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Superhero vs Fantasy

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PS: Regarding the space combat question, I find that this is another example of the lack of framework issue.  The player needs to be presented with a clear set of possible actions (and consequences), rather than being told that his character is at the Engineering console of a spacecraft and has an Engineering skill of 8-.  It's better to say, Do you route power to shields or weapons?  Do you arm that damaged weapon or try to fix it?  Do you override the rev limiter on the warp drive?  Unfortunately this is the kind of structure that Hero is poorly positioned to handle because it's setting dependent--Engineering is way different on the Enterprise than it is on the Mayflower.  That said, I haven't seen any RPG that's better.  Boardgames like Space Hulk and Battlestations come closest.

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For me, there are many problems with space combat in the context of a roleplaying game. I don't really care to break them all down, so I'll focus here on my main issue with it. 

 

If a RPG involves ships (or analogs) and player characters move around through some kind of medium that is hostile to organic life while in them, either it is on the table for the player characters to die horribly as the logical consequence of something going wrong with the ship they are on...whether that be malfunction or enemy attack or whatever, or it is not on the table at all for the player characters to die in that way.

 

Now to be clear, it might asymmetrically be TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE for non-player characters to die horribly due to a ship mishap. That's a non-issue. The crux of the question hinges on player characters dying due to a ship mishap.

 

If it is not on the table for the players to die in that way, then any supposedly dangerous situation that happens while they are on a ship is not really a danger. In a RPG trying to emulate a fictional work such as Star Trek or Farscape or Legends of Tomorrow or Firefly, it is tacitly understood by the players that any apparent danger to the player characters or their ship itself while in space is just a pretense for an episodic adventure...the threat of danger and whatever needs to be done to avoid it is just a mcguffin or a call to action. But if that is not the focus of the gaming session, emulating a ship malfunction episode or similar genre trope, then events of that nature just seem like a time waster to me. 

 

If it IS on the table for players to die horribly due to ship mishap then the next question follows: is it on the table for ALL of the player characters to die horribly due to the same ship mishap? I.e...is it possible for the ship they are all on to explode (etc), killing them all at the same time? 

 

If the answer is NO then there is some kind of plot protection in place to prevent the TPK and probable end of the campaign. If there is plot protection in place, then only threats that might kill off one or two player characters at a time are possible. Since a sensibly equipped enemy vessel attacking the PC's ship could logically blow up their ship and kill them all, if its not allowed for all the PC's to die at once due to ship mishap it strongly limits the usability of enemy vessels capable of blowing them up. At any rate, great care and hoop-jumping must be taken either by the rules or the GM or both to avoid the TPK. This can be played around by being clever with particulars...maybe the PC's have clones, or are all on separate ships, or some kind of elaboration on ship design that somehow prevents one shot kills, or some other gyration. But any such sidestepping puts you back more or less at the same place as not allowing players to die in this way at all, from a story perspective.

 

If the answer is YES, it is on the table for a mishap in space to potentially kill off all  the player characters at once, then the player characters are basically flying around in a deathtrap. And if it does come to pass that a dice roll is failed (or an enemy's dice roll succeeds) and all of the player characters die and their ongoing story comes to an abrupt halt due to a randomized outcome, how will the players take it? Personally, I would feel distinctly unsatisfied if that were the way a space game I were running or playing in ended.

 

 

 

So, for me, generally speaking ships in a space game are best used primarily as plot justification for transit between point A and point B, as a mobile HQ, and as a built in rallying point / shared motivation for player character who comprise the crew of or live on a ship together. Space battles in which the dice land as they may and anything up to and including TPK is possible are very risky affairs unless I just don't care if the campaign comes to a screeching halt...in which case why am I showing up to play in or run that campaign in the first place?

 

That's the core of my issue particularly with hard sci fi space games...beyond the tedium of trying to simulate such a complex undertaking as space travel (much less space combat) and the dangers of floating in a pocket of technology through a hard vacuum, at the end of the day if the game system being used is fully simulating the innumerable ways my character's existence can come to an abrupt end using semi-random resolutions, it is simply a matter of time before a bad roll or chain reaction of some kind snuffs my character, or baring that forces the session to change from whatever it was going to be about to the process of trying to head off an inevitable doom due to lack of oxygen or radiation poisoning or space induced psychosis, etc. 

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In my opinion, campaigns benefit from the real possibility of character death up to and including TPK.  Indeed, the TPKs are among my most cherished RPG memories, in a sick kind of way.

 

Still, I know that's not for everyone, but starship combat hardly need to result in complete disintegration for it to have potential negative consequences.  A disabled ship would be easy to capture; a critically disabled ship might have to crash land on the man-eating jungle planet; either way all the kewl lootz in the hold will be lost.

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Sure, I'm not saying that TPK is the only possible outcome, I'm saying that if it is on the menu at all should be worked out in advance, and whether the answer is yes or no either has a generally problematic impact on a campaign featuring heavy use of ships traveling through a hostile medium.

 

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I don't see it as a huge problem to be honest; if you're avoiding TPKs then the answer is going to be some combination of escape pods and deus ex machina, if you're not avoiding TPKs then don't get too attached to your character.  ;)

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And it may not be a huge problem for you. It's a problem for me because when I run a campaign, I generally have story arcs and at least a framework of a plot or grand plan as to what the campaign is about. There's some specific inflection points (indicated by nodes in a wire frame flow chart typically) that form the skein that I structure the overarching campaign around. Game play as driven by the PC's will tend to go astray, but eventually I'll route them back into one of the inflection points, or add an inflection point that segues back into the original wire frame. I'll make periodic tweaks as necessary to accommodate things that occurred in play or as better ideas occur to me, but overall the end result is usually recognizable when compared to the original blueprint I set forth. I intend for the players, at least, to get to the end of the story and ideally with most of the starting player characters. Random TPK's or other campaign ending events are a issue for me because beyond just ending the campaign it also wastes the time I spent in "preproduction" to borrow a cinematic term. I might be able to salvage some elements of it for a later campaign, but it is better all around to avoid blowing up the campaign.

 

Similarly, as a player, I don't enjoy playing in games where people just show up every week and we do random, sloppy, episodic things with no goal. I don't want quantity or gratuitous schlock, I want quality or at least depth. I want a Kubrick or Jackson plot not a Bay or Snyder plot. If the GM isn't bringing the long term continuity, I bring it and push long-play considerations in the form of my character's goals. Random TPK's that aren't in service of anything other than just allowing random chance to entirely drive the plot are a frustrating and undesirable outcome for me.

 

 

Now, I know of course that many people play that way...just show up, roll some dice, see what happens. Like going to a casino. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, what the dice gods giveth the dice gods may taketh away. I don't like to roll dice to see WHAT happens, I prefer to roll dice to see HOW it happens. The goal of each scene is to get to the next scene and keep the story going. Thus I don't like failure (TPK in this case) to mean there is no next scene, I prefer to instead fail forward into the next scene.

 

The difference between an RPG and a wargame is primarily continuity of character and setting. In a wargame, your little toy soldiers fight and die, and you reset for the next battle. In an RPG your little toy soldiers are more fully realized as individuals with motivations and personality and they are on a story arc of self improvement, getting better as they go along. If they die, they don't reset. Their story ends. The threat of character death is important to provide stakes, to provide risk. But as RPGs are character driven, the movement of the story is entirely wrapped around the player characters, and thus a total party kill is almost always also a total campaign kill. It serves the interests of no one in the group, save players that may want the story to end...in which case why are they even playing in the game? It's an elective activity. Presumably the people showing up week to week and investing their time into the campaign are doing so because they enjoy it and want to see the campaign continue. 

 

So, that's why I personally give serious consideration to situations with a high probability of TPK and tend to avoid or at least handle with care those situations. Campaign premises that are built around a concept that by its very nature has a persistent high probability of TPK, such as hard sci fi space travel in a hostile universe, are problematic for me. Obviously, other peoples mileage may vary, and the show up and roll dice and oh well you all died style of gamer will have less of an issue with it.

 

As far as "escape pods and deus ex machina"...hard sci fi and deus ex machina are incompatible concepts. Rigorous scientific accuracy and the classical refuge of a uncreative author to contrive an unearned solution via supernatural or inexplicable intervention are obviously wrong for each other from the jump. Escape pods might be plausible for some situations in space and work fine in less rigorous sci fi, but in hard sci fi escape pods aren't really that practical. They are a concept that gets carried along to SF from time to time because our parallel of space travel is nautical travel, and large nautical ships have lifeboats. The thing about that is, if a nautical ship sinks you can float away in the lifeboat. Space ships don't sink. They blow up, get pulled into hazardous situations, or become uninhabitable. In many cases, whatever issue is affecting the spaceship and is causing you to get into the escape pod would also affect the escape pod. So, not a slam dunk. Basically, the key idea here is, in hard sci fi whatever "out" you provide to avoid TPK should hold up to logical scrutiny; as a sub-genre based upon verisimilitude anything that significantly undermines verisimilitude within a campaign also undermines the campaign itself.  At the very least, careful consideration is due...it is not a sub-genre that lends itself to winging it.

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Trivial, but as close to hard sci-fi as we have:  135 Space Shuttle missions.  2 TPKs.  Zero other casualties.  Of the TPKs, those on board could have effected repairs and saved the day zero of two times.  So yeah, the casualty fraction is more "binary" than was the case for early transoceanic adventures.

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Certainly, but even Shrike's hard SF campaign probably occurs at a higher tech level than the Orbiter.  At least some of STS-51L's crew survived the initial breakup and might have lived if the ejection seats had been left in.  A recent Soyuz mission to the ISS became a successful demonstration of launch abort systems, and SpaceX's Dragon capsule has undergone successful launch abort tests.  It's hard to believe that even a near-future SF campaign couldn't have even better technobabble ways to avoid a TPK scenario. 

 

But it sounds as though the real issue is not TPK but disruptions to the flow of the prepared campaign, which is entirely understandable.

 

What is thread supposed to be about again?

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The problem, to me, isn't about TPKs.  It's about systems and paradigms that enforce PC fatalities as the only failure states and consequences.  People want their story to continue.  The GM wants the PCs to stay alive.  But if defeat means death, that can take defeat off the table. 

If every fight is to the death, then losing a fight means TPK.  If withdrawing is difficult or impossible, then every fight is win hard or lose hard.  If the only method of removing an enemy from combat is lethal, then all fights are lethal. 

 

Every scene with important decisions in a TTRPG should have consequences for those decisions.  Combat is a dense cluster of important decisions, so absolutely requires consequences for bad decisions.  Otherwise why bother including such a robust conflict-resolution method for it?  If the only question is "how do the PCs win", then abstract the actual combat and skip to what matters. 

Champions et al are great for this sort of thing.  A hero defeated by a villain might be left behind to stew in their defeat, might be kidnapped for experimentation, might be placed in a sadistic deathtrap, might be unmasked publicly, might have their mcguffin stolen, might fall from the public's graces, or might just be shot and left for dead (possibly to come back).  Plenty of fun and exciting ways to have a defeat matter without ending a story. 

A PC who goes down in D&D enters the countdown to stability or death, and if everyone drops generally somebody bites it.  And because healing magic is so capable of popping a defeated character back up to fighting status, it becomes a smart move to finish somebody while they're down.  Defeat means the end of a story, which means defeat becomes impermissible. 

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On 12/8/2018 at 8:30 PM, unclevlad said:

A few musings...

 

I agree that the mega-overarching, split between 9 titles over 8 months and 20-odd issue, story lines turned me totally off, especially in conjunction with the massive decline in artistic effort.  Cripes, the newer stuff looks like elementary-school doodles sometimes.  

 

I think another potential explanation is, the existence of a build path is inherent in fantasy RPGs;  they were designed with that as a core assumption.  So yeah, fine, 1st level is WIMPSVILLE, but we can approach the power levels of at least a good chunk of fantasy heroes.  Trying to pull off the more popular comics heroes is really tough.  Power levels are hard to translate.  The versatility one tends to see is tricky to pull off, and generally expensive.  Thus, the fantasy RPG leads to wish fulfillment better than the supers RPG.

 

Something else that hasn't been mentioned.  Complexity and support.  Point buy is inherently more complex than level-based.  Mechanically, a level-based character takes little time to build.  (Well, possibly in later D&D 3.5 it got messy because of the explosive proliferation of PRCs that you wanted to plan for.)  Never true in point-based.  Plus, I find I need a more complete concept for point-based, because there are so many more options.  Support...monsters.  Items.  Locations.  Plot hooks.  TONS of everything for D&D that you could use or adapt pretty easily.  Not so much for supers.

 

That said, I also strongly suspect that the freedom to act as you bloody well want to act, with no repercussions whatsoever quite often, and the more concrete rewards system...the sense of moving forward steadily and consistently...are central points.

Great post.

 

That said, I can't think of many people from when I started playing who didn't get much of their early rpg experience from D&D, and didn't get their early wargaming experience from Warhammer. Becoming the legacy brand has its advantages. Those two have most of the experienced gamers familiar with their game, and more money and exposure at any one time.

 

That said, their market ebbs and flows, because eventually, every consumer gets tired of adding bells and whistles to solve problems from the last bells and whistles and eventually tends to settle on a particular product/edition.

 

As a kid, I knew more people who read comics than read fantasy. And there are clearly tons of fans of super hero movies.

 

Basically, I think inertia has more to do with the why one is more popular than the other. The first I saw supers games marketed at even near the level of D&D was at a point when the market was flooded with games, and that wasn't Champions, so Champions, really the legacy supers game, couldn't gain the same advantages as a game like D&D, because it was already magically placed from its inception of being a niche in a niche, and not long after, had a fair number of competitors.

 

I do, however, think your power levels argument is a great one. I think there's a lot of elements to it in supers.

 

However, I think that supers games had more influence on the culture of game creation and tastes, from a focus more on scenarios rather than modules full of questions as to why none of the denizens of this castle heard the ninety two sword fights that lead us to this room, and supers always had the actual codification by choice of weaknesses for a players character.

 

Literally 80% of the advice I see to GMs online could have been gleamed from any of a number of super hero game modules and systems from the late eighties, and certainly were less common in the popular fantasy games of the time. Part of that is the medium. Supers has detectives and street fights, and a dungeon crawl only works when the people in the dungeon can't burn holes in all the walls and take a direct route, so the interplay and story really was more up front, because there was no choice.

 

 

 

 

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On 10/29/2018 at 4:42 AM, tripthicket said:

 

Why do you think that fantasy is a more popular genre?

 

For me it has always been about "ease of use".

 

As a GM (and as a player) there is simply so much more easy to use source material for fantasy than there is for supers. This has become more true over time (or rather as I get less and less free time). I also use Maptool (a virtual table top application) to game and although it isn't a necessity, it does make me want to build all the maps before I start a session. Which frequently leads to the problem that even with neophyte Super Heroes they usually have the ability to travel large distances and go places you haven't considered. *sigh*

 

If I want a tavern, blacksmith, alchemist's lair or virtually any fantasy environment I can think of, chances are you can google a high quality map for it. Attempting the same for a modern environment turns up far fewer results. All of which eats into my most limited resource: "Time". :(

 

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On 12/20/2018 at 10:16 PM, Old Man said:

PS: Regarding the space combat question, I find that this is another example of the lack of framework issue.  The player needs to be presented with a clear set of possible actions (and consequences), rather than being told that his character is at the Engineering console of a spacecraft and has an Engineering skill of 8-.  It's better to say, Do you route power to shields or weapons?  Do you arm that damaged weapon or try to fix it?  Do you override the rev limiter on the warp drive?  Unfortunately this is the kind of structure that Hero is poorly positioned to handle because it's setting dependent--Engineering is way different on the Enterprise than it is on the Mayflower.  That said, I haven't seen any RPG that's better.  Boardgames like Space Hulk and Battlestations come closest.

A while ago on these boards I saw a a suggestion where the GM designs a basic diagram of what can break and what needs fixed in a space ship. So you know in advance that if the Huperdrive motivator is broken, you have Sublight power but not FTL for example. 

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On 1/4/2019 at 5:59 AM, Jagged said:

 

For me it has always been about "ease of use".

 

As a GM (and as a player) there is simply so much more easy to use source material for fantasy than there is for supers. This has become more true over time (or rather as I get less and less free time). I also use Maptool (a virtual table top application) to game and although it isn't a necessity, it does make me want to build all the maps before I start a session. Which frequently leads to the problem that even with neophyte Super Heroes they usually have the ability to travel large distances and go places you haven't considered. *sigh*

 

If I want a tavern, blacksmith, alchemist's lair or virtually any fantasy environment I can think of, chances are you can google a high quality map for it. Attempting the same for a modern environment turns up far fewer results. All of which eats into my most limited resource: "Time". :(

 

 

I am with you on this.  I am always on the look for good usable maps, but they are few and far between.  Hero had several products that had great map "concepts". I say "concepts" because they were all sized to fit on a standard page and cannot be enlarged to a usable size.   Even the PDFs are low rez.  Champions Battlegrounds, Fantasy Battlegrounds and Thrilling Places all had great locations.  The Mall in CB would be awesome if it wasn't so tiny.  I wish they had a Hi Rez map pack.

 

The map of Hudson City (https://www.herogames.com/forums/store/product/275-hudson-city-map-pdf/) is the reason why I have used HC as my main campaign city for years.  For pretty much any genre that requires a city.  It is done in the modern city map style that has all the major streets and such, but leaves the details to you.  I even modified a version for the 30's by removing all the Interstates and replacing them with rail.   Great map.  I would love to see a map for Vibora Bay.  Any map. 

 

But modern maps are as rare as ships are.  Pretty much every seafaring product is fairly lame, with very little effort to do any research.  We're not looking for 100% historical accuracy in a fantasy game.  But come on!  Every D&D/Pathfinder game has an 1800's Frigates or the Black Pearl swanning around with Longships. 

 

Anyway, back on topic, a decent modern map is hard to come by.

 

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On 12/20/2018 at 2:08 PM, Killer Shrike said:

Your theory re: lack of wargaming background vis a vis narrative game design doesn't seem to hold up, to me.

 

This may be an artifact of the old Simulationist/Narative dichotomy on Rec.games.frp.advocacy.

 

I am back from, the Holiday break. So I can answer some of this.

 

On 12/20/2018 at 2:08 PM, Killer Shrike said:

 

Surely we can agree that it is entirely possible that some or even most game designers who produce games that focus on facets of roleplaying other than dice rolling exercises are not doing so due to a lack of experience (wargaming or otherwise) but rather because they are attempting to design a game that they believe some group of people (or perhaps themselves) will enjoy playing. 

 

I would hope that we could also agree that it is also possible that some gamers who enjoy playing games of that ilk do so because they like the things those games focus on, rather than from a position of ignorance of something, such as (in the case of your assertion) the multi-splendorous joys of wargaming.

[EDIT]

On 12/20/2018 at 2:08 PM, Killer Shrike said:

 

 

Why, take me as an example. In addition to being a roleplayer perchance I am also a wargamer (and a computer gamer, and a board gamer, and a card gamer, etc). I would venture that there are few who might successfully challenge me on my willingness to engage with "high-crunch" game systems of any variety; in fact I think it is fair to say that I like complexity more than most. And yet, I also like, play, and produce content for low-crunch and mid-crunch roleplaying games. And I know that I am not alone in this general category of "people with a wargaming background who like to play RPG's that are light on tactical map and dice roll off resolutions", as I've played with and also corresponded with fellow travelers upon that particular path over the years.

 

On 12/20/2018 at 2:08 PM, Killer Shrike said:

For instance, I personally don't begrudge other people their gaming preferences, and I don't judge them based upon those preferences. It's not a good thing or a bad thing to me that someone is a die-hard gamist or simulationist or hybrid thereof. I try not to jump to conclusions as to why they prefer what they prefer, or assume that if they had just experienced the things I have experienced they would hold a view closer to if not identical to my own. 

 

{shrug}

 

I mean no disrespect, and I am not looking to denigrate other play styles. I am just trying to convey my supreme disappointment, turning to hostility to the minimalist/ narrative focused systems. 

 

On 12/20/2018 at 2:55 PM, Killer Shrike said:

Lets talk about "a high level of abstraction".

 

So, this is a basic building block of RPGs:

 

One or more players convene to imagine events taking place in an imaginary setting populated by imaginary entities who are imagined to take actions to arrive at one or more imaginary outcomes.

 

The nature of the imaginary setting, the specifics of the kinds of imaginary entities (characters, monsters, etc), what sorts of outcomes are permitted, and what sort of means for accomplishing those outcomes are possible tend to be the bulk or even the entirety of individual game systems printed text. Agreement on that text among the players forms the bulk of a social contract to govern the time they spend "playing" that game.

 

True, this is put forth among the participants, and is agreed upon at, or before start. 

 

On 12/20/2018 at 2:55 PM, Killer Shrike said:

 

 

I could noodle around the edges of that for hours, but to keep this focused lets agree that there is some kind of "character" who has some differentiating attributes specific to the game system that attempt to measure or define the character's ability to accomplish one or more things, and that there is some kind of task resolution guidance presented by the rules. 

 

A game system that says "to accomplish tasks, a player rolls one or more dice, which may be modified for a variety of reasons, and compares the outcome of the dice to some criteria to determine degree of success or failure" is offering a means to model or simulate events within the imaginary tableau of the game at very high level of abstraction

 

Rolling dice to determine what happens when something is attempted is, in fact, about as abstract as it gets. Game systems with one or more rules are a formal system. Formal systems are generally agreed to "represent a system of abstract thought". 

 

The idea that reducing a complex idea to a die roll is less abstract than reasoning from genre conventions, or reasoning from dramatic considerations aka "plot", or consensus, etc, is not born out.

 

 

 

Oh but here's the rub. You bring in "Genre conventions".   Sure, we pick things based on Genre, but then how closely does one hold to that?  I would agree to the set up, but I would not stay with a tight genre as I feel too constricted. I have already discussed my  walking away from games I felt to restricted with.

 

On 12/20/2018 at 3:11 PM, Killer Shrike said:

Lets talk about the statement "Unlike you, I would rather War game out resolutions than have it resolved with a couple of die rolls, and a description. "

 

So...in all the wargames I've played, and also the style of rpg with a heavy focus on wargame elements (tactical maps and minis, highly detailed combat resolution, etc), dice rolls were involved (or cards that served a similar randomizing purpose). The "description" of outcomes in those games was present...but they were generally mostly asserted by rules text rather than by one or more of the players. 

 

___

 

Once a player has initiated an action that requires dice based resolution in a game system, whether there is one roll, or an arbitrarily extended series of dice rolls by one or more players (including the GM) is basically irrelevant. In the end there will be an outcome; the number of dice rolls and the complexity necessary to resolve each dice roll to get to that outcome doesn't improve the finality of that outcome.

 

In other words, if a system requires a series of back and forth contested rolls, each of which may have various modifiers, to arrive at a final outcome and the nature of that outcome is put to words by a chunk of rules text, that is not intrinsically a better system than one that boils all the circumstantial considerations of success or failure down to a single dice roll where the nature of the outcome is interpreted by one or more of the players (including the GM). 

 

You may of course prefer one style over the other, but in the end they differ mostly in means, not in motive.

 

Oh I definitely do have my preferences.  On another thread, Zslane said, "Just because PCs can die--fairly easily if players are not smart and cautious--doesn't mean they are disposable characters that should be treated like nameless figures on a mass battlefield. It just means the campaign is more of a sandbox simulation of a world in the given genre, rather than a story-driven collaborative experience where every PC is a precious snowflake that must not die unless it serves a satisfying dramatic purpose." I enthusiastically agreed. What I wan't is not a "story", but a journey. I want to experience someone else's world through the eyes of my character. I want that sandbox, rather than a path. I viewed the old Fantasy hero games as a travelogue, with a bit of fighting here and there. But the people, the cultures, the environment were what sent my imagination sailing along seas of wonder. 

As for the Space Ship issue, it's like the "Sniper problem"., and i will concede the sniper problem, as it pisses off players, like few other things. The Sniper problem is that if the opposition to the player characters hires a competent sniper, then it may be likely at some point that one of the P.C's head explodes. This, again, pisses off the players. So as one of my concessions away from the fairly tight realism I prefer, as a gm, I would have that first shot miss, or hit someone the PC's were talking to, and then put them on the speed chart, as they now knew someone was trying to kill them. At that point, the PCs knew the stakes and were cautious in their actions. For the ship, this may be watching two other ships battle to the death, and realizing what happens when one gets themselves involved in ship to ship combat. 

The "Hero Does it Better" thread gave me some new tools to handle ships and other complex systems, with the use of Causual Influence Diagrams.  These allow a player to make informed and meaningful decisions, above and beyond just the combat. It's a little more work, but I think it makes things less hand wavey, which i do like to do.  So there are these, and probably tools I haven't run across yet that will add, for me, the right sort of complexity i desire. The Solar System campaign is a go, so I will now have a chance to put things into practice.

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