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.


  1. David Lamb

    Sorry to take so very long to respond; this has been in its own tab in my Firefox browser for months, so I decided it was finally time to say something and close the tab.

    I like the basic idea a lot, but like Echelon there will be what grows into a massive catalog of special talents. What that means is that it _can_ be rules-light if the initial catalog is small, but various communities are going to specialize by adding their own talents. And for long-term consistency they’re going to want to write them down. So eventually the global community comes up with something that might rival the Echelon Reference Series :)

    That’s not a reason to avoid fleshing this out, maybe even to the point of a beta test.

    • “this has been in its own tab in my Firefox browser for months”

      I entirely understand that one.

      And yes, I agree that the entire set of talents could get to be very large indeed. I do not consider this a bug.

      Instead, as with many games where this happens, I expect you would find that the catalogue gets treated as that: a catalogue of options to consider, a palette to use when creating a campaign.

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