Monday, 14 March 2016

Writing an RPG

I've been pecking at it long enough that I might as well come clean, I'm writing a fantasy adventure role-playing game.

I mention it because I've been sitting on an ever-expanding pile of drafts and design notes, and I the closer it gets to it being something real, the less I've been posting here. That needs to change!

Like many games, probably, the impetus for writing it lies somewhere between an elaborate preparation for a specific campaign and a laborious expression of my preferences.

So, what am I trying to do?

The core idea is geographic advancement.  Like a West Marches campaign, it's focused on wilderness exploration, and adventure sites reached across that wilderness. In this game, the regional wilderness map is a central artifact of play, not only so the players can fondly recall where they've been and where they might want to go next, but as a strategic representation of how they're doing, their capabilities, and what they ought to be worrying about next.

Where are the threats? Where can they get to quickly? Which trips will exhaust them? Where can they find allies and safety along the way? Which settlements do they have close enough ties with that they can enlist reliable hirelings and replacement PCs? Where do the ancestors ignore their calls? Where is their magic strong? What don't they know at all?

This gives treasure a somewhat different role - a talent of silver is always a welcome haul when you return home, but knowledge, leads, safe routes and access to resourceful or usefully placed settlements are comparatively more important.  (This is why some of my 'adventures' are 'fantasy settlements' - they are potentially treasure.)

The other goal is player planning. I'm in love with chunky logistics, using systems for inventory, supplies, seasons, weather, terrain and navigation that are simple enough that they can be used all the time without inconvenience. The point is to create a tangible and consistent experience of these things so that players can take them into account and making meaningful plans and informed trade-offs.

We can't afford to leave the handwolves to spread for another season - by the time spring comes, they'll have reached all the way down to Morton. But tackling them in winter means we can't take the village militia, they're not hardy enough for the crossing.

On the Michael's preferences front, it'll be skill-based, lethal and perceptual. Skill-based, because I'm enamored with use-it-to-advance-it systems like Burning Wheel (and many classic games). Classes are a concise way of communicating an archetype, but I want players planning adventures to find the hirelings, trainers and experiences they need, and I want their characters developing in unexpected directions as the approaches they take to the adventuring problems shape them.

Lethal, because I want characters to feel like precious assets, not to be taken away from safety lightly. A form of troupe play is the default, with multiple characters available players to choose from when they plan their forays. Replacements emerge from experienced hirelings, which are limited to the settlements where the party has established sufficient ties. At the same time, character death is an prerequisite to some elements of play.

Perceptual for immersiveness. While the strategic level plays out in a slightly chunky way, I prefer moment-by-moment play to really focus on individual perception. This means theater-of-the-mind combat rather than battle maps, but The Regiment opened my eyes to how that can be supported by the system in a way that emphasizes team actions and the narrative of tactical combat.

Despite all this, I want it to be lean enough for pickup play.  Characters need to be playable in ten minutes the first time through it, and there's relatively little emphasis on rules mastery. (Naturally, the critical table will teach you all you need to know by the time you're on your third character!)  I want this to hold true for the GM as well - rather than meaty stat blocks (as was so well done in Dungeon World), I like iteratively defined monsters and NPCs that can be characterized with just one or two numbers, with other detail added as it becomes important. It should be possible to play with a sketch of the dungeon you made at lunchtime.

So.. tables. I have Rolemaster nostalgia and I don't care who knows it. I know, I know. But as the OSR community knows well, a good table can do really interesting things to your game. One of the things that Rolemaster did a bit of was to encode some of the game's opinion on the way the world works into the tables, but I think this was steeply underused (too many tables, and too large, for one thing). A lot of tiny modifiers, for instance, can be compressed into a result that only happens occasionally. Carrying a vial of dragon's blood for a +2% modifier is far too fiddly, but if having one makes a difference when 67-68 comes up on the spell failure table can give you the same effect with no marginal increase in handling time. (Except for the one-time hit of using the table in the first place of course!)

Anyways, that's part of what I'm up to these days.  I've done focused playtests of bits and pieces of it, but a campaign begins in earnest this Saturday.