Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Let's Build an RPG! (pt.3)

"Tom’s father begs Merlin the magician
to give his wife a child" 
by Leslie Brooke (1922)
 About a month ago, my youngest son asked to play an RPG with him like he sees me do with his brother.  My first inclination,  after years of gaming with my oldest, and trying Kid-oriented Fantasy RPGs such as Hero Kids, First Fable, and No Thank You,  Evil! was not to reach for a system at all, but to break out my diceless FKR-style system, Square Dungeon.  

Rules constrain and distract. They can become a sticking point for new and young players especially.  The whole point of a good TTRPG is to facilitate a game of narrative exploration and creative problem-solving. If you are too caught up on what The dice mechanics cover, and looking for the solution to all of your problems on the character sheet, your game is failing you.

The Best System is a Minimal System

Thus, the best game for a new player is the one that is not much more than a task resolution system and a fail state.

Rules otherwise serve mostly to enforce a consistent set of constraints to make play more complex and challenging,  and to help express the limitations and possibilities of the game world. The rules of Dungeons & Dragons,  for example create a world in which magic works a certain very simple way, in which combat has a certain level of peril, and resources have to be managed in specific ways. This makes the game both more challenging to play, and helps create a  certain kind of Fantasy world more effectively. 

Thus, when working with kids this young you can let the rules slide, and focus purely on the fundamentals of game-play. Then work your way up to D&D,. Then onward to other systems as the player advances and needs more challenges and variety.

"All the Dice"

This was not good enough, however. My Little Guy (hereafter "LG") wanted a "game with dice and that uses some of my books. The trappings and excitement of a proper TTRPG were, as far as he was concerned, important as part of the experience. 

Well, if I was going to run a game with dice and mechanics simple enough for a four-year-old, there was only one choice: Tiny Dungeon 2e: a brilliant game that needs only 3d6, a pencil, and some index cards. I used it with his brother,  who now, at 7 years old, runs it about once a month. But, a handful of D6s was also not what he was looking for, which left me at a bit of a loss.

How do you teach a more complicated TTRPG to a kid who can only add or subtract using fingers and is still dodgy on counting to 20? And that wasn't chick full of adult content?

I looked at the games I had that were OSR-ish, because I wanted to graduate him eventually into games like Basic Fantasy Role-Playing, Low Fantasy Gaming, and Index Card RPG,  which are favorites in the house. What did I have that had some strong OSR essence that met his criteria?


Building a TTRPG, Quick and Dirty-Like

I decided to fuse the good bits of these on the fly to meet my son's play needs. Always with an eye to minimizing the math, simplifying characters,  making the game fast, and still resembling an OSR game in principle.  I could also snag a bit here and there from Deathtrap Lite while I was at it...

I made up a tale of traveling through a shadowy forest past snozzberry glades (I read 14 Roald Dahl books to my oldest last year) and facing dangerous wurdle birds ("Wurlde" is a word from Jim Henson's story "Fearnot" - I made them a mix of Dodo and Phoenix, with exploding eggs,) to try to prevent a frost giant and his goblin minions from freezing his home town. Preferably without fighting the giant.

I grabbed rules and kludge them together on the fly. MotO's three attributes  re-imagined and turned into advantage/disadvantage; ICRPG's hearts, target, and effort mechanics; Cairn's inventory management;  Shadow of the Demon Lord's way of calculating advantage/disadvantage, but LFG's d20 way of using it; Maze Rats' magic system, and Mausritter's magic, too - with a dash of DCC

It was kludgey, but it worked. And voila, a new TTRPG was born in play and on the fly.

In an article last month I talked about my design needs and how I ran, and then tweaked the game mechanically,  giving us a bare-bones game. Then, in another pair of articles, I added more content (monsters and items),  both from my son's five adventures in the system as Cwell the Fine, Adventurer Extraordinaire (yes, I suggested the name of the Bard from AD&D2e to him), and from a jumble of sources such as Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Jim Henson's Story Hour, and various Saturday Morning cartoons. This gave us a gamble, but confusing system... especially as I wrote some of the content before dispensing with a depletion die in the finalized version of the rules. 

Much of which, in the articles was not fully spelled out. Instead,  I pointed to various articles and systems as I worked. There were gaps that needed to be filled, too. So the third stage was organization. 

You might want to refer to my PDF of dragonette to see what I am talking about here. I put it up as a PWYW title on DriveThruRPG

Putting it Together

I spent quite a few late nights over the last two weeks hammering this raw RPG into something readable.  Just as I ended up with design needs that shaped the rules, I also had an intended audience: grown ups or older kids looking to share this game with kids. This determined my best practices in designing the game's presentation.

  • In imitation of the games most praised as "easy to learn" rules instructions are written syllogistically in the second person: "To do X, you Y."
  • Icons such as the hearts are interpreted in Parenthesis in places where players need reminders.
  • First mentions of rules are boldface.
  • Game terms are made to stand out with ALL CAPS.
  • Wherever possible distinct chunks of rules are placed on facing-page spreads to prevent needless flipping.
  • Headers and subheadings are used for easy skimming.
  • There are plenty of extended examples of play.
  • Font and size are chosen to keep lines not much above 75 characters per line in a column - this helps focus.
  • Series are used to make reading on a screen more comfortable. 
  • Rules are presented in the order players will likely engage with them.

I used language designed to be read by a clever ten year old where I could. While the game is designed for younger players,  

I figured out as I wrote the content that I needed clear rules for fleeing that minimized the math and used the dice to enhance tension. I created s unique system based on ICRPG's mechanics, with my own abstract Speed Category system.

Likewise,  as I wrote, I found that I needed to stat more monsters and spells to make the material fit without asking the GM to improvise too much. I also had to rewrite some content to reflect rules changes as I tweaked the system.

I created a unique buying and selling mechanic that attacks a PC's treasure as they buy gear.

I added a few examples of play for the more complex parts of the engine, after re-writing them so that they were clear and not referential to other game material. 

I spent some time writing my take on what an RPG is, as well as on gaming with kids, and calibrating your content and style for them for them as intros to the the game and GM section specifically. 

I tossed a rejiggered version of my Simple Adventure Creator system as an Appendix. 

Where Dragonette Sits

Overall, this took 36 days of free time from beginning to end, and that involves building a new system, rather than using a pre-existing open engine. I am happy enough with it to share.

The current version of Dragonette is a playtest. There's a lot that isn't in it that I would want to have. It needs a table of contents, and preferably an index. A decent character sheet. Some more art.

I also would like to create two more tables and triple the number of monsters in the book. I have a to-do list of things I would love to add to the game. The particularly in content.

Art has been increasingly hard to find. But it comes to pixabay, not only do I have to sift through not just a glut of images, but now a huge swath of AI content as well. As I mentioned in my review of The Abandoned Estate of Moonweaver Hall, AI is a complex topic. I have mixed feelings about it. But whether I would choose to use it or not is a non-issue as DTRPG has special requirements if you are using AI-generated art that make using it even more onerous than sifting through it.

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