Hack Or Heartbreaker?
  • Hack Or Heartbreaker?



    How best to structure your own RPG? It’s not a new dilemma. Back in the day games publishers always sought to innovate, whether that be a relatively small change, like adding spell points to a D&D chassis, or something more fundamental, like dispensing with class and level entirely, making skills more central to the game. Turning over the box or book of a game in the 80s you would usually see an excited description of the unique innovations within; no alignment! Personalised magic! Just d6s! Play an animal! Be evil!

    Later, publishers hit upon the notion of a core system that could power multiple games. The next step was to open up that system for others to play with, in the hope that eventually there might be one game system to rule them all. D20 looked like it might actually achieve that at one point, but soon enough other companies followed suit. Now there are dozens of open games systems that the nascent publisher can use to boost their ideas into reality.

    As a first step for me and my homebrewed game, I had to decide which route to take. Early on it became clear to me that my best system ideas were built on the shoulders of games I’d played over the years. Like many gamers I have binders full of house rules and other things I had done to tinker with my engine of choice. I had fewer ideas about systems built from the ground up. My decision was clear; I was going to work with an open gaming template.

    Perhaps the most appealing thing about pre-existing mechanics is the mental space it gives you to apply your creativity to the things outside of the rules. The story, the flavour, the setting and the presentation. These are the parts of the game where the adjectives come to life. The rule themselves are merely the nuts and bolts, that’s why they call them mechanics.

    Having made that decision, the harder decision presented itself; which licence to go with? Wizards of the Coast supplied the hobby with the OGL back in 200O, and that’s powered so many other options. In the end I wanted to stay close to fantasy, and my favourite relation in the D&D family has long been 13th Age. This game has its own SRD, called the Archmage Engine, and it’s one I'm more than passingly familiar with. So, that has become the skeleton of my system.

    Staying true to that choice hasn’t always been easy. Every time I pick up a new game I find something interesting that I want to paste into my work. I love the downtime activities in Blades in the Dark. I love the equipment packages in Into the Odd. It’s easy to get distracted and end up with a game burdened like the mule in Buckaroo. Must resist!

    So with the SRD in one window, and a blank doc in another, it was time to bring it all to life.
    Comments 45 Comments
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      I'm a strong proponent of the school of thought that system should fit the story/setting/game you want to play. While it was probably good that the d20 OGL saved D&D (since I enjoy D&D), the side effect was discouraging creativity in role-playing technology. Before there were OGLs (and before "game rules can't be copyrighted" became clearly established/known in the US) creating your own game required innovation. Necessity was the mother of invention, and I loved seeing the inventions.

      With OGLs available, people think less about their systems. They consider what's out there to be close enough, tweak it, and run with it. Then they end up with a system that, in many cases, doesn't really fit their setting material (unless that setting is a close replication to the setting the OGL derives from, if there is one).

      If this sounds like over-analyzing it, consider times when you've played really well-made role-playing games with their own unique custom systems. Would those games be anywhere near as good if they were just the setting slapped onto someone else's OGL?

      Using an existing OGL is really only beneficial if you only want to produce a setting. If you basically want to play whatever the OGL was based on, and just want other people to enjoy your world, then it's fine. If you want to create a smooth experience with a new setting, you're significantly better off custom designing a setting that fits that.

      I should also point out that there are multi-genre systems that can actually work well for more than one setting--because they were designed for a specific play experience which is a goal of those settings. But no system works well for every setting.
    1. Brodie's Avatar
      Brodie -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
      But no system works well for every setting.
      D20 comes close, though. So does GURPS. And Fate Core. And others, I'm sure. I think the reverse of that statement holds true, also: No setting works well for every system.

      The space bounty hunter game I'm working on is going to use a heavily modified D20/D20 Modern system. Could I easily make my own system? Maybe, but probably not. I'm extremely familiar with D20 and D20 Modern (preferring the latter) and I know how to hack the system to fit my needs. Such as a weapon system that let's PCs customize their weapons. Now, I'm also really familiar with Fate Core and know how and feel comfortable with hacking that system, too. But my space bounty hunter game would NOT work with that system.
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      let's hear the story - looking foreward to it!
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
      IWhile it was probably good that the d20 OGL saved D&D (since I enjoy D&D), the side effect was discouraging creativity in role-playing technology.
      Is this really true? A lot of pretty innovative games came out in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
      no system works well for every setting.
      Quote Originally Posted by Brodie View Post
      D20 comes close, though.
      D20 has some pretty significant limits even on its home terrain. Here are just three:

      * No default mechanic for resolving social conflict;
      * No mathematical concordance between combat stats and other stats, which can make mechanical transitions/interactions between combat and non-combat hard to manage;
      * A lot of scope for actions to become auto-successes (due to the interaction between bonuses and DCs).
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Just to add to that, I cannot imagine that if I wanted to go the seriously simulationist road, d20 is not going to do it for me. Far, far too random. And the combat system is so abstract that you'd more or less have to completely rewrite it in order to go that road. Meaning that you'd then have to rewire a fair chunk of the rest of the game since so much rests on the combat system - class design for a big one.

      Imagine a game where you are serious about diplomacy. This is a game where combat plays a very back seat and you are expected to talk, make deals, lie, whatever, to achieve in game goals, but, combat is to be avoided wherever possible. D20 is not going to work at all for that. The HD vs Damage mechanics alone make it too wonky.

      I think an excellent example of what @pemerton is talking about would be the d20 World of Darkness conversions. They just really failed to capture WoD feelings.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Brodie View Post
      D20 comes close, though. So does GURPS.
      I would say that these two systems are iconic for being non-interchangeable. D&D is known for not being able to pull off realism, and that's the main thing that GURPS is known for; meanwhile, GURPS is known for making combat incredibly lethal, to the point where D&D-style heroism is nearly impossible under that ruleset.

      Even D20 Modern can't really pull off a realistic modern setting. The closest it can come is action movies.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
      If this sounds like over-analyzing it, consider times when you've played really well-made role-playing games with their own unique custom systems. Would those games be anywhere near as good if they were just the setting slapped onto someone else's OGL?
      In the sake of fairness, you should also consider the games that you gave up on after just a few sessions because the mechanics just did not work. Or games that you never started, because you could tell just by reading, that it wasn't going to work out.

      The OGL lets someone get their own setting out there, so you can play in it at all, without suffering through the bad mechanics of designers who don't know what they're doing. Even if d20 isn't the ideal system to perfectly capture the experience of Synnibarr, it's still probably better than the proprietary systems they actually published using.
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      I'm thankful for the SRD, but 3.x version of d20 is probably the worst "generic" rule set out there. I did not even like it for D&D let alone Star Wars, Gamma World, CoC, Modern, Spycraft, WoT, T20, etc.

      There have been some decent hacks..M&M, DCC, & C&C for example..but that system was responsible for a great number of really good games not because the system was great, but because it was such a hot mess. Very little high level playtesting in 3.0 and then tons of modification/houserules by the freshman team for 3.5 with very little to no playtesting at all.

      And Paizo just keeps beating that poor dead horse.

      No thanks.

      I'm also a proponent of developing the system around the story. Not the opposite.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      The current glut of game systems is very reminiscent of the early days of D&D. Some days it seems there are more systems than players. And, like the late 70's/early 80's, I expect many of the systems will fail to attract a player base and wither away.

      People have been assigning numerical values to real world attributes since the earliest days of wargaming. As others have mentioned above, the mechanics should fit the theme. But, I would also posit that many of the 'core mechanics' for RPG are relatively stable and most of the newer systems really amount to tweaking the details. Almost every RPG uses some numerical measure of character attributes like Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and/or Charisma (or their equivalents). Another common mechanic is rolling an attack roll that must exceed an armor value (in many wargames the convention is to roll to hit, then roll to penetrate/wound). The list goes on and on.

      One major division that still seems unresolved is the level based vs. skill based. I expect that will never coalesce since each has specific advantages that will be more appropriate in different settings.

      RPG's are able to ignore some of these common conventions in the name of better matching their theme, but those that ignore too many of them risk becoming more of a niche game and limit their widespread appeal.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      Almost every RPG uses some numerical measure of character attributes like Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and/or Charisma (or their equivalents).
      There are plenty that don't. Two that I think of straight away are Marvel Heroic/Cortex Plus, and HeroWars/Quest.

      And there are systems that use stats but not as d20 does (ie not as giving bonuses to actions): Burning Wheel is an example of that (stats are used to set a starting value for skills, or sometimes are tested in lieu of skills).

      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      Another common mechanic is rolling an attack roll that must exceed an armor value
      This mechanic is not found in RuneQuest or its variants; in Rolemaster; in Tunnels & Trolls; or in any of the games I mentioned above.

      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      RPG's are able to ignore some of these common conventions in the name of better matching their theme, but those that ignore too many of them risk becoming more of a niche game and limit their widespread appeal.
      This doesn't seem to be amount to more than "Games that are different from D&D will have limited appeal because they're different from D&D". Perhaps. But that seems a commercial consideration at best, and hardly relevant to someone writing his/her own RPG.

      But some of the most successful non-D&D RPGs at the moment are Fate and PbtA. These aren't much like D&D. And in the past some of the most successful were Traveller, RQ and RM. All pretty different from D&D. (Eg Traveller has stats, and roll to hit armour, but has no PC improvement rules and is entirely skill-based. RQ is like Traveller but without AC. RM has classes and levels but the classes only determine skill costs, and its combat system is even less like D&D than RQ's is.)
    1. Brodie's Avatar
      Brodie -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      I'm also a proponent of developing the system around the story. Not the opposite.
      If you're working with a team of five or more, it can be a good way to go. But if it's just you and a friend (or just you), if you have the setting already thought up it can be much easier to take an established system and make it fit the setting than it is to spend time creating the system around the setting.

      I'm not saying one open system is better than another. I just have my preferences and know or can figure out how to hack a system I'm using to fit my needs.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      I know that part of Savage Worlds' impetus was that d20 turned out to be two slow for WWII squad-based supernatural combat.

      But OTH, as an indie publisher, using an SRD helps get your work out to a built-in audience.

      Because while some look for innovation, many more look for something "different but the same."
    1. Greg K's Avatar
      Greg K -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Just to
      Imagine a game where you are serious about diplomacy. This is a game where combat plays a very back seat and you are expected to talk, make deals, lie, whatever, to achieve in game goals, but, combat is to be avoided wherever possible. D20 is not going to work at all for that. The HD vs Damage mechanics alone make it too wonky.
      I thought that is what some of the optional rules such as Mass Damage save based on Con (or even 10) were designed to handle. Combine that with some other rules that I have seen- fatigue and exhaustion from hp loss and you will pretty much want to avoid combat before adding some death spiral death vs dying rules.

      Now, HD/Level increasing with class level might be an issue if you want your character to be an unskilled combatant for a diplomatic campaign. Then again, in d20M, it is possible to multi-class between certain classes for several levels and not increase BAB which is a complaint many people had against d20M (I, however, found it to be a feature).
    1. Greg K's Avatar
      Greg K -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      D20 has some pretty significant limits even on its home terrain. Here are just three:

      * No default mechanic for resolving social conflict;
      Not everyone considers having elaborate mechanics for resolving social conflict to be a bug. Somesee social skills, setting DCs, and rp to be enough while others see anything other than pure rp to be too much for handling social conflict.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      I'm thankful for the SRD, but 3.x version of d20 is probably the worst "generic" rule set out there. I did not even like it for D&D let alone Star Wars, Gamma World, CoC, Modern, Spycraft, WoT, T20, etc.

      There have been some decent hacks..M&M, DCC, & C&C for example..but that system was responsible for a great number of really good games not because the system was great, but because it was such a hot mess. Very little high level playtesting in 3.0 and then tons of modification/houserules by the freshman team for 3.5 with very little to no playtesting at all.
      Don't conflate the system with the setting. The d20 system was just things like classes and races existing, the six stats, and BAB/saves going up with level. Specific class/race/spell/feat details are all just part of the setting. Most of the failures of 3E can be attributed to setting details, such as specific feats and spells, rather than the mechanics of the game itself.

      I'm going to start a new thread, down in the old edition forum, to try and gather opinions on the d20 system. Please feel free to chime in there. I'd be interested in what you have to say about it.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      I think I would disagree with the notion that D20 discouraged creativity. What it did do, IMHO is two fold:

      It allows folks with strong settings to wrap their amazing story around a generic engine that, despite its faults, was accessible to most gamers. Which means the plethora of D20 games overshadowed the very real creativity that coming around on the fringes.

      It cemented to a degree a determination in indie--style gamers to actually build the games they wanted play and wanted others to play. D20 created or encouraged a counter culture that to some degree rejected setting, but mostly rejected the old notions of system in favor of stuff that would work for you.

      Of course it also gave WoTC a leg up on other companies. Some of them weathered that storm and others did not. Now of course we have FATE and Savage Worlds with their own versions of an OGL. We have a d100 OGL via RQII. Chaosium is bringing RQ and Glorantha back together. I think the industry is what it is today, full color $50 hard backs, because the D20 OGL showed people that game design was not solely the creation of an elite class of game designers (it never was that, but that is a topic for another day...).

      I think 5e is better than 3e for this kind of thing, but 3.x was still a good system. You might note though, that many companies that used it for a 1st edition, moved onto new things with the 2nd ed. of that game.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Greg K View Post
      Not everyone considers having elaborate mechanics for resolving social conflict to be a bug. Somesee social skills, setting DCs, and rp to be enough while others see anything other than pure rp to be too much for handling social conflict.
      Back around 2002, when my group was seriously considering the benefits of switching to 3E or sticking with 2E, I remember that the existence of social skills in 3E was one of the strong marks against it. It's an RPG, so you should be able to just RP your way through social situations instead of relying on a die roll, right?

      Now, I can see some merit in allowing a non-charismatic player to play a charismatic character, by giving them social skills that just work without too much hassle. I can also see the merit in replacing Int/Wis/Cha with Magic/Perception/Willpower and dropping the social skills entirely, though.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Greg K View Post
      Not everyone considers having elaborate mechanics for resolving social conflict to be a bug.
      I didn't say it was a bug. I said it was a significant limit.

      To give one example: look at The Dying Earth RPG. And then think about trying to replicate that in any fashion using d20.

      Quote Originally Posted by SMHWorlds View Post
      It allows folks with strong settings to wrap their amazing story around a generic engine that, despite its faults, was accessible to most gamers. Which means the plethora of D20 games overshadowed the very real creativity that coming around on the fringes.
      I see this as emphasising that the notions of "accessibility" or "familiarity" here are primarily commercial notions. They don't speak to the design elements of d20.
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Is this really true? A lot of pretty innovative games came out in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
      I suppose you're probably right on the timing. A lot of the discussion on game design that began in the 90s continued through the d20 3.0 era. I'm just reacting to walking into game stores (back when they still had reasonable RPG collections) and seeing almost nothing by d20 nonsense.

      To give an example: The Wheel of Time d20. What the? I mean, seriously. It needs its own system. Or at least to use something somewhat suitable. Just grabbing d20 because it's there is a disservice to the fiction.

      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      In the sake of fairness, you should also consider the games that you gave up on after just a few sessions because the mechanics just did not work. Or games that you never started, because you could tell just by reading, that it wasn't going to work out.

      The OGL lets someone get their own setting out there, so you can play in it at all, without suffering through the bad mechanics of designers who don't know what they're doing. Even if d20 isn't the ideal system to perfectly capture the experience of Synnibarr, it's still probably better than the proprietary systems they actually published using.
      This is true. Some game systems just suck. But the question is whether the designers of those systems were really only interested in getting a setting out and just couldn't make a good system, or whether they wanted to make a unique system and just had issues pulling it off.

      But anecdotally, if something is d20 (and not D&D) it's a real hard sell for me to even look at it. I'm playing Mutants & Masterminds now because a friend is running it, but I wouldn't run it myself. I'm enjoying it because we're using it as one part of a system exploration game--we're doing three or more stories with the same characters using different systems to get experience with them and more directly be able to compare and contrast. Long term though, I'd do something else.

      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      One major division that still seems unresolved is the level based vs. skill based. I expect that will never coalesce since each has specific advantages that will be more appropriate in different settings.
      Some people like old computer games. I still think Ultima 7 was one of the best games ever made. That doesn't mean it doesn't have problems. In fact, it's problems are probably such that people who didn't grow up in an era where is was relatively new would find it too old to enjoy, just like I can't really play Ultima 4, as much as I'd like to.

      Despite the interest in such games, they are obsolete technology. We know how to design better now. I'm not talking about Skyrim's first person play and better graphics. That's newer tech, but it doesn't obsolete older styles. I'm talking about things like knowing to make inventory management not be a hassle, better user interfaces, etc.

      Older RPGs are built on obsolete tech. (I think every version of D&D includes a good helping of obsolete tech.) Class and level limited design is obsolete tech. You can provide all the benefits of it with none of the drawbacks by, say, including optional templates to enable emulation of classes and leveled advancement without having any of the limitations and hitches involved in it.

      When d20 OGL came out, it basically re-entrenched design features that had been obsolete (classes and levels are only one element) for a decade as the norm. Everyone* else had moved on with their design before the OGL came out. It was a step backwards for RPG design.

      *Hyperbole

      RPG's are able to ignore some of these common conventions in the name of better matching their theme, but those that ignore too many of them risk becoming more of a niche game and limit their widespread appeal.
      Half of those conventions are obsolete and need to be relegated to the nostalgia zone. Not that I'm saying that there shouldn't be a nostalgia zone! I'm always going to like D&D, but even my favorite 5e is an antique I enjoy like 8-bit Nintendo. The point is that the nostalgia zone can be recognized for what it is, and then not get in the way of future design improvements.

      Quote Originally Posted by Von Ether View Post
      But OTH, as an indie publisher, using an SRD helps get your work out to a built-in audience.

      Because while some look for innovation, many more look for something "different but the same."
      I could see that. Every now and again I try some newer but retro-designed video game like Treasure Adventure Game.

      I think, and maybe this is where my issues are, that many people aren't aware they are playing obsolete tech. The glut of OGL materials has deprived them of the chance to see newer role-playing tech and creative designs. Sure, maybe they won't like any of it and will find 8-bit is all they want. But they ought to be given a chance to see that for themselves.

      Quote Originally Posted by SMHWorlds View Post
      I think I would disagree with the notion that D20 discouraged creativity. What it did do, IMHO is two fold:

      It allows folks with strong settings to wrap their amazing story around a generic engine that, despite its faults, was accessible to most gamers. Which means the plethora of D20 games overshadowed the very real creativity that coming around on the fringes.

      It cemented to a degree a determination in indie--style gamers to actually build the games they wanted play and wanted others to play. D20 created or encouraged a counter culture that to some degree rejected setting, but mostly rejected the old notions of system in favor of stuff that would work for you.

      Of course it also gave WoTC a leg up on other companies. Some of them weathered that storm and others did not. Now of course we have FATE and Savage Worlds with their own versions of an OGL. We have a d100 OGL via RQII. Chaosium is bringing RQ and Glorantha back together. I think the industry is what it is today, full color $50 hard backs, because the D20 OGL showed people that game design was not solely the creation of an elite class of game designers (it never was that, but that is a topic for another day...).
      Makes sense. I'm not even saying that the OGL(s) were bad for the hobby overall. I am saying that there are drawbacks that we are still feeling the effects of.

      I think 5e is better than 3e for this kind of thing, but 3.x was still a good system. You might note though, that many companies that used it for a 1st edition, moved onto new things with the 2nd ed. of that game.
      That's good to hear...unfortunately this is the first I've heard of it. I tuned out when saw a game was using d20, so they'd have had to put forth a bit more effort to let me know they were doing something different.
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