Friday, October 23, 2009

An Odd Snag

I spent the better part of the last day-and-a-half writing System X. As I read over what I've written, I discovered an odd problem. I can't make up my damn mind.

I appear to have written two completely different systems for calculating skill points, and two systems for hit points. Both sets of rules exist within the document on different pages, so only by re-reading did I catch my conundrum.

Skills: First, I state that skill points are a function of a character's attributes, modified by the character's profession. Later, I state that, no, actually skill points are a function of profession, with a modifier for attributes.

Hit points: I do the same thing with this rule, too. So you can read the above two sentences and just substitute "hit point" for "skill point."

The trouble, aside from completely not paying attention to what I write, is that these are two diametrically opposed approaches. It means I haven't made up my mind which is more important -- attribute or profession. Both approaches are perfectly viable. I just can't decide.

Which is more important, a person's innate abilities or their training? I'm asking that rhetorically, of course. I have to ask myself, do I want a system where the attribute provides the base value, with modifiers provided by the profession? Or do I want one where everything comes out of profession, modified by attributes? It's not a question of elegance or aesthetics. It's not even a question of which system is "better." Both calculations do the same thing, in roughly the same way.

I think, for me, it's a question of emphasis. One system places the emphasis on attributes, which means coming up with higher scores is more important. The other emphasizes profession over attribute.

Dungeons and Dragons straddles this line nicely. But I'm not sure what I'm going to do for System X.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


As I continue designing a new roleplaying game, I've come to realize that I need to establish a set of guiding principles. I need to state my vision clearly in order to realize it.

I believe that modern roleplaying games are too big: Part of this is due to economics, part of it results from an impulse towards completeness. Game companies obviously want to sell as many books as they can, in order to keep revenues flowing in. This often means a release a month, typically supplements (see below). Also, writers write, and the more they write the more they get paid; I saw this with LUG (saying something in ten words when only five would do). As for completeness, gamers demand that the publisher provide the "right" answer to their rules questions. Rather than wait for the questions to roll in (thank you Sage's Corner), it's more efficient to include rules for every situation in advance. Thus, you get 256-page phone books that weigh ten pounds. I don't have time to read all that.

I believe there are too many supplements: Again, economics. After you publish your core rulesbook, what next? The Complete Guide to Thieves. The Ventrue Splatbook. The Tome of Additional Spells. I understand it. But I was looking at one company's offerings because I was interested in the premise, and I was intimidated by the sheer number of books on the shelf. I don't have time to read all that, either.

I believe that the length and breadth of contemporary games acts as a barrier to entry.

Let's face it. We're all pressed for time these days. And we have a lot of entertainment options open to us. Let's not forget that we're dealing with adolescents with the attention span of a fly. Why are we churning out giant mega-games when what we started out with were 96-page, saddle-stitched games?

This shouldn't be construed as an attack on the hobby as it stands now. Nor is it an attack on how you all do business these days. I just think there's a simpler way. I'm just not sure how to do it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

To Skill or Not to Skill

One of the questions I've been wrestling with is a skill system, and whether or not to include one in System X. And if so, what kind of system it should be.

In the original OD&D (that's the Dungeons and Dragons before 2nd edition), there was no skill system. Certain classes had skill-like abilities, notably the Thief. (Actually, that's the only class that comes to mind.) They had a percentage chance to pick locks, disarm traps, and so on. If something resembling a skill cropped up in a game, such as successfully swimming a raging river or appraising a gem, my referee usually called for a simple attribute check. We seemed to get along fine. The game didn't seem to suffer without a skill system.

Then along came Traveller, and it had a skill system, since it didn't really have professional classes. Call of Cthulhu was the next system to include skills, since those also defined a character's profession. Ever since then, a method for defining skills and resolving their use has become integral to game design. I can't see designing a game without one. Characters would seem somehow diminished without skills.

There exist currently two kinds of skill system:

1) Roll dice and try to attain a result lower than the character's skill level. Thus, if your character has a 40 percent chance to swim a river, the player must roll under 40 percent. Or in a d20 based system, you have to roll under your skill level 12 on a 20-sided die. As you gain in skill levels, your chances to roll under that "target number" increases. This, however, violates the "higher is better" meme that runs through contemporary gaming.

2) Target Number. Your character has a skill level, and the referee sets what is known as a "target number" you must beat, typically by adding your skill level as a modifier to a dice roll. The harder the action being attempted, the higher the target number. While this adheres to the "higher is better" ideal, it also places a lot of responsibility on the referee (since he's defining the target number). Some games have tried to ameliorate some stress here by giving lists of sample target numbers.

Something I've been toying with is the "opposed test." I stumbled upon this idea when designing the Coda System for Decipher, and I was quite taken with it. Most skill tests players will get involved with are, in fact, opposed tests. That is to say, one player is pitting his dice result against the dice result of another player. One player tries to hit the orc with his sword, while the orc (played by the referee) tries to avoid this; one rolls "to hit", the other "to not get hit". That's the simplest, most common example.

But what if a character searches a room for a hidden clue? Why not roll the hiding character's skill test for hiding things? The latter becomes the "target number" for the former. Dave and Buster chase each other down the street in cars, both trying to run the other off the road. Dave rolls to ram Buster, while Buster (played by the referee) rolls to avoid this. Both make driving rolls, with the higher result the winner. You could make the case that almost every skill test opposes another character's skill test, either immediately (combat) or through time (as with the hidden clue).

The rest of the time, you could use the standard target number system. There's nothing opposing the character except circumstances, fate, or nature. The characters need to appraise the value of the diamond they've just stolen, so that's a simple target number test. They need to climb a sheer cliff, roll versus a target number.

To me, this doesn't seem like anything different from the typical skill test system used by the majority of games today. Except for the emphasis on opposition; the referee doesn't set target numbers for the majority of tests. Players roll off against each other.

The Devil is in the Rules

In my last post, I discussed my preference for simple rules, in order to lower the barrier to playing the game. As I go through the necessary components of the rules, however, I find myself asking the question "am I trying to reinvent the wheel"?

Let's face it, there are a lot of rules systems out there. Each has it's strong points, quirks, and good ideas. But each is just a variation on rolling dice and determining a result. Do I hit or not? Do I successfully sneak or not? Do I survive the dragon's fire?

Most variations between rules involve character creation. You spend points on character elements, with the difference being what you can select and their cost in points. Obviously, the next big difference is in the dice rolling mechanic, whether it's Basic Role Play's percentile system, White Wolf's dot system, or Coda's Target Number. There are few ways to handle character creation and task resolution, and I think by now we've pretty much exhausted them all.

So why not simply use an existing system? Since rules systems cannot be copyrighted (only the expressions of the rules), I could rewrite the BRP system, or swipe the Coda system, or use whatever rules set tickles my fancy. Isn't this, basically, what Paizo did for Pathfinder? George Vasilakos mentioned that Decipher was selling the rights to the Coda system for a silly amount of money. He suggested perhaps licensing a rules system, too. For me, this is odious, because I'm a game designer and I should design the damn game myself.

On the other hand, I find myself cobbling together elements from other rules sets that I like. For example, I've always liked the Palladium system of combat, where the attacker rolls to hit and the defender rolls to parry/dodge before accounting for armor class. I like the idea of "class skills" from which a player selects his character's skill set (from BRP and Palladium). So is it wrong to create a BRP/Palladium/Coda/Unisystem hybrid?

God, I feel like such a hack.

Simple Rules

As I've gotten deeper into the design of my new roleplaying game, which I currently call "System X", I've begun to think about the goals I have in mind. Recall, I believe that today's games are too complicated, and require too much time investment, which prohibits people from picking them up. I certainly understand what I call the "simulationist" style of play, which calls for complicated rules in order to mimic reality. But returning to an old example, imagine if playing Monopoly required you to read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged before you could play.

While visiting George Vasilakos last week, I was discussing some of my ideas for the rules system. He asked me, quite curious, why it had to be a level-based system.

Primarily, I believe level-based systems, with their random-generation of characters, to be easier to use. I've played GURPS and Vampire: the Masquerade, and it always took us two hours to build characters. And that's what you're doing in these games: Building a persona. This appeals to those who like to maximize their point expenditures, and those who like to find hidden (often unintentional) "efficiencies." But it takes a God-awful long time to start playing the game.

I once had a player who actually continued to "build" his character each week, by asking if he could drop this to buy that, because it made more sense for this character concept, yadda yadda yadda. So the character was perpetually in creation, and he'd change things on his character sheet even if I said "no" to some of his suggestions. This is point-build taken to it's horrific, logical conclusion.

I recall playing AD&D (no 2nd or 3rd edition, either), and rolling up a character in a matter of minutes. You could be playing in about 15 minutes once you memorized the rules. It was like deciding whether to be the shoe or the race car; Roll your attributes (with a bit of fudging for horrible dice rolls), pick your race and class, roll hit points, and you're off!

We didn't seem any the worse for wear. We didn't seem to be having less fun than gamers of today. The kids, so they say, turned out all right. (Moreover, most of us designing RPGs these days actually started out playing this way, so I'm not sure why random character generation has such a bad reputation).

James Malisewski points out on his blog, Grognardia (which you should read, by the way, as he tries to plumb the mysterious origins of our hobby), that the difference seems to be between "building" a character and "generating" a character. I largely agree with him that, with the latter, you are stuck with the character you randomly generate, which leads to greater creativity (since you have to make sense of the randomness). Sorry, James, if I mangled your thoughts in paraphrasing them.

Finally, I've found that with point-build systems I never get the character I imagine in my head. There are never enough points to spend to get what I want. And if I get enough points, say by being allowed by the referee allowing a "high-level" campaign, I find there's no where to go with the character. Character advancement becomes meaningless. Or, I end up taking so many disadvantages that I end up with a retarded hunchback with a drinking problem (but who can totally kill everything in sight with a lightsaber). I don't want to play my awesome, badass vampire before be becomes his awesome, badass self. I find I'm not creating a character to play, but a character for a novel.

Therefore, with System X, I'm going with random character generation and a level-based system.