Four posts I’ve been working on for weeks are still marked as drafts. This weekend I also started a post on RPG design that keeps shifting and growing. For the sake of posting something, here’s a quick update for both my readers (if I have that many).
Three posts in Limbo are attempted followups to the dwarf and giant ones, namely less stereotypical elves, dark elves, and other humanoids. In the fourth I pontificate on an article on computer memory management (Degenbaev, Lippautz, and Payer, “Garbage Collection as a Joint Venture”, Communications of the ACM, June 2019). Riveting stuff, right?
The RPG design one follows my attempts to write RPG rules, even for my own amusement. Unfortunately, I keep getting distracted by new ideas. Right now I have at least several:
In Astral, a.k.a. “The Astral RPG”, PCs explore the Astral Plane. I’ve been nattering about this forever, with zero progress. One big obstacle is the notion that this is an “embeddable” game, i.e. someone playing some other RPG can Scheherezade into this one to represent their main characters. That means, however, that a) the mechanics should be simple enough that anyone can grok them immediately, yet b) astral travel needs to be odd and unsettling enough to justify using new rules without being too odd and unsettling that players would want to avoid the place.
Right now I’m dithering between 2d6 Players Roll All Dice and 1d6 vs 1d6. Essentially the probabilities are the same. I’m just trying to decide whether the GM rolling a d6 (per NPC?) ruins things.
Origially I conceived of a companion game to Astral called Paranormality, whose vaguely defined setting could encompass genteel Victorian spiritualists, less genteel monster hunters, quintessentially British urban fantasy, Gaiman-esque excursions into hidden worlds, post-Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and X-Files-like conspiracy. It floundered when the rules for Astral got a little dicey (ha!), particularly in more “realistic” circumstances like combat time, gun battles, and physical trauma. For a while I reduced the project, such as it was, to a multi-system or system independent Paranormal Power System Guide.
Maybe I’ll revive it as a game unto itself, probably based on OpenQuest or, in classic early hobby tradition, one or more of my “house systems” detailed below.
The Elf Game
The Elf Game recasts D&D as a game about elves exploring The Fields We Know. (This was inspired by a few posters on G+ who referred to fantasy role-playing games, or RPGs in general, as “elfgames”.) I’ve nailed down the basic mechanics – mostly ripped from Mutants & Masterminds – and a sketch for two magic systems, Cantrips and Spells, but class design is getting away from me.
Currently I have five candidate classes for Elves, but I’m not sure what to call them. Essentially they’re “The Wizard But Not Called That Because Real Elf Wizards Are Demigods”, “The Fighter / Ranger But Without Wizard-Style Spells”, “The Rogue Analogue Who Works On Distinctly Different Principles”, “The Cleric / Druid But Also Without Wizard-Style Spells”, and “The Basic D&D Elf Race Class Recast As A Party Diplomat”. For symmetry I added three Elf-adjacent Race Classes tentatively called the Enchanted Beast (a talking animal with some Elf-like abilities), the Fairy (a tiny glowing Cantrip-casting machine), and the Goblin (a grotesque that advances through random tables, not the nice clean progression of Elf classes/castes). They’re the equivalents of Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings in Elfland, though don’t ask me which is which.
To tie back to D&D I added Race-Classes for Dwarfs and Humans, which almost literally come from other games altogether. Humans eschew classes and levels entirely for skills, to the point where I wonder if they even have Base Characterics at all; and Dwarfs split the difference with Careers borrowed equally from Barbarians of Lemuria and Warhammer Fantasy … To that I added a “Monster” class, for a Monster played as a PC, like the good/bad old days of “monster levels” in D&D 3.x or of RuneQuest and “you can play anything, even a Duck”, with some rough similarity to the Enchanted Beast.
And then I had the idea for The Sorcerer … where I seriously rat-holed. Unlike Elves, who have an innate connection to the Otherworld and milliennia-old Wizards to train them, prospective magic-users in the mortal realms, regardless of species, must cobble together scraps of lore and fragments of enchantment into appreciable Arcane power. As I brainstormed the list of magic systems I could steal mercilessly grew ever larger. I more or less settled on some hybrid of Mage: the Ascwakenioning, the blahblahmancers of Unknown Armies, Path/Book magic from GURPS Thaumatology and its predecessors, sorcery and alchemy in Barbarians of Lemuria mentioned above, and all four traditions of Invisible Sun mashed together. (Structured spells? Improvised spells? Magical At that point I realized I was writing a whole ‘nother game. Probably I’ll focus back on the Five Central Classes. That said, this game is in part a mish-mash of systems I’ve seen in the Old School Renaissance, and in part a comment on class-and-level systems and the OSR.
After a playtest of Troika! and some mathematical tinkering, I decided to strip down the system even more, and set it in a less intentionally absurd world. Once again, however, I ratholed on alternate mechanics that “simplified” it by making it more complicated: replacing Stamina with a Wound Level system adapted from “Mini-Six” by Antipaladin Games, revising combat to work more like Tunnels & Trolls and other tweaks.
An issue I still struggle with, though, is the initiative system. Troika! uses random draws to let PCs and NPCs take turns in a round. In the playtest that went over like a neutronium baloon, in part because in the first combat NPCs shot at PCs from a distance, and in part because two average PCs vs two NPCs is basically a coin toss as to which side gets to pick targets. (On the other hand, a defender has a chance to damage their attacker if the defender can reach that far.) Arion Games’s Advanced Fighting Fantasy simply has all parties roll simultaneously; each PC or NPC that rolls higher than their designated target(s) hit. That works OK when the GM controls only one or two NPCs; if the PCs are evenly matched or outnumbered, not so much. I’ve been tinkering with “Players Roll All Dice” variants, a “Horde” system where each NPC rolls 1d6+4 + Skill instead of 2d6 + Skill (i.e. one die for each NPC), treating a Horde as one big NPC maybe with bonus dice for tactical advantage, etc. Just this evening, I decided to leave combat pretty much alone. Figuring out alternate character generation and a new setting is hard enough.
The “Zeta System” was an outgrowth of the Troika Redo. It would use Players Roll All Dice, but with 3d6 + Skill, and maybe with one – or more than one – of the variant combat systems. E.g. enemies would have an individual or collective Threat Number; rolling above that number does that much damage to NPCs, and rolling below hurts the PC or PCs involved. The Elf Game has something similar, but using two d20 rolls, the first decides who hit who, and the second how badly they were hit.
Instead of British fantasy or hipster Planescape, Zeta World suffered some sort of catastrophe in its distant past. Again, details are sketchy. Maybe the catastrophe was a “Millennial Apocalypse”; the dangers aren’t radiation, mutation, and scrounging for weapons to defend against spider-goats but catastrophic climate change, rampant automation, and scrounging for solar panels to rebuild society. Another possibility is “Fortress Angland”, an alternate(?) history in which the Black Plague turned residents of Eurasia into homicidal “wights” and the British Isles stands as last bastion of (cough) civilization. Or it could be some sort of colonial setup akin to Forbidden Lands, Pirates and Dragons, or any number of Lost World riffs where explorers venture into new lands with unknown dangers.
The “Third” System
Which brings us up to the last two weeks, when my brain combined the Arkham Horror/Eldritch Horror task resolution system and Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power into a vague idea I don’t have a name for yet. Right now I call it The Third System, even though it’s sixth at this point, because players roll their ability Rank in d6s, each of which has only a 1/3 chance of success. I’ll babble a bit more about it later, but it’s Yet Another Players Roll All Dice joint. Combat might be tricky, since I’m tinkering with a system in which a player’s roll determines not only whether their PC succeeds but whether attacking NPCs succeed. (In brief, each success can attack successfully, block or invade an incoming attack successfully, augment an existing successful attack or block attempt, or enable some other Quick Action. Absent a successful block, evade, or knockout, an NPC attacker hits.)
In a forthcoming “System Kinda Matters” essay, I argue that RPG rules should really match the genre they’re emulating. If Astral‘s system should match its dreamlike setting, Paranormality‘s eventual system support conspiracy / horror / dark fantasy, The Elf Game‘s evoke D&D with several twists, Troika Redo’s fixes allow simple yet gritty gaslamp fantasy, and Zeta World‘s mechanics match its denizens grim struggle for survival, then this game’s sweet spot is heroic figures seizing unexpected opportunities to defeat otherwise overwhelming opposition. (Like the new She-Ra series. At least one whole episode mocks the idea that meticulous plans ever work.) The actual setting is even thinner: ragtag pre-industrial heroes vs. a dieselpunk evil empire, both sides scavenging for powerful but inscrutable Ancient technology, sorcerers weaving scraps of lore and power into one-use miracles, bloodlines of mighty-thewed warriors and savagely sarcastic princesses, blah blah blah. It might even be the Musical Comedy version of Zeta World.
… and the rest
As those programming and writing projects I’ve mentioned before? No progress worth noting. I spent a couple of evenings writing Lua scripts to calculate probabilities for Nd6 dice pools and NdX + bonus or penalty dice. I’ve also spent ridiculous amounts of time screwing around with Hero Forge. stressing about letters from the City of Richardson regarding taxes and trees, watching Netflix, and sleeping way too much.
So yeah, that’s been my over a month.
Tune in next decade for a more coherent post.