What systems nicely handle more in depth, "complex" rules?

Both of those perspectives (or all three) make sense to me, for what it’s worth. :slight_smile:


I wonder if rather than “arbitrariness”, maybe “motivation” behind the number is a better thing to examine?

So for example, at least for me, a GM looking at the tone and tension of a scene and saying “Ok the goblin stabs you for 2 damage” has a very different feel from a gm looking at a pre-written module or monster manual or whatever (particularly if it’s not written by the GM), seeing that goblins always hit for 2 and saying “Ok the goblin stabs you for 2 damage”. Both are arbitrary, but the motivation behind the 2 damage are coming from different places.

So then, the main difference between the two as far as I can see is that in the first example the GMs motivations and biases(influenced by the current situation) are all that matter and in the second the GMs motivations are replaced by the module writers motivations and biases(uninfluenced by the specific situation). This doesn’t make one better than the other but they certainly feel different, particular if as a player you know the process being used.

Randomness complicates things further because it doesn’t eliminate the motivations of the module writer or the GM but it somewhat messes with them, or dilutes them. The GM might just choose and say “2D6 feels right here” but a result of 2 and a result of 12 might have widely different narrative consequences.

Makes me wonder how a ruleset that had pre-prepared values for things like monster damage, but then modified them with GM intent rather than randomness would feel ie: “Goblins do 10+(0-2 depending on scene tone and story) damage”. Where the players know the GM made up part of the number, but not all of it.

What is this game wherein the “the GM looks at the tone and tension of the scene” and decides how much damage something does? Because it kinda sounds like fun, but I’ve never seen a game do it. PbtA? No. It’s not Apocalypse World. It’s definitely not Dungeon World, which is probably more rigorous with damage than D&D is since it actually has a set of questions you’re supposed to ask when creating a monster to determine how much damage it does. It’s not Monster of the Week. It’s sure not Masks 'cause that game doesn’t even have damage. It’s not Epyllion. It’s not Thousand Arrows or Hearts of Wulin. It kinda sounds like “That PbtA game I read about on the internet that someone said was a ‘storygame’.” and that’s kinda frustrating, partly because it keeps coming up in these sorts of hypothetical ways, and partly because I think it’d be kinda neat to play around with that (Though I don’t expect it would end well.)

Which is my long way of saying “I’ve never heard of a game, PbtA or otherwise, where damage is dependent on tension and tone”. Monsters and weapons have stats in PbtA games, the same way they have stats in D&D. Those stats tend to include “How much damage does it do?” if the game has “damage” as a concept. Therefore, PbtA games are no more arbitrary in this regard, nor does the GM have different motivations when delivering it. They are following the rules, not evaluating dramatic pacing. Games that ask people to evaluate dramatic pacing rarely bother with things like “damage numbers.”

Maybe you were just using damage as a hypothetical “thing that the GM does” – in which case, I apologize for taking you overly literally but if you weren’t, I don’t think there’s a useful difference to be unearthed there and we should probably step back and take another look at things like Ars Magika’s magic system, or Tenra Bansho Zero’s Karma to see how you can make a system that adds value to a game.


In urban shadows, damage is not dependent on tone but whether or not enemies hit is. There are literally no rules for whether they hit or not, it’s just a GM judgement call based on pacing, with some guidelines. It’s been a while but I’m pretty sure dungeon world is the same way?

It’s pretty clear where you stand on this and that’s fine, but I disagree that there’s nothing to be had discussing this in particular, but agree there’s likely nothing to be had if it’s us, because we have reached an impassed. I think his point was relevant. As boggling as our statements on PbtA seem to you (and disparaging any criticism of PbtA as “you must have read it on a blog” is lame as hell), your statements defending combat in PbtA are sort of boggling to me. It’s not that it’s bad, but it just is a totally different style of combat, and IMO, GM discretion plays a much larger role.

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Perhaps a more constructive comment:

In Urban Shadows (and Dungeon World though it’s been a while since I played), non player enemies feel like an extension of the world. You attack them in the same way you interact with any NPC, you roll 2d6 with modifiers, you get a 10+ 7+ or miss. Nothing wrong with that. This result defines how successful you are, and based on the situation, the enemy might attack or might not. It depends on GM discretion. There is no initiative, and nothing like “and now the enemy attacks.” In DW, I believe the enemy attacking is one of the downsides from getting a 7+ on your own attack.

In a game like DND, enemies have more of their own mechanical identity. They’re part of the world, yes, and ultimately the GM can do whatever they want, but the enemy has stats, initiative, etc. Yes, using them is a matter of discretion, but when they attack and how has no discretion. Maybe they hit! Maybe they don’t! In many PbtAs, the GM can just say “they tackle you and you are on the ground…what do you do??” this can be exciting! You don’t have to look up tackling rules, you can keep the action going. But in DND, the enemy would have to attempt to tackle you like any player would. There are pros and cons to both. What it your character is a wrestling expert? DW: “oh hrm right, I guess you can roll or something” whereas in DND this would be expressed by abilities which would give you benefits in the situation, mediates by the combat mechanics

Having followed this thread for a time - reading most of the 85 posts, I have a hard time figuring out what this is about. Rereading the posts we have:

Which boils down to basically complaining about Dungeon World ( ~PbTA in general not having subsystems ) and thus feeling samey (?).

An example for not nice handling more depth is Shadowrun:

A false criticism of Dungeon World is:

Dungeon World or PbtA in general isn’t about skill checks!

Which might explain, why the TO thinks it feels samey. It has no subsystems in comparison to other games, because what you are doing in combat or magic is not different from what you are doing in general. Numbers work different in PbtA games.

A prime example for that is how PbtA does handle difficulty in opposition to other games. In more traditional games if you as a GM want to present your players a hard or dangerous or complicated task you set the difficulty of the given task. “The wall is high and hard to climb?” - “roll acrobatics against 20.”

Here the 20 signals that the task is difficult - opposed to a standard 15.

In PbtA you couldn’t cover behind a number and abstract away what it means that the wall is hard to climb with this number. You describe the situation with move snowballing in mind: meaning one bad thing leads to another bad thing and things go south. So if the situation has one or the other outcome you were able to say: “now that was difficult”.

The complexity of the situation is in stark contrast to mechanical complexity.

Still the question remains at that point:

So diving in deeper:

Another PbtA misunderstanding:

That is not the case for e.g. Dungeon World: Monsters always inflict damage as listed in their description

nope. See above.

This is clearly the same misunderstaning like the one above:

The result doesn’t define how successful you are. It says that you are successful and leads in to what comes next. When there is one thing I find misleading and therefore annoying in PbtA is the description of the outcome in terms of three classes of having a success, a partial success or a failure which leads to the exact misunderstanding for people new to the system.

Even with a 6- you could be successful in what you are doing. But what comes next might hit you hard.

No and yes. There is a now the enemy attacks and the rules clearly say when - you noticed that.


If I sum up what I think this is about:

  • There are rule-systems which have sub-systems which make the game complex from a mechanical point of view. This is assumed to also lead to more depth
  • There is a kind of player who feels attracted to more complex systems
  • There is a satisfaction of rules mastery. Rules mastery is on the one hand the ability to know a large number of rules and on the other hand being able to make an informed decision within the variety of rules up to the degree of “beating the system”.
  • To make an informed decision there is the requirement of the rules being not arbitrary. Rules have to be orthogonal and mostly consistent: There are different mechanical ways to deal with a situation and it is up to the player to choose which resolution mechanic to choose. A criterium for consistency is comparability or symmetry: E.g. a level 1 spell isn’t as powerful as a level 2 spell and a level 1 fireball behaves symmetrical to a level 1 lightning bolt and has consistent description of its effects.
    • There is a differnce between having simply lot of different rules and having an “ordered” system of many but different rules
    • There is an upper limit for the number of rules which is the capability of the mind of the players getting used to it on the one hand and the practicability or playability: I could imagine having a lot of simple to memorize rules which follow a complex grammar of making up a situation in the game which takes up a large portion of the time spent playing where the initial purpose of doing something different from analyzing the situation ruleswise does not evoke the feeling of playing a game anymore


The requirements seem to be:

  • offering a lot of rules
  • organizing the rules in different subsystems
  • staying consistent
  • being symmetrical
  • being gameable / playable
  1. I can understand that PbtA does not appeal to that kind of player. The mechanics in PbtA serve a different purpose than that in more trad games. And mostly sacrifice one of the other points in favour of being gameable.

  2. I think it hard for a game to fulfill all of the above requirements. I assume an easy breaking point is having different subsystems on the one hand and being consistent and symmetrical on the other hand. Even if you take “chess” which is admittedly no roleplaying game, but one meeting most of the requirements, it has not many rules to offer although having many subsystems for the movement of each class of chess piece.

Sorry for the mass quotations.

Left open: I could see that meeting the requirements of the above list may feel satisfying for some kind of people, but I could not say what exactly it is what seems satisfying (perhaps the freudian anal fixation is of any help?). I am not that kind of player.


I can see the arguments on both sides here. Although the defences of PBTA games have been pretty robust, it really isn’t as arbitrary as it seems, there is something to the point that many other games have generative mechanics for things in the world and outside the scope of character action.

Where PBTA offers no mechanical help is where things are happening which the characters have no influence over. So yes, D&D has rules for two NPCs fighting each other, and can generate an outcome with only light input from the GM. In PBTA the GM can look at their fairly minimal stats, if they have them, but the game system doesn’t offer much help.

This is by design though, two NPCs fighting each other is rarely if ever going to be interesting. PBTA is very deliberately a player facing game system, and that comes with huge advantages in keeping the game focused on the characters.

A really interesting counter-example for me is The Black Hack. This is a really excellent rules light OSR game, along the lines of Basic D&D but with much more flexible core mechanics. The second edition contains a whole pile of resources for DMs. Monster generation systems, encounter tables, dungeon creation tools, overland encounter and terrain creation tools. It s a fantastic toolkit to help GMs generate and populate their game world and keep the game ticking along.

Looking at their games, Traveller has a whole trading system for generating worlds, their con comic factors, trade goods and prices. Uncharted worlds has a huge tool box for generating an SF universe. Many games have rules for creating or generating NPCs much as you would create a character. Pendragon has rules for generating events in the winter phase. PBTA games ofter nothing like any of that.

On the flip side, PBTA games offer tools for doing things effortlessly that other games really struggle with. The Hardholder is a great example. How many other games provide robust mechanics for creating and leading a whole community, in just a page or two of mechanics? Many of the AW playbooks would be incredibly hard to create systems for and run satisfactorily in conventional mechanics, but PBTA moves make it almost effortless.


I think there are other reasons why there are no rules for two NPCs fighting. As far as I understand the philosophy of PbtA it is not about adjudicating situations rather than looking beyond that and telling what happens after the situation. It is mechanically and storywise not interesting in that sense why one wins over the other - that is, what DnD is about - for PbtA it is only interesting why did the fight happen in the first place and what is the consequence of either side winning.

As I said above: stats/numbers play a different role in PbtA games. In trad games A wins over B because of the stats. The numbers give you the why. But that is uninteresting.

The fact that small David won over the giant Goliath was interesting and not that the one had a higher INT and the other higher STR.
That INT was the relevant stat was only true in hindsight. Or was it DEX?


Taken to extremes it is uninteresting. But done well, it can give meaning to things. Otherwise, ok so NPC David beats NPC Goliath. Why? GM says so. Will it happen next time? Probably not. Why? Well Davids beating Goliaths is hard!

Not to say it can’t be interesting, but to say that a mechanical resolution is inherently uninteresting is I think not quite true. If anything, people who play D&D long enough have stories about the line kobold who almost killed their whole party due to great luck – these sorts of experiences make no sense without combat mechanics. In DW it would be a string of misses which feels…different than when the kobold rolls another 20.

@jco Good points, sure.

A more mechanically complex system that is close to D&D and takes a very mechanics-first approach is 13th Age. It has mechanics for all sorts of game world stuff, to the point that to some extent it even automates monsters. Many of them have special attacks and effects that trigger on various dice rolls. For example on a natural even attack roll it might do extra damage, or a special effect might kick in like paralysis or terror. Some might have a special option on certain numbers of the escalation die. It actually does quite a good job of being mechanically rich, without the whole system being particularly complex.

You have a lot of options and lot of things can happen at any given point, but I’ve never found it overwhelming. It’s one of those systems I’ll happily play and I found it very interesting to read as there are a lot of innovative ideas in there, but don’t feel a particular draw to run.

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Thank you for the tip to 13th age! I actually quite like a lot about PbtA, which is why I wrankle a bit when people accuse me of this and that. Explaining this stuff is hard! I’ve just been trying to figure out what is that thing that crunchier games do that PbtAs do not. The dream of course is to merge both. I’m reading through ars magica stuff and beautiful magic system aside, there are endless tables of extended this and that that really just beg for a more narrative oriented system.

I think I tend to enjoy crunchier systems for core resolution of conflict, but more narrative oriented systems for everything else. Will def check out 13th age!

As I said: The question is whether it will change the life for everybody to the better or to the worse? That is different from asking “Why did that happen?

That is not what I said - at least not, what I meant to say.

Let me put it differently:
There are two disparate philosophies of one adjuticating/ruling the situation and the other focussing of the turning points of the story. What I meant to say is that if your focus is the latter the former is in that regard uninteresting in the sense of neglectable, not that people might find that not entertaining.

This is - I think - the core of your point:

Your fun derives from a mixture on outgame / mechanical factors in combination with ingame (story) factors. There is the diegetic drama from the storyline and the extradiegetic meta-drama through the mechanics.

Not only was the kobold a fiercy creature the dice must have been cursed: “and then the GM rolled a natural 20 …”.

That’s what I tried to analyze in the above thread.

Sidenote on how I run DnD:
In contrast to other GMs, I have very few times the dice rolled during a session. Of course there is the classicalroll for initiative” combat part of the session. But otherwise I demand only skill checks for extra-ordinary things.

I would rather foreshadow that there are traps in contrast to constantly rolling passive perceptions checks. It is up to the PCs whether they do or don’t get the hint.

Or say the PCs are on an investigative trip: They get the necessary clues under every circumstance even without a roll on investigation. But if they look thoroughly they could roll and perhaps get additional information.


If you don’t like me being frustrated with your generalizing about PbtA, it would help if you referenced a specific game that instructs you to do what you are suggesting. Expecting everyone to have read and played the one PbtA game you keep citing your problems with is not necessarily very fair. I’d love to see a cite on where Urban Shadows tells you to examine the tone of a scene to determine whether an enemy hits.

You are correct that there is never a “now the monster attacks” moment in Dungeon World, but that does not mean there is no process surrounding how and when monsters attack. Yes, it can happen on a 7-9 or a 6-, but it can also happen when the GM says “The goblin is attacking you” and you don’t do anything about it. If the problem here is “There’s no time when the initiative clock says when it’s been too long since the third goblin tried to stab someone.” then that’s fine, but that doesn’t seem like what you’ve been saying so far.

You’re right that the GM does get to decide whether an NPC hits another NPC more or less arbitrarily, because both of those are the GM’s characters – though I would expect the GM to be deciding this based on both the fiction and the stats of the NPCs if any, not the tone of the scene. I can’t think of a good reason the GM shouldn’t be deciding this. I myself would not, under most circumstances, sit down and roll a whole lot of D20s to decide a fight between two NPCs in D&D. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time. If I want to not decide who wins, I am free to not decide who wins in a PbtA game as well, this is even a Principle in Apocalypse World, if I recall. But this is another hypothetical to me – I literally cannot remember the last time I had two NPCs fight, on screen, in a game I was running, or a game I was playing in. This is an edge case – and a rare one at that.


Believe it or not, I am trying to understand what about it doesn’t work for you. I’m just not getting what you are trying to communicate.

Does anyone else have a handle on this who could explain it a different way? All I’m getting is “It feels different when the Kobold rolls another 20 than it does when you roll another 6-” which is true, but it feels unsatisfying as answer. It couldn’t all possibly just come down to “I don’t like games where the GM doesn’t roll dice?” could it? Because the type of fiction here is exactly what happened in our Dungeon World game a few weeks ago, where it felt like the entire party was going to die because we couldn’t roll above 6 while fighting some goblins. We didn’t die, but that’s not because of the game or the GM, it’s just because the dice finally decided to cooperate, and we ended up walking away with “only” way more damage than a handful of goblins should have been able to do. So that sort of experience – as I understand it from your short example – certainly does happen, and doesn’t need the GM to put a finger on the scale in any particular way.

So what’s the difference between our experience and “the one kobold that nearly killed the whole party”?

The attitude towards the gaming system.

My initial response was a giant roll eyes but I’m assuming good faith.

My group switched from DND to DW because of the weakness of DND and the perceived strengths of DW. We on the whole had a good time, but there were aspects I found felt different, in a way I didn’t quite enjoy. Combat feeling “samey” was one of them, despite radically different narrative situations. We engaged the system in good faith and had a good time, but if given the option I would play other games. I think Urban Shadows, for me, plays more to what I enjoy about PbtA.

That’s cool. I don’t think Dungeon World is a particularly good PbtA implementation either, it’s just popular because of the D&D tropes.

I still don’t have a handle on what could be done about “samey” combat without adding a lot of exception based special abilities though.

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Dungeon World (and PbtA generally) has an asymetric game system where the players make all the rolls (and which doesn’t use any kind of target or difficulty number). The probability of succeeding at a move is largely independent of the specific circumstances (unless the DM rules the move is impossible, or requires defy danger first), and in particular the difficulty of moves in a conflict is largely independent of the particulars of the opponent (who doesn’t take actions like the players do, largely doesn’t have the same stats, etc.). This can contribute to the sense that most tactical situations are similar, except to the degree that the story and narrative position is different.

For example, imagine you have a fighter in DW with a high strength score who just absolutely wrecks every opponent. The DM can create fictional situations where the fighter isn’t allowed to roll hack and slash, or encourage the fighter to try other kinds of moves (maybe requiring a defy danger roll before every attack). Some monsters will have more HP and armor, but in general most encounters with this fighter are going to go the same way, and as long as they can roll 10+ (or at least 7-9) things are likely to go more-or-less as expected (at least mechanically). The likelihood of this strategy working is the same encounter-to-encounter, unless the DM takes the fairly extreme step of forbidding the roll or requiring an extra move first. From a player’s mechanical point of view defeating an ogre and a kobold come down to more or less the same thing: rolling 10+ or at least 7-9 on some dice.

Now by contrast imagine modding Dungeon World back toward D&D and giving the monsters character sheets, and making hack and slash an opposed roll. In this case the ogre and kobold have vastly different strength scores (as well as different sizes and possibly different moves). Our fighter can still try to hack and slash the ogre but it’s going to be much more difficult to achieve a successful result than it will be against the tiny kobold. Instead of having to use fictional positioning to make wrestling an ogre feel challenging (or “gating” the move with defy danger), the DM can just rely on the fact that the mechanics make success much less likely without other assistance.

This modded Dungeon World (Symmetric World) would lose a lot of the elegance of PbtA systems, would require the DM to track more information about NPCs, would likely require some kind of initiative system, and would lose many of the other benefits that PbtA systems obtain. But one of the things it would likely gain would be a richer tactical experience. Would it be worth it? Maybe not. But I don’t think it’s hard to see why people might feel like there are some advantages to this kind of system.

These conversations often feel unproductive because observations like these are interpreted as an attack on PbtA, or a challenge to prove that “PbtA can do that too”, or proof that someone isn’t engaging with the system correctly. None of those are my goal. I don’t need to be persuaded of the benefits of PbtA games (by volume, they are the games I play the most these days), but I also don’t think feelings of dissatisfaction with these systems are necessarily evidence that they are being played wrong.

P.S. This thread has gotten intense enough that I had to write this in a text editor – my web browser is seriously laggy! :sweat_smile:


By the way, have you read Troika? The core rules are about 10 pages of a 100 page book. It is symmetric (NPCs get to take actions) and supports a bit more complexity in conflicts while still not feeling like a D&D clone (possibly because it feels like a Fighting Fantasy clone instead :wink:).

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I have not read Troika. It’s on the, uh, Long List.

Good explanation! I’m not 100% convinced that this problem can’t be solved within a symmetric system, but I think I get the gist how things can feel samey.

A question though: The kobold and the ogre. In D&D, I feel like if I am playing a fighter, my options are still the same: It hit it with my axe! Maybe the ogre feels scarier because it had more hitpoints and hits harder or is harder to hit, or whatever is appropriate, but have we actually changed my decision making space any? So if I’m mostly just saying “I hit it with my axe” does the mechanical differentiation that one of the creatures hits me back harder/requires me to hit it with my axe more times/is harder to hit with my axe change the game for me? If it’s just a question of “I am more willing to fight the kobold than the ogre” or “the ogre feels scarier” then I’m troubled, because I feel like a Dungeon World ogre is something that I am less willing to fight and feels scarier due to it’s fictional positioning (It’s big! It has reach!), larger HP pool, and high damage numbers.

Of course the “fighter problem” has been around for a long time now. But it’s also the epitome of ‘samey combat’ which many players avoid by playing classes with have lots of mechanical doodads, which is also a thing in some PbtA games.