Monday, November 7, 2011

The Pacesetter System Part 1: Intro and Characters


The Pacesetter house system, also called the Action Table System (ATS), was used in TIMEMASTER, CHILL (1st edition), Star Ace, and Sandman. Pacesetter was a company started by Mark Acres and colleagues, who broke away from TSR in the early 80s. There was a period in the early 80s where game companies were trying out a slightly different approach to RPG systems by using a chart from which most game resolution would reference.

As many readers already know, Goblinoid Games is the current owner of TIMEMASTER, and recently released ROTWORLD, a zombie survival horror game, using the same system. ROTWORLD is the first in a series of RPGs for this system that will cover various genres.

One of the things that separates ATS from other chart systems is the wide applicability and granularity. The system is gritty, and manages to be a functional universal system without feeling like it makes sacrifices in resolution complexity. This is (in my opinion) where some other universal systems (chart-based or not) fail. This post is the first in a series of posts where I talk about the system and some of my thoughts on its applications and strengths. Many people are unfamiliar with the ATS or haven't looked at it for many years, so this series is a way to bring everyone up to speed.


Characters are built based on eight basic abilities: Strength, Dexterity, Agility, Personality, Perception, Willpower, Luck, and Stamina. These abilities are generated initially by rolling 3d10 and adding together the results. This produces a bell curve, similar to using 3d6 in Labyrinth Lord. However, the ATS is a percentile and d10-based system, so to get these scores within that range the sum generated for each ability is doubled, then 20 is added, producing a range of 26-80. This is important because skills reference these abilities and ability checks also need to be applied to a range compatible with a d%.

All of my readers are familiar with RPGs, so these abilities will be self explanatory for our purposes. However, the Luck ability is something a lot of RPGs don't have, so I'll say a few things about that here. Luck can be used by a PC to reduce damage dealt by attacks. The Luck score generated at character creation can be permanently reduced to avoid damage. I like this mechanic because it meshes well with my old-school system sensibilities. Luck mechanics in some other games are bottomless pools. In the ATS, Luck is a very useful resource, but it is a resource, and when a PC is out of luck, well....he's out of luck! A character's Luck can also be used by the referee as a base percentage chance for a PC to avoid death in certain situations, or to simply have a lucky break at some point.


In the Action Table System skills are percentile-based. Each skill references one, two, sometimes even three, basic abilities, and is divided by the number of contributing abilities. So for example, Wrestling is Strength+Agility, divided by 2. Then, characters will have a level in the skill. There are three levels, Specialist, Expert, and Master. They grant +15, +30, and +55, respectively, to the base skill percent generated by abilities. At character creation a character can buy a skill at Expert level, but only through play and experience points can he raise it to Master.

One important and refreshing thing about skills in this system is that characters will start with only a few skills. Some skills default to abilities, and so they can be performed by anyone. I like skill-based systems generally, but when a character becomes a laundry list of 30 skills it is not just cumbersome in play, but it reflects a system philosophy that tries to identify a skill for about anything that a character can do. In my opinion this is the root of the problem with most people who dislike skill-based systems. So many mechanics are placed into skills that all characters have to be encyclopedias of skills. So ATS gets this right in creating a balance between having a smaller number of meaningful skills, but also in having a system that does not put characters in a straightjacket for doing other things not defined by skills.

Paranormal Talents

Paranormal talents (PTs) are supernatural abilities possessed by some characters. Obviously, these will not always be available to characters depending on the specific implementation of the ATS and the genre of game. For example, they are always a part of TIMEMASTER games, but are purely optional in ROTWORLD. The PTs available are not always the same either between games. PTs function in a similar manner to skills, being based on abilities and used as a percentage roll for resolution. The number of PTs characters start with also varies depending on the game, but in general characters start with only one or a few, and can buy more with experience. Using PTs costs Willpower. Characters have a fluid pool of Willpower that is based on the Willpower ability, and they regenerate points with rest.

This is where I'll leave the discussion for now. Next time I'll start to actually get into the Action Table and how skills, PTs, and other actions are resolved.


Atom Kid said...

Chill 1st edition was the first rpg I ever played, I still get mine out and run games every once in a while. It was a great innovative system for it's time and I think a lot of new comers will find it interesting as well.

I really hope you get the rights to Chill!

Anonymous said...

Last time I checked - Hyrum Savage owned the rights to Chill. Seeing that he has done nothing with it for the last 5+ years - there may be an opportunity?

Anonymous said...

Also - I think Phil Reed owns the rights to Star Ace?

Dan of Earth said...

To tell you the truth I'm not sure who owns CHILL. Mayfair still sells 2e PDFS at Rpgnow, but I've also heard Hyrum owns CHILL. So I don't know what the deal is.

Anonymous said...

So - further digging puts the Star Ace stuff in Brett Bernstein's stable on RPGnow. As for Hyrum - last I recall he was working a fundraiser for Chill 3rd Edition - then that slipped under the waves?

V2 said...

Thanks for the article!

God I love that system!

Can;t wait to get my hands on Rot World. Hope he takes it further into the wider horror gameing world.

OWC crashed Chill and burned it into nothingness. A crying shame and a waste.

Hope we see Rot lead to a game where organization and monster names are changed to protect the productive, but that good old fasioned horror game comes charging back!

John Adams said...

But Dan, I don't need another game system.

But it does look pretty cool.

I really liked % rpgs back when Reagan was president.

*Goes to buy ROTWORLD*

Dan of Earth said...

Yes you do need another system, John. Listen to the sound of the waves, John. You're getting sleepier. You're getting sleepier: you're asleep. You hear the voice of Reagan calling to you. He's saying, "John, you need another system. A universal system. Look deep into the Action Chart System, John. The Action Chart System brings you peace...."

John Adams said...

The Action Chart System brings peace...

Carter Soles said...

Thanks for the explanatory post(s). I never played any Pacesetter games back during the Reagan years, but may look into it now. . .

ghostwriter said...

Thank you for this post & I look forward to reading the series. Have had my eye on 1st ed CHILL for some time, the artwork looks dope, also been curious about the system. Thx again!