Not-so-Great RPG Systems: Leading Edge Games

To LEG, this is not a joke. It is a design philosophy.

Ever heard of the Aliens RPG? No? How about Living Steel? Phoenix Command? They all operated on a system devised by their parent company, Leading Edge Games. After LEG went out of business, its founders went back to jobs as rocket scientists. Literally. Not even kidding here.

 Basically, what you got with Leading Edge Games was the extreme example of what happens when you let unfettered physicists design a role-playing game system. It had arguably the most realistic resolution of firearms combat ever published, taking into account such factors as impact angle and wound trajectory. The advanced hit location chart was resolved on the roll of a d-THOUSAND (three d10s rolled and read as a hundreds, tens, and ones place), giving a range of 000 to 999 and including important results like “Spleen”. The action in combat was divided into fractions of a second, from 1/2 all the way to 1/10th. Here is a brief summary of the damage system, should you dare to peek.

The downside of this (I mean, assuming you’re seeing an upside) was that, even in the “stripped down” version of the rules provided for the Aliens RPG, the game required the consultation of no less than five different tables in order to resolve a single bullet. Now extend that out to the rates of fire displayed by a Pulse Rifle or Smartgun, and remember each hit must be dealt with individually.

"Let's Rock!" (very... very... slowly...)

Now as a teen I played in a demo of Living Steel run by its creators at my local game store, and I do vaguely remember having fun, since I’d say what I wanted to do and he would chant arcane formulas at me and tell me to roll dice. I even bought the game as a result, but when I started looking through it I discovered the difference between being personally guided by a rocket scientist with an intimate working knowledge of the system, and being a guy who just wanted to run a game about guys in powered armor fighting alien invaders.

The most distinct thing I remember when reading the Aliens game rules was their use of the famous scene where Hicks sticks his shotgun in a Xenomorph’s mouth and pulls the trigger, in order to show an example of resolving combat in the LEG system. After several paragraphs describing gun stats, table cross-references and randomizations, the wonderful, visceral moment we all remember as “Eat this!” has been thoroughly buried and gutted in the cause of realism, and the worst thing is the designers don’t even seem to realize it.

Okay, so, hit location chart says I got you in the jaw...

As a simulation of actual firefights, LEG’s system may be as good as it gets (and even that’s been called into question), but as a system for “Let’s Pretend” it fails horribly. Aliens was a movie where combat was about the running and screaming and shooting, not spending several minutes resolving every burst of weapons fire. Living Steel was an original setting, but one obviously owing a great debt to Heinlein’s original Starship Troopers (that would be the book, not the movie). The soldiers in that book were jumping around shooting off tactical nuclear weapons (there were calculations involved, sure, but they had computers for that). Was your tacnuke a glancing or direct hit? Who cares?

I don't think we need to determine wound channel on this one.

Phoenix Command might have been the closest match since it was just supposed to be about elite military units in squad-level combat, but the boxed set came with a Wild West setting. Are you kidding me? Does knowing the muzzle velocity of your Peacemaker revolver really add to your experience of the lawless frontier? John Wayne almighty, even a fairly gritty and realistic offering like Deadwood never dwelt on exactly what particular sub-region of the skull that fatal shot to the back of Wild Bill’s head hit, or which particular lobes of the brain it might have ricocheted through.

It’s as if in all of LEG’s games, the settings were a mere afterthought, despite a period where they were aggressively procuring the licenses to produce RPGs based on movies like Aliens, Lawnmower Man, and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I can’t even imagine how insane it must have been grafting this system onto that Dracula movie, or any Dracula movie for that matter. I know that any combat was likely as exciting as Keanu Reeves’ performance.

Whoa...

It’s just a textbook example of a game system that gets right in the fucking way of the experience. Setting? Tone? Theme? Meaningless compared to showcasing our awesomely comprehensive, ultra-realistic combat system! If LEG had just marketed “GUNWANK: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME”, where you play a bunch of obsessed dudes in a lab conducting exhaustive ballistics tests on various materials–and possibly each other–I believe it would have hit closer to the mark (yay punz). But otherwise, this overly complicated tail wags the dog of any gaming universe unfortunate enough to be attached to it.

Perhaps my offhanded comment about the Starship Troopers having computers actually makes a good point, here. Computers can translate the most insanely detailed number crunching into a transparent split-second. For instance, remember the first-person shooter Doom from the early 1990’s? Do you know how a shotgun blast was resolved, even back then? Each individual pellet’s trajectory was calculated and randomized to see if you hit what you were shooting at, a system still used by FPS games to this day because it so accurately represents how a shotgun actually works.

Resolving that in a pen-and-paper tabletop situation would be nightmarish, but the computer does it all in those fractions of a second that LEG wants to operate in, and all you have to worry about as a gamer is pointing at the demon and pulling the trigger. But even compared with the earliest computers, when running numbers most of us humans are like frozen-over molasses, and so excessive number crunching will always, always get in the way when you’re dealing with Let’s Pretend. There’s something to be said for a game running smoother and faster once everyone “knows the system”, but when you have testimonial after testimonial from groups of veteran gamers where they tried to play through one small-scale combat and gave up after several hours of crunchy, crunchy slog, you have a problem. Tabletop gaming isn’t rocket science, and should never be expected to be.

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About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
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7 Responses to Not-so-Great RPG Systems: Leading Edge Games

  1. bluedrew says:

    I’m really curious where you’re going to put the Hero System in this series.

    • Clint says:

      Rather than give an opinion on the Hero System as a whole, I would concentrate any review specifically on Champions. I don’t think the Hero System is notably good or bad when applied to most genres. If you want the maximum amount of customization with the least amount of “rocket science”, Hero is definitely the way to go, but as far as thematic roleplaying it was designed originally for superheroes and that’s where its other innovations are strongest.

  2. Kris Ray says:

    What about Starfleet Battles?

    • Clint says:

      Well, Starfleet Battles is more of a boardgame than an RPG. But more importantly, I’ve actually never played it, just heard stories from friends who did. When I ragged on Palladium I could at least say I had a few games under my belt, even though I never treated the system as anything more than the big joke it was.

  3. The Swede says:

    I used the Phoenix Command Hand To Hand System exclusively for my fantasy campaigns and PCSACS for modern and scifi campaigns for over ten years. It was amazing. Because it’s so lethal and rewards realistic risk assessment and tactics the players were always tactically aware and preferred non-violent solutions when they couldn’t be assured of an overwhelming advantage. Once you pick up the basics playing is very fast, as long as the GM knows the rules well and handles it like the designer handled you when you first tried it.

    And the Dracula game has some amazing mechanics for vampires. It really provides a mechanism motivating how Dracula acted, and helping the GM create unique vampire campaigns. I’ve seen nothing coming even remotely close. Crunchy, yes, but exceedingly innovative.

    But then, back then I had the time to spare for this level of resolution. Today I can barely manage Savage Worlds. It’s all about the spare cycles when it comes to gaming.

  4. Pingback: #RPGaDAY 24: « Mental Propinquity

  5. MichaelSD says:

    Thank you for the article about old games. It is always fun to read about them. While I agree with some parts of the article, it feels to me that it misses the main points.

    Regarding Living Steel as a setting, you somehow missed the main premise of the game, or played it long ago. ;)
    It has NOTHING to do with Starship Troopers, except there are Power Armours around. The LS book clearly states what the PA is and what is not. Not to speak of the PA supplement, Heavy Metal. It is quite obvious that it is not what a PA is in Starship Troopers. Also the setting and premises are completely different. LS is not a hopeless meat grinding, a “senseless” bug hunting. It is about heroes and their struggles. Yes, LS has more in common with Star Wars in the heroism department, except the Stormtroopers are more competent. The two adventures (Trident/RMBK and KViSR Rocks! ) do not have much in common, neither in feel, story or setting, with Starship Troopers either.

    Regarding the PCCS system itself, it is complex, but compared to GURPS, with all rules thrown in, you get the same complexity and learning curve. But the simplified LS system? You have 4 modifiers (as in most RPGs) to determine hit chance (range, cover, etc.) two tables to look up (hit location and glancing) and make 3 rolls (hit chance, glancing and knock out roll. That is it. I think it is manageable.

    The linked rpg.net is the only topic where one (!) user disputes PCCS” realism. He mostly excepts rules in PCCS for situations, as being an individual soldier level games, which it is not designed.
    Some military guys used it for training: http://www.combatsim.com/cgi-bin/ubbcgi/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic&f=11&t=000080
    Yes PCCS has weaknesses as every game, but disputed? Not really. It does have a competitor: Killing Crosshairs, but that is more or less all.
    The PCCS system explicitly tells the reader (Chapter 1, introduction) that it is like chess (not RPG!), where pieces represent individual people. It even recommends two players playing against each other and a moderator. So demanding RPG qualities from PCCS is strange to me, especially since it a board game like Starfleet battle…

    Is PCCS / LS / Aliens good for RPGs? I think not, but not because they are complex. They were not designed to handle complex RPG situations, because they were more of an excuse to generate missions to play tactical combat than being a RPG.

    Yes, the systems are not good for RPGs, but for a different reasons as the article states.

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