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THE DESIGN ETHOS OF OUR ROLE PLAYING SYSTEM

I’ve spent most of my adult life tinkering on this system. (Most sounded better than all.) It used to be huge and unwieldy, meant to span several books. Originally we wanted to build a set of tabletop rulebooks inseparable from it’s setting. An end-all, include-all sourcebook / setting for tabletop role playing. Over the years we’ve cut it down to fit on a napkin.

For “No Truce With The Furies” we adapted those same pen and paper rules for an isometric RPG. I firmly believe it was the right choice.

The years have seen a lot of critique of our own system and even more learning from others. We’ve followed the debates around J. Sawyer’s design for Pillars of Eternity, rated editions of D&D and even played Temple of Elemental Evil for it’s turn based engine. We’ve done our time, so to say. Today I want to share some of our main beliefs as designers of role playing systems. These are not the “pillars of our design”, just some reasoning behind our rule system. The list is meant to show where we’re coming from to fellow designers and RPG enthusiasts.

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Concept art for our skill icons

1)  Only one

We make one system, one world – and that’s it. Everything goes into this one structure. All our ability for systematic thinking, all our knowledge of history. We iterate upon these rules until they are just right, the best numerical foundation for experiencing our world. And we make the world as complete and total as we can. And then we’re done. Wrap it up and send it into the future, New Testament style. We will never make a steampunk cyberpunk spyworld, Owls versus Foxes, Yarn Boy rule system.

2)  Tyranny of cool

If a skill has a great name, if a talent is poetic, if a mechanic is haute tension – it’s in. We’ll make it work. Beautiful stuff does not get taken out because “someone somewhere” didn’t understand what it does. If it’s clunky or extraneous we iterate and redesign until it works. We will always have talent names longer than “Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky” and “The Intense Humming of Evil” combined.

3)  Unsymmetrical is symmetrical

It’s good to have almost useless things and seemingly overpowered things. A good composition is not all equal parts. A good composition is equal experiences. There is great symmetrical tension and effect in a seemingly useless abilities that you try to use for the sake of cool. Pull off Spook, Shocking Grasp and Spell Thrust in Baldur’s Gate and you’re a wizard. All builds should not be viable, but all builds should be interesting. Some skills only pop up one or two times — they will be all the more special for it. While other’s buzz around as often as possible. (Empathy always tells you what people are feeling but when Shivers comes in, it’s a special moment.)

4)  Fit on a napkin or fit in the trash bin

After a while, we want you to be able to draw the entire system on a napkin from your head. That’s how elegant and self contained we want it to be. There are four stats and everything folds back into their value. We only use six sided dice. We prefer the Babylonian system of sixes to the Roman system of tens. (Six is a more comprehensible number, ten is too vague and philosophical and includes a zero). If we have a number in the rules – 4, 3 or 6 – we will reuse it as often as possible. All numbers fold back into themselves, everything is it’s own cap, never multiply, never produce long formulas.

5)  Small numbers

Congratulations, you just got +1 of something. It’s a big deal. Six is the maximum. You don’t get 28 experience, you get ONE POINT to put into a skill. That one point gives you the aforementioned +1 bonus. You don’t suffer 76 damage, you lose TWO LIVES. The smaller a number, the less you have of it, the more dramatic it will feel. We large mammals have two to three offspring. We have one home. We have two eyes. Our numerical values are large and chunky, losing one is tragic and gaining one is a triumph. Our system reflects that.

6)  Innovate like a fool

Innovate for innovation’s sake. This isn’t a medical procedure, it’s a rule system for a game. If we see a way to ditch experience then let’s do it. Sure, we could divide a point into 100 experience and it would let us balance the game better, but let’s not. Let’s not do levels either, carrying around points has been done less. And how about GAME OVER if you run out of money? Let’s do a clock too. A real time of day system will let us build great systems around it, imagine the great names we can give to talents for evening people! Above all – introduce hugely ambitious superstructures. A great failure is ten times better than a small success.

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Gosh! Even more concept art for our skill icons

+1  Tabletop is god

We believe in great D&D. Not in high fantasy or cyberpunk but in the potential of the underlying tabletop experience. If the Game Master has a great story and the players are competent writers too… tabletop wipes the floor with any other medium. (Literature and video games included.) The Zola, Gombrowicz and Bulgakov of our time are already playing D&D, possibly around one table. The trouble is – the experience cannot be recorded and relayed to others. Tabletop is written on water.

Therefore we believe in video game adaptations of the tabletop experience. Games have had great success adapting tactical combat oriented D&D into video games. (Baldur’s Gate 2, etc). We want to do the same for heavy duty story oriented D&D.

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