The RPG I'm designing, part one: Why change?

I've said via other social media, but not here, that I'm working on designing my own RPG. There are many reasons, but I'll list a few of the most significant.

But before that, the purpose of this post is to report that the first alpha test part two, or maybe it was early beta part one, went very well day before yesterday (this is the first chance I've had to write about it). I got exactly what I wanted out of it, and the behavior of my players was just what I was hoping for. In that sense, I couldn't be more pleased with how the system is working as intended.

But is what I intend actually good, or worthwhile? Well, that remains to be seen—and I should also finish the game, of course. My point is that so far, the course I've laid out is smooth. I may be going in the wrong direction, but I'm going there smoothly.

OK, on to why I'm doing it in the first place…

Pile of booksD&D rules have come to require too much effort to maintain

I refer not only to keeping up with errata but the seeming trillions of new feats and powers and mix-and-matches that continuously appear. I can't keep track of it all. There's too much.

I wanted a system I could keep in my head the whole time.

Also, frankly, there are just a whole lot of rules to keep track of at any one time in D&D. When playing a game, even a game as complex as an RPG, one should be able to go an average session without having to look anything up, and be confident that every applicable rule is being applied. I mean an average night's play, I don't mean that time you went to Atlantis and had underwater combat and had to look up those rules. I don't mean special occasions, I mean fighting monsters in a dungeon. That stopped happening with me as a DM—I always had to look something up (and looking things up in the Compendium? Have you tried that?). It also stopped happening to my players, which segues into…

Brain freezePlayers were crippled by choice

I'll sprinkle some hyperbole on when I say that every time their turn came up in combat they would be faced with navigating a near crippling decision tree for to what to do next. While all their powers were neatly arrayed in front of them on cards, they were still looking at a small deck of cards each filled with special rules and exceptions and conditions.

Also, they based what they wanted to do on their powers, not on what they wanted to have happen. This is such an important point I'll call it out:

Players managed their powers, not their characters.

Rather than say something like "I'll cross the room by swinging from a chandelier," and look to see if there was any power or skill to support that, they first looked at their powers and made their decision based on that. Powers guided action. And when that happened, they didn't see their characters as having the freedom to do anything, with rules supporting those decisions, but as having a finite list of what they could do.

I'm putting thoughts into their heads with this point, no one actually ever said that to me out loud, but as I think about it now and reflect, I believe that's what was happening. And that's one (significant) reason why it took so long for them to decide what to do on their turn—they had to cycle through every available power to find the right one and when, perhaps instinctively, there wasn't a power to cover what they wanted to do, they were at a bit of a loss and started at the beginning of the tree again to find something different to do.

Random tidbit: Characters were weapons platforms, not people. The miniature would maneuver to a location whereupon the power would be activated.

Additional point: Yes, a way around all of that would be to restrict the rules and powers available to the players by, for example, saying that only core rulebooks could be used. The problem with that tactic is that the breadth of rules and options is one of the strengths of the system. Part of playing D&D means being able to draw from a wide variety of rules material to construct your character. Denying that is denying D&D.

Class systemI'm done with class systems 

If your game has ten trillion ways to circumvent (or "customize") its own class system, then isn't that the indication that it's time to abandon the class system? Isn't it a hindrance at that point, if so much effort is being made to work around it? Yes, it is.

My poster child for why the class system doesn't work comes from a Pathfinder campaign I was in. In it, I wanted something that was de juris not possible.

The background was this: A lady, raised in a noble family, became rebellious and for the thrill of it became a cat burglar. Her father was a professor at a wizard college who wanted her to continue in the family business, as it were. She had to go, so in a bit of further rebellion, studied only enough magic to aid her cat burgling. And importantly, because she loathed personal contact with people in combat, she specialized in a bow and arrow.

Problems arose immediately. The most significant is that for her to learn enough magic to cast the single spell she wanted would have required her to level so significantly into the magic class that her performance as a burglar would be too weak to make the effort worthwhile—and everything she'd have to do as a wizard would be utterly wasted. Also, her desire to use a bow and arrow meant that she was unable to perform in combat as effectively as anyone else, given the rules. There were many customizations, boons of special magic items by the DM, and lots of house rules, and still the character concept was never realized. It never could be, because of the class system.

Instead, I greatly favor a system where the player describes what they want their character's background and role to be and then the rules support those decisions. That means not having classes because classes begin immediately with "you can't." In fact, that's practically the purpose of classes, to define what you can and can't do as a member of that class.

InfinityCombats should not take forever

You should read this article by Wizards of the Coast staff addressing this very issue. I hasten to point out that D&D made great strides in streamlining combat to mitigate the extraordinarily long combats at high level. High level combat in D&D flows much more smoothly than it did in Pathfinder, by an order of magnitude.

However, combats at lower level took longer. The length of combat was more spread out, so that while high level took less time, low level took more time.

Link lazy? Here's the juicy bit:
Here are a few suggestions:

  • Avoid using too many monsters that deny actions to the characters. Each time a monster stuns a character, it prolongs the battle.

  • Avoid using too much terrain that significantly slows or impedes characters, and avoid monsters that immobilize or restrain characters. If the heroes can't reach the enemy to attack, that's just another form of action denial.

  • Avoid using too much terrain that provides cover or obscures the battlefield. When the monsters have terrain-based boosts to their AC, it takes longer to kill them.

  • Avoid using too many monsters that impose the weakened condition or that are insubstantial. Imposing half damage adds rounds to the fight.

  • Avoid using too many soldiers. Their high defenses mean more misses, and the more the characters miss, the longer it takes to beat the monsters.

So…delete interesting things.

The ideal fight, it would seem to be, would be on a flat, level, bare playing field with a tiny group of monsters with no special defenses. And that's actually the case—everything the article brings up is The Truth. Action denial does prolong fights—aside from complete denial being the most un-fun thing to possibly happen at the table during play. Insubstantability prolongs fights waaay more than it needs to be. It's tough to imagine the horror of running combat purely rules-as-written.

Which is bad.

A house rule I came up with on my own was to have normal monster HP until they were bloodied, then halve remaining hit points after that. So, a 100 hp creature would bloody at 50, as normal, but then die at 75. That seemed to help a great deal. It's the most effective and beneficial house rule I came up with.

CauldronMagic should be magical

The best magic system I ever encountered, and it was very briefly so I have appropriate rose-colored glasses on, was in the Dragonlance 5th Age game by TSR. In it, a player would construct a spell by paying for point costs based on what the spell did. Greater range, more power, deeper effect, all cost more points. Something quick and light would cost fewer points. Two things struck me about this system.

First, it meant that magic could do anything. If you were stuck in a pit trap, you could conjure a magic rope to get yourself out—without having prepared the spell at the beginning of the day because who would do that. And who would do that when there are combat damage spells to prepare instead?

Second, a player who makes spells for their character means they're making their own spell book—and that spell book is a record of spells cast, not a limitation of what the character can do. If you're going to have a spell book, exactly that is how you do it.

I wanted a magic system that exemplified these ideas. It would allow someone who wanted to min/max and tinker with magic the perfect mechanism to do so. At the same time, someone who just waned to cast magic missile until the orc died could do that as well. And, as above with my example character, she could construct the spell that was ideal for her then never pay any attention to magic again.

And, above everything else, it meant that magic was deeply personalized to the character. If a player defines the magic spell—and if it can be done easily the player won't hesitate to do it—then I think the identification of "wizard" becomes stronger and more meaningful.

Less of a weapons platform, more of a person who does things with magic.

Corollary: The Vancian system of magic is the worst thing since Hitler

I've come to despise the idea of having to choose the day's load out of spells, casting them, then having nothing to do as a wizard when all spells are cast. It's profoundly wrong on so many levels that it would make for a separate and long blog post of epicness inevitably peppered with profanity.

So, in the meantime, I'll just say that it's the most profoundly wrongest approach possible ever.

EvolutionThe player should never be afraid to to choose non-combat options

No one should be penalized by fleshing out their character and picking "optional" things, where optional is defined as "non-combat." The aforementioned Wizards article explains why there are no craft skills in D&D and I think it's a whole blog post by itself to explain why this was a wrong decision.

But meanwhile I wanted a system that supported  a player's choice to do that and not feel like they were being left behind by other players who behaved differently. The game table should welcome everyone.

In part two…

There are other issues, but I'll stop now. Next time, in part two, some examples of my own RPG that address these concerns.