Criminology Average 3
Detect Lies Average 3
Law Average 3
Handgun Fair 3 5
Interrogation Average 4
Diplomacy Average 4
Observation Average 4
Disguise Average 5
Lock-Picking Average 6

### Phases

1. Childhood: Selena grew up in a rough neighborhood in a bilingual home.

2. High School: Selena blossomed into an attractive woman, who was also a good student.

3. Police Academy: Selena enrolled in Community College, and then when she had gained enough college credit, joined the Police Academy.

4. Cop: Selena became a beat cop, trying to resolve situations peacefully and catch trouble before it started.

5. Agency P.I.: Disillusioned by her lack of advancement and the red tape that prevented her from making a difference, she hired on with a Private Investigation Agency, where she found a talent for investigative work.

6. Independent P.I.: Disillusioned, in turn, by the Agency’s predilection for helping the rich, she became an independent dedicated to helping the poor.

The preceding took about 45 minutes, admittedly some of that trying to figure out what I’m going to do for a modern skill list.

As for our three situations:

1. Selena will soften up the crook with Sex Appeal, backing it up with Fast-Talk if necessary. Again giving this guy an Average resistance to her charms, Selena has a 73% chance of beating his roll. If he proves tougher, or she rolls badly, she could use her Sultry Aspect for that session and either reroll the whole thing or convert a minus die to a plus.

2. Assuming once again that finding the oddity in the murders relies on charting the days they occurred, we could use her Research of Fair against a Difficulty of Fair to give her a 62% chance of working it out. Again, she could use an Aspect (Intelligent) to improve a bad roll.

3. Normally this would be a contest between Selena’s Handgun skill and the thing’s Dodge. However, as stated before it’s not attempting to dodge, so we’ll consider it Unopposed, with a Poor (-2) difficulty because it’s coming straight at her, she can see it in silhouette at least, and she had her gun ready. With her Handgun skill of Fair (+2), she has a 98.77% chance of rolling at least Poor, so it’s all but automatic.

### Discussion

Perhaps it’s my particular quirk, but using the massive GURPS skill list, even limiting it to Cop and Streetwise skills (see GURPS Skill Categories, a free download from e23), I made Selena’s knowledge broad rather than detailed. I could have given her higher levels in fewer skills (6 Average, 4 Fair, 2 Good, 1 Great). Perhaps if the skills themselves were a little broader … but that’s my failing, not necessarily the system’s.3

Still, freeform systems like this require more prep-work before the players even make characters. That doesn’t scare me, exactly, but it is more time.

The notion of using “phases” I like a lot; it inhibits my “window shopping” tendency with big skill lists, and gives a little more guidance.

As for the Aspect system itself, I go back and forth on it. It does make a nice hybrid between something ultra-simple like PDQ and something more elaborate like “vanilla Fudge”. Unlike fixed attributes, gifts, and flaws, you can spin it however you like, and you don’t need to apply special rules or bonuses. On the other hand, the mechanic of using up “levels” in your Aspects bothers me when the Aspect measures something physical and always-on: extraordinary strength, Selena’s sultriness or intelligence, and so forth. It’s clearly a mechanism to allow a kind of “fairness”, so every character gets to do something cool if they think of it, but it’s still hokey.

Granted, the FATE rules state (p. 17):

Aspects also provide a passive bonus that the GM needs to keep in mind. A Strong character is by definition stronger than one who lacks this aspect, and a Slow character just doesn’t get around that quickly. In rare circumstances, it may be necessary to roll the aspect. Mechanically, this is no different than rolling a skill.

Apart from raw Aspect rolls, what that bonus may be the rules never really say. If it’s bonuses in combat, or to certain skill groups, some Aspects might be more equal than others, depending on the type of campaign or adventure. GMs would have to carefully weigh the kinds of “passive bonuses” they dole out.

## Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu is a game explicitly for occult horror in the worlds of H. P. Lovecraft and his admirers. It uses a system called “Basic Role-Playing”, extracted from the original RuneQuest fantasy RPG (which I also own); at one time Chaosium extended BRP to multiple genres, including science fiction and superheroes.

There are seven basic characteristics in BRP-based systems: Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Size (SIZ), Intelligence (INT), Power (POW), Dexterity (DEX), and Appearance (APP). “Power” is a measure of spiritual/mystical/psychic strength; the others should be familiar from d20, or self-explanatory. Call of Cthulhu adds Education (EDU), a measure of general education, and Sanity, a percentile score of the character’s mental stability.

BRP rates skills as percentile rolls; roll that number or less on d100, modified by environmental factors, and the character succeeds. Each skill has its own base chance, improved at character creation time or during play. BRP doesn’t use experience points; if a skill is used during play, after the session the player tries to roll over the current percentile level. 99% is therefore the maximum for every skill.

Call of Cthulhu has tweaks for modern characters, so we’ll use those to create Selena. To crib directly from pages 36-37 in CoC 6e:

### Step 1: Determine Characteristics

Call of Cthulhu rolls characteristic numbers randomly, so the reader will have to take my word for what I roll up. On the other hand, it allows you to shift whole numbers from one characteristic to one that rolls the same number of dice.4

STR DEX CON POW APP (3D6): 13 11 17 9 8

SIZ INT (2D6+6): 14 13

EDU (3D6+3): 11

I don’t like these rolls much, so I’ll shave three points off the 17 and bring the 8 and 9 up to 10, as suggested on page 41.

So, for Selena, we’ll have:

STR CON SIZ INT POW DEX APP EDU
10 11 13 14 10 13 14 11

Starting SAN is POW x 5%, or 50.

A low POW might be foolish, especially since it determines starting Sanity, but the character concept says “sultry”, so we need a high number there. Maybe she’s spiritually impoverished as well.

### Step 2: Determine Characteristic Rolls

Selena’s Idea Roll (chance of having an insight) is INT x 5, or 70%.

Her Luck Roll (chance of avoiding catastrophe) is POW x 5, or 50%

Her Know Roll (chance of having a pertinent fact) is EDU x 5, or 55%.

Her Damage Bonus is based on STR + SIZ; looking up the result on a handy table, she has no damage bonus (or penalty).

She knows nothing about the Cthulhu Mythos, so her maximum SAN is 99.

### Step 3: Determine Derived Characteristic Points

As with other games, physical damage subtracts from “Hit Points” until the character is unconscious (2 HP or less) or dead (-3 HP or less). Casting spells or psychic duels consume Magic Points until the character is unconscious (0 MP).

Hit Points are (CON + SIZ)/2; Selena has 12 HP.

Magic Points are equal to POW; Selena has 8 MP.

### Step 4: Determine Occupation and Skills

Rather than rolling 1D10 and consulting the chart, I arbitrarily decree her income is \$35,000 per year, below average but not unbearable.

Skills in BRP are on a percentile scale, starting with a skill-specific default. She has EDU x 20 (220) points to raise Private Investigator Skills, and INT x 10 (140) points to raise arbitrary “personal interest” skills.

Professional Skills for a Private Investigator include Bargain, Fast Talk, Law, Library Use, Locksmith, Photography, Psychology, and “one other era or personal specialty”.

{Stop at 20 minutes, much of it flipping through books.}

After consulting the Character Sheet for base percentages, here’s where Selena’s points go.

Skill Base Pro Pers Total
Bargain 05 25 30
Fast Talk 05 35 40
Law 05 25 30
Library Use 25 35 60
Locksmith 00 25 25
Photography 10 15 35
Psychology 05 45 50
Computer Use 00 15 15
Other Language: Spanish 00 40 40
Handgun 20 30 50
Sneak 10 40 50
Fist/Punch 50 10 60
TOTAL 220 140

All other skills remain at default.

Dodge is DEX x 2, or 26% for Selena; Speak Own Language (English) is EDU x 5, or 55%.

### Step 5: Determine Weapons

Hand-to-Hand Weapon Skill Damage
Fist/Punch 60 1d3
Kick 25 1d6
Grapple 25 special
Firearm Skill Damage Range Shots/ Round Bullets Malf
.38 Revolver 50 1d10 15 yd 2 6 00

### Step 6: Determine Additional Background

We’ve done that, above.

Note: total character creation time: about 45 minutes. A lot of that was spent flipping through the rulebook and typing in results. If I were more familiar with character generation, and using the character sheet, I could probably get that down to 20-30 minutes.

### Our Three Situations (not in rulebook)

1. Selena will charm this guy by pitting her APP of 14 against his POW (willpower). This is resolved using the Resistance Table (pp 53,55 of 6th edition), which boils down to 50% + (active characteristic) x 5% - (passive characteristic) x 5%. Assuming the guy has average POW, Selena needs to roll 70% or less to charm this guy into submission. If that fails, she can try Fast-Talk (40%).

2. Assuming once again that finding the oddity in the murders relies on charting the days they occurred, we could use her Idea roll of 70%. I don’t see a more applicable skill, on her list or in the standard skill list.

3. The thing isn’t Dodging, so it basically comes down to Selena’s Handgun Skill of 50%. If she were firing at “point blank range” (DEX in feet, or about four yards), we could double that to 100%, but I never stated how far away the thing was when she started firing. She probably won’t let it get that close if she can help it.

### Discussion

Rolling for stats is much simpler, but some people roll well, others roll badly. I had to fudge the numbers a bit to fit the character in with the concept. One GM I know of runs a BRP-based game with point allocation to characteristics, and (presumably) a flat number of skill points.

Both the skill list and Selena’s ending skills seemed a little anemic to me. Where’s Seduction/Sex Appeal/Flirting? There’s a Track skill, but I read that as a wilderness skill; what about Shadowing?

Another oddity to me is the percentile skills vs. the 3-18 (or 1-20) stat levels. What if you pit a skill against a stat? (I guess you’d substitute the skill for (stat x 5).) Does an extra 3% really make a difference?

Gary McBride responds:

BRP’s skill list is born for tinkering. If you are playing a gritty pulp noir game, of course you will change the skill list. Add seduction… add shadowing… add whatever you want. Since skills are just percentage values, modifying them is a snap.

Skills are always on the front lines of genre enforcement in most RPGs. If you are playing a wild west game, the skills quick draw, trick riding and hard drinking are necessities. Just having them makes PCs behave more like stereotypical cowboys. If you are playing a game of hard sci-fi space exploration, the skill quick draw is best removed.

Changing stats in BRP is just as simple. But then, the main advantage of any rule-light game is the ease of customization.

I think you missed BRP’s primary strength – its broad appeal. It is just crunchy enough and familiar enough to the D&D crowd that they don’t realize they are playing a rules-light narrativist-oriented RPG. It is simple enough I can explain the rules to anyone in about a minute and, with a skill template (or archetype or career or whatever you want to call it), have them a well formed character in 20-30 minutes tops.

I concede the point that Lovecraft’s fiction fails to include sultry African-Hispanic female private detectives, so dissing the Call of Cthulhu skill list is not valid here. In FATE I borrowed the GURPS list, which seemed more suitable. Pendragon, a more extreme BRP derivative, changes skills to a 1-20 scale, and takes out INT entirely and grants POW only to magic-users. So, I can’t really judge all of BRP simply from CoC.

On the other hand, I don’t think BRP is truly “narrativist”. You can strip out all the crunch you like, but even the 16-page core of BRP contains combat rounds, to-hit rolls, damage rolls, hit points, and all the apparatus of wargames. Strip that part out, and you end up with something like HeroQuest, below. Notably, Greg Stafford switched his world of Glorantha from BRP-based RuneQuest to the HeroQuest system precisely because he thought BRP didn’t reflect the narrativist aspects of Glorantha, to paraphrase a bit from “The HeroQuest FAQ”5.

But I do admire BRP’s simplicity: skills, stats, possessions, magic however you allow or define it. When I discovered RuneQuest in college, I wondered why I put up with the monolithic classes in D&D or the oversimplification of The Fantasy Trip (which I can also wax nostalgic over). BRP seems “just right” for a more realistic system where individuals have various skill levels in various areas, can take more mundane or idiosyncratic career paths, and don’t become resistant to knives just because they’re the Greatest Swordsman in the Land.

## HeroQuest

Set in RuneQuest’s world of Glorantha, HeroQuest features a more freeform character generation system and a conflict resolution system that purportedly handles everything from deadly sword fights to courting a fair maiden. Some on the Web6 have adapted the same system to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Doctor Who, or other universes.

(Caveat: I’m working from the Hero’s Book, which is a player-centric extract of the full HeroQuest rules. I’m cheap.)

Instead of characteristics and skills, HeroQuest uses “Keywords” and “Abilities”.

Keywords resemble Risus “Stereotypes” most closely (analogous to PDQ Qualities), but they aren’t ranked. Each character gets three Keywords: Homeland, Occupation (perhaps with a specialty), and Magic. (In Glorantha, everyone practices magic of some variety, always connected with a god or religion.)

Abilities may be anything: skills, relationships, magical abilities, special items, personality characteristics, Wealth, whatever. Abilities associated with a Keyword start at 17. Players may create additional abilities, through the “list method” (pick 10 traits and three flaws) or the “narrative method” (write 100 words about the character and pick out adjectives, nouns, and phrases).

Starting characters may customize characters with 20 extra points, with a maximum of 10 going to any one ability.

In every skill use, the player and GM (or other player) each roll a d20; with a roll at or under the relevant Ability counting as a Success. (Even for climbing rolls; the GM’s gauges the Ability of the tree to repel climbers in animistic Glorantha.) A roll of 1 is an automatic Critical; a roll of 20 is an automatic Fumble. Based on which level you each got (Critical, Success, Failure, Fumble), a table awards one contestant a Complete, Major, Minor, or Marginal victory, with the possibility of a Tie. (Generally, each step above your opponent increases the victory level: for example, two Criticals or two Fumbles are a Marginal Victory awarded to the lower roll, while a Critical and a Failure, or a Success and a Fumble are a Major Victory for the winner.)

If a characteristic goes over 20, it gains a level of “mastery”; 25 becomes 5m. (Actually, HeroQuest uses a “mastery rune” but for simplicity I’ll use ’m’.) What good is mastery, especially since you’re busted down to 5 again? Every level of mastery you have over your foe allows you to bump a Fumble into a Failure, a Failure into a Success, and a Success into a Critical. If you have any left over, you can bump your opponent down in the opposite direction.

So, after that lengthy explanation, let’s make Ms. Vasquez a little larger than life …

Name: Selena Vasquez

Homeland: Modern Urban Hispanic-African-American

Occupation: Private Investigator

Magic: None

Skills:

• Police Procedure 17
• American Law 17
• Stealth 17
• Lockpicking 17
• Breaking and Entering 17
• Photography 17
• Security Systems 17
• Stealth 17
• Surveillance 17
• Streetwise 17
• Fast Talk 17
• Detect Lies 17
• Poker Face 17
• Impersonate Another Profession 17
• Noirish Internal Monologue 17
• Speaks Spanish 17
• Research 17
• Handgun 13 + 5 = 18
• Mean Right Hook 13 + 5 = 18
• Sultry 13 + 6 = 18
• Brains 13 + 4 = 17
• Diplomacy 13
• Persuasion 13

Relationships:

• Contacts among Local Cops 13
• Contacts among Continental Ops 13

Personality:

• Cagey 17
• Unflappable 17
• Self-Appointed Defender of the Downtrodden 13
• Dislikes Authority 13
• Smart-Aleck 13

Wealth: 13

Possessions:

• Glock Handgun (damage bonus TBD)
• Lockpicking Tools
• “Stuff” at apartment

Skills I just made up off the top of my head. The full rules might have established skill guidelines, or limits on Keyword abilities. I probably could have gotten more non-Keyword abilities under the List method, and if I looked really hard at the character concept I wrote at the beginning maybe a few more out of the Narrative Method, but I decided to stop where I was because I’m running out of ideas. Maybe a kind GM will let me use the “As You Go” method to fill in the remaining ones.

By the way, the above took about 15-20 minutes. Obviously I wasn’t quite done, and I need to figure out how to handle modern firearms in a Bronze-Age geared system …

But, on to the tediously familiar Three Situations:

1. Normally seduction would be an Extended Contest (see below), but let’s assume the GM rules that it’s a minor incident, so we resolve it in one roll.

Selena will use her Sultry Ability of 18 against the crook; let’s assume he has Don’t Play a Player at 13, to give him a chance.

Since your humble narrator has only a Probability Theory of 6, I ended up using a brute-force Ruby script to calculate probabilities. According to the resulting probability table, Selena has a 51.25% chance of victory, broken down as follows:

• Complete Victory : 0.25
• Major Victory : 5.75
• Minor Victory : 28.75
• Marginal Victory : 16.50
• Tie : 3.75
• Marginal Defeat : 32.75
• Minor Defeat : 8.75
• Major Defeat : 3.25
• Complete Defeat : 0.25
2. Assuming once again that finding the oddity in the murders relies on charting the days they occurred, she could rely on her Brains of 17 against a Subtle Chronological Connection of 17. Selena has a 47.5% chance of victory, broken down as follows:

``````* Complete Victory :  0.25
* Major Victory    :  4.50
* Minor Victory    : 12.50
* Marginal Victory : 30.25
* Tie              :  5.00
* Marginal Defeat  : 30.25
* Minor Defeat     : 12.50
* Major Defeat     :  4.50
* Complete Defeat  :  0.25
``````
3. The thing isn’t evading at all, so we could just give Selena an automatic success. Instead, given surprise and partial darkness, we’ll give it a Charging Into Gunfire of 6 against Selena’s Handgun of 18. Selena has a 67% chance of victory, broken down as follows:

• Complete Victory : 0.25
• Major Victory : 7.50
• Minor Victory : 56.75
• Marginal Victory : 2.50
• Tie : 2.00
• Marginal Defeat : 20.50
• Minor Defeat : 8.75
• Major Defeat : 1.50
• Complete Defeat : 0.25

### Discussion

The combination of Keywords and Abilities, like FATE’s Aspects and Skills, gives you a nice balance of a few general “stereotypes” or “distinctions” and more specific numbers to actually roll against. Unlike FATE, Keywords aren’t limited-use: if a player can argue that an ability is part of a Keyword, he’d get it at a higher level than if he “bought” it normally, perhaps even for free. (Again, I’d have to see the full rules.)

One downside of Keywords is that the GM has to have a very clear idea of what is and is not part of a Keyword. Games based in the “real world”, on well-established genres like detective fiction, or in detailed worlds like Glorantha (or the Buffyverse) have a distinct advantage. A GM would need to develop the nations, cultures, religions, magic systems, and professions of his fictional world to a great deal of detail.

The generality of Abilities appeals to me a lot. While I mentioned combat, use of social, intellectual, and magical abilities can affect the “state of health” of ones social or political life, ego, relationships with people or gods, etc. That, too, is the same mechanic as for physical injury: reduction in “relevant abilities” until the damage is “healed”.

The uniform resolution system also gets high marks. It’s something I liked in the Fudge variants and PDQ, and missed in Call of Cthulhu. How one assigns Abilities to inanimate objects has me confused, but that’s another argument to pony up the \$40 for the full HeroQuest system.

The mechanic of “Mastery” allows HeroQuest to scale to high-powered games (as was the intent). One level of mastery over your opponent eliminates Fumbles; two levels makes failure almost impossible, and at three or more the dice rolls only tell the lesser opponent how badly he’ll be defeated.

The distribution of victories and defeats is not at all intuitive, and when I first generated probabilities I got them wrong. Because you use the lower of the two rolls to decide the winner if both have the same success level, the lower skill is more likely to have a lower roll, particularly in the case of mutual failures. (GURPS, below, has a more sensible rule for this based on the distance from the target number.) Without Mastery, extra skill only mitigates defeats: marginal defeats and minor/major victories both increase, but the probabilities of defeat and victory skew from 50/50 only slightly until there’s a wide disparity.

Above I used only Simple Contests. Extended Contests like melee combats give each contestant a number of Advantage Points and uses bidding to subtract or transfer points based on each roll result. The first one to go negative loses, with the amount in the hole determining the level of Victory (and in combat, the level of injury). This gets complicated, so I won’t go into it more here. But I like the way the system starts out with opponents jockeying for position, and ends in horrible suffering. I think that’s what The Riddle of Steel tries to do with its mechanics, although I’ve yet to read even the freebie rules lite version of TROS.

## GURPS Lite, 4th Edition

The “heaviest” system I’ll consider is GURPS Lite, a 32-page extract from the current two volumes of the GURPS Basic Set, set in three column small type. I played GURPS 1st edition ages ago, but got annoyed with the complex point system for character creation and advancement where even NPCs Allies have to allocate points to take PCs as Allies. There’s plenty of room for minimaxing and crocking, especially when you mix in the skill-based magic system. (Perhaps I’m bitter, since as a new GM I failed to design adventures that took into account the formidable magic abilities of each character.)

Still, I have an odd affection for GURPS, so, limiting myself to GURPS Lite, I’ll see exactly how Lite one can make GURPS.

We’ll build Selena as a 100 point character, with a maximum of 40 points of Disadvantages. After about 45 minutes of point balancing and flipping through 16 pages of 3-column text, here’s my rendition of Selena Vasquez:

Base Attributes: ST 11 [10], DX 11 [20], IQ 12 [40], HT 11 [10] [TOTAL: 80]

Derived Attributes: Hit Points: 11, Fatigue Points: 11, Will 12, Perception 12, Base Speed 5.5, Basic Move 5, Thrust 1d-1, Swing 1d+1

Advantages/Disadvantages: Attractive [4], Sense of Duty: Poor and Underdogs [-10], Struggling [-10], Quirk: Doesn’t like Authority [-1] [TOTAL: -17]

Skills: Brawling 12[2], Carousing 11[1], Computer Operation 12[1], Criminology 13[4], Disguise 12[2], Fast-Talk 12[2], Law 11[2], Pistol 12[4], Observation 12[2], Research 13[2], Sex Appeal 12[4], Shadowing 13[2], Stealth 13[2], Streetwise 12[2] [TOTAL: 32]

Languages: English (Native)[0], Spanish (Native)[3], Spanish Literacy (Accented)[2] [TOTAL: 5]

Back once more to our three situations:

1. Selena will use Sex Appeal 12 against this guy’s average Will 10. That’s a Quick Contest; both parties roll 3d6. To quote the rules: “If one succeeds and the other fails, the winner is obvious. If both succeed, the winner is the one with the largest margin of success; if both fail, the winner is the one with the smallest margin of failure.”

Probability-wise, we could model this as (12 - 3d6) - (10 - 3d6); a positive result goes to Selena, a negative goes to the NPC crook. Doing a bit of “dice math”, this works out to 2 + 3d6 - 3d6, or 6d6-19. This gives Selena a 63.69% chance of winning, and a 8.37% chance of tying.

2. Depending on the GM, Selena could use Criminology 13, Research 13, or IQ 12. Rolling at or below those numbers on 3d6 gives her a 84% chance with her skills or 74% with IQ … assuming an unmodified roll. If the GM assesses a modifier of -2, that dips to 63% and 50%, respectively.

3. As stated before, Selena has no penalties and the thing isn’t attempting to Dodge (which would give it a 3d6 roll against its Base Speed + 3). So Selena must roll at or below her Pistol skill of 12 on 3d6, giving her a 74% chance to hit.

### Discussion

To create Selena I first selected the skills I wanted her to have, then, based on the number of DX-based, IQ-based, and HT-based skills, give her base characteristics that maximized those levels. (I probably could have brought down her DX or HT by one and brought up her three DX and two HT skills with points left over, but I wanted to give her a better speed and stamina. ST could have been left at 10, but I wanted to give her a slight edge in combat.

Another problem, maybe with me, is that every stat and skill hovered between 11 and 13. On 3d6, this is a huge range (63% to 84%), but still it leads to an appearance of sameness.

Still, the limited lists of GURPS Lite made character creation easier than flipping through an entire hardback book (or two) with full GURPS. Granted I started playing GURPS at 1st Edition, when all we had was Man to Man, but I was surprised how easily Selena came together.

GURPS always quantifies, categorizes, and measures every aspect of a character: weapons have accuracy ranges and rates of fire, characters have clearly defined advantages and disadvantages, combat ticks off Hit Points and (in the full version) defines the effect of Hit Locations, everything is measured in Character Points and (theoretically) balanced. Contrast with HeroQuest, where you take a passel of somewhat nebulous Abilities and use abstract die rolls against each other to determine future penalties (to die rolls and within the story). I don’t fully buy into GNS theory, but the systems truly lie on opposite ends of the often-disavowed Narrativist-Simulationist continuum.

## Summary and Conclusions

### Quantitative Comparisons

Since I’m at least pretending to objectivity, here’s a summary of numbers, and a matrix of features I stated at the beginning.

PDQ TI ASCB FATE CoC HQ GLit
Generation Time (mins) 5 30 20 45 25 20 45
Probabilities: Situation #1 66%+ 58% 73% 73%+ 70% 51% 64%
Situation #2 83%+ 62% 62% 62%+ 70% 48% 63%
Situation #3 100% 99% 99% 99% 50% 67% 74%

‘+’ indicates the percentage could increase due to rules reinterpretation, better roleplaying, or using an Aspect. Other mechanics like Fudge Points, Fate Points, or Hero Points aren’t included.

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, so I will not claim analyzing numbers will infallibly lead me to a conclusion. The fastest character generation system will not necessarily win.

#### Character Generation

PDQ, as promised, took by far the fastest to generate a character, although my indecision about how to use what I mitigates that somewhat. FATE and GURPS Lite took the longest, with everyone else somewhere between 20-30 minutes. (I was generous with my estimate of Call of Cthulhu’s character creation time.)

#### Probabilities of Success

In considering the probabilities for each situation, I’m not judging which is highest or lowest. If someone does something for a living, or has a stated talent for it, his or her success percentage should be higher, ideally better than 50% for something at or below their normal capabilities. So, I’m looking for skill percentages that are outliers, either too high or too low.

With that in mind, here are observations on each system:

PDQ percentages are perhaps a little high, but not unduly. Note that PDQ in Situation #1 is per round of the extended contest.

Percentages in the Fudge-derived systems are, not surprisingly, almost the same.

Call of Cthulhu’s 50/50 chance for Selena to hit a thing charging right at her kind of puzzles me, but otherwise they’re in line with the others.

HeroQuest distributions are wacky. Without levels of Mastery, only a wide disparity of abilities makes victory or defeat even reasonably certain, and there’s a significant possibility of ties as abilities reach parity. This may work well for Extended Contests, where over time the better person will win, but in Simple Contests I’m not sure I like being so close to 50/50 odds.

GURPS Lite’s percentages are noticeably closer to 50% than the others; maybe it’s my character generation skills, or maybe it’s the combination of the Bell Curve and the expense of getting up to the 14-15 range.

### Qualitative Comparisons

Categorizing each system according to the characteristics listed in the Introduction, I have the following “feature matrix”:

PDQ TI ASCB FATE BRP HQ GLit
Little Arithmetic x x x x x
Single Basic Mechanism x x x x x x x
Simple Rules x x x x x x -
Captures Character x x x x x x
Common Sense x x x x x x
Style of Play: Gritty ? x x x x x
Style of Play: Heroic x x x x x
Style of Play: Story x x x x x x x
Style of Play: Wargame x x x x x

All these assessments are subjective. To explain the blanks:

• ASCB requires only simple addition, but it seems to require it a LOT.

• GURPS Lite has the whole point-allocation thing, but in play the arithmetic is pretty simple.

• I can’t comment on whether GURPS Lite rules are “simple”: they seem straightforward to me, but others might not think so.

• The ASCB character ended up as a collection of abstract Aptitudes, which only tangentially related to the character concept.

• HeroQuest gives wide disparities in skill only slight advantages to victory or defeat, although with greater skill the victories become greater and the defeats become more marginal. It’s like two bell curves skewing rather than one migrating over, and I’m not sure how “common-sense” that is.

• Since PDQ works in such broad strokes, I can’t imagine a truly “gritty” PDQ character … faux noir, perhaps, but not someone who bleeds and dies. The combat system is very abstract, and to me kind of hokey. You have to use “Drama” techniques to reflect “realistic” death and dismemberment.

• Similarly, HeroQuest is geared to “heroes”, whose hurts are obstacles to their quest instead of sucking chest wounds that could kill them. If players want to move things on a map and calculate ranges, HeroQuest is not the system.

• Call of Cthulhu, conversely, is too human-level, too detailed, too “wargamy” to work in the broad strokes and simple supernaturalism that HeroQuest or PDQ excel in. Basic Roleplaying is, well, too basic; you’d have to graft on a system from another game to add improvisational magic, superpowers, or earth-shaking skill levels.

• The full GURPS system can create arbitrary superpowers, but you don’t get the same sense of improvisation and infinite possibility with heavily quantified GURPS characters as you do with HeroQuest or even PDQ.

The essential differences among these systems boil down to “freeform” vs. “structured”. PDQ is the most freeform: pick broad categories and apply them to all tasks. GURPS, Terra Incognita and Call of Cthulhu are the most structured: here’s your list of primary attributes, derived attributes, skills, and gifts/flaws. Freeform leads to easier character creation but more judgement calls during play; structured makes character creation difficult and somewhat artificial, but leads to an easier time picking the skill and mechanic for resolution. (Unless you have so many skills you need an index …) FATE, ASCB, and HeroQuest attempt to strike a balance.

I like the idea of “templates” from the full GURPS system, professions from Call of Cthulhu, and “pre-generated heroes” from HeroQuest. Players (and GMs) new to the system have a better idea of how to create a character if they see an actual example they can tinker with. Then again, those systems need templates, because of the innumerable options of GURPS, the seemingly unrelated skills of Call of Cthulhu, and the literally infinite possibilities of HeroQuest.

If I want a Do-It-Yourself system based on Fudge, BRP, or HeroQuest, the first thing I need to do is get a canonical (or at least prototypical) list of abilities and skills. With great power comes great responsibility …

I really think GURPS Advantages and Disadvantages, or Fudge Gifts and Flaws, complicate things. I’d rather make everything a type of skill, attribute, or Aspect/Quality use.

### Initial Ranking

1. FATE
2. HeroQuest
3. Fudge, GURPS, Extended BRP (tied)
4. PDQ
5. ASCB

Honorable Mention: Terra Incognita, Call of Cthulhu

FATE comes out on top. I like FATE’s blend of freeform Aspects and specific skills, although the “Strength Dilemma” still bothers me a little. If I GM or play it, maybe my last doubts would be dispelled.

HeroQuest comes in second, mainly because of the funky probabilities. I like the freeform Abilities guided by Keywords, though. With freedom comes responsibility, as always, so I’d need to evaluate how to adapt it to a non-Gloranthan (and possibly non-heroic-fantasy) setting of my own devising. Maybe it’s too much work unless you have a world that’s been developed over thirty years.

Fudge has numerous other builds besides Terra Incognita so I could easily start tweaking those. The Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition hardback offers a complete “Fantasy Fudge” setting, lists of gifts and faults, material on modern-day weapons, two different sets of martial arts rules, a couple of magic systems, a psionics system, and a plethora of other rules and tips. Hack -n- Slash offers a simpler fantasy setting, A Magical Medley offers multiple magic systems. There’s undoubtedly more stuff on the web. (And I’ve got the nifty dice …) Of course, the downside is that I’d be required to pick and choose which rules I’ll use.

GURPS is not far behind Fudge. GURPS is familiar ground to me, but might be offputting to others. In that respect GURPS Lite is a nice tool: tell players they can create characters using GURPS Lite plus a selection of templates and appropriate advantages, disadvantages, and skills, with a note saying what parts of full GURPS are approved. On the other hand, I think FATE would adapt better to a high-powered or High Fantasy campaign than GURPS, assuming I didn’t go with HeroQuest or a custom Fudge build.

BRP is lighter than GURPS, with easier die rolling than Fudge (percentage or under vs. adjective +/- number against another adjective), so it’s about the same level. BRP underlies RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, and Nephilim, among others, so there’s plenty of raw material there. Instead of random rolls, players could allocate a number of points among characteristics (not going below a base of, say, 8). Maybe I’d also tweak the system so that skills and attributes were on the same 1-20 scale (as in Pendragon). But, like Fudge, I probably would have to cherry-pick parts, unless I found The Perfect Rules somewhere on the Web.

PDQ comes in next to last. It’s a little too simple for me. Maybe I’d have to play it for real, in a setting that provides some flavor (like Dead Inside or Truth & Justice). I can only imagine using it with a lot of mechanics around it, in a primarily Narrativist game.

ASCB comes in last. As I said, ASCB tries to strike a balance, but in my opinion ASCB picks the wrong balance point: essentially 18 statistics, skills “specializing” those statistics, and a whole bunch of figuring during play to find out what applies if the character doesn’t have the right skill. The other games have rules for improvisation, but ASCB tends to make most skill uses improvised.

Call of Cthulhu and Terra Incognita get Honorable Mentions as nice builds of more generic systems. Terra Incognita has more conventional character generation rules than FATE, and is rooted in its fictional pulp/steampunk world. If I wanted that sort of campaign, though, it wouldn’t be a bad option. Similarly, if I were doing a pure Lovecraftian game, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach for Call of Cthulhu first.

### Next Time

Next time I’ll consider more “heavyweight” RPGs, including Iron Heroes, True 20, Burning Wheel, and possibly Perfect 20 and The Riddle of Steel if I get around to reading those.7

### A Final Correction

From Gary McBride:

Oh, and an OAF RKA with charges isn’t a real gun in Hero.

A real gun is an OAF RKA, STR Min (STR cannot add/subtract damage), Real Weapon, Beam, Charges (possibly in multiple clips), Required Hands with possible AP, Penetrating, Burnout Rolls and OCV bonuses (among others) to represent options and weaknesses. Now that’s a gun…

Breakfast cereal on the other hand is only a Fragile Independent OAF Life Support: Diminished Eating (Nonpersistent, Gestures [Use of Bowl, Milk and Spoon]) with destructive charges.

1. I can’t find a link to the company or this game, so you’ll just have to take my word for how it worked. – Frank in 2020. ↩︎

2. This and following text refers to “FATE 2nd Edition”. In subsequent editions, including modern Fate Core, Aspects are unranked and powered by Fate Points. See Fate RPG Resources to download current and past versions, or the Fate SRD site to browse most recent rules. ↩︎

3. As a reminder, I was working with “FATE 2nd Edition”. Versions of Fate after I wrote this defined smaller canonical skill lists of about 18 skills. ↩︎

4. What follows is true for Call of Cthulhu 1-6th editions. 7th Edition converts attributes to percentile scores: SIZ, INT, and EDU are (2d6+6)x5%, the rest are (3D6)x5%. ↩︎

5. Which disappeared off the Web after the big changes at Issaries, Moon Design, and Chaosium in 2015-2017. You’ll have to trust me on this too. – Frank in 2020 ↩︎

6. Who subsequently disappeared off the Web … – Frank in 2020 ↩︎

7. Note from the future: I didn’t do Buring Wheel or The Riddle of Steel, and I only described the rest. Le sigh. ↩︎