DIY RPGing

  I was dishonest in the opening paragraphs of D&D Nostalgia. The truth is that two years ago a friend of mine reintroduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. I've only played a couple of times since, but was inspired to make my own game, a game like D&D, yet also more suitable to my own style of play and interests. There is a bit of a story to all of this, and after I tell it, I'll show you what I am working on.

  About once a year, some friends and I get together for a weekend of board games near the beach a little south of Big Sur. We stay up late playing Le Havre, Coup, and Caylus or whatever, drink our host's excellent scotch, occasionally head out to the beach for a bit, and cook meals together. This is the scene in which one of the guys reintroduced me to D&D. That night two years ago, we played a clone of original D&D. It was a really good time. We laughed like we never do during Le Havre, as our characters stumbled through ancient ruins, wrestled in the mud with pigs and goblins. All this laughter reminded me why I used to play D&D, and encouraged me to play again.

  Last summer on another one of these weekends, I spontaneously decided to run a game, choosing 3rd edition D&D since that is what I remembered. I had not run a game for over a decade, but I was inspired to give it a try. We played for hours beginning in the late afternoon, pausing for a break at dinner, and continuing until almost midnight. The guys were having a good time, making funny voices, rolling dice, and exploring the world I laid out for them, but by the end of it I was spent. I wrapped the game up at a pause in the narrative, and told them I couldn't do any more. They demanded more which felt good, but I was done. I had a headache, and wanted to step off the stage for awhile.

  The main downside to the experience was the cognitive overload of 3rd edition D&D. Throughout the game because I no longer had a good grasp of the rules, I labored to manage the mechanics of play1. Each time I had to make a ruling I tried to use the actual rules, but found myself instead approximating them as best I could because I would have otherwise had to pause to look through the books every few minutes, and that wouldn't have been fun for anyone. Each of these ad-hoc rulings however became a new rule on the pile that I had to honor, further complicating my efforts to maintain consistency for the players. My thought at the time was that if we were going to play again I should either study up on the rules, or introduce a different game with a lighter ruleset. Since only one of us remembered how to play, I decided that a different game would be the best choice.

  At first I figured I would just find some Old School Rules variant that worked for me2, and start playing Old School D&D again. I like the spirit of the OSR. I like the gameyness of it, and I like the premise of hapless adventurers stumbling about in dangerous places looking for treasure. Our host down in central California with all the great scotch, convinced me over some scotch that making a game would be fun. He had ideas for a game and had been working on it. He shared his ideas. They sounded like fun. I bounced my own ideas off of his ideas. Then he reminded me that we had had this conversation before, and maybe I should actually start working on a game too.

  By March of this year, I put together enough of a game for a play test. We played, and had a good time. The guys3 also gave me some great feedback. The game had a few problems, but I was convinced to keep working on it, and so when I am tired at night but don't want to watch a movie, or when I am too distracted by the interruptions of my two sons, but they don't really want dad time, I sit down to write. As you can imagine, I am not doing my best work, and it is slow going. My interest in the game keeps me going anyway.

  This is also an interesting problem. I have not designed a table top game before. A design guideline I try to follow in creating this game is to express all of the game mechanics on the character sheet. Originally I tried to keep a character sheet to a 3x5 index card. While this is still possible for the essentials, I have allowed the complexity of the game to grow while I am working on it. I may cut this back down to the bare bones again, but for now a character's details fill up one side of an 8.5 x 11 sheet.

  At first glance, the game may look to you as complicated as 3rd ed. D&D. But keep in mind that this one sheet of paper is serving as shorthand for an entire text of game rules. I also wanted enough depth in the system to replicate the character archetypes of D&D, and to have enough flexibility to go beyond them. Combat, Magic, Faith, and Influence represent the character's talents, and are chosen to cover the core competencies of the sword and sorcery archetypes of fighters, magic-users, religious mystics, and persuasive rascals. Miscellany is an optional safety valve for additional talents and skills, and thus allows for D&D's interpretation of rogues as skilled specialists to be faithfully represented.

  The mechanics of the game center around the four talents. The general idea is that players can declare whatever they want their character to try, and in most situations the character's score in one of the four talents should relate to how likely they are to succeed. If there is a chance of failure, the player rolls a die, adds the relevant stat, and compares the result with a target number. Equal or higher is success. Combat covers physical challenges and fighting. Magic is for all things magical, like casting spells, or trying to coax some magic out of an ancient artifact. Faith measures the character's ability to get a god's attention, and serves as a limit to the number of divine favors or boons the character can receive. Influence is a measure of social grace, way with words, and authority.

  The five numbers across the top of the character sheet are character resources. These numbers rise and fall with the character's successes and failures. When Toughness or Spirit are depleted the character is incapacitated or dead. When Time runs out the character faces their nemesis or doom. Experience is spent to increase stats. And Luck is a universal modifier, a positive score improving chances of success, a negative score suggesting a freak accident could be imminent. The main purpose of the resources is to have a fairly wide range of ways which the Game Master can reward or punish the character in play. The resources also serve for "Saving Throws" and similar passive checks that a GM can request in response to something happening to the character. Testing an NPC's morale for example would involve a die roll + SPIRIT versus a target number. Since a character also takes damage to these scores, their ability to resist negative effects are reduced when their resources are depleted.

  And that is the gist of this game I am working on. I'll try to post updates on the details as I work on them, and intend to create a project page for this game so that I have one place to store all of the play test materials. I would like to have a complete package of those as soon as possible so that I can ask others to play test the game for me. Testing my own game is not the best practice.


  1. While running a D&D game for the first time in years, it was my work on Arnheim for NWN which served as a resource for setting and adventure. Without that fresh in my mind, I would have fallen down on my face. Arnheim is a setting I first created for one of the campaigns I was running over a decade ago, created a NWN module for back in 2012, and am now using to fill out the content for this new game.

  2. A number of the OSR D&D clones and spin offs are actually really cool and served as inspiration for my own work, Searchers of the Unknown being the most significant. Other notable inspirations beyond D&D include Amber Diceless Roleplaying, Basic Roleplaying which includes both Call of Cthulu and Runequest, the old FASERIP system for combat inspiration, and Shadowrun's karma and leveling up mechanism also served as a model to emulate. Of the OSR stuff that is out there now Brendan Strejcek's Wonder and Wickedness is thus far used as the content for the magic system during play tests until I write my own spells and catastrophes. Gus L's review of Horror on the Hill inspired a reskin for the second playtest. Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming reminds me of the kind of experience I want this game for. And the design and layout of Zak Sabbath's work like Maze of the Blue Medusa and Vornheim has set the new bar for quality that I hope to approach.

  3. Yes, so far I've only been playing with guys because I lost all my female friends when I was married, and have not broadened my social circle since. I will rectify that with future play tests.