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

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.


There are tactical options which come into play like grappling the kobold or flanking the ogre. Options you do not have in DW.

Edit: to prevent misunderstandings “options you do not have” means “there are no special rules for it” besides defy danger. Which would fall into the “samey” category for jco - I assume.

Well, in D&D I think the fighter might choose to use a bow (even though they are worse at it) because the ogre lacks a good missile weapon, or stay back and guard the spellcasters or ranged attackers.

Or it might make sense to try to bargain with the ogre or trick it with riddles or something. I guess the point is that it’s easy to make “hit it with a sword” feel like a less attractive option without specifically banning it or introducing new prerequisite actions.

(As an aside, I think some D&D tables feel “samey” because the DM and/or players approach all situations with a fight, and that fight ends up feeling mechanical because they always make the same actions/rolls. I don’t think a complex or symmetric systems guarantees a table will use it well, even if it provides more options.)

For that there is brand new:

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Wait, people use the grapple rules? :sweat_smile:

I jest, but I see where you are going. I’m not sure those make good examples though. Flanking the ogre, for example, might be exactly what’s needed to attack it in Dungeon World, since no one can get close enough otherwise.

I have the same issues with Calris’ other examples: A DW fighter can certainly shoot it with a bow (I’d say that’s probably a good idea!) and tricking or riddling probably doesn’t engage with the mechanics of either system, so I’d say that goes just fine either way.

So this is my problem: I am picking apart these examples, not because I am defending anything at this point, but because I want to see the differences. Yes, in D&D, “I flank the ogre” means someone gets Advantage against it, while in Dungeon World, it might mean “Now you can stab it without having to weasel past its reach with a Defy Danger or something” but both of those provide real, mechanical advantages. Similarly, the bow and the riddling. (Well, the riddling is sortof a ‘category C’ where neither system does anything with it). So I feel like I am being mean and nitpicking examples, because clearly people have something in mind that gets to the core of this, but are having trouble finding examples. But at the same time, I am asking myself “Why is it so hard to come up with a clear example here?”

Is it that the GM has to adjudicate the difficulty of getting into Hack & Slash range of the ogre? Would this be solved if Dungeon World explicitly said “Since Ogres have the Reach tag, characters who have weapons that have shorter ranges must Defy Danger to roll Hack & Slash against it”? The game never comes out and says something like this – maybe because it assumed people would figure it out, maybe because they didn’t want to assume it would always be true, or maybe because they didn’t want to rigorously define stuff so as to keep people ‘thinking in the fiction’, or whatever, but it doesn’t.

Or maybe it does, as Thomas’ edit suggests, all come down to “But I’m just making another roll!” but that’s… what advantage/disadvantage is, which at the end of the day, is a lot of what you get in these situations in D&D, so I don’t think that’s really it? Does it just need difficulty numbers? Does a roll where you need a 15 feel different from two rolls where you need a 10?


Something I find interesting here is that I don’t really see the PbtA sameyness at all, the flavour of the moves and the way the game is designed to drive the fiction from the characters’ actions and give those choices weight mean that to me it doesn’t come out samey at all in play and it doesn’t feel arbitrary.

However every time I have read through a Fate-based game or listened to an AP of them, I always get that feeling from those - even though they can use opposed rolls, the fact that you’re always rolling XdF against whatever opposition the GM has chosen feels as though it’s basically completely arbitrary. I think that’s why I’ve never actually got a game off the ground - there’s a lot to like about the system but I don’t feel the personality.


I think the issue is that you’re equating fictional positioning with mechanical positioning and asking why two different things that feel the same to you feel different to other people. Your impressions seem to be results focused (gain advantage over the ogre) whereas others are process focused (using/activating game mechanics vs. using a discussion to establish how you are achieving the same effect). By what you’ve been saying, using a battlemap to move your character in such a way that they receive a flanking bonus is identical to describing your character doing the same thing. In both cases the same result is reached, but the brain feel can be different to some people.

This is probably not the perfect metaphor, but imagine you need to create metal bolt. In one case you take raw metal, drop it on a lathe, and craft the bolt yourself. In the other scenario, you create a 3D model of the bolt, import it into a CNC machine, and let the machine automatically carve one. In both scenarios you’ve created a bolt, but the actual act of making it had completely different processes.