Monday, January 16, 2012

Theoretical RPG

After the recent announcement of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, and the news that Wizards of the Coast is looking for fan input to help them design it, I've seen a lot of talk around the web. Thoughts on what people think it will be like, and thoughts on what people think it should be like. Personally I have no talent for prediction, so I won't waste anyone's time with my expectations. I do quite like to theorize about game mechanics, but I see no reason to restrict myself to the D&D model.

Dungeons and Dragons has been a great game in the past, and I will always love it for that. But lets be frank. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are dead, the company they founded defunct, and the 5th edition of D&D will be the third edition since they had any input on the game's development. These days, Dungeons and Dragons is nothing but an IP. It is the continuation of the world's oldest role playing game in name only.

While some small part of me likes to hope that Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition will be good, I do not believe it will be. I think it will be more to my liking than fourth edition has been. That's only logical to conclude, since Wizards has no doubt noticed that Pathfinder has held onto more market share than D&D for two quarters straight. However, at this point I doubt we're ever going to get away from things like healing surges, "powers," and endlessly ascending player stats. If that's your cup of tea, I bid you enjoy it. But I've no interest in pouring any for myself.

Huh, I guess I ended up making some predictions after all. Sorry about that.

So in light of everyone else on the Internet talking about their ideas for Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition, I thought I would share some of my own ideas for a future RPG. I've been pondering these for several months now, and they have little to do with Dungeons and Dragons. It just seems like an opportune time to write about some of them.

Two-Tiered Rule Complexity

Oldschool Dungeons and Dragons had a "basic rules / advanced rules" division, but they were two separate games. I'd like to see an RPG which allows groups to play in either a rules-heavy, or rules-light mode, without breaking gameplay when switching between the two. Because sometimes you're looking for a deep, gourmet gaming experience, and other times you've only got time for a one-shot with whoever happens to be around at the time. Your players may want to spend hours fine tuning every ability on the character they've been playing for years, but if that character is out of commission for a session, they don't want to waste any time at all building the throwaway character they'll be playing until their main is available again.

Ideally, these two modes of play could even be run simultaneously. With new and inexperienced players using the light rules, and more advanced players using the more detailed rules. For example, "rules light," players could be given a selection of classes to pick from, and that class would provide the player with all the information the player needed on what their character could do. Perhaps some minimum level of customization would be available under the light rules (such as selection of race, and the assignment of something like skill points) but the goal is that everything the player needs to know about their character can be found on 2-3 pages of the sourcebook.

Players using the heavier rules would have no class. Instead, they would build their own class by selecting various skills and abilities using a point-buy mechanic. All the skills available to rules light players would be available here, as well as a plethora of alternative options. However, it would be difficult or impossible to create a character using the heavy rules which could completely outclass a character built using the light rules. The classes available to light rules players would simply be pre-optimized characters, built using the heavy rules by the game's designers.

Theoretically, the game could even include 3 tiers of rules. Simple, Normal, and Complex. I think that could be really fun, but even two tiers would require a lot more pages than a game with a single tier of rules. To mitigate that, the core rules would be stripped down to precisely that: the core of what an RPG requires. Character creation rules, and combat resolution. Everything else would be handled by my next idea:

Modular Rules

Every GM knows that rule 0 is always at their disposal. If they don't like a rule, they can change it, or drop it from the game entirely. The problem with doing so is that removing a rule often causes problems elsewhere in the game. To use Pathfinder as an example, if you stop using the diplomacy skill because you prefer to have your players role play through situations that require diplomacy, then the player who put points in the skill gets screwed.

So what if non-core rules were presented as "modules," which could be inserted into or removed from a game without penalty. For example, the game could include the encumbrance modular rule. Everything to do with encumbrance, its effects, and ways to mitigate them, would all be contained in the same place. The game would be designed to function completely with or without encumbrance. So instead of "Is this unfun enough for me to justify invoking rule 0?" the question becomes "is this fun enough to include?"

There could even be multiple modules for a single mechanic. Many games have come up with many different ways of handing encumbrance. And while the game might have a "primary" version of the encumbrance rules available in the core rulebook, alternate encumbrance rule modules could be released with supplemental books, providing groups with a handful of different mechanics to choose from.

Bell Curve Die Rolls

There's not a lot which really needs to be said about this which wasn't already said by one James Beach back in 2001. So I'll spare you the lengthy recap. Simply put, die rolls should be handled in such a way that they produce a bell curve of results, rather than a linear progression of results. Personally, I like the idea of rolling 3d6 or 2d10 to resolve most problems.

I recognize that these ideas have flaws. Perhaps insurmountable flaws. For example, wouldn't modular rules prevent classes from interacting with them, lest the GM decide not to use the rule? I'm not saying I have actual answers to these questions. These are just thoughts I've had rolling around in my head for awhile, and I thought I'd put them down.


  1. It sounds to me as if the two-tiered idea ends up being complexity without choice (the basic version) and complexity with choice (the advanced version). Even if you don't have to choose your powers, that doesn't seem very compatible with an old-school feel.

    I don't think there is a good way to do this from the player's side, despite what Monte Cook recently wrote. They will end up with a better product if they stick to the idea of DM modules, as you suggest.

    The odd thing about all this is that the original game, even the basic version, has support for this already. If you want to play a rules-light character, roll up a fighter. If you want to play a more complex character that requires more planning and (probably) more knowledge of the rules, roll up a magic-user. If you want to start with more power to begin with, start out at 3rd or 5th level. TSR realized this, which is why in Dark Sun then started characters at 3rd level and added psionic talents.

  2. This is kinda funny, actually. I am not, in fact, a member of the OSR community. I think modern gaming has a lot to offer, even if it sometimes falls short of its goals. I do agree with certain principals which I learned from having discussions with members of the OSR community, but I consider myself a modern gamer. One who believes we have something to learn from the past, but also enjoys complex rules and pushing for advancement.

    You're not the first person to associate me with OSR, though. Probably because many of my readers found me through -C's blog.

    As an example of my simple/complex idea, take the Pathfinder fighter. In the simple rules, all of the feats would be pre-selected. In the complex rules, the player would select their feats and bonus feats on their won. I believe most of the more frustrating complexities come from an excessive amount of choices players need to make.

  3. Huh, interesting. Yes, agree strongly about frustrating complexities coming from an excessive number of choices. Choice paralysis is a real psychological dynamic, and games should be designed with that in mind. I think that is my biggest problem with many new school designs. They become infatuated with their own elegance. Though they might be great games, they require too much system mastery to appeal to me (I don't like video games that require lots of practice either).

    Incidentally, though I self-identify as part of the OSR, I actually believe that much OSR doctrine is not, in fact, promotion of old ways (though there is some of that) but rather innovation. If you took many recent discussions about, for example, player agency and showed them to a player or DM from the late 70s or early 80s, I doubt they would recognize these issues as major concerns in the game.


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