Monday, May 10, 2010

Kindling the Fire -- Game Design in Another Arena

So, a large gap of real-life induced silence has occurred. Truth be told I've made little progress on any of my various projects, and my creativity was stifled and stunted by amazing amounts of drama and life-altering events. I'll spare you the details, as they're completely irrelevant to the point of this blog.

There is one place my energy did get focused, and it wasn't in the arena of digital gaming. In much the same way as the esteemed Brenda Braithwaite applied herself to board games, so did I enter an offbeat field: tabletop RPG design.

If you haven't seen the work of D. Vincent Baker and are at all interested in tabletop RPGs, you really need to. I won't invoke the tired "stop reading this post right now" turn of phrase, but honestly, if you want to get a picture of the full length and breadth of the concept of a tabletop game, his work really is required reading. I got pointed, I don't remember how, in the direction of Dogs in the Vineyard, a game about enforcers for the Church of Faith in All Things of the King of Life, Reborn -- a thin rebranding of the Mormon Church as it existed in the 1840s-50s. The player characters are effectively religious enforcers in what could have been the Deseret Territory, a wide expanse eventually becoming seven US states, but which was at some juncture proposed to be a single unified territory under the command of the LDS church. There they are judge, jury, and executioner personified in a roving band of priests on horseback, wielding the supreme law of the land while fighting the sinful influences of the west.

This game's importance is not due to its subject matter, provocative though it may be; indeed, it attacks at the core what most people think of when they contemplate RPG design. The strict damage, rate of fire, to-hit or THAC0 tables, hit location tables, and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of spell descriptions, are thrown out entirely in favor of a simple system which places character, interaction, and the plot at the forefront. The Dogs aren't facing insurmountable odds; on the contrary, the game is weighted so that they win most encounters they come across. The question becomes, "how far are [they] willing to go?" Damage is inflicted not in HP loss, but "fallout", regardless of the arena of conflict; personal, physical, gunfighting. It also comes in the varied forms of experience, stunted relationships, or (possibly) physical injury or death. That said, fallout depends on the highest roll of two dice accumulated over the course of a conflict, and lethal injury comes very rarely except in physical fighting, or gunfighting. Death means something.

Inspired by both this game and his series of blog posts, "anyway", I gave myself a challenge, considering how I was foundering in my attempts to both GM a weekly game, and create anything meaningful in the computer game arena. Over the course of a lunch break or two, I had my answer: "OneShot". It was seven pages of rough copy that put together an almost trivially simple game system. Designed for, not surprisingly, one-shot games or short campaigns, its name is a pun on both that and the initial inspired setting: mafia-style or personal scale shootouts. Then I realized the game was more than that, and could be applied to any genre. I'll post a full "rulebook", such as it is, once I've had a chance to edit and format it; it's a little gnarly in its current form. The gist, though, follows.


Characters have 20 points to assign to each of four attributes, or stats. Four is human average; basic characters are therefore slightly better than average.

  • Strength: Used for feats of physical strength, close-quarters combat with heavy weapons or blows, and to represent toughness by absorbing damage or resisting poisons and other physical ailments.
  • Speed: Used for fine dexterity, raw speed, close-quarters combat with light weapons or blows, and dodging and general defense.
  • Perception: Used for both physical and mental perception -- vision, hearing, mental insight and intuition are folded in here. Also used for ranged attacks of all types.
  • Aptitude: Used for feats of mental calculation and endurance. Folds intelligence, charisma, and similar into one.

Each character also has four "specializations", things they're good at. Pistol shooting, longarm shooting, lockpicking, computer hacking, linguistics, cooking, driving, toughness, dodging, cover, shields, are all examples; anything that can be narrowly defined goes.

Boom, you have your character. Simple as that.

Anytime a character wants to do something that he can practically fail (no rolling for tying your shoes, guys), he rolls a d10 and adds the most appropriate stat. If he has a specialization that applies, add 2 (unless it's an attack or defense roll, in which case you add 1). 10s are automatic successes, 1s are automatic failures, otherwise compare to a target number (or the opponent's opposed roll; attacker wins ties).

Combat is resolved with opposed rolls; Strength vs. Speed for heavy attacks, Speed vs. Speed for light melee attacks, and Perception vs. Speed for ranged attacks. If the attacker wins, the defender takes Damage points equal to the power of the attack used, plus half the margin of success.

When a character takes damage, he must make a Strength roll against the total damage he's taken so far. Success means nothing happens; the hit was a flesh wound or simply harried him, lowering his endurance. Failure means a vital wound was sustained; blood, organs, broken bones, and the like. Each character begins with three Life points; failing a wound roll means they lose one. Lose all three and they're done.

Characters also have five Resolve points; they can succeed at tasks through sheer force of will. Upon failing a roll, they may spend Resolve points to increase their die roll by +2; any number of points can be spent on a roll. If they spend enough to meet or exceed the target number of the roll, the action succeeds instead. The GM must tell the player how many points he needs to spend; the player can then choose to spend them or not. (There's nothing more aggravating than blowing action points or whatever resource the game chooses to apply, buffing your roll by 10, and being told by the GM you still failed.)


So there you have it. It's not groundbreaking, but the main value in the system is twofold:

First, simplicity. There's little that aggravates me more than combat in a D&D system; in fourth edition especially, a simple combat seems to take hours upon hours, because each attack has exceptions, a dozen rules and subrules, sixteen keywords, and umpteen thousand modifiers. Others require you to calculate THAC0, make an attack roll, check a hit location chart, check for a critical hit and its exact effects on two other tables, and god help you if you try to make an unarmed attack or some tactical maneuver.

Second, the applications. I think OneShot is what GURPS wanted to be -- a universal system. While GURPS got mired down in over-simulating things, though, I think a true setting-agnostic game MUST be simple; rules that work in a futuristic setting with psionics and plasma rifles make little sense in a low-fantasy world with barbarians wielding obsidian axes. OneShot, above all else, is a framework; I've run a short campaign in the world of Halo, a dark fantasy with swords and sorcery, a near-future environment with psionic experts (Aptitude rolls for whatever psi power they could think of), and now a demi-hero game with galaxy-spanning races and roles, determined by the players themselves, and using emcee-style narration.

I don't intend to sell this system; use it as you will. The full rules will follow; any feedback or suggestions are appreciated, though I can't promise I will use all of them. If you do apply this system to anything, please let me know; I'm interested in the ways people implement and use it.


If you'll allow me to espouse a bit on the nature of RPG gaming, such as it is, I've found through the investigation of Vince Baker's games, a few other indie projects, and the creation of my own system, that RPGs as published, almost since their creation, are way, way too damn complicated. I loved, for example, the concept of Spycraft, an RPG by Alderac Entertainment Group. The plot involved a stereotypical organization of superspies which thwart world-threatening crisises. Players requisition equipment and gadgets from Control, then go on missions to accomplish their tasks.

But oh, my sweet god, did they overcomplicate the thing.

Your gear requisitioning, for example. You've got a quantity of gear "picks" to apply; they come in Class I through V, depending on the threat level of the mission; and categories include gadgets, vehicles, weapons, "security", and so forth. You can trade three picks of one level for one of another, or back down. You can buy further items with reputation. And each and every piece of gear has somewhere between one and seven keywords, which change how it operates, interacts with armor, affects your skill rolls, causes problems when you use it, and so on. You have to check four or five places in the book to figure out what your MP7A1 with laser sight and suppressor actually does. When running a mission, I'd allot twenty minutes for gear selection; it would regularly take an hour or more. Additionally, there are fully six or seven pages of rules for damage! Damage comes in lethal, nonlethal, fire, vacuum, laser, cold, stress... each with its own half-page of rules and modifiers.

So I'd really love for someone to tell me why we should care about all that detail, when your average player wants to sit down, say "I take a silenced submachine gun, a spy catsuit, and a lockpick set sequestered in the heel of my combat boots" and get on with the action? Simulation-based play is all well and good, but there's a limit. OneShot states the following: "Your silenced MP7A1 has power 5, a 40-round clip, and enemies are at a severe disadvantage (-4) to hear your gunshots." Done. Some games might distill this even further; White Wolf's Old World of Darkness Second Edition distills that into "submachine gun", regardless of model, attachments or other effects. Your average Vampire player cares more about the narrative and why he's pissed off six guys wielding SMGs than the exact nature of the weapons.

The end result of what I created was built with two purposes in mind: first, can I create something worthwhile still, after all this time? And second, can I create a tabletop RPG that strips out all the BS and focuses on characters and their struggles? I'm proud to say that, in my mind, the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes".