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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.