One Mechanic Review: Magic Realm

One Mechanic Review: Magic Realm Hot

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Gary SaxGary Sax   July 27, 2015  
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Magic Realm game in progress (courtesy: Martí Cabré)

The Magic Realm chit system---a completely different solution to D+D style fantasy mechanics.


I've decided to start a series where I take games in my collection and think about them via the one mechanic I think defines them.  Today it's Magic Realm, inspired by a thread in trash talk about favorite fantasy combat mechanics.

Magic Realm has a lot going on in it.  Too much, really, making it a difficult game to play unless you've made it into a lifestyle game.  I believe that is why no one has really iterated on the original ideas contained in it, which remain completely orthogonal to the traditional ideas from D+D and elsewhere that carried the mechanics of the genre forward.  In an alternate boardgame universe, I could see Magic Realm's chit system being the organizing mechanic behind fantasy combat.  Magic Realm's chit system does three important things using one unified system: creates an original combat system that perfectly captures character combat styles, serves to provides a thematic wound and fatigue system, and differentiates character physical skills outside of combat.

The most obvious thing that this mechanic does is provide a combat system without dice (used in Magic Realm combat only for a minor random direction choice).  Characters have a bank of chits, unique to them, that provide an overall characterization of their physical skills.  Each chit has a speed and a "weight" on them, as well as asterisks which indicate how exhausting they are to use.  Not all chits are created equal---each character has some incredibly valuable chits that are clearly of most use and which they must keep at all cost; once those chits are gone, death is probably not far behind.  The speed of a chit indicates how fast the character is to dodge or strike, while the strength of a chit indicates how strong the attack of that character will be if it is used.  So a swordsman (thiefish) character has a bank of light, high speed chits that are almost always going to hit (undercut) without relying on a random roll.  He will also dodge most hits automatically unless he is unlucky.  On the other hand, those chits struggle to do much damage (low strength), and some monsters are simply beyond his ability to kill.  Meanwhile, a Berserker has high strength chits that tend to go quite slowly and struggle to hit (they do so randomly based on a dice roll (1/3 probability).  So the holy grail of the Magic Realm combat system is to have a high strength, high speed chit.  Which no one has, but they can acquire if they get lucky and get the right equipment and magic.

The reason that this system is, in my opinion, superior in most respects to the much used +X modifiers system or the "4 strength=roll 4 dice" systems is that it differentiates fighting characters using fundamental differences in their tactical capabilities rather than deterministic advantage or number of dice.  It yields interesting choices in combat.  A Berserker thinks and fights differently, not just with more dice.  He has (mostly) relatively slow chits so must try to stay alive using his special berserk power while hoping to achieve a lucky 1/3 intersection and destroy quick enemies---but he is still fast enough with his best H/T chits to destroy the largest enemies, sometimes undercutting them with the right weapon.  The system also requires the player to make decisions when allocating resources between evasion and attack, constantly considering tradeoffs between them.  It allows a character to throw caution to the wind and wind up for an all out attack, if they so desire, or to play it conservative and try to plink away at the enemy combatant.

Another useful thematic outcome produced by the chit system is its use as a fatigue and wound system.  Fantasy games tend to struggle with how to handle wounded characters.  On one hand, the most common approach is simply to have hit points---once they are out, you are dead, but ultimately your capabilities do not change.  So you take hits and they add up to death eventually.  This makes the typical fantasy combat a grind it out war of attrition.  The wound/fatigue chit system in Magic Realm is different.  No hit points.  If a strike is strong enough, it is an instant kill, which means characters travel about in fear of slow large enemies and combat has quite a bit of razor's edge tension.  On the other hand, most hits against appropriately armored or tough characters simply burn off one or more chits.  The character has to turn those chits over and cannot use them until healed.  The chit system therefore yields a highly thematic battle where capabilities are slowly eroded away from character as they become more wounded, but not in an arbitrary fashion that creates a death spiral a la Spartacus: Blood and Sand combat.  Characters can hold onto their best chits for final, heroic strikes, while having their options dwindle.  The system also allows for fatigue, which similarly takes chits out of play as they are used if the character uses some of her stronger powers.  A player surrounded by weak but numerically superior opponents, like the goblin horde, is likely to find themselves ground down due to wounds and fatigue until death.

Finally, the chit system also functions outside of combat to differentiate characters.  It is used, for example, to create a form of class restriction for characters and equipment.  Equipment is rated by its heaviness, and if characters do not have a heavy enough fresh chit the character cannot use that weapon.  So, again fused into the same mechanic, a swordsman cannot use a great axe in combat---nor can he carry it at all!  Unless he finds up a belt of tremendous strength, which makes him into a walking killing machine.  This segues into the final advantage of the chit system outside of combat: generating an thematic and flexible way to incorporate equipment into the system.  Weapons give you a sort of replacement chit which is generally more powerful than the default chit of that strength, while armor functions as additional chits to burn off when hit by the enemy, thereby saving your chit bank from wounds (or outright death).

I haven't even mentioned Magic Realm's use of chits for magic, but I'll save that for your own research.  The game is subtle and complex, perhaps too complex, but the chit system at the heart of it is sheer design genius.  The bottom line is that many times while playing a fantasy game I find myself wishing that it was Hamblen's flawed masterpiece that served as the basis for hand to hand combat systems in, say, FFG's modern games.  It is both unsurprising and mind-boggling that Magic Realm's chit combat has not been endlessly iterated upon, given the advantages it provides over the current state of the art dice- and card-heavy combat mechanics.

Posted: 30 Jul 2015 00:34 by Sevej #207429
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I agree the chit system is great. There are many ways to implement the idea. I don't understand why it isn't used more.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 03:15 by Alastair MacDirk #207433
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Great article. You did an incredible job explaining the execution of that mechanic. I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to try Magic Realm, but it sounds very interesting.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 03:47 by VALIS #207434
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This system sounds intriguing. I'm going to see if I can thrift for a copy and check it out.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 08:43 by logopolys #207437
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I've been getting hard into Magic Realm over the past couple months. I have a group of friends who looked at it and said, "If we're going to learn this, we have to play several times, not just once, otherwise it's not worth it." I agreed, both to their request and their reasoning.

I think the biggest effect of the chit system on game play that you touched on but didn't really linger on is the fact that, because of some very finite limitations, not all combats are survivable. In fact, no single character can feel comfortable in every combat. There are some monsters that each character just cannot kill. This separates MR from pretty much any other fantasy board game, video game, or RPG: there are some things that you are not expected to be able to do, ever, no matter when in the game you try to tackle it.

This game is more lethal than any other game. You don't just go from fight to fight. 75% of your game will be hiding, walking, hiding, resting, and hiding more.

So far, I'm in love with the system, but it's quite a lot to wrap my head around.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 09:28 by Egg Shen #207438
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Sweet article....now to make it even more timely you just need FFG or Stronghold Games to announce a reprint of Magic Realm at Gen Con.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 09:36 by Gary Sax #207439
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Great post logopolys, agree with everything you said. Magic Realm has this (to my knowledge) totally unique quality where huge, tough fighters (e.g. White Knight, Berserker) also have their own nemesis in tiny, fast tough guys, especially if there is more than one of them. White Knight does NOT want to fuck with a giant bat---though no one does, really, since bats are actually one of the toughest enemies in the game because of their speed. Good fighters in most games almost always just have more dice, more modifiers, etc and are better at fighting everything.

Honestly, what Magic Realm really needs is a redesign, keeping its core (amazing) elements but making the shitty parts more easily dealt with---multiple monster/person combat, for example. But I would take a reprint in a second.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 10:14 by Ska_baron #207440
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This is seriously my new favorite thing on the Fort and probably one of my all time favorite series. This dives into WHY a game is so interesting or engaging with a great focus and well written. Thanks Gary and keep them coming!
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 10:23 by Shellhead #207441
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On two separate occasions over my lengthy gaming career, I have had the chance to play Magic Realm. Both times, we didn't get past setup and learning the rules, due to lack of time. I don't live near either of those friends anymore. Based on favorable remarks here at F:AT, I downloaded a bunch of files from BGG so that I could print and play my own copy of Magic Realm. But I wasn't going to bother unless I could teach myself the game first. But that rulebook is really tough. I passed the CPA exam but I couldn't read through the Magic Realm rule book without dozing off, on multiple occasions.

There are many aspects to Magic Realm that I admire. The variable setup, the wide range of characters, the different types of challenges posed by different creatures, etc. The chit mechanic is great. There are other concepts that are probably also good, such as undercutting, but they are not explained in plain language in the rules. And when the combats get complex, involving denizens and hired natives and mounts, it all seems impossibly inconsistent and overly difficult.

If somebody were to attempt a new edition of Magic Realm, I would like to see small cards instead of chits, consistent and simpler rules for combats involving more than two opponents, and a streamlined setup process.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 10:27 by Gregarius #207442
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I liked the article, but I feel like there's a huge part missing. How are the chits actually used? Do you draw them randomly from a pile? Do you select which one to play? I'm not completely sure I even know what a chit is.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 10:43 by Gary Sax #207443
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Hey Gregarius, thanks for the feedback. I'll try to go a little more in-depth with the actual mechanic in future articles to give enough context.

A chit is just a little counter, you could replace them with small cards if you want---it's like your personal deck of capabilities. Each character has a bunch of them, dictated by the character sheet. They fulfill a bunch of functions simultaneously in a really integrated way. For what it's worth, here's how it works in magic realm w/combat. In combat, you generally play two chits every turn. One is your evade chit and one is your attack chit---they come from the same pool. Your ability to dodge opponents keys off of the speed rating on the chit you played and ignores the heaviness rating on it. So if you have a quick character (wood elf, swordsman) and put down a really fast evade chit you're likely to dodge almost everything unless you get unlucky or the enemy is something lightning quick. But you also simultaneously have to put down a combat chit, which has speed and a "heaviness" rating. It dictates how swift and agile your attack is---if it's fast enough relative to the opponent, you will *automatically* hit (undercut). But it's also printed with the heaviness, which dicatates how hard you hit. A "light" chit might kill a goblin in one hit but will do no damage to a giant---against another character it's the difference between instant kill and just doing a single wound (eliminating one of their chits until it's healed). Maybe that helps. Magic Realm is very difficult to explain but not nearly as hard to show, at least basic mechanics like 1 v 1 fighting.

Shellhead---I have never played a physical copy, myself. I played a ton of Realmspeak to figure out the game. I still would really have to study up on how to play before conducting an in person game. It's why what I really think Magic Realm would have been perfect for is a base to iterate upon or a redesign.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 11:43 by Sagrilarus #207450
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Superbly written article. You do what Magic Realm does not -- you slice through the voluminous material and keep your subject small and manageable!

Honestly, what Magic Realm really needs is a redesign, keeping its core (amazing) elements but making the shitty parts more easily dealt with---multiple monster/person combat, for example. But I would take a reprint in a second.


Not meaning to fork the discussion, but what designer working today is in Hamblen's mold? Hamblen is the ultimate detail man. It's readily apparent that he spent months on games like Magic Realm and Merchant of Venus, working complexity into the system with care, testing and refining, never reducing, until until it could be refined no more. I don't think anyone is looking at gaming from a "More is More" perspective anymore, and I don't know if much of the market is interested in it.

X-Wing is complicated, far more complicated than its most immediate predecessor. But it has taken on the videogame model of teaching rules as you proceed, introducing a starter set and proceeding with more rules from there. It also breaks up its complexity vertically, having additional rules tied to a particular craft or card instead of Magic Realm's "you need to understand all of THIS in order to start the game."

Short of Martin Wallace I don't see much of anyone out there still going for Big, regardless of how good the new Big would be. A streamlined Magic Realm is an interesting thought, I'm just not sure who out there has the chits to go after such a monstrous opponent.

S.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 12:54 by iguanaDitty #207469
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Sagrilarus wrote:
I don't think anyone is looking at gaming from a "More is More" perspective anymore, and I don't know if much of the market is interested in it.

I don't know if he quite fits but Christian Marcussen immediately came to mind. I like Merchants & Marauders well enough but what he's done with Clash of Cultures is simply superb. There is a lot of complexity hardbaked into the advances and then even more with the expansion.

Really enjoyed this article and it makes me want to (re)acquire Magic Realm and take a shot at revamping it. It's fun to play with the ideas that result even if nothing comes of it. The problem is I never was able to figure out how to play it in the first place...
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 13:20 by Space Ghost #207474
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Great write-up. I think that the notion of streamlining is a good idea, but I also think it is difficult in the case of Magic Realm to change much without losing its essence. To me, probably more so than any other game, Magic Realm is almost inseparable from its mechanic.

Sag -- I'm in the market for "more is more" :)
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 14:27 by Feelitmon #207485
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Gary Sax wrote:
Hey Gregarius, thanks for the feedback. I'll try to go a little more in-depth with the actual mechanic in future articles to give enough context.

[description snipped]

Gregarius, I would just add one thing to Gary's reply. As he mentioned in the original post up top, each chit can have one or two asterisks indicating how much effort that chit represents. This effort factor comes into play in combat. Recall that each round of a fight your character selects a movement/evasion chit and an attack chit, and those two chits can combine for only two asterisks maximum. The number of asterisks on a chit (0, 1, or 2) indicates how fast and effective that maneuver is, but this effectiveness varies from character to character. For example, a two-asterisk attack for a beefy, plate-wearing knight is probably going to hit very very hard and be a bit faster than his normal attacks, while a two-asterisk attack for a sly duelist may hit marginally hard but be blazingly quick. The chits themselves will indicate speed, power of the attack, and degree of effort.

So you could play a devastating two-asterisk attack, but that would mean that you'd have to use a zero-asterisk maneuver chit and will probably be automatically hit ("undercut") by your opponent's attack. Or you could play a desperate two-asterisk dodge to ensure that you avoid the enemy's attack, but then your attack will likely be slower and/or lighter. And of course you could use any other combination of chits as long as they don't exceed two asterisks.

Where the exhaustion comes into play is that if you do use two asterisks' worth of chits in a combat round you must flip over a chit to indicate that it is no longer available for the rest of the combat. Your character is getting tired and his tactical options are dwindling. Thankfully you don't have to flip one of the chits that you actually used that round, but depending on your character you may not have a lot of those "buffer" chits to expend in this way. Some characters are just more able to engage in drawn-out melees against multiple light-hitting opponents, while others may be great at taking out fierce opponents but will tire quickly.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 14:39 by Feelitmon #207489
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This is another great mechanic write-up!

I really appreciate the chit system that Magic Realm uses, and it is actually one of the more easily grokked mechanics of the game. As other folks in the thread have mentioned, it gives Magic Realm a feel that other games just don't offer. Of the games that I have played, the one that offers the closest type of combat is, of all things, Mage Knight. The mechanics are vastly different, but the resulting combats are similarly puzzle-based. That is, in both games a player tends to know going into a fight whether they will be victorious or not. The biggest difference between the two is that Magic Realm is so much less forgiving: one slip-up and your character is dead dead dead.

And that brings me to the topic of implementing the mechanic in other games. I do think that the chit system itself could be used in a modern game. It's easy to imagine the chits being replaced by tokens or cards. The parts of Magic Realm that I think are probably (and lamentably) forever in the gaming past are the less than heroic aspects of the game (tons of hiding, for example, whether you're a sneaky rogue or a knight in shining armor) and the extreme disparities in character abilities (sometimes you're playing a character that basically has to flit about the map, avoiding combat entirely while you scoop up what scraps of treasure that you can find). I just don't think that there is a large pool of players out there who would expect and enjoy that type of thing from a modern "beat them down and take their stuff" fantasy game. Hopefully I'm wrong though.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 15:41 by Sagrilarus #207497
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Feelitmon wrote:
. . . (sometimes you're playing a character that basically has to flit about the map, avoiding combat entirely while you scoop up what scraps of treasure that you can find). I just don't think that there is a large pool of players out there who would expect and enjoy that type of thing from a modern "beat them down and take their stuff" fantasy game. Hopefully I'm wrong though.


I think that would depend on how you sell it. There's a lot of competitive gamers out there that would leap at the chance to weasel a win, provided it was not seen as less valid. You need to sell a thief as a thief, and provide him with a range of options deemed valid for him.

Considering the modern "point salad" concept of scoring, something like Magic Realm's less heroic approaches could work, but you'd have to burn those concepts into the chip, really calling them out and explaining their value in the writing of the rules.



Space Ghost wrote:
Sag -- I'm in the market for "more is more" :)


Says the man posting in the Shadows of Malice Megathread. Any other recent games scratching this same More is More itch? Short of wargames there isn't much, and heck, I'd wager most Big games are WWII, and a fair slice of those Eastern Front.

S.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 16:38 by Feelitmon #207504
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Sagrilarus wrote:
I think that would depend on how you sell it. There's a lot of competitive gamers out there that would leap at the chance to weasel a win, provided it was not seen as less valid. You need to sell a thief as a thief, and provide him with a range of options deemed valid for him.

Considering the modern "point salad" concept of scoring, something like Magic Realm's less heroic approaches could work, but you'd have to burn those concepts into the chip, really calling them out and explaining their value in the writing of the rules.

That's a good point, yeah. You're right, something like that could work if they were to highlight that factor in the rules and marketing. Hoo boy, it would have to be a bit more balanced than Magic Realm is as published though. From what I've heard, there are certain characters that are acknowledged by experienced players as being simply superior to the others. Perhaps this newer game that we're talking about would have to hang a lantern on that type of thing by stating up front that the power disparity is a form of handicapping.



Sagrilarus wrote:
Any other recent games scratching this same More is More itch? Short of wargames there isn't much, and heck, I'd wager most Big games are WWII, and a fair slice of those Eastern Front.

I am an unapolagetic and enthusiastic fan of Duel of Ages 2, and I think that it qualifies as a More Is More game of the type that you're talking about. In an interview by our own Michael Barnes the designer confirmed that Hamblen was an influence in the game's design. And while the breadth of the game is what one first notices upon seeing its hundreds of characters and cards, there is a lot of depth in the design. The designer's ongoing strategy guide at BGG shows just how much: The Duel of Ages II Strategy Guide.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 16:54 by mads b. #207507
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I tried playing Magic Realm about a year ago. I bought a copy, read all the rulebooks and played both a couple of solo games on the tabletop and some on Realmspeak. I liked it - especially because of the combat feeling very different as described - but the overhead was just too tremendous when compared to the story created. This thread makes me wanna give it another go (I never really made it to magic), but at the same time I remember spending about six or seven turns (out of 16) trying to find some treasure at a treasure site and then failing. That wasn't much fun.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 18:14 by logopolys #207510
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iguanaDitty wrote:
I don't know if he quite fits but Christian Marcussen immediately came to mind. I like Merchants & Marauders well enough but what he's done with Clash of Cultures is simply superb. There is a lot of complexity hardbaked into the advances and then even more with the expansion.

It's interesting that you bring up Merchants & Marauders in a discussion about Hamblen games. I see M&M as a complete replacement for Merchant of Venus. The right parts were streamlined, but the sandbox-y options and dynamic economy shine just as brightly if not more so in Marcussen's game. I would be highly interested in seeing a fantasy adventure game from him.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 18:36 by Michael Barnes #207513
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I think Magic Realm is one of the masterpieces of the hobby and this great dissection of one of its most notable features helps explain why it is such a singular, unparalleled design. But it also points to the reasons why Magic Realm is very much a stylistic dead end. Hamblen was writing that game back when the impetus in hobby design was focused very much on simulation, so conceptually the game simulates rather than abstracts. Now, that sounds great and all, but the reality of it is that results in all of the overhead and complexity that really kind of burden the game and for many folks, make it borderline unplayable. Hamblen, at least in this game and also in Gunslinger, is very much an "inclusive" designer rather than an "editorial" one. He wants the whole experience, the finer details. But that is really kind of at odds with the notion of approachable, playable games that strike a more agreeable balance between abstraction and detail.

Even getting into the 1980s, Magic Realm starts to look antiquated even though that high-level pitch of using game process and rules to define a very specific fantasy setting with highly detailed blow-by-blow combat remains something that designers still aspire to do even today. There really aren't many games that manage both such a huge macro-level sense of setting and that micro-level sense of moment-to-moment action. Gunslinger would be the only thing that comes close, but even then you can see that the design is much more streamlined, focused and manageable. Even though it is, by most standards, still balls-ass weird and unlike anything else ever made.

This chit system was the first point at which I thought Magic Realm was really something special. The first time I saw it working (after a lot of groupthink sorting it out), it was like "holy shit, this is brilliant". But that doesn't necessarily mean that it is timeless.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 21:03 by Frohike #207524
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Slightly OT: in terms of simulation overhead vs. depth of narrative, what are people's opinions concerning Phil Eklund's High Frontier? I've been considering that game for awhile now, but I keep pulling back due to many of the same reasons people list for Magic Realm.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 22:26 by Sagrilarus #207528
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Frohike wrote:
Slightly OT: in terms of simulation overhead vs. depth of narrative, what are people's opinions concerning Phil Eklund's High Frontier? I've been considering that game for awhile now, but I keep pulling back due to many of the same reasons people list for Magic Realm.


High Frontier is hard because its rulebook sucks. Magic Realm is hard because it's hard.


Barnes wrote:
but the reality of it is that results in all of the overhead and complexity that really kind of burden the game and for many folks, make it borderline unplayable. Hamblen . . . wants the whole experience, the finer details. But that is really kind of at odds with the notion of approachable, playable games . . .

Yep, and I think that's as much a function of the audience Hamblen was aiming at as anything else. This was a game designed to appeal to true nerds, nerds that took pride in playing something complicated. The modern "hobby game" market doesn't look like that anymore. It's a much more mainstream crowd, and that crowd is much more interested in playing a different title each week, 52 weeks a year.

In 1979 Magic Realm likely had half a dozen (maybe?) competitors in its genre and part of the market. Remember -- this was hitting the stores at the same time as AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide. This is a 36 year old game. Virtually zero competition from video games as well. Spending a weekend learning something like this was considered a pretty solid use of the time.

S.
Posted: 30 Jul 2015 23:57 by iguanaDitty #207532
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Sagrilarus wrote:
High Frontier is hard because its rulebook sucks. Magic Realm is hard because it's hard.
S.

I dunno, I think High Frontier is also hard because you're calculating rocket science on the fly. And yes, it is extremely simulationist.
Posted: 31 Jul 2015 10:12 by aaxiom #207556
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"Gunslinger would be the only thing that comes close, but even then you can see that the design is much more streamlined, focused and manageable. Even though it is, by most standards, still balls-ass weird and unlike anything else ever made."

While I am probably overstating the obvious, Gunslinger is +another+ Hamblen title that really went off in a different direction from the norm (in a great way!). I wasn't sure if you brought up Gunslinger because it was another Hamblen, or whether you brought it up strictly to make your point, Michael (or both).
Posted: 31 Jul 2015 11:35 by waddball #207561
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Great article. This combat system is genius, though the overall game is just too complex to be enjoyed without it being a lifestyle game.

Original combat systems are rare, and most of them suck. D&D's comes off particularly bad in contrast to MR's; the "goblin horde" situation noted by Gary is impossible in D&D, but is effortless (yes, elegant) in MR.

Mage Knight's is pretty good, as it also bakes in fatigue/wounds just by using hand-size and "dead" slots. But it misses something in character differentiation. Really shocking that after 40 years, MR's system hasn't really been appropriated elsewhere, let alone improved.

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