Saturday, August 8, 2015

Minimalism in Pen & Paper RPG Design

Three days ago there was a great post about Super Simplified Swords & Wizardry, and minimalist, focused RPG design over at The Rusty Battle Axe.  It is a great post, and you should go read it. But be warned, because it is picking up a lot of equally excellent discussion from other blogs, like The Clash of Spear on Shield, Bat in the Attic, Gothridge Manor, and most recently the counter opinion (also excellent) on Tales of the Rambling Bumblers.

Here is the bulleted list of purposes being thrown around and responded to for this kind of minimalist take on an RPG:
  • Focus play on exploration, rather than tactical combat.
  • Focus the players to find different and creative solutions to challenges poised by having such limited options. [For those who haven't yet read the other posts, these limited options would include: approximately 2 classes (warrior-type, and thief-type), scroll-only magic use, etc.]
  • Highlight the sense of danger and weirdness with regard to the dungeon. [The above-ground world is entirely mundane.]
  • Magic items become highly prized. [Because they are super rare.]
With one exception, I think all of these goals are very worthwhile and, indeed, universally desired whether we are talking minimalist games or super-crunchy games. No one wants banal dungeons or boring magic items. Everyone wants some creativity involved in their game, though what tools are the focus of that creativity (e.g. game mechanics, or setting descriptions) is a matter of opinion.

I have a qualm with the first bullet point, because I feel it implies "all combat" within the phrase "tactical combat," and misses an opportunity to differentiate combat that is part of exploration, and combat that is simply there to meet some kind of quota. The best way to understand this is by reading this fantastic post about Bad Trap Syndrome over at Ars Ludi. Essentially everything stated in that post can be equated to your combats as well. Are the monsters in that dungeon room just floating HP and Spell taxes, or do they serve a purpose in the world at large, and in the story, that your players will discover by interacting with them, violently or otherwise?

That being said, I certainly believe that if a 4 page mini-RPG spends 3 pages describing rules for combat and 1/2 a page on exploration, it may give players the wrong idea. And even though their understanding of the game may change on the second and third and fourth session, you still have to get them to sit down and play after that first one. For a counterpoint to this, see here.

Now let's talk about the ways one could implement low magic and minimal class choices.

Minimal Classes:
  • Open-ended features. Yeah, +1 to attacks and damage is great for your warrior-type, but it is also entirely non-influential when it comes to that player's decisions in combat. Try something like: +1 to any roll related to tripping, grappling, disarming, or otherwise doing a maneuver in melee combat. This isn't a big bonus, but it has the potential to be a wide bonus, which is what players really want as far as entertainment is concerned. A +1 to attack is just as exciting as a +4 to attack, because even though the +4 is a deeper mechanic, it has the same width, which leads to stereotype characters and choices. Perhaps the thief gets one or two free rerolls during the day, which could equate to a sort of rogue's luck in or out of combat. I like the idea of giving warrior-types flat bonuses, and giving the rogue-types luck-based abilities.
  • You gotta have the right tools. This is along the same exact lines as the scrolls-only magic system. Thieves might be better at picking locks, but they still can't do squat without their lock-picking tools. And your warrior might not be great at lock-picking, but if he's just picked up a set of picks and jimmies, let him have a go. This can also apply to weapons. Make everything 1d6 damage, but give 2-handed weapons a +1 to attack rolls, since they are made for maximum destruction.
  • Encumbrance is important. If you don't have spells or daily features to make use of, you are removing a classic form of strategy from the game. Adventurers need supplies, but they also can't be bogged down too much. There is a very important balance mini-game that will take place as the party finds treasure and such. I suggest an item slot system based on strength, and an additional option of carrying a backpack to increase that number of slots. Perhaps backpacks can't be worn with heavy armor? Yet another way of asking the players to make interesting choices about their characters. Also, this creates the distinct possibility of a party leaving treasure somewhere, only to come back and get it later, which is an adventure that writes itself.
Low Magic:
  • Get rid of +1, 2, 3, 4, etc. magic. So this is more of an opinion, but I think what really sucks all the coolness out of a magic item is knowing that there is a different item out there that serves the same purpose, but with a higher bonus. If you want your magic items to be unique and rare and interesting to your characters, don't give them mechanical bonuses at all. Give them special abilities that cannot be replicated with any other mechanic or ability in the game/game-world.
  • Healing once a day. I'm all for no healing potions or healing spells. But I'm also for a sort of once per day second wind feature that can be used whenever the player chooses to regain 1/2 their character's HP. The purpose of this is two fold: it makes combat more dangerous, because there is an easily quantifiable amount of HP your character will have all day, and that is it. Also, it allows the GM a pretty solid way of gauging when an encounter will be taken head-on by the players, and when it will be circumvented. Think about it, healing exists in these games so that players can continue adventuring during the same day. When you give them full HP coming into each encounter, you give them license to treat each encounter the same. I say, your PCs should be exposed to potential combat at all different levels of HP. It isn't until the players know that their primary strategy of kicking-ass and taking-names is going to fail that they will seriously consider a different one.
  • Make your monsters cooler and weirder. In a world with fireballs going off every encounter, a group of goblins to fight is fine and dandy. However, in a world where magic is rare and probably less combat oriented, you need a lot more than goblins to give your adventure that epic feel. Terrain features were already mentioned in a previous response, and I second that wholeheartedly. But you also need to give your monsters a scary air of unpredictability. And for god sake take out the lame filler monsters. If the world above your dungeons is mundane, you can still have cults murdering people or bandits attacking caravans. So don't put little green people who have the same M.O. in your dungeons. 
And that's me done.

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