Reinventing the Wheel

LS' Desk is very cluttered right now
This is what inspiration looks like for me.

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During my spare time for the last few days, I’ve been working on a new game system. It’s not a particularly ambitious project, nor am I taking its development very seriously, but I was struck by inspiration and have enjoyed putting those ideas down on paper. Whether or not I’ll ever finish this project, I don’t know, but for the time being it has been an entertaining process. Going through the motions of putting an entire system together from scratch has given me a new appreciation for the challenges involved, and raised a few questions I don’t think I would have considered previously.

Many of the mechanics I’ve come up with for this game are unique in my experience. I’ve never played another game where all spells are equally powerful, or where additional hit points are gathered as treasure. I’m not saying nobody has ever done it before, I’ve just never seen it myself. For a lot of mechanics, I have specific ideas about how they should work, and how I will adapt them from my source material. For other mechanics, however, I…well, don’t.

Take combat, for example. There’s something you want to kill, so you attack it with a weapon. This is a fundamental part of fantasy adventure games, and most everyone would agree that it requires a resolution mechanic. Unless you want to stand up from the table and start LARPing, you need a standardized procedure to easily determine the success or failure of an attack. Personally, I’m from the school of thought which says that since war is chaos, a wide variance of random probability is appropriate when determining the success or failure of an attack.

I’ve seen this handled a couple different ways in the various games I’ve played, but I am most familiar with the method D&D, and later Pathfinder, have used since their beginning. Every player and NPC has an ‘Armor Class’ number representing how difficult they are to hit. The attacker must roll a twenty sided die, and if their result is equal to or better than their target’s AC, the attack is successful and damage can be rolled. Various editions have had more or less complexity on top of this basic system, but the fundamental mechanic has remained unchanged from the early days of OD&D. Why change what works, after all?

This is one of the problems I’ve encountered while developing this game. For some things, including conflict resolution with regard to attacks, I don’t have any ideas better than the ones which have been used in D&D for decades. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call using D&D’s attack roll system ‘plagiarism,’ there is something that feels wrong about it. If I use a mechanic someone else came up with, without adapting it to make it my own, then am I really making my own game, or am I just regurgitating something that already exists with a few superficial tweaks?

It’s not as though it would be difficult to come up with a reasonably unique mechanic, either. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few different ways to handle this kind of conflict resolution. The attacker and the defender could make opposed rolls, which would increase the chaos of battle. I could replace the 20 sided die with a 30 sided die. Perhaps the attacker doesn’t even make a ‘to hit,’ roll. Every attack immediately results in a damage roll, and every character has a minimum amount of damage which must be rolled in order to hurt them at all. Or perhaps “defense” and “attack” numbers are static, and can only be modified with clever tactics described to the GM. Give me 30 minutes and I’ll give you a dozen more ways it could be done.

But would any of them bebetter?

I would have to be stupid to be different, simply for uniqueness’ sake. It’s possible I’ll think of a mechanic which better suites the tone aiming for than the D&D attack roll does. It’s also possible that I won’t, and if that happens, then why should I shoehorn something different into the game just so I don’t feel as though I’m being derivative? I believe that every choice made in game design should be made because the designer believes it improves the way the game plays. I can’t think of any other consideration which matters at all by comparison.

True as that may be, however, it doesn’t stop me from feeling bad when I lift something wholesale from another game. Even a game as time honored as Dungeons and Dragons.

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13 thoughts on “Reinventing the Wheel”

  1. The 3E DMG has an optional AC rule for opposed roll combat; d20 + AC bonus = AC for that round (with the standard unarmored = AC 10 being a special “take 10” case). I think that would be work well.

    I saw Tunnels & Trolls being run by its creator at OSRCon this weekend. In T&T, both sides roll damage dice (there is no to-hit roll), and the difference between the two numbers is taken by the side that rolled worse (so if I rolled 25 and you rolled 30, I would take 5 points of damage). And damage is subtracted directly from constitution (though any attribute can be increased with experience points; that is how levelling works). I don’t particularly care for the T&T method (I like the D&D one more), but it was interesting to see.

    1. That’s odd, in all my years I’ve never seen that variation.

      The Tunnels & Trolls method sounds pretty awesome, actually. I’d be interested in a T&T game and seeing how it works close up.

  2. I like the concept of keeping armor separate from seeing if you hit them. Armor is meant to decrease damage. That is one of the things I feel A Song of Ice & Fire RPG has done well on is capturing a somewhat realistic feel to combat. Each person has an Evasion score and an Armor Rating. You roll against evasion if you hit you deal a static amount of damage based on the weapon (it might be modified by something I don’t remember it off the top of my head) and the damage taken is Damage – armor rating = how lost. On top of an average character only having a small total of HP (around 12hp) it leads to quick 3-5 rounfair of combat.

    While ASoIF is primarily focused on Intrigue and Role-Playing I feel this form of mechanic would work well in any game.

    Though it might work beSt using an EXP buys statistics game like GURPS more than a EXP buys Class Levels.

    Also you might like an Indie RPG inspired by the show ‘Lost Girl’ as it has an interesting take on the race as class style and has a very simple EXP system. (100 xp per level up) with a level cap of 99.

  3. There’s certainly nothing wrong with using a mechanic from another game “as is”, especially if it’s something as broad as “roll d20 to hit target number”. The question here is not whether you want to use a different system for the sake of being different, but rather if you think there’s something in the old d20 mechanic that should be changed/improved.

    If you don’t have any problem with the “roll-to-hit-AC” method, then there’s no real reason to use something else. As you pointed out, there are countless variations of combat resolution out there, and more can be invented rather easily. Ultimately, it depends on the rest of the mechanics in your system, and the “feel” you’re going for. Do you want quick and simple resolution, or complex and involved?

    I’ve played numerous RPG systems, and while D&D’s To Hit and AC mechanic might not be perfect, it’s one of the simplest and probably my favourite. I also enjoy systems like Savage Worlds or Conan where you have to hit your opponent’s Parry or Dodge ability, and armor works as Damage Reduction. However, simplicity trumps simulation in my books– don’t get me started on Werewolf: the Apocalypse…

  4. No need to feel bad about lifting a mechanic from another game. There is nothing new under the sun, merely our own spins on things.

    Tolkien robbed Norse and Germanic myth.

    Indiana Jones was born of old republic serials and 20’s pulp fiction.

    Superman? Sorry, I think this guy called Nietzsche got you topped by about 80 years on that count.

    Harry Potter? Well according to some, there’s an entire genre of “private school fiction”

    Twilight? Well, everyone has to have their smut somehow, even if it’s not good smut.

    Don’t worry about being original. You can’t be entirely original, it is physically impossible, I know from experience, there is someone out there who thought of it too. But that doesn’t mean you can’t combine unoriginal ideas in new ways.

    Ideas are like blocks. They’ve got a bunch of different sides and look generally like one another, but what an individual block looks like doesn’t matter as much as what you make from it.

    1. OK I am sorry but the “Ideas are like blocks” got me.

      “Everything is just another brick in the wall. Some bricks come from other locations and even other ages but they all can be used again to build something new and wonderful. Regardless of how much they have been used. Tis the fun of creating after all. Taking someone else’s brain child and using it to make something new and unexpected is one of the greatest feelings in the world.” -Nikola Tesla

      It is one of the longest coherent sayings he ever spoke. And apparently inspired the Song through its context.

      1. Hmm… I like that. Alot. I may have to steal it *twirls no-longer-existent moustache and grins*

        But the man’s right, there’s nothing new under the sun. I mean I myself am currently shamelessly stealing Pathfinder’s Traits system as an excuse to inject non-weapon proficiencies back into the game.

        (That’s the thing I love about Pathfinder, yes it’s 3.5 to an extent, and yes it has it’s flaws, but at it’s most basic, it takes some of the good things from 2nd Ed and brings ’em back. Archetypes? BEEN DONE! Class kits! Look ’em up for those of you unfamiliar.

        1. It is from Nikola Tesla everything he made was Open Source. That is why he is the Greatest Geek ever to live. Though you sparked my interest with Class Kits… What do you mean by Class Kits?

          1. Agreed on Tesla. I have to re-consider my view of Edison established by the movie about him. >.>…

            It used to be in later supplements and such of AD&D you had options of class kits where you could take certain subclasses and get certain benefits or detriments. Like a paladin could sacrifice his lay on hands and become an undead hunter or an inquisitor, getting abilities which made him immune to level drain and allowed him to do paralyzing strikes on undead, or granted him the ability to dispel magic at will and treat evil spellcasters as a favored enemy.

            Fighters could have things like Kensai, mages could be specialists (that one never changed.) thieves could be bounty hunters, things like that.

            If you ever played Baldur’s Gate 2, they had a bunch of class kits for each class.

            usually stuff like class kits popped up in things like the Complete book of Warriors, or the Complete book of Thieves.

            Pathfinder archetypes are functionally identical, and that’s a good thing. Gives a whole lot more personalization than just going “I wanna play a fighter” with the DM handing you a sheet that says “Ok, here’s your fighter, it’s the exact same one everyone else plays because it’s optimized to be the best.”

            Yeah, I got alot of vitriol for 4th ed D&D.

              1. There are a few prestige classes, but, well they’re prestigious, for a change. that and the bit I like best about them, if you’re say a sorcerer/cleric who became a mystic theurge, you still get to have advancement in your spell levels for both sorcerer and cleric while you keep taking mystic theurge.

                It always just annoyed me seeing those prestige classes where you could take them, yeah, but it would still leave you weaker than if you had just stuck with your base class, and it was basically like going “Yeah, I’d like to give up on being my character for this number of levels please?”

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