Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Design goals of a RPG

I was talking with Hobo yesterday about my ideas for a new tabletop RPG.  After hearing about some of my system he asked a really excellent question:  "What is the differentiating factor, the talking point that separates your game from other games like DnD?"  I rolled that around in my head a little bit and struck on my answer:  "My game plays like a fantasy novel rather than like a fantasy RPG."

In fantasy stories people don't get powerful in the ways they do in DnD.  They get really good at fighting and doing nifty tricks but they don't get to teleport all over the world at will, spy on anyone they want, store extra bodies for themselves in their castles, be flying / invisible / invincible all the time, etc.  There are fantasy settings where people start out being as powerful as a really talented person and end up being ULTRA POWERFUL and the universal constant is that when the characters get ULTRA POWERFUL the series starts to *suck*.  Rand Al'Thor, Belgarion, Sparhawk, Richard Rahl, and Gord the rogue (oldschool!) were all fun, cool characters (okay, Gord was never cool) and when they got ULTRA POWERFUL their stories became intensely lame.  In just the same way that Superman is never going to be as cool and exciting as Spiderman heroes in stories become boring when they become too strong.  In my RPG characters would become powerful but would never have the silly mechanics high level casters traditionally get in DnD.

"Oh no, a huge army is coming towards our capital and will be here in a week!"

"No big deal, I will just Fly over them with Invisibility and Protection from Arrows up and huck Fireballs down until all 100,000 of them are dead."
"We had better rally our allies and hope their army can get here in time!"

A huge component of fantasy RPGs is money.  The focus on cash and economics in Diablo 3 doesn't even work out very well and that game is a pure grindfest; counting coppers in a heroic roleplaying game is crap.  This is actually a major complaint of mine about 4th edition DnD in particular - the game completely revolves around a magic item economy that makes no sense and isn't remotely heroic.  Previous editions weren't much better but they didn't integrate the idea of magic items as boring currency nearly as completely.  In my RPG people wouldn't even bother keeping precise track of their cash because buying power by purchasing magic items would be nearly impossible.  Just like in World of Darkness people would have a general wealth level and would have to live within it but nobody would bother keeping track of how much it cost to stay at the inn.  Counting coppers is boring.

"Awesome, the dragon had 5,200 gold pieces in his stash."

"Nice, lets go sell my Longsword + 1 and get a Longsword + 2."
"We can use this money to ransom the baron from the barbarians - or maybe we should hire some mercenaries with the cash to try to fight the barbarians and rescue him instead?"

In fantasy novels people get hurt.  They need to rest and recuperate and magical healing is truly wondrous.  In fantasy RPGs people get healed to full after every fight and the idea of long term rest is ludicrous.  How exactly the existence of common healing affects the structure of society is rarely examined and it usually feels like the characters live in a totally different world than everybody else.  In my RPG would get hurt and need to rest to get healthy again.  Perhaps evil rituals could be used to sacrifice victims to heal the Bad Guy rapidly but ubiquitous Cure Light Wounds spells don't exist in most fantasy book settings and with good reason.

"Agggghhh that monster spat acid on my leg!"

"Whatever, 5 points of acid damage.  Cleric, heal me up."
"Oh hell, that leg wound looks BAD.  Can we afford to keep going, or should we get him back to town?"


  1. I think the tricks to making ultra powerful figures work in a game are something like:

    1. NPCs only. (Because in fantasy novels you still have hugely powerful characters, like mentors and Big Bads and the occasional quirky neutral, but they don't get to be viewpoint characters because ultimately tossing around that sort of power is boring to watch. And I think it's good for a campaign world for the PCs to not be at the apex of the power structure, in fact to not even be aware of how high the pyramid goes.)

    2. Ultra powerful is not unconstrained. (I think the indefensible part of the D&D system isn't that there's all this high-powered magic around so much as it exists without significant limits or consequence. I don't have a problem in theory with someone having magic enough to break the world as long as they can't do it with impunity. The wizards in Fionnavar, for instance, can do some really spectacular things but are limited by what they can draw from their source.)

  2. Fantasy novels have powerful characters sometimes, true, but they are rarely anything like as powerful as a high level DnD wizard is. Even then they have great weaknesses and blind spots that the heroes can exploit. Unfortunately when you give people access to a broad magic system and let them pick and choose their abilities they end up making themselves nearly invincible. Huge power with a glaring weakness is tenable for enemies but not for PCs because they will compensate for the weakness. :)

    I agree that large power with large cost is a much better model. When casting powerful spells requires tons of rare ingredients, a sacrifice, a permanent drain on one's own body or somesuch it is fine. The trouble is that DnD wizards sacrifice nothing of consequence for their earth shattering power and can do everything in their repertoire every single day. Villains tend not to operate on that model in books - they parcel out their great power carefully and conserve it when possible.