RPG Design Diary 1


Over the years(?) I’ve babbled about writing my own RPG rules and settings. I’ve done some small amount of work lately, so here’s where they stand:


Premise: Travel in the Astral Plane, perhaps between adventures under other rules.

I’ve been slowly poking at this thing. So far I know that I know the basic mechanic will be 2d6 vs. a GM-determined target number and that players will roll (nearly?) all dice. Everything else seems to be up in the air?

The basic concept is that characters start as literal blank slates save for some biographical information, and gradually gain abilities as they explore the Astral Plane. D&D’s version of the Astral Plane, especially in A Guide to the Astral Plane for Planescape, is a huge influence, but I had conceptual problems with the details. For example, how do spells work if they create or manipulate fire, earth, wind, water, plants, etc. which don’t exist in the Astral Plane? The Gith can’t reproduce in the Astral Plane because time works differently, yet time seems otherwise to work just like the Prime Material Plane. And so on. By using distinct rules, I hope to create a framework that fits into any existing game yet provides a distinct dreamlike character to the Astral Plane.

A while back I wrote a detailed outline of the core rules, and have been rethinking it every since. Is rolling against a fixed target number the best way to handle combat, especially when faced with superior numbers? Am I defining possible actions too narrowly under the influence of PbtA “Moves”? How do I represent “damage” to insubstantial entities? How should the quasi-psychic magic of the setting work? Do I have the right metaphors? Is the premise and setting itself interesting enough? Am I creating an interesting environment, or at least providing enough tools for other GMs to do so? The idea of tackling a “spirit world” was supposed to free me from questions about plausibility and completeness, yet I’m still stuck with making it an interesting game.

One key mechanical concept is “Win, Lose, or Draw”: a player’s die roll can be less than, greater than, or equal to the GM’s target number. The higher number always wins. In a tie, depending on context, either nothing happens, the player wins by expending some resource (maybe just time), or the player loses but gains some benefit for a future test. This middle ground needs covering, especially since I’m inverting NPC actions into player-made die rolls and that ties on 2d6 are extremely probable1. This idea fed into the games below.

The Elf Game

Premise: D&D if “elf” was the default species and others were “race-classes”.

Recently I did a first pass at the central engine. It’s largely a stripped-down 3.5 D&D, with significant differences:

  1. Only players roll dice; high is uniformly good, low is uniformly bad.
  2. It will use only a d20.
  3. Instead of Hit Points I’m adapting Injury.
  4. That said, Elves have Glamour Points to mitigate the effects of injury and to cast limited but useful Cantrips.

When I write the full character generation and magic rules, other differences will include:

Other player-available species are planned:

Paranormality / The Paranormal Power Handbook

Premise: Portable mechanics for handling paranormal powers like cermonial magic, ESP, telepathy, and precognition.

Originally conceived as a corporeal follow-on to the Astral RPG, it then dwindled to a supplement to other games and then stalled. Really it only makes sense as an adjunct to something else in this article7, with portability a secondary concern.

Showdowns and Shadows

Premise: The Weird Eerie West using gun combat rules from Aces & Eights.

The Showdown! miniature-leaning rules from A&E are pretty cool, but I’m not too keen on the remaining Hackmaster-derived rules. True, A&E uses percentile skills instead of classes, but as one might expect they’re overly complicated. Instead, I plan to use 3.x skills but with a skill advancement system more closely related to Basic Roleplaying or King Arthur Pendragon.

The “base rules” of The Elf Game are a starting point for Showdowns & Shadows, but I’ll use the Hit Points and weapon damage rules of Showdown!. Prime characteristics will come from The Elf Game: Accuracy is equal to Acuity, and Speed (which should really be called Delay) is the negative of Reflexes. Close combat will work exactly like combat in The Elf Game, instead of the clunkier “Shot Clock” method or the Brawling mini-game from A&E.

Zeta World (new)

Premise: Gritty post-apocalyptic or swords-and-some-sorcery roleplaying.

While fiddling with The Elf Game I tried a variant that used 3d6 instead of a d20. As an old Fantasy Trip fan I like the idea, but I’m not sure how “damage as saving throw” will work with 3d6 since that a +1 isn’t a simple +5% to odds. Other damage systems I’m considering are:

  1. hit points or the equivalent, with weapons doing damage similar to either The Fantasy Trip (i.e. X d6 + Y) or Fighting Fantasy (roll a d6 and consult that weapon’s damage table).
  2. a variation of the Open D6 “wound level” system, with weapons doing variable dice of “damage”.

It recycles an older idea of mine, the Skills And Only Skills System. Essentially it has no “base” characteristics, just abilities that modify the results of the die roll. (Fate uses something similar.) Using Hit Points complicates this somewhat, since there’s nothing to base hit points on apart from a) a skill modifier, b) a constant value, or c) a random roll (3d6 or 4d6 + 6, depending). There may be room for other point pools like Luck, Fatigue, and possibly Magic. Or not.

The default setting will be a post-apocalyptic setting light on mutations but heavy on bizarre artifacts, inspired somewhat by Numenera. Initially there won’t be a “magic system”, which is why I went with post-apocalyptic rather than swords-and-sorcery. There may be a loose GM-only “system” for sorcery but I really like low-magic settings such as the Conan stories or Arthurian romances: magic exists, but it sets up the scenario but doesn’t provide a shortcut to solving it. That said, future settings could bolt on a magic system resembling The Fantasy Trip, Stormbringer, Sorcery! for Fighting Fantasy, the sorcery of Castle Falkenstein, whatever ends up in my Paranormal Powers Handbook, or anything else. Except D&D’s “Vancian” magic. Never that.

Other People’s Systems

About a month back I had a burst of inspiration and wrote a bunch of stuff. As some point I’ll start posting it, maybe in its own section.

Otherwise I have too many ideas and too few actionable plans. As usual.

  1. On 2d6 there’s no number that yields 50-50 odds. The odds of rolling the mean (7) are 1 in 6. ↩︎

  2. The assumption is that most elves know a few Cantrips to make their endless lives easier, but only a privileged few learn real Spells. Spellweavers are apprentices to the truly scary Elf Wizards. ↩︎

  3. Using common Cantrips, not Spellweaver’s spells. ↩︎

  4. Most similar to non-demonic Sorcery in Stormbringer 5th edition, Battle / Common / Folk / Spirit Magic from various editions of RuneQuest, or lower level spells from The Fantasy Trip and Tunnels & Trolls, i.e. small effects that temporarily drain mental energy. ↩︎

  5. Most similar to spells in Dungeon Crawl Classics, the level-less spells of various OSR products, and the Unlimited Mana variant of GURPS, i.e. big effects with big risks especially if the caster pushes their luck. ↩︎

  6. I justify class-and-level for elves by assuming they have fixed castes and very formal and rigid teaching methods. Everyelf progresses all their abilities in lockstep because that’s how they’re taught. ↩︎

  7. Zeta World might make a good basis. An idea I’m half-considering is that all actions in the Corporeal Plane (Assiah) use 3d6, all transformations of the Astral Plane (Yetzirah) 2d6, and all conceptions from the Mental Plane (Beri’ah) 1d6. Emanations of the Causal Plane (Atziluth) are, naturally, diceless, since there the Ein Sof ordains everything. The Qlippothim of the Void Between Worlds invert usual mechanics, e.g. roll-low and/or GM Rolls All Dice. ↩︎