Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Look Back: Task Force Games and a Case for Hierarchical Rules Numbering

Let me start by saying, I'm a big fan of Task Force Games. That being said, I'm not necessarily a fan of any of the Star Fleet Battles stuff (though I dig and appreciate it.) What I'm a fan of are their structured, conditional combat rulesets that try to simplify all variables to a bare minimum, and then present them all in an "if/then" order. This was the Task Force modus operandi for its "rules lite" micro games, as well as its heavier rulesets like Heroes of Olympus and Super Villans.

Take a look Holmes Blue for the exact opposite of what I'm talking about. Once you strip away the list of spells and monsters and treasure, you're left with a set of rules that isn't terribly longer than TFG's Spellbinder, which numbers 12 rather text-dense half-sized pages. But doesn't really make 100% sense if you've never played the game before. In fact, R.C. Pinnell has recently reworked the content of Holmes Blue in "an attempt to clarify those things that are implied within the '77 document, and to provide additional data to support the implications." But IMO, all of the early books are kind of that way (Oe and 1e included), especially in regards to combat procedure.

As a graphic designer, I blame this a bit more on a lack of enough variants in type-sizing, or the lack of a numbering/lettering system to help the reader understand when they have moved on to a different topic. For example, in the D&D PH, the following topics are sized in the same manner without any regard for separating them as different subjects: combat procedure, damage, falling damage, healing, obedience. Uh... what? How did we go from combat, damage, and healing to obedience without a visual separation of concepts? (That kind of shit doesn't fly in any of the typography classes I teach... EVER!)

So why do I love Task Force Games? Because the rules are so methodically organized as to be, quite possibly, the most anal retentive rules in the history of gaming. Look at this sample of section titles from Heroes of Olympus:
5.1 Magic of the Gods
5.11 Regions and Sites of Magic
5.2 Magical Artifacts
5.3 Wizards, Witches and the Use of Common Magic
6.1 Description of the Gods
6.2 Followers of the Gods
6.21 Temples and Holy Places
6.22 Priests and Priestesses
6.23 Rituals and Sacrifices

Look at that! You always know where you are in the hierarchy of information. The addition of a few numbers goes a looooooong way in assisting with that.

By no means is Task Force Games the only proprietor of the numbered sections and sub-sections. It was more often a combination of the company's background (wargame vs. RPG) and the writer's background (wargame vs. RPG.) For example, Richard Snider didn't do it with Dave Arneson on Adventures in Fantasy, but he did do it on Avalon Hill's Powers & Perils. The latter of those two company's, by comparison, published Tom Moldvay's Lords of Creation sans nombres. Dennis Sustare's Heroes of Olympus for Task Force Games, and Bunnies & Burrows for Fantasy Games Unlimited, both included them. But, then again, every game I've ever owned by either of those companies uses the numbered system, and Sustare designed several games for both.

By now it's obvious I drink the Kool-aid when it comes to hierarchal numbering systems. Given that, does it come as a surprise that I've chosen that system for both Starmasters and The System: Expanded (which are, technically, both based on the same rules skeleton so if one is numbered they should both be numbered)? But there's an added bonus to the aided readability and understanding for readers/players... it's helped me write them as well.

In a way, writing around an "if/then" and "conditional" scenario structure is like writing to a flowchart without using an actual flowchart. And, if a new or optional rule pops up, 95% of the time I know exactly where it needs to go, and how much or little I have to explain about it (based on the rules above and below it) so the players understand. And if it refers to another rule (or condition,) I simply insert that number for reference and no digging into the index is required for the reader/player to find it. They simply hold their place, flip to other spot, then flip back to where they were.

There is one thing missing to me, though, from Task Force Games's approach—interior art. While not necessary to comprehension (and an added expense, to boot), it is quite necessary for personality and atmosphere. But that's the difference between wargaming and role-playing. (BTW, I've always envisioned Starmasters as somewhere between the two.)


  1. The first big users of the case system of rules writing was SPI. Some of the old AH stuff had some section numbering, but the full on hierarchical numbering was due to SPI.

  2. Great link and article! Thanks, James!!!

  3. You must love FGU's style, methinks.

  4. I do. They're models of well-organized information in an "economically-sized" (i.e., "small") font that is still quite legible. The section spacing in the FGU books (particularly V&V) puts them ahead of any of the wargame companies (SPI, Task Force Games), IMO.

  5. Love my FGU stuff. They get unfairly maligned by folks who, I suspect, have never actually played the games.