Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Roll Your Own

 With the OGL 1.1 leak, the non-apology from Wizards of the Coast, the surprisingly successful #DnDBegone campaign, the lies, and eventually  the sad walk-back on it all, there are suddenly a lot of people looking for a new system to play instead of Dungeons & Dragons 5e.

A lot of them are planning on going to Pathfinder 2e, , I can understand that. If nothing else, the ORC (Open RPG Creative) License has been a smart maneuver and made Pathfinder look pretty appealing.

But I think jumping from one crunchy fantasy TTRPG to another is a missed opportunity.

And, no... I am not about to tell you to try OSR games. (Though they are awesome...)

I'm going to tell you that you don't need to buy a new system. There is an even cooler option: make one that is tailored to your game world. 

Most people don't appreciate just how much work a game master does to make a game their own. Sometimes not even the Game Masters themselves.

Every role-playing game rule is a Rorschach test. There is no singular way to interpret any single one. Gameplay is as much up to the GM as it is the ruleset they use. GMs are always going to need to make rulings. Whether you are using rules light systems, rules heavy ones or, or if you are playing a storygame specifically designed to reduce the impact of a GM. The GM's interpretation still drives the gaming experience.

As a corollary,  if you are running your own campaign setting, you are already tailoring the game to fit the world. You are making minor adjustments to all the races and classes are presented, even if it is just by giving them context. No part of a game goes unchanged  once it is included in your world, whether you intended to change it or not.

This remains true even if you are running a premade setting, the chances are you are only taking what you like from it, and ignoring a great deal more.  You are inserting your own characters,  describing things as you imagine, creating the case logic when players try something new. You are filling in the blanks on the map.

Nobody has, to my knowledge, done a Vulcan mind-meld with Keith Baker. Accordingly, nobody runs Eberron as it was imagined. 

Your game world will always be unique, and the rules will always bend to conform to it.

Game systems, when they are at their best help you build and expand on the world you have created,  and at their least helpful when the force you to shoehorn your world to fit the game's system.

For example, if you imagine magic as being an Art of changing Reality in according with the Will, a game with free-form magic works really well. On the other hand, trying to make such a world work using vanilla D&D or Pathfinder's Vancian magic system is hard to do well, and will force you to make a lot of tweaks and compromises to work. If you insist on working with PF as your base game, you are going to have to import a new magic system or compromise the way you imagine magic working to suit PF.

If you are going to re-write Pathfinder's magic system, why not alter a few other things?

I have a whole dictionary of rules systems you can use to make things suit your campaign. Here is why I decided to do so.

For that matter, why not ask yourself and your players just how heavy a rules system you want? You could start with almost any Open Game System you like, and with a little copy/paste you could build the game that exactly suits the world you want to produce? Here's my suggestions on finding the right system to start with.  

Here's some great examples of Open Systems to Start With:

PANZA is a public domain version of the D&D 5e rules

Mark of the ODD is an extremely fast, light version of D&D in the Creative Commons that emphasizes ease of play, lethal combat, and creative problem-solving. Its license/ SRD document is practically a fill-in-the-blank TTRPG manual. Players must be creative in MotO, or see their characters  die,

Knave is a Creative Commons game that removes class from the game, focuses on narrative over dice mechanics, and takes the dice out of the DM's hands. A third party reference sheet makes putting your own version easy. And the rules are freely available. Though  I highly recommend purchasing the original.

Carin is a hybrid of Knave and Mark of the Odd that creates a game that is fast, simple, narrative-driven, and free of character classes. I currently have one Cairn-based game out: Wreck. The Cairn SRD is here

Index Card RPG is one of the coolest D&D inspired fantasy TTRPGs out there. Fast, adaptable, originally classless, and with a huge community.  ICRPG is under a limited Creative Commons,  but requires you to rephrase the rules as it has on open SRD.

Powered by the Apocalypse is as much a game design philosophy and loosely interconnected set of games as it is an engine,  but the rules are open for use, and many of the games are in the Creative Commons.  These games emphasize players' participating in world-building and controlling the outcomes their characters get, cutting down and simplifying the role of GM significantly. While the base game does not have an SRD you can copy/paste its most successful incarnation, Dungeon World has one that can be used as a template. 

Forged in the Dark is an engine suited to playing teams of thieves, mercenaries,  space bums, (or even magical girls) who slowly build power and influence on their way from the gutter to the pinnacle of society through a series of heists,  capers or conflicts. It's a Creative Commons system that focuses a lot on making complex scenarios like heists and investigations simple and fast moving.

Fate Core is a Creative Commons engine that uses light math and fast-moving metacurrencies with Fudge Dice to have a game where narrative and established facts about the world drive the mechanics of play.  Its SRD is here.

Grok?! is a Creative Commons game that uses an oracle-like system and treats everything from gear to spells to relationships as assets that define a character’s capabilities, and serve as a character’s lifeline. 

The GLOG is a simple Creative Commons fantasy RPG that is designed to be extremely hackable and modular. It's huge following has led to the creation of an unbelievable variety of rules modules an content is staggering.  It is a bit wild and messy, but chances are you can find almost anything you need already out there. Start here with the rules, then check out it's creator's pool of content as an appetizer. 

And this is just scratching the surface.

What Next?

Once you have your system (or two) and grabbed the appropriate SRD or core rulebooks, and copied what you want, the next step is to start Hacking it to do what you want it to do for your world.

The first step us to decide how you want your world to play, and spot where your system of choice fails that vision. I break this process down here.

After that, you can begin to import or invent rules and set up a system to share the rules, get feedback,  and fine-tune your game until it is perfect for your world. Here's my toolkit for that process.

Before you know it, you will have the exact game to express your world,  rather than trying to make a world that works in the game.  Something uniquely yours.

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