System Design: Starting at the Top

I’ve been working on a game system over the last few months, among other projects. I’ve been extremely busy in my day to day life as well, so it’s been a while. So first I’ll answer the question everybody asks. “Why are you making a game system?” My answer is very simple. First and foremost, if you choose a system that almost does what you want, you end up making a lot of alterations to get what you truly desire. If you begin at the beginning I can shape the system so that it hits the notes I wanted. It’s the best answer to why don’t you ever work more with D20. Don’t get me wrong, D20 is pretty good overall, but usually what I want to write doesn’t fit as well.

The next question is probably, “Where would you start?” People often get into debates about whether you should start with top down or bottom up design. Top down design is when you have an overall concept and you go from your global vision down to the details that flesh it out. Bottom up design is when you work with individual elements and forge something cohesive out of their interplay.

When you design a setting you can go either direction. You could define what makes this setting unique and the themes it champions before you write up the first settlement, character or cultural detail. Yu could also just as easily design an adventure hook or the lone hamlet, or the questgiver first. When you layer enough of it together you end up with an organic setting that has a sense of verisimilitude to it. There may not be any obvious reason why a hamlet on the side of a dormant volcano is currently under attack by a goblin army lead by an elf wizard, but as the PCs dig into what is going on it all makes sense and it doesn’t seem contrived.

For a game system however, I tend to think you need to start from the top. So I began with concepts and requirements and then I designed specific mechanics to meet them.

Here are my main goals:

  • Crunchy mechanics, not freeform
  • More simple than complex
  • Player authorship/control elements
  • Cinematic rather than a simulation of reality.

I love plenty of games where story is king, and how you get there is not nearly as important. These are the kinds of games where everybody can have a good time without using task resolution even once. However, for the high adventure stories I want the system to handle, it seems having set mechanics helps mold that result. This is one area where I want the game not the game master to be responsible for feel, tone and overall play style.

I wanted something simple enough that players never need to ask the Game Master, “How do I make that roll again?” Even if the GM has to remind them of things like status changes, or their options when dealing with damage or what they can spend Effort on, I still want the core mechanic to be simple enough that the players don’t need to constantly reference a book. Likewise, most special abilities should be simple enough in effect that a simple notation on the character sheet is all you need to use them.

I am a big fan of players having some control over destiny. Part of this comes from the Effort subsystem, to be described in a future post, but a lot of it comes from traits originating with the characters themselves. I wanted a game where the players can sacrifice something to get a little more oomph, but I don’t want a game where they directly dictate what the other players’ characters or NPC’s actions are either.

Lastly, I wanted simple cinematic rules, not realistic and ultimately complicated rules to simulate reality. If the system is supposed to support “normal” humans as well as it supports ray guns, teleporters, wizards, flying behemoths and mental powers, then reality is extremely fluid. So that was my last major goal.

I think I hit all of my major points, and I can’t wait to go further in depth to begin to explain how it all works. For today however, I’ll explain the core mechanic. Players roll three six-sided dice, and choose two of them to add together. You add any modifiers you have, and compare your result to your target number. If you meet or exceed the TN, you succeed. If not, you fail.

To keep things simple, you can only add different types of modifiers together. So if you have a pair of special abilities that apply, you need to pick your best bonus. It works the other way around as well. If you are trying to fire a bow at night during a thunderstorm, you only suffer the penalty for the worst of the two penalties. It isn’t realistic, but it doesn’t need to be. It needs to be simple enough that GMs and players can figure out their modifiers in a few moments and get on with the game.

I believe next time I’ll cover Effect and Effort. Until then….


About Byron D. Molix

I am an information technology professional in Missouri. I've been an avid fan of fantasy and science fiction novels, comic books, pen and paper role-playing games, computer games and console video games for the last two decades. My dream would be to one day make a comfortable living while having the time to pursue writing (novels, rpgs, etc.) as a full-time hobby.

Posted on May 18, 2012, in Editorial, Gaming and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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