Sunday, June 29, 2014

Games within Games

As we make our way through The Frozen Reaches for Rogue Trader we have used the starship combat rules a little more frequently than in our last outing with this system.  These rules are interesting, as they exist as a completely separate subset to the core rules governing characters and their actions, and even the rules governing life on a starship not involved in combat.  To play these rules in the way the designers intended you need to use a grid and tokens or models to reflect the ships.  Characters then take specific roles – either direct (moving the ship through piloting rolls, and firing the weapons) or indirect – (boosting crew morale, making repairs etc.).  All of this is intended to combine into a dramatic and balanced battle which plays out like a movie, with each character getting a cut-shot of their activities during the action.
So does it work?  I’m a big believer in having a system which reflects the core function of the game – and for me Rogue Trader is a game about exploration and commerce, with a little diplomacy and action thrown in for good measure.  Accordingly I think that the system should reflect this, and to its credit, it does in many places by providing abstract rules for things like crew population and morale, establishing a colony, determining your cargo etc.  Shifting from this activity to a game of grid squares and tables - effectively a mini-wargame -  seems to jar with the rest of what this game is trying to achieve, not to mention being extremely time consuming.
My real gripe with these rules, however, is how difficult they are to reference.  A tabletop wargame (or boardgame for that matter) needs to have rules that are extremely easy to reference, unambiguous, and will ideally include examples which reference all the key activities of that game.  The Rogue Trader rules by contrast are written into the long paragraphs of text that are typical of the rest of the book.  This makes finding key rules time consuming, and even then, some of the wording is ambiguous.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this is that Games Workshop (whose IP is licensed in Rogue trader) are established market leaders in wargaming, and Fantasy Flight Games (who published Rogue Trader) are established market leaders in boardgaming.  So if ever there was a product which should have robust and well considered rules which optimise space combat, it should be a marriage between these formidable companies – like Rogue Trader.
Instead it feels like the space combat rules for Rogue Trader were hastily bolted onto the core book, as were the combat rules, and equipment – all taken from an assembly line of 40k RPG components.  A feeling reinforced by the GM screen (which for Rogue Trader includes only combat rule summaries – no skill summaries, exploration or space combat rules are in evidence).  You might argue that this situation was the result of the speed to bring this product to market – the core rules are a sizable product after all.  But Fantasy Flight has subsequently published many expansion books for Rogue Trader over several years, and had ample opportunity to revise and improve these rules (in publications like Battlefleet Koronus for example). Instead they use additional books to layer yet more complexity to an already ill-fitting system.
In fairness, we have enjoyed the game to this point, and the space combat rules certainly add a high level of interest to proceedings, forcing the characters to agree a joint course of action under some degree of pressure.   But as with many aspects of this game, it leaves me to wonder what might have been...
Can you think of any other examples of games within roleplaying games?


  1. The starship combat is the one subsystem we have enjoyed the most. Mostly as NickC learnt it inside out and we absolutely own anything we go up against :D

  2. In terms of games inside an RPG, I think this tends to be a product of old school design, where an entire RPG was designed in chunks that worked and are fun without reference to a cohesive whole. It has changed over time and it's not quite as scattergun in Rogue Trader, but I think it still where it draws from.

    There are also RPGs which have games that are layered on top of the main rules, such as Reign's organisation level play, Tenra Bansho's Fate system or the metagame mechanics in Atlantis. I tend to find these as easier as they provide both customisability and focus, without the distortion that can arise for adding a new subsystem.