Wednesday, April 23, 2008

RPG Design Journal, Part I: Setting the Stage

So, yeah. RPG design. It has been a hobby of mine for as long as I've been a gamer. Back in the days of 2nd Edition AD&D I was constantly house-ruling this and tweaking that. When TSR released the Amazing Engine system, I began hacking away at it because it was my first real taste at a "generic RPG system" (I hadn't been exposed to GURPS or any others yet).

After college, I began work on my own "universal RPG system", which I entitled SCORE. It was heavily influenced by Rolemaster, GURPS, and D&D 3E, and I still think it's a good system, but like most generics, it suffers from A) Being somewhat bland - nothing more than really just a character generation machine and a conflict resolution system - and B) you have to re-invent the wheel in terms of skills lists, equipment, positive & negative traits etc. every time you radically switch genres. By the end I had it where I wanted it, but it still felt a little too much like just another semi-crunchy generic multi-genre RPG system, of which - by 2000-01 or so - there are hundreds out there on the web, never mind a number of published generics (I'll save all that for another post some time). I did, however, run two small campaign-arcs with SCORE in its "1.0" incarnation, and two larger campaigns with the revised "2.0" version, one of which, the Year of the Blood Wolf fantasy campaign, I consider the best campaign I've ever run.

A couple of years went by, and my gaming time slowed considerably. Eventually though, back around 2003-04, I began work on a lightweight system specifically designed for gaming in the classic Swords & Sorcery genre, the sort of fantasy sub-genre that fits my interests very well.

Well, the initial incarnation of that game wasn't bad, per se, but it had a bit of clunkiness to it that I didn't like, and felt again to me like just another set of generic mechanics that don't really carry a lot of the feel of the genre with them. So now, I'm setting about to work on creating a S&S-themed RPG that fits my needs and the way I see the genre best portrayed for gaming, at least in the way that I want to game with it. I'll be using this blog, in part, to put ideas out there for people to read over and comment on, and hopefully this will, in the end, help me create a stronger and more enjoyable product.

A couple of points that I'll expand on in another post:

1. I want this to be a light system, but not TOO light. A single, unified mechanic that I can do a lot with, but still has some flavor, is necessary. I want a new player to be able to sit down and read the Players Only material in 10 minutes or so - let the GM handle all the more convoluted bits.

2. I want the mechanics to reflect the genre and encourage players to stay within the spirit of the genre. This is something that I'll have to hash out a LOT. In essence, I want mechanics that encourage players to take a little risk, act decisively, and allow the PCs to quickly overwhelm "low-level" punks, while still keeping an element of danger (i.e., the PCs are very competent professionals, and can become masterful, but without them becoming unkillable demi-gods).

3. I want a system that not only allows for Episodic Play, but facilitates and encourages it. I want the inter-game periods to be important to the story and provide useful fodder for the game sessions. I have some ideas for this that I want to hash out sooner rather than later.

4. I want a game clean-edged enough that socketing in things like advanced fighting techniques, special weapon rules, or various forms of magic will not be difficult. One of the things that always troubles me with S&S game systems (and fantasy systems in general) is that if the magic system is too fully integrated into the rules, pulling it out and popping in a new one is a real chore. I want something where moving from one style of magic to the other is as easy as sliding out a few pages from the binder and sliding a few new ones in.

All right, that's all for the moment. Onwards and forwards, dog-brothers!


trollsmyth said...

Ye gods, how many of us are working on something like this?!? I'm currently flipping through Dr. Samsara's "Swords of Fortune" (, and of course there's the Evil DM's Broadsword game as well, and I recently finished skimming the Barbarians of Lemuria game (

Which is not in any way meant to discourage you from going ahead with your own design! Reading all of these has only inspired me to continue on with my own project. I'm just curious what it is in the air or the water that's got a lot of us middle-aged gamers attempting to bottle the Sword & Sorcery magic in an RPG?

Your blog has been bookmarked, and I look forward to reading more about your design soon. :)

- Brian

Badelaire said...

Swords of Fortune looks interesting - I will definitely have to print it out and give it a look. I also need to get off my duff and buy Broadsword & the setting doc as well. Washburn's Barbarians of Lemuria game is, I think, a great little "pick up and play" game and I've been dying to give it a try for a while now, especially since I have (and am getting through) the Thongor novels - cheesy but really fun stuff if you aren't so peevish you can't handle a few Conan parallels.

As for what drives us, all I gotta say is pass me some more of it! I think that since (in my opinion) we're now over the "Indie Gaming Boom" of the late 90's and early Oughts, there's a lot less pressure out there to put your game on the bleeding edge of alternative game design. I'm not making this game because I think all other games like it suck and mine will be in any way "revolutionary" - I'm making it because tinkering with this sort of thing in my spare time is fun, and I like to try my hand at it. And, if I can share this with others and enjoy their works as well, so much the better.

Carry on!

trollsmyth said...

I definitely agree that the age of "art" has ceded to a focus on fun. Frankly, I'm loving the fact that we can bounce ideas around, and in the past month I've found more neat new systems than I have in the decades of playing that came before.

Congrats also on being added to Jeff's blogroll!

Badelaire said...

Yeah, the fever of pretension and angst that swept through Indie Gaming might be out there somewhere (The Forge is a big concentration of it), but a lot of us who aren't so wrapped up in it are more focused on just having a good time keeping the fun foremost.

BTW, I've browsed over your blog - some great stuff! Definitely added to my blogroll.

trollsmyth said...

Thanks! :)