Musing: Creating a Roleplaying GameJuly 20, 2011
This is my first not-Dungeons and Dragons related blog post, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about indirectly for a while. You see, like all Dungeon Masters, I’m a game designer–though while most Dungeon Masters limit their game design to small house rules or individual adventures or encounters, I’m setting my goals a little higher. I want to create an entire roleplaying game. I have a bit of experience with a wide variety of systems–Scion, various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, MechWarrior, d20 Modern, and I’ve had some looks through World of Darkness, Shadowrun, and some older Iron Kingdoms books. But they’re not quite what I want. I want a system that not only can I call my own, but one oriented more toward being a universal system with which many campaign settings can be run, from magic and medieval to modern to futuristic, to time travel or post-apocalyptic. Basically, I want d20 Modern, but, not quite–d20 Modern is a bit too hokey for my tastes (caveat: d20 Modern is extremely nostalgic to me and I love it to pieces). And I wanted the system to be less combat-oriented, more roleplay-oriented–basically, an extended version of my current Dungeons and Dragons campaign, more focused on the detective work than the dragon-slaying. And so we begin the journey.
I’ve already created one system, sort of–a roleplaying game called Generation 0, which is essentially d20 Apocalypse and Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition mashed together, but with more of a serious tone than Gamma World provides. But Generation 0 wasn’t quite what I wanted–the limitations of the simplistic Dungeons and Dragons base system was detrimental to the goal I wanted, and besides, I can’t publish Generation 0 or try to make money off of it because I didn’t get an expensive-ass license from Wizards of the Coast.
But at least creating that system, from start to finish, taught me a lot about game design. Lessons I hope to apply to my new system, which I’ve codenamed Agency. “Codenamed” as in the name may change.
I have to do a few things when coming up with a system such as this. I need a few defined concepts before I even begin touching the gameplay:
- How in-depth is character creation?
- How in-depth is combat?
- How in-depth are skills and traits/feats/perks/etc.?
- What is the core mechanic? (some RPGs don’t have a core mechanic, but D&D does, and I’m applying the best lessons I’ve learned from all RPGs I’ve played)
- How freeform is it?
Once those questions are answered, I’ll have an idea of where to start typing things up, and how–but first, I need to figure out a primary mission for the RPG. The entire core concept behind the game, the thing it excels at, the thing which makes people want to play it, the ideal campaign scenario which the system is good at. Luckily, I already have this information, as I provided above: I want the system great at detective stories and mystery, but with combat taking a back seat to the story.
The system which leaps to the front of my mind at accomplishing those goals is, surprisingly, MechWarrior. In that system, combat is so lethal you avoid it at all costs (unless you happen to have some heavy-duty armor or a BattleMech handy), thus putting a lot of focus into the story (unless you want a high death rate). At the same time, it takes so long to generate a character, which ends up being so complex and nuanced and interesting with a clearly definable backstory every single time, that the players become easily attached to their characters.
So the question is, can I do better than MechWarrior? I’d like to think so. Their character generation system, for all its subtlety, is too complex and clunky (for instance, if your character graduated from high school, that background element costs 400 XP–but refunds 185 XP, and also spends 10 XP on a language skill which you can choose to spend on Language [Swahili] or something and, at the end of character generation, you get refunded that 10 XP because you have less than 20 XP on the skill, the minimum to get it to level 0). Level 0 skills not being the lowest possible? Background element costs and refunds and costs and refunds? If you go onto the official BattleTech/MechWarrior forums, there are tons of fan spreadsheets which provide assistance when creating a character. And they’re often needed for all the complexity. I think I can smooth that down.
And, in combat… well, I like the MechWarrior system, but I have an even better idea. Instead of hit points and damage points, I’ll make combat incredibly realistic–you fire a gun, and if you hit, you roll a hit location. The gun’s muzzle velocity minus the distance traveled equals the “damage”, which (if it hits the chest for example) hits the armor first, skin second, muscle third, rib cage fourth, organs fifth, rib cage sixth, muscle seventh, skin eighth… but each layer of body slows the bullet down. So if the bullet hits with 900 units of force and the armor protects against 850, 50 hit the skin, dealing superficial damage… if the skin isn’t thick enough to stop 50 units of force, the remaining force hits the muscle, dealing muscle damage.
There’s a lot of added complexity and math to that system, but the complete removal of hit point tracking, and instead only organ injuries (if you get shot in the heart, for instance, you don’t live) means the net complexity is only a little bit higher than the RPG norm. And if roleplaying games have taught me anything, it’s that the more complex the set of rules in an area, the more the players will avoid it–so if I create a simple but powerful character gen system, and a complex but realistically deadly combat system, I may just achieve that level of story-oriented gameplay I want.
I actually already have a list of skills I want to include in the game. But again, I want to think outside of the box with these things–Dungeons and Dragons uses skills in place of ability checks, and MechWarrior has this odd system of ability scores augmenting (but more often detrimenting) your skill use… but I want something a lot cleaner, a lot simpler, which gives me design room for a larger list of skills.
So, for skills, I think I’ll go with something like this: on each skill check, the Gamemaster tells the player which two ability scores to combine, and the ability scores range from 1 to 6. This creates a target number (so a player with 6 Strength and 6 Agility and needs to pull off a martial arts move, the GM might tell him to roll a STR+AGIL check, target number 12). If a 2d6 roll is less than the target number, it’s a success–though the TN can be modified by adverse conditions. This would be my core mechanic, by the way: 2d6 vs. two ability scores (or, in some cases, one ability score x2, like a STR+STR check to open a portcullis). Anyway, skills would be only a minor part of the character, and they wouldn’t be associated with any ability scores: if you have Seduction as a skill, it applies as a bonus to SOC+SOC (social+social) skill checks, surely, but what if you’re trying to impress the ladies with a swan dive into a lake to retrieve a lost diamond necklace? Maybe Agility+Perception would be better.
Or, shooting a handgun might be an AGIL+AGIL check, but what about a minigun on the side of a helicopter? AGIL+STR might be more like it. What if you need to teach someone how to use a firearm? Keep using your Small Arms skill, but make it an INT+SOC check.
You might be able to tell, I want this to be especially free-form. I want players to be clever with their skills, to come up with weird solutions to problems–and having lots of flexibility in how they can use their skill training accomplishes that goal. It also saves me writing time, since I don’t have to write up mechanics for skills, only broad descriptions–but that’s not me trying to be lazy, it’s just a method of designing an RPG which I find works better.
So. In-depth characters, using a background system and point buy, but very quick and smooth; skills which are broad, ability scores which are the core of each and every check, combat which is as deadly as it is realistic and complex, a very free-form system…
I think this could work out. I don’t know where I’ll find the time to write this up, but the thought of having an RPG out there that I created, me, I did it… that’s exciting. And the concepts behind that RPG, I think, will be original and exciting for new players to try.