Re-creating Dungeons & Dragons is a common pastime of rpg enthusiasts. I started doing it myself with the 3rd edition in 2001 or so, when I decided to run a traditional fantasy campaign with the rules set. At the time I ended up rewriting the whole game starting with the combat and magic rules and ending with experience, character classes and races. The fundamental core of a traditional adventure game was there still, however.
Looking back now, I think I’m at least double as smart as I was then. I haven’t put a pen to the paper over this topic for years, but I have thought about it now and then. Tonight I feel motivated to jot down some fundamentals on a new game that strives to do challenge-based adventure roleplaying in the D&D vein but without the things that annoy me in D&D, like the combat mechanics and cumbersome rules details. Sleeker, faster and more focused.
It should be noted that D&D is huge and adventure games are traditionally two thirds about local group paradigm anyway; I’m not supremely invested in creating a tight, canonical and closed game here. Rather, I’m just outlining the tools I’d like to use for implementing an adventure roleplaying game right now. Some of these particulars have stayed with me for years, others are recent developments. Some I’ve designed originally for rogue-like computer games, some for the D&D campaign I mentioned, some just for the heck of it. Likewise, I’m not that interested in getting this “finished” or anything; I’m just writing things down so I can move on with my musings.
The Purpose of the Rules
I want a D&D-like game that is less on the wacky and idiosyncratic side fiction-wise and has more streamlined mechanics. Also, the game needs to have a stone-solid focus on in-fiction challenge rooted in character and situation. Respect for the history and tradition of D&D is important, but pretty mechanics are even more so. The game may use the traditional die-set (this has been a huge point of contention for me, but finally I acceded simply because the 3d6 Ability roll is such a monumental part of the tradition), character sheets and all that other stuff a full-fledged roleplaying game utilizes.
What I find most annoying in D&D in its current incarnation:
- Character optimization is not rooted in fiction. Players have to plan their characters in advance to maximize effectiveness. This sucks big. On the other hand, I like the current paradigm of having character optimization in the game at all, unlike early editions.
- The combat system is slow and convoluted. Character death is no factored in the game functionally. The enshrined nerd culture paradigm feels dusty; I simply don’t get entertained nowadays by character specialization in specific weapons, slow hp attrition, clockwork initiative and all that.
- The whole tension around encounter density is just screwed. That stuff has to be redone. The current D&D works as a miniature game, but for an adventure roleplaying game I want the players to be responsible of initiating challenges, not the GM, and especially not with tailored safe challenges carefully gauged to be “challenging”.
- The game is full of dim shit that, while it has lots of tradition in D&D, fails to engage me as independent fiction. Character dependency on magic items, supremacy of wizards, rust monsters, cookie-cutter demihumans and all that stuff is just weird; I’d much rather play something with a poetically pleasing and understated fiction. I guess they call it “low magic”, and trying to do it in D&D is just annoying.
Hmm… there’s probably more, but that’s enough for now. As for why Burning Wheel doesn’t do it for me: too fiddly, not streamlined enough, too much GMing work. Just so you know.
OK, so Abilities are at the root of the D&D “feel”, so I want to preserve them. There’s enormous resistance here from my sensibilities, but after much thought I decided that I can’t work with the traditional Ability set; there are simply so many enshrined separations there that do nothing for me. I simply am not interested in differentiating between a “strong” and a “nimble” fighter, which is an example of a crowd favourite when it comes to things that people want the Abilities to distinguish.
When redesigning the Ability list I want to focus on functionality. I could go with player-defined Abilities (this is the new millennium, after all), but at this point I’m a bit against it. Instead, a set of Abilities pertinent to my vision of fantasy adventure gaming:
|Body||The character’s physical fitness; pretty much everything that Strength, Dexterity and Constitution used to do.|
|Will||As it sounds, the character’s mental fortitude. I’d imagine it’ll find use in magic and other kinds of mayhem.|
|Intelligence||A scholastic Ability for discerning thought. Not sure yet if I’ll really need this one.|
|Wits||An Ability for discernment, quick thinking, initiative and all that stuff.|
|Charisma||Another social/magical Ability (I kinda like what the current D&D has done with redefining charisma as a magical Ability). I might drop this and combine with Will, we’ll see.|
An important point about Abilities is that I want them to work in a balanced manner in the game while making enough sense in the fiction. Ideally all characters potentially need all Abilities, or if they don’t, this is taken into consideration in the other parts of the design. It should also be noted that right now I’m only interested in designing for random Ability distribution at chargen, with no point-buy options. Actually, ideally the game will involve no resource-distribution problems between individual Abilities at all; if the player never needs to priorize one Ability over another in improvement, then it does not really matter if an Ability is more or less important than another one.
Another point is that I’m not at all averse to shifting those Abilities around when I nail down the conflict resolution system particulars. Although I started writing this stuff down from the Abilities, in reality they’re the last thing to determine.
Characters get their Abilities with a roll of 3d6, in order, no rerolls. The traditional problems of this approach are addressed in other parts of the design, but there’s also a hefty chunk of not caring if a player does not get the optimal Ability scores he thinks he needs for a particular type of character. The character creation process in this game is, just like the character advancement process, pretty subordinate to fictional aesthetics; you can’t choose your own Abilities, so the character doesn’t get to do that either.
If I end up not putting that full die range to good use, I might swap the 3d6 with a roll of 3-5 d20, use the middle result. The important part here is a strong bell curve, not the exact distribution. I have some reasons for wanting to use 3d6, though.
Abilities will be explicitly fluid in the game: characters get regular Ability improvement checks to increase their Abilities, as a kind of a secondary experience mechanism. While I like it that characters in current D&D can improve their Ability scores, the utterly mechanical and controlled way it happens is the height of dullness for me. I’ll be stealing the skill improvement check from Runequest for this purpose, instead. This is also part of my control mechanism for the rolled Abilities: in the long run it doesn’t really matter if you rolled badly, because your character can try to improve himself in any lacking Abilities.
Ability checks will be the main resolution mechanism in this game. Skill checks are just a special case of this resolution. The Ability check is most likely something like this:
Pertinent Ability + d20 vs. Difficulty
So it’s basically the same as current D&D, except I’ve removed the Ability modifier from the system as unnecessary. This increases the significance of Abilities considerably, which is part of the reason why I want to remove point-buy and other methods for min-maxing Abilities at character generation. If Ability scores >15 were commonplace like they are in current D&D, the impact of Ability would be too much for the above, simplified formula. I’m willing to take on that consideration, though, if it means not having to work with two separate scores for each Ability. Also, a larger impact from Ability scores suits me just fine aesthetically.
The removal of Ability modifiers also means that the most basic “average human” result of an Ability check will be 21 instead of 10.5 like it is in current D&D. A trivial matter to adjust for, to be sure.