Friday, January 13, 2012

If I Designed an RPG

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they're going to start working on the next edition of D&D.  Already my head is buzzing with things I'd like to see.  I started writing this blog as a list of things I want out of 5e, but my mind sort of wandered off in another direction.  About a year ago I posted a blog on what I would consider "The Perfect Game", though some of my opinions have changed since then.  I thought I'd follow up on that post, and babble about the directions I would take if I were to design an RPG of my own.

Disclaimers: Few of the ideas in this blog are really original; I steal a little bit from here and a little bit from there.  With my limited experience with RPGs, even the ideas I think are original are probably old hat by now.  I'm not an expert on the math that goes into RPGs, so some of this might sound like a seven-year-old explaining how we could fix the economy by printing more money.  I'm usually more into story than fighting, so balance isn't going to be my priority.  While this is all stuff I'd like to see in an RPG, it's not necessarily stuff I actually want to see in Dungeons & Dragons.  Some of my ideas might contradict each other.  This is not a game I'm actually going to create, as I really don't have the time or talent to design an RPG from scratch.  Caution, this post may contain traces of nuts. Do not taunt Happy Fun Blog.

Well, anyway, that's enough caveat.  On with the brainstorming!

By my count, D&D 4e currently has 26 classes, with 115 builds for those classes.  I think this is totally unnecessary.  Instead of creating 115 builds for us, they should just give us the instructions for creating unlimited builds ourselves.  But of course, that would mean selling fewer books.

For my game, I don't think I'd actually name the classes, but instead have "packages" based on the combat roles: Defender, Striker, Controller, Leader.  I might break it up a little further, such as dividing "Leader" into "Buffer" and "Healer", or "Striker" into "Ranged Striker" and "Melee Striker".  I'd also have a "Versatile" package for those jack-of-all-trades types.  But I wouldn't give the classes actual names.  Let the players decide how to define themselves.

I don't want to make things so complicated as to require build points, but I would like at least some versatility in character creation.  Everyone picks a major package and a minor package at first level.  The major packages will define your combat role, contribute to your hit points, determine Weapon/Armor proficiencies, and grant class features.  The minor packages would give additional bonuses or features that either compliment the major package, or give the character unrelated skills to make him more versatile.  So the major package might include Sneak Attack or the ability to cast Arcane Spells, while the minor package might include First Strike or Ritual Casting.

My RPG would be all about the races.  Borrowing a core mechanic from Gamma World, all my races would be "half" races.  This means everyone would pick two races for their character.  Now, this does not mean everyone would be half-breeds.  Most characters would still end up being full-blooded, but from a mechanical standpoint a full-blood Dwarf would actually be "Half Dwarf, half Dwarf."

It would work a bit like D&D 4e's hybrid classes, in that you would pick some stuff from each race.  Each race would have two stat bonuses to chose from, two skill bonuses to choose from, two special abilities to choose from, two encounter powers to choose from, and so on.  For example:

Lets say you want to make a half Elf, half Dragonborn.  Suppose the elf gets a bonus to DEX or WIS, and the Dragonborn gets a bonus to STR or CHA.  You choose the Elf's DEX and the Dragonborn's CHA.  We'll say the Elf has a bonus to Stealth or Arcana, and the Dragonborn has a bonus to Athletics or Intimidate.  You pick the Elf's bonus to Stealth and the Dragonborn's bonus to Athletics.  Maybe you'll take the Elf's ability to shift in rough terrain, but not the Elf's ability to meditate instead of sleep.  Perhaps you take the Dragonborn's breath weapon, but not his Dragonfear power.

But if instead you decide to just make a full-blown Elf, then you don't have to make the tough choices.  Take both stat bonuses, both skill bonuses, both abilities, both encounter powers, and so on.  And that's what most people would do, if only to fit the fluff.  While any combination of races would be mechanically possible, the cross-breeding restrictions would come from the campaign settings.  Each setting guide would include a list of which races are most common, and which combinations are possible in that universe.  Even in homebrew settings, if a DM doesn't like the idea of a half-Goliath/half-Halfing, then he can provide a list of allowed combinations.  LFR would have a list of allowed race combinations for tournament play.  Even if your home game made you roll your race randomly, the list would still be something like 1-19 = full races, 20 = mixed race (roll again twice on chart).

So no, I'm not actually trying to encourage a lot of weird half-races.  I just want them to be easier to create when they're needed.  The point is that instructions for crossing every race would be mechanically possible right from the core rulebook, so you don't have to dig out a lot of splatbooks when the party's Gnome impregnates a Human NPC.  And if you want a really wacky one-shot, have everybody roll both halves randomly. 

But I'd go even further.  All sentient humanoid races in the game would be playable, right out of the Monster Manual.  So you wouldn't be limited to Halfling/Humans or Gnome/Elves; you could also play a Lizardfolk/Orc or a Goblin/Kobold, assuming your DM and the campaign setting allow it.  Granted, a lot of creatures in the monster manual aren't balanced for PC play, but I'd design the base "playable race" stats first, and then add "monster packages" to them to make them usable as enemies.  Kind of like how D&D 4e gives you instructions for designing your own monsters, but the Monster Manual is basically a collection of creatures made using those rules.

Anyway, I really want race to be an important part of defining your character.  Too many RPGs seem to focus on Class, as if someone's occupation defines everything they do in life.  I swear, most of my friends have no idea what I do for a living.  They don't call me "Matt the Banker", and I don't want my character to be simply known as "Dalia the Ardent".  Meanwhile, there's a lot of interesting fluff in each race's cultural background, stuff that seems to get forgotten once the dice start rolling.  So with that in mind, in my RPG I'd like as many features to come from race as they do from class.  It starts with each character having two encounter powers (one from each race if a mixed), but I'd like them to continue getting more features at future levels.  For example, at odd-numbered levels they'd get something from their race, and at even levels they'd get something from their class. 

Hit Points and Healing
This is a rough one for me.  I hate slow healing, so I can't go with the older versions of D&D.  Whether your campaign's about combat or exploration, I think it's important that characters be able to get back to it as soon as possible.  The idea of roleplaying six weeks of bed rest while your broken arm heals just isn't exciting to me.

On the other hand, healing shouldn't be too easy, either.  Gamma World allows you to get all your hit points back after a short rest, which fits the light-hearted, whimsical nature of the Gamma World universe.  But D&D is generally a more serious game, and players shouldn't have unrestricted access to free healing.

D&D 4e seems like a good compromise.  You can heal during short rests, but not forever.  Still, the "healing surge" system has always felt a little clunky to me.  The idea that healing spells and potions won't work at all if you're out of surges kind of irked me.  I understand why the system was necessary - if you can heal by resting, there needs to be some way to restrict you from having unlimited healing - but I'm still not a fan.

Dragon Age has an interesting solution.  It lets you regain some hit points from a short rest, but only once after each combat, so you can't just keep taking short rests until full.  You can also make heal checks on each other for a few hit points, after which the recipient can't benefit from heal checks again until after the next time he takes damage.  So it's got the easy healing, with restrictions, without having a complicated "surges" system.  But it's still not what I'd do.

Also, the (pre-Saga) Star Wars d20 RPG has a neat system involving Vitality/Wounds.  It's not exactly what I'm looking for, but I like the concept enough to steal from it a little.

Personally, I think I would separate hit points into two nearly equal numbers: Stamina and Health.  So if a character would normally 40 hit points, in my system she might have 18 Stamina and 22 Health.  Much like temporary hit points, damage would come off of Stamina first.  These are the hits that you manage to deflect, punches you just shrug off, scrapes that cause temporary pain but no damage, and blows that knock the wind out of you without actually harming you.  Once your Stamina is gone, that represents you having a harder time deflecting hits.  When you take the first hit that actually damages your Health, that's when you're considered Bloodied.  These are the attacks that actually break the skin: the cuts, bruises, burns, sprains, and sometimes even mental scars.

After battle, our hero takes a short rest, and gets all her Stamina back.  She does not, however, get any Health back.  She can get small amount of health back through an extended rest (say, 1 point per level plus her CON mod, but never less than 1 per night even if CON is her dump stat).  A successful heal check (once per day) can increase that number a little bit.  And of course there's always magical healing.  But even if she can't get healed, as long as she has at least one Health point, she can keep adventuring on Stamina alone.  Maybe it's not realistic for this fighter with broken bones and major lacerations to be battling on pep alone, but realism's relative in D&D.

So if you're good, you'll get through most fights without actually losing much Health.  Sure, you'll lose all your Stamina, but just a couple of Health points, and next battle you'll have all your Stamina back.  After about three battles, your Health might be low enough to actually cause you concern, and that's when you start thinking about finding a place to camp.

Now, an obvious problem: if magic still works the way it does in 4e, it's too easy to get Health back.  The party Cleric will just use both his Healing Words, rest 10 minutes to get them back, wash, rinse, repeat until the party is healed.  So if I used Encounter Powers in my game, I'd have to nix any that involve healing.  Instead, most Encounter Powers would just restore Stamina to keep characters standing during battle, but actual Health-restoring powers would be more along the lines of "x times per day".  I'd also have to keep Health potions on the rare side, with most stores selling Stamina potions instead.

Your maximum hit points would come from both race and class.  I'm thinking your race would give you Health (since it's innate durability), and your class would give you Stamina (since it gives you the training to avoid injury).

Maybe I play too many video games, but I like "magic points" (or mana) better than encounter powers or "x spells per level per day" systems.  But I also don't want characters to ever completely run out of spells.  So every magic user would have one basic "Magic Missile" type spell that requires no mana.  Or maybe it only costs 1 mana point, and magic users would regenerate 1 mana per round.  In any event, they'd never have to buy a crossbow like they did in older editions.

Of course, to be compatible with my Hit Point system (above), there would still be some spells that only work a certain number of times per day.  Perhaps Wizard-types would use a mana system, while Cleric-types would be on a "spells per day" system.

Rather than bog down the book with 1000 spells, I think I'd just list a few, along with instructions for designing your own.  For example, in a normal RPG book, the Druid and the Wizard might have a similar "burst 1 in 10" spell.  Why list it twice?  Sure, the Wizard's might have ongoing fire damage, and the the Druid's might create a zone of vines that hold you in place, but you could could choose the after-effect yourself while designing the spell.  Different after-effects would affect how much mana it costs to cast, and whether the spell is even castable at your level.  Same goes for damage dice, range, burst size, whether it affects all creatures or enemies-only, and so on.  You would design these spells each level as you learn them, and you would supply your own fluff.  Later I would release a splat book full of nothing but pre-designed spells, but it wouldn't be required reading.

I'm really undecided on this one.  I prefer fluff to crunch, and I favor simplicity.  I want someone to be able to roll up a character in five minutes, even if they've never played before.  So I don't really need the whole 10=0, 12=1, 14=2 thing.  I know existing players have been used to the system for years, but whenever I try explaining it to new players, their eyes glaze right over.  Some people get confused on when to use their full stat, and when to just use the mod.  Several 4e newbies have reported using their CON mod instead of their full CON when figuring up their starting hit points, with disastrous results.  Are both really necessary?  If I'm generally only going to use the Stat Modifier, then I'm happy just letting that be the stat.  So instead of having stats like 14, 17, 20, etc, my stats would be more like 2, 3, 5.  I think.

On the other hand, I like how some of D&D's stats are so easy to quantify.  Multiply your STR by 10, and you have the maximum pounds your character can lift.  Multiply your INT stat by 10, and it's roughly equivalent to real life IQ points (100 being average, most PCs being well above average).  And as I understand it, for games that use a d20, having most of the numbers in the game start at 10 helps with the math.  But do I even want to use a d20?  If I'm really going for simplicity, I might want to use a d6 system - everybody's got d6's in the house somewhere.  No, forget that, I really like 20-sided dice.

And on yet another hand, I'm not sure I even want body-related stats like that.  I wouldn't be totally against combining all your stats, skills, defenses, etc into one basic list.  So instead of STR, CON, etc, you'd have "Melee Fighting", "Magic Defense", and so on mixed in with skills like Athletics and Bluff.  ...nah, that's too messy.

And how do I want to arrive at these stats?  I'm rather partial to the Gamma World method - just assigning 18 to your primary stat, 16 to your secondary (20 if both are the same), and rolling the rest.  But I'd have to think on that for how to translate that into my system.  Note that rest of this blog post pretty much assumes I'm going with standard D&D stats.  But I'm not set on it.

I'd go the Gamma World route:  Instead of listing 1000 weapons, I'd just have a few weapon templates.  If you want to call your sword a katana or a club or even a stop sign, that's up to you.  But we only need one or two listings for each weapon die.  But once again, I'm probably losing money on potential book sales.

I like the feat system they used in some of the Star Wars games.  Rather than feats having other feats as prerequisites, each feat just has three levels.  So instead of having "Ambidexterity", "Two Weapon Fighting", and "Improved Two Weapon Fighting", you'd just have "Two Weapon Fighting" I, II, and III.

Powers / Special Attacks
While I appreciate the way D&D 4e finally gave fighters more things to do besides basic attacks, I really don't think each class needs 20 pages of powers.  Instead, I'd make a generic list of things all characters can do as they attack, such as push someone 1 square or knock them prone.  But some characters would be better at performing these than others (in other words, some will be DEX-based, others will be STR-based, etc).

If I did decide to go with a traditional skill list, I don't think I'd need a super-large list of specific skills on the character sheet.  I'd probably just give you bonuses based on your related stats, and a few blanks where you can write in specific talents.  I'd like the player to have some amount of leeway to come up with their own skill names, based on previous occupations or hobbies.  So what if the Player's Handbook doesn't list shoe repair as a skill?

Death and Dying
I'm not big on death in RPGs, but I know I'm in the minority there, so I'd have a couple of optional methods.  Personally I like the way they do it in the Final Fantasy video games - if a hero falls in battle, they are K.O.'d.  As long as one character outlives the final monster, then everyone else is brought up to 1 hit point after the fight.  They only die if the entire party is defeated.  And even then, only if the villain wants them dead.  Capturing them might take the plot in new interesting directions.

When I DM, and one of the characters dies, I typically ask the player, "Do you want him to be dead, and roll up a new character?  Or do you want me to find a way for him to live?"  I'm creative, so I can find ways for them to live, maybe even ways that will make them wish they had died.  A lot of times the player will actually pick death because it's more dramatic, and because they want to try a different class.  To me it's more about trying to make the most interesting story, than it is about trying to get the best die rolls.  If you want to make it more limited, you could reward players with "Get Out Of Death Free" cards for good roleplay.  Or you could offer to bring a character back if the player will write a short story about their experience in the afterlife, and why their god allowed them to return.  Because, you know, people love homework.

Anyway, since most people prefer a more hardcore game, I'm forced to consider more popular death systems.  I don't like 4e's "3 saving throw" system, it just leaves too much to random fate.  It means that no matter how tough you are, everyone will die within (on average) six rounds of hitting 0.  I think I'd prefer a bleeding system, where you lose some hit points per round until you die at negative bloodied value.  That way people with more hit points take longer to die, which makes sense to me.  Though I might not mind the "3 saving throw" idea if you get a bonus to that throw equal to your CON mod; that way people with higher CON are still harder to kill.

Pets, Familiars, and Mounts
4e has several independent systems for how to deal with animal companions, and not a one of them makes a damn bit of sense.  Depending on whether your animal is a Beast Companion, or a summon, or a familiar, or whatever, the animal has a different set of rules for its actions.  For example, a summoned Golden Lion allows has you spend your Minor actions to order it to use its Standard/Move/Minor actions.  A Beast Ranger's companion shares his Move actions, but not his Standard, and they can only attack simultaneously if a power allows them to do so.

In my RPG, if you have an animal companion, then you run it as a second character.  I know it's not fair that some people to get to run two characters.  I know it takes more time to go around the table.  But you know what else takes a lot of time?  Re-explaining 4e's animal companion system every frikkin time it's the Beast Ranger's turn (believe me, I've been there).  Sometimes it's better just to have simpler rules, even if they aren't 100% balanced.

Time Resources
I like 4e's Standard/Move/Minor.  One thing I would change, though:  In my RPG, drinking a potion is a minor action, period.  No "1 minor to draw, 1 minor to quaff."  No "I'll draw a potion on this turn, so I can drink it on my next turn."  I don't care if you keep it in your backpack, your boot, or your underwear.  When you say, "I drink a potion", then that's a minor.  If that's too much for your suspension of disbelief (and yet you have no problem believing in trolls), then we'll re-fluff it so they aren't in your backpack.  Maybe in my universe, potions are made in pill form, which people attach to their wristbands for easy popping.  But however the fluff describes it, it's a single minor action.

I'm not a fan.  The options for micro-management will be there for the groups that want it, but there will lots of "outs" for those who don't like that sort of thing.

In my system, money is weightless and denomination doesn't matter.  Coins are made out of some extremely light metal, and merchants have no qualms about making change for people.  Or maybe everybody is just issued a magic debit card at birth.  Maybe it's not even a "card" so much as your account is tied to a magical tattoo, so the DMs aren't tempted to target the party's treasure.  (No offense, DMs, and I know getting robbed is valid drama... but if you didn't want the party to have so much gold, maybe you shouldn't have placed that big treasure chest in that last dungeon.)

All characters will be issued a solar-rechargeable magic sunrod.  It is a minor action to activate, and clips to your clothing so you don't have to hold it.  As long as you keep it clipped to the outside of your clothing for a couple of hours each day, it will shine for 8 continuous hours in the dark.  However, some dungeons might be filled with magical darkness, limiting the sunrod's functionality.

If you have the skill to use a bow, then you have the skill to retrieve and repair your arrows after battle.  Ditto for bolts and sling bullets.  You also have the skill to make your own ammo from materials found in the forest.  This process does not need to be roleplayed or even mentioned, since it is an assumed hobby your character does during his downtime.  Any ranged weapon +1 or higher has unlimited magical ammo.

It is assumed that characters do odd jobs between actual quests, earning them enough money to break even on rent, food, and other necessities of life.  It is also assumed that all characters know how to live in the world they were born in.  That means they know how to find food when they can't buy it, either through hunting or foraging.  My campaign settings will be full of fruit-bearing trees and edible lichens.  Unless you're specifically in a storyline where starvation is supposed to be risk, eating simply doesn't need to be mentioned.

I love miniatures, and I always want to use them.  But I don't want the game to require them.  So all the bursts and blasts and other effects are going to have to be a little less complicated than they are in 4e.  But I have played 4e without miniatures, and while the action felt a little less precise, it still worked.  Granted, it was a low-combat campaign and we were playing simple classes.  My goal would be to make my RPG just simple enough to work well without minis, but most people would still use them.

Balance and Errata
A lot of RPGs use the "Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards" method:  Magic users suck at low levels, and rock at high levels.  Meanwhile, Fighters just progress steadily, and gradually become less interesting as time goes on.  D&D 4e made every possible effort to balance all the classes, attempting to make all of them equally useful (some critics say equally boring) at all levels.  They went on to release errata every five minutes, nerfing any possible advantage one class might have as soon as said advantage was discovered.

I'm all for some balance.  I don't want anyone to feel useless or fragile at any level.  But I don't want to obsess about it either.  If someone discovers a trick that makes their Striker do more damage, I'm going to accept the fact that "doing more damage" is a Striker's frikkin' job, and get on with my life.  (Unless, of course, the trick is so unbalancing that the game is no longer challenging... but that hasn't been the case for most of 4e's errata.)  Some people play for the story.  Balance and errata aren't an issue for them.  Other people pick a system apart looking for advantageous builds.  They're going to find a way to  build nuclear characters no matter how much errata you release.  I say, let the min/maxers have their fun.  Once they crack the system, they'll move on to something else, leaving this game for those who enjoy it for less munchkiny reasons.

Character Builder
There would definitely be a character builder.  This builder would be a available for multiple platforms, including phone apps.  The builder would not be free, as it would make buying the books obsolete.  However, you would get a download code for the builder when you buy the Player's Handbook.  When you buy other future splatbooks, you would get more download codes that update the builder with the content from that book.

Character Sheets
I want the character sheets to be relatively short.  My biggest problem with 4e's character sheets is that you have to keep going back and forth to different pages.  All your important stats are on the front page, but to use your powers (which you will, every turn) you have flip until you find the right power card page.  Plus, they waste some room by showing their math.  By this, I mean instead of just saying "AC: 20", it also shows the numbers that add up to AC (10+1/2 Level+Armor+Ability+Class+Feat+Enhancement+Misc).  It's good to have those numbers on hand in case there's a dispute, and it helps someone figure out the numbers initially, but there's no reason it needs to be hogging up space on the front page.

When I play 4e, I tend to make my own character "cheat sheets" on a spreadsheet.  These sheets have all my character's most important information on them: stats, skills, hit points, power summaries, and so on.  But not the math that got me there.  I still keep the full character sheet handy in case I need to see how I arrived at these numbers, but I rarely have to look at anything besides my one-page spreadsheet.  It's not easy to fit everything on one page, especially if the character has a lot of complicated spells.  And it gets harder and harder as the character gains levels.

Sample 4e Cheat Sheet (click to enlarge)
 So one reason I would want my RPG to be as simple as possible, is so that everything can be summarized on one page.  Remember, this is the 21st century - these sheets have to look good on an iPhone.

That's about all I can come up with for now.  I don't think this would be the perfect RPG by any means, and I don't think it would have universal appeal.  It's just a lot of ideas for a game I would be interested in playing.  While it's fun to speculate about what the next D&D will be like, the game described above probably ain't it.

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