Very Rules-Light RPG

Matt Jackson (of lapsus calumni) asked on Google+ about the minimum required character traits for a light-weight RPG. Light enough that it doesn’t have classes.

Taking some of the ideas there, I think the following might be workable.

First, reduce things to their very basics and abstract them. What do the characters actually do during play? Let’s start with a single set for a fantasy game:

  • Fight (whether heavy greatswords or quick rapiers or whatever);
  • Skill (sneak around, figure things out, trick people, swing from giant snakes, whatever);
  • Magic (cast spells, use magic items, and so on);
  • Survive (be lucky enough that you never seem to get hit hard, or at all, or tough enough to take it, or stubborn enough to ignore the unfortunate reality of that spear stuck in you… I’m not absolutely certain this deserves to be a full ability unless you can use it actively, though).

This works if all four abilities are generally of roughly equal value.

For this reason I might be tempted to make Magic an optional ability. Most people don’t have it, but if you want you can… but it’s paid for with points from the other ability scores. That is, if scores range from 1..12 and everyone has 20 build points (6.5*3, more or less — 7, 7, 6 is the most even distribution), someone with a Magic score still has 20 build points. Having strong Magic is going to cost you somewhere else, and that fits a lot of tropes.

Resolution is pretty easy. Roll a die (d12 or d20, I’ll come back to this). If the roll is less than your score you succeed (exactly equal is a marginal success, not quite perfect — you hit, but you hit bone and your weapon is stuck). Contested rolls are much the same, but the person who rolls highest under their score wins. Oddly, I think if you want relative failure then highest over the score fails less… but still fails. Closer to score means bigger result, and if you have a score of 4 you have much more capacity to fail than the guy with a score of 11.

Add something like ‘good feats’ to modify these things. (Feats in D&D that give you bonuses to certain checks bore me immensely. I don’t want more of what I already have, I want something new.)

  • Strike of the Avalanche: on a successful 8+ Fight check using a heavy weapon, you get to roll damage twice and the second time is cold damage.
  • Cloudwalk: on a successful 8+ Skill check you can walk on heavy smoke or heavy mist (‘heavy’ meaning ‘enough it would limit visibility’).
  • Knock spell: you can open a lock using a Magic check [normally would be a Skill check against a difficulty, the spell lets you do use Magic instead]

That sort of thing. As shown above, it is possible that these talents only work when you succeed with a high enough roll. Strike of the Avalanche might mean normal damage only on 7- (that still hits) or it might be an always on thing (any time you hit on an 8+ it does double damage, half cold). Knock doesn’t have it because it is directly against another check. This means you have to have a certain degree of ability to do certain things anyway.

If you want to get tricky you can have chains of ability with prerequisites and stuff, but I can’t be bothered. Perhaps rather than purely binary abilities, have them be able to stack…

That could work. Rather than having unassociated talents, have talents with degrees of capability. Each step gets you another option, and you add the step to your ability score for checks. Four steps of the ‘Mountain’s Wrath’ combat style means you get to treat your Fight score as four points higher, and you get four options that nobody else does. Start with a Fight score of 10, succeed on 13- (partial on 14), and you have a decent chance of success when you try Strike of the Avalanche. Given a rapier you’re still better than average (Fight 10) but you’re much better with a greataxe and you’re outmatched by the guy with Fight 9 and five steps of Lightning Blade.

Fight 10 + Mountain’s Wrath 4 against Fight 9 + Lightning Blade 5 could make for an interesting show.

Magic obviously can work much the same way, as can certain skills (Cloudwalk might be step three or four of something-similar-to-Balance skill).

This is part of why I thought of rolling d20 rather than d12 for checks (told you I’d come back to this). Rolling d12 against scores that range from 1..12 means you’re going to have some characters who always succeed on certain things. I’m not sure I want that as a starting ability, especially when the abilities are so broad. Rolling d20 means that nobody starts off that reliably but it is possible to get better. It also lets me ditch the marginal success when you roll exactly your score. Roll equal to or under your score and you succeed, and rule that (for example) 18-20 is a marginal failure. Maybe reduce the base ability scores to the 1..10 range and allow the feats to have up to five steps.

Anyway, a fairly minimalistic core of an RPG that nevertheless has options for expansion in various directions. Each character only really needs to know about the bits they use (Fight, Skill, Survive, Magic, plus any talents). A single, consistent resolution mechanism, with options allowing you to be awesome and different than everyone else.

I just realized also that this could be a quick-play construction for Echelon. I’ll want to think about that.

Pathfinder Big Books

Pathfinder made quite a few changes to Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, some subtle and some not so subtle.

I like quite a few of the presentation changes, and some of the character development changes excited me. Barbarian rage powers, paladin mercies, sorcerer bloodlines, all these choices excited me.

Over time, though, with the Ultimate series and third-party material, I realized I had too much material to keep track of, too many decisions to make, and too many variables to consider when trying to balance things. It’s an immensely rich toolkit, but I think works best if constrained by the setting. Don’t allow everything, but choose a subset of it all to actually use in play.

Which brings me to Echelon, my primary game design project. That game is built around talents, collections of related abilities that build on each other.

Pathfinder is an absolute trove of material for me to mine for Echelon. I want to work on rage-related abilities? Barbarian rage powers give me a lot of things to consider, including multiple types of rage. Almost all classes have at least one kind of special ability no other class has, and there are often several options for each and prerequisites for others.

I expect I hardly need mention the spells and feats. Dear gods there are a lot of those.

All in all, there is a wealth of information available to me here, but it is scattered across a large number of books. Even just the Paizo hardcovers (Core Rulebook, Advanced Player’s Guide, GameMastery Guide, Ultimate Combat, Ultimate Magic, the Bestiaries…) even trying to work with a single topic meant digging through multiple books. Many books even added more related options, often class-specific, to be considered.

To add to that, Pathfinder seems almost to have a richer third party publisher environment than Dungeons & Dragons 3.x did.

This was becoming unmanageable to me. I could run a Pathfinder campaign by ruthlessly excising a great deal of material, but keeping track of it all just for play purposes was difficult, and for the purpose of research, almost impossible if I wanted to consider all my options.
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Pathfinder Rage Power Graph

I have been working on some Rage talents for Echelon and decided the Iron Heroes berserker abilities were a little too thin for my purposes.

Thankfully I remembered the Barbarian Rage Powers collected at and decided to raid them.  There were rather more than I expected, drawn from the Pathfinder Core Rule Book, Advanced Player Guide, and Ultimate Combat).  In fact, I make it over a hunder (109, if my arithmetic doesn’t fail me) of them.  And Class Acts: Barbarians (which I don’t have just bought) has 32 more.

And has permissions set to disallow copying content — Open Gaming Content I am allowed to copy! — easily.  I am not happy about this.

Anyway.  Altogether I have 141 Barbarian tricks.

Pathfinder Barbarians get, I think ten of these.  Granted, these are just tricks, but 10/141 is… yeah.  Throw in prerequisites and it gets kind of hairy.

In fact, hairy enough I decided to do up a little graph of the relationships.

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NaGaDeMon 2012, Status Check November 19

In case you’re wondering about the dearth of posts here this month, I’ve mostly been working on Echelon for the last few weeks for National Game Development Month.

Status 2012/11/19

Given that I am starting from the Revised System Reference Document, the following game elements will be considered.  I might apply them roughly as-is, change them, drop them altogether, or do something else entirely.

RSRD Game Constructs

Game Element Status Date Notes
Ability Scores not started 2012/11/02 Dropped; to be replaced by talents.
Races not started 2012/11/02 Cornerstone Talents.  Lose Level Adjustment, instead just have the LA-causing benefits happen at higher tiers.  None documented yet.
Classes not started 2012/11/02 Archetypes (talent sets often taken by that archetype), probably keystones (cap and corner).  Class abilities will likely become talents.  None documented yet.
Prestige Classes in progress 2012/11/19 Many can definitely be capstones, I have some examples already (Arcane Archer, Dwarven Defender, Shadowdancer).  Examination shows that many RSRD prestige classes, at least, are not particularly good candidates for capstone talents.  I’ve had a look through other sources of prestige classes and found them significantly richer.
Skills not started 2012/11/02 Talents, with 4e-style behavior (bonus plus extra effect); extra effect increases with tier.  Consider mining Epic rules for increased skill abilities, right now the core skill effects are pretty mild.
Feats N/A 2012/11/19 Talent building blocks, early drafts will likely refer to feats directly for effects.  Iron Heroes, Agents of Faith, and FantasyCraft have all been mined for talent material, and I would like to go back and mine the Iron Heroes classes for more.
Spells not started 2012/11/02 Talent building blocks, early drafts will likely refer to spells directly for effects.  Spell-related talents (such as magical traditions) may simply list the associated spells.
Domains done 2012/11/19 Many created from Agents of Faith. Divine powers are expected to be fueled by divine channelling rather than by spell casting.  Many divine characters will be casters, many won’t.
Monsters not started 2012/11/02 As characters, constructed from talents.

I’ve done a lot of work, but don’t seem to have made a lot of specific progress on the items above.  I think that’s a little misleading.

Echelon Game Elements

From the table above, it looks like I haven’t addressed much.  That is misleading, I think, because much of what I have been doing is groundwork for what comes next.  I expect things to soon start moving pretty fast.

Echelon doesn’t have many moving parts, really.

Game Element Status Date Notes
Character Scores done 2012/11/19 In character creation document.
Character Creation and Evolution in progress 2012/11/19 In character creation document.
Task Resolution in progress 2012/11/19 In core rules document.
Cornerstone Talents in progress 2012/11/19 In cornerstone talents document, will cover races.
Common Talents in progress 2012/11/19 In documents according to origin: Iron Heroes mastery featsFantasyCraft featsAgents of Faith domain feats, new talents.  Still want to do “Skill talents” and Iron Heroes class abilities talents.
Capstone Talents in progress 2012/11/19 On web site: Creating from Prestige Classes, Arcane Archer, Dwarven Defender, Shadowdancer.
Archetypes not started 2012/11/19 Will do, not sure about formatting.
Spells not started 2012/11/19 Using RSRD spells more or less as written (may override things like duration and range to simplify, but that can be done on an ad hoc basis for now).  Will want talents for spell knowledge, might go with something like Eldritch Weaver Threads for this pass.
Monsters not started 2012/11/19 To be done much as characters.  Once I finish bootstrapping some talents these should go quickly.

This looks a little more like progress has been made, yes?

What is the Bare Minimum?

A question for RPG designers (pro and amateur, whatever):

What is the bare minimum core rule set required to get a game off the ground?


  • Characters are already created (half a dozen pregen).
  • Character-specific rules are attached to the character sheet and don’t need to be repeated, spells and feats and skills and stuff count for this, as does character advancement.
  • Truly introductory stuff (what is an RPG?) is irrelevant, at this point this isn’t going to be picked up by someone who doesn’t already play.

Additional Context:

  • Probably focus on D&D-trope play.  Maybe have the seven iconic classes (fighter, cleric, wizard, thief, elf, dwarf, halfling) as sample characters.  Oh, and ‘bear’ because I’d goofed on the original version of this post (“the bear minimum core rule set”) and got caught… and decided why not go for it?
  • There would be a simple adventure or something (because this does not provide the rules or guidelines for constructing one) with the information needed to run them.  “This room has a fire trap, so roll a Reflex save to avoid when someone triggers it by stepping on the red square.  A character with the Trapfinder ability can roll a Spot check to notice it before anyone steps on it” sort of thing.  Probably five rooms or so, to exercise more than move, kill, loot.

I see:

  • common game elements (ability scores — what each one does; does not need ability score modifier tables because those are on the character sheets already).
  • task resolution (including basic combat and skill/ability checks).
  • game processes (like ‘how a fight works’).
  • … I’m out.

This is not for a rule set to be built upon, nothing about character design or construction, nothing about writing adventures, no monster or spell selection or design considerations.  These things should be known in order to build this package, but I’m looking for the bare bones get-to-the-table content.