Creating a New Table-Top RPG System, Part 1

I want to build a new Table-Top RPG System that is:
Unique
Inventive
Logical
Simple
Intuitive

I don’t want to build a system like most of the others. I want the mechanics to be a reasonable simulation without being overburdened with math, charts, and rules. I want to create a game environment where players have wide flexibility in character creation and the opportunity to explore the narrative aspects of role-playing.

Am I asking too much?

I think I want to explore a little history… from MY perspective.

The Granddaddy, Dungeons & Dragons, was built off a miniature-based tactical combat game. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson added now-common themes like character classes and a magic system. They published a boxed-set in 1974 that outlined the rules, monsters, and a setting.

A year later, a librarian in Arizona, Ken St. Andre, bought a copy of this game and decided he could do better. Through a local company that managed play-by-mail games and small-print publishing, he published his first take at the genre, Tunnels and Trolls. The differences between the two were both subtle and striking: Character creation was almost identical with the same classes renamed. T&T added a “task resolution” mechanic called “Saving Roll,” while completely throwing out the tactical combat system in favor of an abstracted system.

As the years progressed, more designers threw their hat in the ring, like Steve Jackson with Melee, which became The Fantasy Trip, and evolved into GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System). Other games came and went. Some lasted while many have been lost and mostly forgotten.

The gamut spread from very-crunchy, very-detailed, true-to-life simulation to high-level abstract where the only rule is to have fun.

The setting wasn’t the only thing that proliferated. Starting with a Tolkien-style magical fantasy world, we quickly saw development of modern-day settings like Top Secret, future games like Traveler and Star Trek RPG, historical and alternate history settings, and so on. There are too many to name.

Mechanically, most of the games offered something new and different than the game before. Some games were designed to support the setting while others took a setting-agnostic approach. In my review of RPG history, let’s look at some of the more common or popular setting-agnostic mechanics.
D20: Starting with the granddaddy, D&D is the first RPG to use different polyhedral dice (referring to non-six-sided dice). At its core is the dodecahedron, or the twenty-sided die. Mathematically, the results range from 1 to 20 with an equal 5% chance of each occurrence. This is used to determine success or failure for a variety of tests, including combat, saving rolls, and ability or skill checks. What’s good about this system is that it is easy to scale probability. If there’s a 5% chance at succeeding a difficult chance, the player must roll a “natural 20.” What’s bad about this system is that it is inherently Boolean. What I mean is – there are no “scales” of success or failure, unless they are artificially applied later. A “natural 1” is an automatic miss, no matter how good or bad you are, for example.

Variable Damage Dice: This also comes from D&D, where each weapon uses different damage dice. Some use a d4, some use d6, some use d8, and so on. What’s good about this is that it allows for variation between different weapons, even though those differences are very minor. If one weapon does 2d4 and another does 1d8, a player can make an informed choice which is preferred. On the negative side, a lot of newer players don’t know the difference between the polyhedrons and are easily confused. Not to mention, the typical d4, the tetrahedron, is difficult to roll and whatever you do, don’t step on one in your sock feet!

2d6 Saving roll: Tunnels and Trolls was written with the philosophy that a player can raid their other board games, like Monopoly and all those Avalon Hill war-games for a multitude of six-sided dice. The entire game was built around using them, so you don’t have to find a game store to buy the funny-looking dice. Two six-sided dice, when added together, range from 2 to 12, forming a simple bell curve peaking at 7. There are 36 possible combinations (6 x 6) and 7 is the most common result, comprising six of those combinations. T&T also introduced the “exploding die” mechanic, which we’ll see more of later. In this game, it’s “DARO” or Doubles, Add and Roll Over. Where simplicity and accessibility are the strong points of this system, it was poorly implemented in terms of calculating probability. Compared to d20, the most recent version of T&T rules says that a “natural 3” is an automatic failure. This is a 1 in 18, compared to 1 in 20 in a d20 system. I’ll note that D&D’s most recent edition removed the automatic failure for saving rolls.

Total d6 combat system: Also known in T&T as “CBT” for Combat Total. This abstracted system uses a completely different mechanic than the saving roll. Each “team” rolls a pre-determine number of six-sided dice and totals them. Each “team” also has bonuses, called “adds,” which is then added to the total of the dice. “Team,” in this context, refers to all the players as one team and all the opponents as the other. Once the totals are calculated, the team with the higher total is declared the winner and the loser takes damage equal to the difference. Armor is subtracted from this to establish how much actual damage was dealt. My brief description doesn’t cover all the rules added subsequently to fix the inherent flaws, like spite, automatic damage from missile weapons and magic, and a variety of other effects. This is a highly abstracted system that condenses a combat encounter into an exercise dice rolling. We completely lose the tactical aspect of combat in favor of story-telling narrative. Conversely, a lot of RPG players enjoy tactical combat at some level. The biggest flaw of this system is there is no real cap on the number of dice rolled, which means that each player must do math. I’m good at math. In my years, I’ve gamed with numerous people who aren’t. I hide my frustration when someone counts the pips on the dice because they can’t add 36 plus 6 in their head. And, as I mentioned, the original system’s flaws were addressed by adding additional mechanics, making the abstractly simple system no less complicated than most of the other systems.

D100: Several systems expanded the d20 system to percentile dice, also known as d100. Some use a “roll-over” method while others use a “roll-under” method. Roll-over simply means that the player rolls the dice, adds a modifier, and attempts to roll over a target value. Roll-under means that the player rolls the dice and attempts to roll under their stat, attribute, or skill value. The second system requires less math, but is less intuitive. Generally, people like to roll higher than to roll lower on their dice, because it just “feels better.” However, d100 systems fall into the same paradigm as d20 systems, just with more granularity. I always found it entertaining when a rule book presents a d100 table broken down in increments of 5.

Dice Pool: Shadowrun is famous for its dice pool mechanic. For a reasonable price, you can find a “cube” of 36 d6s at your local game store. For Shadowrun (at least the version I played), you’ll need all 36, and probably more. To accomplish a task, you determine how many dice are in your dice pool. The more, the better. Various environmental factors add or take away dice. Roll them all and separate them. Count the 5s and 6s (hits) together, subtract the number of 1s (misses), and report the total. If this resulting number clears a pre-determined threshold, you succeed. Otherwise, you fail. If you happened to roll more misses than hits, you may have a critical failure. While still calculable, it is a lot more difficult for my math brain to determine the odds, other than to say, the more dice I’m rolling, the better my chances. Like the d6 combat system of T&T, you need a lot of dice, though the math part is a lot easier. Rather than totaling the dice, you’re just counting how many dice got hits and misses.

Die-Type Attributes: Made famous by Savage Worlds, this system twists the common mechanics sideways. Instead of each attribute represented by a number, it’s now represented by a die-type, ranged from d4 to d12. When rolling a task, you roll one die of the given type and a d6 “wild die.” If either die rolls 4 or better, you succeed. This system uses an exploding die mechanic where if you roll the maximum score for that die, you pick it up and rolled again, adding to the numeric result. Repeat as necessary. While clever, the main drawback of this system is that there are only 5 possible values for stats. This leaves for little variety, and characters ended up very similar to each other. Also, your players have to know what die was what. On the positive side, this system’s mechanic is used almost universally for task resolution, combat, and damage.

Single-Chart mechanic: This is a variation of d20 and d100, found in Role Master. The idea behind this system is that a single roll is made that determines both hit and damage in combat. While it reduces the number of dice needed, it’s main drawback is the implementation: each weapon has its own unique chart, and within the chart, each type of armor is represented. As a simulation, the system is very powerful. As a game mechanic, it’s a nightmare to manage.

Calculated Modifiers: Many Role-playing systems list a set of primary attributes from which a set of secondary attributes are derived. 3rd Edition D&D and Pathfinder are the best examples of this, and, by extension, the worst abusers. 5th Edition D&D isn’t far behind. The six primary attributes are meaningless, in favor of the calculated “modifier” they represent. The calculation is simple enough: Divide the attribute by 2, round down, subtract 5. These modifiers are applied to every aspect of the game – skill checks, saving rolls, attack rolls, and so on. I ask the question: Why in the world do we need the attributes, if all we care about are the modifiers? On the positive side, applying modifiers to probability makes a lot of good sense. If I’m good at something, it is logical and intuitive that my chance of success is higher.

Arbitrary Difficulty: This is another mechanic common to many systems. The D&D 5e Players Handbook says that 10 is easy, 15 is moderate, and 20 is hard. And so on. This is an easy system to apply and is easily scaled to a variety of different mechanics. On the other hand, it isn’t realistic, and requires the game master to make decisions on the fly. These arbitrary benchmarks are easily changed, but without support of the rules, or with vague guidelines, they can be applied inconsistently. If there are clear rules and guidelines, this turns into another distraction where players are forced to dig through often obscure rules. In the case of T&T, benchmarks are based on “level,” which is the relatively simple calculation of (Level * 5) + 15. What? What’s worse, character attributes prior to 7th Edition T&T didn’t scale at the same rate as the benchmark. Theoretically, a 3rd level character should have the same level of probability in succeeding a 3rd level task as a 1st level character does with a 1st level task. This simply didn’t work.

Attribute Scale: Except Savage Worlds and systems like it, most of the earlier systems were based on a 3d6 scale, where 10-11 is considered average. Later systems using percentile-based attributes set an average at 50 or so. The question asked is, “if we were to create a character with no exceptional abilities, talents, or skills, what would their attributes be?” Determining that “10” in all values is a fair approach, we then conclude that if you’re better than 10, you are above average, and gain a positive modifier, and if you’re less than 10, you’re below average and you get a negative modifier. It’s interesting to note that the latest edition of T&T (dubbed DT&T), removed the negative modifier. The designers felt it was too much a penalty for low-level characters. To my way of thinking, and you can criticize me if you disagree, I think that all “adventurer characters,” in their roles as heroes, should never have negative penalties. Period. From a role-playing standpoint, they should have flaws and defects, but from a mechanic standpoint, with regards to task resolution and combat, they should be treated as “average” at worst. All joking aside, a hero is not going to notch an arrow backwards and shoot himself in the eye.

Turn-Based Combat: With little exception, games with a tactical combat system are turn-based. Each turn consists of a “round” or “turn” which lasts for a set amount of time. Within that, the rules describe what actions a character can take during combat, like attack with a weapon, move, cast a spell, etc. On a given player’s turn, that player declares their action and it is resolved immediately. If the resolution involves killing an opponent, especially a minion, mook, or other similar creature, it is removed from the map and combat goes on to the next player in turn. I’m not a huge fan of this system, even though it is used almost universally. Despite the variations, none address what I see as the main issue: real combat is simultaneous, not turn-based.

Initiative: Within turned-based combat, the first step is determining who goes first and the order each participant goes. This is an important mechanic because it ensures that all players get the opportunity to act. No matter how it’s done, be it using die rolls with modifiers (D&D, Pathfinder, etc.) or drawing from a deck of playing cards (Savage Worlds), or some other system, it imposes an artificial structure that is unrealistic.

Experience Rewards: There are three opportunities to reward experience: Combat, Tasks, and GM Fiat. Combat is relatively simple: Each monster in a battle is worth a certain amount of experience when killed. At the end of a battle, the numbers are totaled, and often divided by the number of participating characters, and the resulting value is added to the experience total. This system relies on the GM to handle the calculation and announce the reward. Tasks puts the responsibility on the player to keep track, in that each time a saving roll is made, they accumulate the amount of experience the character receives. GM Fiat is the GM just awarding experience for completing a quest, a challenging puzzle, or whatever else. Some systems award a set amount of points for each gaming session, regardless how much was accomplished or how long the session lasted in real or in-game time. I lump this system in with the GM Fiat category. What’s good? Experience is the numeric score representing the progress a character (and its player) has made. What’s bad? It’s horribly arbitrary and non-specific.

Character Levels: There are two ways to deal with experience. The first is Character Levels. As characters adventure, they gain experience points, which is a numerical translation of what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. At some predetermined point, the character “magically” levels up, whereby they gain new abilities, one or more of their stats improves, they learn a new skill, or a whole lot of other things that might happen. Progressing and improving is core to almost all systems, and one method of reward is to unlock new abilities. It drives me nuts, though, when a player chooses to learn a new skill or feat that has nothing to do with anything the character has done in the entire adventure. I don’t understand how killing a dozen rats leads you to learning the Elven language. Especially when there are no elves in the party.

Spendable Experience: The second way to deal with experience is to treat it as currency. When you gain enough experience, you can “spend” it to improve something you already have, or in some circumstances, gain something you don’t already have. Most rule systems don’t impose limitations, and without those limitations, some expenditures don’t make sense. On the other hand, spending experience is a more incremental approach to character improvement.

Character Races: Most systems allow the player to modify their attributes and skill choices based on race. In Fantasy and Sci-Fi, races are different. Some are stronger, some are quicker, some are more intellectual than the “standard” human. Mechanically speaking, it makes sense to adjust the character’s stats. But why is human considered standard? I get that all the players are human, and thereby, it creates a frame of reference. However, in terms of mechanics, it allows players to start the process of min-maxing their character, by artificially improving stats beyond the normal range and, if necessary, permitting the “dump-stat” mentality. What I find interesting is how different games try to balance the special abilities granted to each race by giving humans additional stats or benefits. One thing that totally breaks immersion for me is the idea that traditional elves live for thousands of years and are typically hundreds of years old before beginning their adventuring career. How is it possible that they are almost mechanically equal to humans at the start of the adventure?

Character Classes: Declaring a class gives the player a framework in which to play their character, allowing them to identify with a fictional hero that fits that ideal. Most systems start with the three basics: “fighter,” “rogue,” and “caster,” and expand from there to a wide variety. I see classes as an artificial enforcement of archetypes. Role-playing is about agency, but when choosing a class when first starting out, you’re forced on a relatively narrow pathway from that point onward. Some games do better at giving options and choices, but you’re still constrained. And let’s not talk about multi-classing rules which are almost always a confusing mess.

Meta benefits: Some system have a meta-game mechanic allowing players to intervene on behalf of their character to re-roll a bad roll or improve their chances on a difficult challenge. Savage Worlds calls this “Bennies,” D&D 5e calls this “Inspiration.” Typically, these are rewards given to the players for “good role-playing” or “exceptional feats” or something along those lines. The devolution is these are rewards for things that happen outside the context of the game, like getting a reward for bringing fresh, hot, home-made chocolate-chip cookies to session. Aside from seeming tacked on like an afterthought, I’m not a fan of these mechanics because they completely break immersion. Conversely, meta benefits do create a system where heroes can be heroes, over and above the normal game mechanics. But aren’t they supposed to be heroes already?

To this point I’ve discussed an abbreviated history of Role-Playing games along with many of the mechanics found in a variety of systems. My review is nowhere close to complete nor exhaustive. It’s based on my own experiences and recollections, and is most certainly skewed by my point of view. My goal is to create a role-playing system that addresses and corrects many of the problems and issues I’ve identified. I don’t believe it’s possible to fix everything, nor do I think I should.

4 thoughts on “Creating a New Table-Top RPG System, Part 1

  1. You said “Generally, people like to roll higher than to roll lower on their dice, because it just “feels better.” Not me. I find roll-under systems much more fun and intuitive. This is because they higher your stat, the larger the space under the stat to roll in to. Very simple and intuitive. And much more fun because you know what target number you are rolling at. Roll under this number and you win. Easy and fun.

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    1. Logically, you’re right. I’ve seen this done more often with percentile-based systems, and it works reasonably well when the target number is the stat you’re rolling under. To make adjustments for difficulty or dealing with opposed rolls, however, things start getting more complicated and less intuitive. I’m not saying it can’t be done. My comment draws on the emotional feeling players get when rolling high versus rolling low, which likely stems from playing classic board games like Monopoly, Backgammon, and other “roll-to-move” type of games.

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    1. Nothing wrong with being different. Your perspective is just as valuable as the next person’s. Today I signed up for a bunch of GenCon seminars, including a few on building RPG games. I’m curious to see their approaches, considering the presenters are people who have designed and published games.

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