Monday, February 27, 2012

A New System: Numbers, content, and "Hands Off" Story-Telling

So I'm working on a new System.  "What sort of System" you ask? Why a Role playing Game system, of course!  Long have I wanted to breach into writing (as I've mentioned in the past), but I find myself spinning stories in my head then letting them flutter away as I don't seem to have the discipline to commit them to paper.  So I turn to my favorite mode of getting an audience to experience your storytelling.  Gaming.

The thought of building and balancing a complete System can
be a bit overwhelming, even if it is based largely on another system
More specifically, Table Top gaming.  There's something special about sitting around a table with your friends, sharing tales and telling stories, and this is the closest thing to it these days. Not to sound like an "Old fuddy-duddy", but with TV, Video Games, Cinema, etc., there's not much in the way these days of passing on stories like Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales, that isn't covered by Television.  Don't get me wrong, I too, am a child of technology, but I believe there are some important traditions that have shaped mankind as social beings, and sitting around listening to someone like me who has awesome stories to share is one of them.

Jokes aside, the issue that plagues all tabletop games comes to a matter of balance.  Where does the world fueled on the imagination of all involved (Storyteller and Players) stop and the numbers and rules begin? Is the system you use give a lot of leeway for what your capable of?  Or does it paint your Imaginary Avatar into very finite conditions?  Both can be interesting depending on your style of play, so long as you don't rob your players of their most powerful tool, Choice.  On the other hand, coming from a background of working with players who look for loopholes in a system to work in their favor (thereby unbalancing the game, decimating any possible "challenge" you may have set for them, and leaving other "balanced" players far behind) leads to a Storyteller who pours over text, lawyers rules, and enforces interpretation with an iron fist (which doesn't make players happy, even your reformed loophole seekers).  So, let's break down the system.

Your system, the rules and numbers, are very bones of your game.  If your game is a giant fire breathing dragon, this is the massive skeleton on which rests majestic beatings wings to a powerful rending claws to horrible gnashing teeth.  These are the rules and sciences of your world, and how your players interact with it.  Systems are tricky to explain because they are the part of a game you actually have to learn (obviously) to play.
If your familar with Pen and Paper
D20 games, you know what
fickle mistresses these can be.

For our example we're going to use a D20 system, because it's one I'm most familiar with, and one I'm looking at building my game in itself.  So a quick lesson on how it works is in order...

Step 1. Choose an action to perform, if it's something you have a chance to fail at, the storyteller associates a difficulty number to it.

Step 2. Roll a 20 sided dice, add or subtract any appropriate modifiers to the dice roll result

Step 3. Compare the result of your roll to the target number. If it's above, success! If it's below, failure!

And that's it!  Well, aside from calculating what bonuses your character receives and such.  Obviously it's a bit more complicated, but this is what the system is based on. A difficulty 10 is about a 50% chance for anyone to succeed, but when your character is skilled at the action their taking that add to their roll effective making their target number lower or less difficult.  Here's an example, with a little bit of flavor...

"Axton the barbarian is headed to an Tavern with his adventuring party, when he notices a rather comely Barwench standing in front of the establishment.  Between Axton's party and the tavern is a small stream.  A smile splits Axton's rough face, but he then notices Bartleby, his handsome and roguish traveling companion afixed with the same dopish look.  Axton and Bartleby get along quite well, as they share many tastes, which is precisly what puts them at odds in this instance.  Bartelby breaks into a sprint towards a near by bridge, not wanting to risk fording the stream and making a mess of his fine clothing.  Axton decides to take a daring and impressive shortcut, leaping the stream itself."

This Epic party is waiting....
The Storyteller sets the difficulty at 15, a perilous task with about a 25% chance of success for a 20 sided dice. But Axton the Barbarian is no mere schmuck, his raw strength paired with honed athletic ability give him a +10! Making his target number now a 5 instead of a 15.  Axton's player rolls a 20 sided dice and the result is a 7, adding his bonus makes it a 17...

"Axton easily leaps across the stream in an impressive athletic display, leaving Bartleby panting at the bridge and the Barwench all aflutter.  He throws her a heroic smile, she blushes and eagerly awaits a stellar pick up line to sweep her off her feet..."

Axton has no real experience with exercising his charm, and though is decent looking, gets nervous around pretty girls.  His combined natural ability and lack of expertise net him a -2. Let's say his difficulty for whatever reason is again set to a 15, he now has to roll a 17 or better to succeed.  Chances are his roll probably merits failure, and a heroic line like "Your hair is shiny, and I like turtles...".

Have I lost you? I hope not.

..for this epic party to get rolling!
The real complexity comes in details of what you are trying to accomplish and how capable your character is at completing said action. You Jumping a stream is relatively simple as opposed to calculating not only your chances of tackling a dragon, but what do you tell your players when they say "what angle should I hit the Dragon to get the best effect? i.e. a higher bonus to my roll?".  Previous rules sets expand their rules of character development to cover such actions, micromanaging each specific action your character is capable of for the sake of clarity.  This can be good to help define your character's abilities, but it also it gives your character a list of what can and can't be done, a list they have to remember or write down, a list that your character has to reference in rule books, often while playing and thereby slowing play.

My theory is that it's better to give your a handful of skills that can quantify what your character's capable of, and then leave it up to that.  Put less emphasis on "My character has the ability to do this" and more on "My character has the ability to do many things, because of his knowledge and experience in a general area.  Previous editions featured skills such as "Jump, Climb, Swim, etc" all skills associated with your characters Athletic ability, current editions have combined all of these skills into "Athletics".  You can say "Well just because someones a good climber doesn't necessarily mean they know how to swim!"  But in the context of a game, your character is "Heroic", "Special", and cut from a cloth unlike most other people in the world he inhabits (this of course is dependent on your style of game, I'm making a "Fantasy Adventure" game, there are plenty of Modern Horror and Gothic Horror games who's character design is centered around just how insignificant your character is).

Character development is split into two parts at this point, Creation and Progression...and I am suddenly tired of continuing this post.  Character Creation and Character Progression kind of deserve their own pages, so eventually I may get to those.  So let me close with this....

What was your favorite tabletop game!? Clue? D&D? Chess?  What did you love about your game and why? Mechanics from virtually any game can be worked into a Table Top pen and paper game, and I'd love to hear what's popular, especially from people who don't play Pen and Paper Role playing Games!