Innovation on the Tabletop

Every… oh, I dunno, year or two, I get the bite to design a tabletop RPG. This is a project that’s literally been in development for a good 15 years, on and off in many iterations and different systems, settings and combinations thereof, a couple of which came frustratingly close to functional completion, by which I mean ‘ready of start playing’ and not ‘ready to publish’.

The advent of things like print-on-demand means that self-publishing such a work is an eminently reachable goal, and there is now a small cottage industry of self-published ‘indie’ tabletop RPGs, a few of which do surprisingly well. Nobody’s retiring off the income, so far as I know, but more than a couple of these garage operations are managing to make a little bit of profit on the side. Quality is often high, much more often than you would expect based on Sturgeon’s Law alone, although such games have a tendency to be much more concise and narrowly-focused than mainstream RPGs have historically tended to be.

Purist aside: if it’s ever unclear from the context, when I say ‘RPG’ I mean an actual RPG, not a computer RPG or MMO, neither of which are really roleplaying games, although they can have roleplaying elements. But that terminology is very common and often convenient, so I use it too. The best way of thinking about it is that there are two totally separate and distinct, though vaguely related, things called ‘RPGs’.

Of course, before you can publish an RPG you have to finish it, and that’s where I’ve fallen down, quite a lot. Part of the issue is the nature of such a project, which takes a kind of madness to be able to finish without any outside assistance, and that’s where I’ve been; I have a regular group but none of them are especially interested in game design. It is, of course, not about the money – RPG design is a notoriously low-paying and unstable field –

It would of course be possible to set aside a game design, even for years, and pick it back up again when the creative urge returns, but my heart is seldom in that, so I often start totally from scratch. (My fantasy setting is a different story; I can and have picked that back up after a creative absence, thanks to my own emotional attachment to the project and to the large amount of development effort that’s already been invested in it.)

My farthest-along game design was called Tales of Might and Glory, and it lacked only a functional and interesting magic system to make it ready to begin playtesting, although there would have been plenty of fleshing-out to do once that started. My current project is something with a working title of ‘OSFRPG,’ and given my recent nostalgic impulse, you can probably figure out what the ‘OS’ stands for. I pretty much have the whole design either written down or in my head, and the challenge, as it always is, is going to be actually writing it up.

Not that ‘Old School’ has the same value for everybody, of course – not even everybody for whom that’s a worthy design element. My own formative influences included Rolemaster and Dangerous Journeys among other things, as well as D&D, and the design reflects a lot of influence from those sources. But the preponderance of systems that try to be ‘Old School’ contain quite a lot of complexity in isolated subsystems, something that was prominent in RPG design up through the early 80s but is much less attractive today, even though audience tolerance of overall system complexity is still pretty high. Recall D&D3.0/3.5 as an example; it’s pretty exceptionally heavy and bloated in a number of areas but still manages to revolve around a unified mechanic, so the complexity is acceptable.

OSFRPG aims to avoid that; character creation is a bit fussy, as it should be, but it’s also a bit less rigid than one expected from most legitimately Old School RPGs, and the overriding goal is to make it easy to play once you’re actually sitting down at the table. Again, this reflects my own aesthetic, in which ‘intuitive’ largely reflects the general pattern of combat mechanics that one found in first edition AD&D. Roll for initiative, roll to hit, then roll for damage and move on to the next combatant. A rolling initiative value such as is found in D&D3.0/3.5 (and Ars Magica, alas) is a loser’s game.

But there’s a lot to like in the changes made to D&D with the third edition, and lots of little bits of that have crept into the OSFRPG design, like uniform stat bonuses (admittedly found years earlier in Rolemaster,) and periodic stat gains. And I’m stealing part of the initiative system from 2nd edition Shadowrun, where if you roll high enough you can take multiple actions. Students of RPG mechanics will recognize these elements and where they came from, but for the average player such things are largely invisible.

Much of RPG design works like this, something that people complaining about a lack of innovation in MMOs don’t seem to understand. I make no claim to be a radical innovator as a game designer, but the fact is that within a narrow creative field (and both tabletop RPGs and computer MMORPGs are that,) you take foundational elements from different sources as you see fit, and it’s in the integration and polishing that they grow distinct. If you have some new piece worked into the puzzle, so much the better, but the longer and more complex history of tabletop RPGs illustrates much better just how rare legitimately new elements are. Not only is 95% of everything crap, but 95% of any good example is almost inevitably drawn from existing inspirations that can be easily identified. This includes just about every single change made to D&D with the third edition, and many of those original sources can be easily spotted just by looking at the resumes of the designers – the roots of many mechanics in Rolemaster (Monte Cook) and Ars Magica (Jonathan Tweet) are readily apparent.

In terms of what will happen with OSFRPG, I don’t know. It’s possible that before I can make substantial progress toward assembling the game the creative urge that prompted it will have passed, and if that happens I will likely never take up its reins again. But never’s a long time, and if asked a couple of years ago I would have found it inconceivable that I would at the end of 2009 have over a year of verbose, near-daily blog posts behind me, with no signs of letting up.

You can stay tuned on progress if you like, but I won’t be posting much about it in this space – I have a dedicated space for tabletop development, and matters of any detail will be there instead of here. But I thought the applicability of this discussion was relevant enough to MMOs to warrant inclusion here.

3 responses to “Innovation on the Tabletop

  1. mmm…I loved the alternate systems than D&D. ICE started me on the path to alternate rules, then Shadowrun ended up being my all time favorite due to the d6 system (seemed easier to get regular dice in my small town). I also like a lot of Shadowrun’s rules.
    I plan to add your dedicated space to my reader.
    Good luck on your endeavors.

  2. Quoth Ardwulf: “such games have a tendency to be much more concise and narrowly-focused than mainstream RPGs”

    This is, in my limited experience, the key point. A narrowly focused game can do a better job of modeling a specific type of gameplay (e.g. diplomatic intrigue) better than a catch-all system like DND can. The issue is that, the more types of gameplay you try to cram into the game, the harder it’s going to be to get your system designed and tested properly as a part-time homebrew operation.

    P.S. Bonus points if your “role playing” game system doesn’t force players to choose between skills that make sense for the character’s background and skills that determine their combat effectiveness. This isn’t to say that a good group of players won’t find a way to have fun with a party member who is pointedly ineffective in battle, but it’s a bit irritating that most systems make you choose.

  3. Narrow games are not a bad thing, and very often can be really outstanding within their niches. But a different issue applies in reverse to players whose expectations are something long-term (i.e. an extended campaign) rather than a one-shot or minicampaign. This is perhaps an unfortunate expectation, in that short-term games can be really great, and that format is no less valid than the traditional one. A fabulous game like Dogs in the Vineyard is simply not suitable for long-term play for most potential players; Dogs is one of the best game designs of the last decade, but can you really see running a game where all the players are Mormon crusaders in the Wild West every week for a year?

    Early games were focused on the very broad activities of dungeon and wilderness adventuring, and were neccessarily rooted in the need to reflect those kinds of things in their mechanics. But even today, many mainstream games still tend to be much less focused than something like Dogs or even Burning Wheel, not neccessarily to try to be all things to all people, but to allow those seeking some level of variety in week-to-week adventuring to at least dabble in different adventure formats; one session a dungeon crawl, the next a murder mystery, with another a courtly intrigue. A game like, say, RuneQuest (D&D, depending of which version you’re talking about, tends to be a bad example,) may not do dungeon crawls as well as D&D, mysteries as well as Gumshoe or intrigues as well as Reign, but it’ll do all of them functionally and passably well, which gives the world and story a sense of openness that something run in a very focused system may lack – and I think that’s something you need if you’re going to run a campaign for a year or two, that touches on many different themes and approaches.

    This does apply to a certain extent to OSFRPG, which is intended to emulate a pretty specific style of game, or, more properly, a limited but not exactly narrow range of styles. As it develops I hope you’ll see more of where it’s intended to go and what it’s intended to do.