The last video arcade game I truly fell in love with was 1994's Virtua Fighter 2. Wolf Hawkfield was my character and we kicked some serious butt together. He hit hard and he hit fast but his secret strength which few ever seemed to pick up on was his range. Maybe it was a fluke in the programming but Wolf's strikes seemed to reach a bit farther than they should.
Mostly though, Wolf had the coolest moves. His tackle was nearly impossible to stop. With the Axe Lariat he would snap forward to smack an opponent in the face with his bicep and bowl them over. The German Suplex looked like it hurt far more than it actually did. The king of his moves however was the Twirl-N-Hurl, a very hard to pull off maneuver and yet an absolutely devastating one when you did. Swing the joystick in a low half-circle and click the punch button at the end of it. If your opponent didn't move while Wolf was in motion he would knock them over with a low head butt, grab their legs and spin like a corkscrew to toss the poor sap across the screen.
A few years later, while playing D&D 3.5 in yet another orc battle, I was getting bored hitting things with my sword and decided to try a twirl-n-hurl. I told the DM something along the lines of, "I rush forward to a crouch and hit him in the belly with my head, hoping to knock him over. If that works, I grab him by the legs and spin him around a few times. Once I have enough momentum I fling him away."
"I have no idea how to handle that," admitted the DM with a sigh. "Give me a roll."
I rolled a 20.
"Alrighty then, you spin him up and fling him away doing um, (flips a d4) 3 points of damage."
And that was it.
Not nearly as exciting as the twirl-n-hurl in VF2, but I did do it. Unfortunately, it also proved to be about as devastating as a slap on the wrist. Which in a way it was - against me - for daring to go off of the beaten path and try something different. Sure enough, I never did try it again. Which brings us to a critical problem with TTRPGs.
Options Vs Openness
The great thing that separates TTRPGs from pretty much all other games out there is that your character can do anything a person in that situation could realistically be able to do. At least in theory. The way an RPG is supposed to be played is we describe what our characters are doing and then roll the dice to figure out how we did. The way RPGs are actually played is something happens and we take to staring at out character sheets as if perusing a giant flimsy game controller with fire buttons made of dice, searching for what to do next.
However, if my character had had a maneuver on the sheet called Twirl-N-Hurl I could have skipped the long description and told the table "I twirl-n-hurl the orc." In the rules this could have connected to a maneuver called Twirl-N-Hurl which would tell us how hard it is to pull off, what an opponent can do to defend against it, how much damage the attack does (certainly more than a measly 1d4), and how far it would sling my opponent.
Sounds like a good thing, so what's the problem?
The problem is that people who play through their character sheets often play with horse blinders on. The more cluttered the character sheet is the more blinding the blinders, pushing people to forget that they can step outside the rules and do anything within reason. This is what the old school means when it says rulings not rules.
But It Has Always Been There
This isn't really an old school vs new school thing. The problem has always been there. As much as I love B/X D&D it contains no rules for something as simple as throwing a punch, and I don't recall anyone ever throwing a punch during a game of it. AD&D had grappling rules but they were so cumbersome and awkward we often chose not to grapple rather than use them. Doing anything off the beaten path requires some mental gymnastics and that gets exhausting after awhile. Even worse - believe it or not - but it takes skill to come up with good rules and coming up with good ones on the fly is even harder.
So how do we do it?
How does one create a game with rules for action that are still open enough to stay true to the possibility of a character doing anything?
IMHO first you have to make it glaringly obvious in the rules that a character can do anything within reason. If you or I could do it in that situation then our characters can do the same. Second it does help to have a single dice mechanic to rule them all. Once again, the less mental energy you put towards remembering how things are supposed to work the more mental energy you can pour into making the game worth playing. A game should also provide simple rules for everyday actions like throwing punches, grappling and swimming. Most of all, for those special moves that require some skill to perform, those feats (if I may dare use the dreaded word) which only a select few can pull off, the game needs to do the impossible and not go overboard.
(You need to fight to keep this from turning into this.)
Options easily fill up books and the sale of books is how TTRPG game designers stay in business, but I think back to 1986 and what stopped my teenage gaming group from playing D&D wasn't the Satanic Panic as much as it was Unearthed Arcana, our ever growing stack of Dragon Magazines, and the immense mess of options contained within. We spent far too much time looking things up. This is why so many of us still love the slim design of B/X D&D. It's not that TSR didn't intend to bloat it out with more and more stuff. It's because the B/X project got replaced by BECMI before they could continue building onto it.
Even in the Arcade
Now that I think about it. This is not restricted to TTRPGs either. Even Virtua Fighter has it. VF 1 was a stunning game for its time. When a VF 1 machine arrived in our local arcade we all rushed out to see it. The game itself was a bit clumsy and limited with what you could make the fighters do, but there was nothing else like it. VF 2 was a big improvement in every direction and I still consider it the best of the series. VF 3? I did play it a couple of times, but the game just wasn't as much fun. If anything the game struck me as a little too realistic. Wolf seemed heavier and slower. He had a ton of new moves but it was hard to keep track of what was what. Many of them started to look the same after awhile. I never played VF 4 or 5 but I did look up Wolf's attack list from VF 5 and he has over a hundred moves to choose from.
That's just too many.
Options - Skills, Feats, Spells, Powers, Maneuvers, Equipment, Stuff, Etc - are not the demoniac entities that many people make them out to be. They are a good thing, an almost unavoidable thing, but for a game to remain good it needs to limit what it offers and keep it all focused on the main activity of the game. This is what makes it hard for TTRPGs which are essentially universal systems at heart. Still, what it all boils down to is that - up to a point - the less searching and reading you need to do to play the game the better it will perform.
BTW: The cover art is actually from a Virtua Fighter spin-off game called Goonyas. The game itself doesn't look very good but the image is quite striking.
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