System In Progress: LOZAS

The Legend of Zelda NES - Link hides behind a pillar with his bow, while Gannon searches for him!
Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada.

My ladyfriend is 3 years younger than I am. It’s a little strange for me, since most of my relationships in the past have been with older women. And though the difference in our numerical ages is small, it sometimes feels as if those few years belie a massive generational gap. Particularly with regards to vidya games. My first  console was an NES, while her was an N64, how does that even happen? The poor whippersnap missed the greatest era of gaming: the one I grew up with! I often become frustrated when I make a funny reference, only to realize she probably never used the Konami code, or blew dust out of a cartridge, or heard of games like Doki Doki Panic!

So what in Oerth does this have to do with tabletop RPGs? I’m getting to that. Be patient, geeze.

Recently, because my ladyfriend is pretty cool, she asked me to recommend an oldschool game. Probably because she was impressed by all those cool jokes she’s too young to laugh at. I considered carefully which game would be a good introduction for her, and unsurprisingly settled on my favorite of all time; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. That game has had a defining impact on my life. It shaped my views on fantasy settings, and informed my opinions about what it means for a game to be ‘good.’ It’s the first game I ever wholeheartedly fell in love with, and that love is part of what originally led me to pursue writing. Hells, the “L” in my monicker stands for “Link,” and I’ve been known by that name for almost half my life. Even ignoring all of the personal value the game has for me, it’s still one of the most polished, well-designed games I’ve ever encountered. And since my ladyfriend is already a fan of the later Zelda titles, it’s about time she was introduced to a proper dark-haired link, rather than the boyband reject seen in more recent games.

Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I think the game is best when played on the Super Nintendo, with that fantastic controller. But before I set her up with the cartridge, I thought I should take a look at it. The last few times I played through LttP I was either using a game boy, or an emulator. Because of that, my SNES copy hadn’t been used in a few years, and I remember experiencing some audio glitches the last time I played it. Plus, with the game being over 20 years old, I worried that the battery wouldn’t be able to hold a save any longer. So I drew the cartridge from its shelf, gently cleaned the connectors with alcohol, nestled it into the console’s bosom, and flipped the big purple power switch up with a satisfying “clack.*”

A young linkskywalker, dressed as Link for halloween. In my sister's room.
Yes. That is me. Dressed as Link for Halloween. I was a cool kid.

Yeah, she hasn’t gotten a chance to play it yet. I’m on the second-to-last dungeon in the game and having the time of my life. But again, what does this have to do with tabletop RPGs?

Well, one evening after I’d been playing, I was in bed with a notepad. I began to lazily jot down notes for a Zelda tabletop RPG rooted in the spirit of the pre-Ocarina of Time games. Those random notes quickly evolved into a project which I’ve dubbed the Legend of Zelda Adventure System, or LOZAS for short. It’s what I’ve been blathering on about for the past week. I originally didn’t want to be open about the source material I was working with, in part because I didn’t want to feel obligated to finish it. But it’s become clear to me that I want to take this seriously, so there’s no point in being subtle any longer. Though I don’t know if it actually counts as subtle, since I’ve been tweeting about ‘my zelda system’ every 15 minutes.

I confess, I feel more than a little arrogant announcing that I’m trying to adapt one of the most celebrated games of all time to tabletop. Who the fuck am I? I’m an untested, aspiring game designer. To be perfectly frank, I don’t think I’m up to the task. Oh, I’ll do my best, and I’ll finish the game, and maybe some people will like it. But this is just a goofy little project I started working on for my own amusement. When I do eventually finish LOZAS, it will be the first game I’ve ever designed from the ground up. And like any ‘first,’ it’s probably going to be terrible. But it will be a labor of love, and I can only hope that will help mask some of my inexperience.

So now that I’ve wasted 786 words telling you what the project is and how I came to work on it, why don’t I share a little bit about how the game is shaping up and what my goals are? That way future posts referencing the LOZAS system can at least have some context. While my list of goals is extensive, each one descends from this single goal:

Recreate the style and ‘feel’ of A Link to the Past in a tabletop environment, without forcibly including elements which are not well suited to tabletop play.

Given that, the question becomes: what is the style and feel of LttP? Exploring that question has been an ongoing process as I work on the game, but I do have my thoughts:

The Legend of Zelda NES - Link Explores a Dungeon with a Lantern
Concept art for the original Legend of Zelda, by Katsuya Terada.

Dungeons Zelda games are about dungeons. Even though every game in the series has lots for the player to do outside of dungeons, the underworld is where the real meat of the game can be found. It’s where the player encounters the most varied enemies, finds the most interesting treasure, fights bosses, and achieves the most important quest-progressing goals. As such, the game will be geared towards exploring dungeons. Hyrule is an ancient land, where many forgotten kingdoms have made their home. It is riddled with dozens, hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of underworld citadels just waiting to be explored by heroes.

While dungeons can vary wildly, most dungeons will contain the following elements:

  • Lots of monsters.
  • Lots of traps.
  • Lots of treasure.
  • A wondrous item (discussed further below).
  • A heart container (discussed further below).
  • A Great Monster.

Great Monsters are special creatures within this world. In game terms, you would call them bosses. However, within the setting, they are monsters who have acquired an immense amount of power. They did this either by defeating their fellow monsters and rising to the top of the food chain, or by forging an alliance with a great evil being. Upon defeating a great monster, all the heroes who were involved in the combat gain a level. Defeating great monsters is the only way to advance in level in this game. There are no experience points.

Characters There are two big things about A Link to the Past which do not translate well to a tabletop environment. First, not every adventure can be set in motion by Zelda being kidnapped. Second, not every player can be Link. The former problem is up to the GM to solve, but I hope to give GMs a useful toolbox with my methods for creating dungeons and great monsters. The latter problem, however, is all on me.

Long story short, I’ve determined that the game will use only three classes. The Adventurer is the closest of the three to what Link would be. It’s a class with respectable fighting skills, but which focuses on special abilities. An adventurer can leap across long gaps, climb walls quickly, move without making any sound, etc. Soldiers focus purely on physical combat, and receive bonuses to their attack, damage, critical range, armor class, and battle maneuver score as they increase in level. Sages are the mystics of the game, and probably the class I currently find most interesting. At each level, the sage can permanently add one more spell to its repertoire. The Legend of Zelda NES - Link reaches the apex of a hill and discovers a dungeon entranceI’m doing my best to balance the spells at about the same power level, so that there will be no need for multiple “spell levels.” Each time a spell is cast, the sage must roll an ability check. They are currently allowed to fail the check a number of times per day equal to their level, after which they must rest before they can cast again. Though I worry this may become tedious at higher levels, even with a current max level of 10.

Numerical Simplicity There aren’t many bonuses or penalties in a Zelda game. Sure you might get an upgraded sword or new armor now and again, but the rest of your equipment provides a unique function rather than improving the effect of a function which already exists. So far, the only bonuses and penalties which currently exist in the game are either determined at character creation, or by a character’s class as they level up. The game will employ an maximum AC, and even at high levels health will likely be pretty low for most creatures. So including a lot of +1 items would just make the game messy. Instead, the game should be filled with items like a magic grappling hook which always finds something to latch onto, or a magic glove which lets you see through any wall you touch.

Heart Containers One of the staples of every Zelda game is heart containers. The player begins the game with 3 life. By defeating bosses, the player can gain heart containers which increase that life by 1. Minor as it may seem, I think this is a great idea to use in the game. A sword to the chest kills a great knight just as surely as it would kill a peasant. However, by delving into dungeons, adventurers can find magic items which absorb into their body, allowing them to survive wounds which would kill most people.

Those are some of the larger ideas which come to mind now. I’m sure I’ll continue to write about this project as it progresses.

*Seriously, why in the world did the SNES have such a loud power switch? It was as though Nintendo was trying to alert your parents of when you were playing rather than doing your chores.

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8 thoughts on “System In Progress: LOZAS”

  1. I’m going to come back to this post to read it later after work, but let me immediately thank for sharing the beautiful concept artwork, which I never knew existed.

    1. If you search for the artist’s name there’s quite a bit more. The concept art for the original Legend of Zelda is by far the most beautiful. I haven’t seen anything quite so detailed or stylized from any of the later games.

    1. I probably play with my NES and SNES more often than I do with current-gen games. Again, maybe it’s just nostalgia, but there’s a purity to the oldschool experience which I don’t feel from gaming anymore.

  2. Defeating great monsters is the only way to advance in level in this game. There are no experience points.

    I really like this, and I feel like it is the defining thing that makes the system special. Also interesting to make the thief-alike the main class rather than the fighter-alike.

    Might I suggest encoding the monster, trap, treasure, big monster, etc distribution in a set of random tables?

    1. Knowing me, everything will end up in random tables at some point. I’m still early in the process, hammering out the combat system next. I think it will be a good while before I start turning out monsters, traps, etc in bulk.

      I’m really glad you like the idea of only advancing in level when great monsters are defeated. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea at first, but the more I think about it the more I think it encourages the kind of play I want the game to have. Feels good to have validation on that point.

  3. On the dungeons, do you think it was early inspiration from D&D that caused early Zelda (and really most early RPGs) to be dungeons crawls where you were less the Gand hero and more an explorer, or do you think it was mechanical limitations ( big sprawling worlds are expensive), or do you think there is a flavor of exploration fantasy that we’ve lost over the years?

    1. I’m hardly qualified to make that kind of assessment, but if I had to guess I think it’s fair to say that the Zelda series took a lot of inspiration from D&D. If nothing else, D&D popularized fantasy settings for games, and dungeons as challenges. And while the Zelda games are probably best classified as “Adventure” games rather than “Role Playing” games, they obviously draw much of their inspiration from the role playing games which came before them.

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