Monday, May 16, 2016

Review of Open Legend: An Open Source RPG

Open Legend RPG is an open-source, classless, genre-flexible tabletop RPG with a universal list of combat options and a Cocktail Weenie approach to special abilities (called feats). The system was designed for maximum character creation flexibility, and also features a universal role mechanic that involves a d20 as well as additional polyhedrons that explode (are rolled again for an even higher result if they rolled their maximum result initially). It is free, and the rules are most easily accessed on their website.

First of all, the website is gorgeous. It is far better organized and easier to read than essentially all major RPG SRDs. I'm big on layout, so OLRPG gets an A+ on that front. The homepage does a nice job of introducing the concepts, and there really aren't that many pages. Everything is organized intuitively, and if you know how to do Crtl or Command + F on your computer, then finding the boon or bane or feat you're looking for is trivially easy.

There is also just a sense of invested effort that you get while reading these rules. This was an honest design project that was held to the highest standards by the people at Seventh Sphere Publishing. As someone who has poured over rulesets and RPG books, I can tell when I am reading a rule that was rewritten fifty times until it was exactly the way it should be. I get that a lot from OLRPG. A+.

Before I continue, I want to get a few things straight. If I had to choose between my ruleset and OLRPG, I would choose my ruleset. But not because either or is objectively better. Rather, the RPG I like best is the one that is well designed, with my preferred type of game in mind. My favorite kind of game is a cinematic sword-and-sorcery dungeon crawl. OLRPG as a system best supports a story-driven heroic high-fantasy (as far as I can tell). That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a great game system outside my comfort zone, though.

OLRPG is as successful at its goal of being flexible and story-strategy balanced as any RPG I have come across. It's focused, and the designers eschew all those fiddly bits and accessory rules that are so tempting to include when making one of these pen-and-paper games. I can't tell you how many rulesets out there include a core mechanic that sticks out like a sore thumb, clearly included on a whim because it was "cool." Cool doesn't cut it when it comes to accessible game rules. Sure, reading through OLRPG, you may find yourself lacking inspirational fluff text...

"But that flavorless shapeshift feat sounds so boring compared to my D&D druid's Wildsphape power" you might say.

Well, tough nuts. You're (probably) an adult. Add some fluff text yourself. Describe how your character's power is unique in-game. Don't count on the game rules to make things fun in spite of you. You are more than half of the creative force in the whole affair. Grab your RPG by the horns and run with it, don't expect it to carry you.

This is all to say, I respect OLRPG for sticking to its guns and letting the rules speak for themselves, rather than injecting fluff for readers to geek-out over. I also respect it for taking a stand of how to roll, when to roll, how to interpret rolls, and how to move your game along (more on this later). Just because it is open-source doesn't mean it has to be wishy-washy, and it is not. Kudos on that.

So, if you are just reading this review to get the gist of the game and then read the rules yourself, I can confidently say that OLRPG is worth a look, and a one-shot if you have time. And since it is open-source, it may just be the platform you need to make some cool RPG content, if that is one of your goals.

Now, if you want some discussion of the crunchy bits (this is a design blog after all), well, buckle up.

Everything is a point system: Attributes, feats, and so on. You allot points to a category and then can do the special stuff associated with that level in that category. This allows your character to sit anywhere on a spectrum of hyper-specialized to jack-of-all-trades. This changes magic-user functionality from your classic D&D: in OLRPG it is more difficult to have a pyro-specialist that can also consistently open magically-locked doors, a la the D&D evoker with knock prepared. Everything is a roll, so even if the pyro-wizard has a couple points in the right areas for unlocking a door or magically cleaning some clothes, there is a chance that even those simple tasks would fail to some degree, when they would normally go off without a hitch is your standard D&D spell system. Not a flaw, but a change in gameplay that might rub some players the wrong way.

The d20 + additional exploding dice math is weird: Why no 1d12? Obviously I am biased when it comes to my blog's namesake die, but I also think this design choice deserves discussion. Clearly, the larger the die number, the less chance that it explodes. A 1 in an attribute, which gives 1d20 + 1d4, will explode once every four rolls. Meanwhile, someone with an attribute of 4 will roll 1d20 + 1d10, which explodes once every ten rolls. Less than half as much. So from attribute levels 1-4, improvement means less "spikes" of talent, but more consistently high performance. Then suddenly, a score of 5 yields the greatest chance of exploding dice (1/6 + 1/6) for an exploding die roughly once every three rolls, as well as the most consistent high rolls, given the unique bellcurve of results. This by no means breaks the system, but it will create strange patterns where a little bit of talent in an area yields randomly huge rewards, but a lot of talent in the same area can't (mathematically) reach the same heights nearly as often. Weaker characters will surprise you more than stronger ones. Weird.

When everything is based off of points, some things get complicated: The hit point equation is pretty gnarly, even for a tabletop RPG, but that always seems unavoidable with these points-in-areas systems. Also, there is a large potential range of HP here, depending on how many points someone puts in those three categories. You could start with 10 HP, or 34 HP, depending on your character build. That's nearly as extreme as the 1d4 sorcerers vs. 1d12 barbarians in D&D 3.5, which has been largely abandoned by later games inspired by 3.5 (such as Pathfinder and D&D 5e) for being too large of a gap. However, HP is not linked to level in OLRPG, like it is in many RPGs, so maybe this is a non-issue. In that case, scaling challenge with non-scaling HP will be an interesting hurdle for new game masters.

Feats: for an open source game, this approach is a dream come true because it means you can easily and quickly design a new character concept or power or skill or whatever and share it with other people and know that it meshes perfectly with the system they use. Definitely the right choice.

Races: Any rule that tries to get players away from humans and half-elves is a good rule in my book. I can't tell you how many RPGs I've seen played where race wasn't roleplayed at all....

The Character "Secret": I love this idea. I think it goes a long way toward establishing that flavor of fantasy adventure. Secrets are the butter to my monsters-and-magic bread, and it is general enough for any character concept. Good stuff. Might steal it for my games.

Rules for when and how to roll, and failing forward: super like. We roll too much in most modern RPGs. Rolling over and over for the same thing, taking 10s and 20s like we have to describe everything in terms of a roll of the dice, and failing trivial tasks like opening a door. Much better to take the stance that Open Legend does and have rolls be random results for specific types of challenges or drama, not just anything that happens. As with my remarks on spellcasters above, you may even want to broaden this rule to include certain magical things that should be trivial.

Wealth score: I've seen this used before, and have tinkered with such abstract wealth systems myself. At the end of the day, I think the simplest system is just to use gold pieces and assign a rough gold value to everything. Silver-lining: taking this rule out and using a gold-piece system is trivially easy, so no harm done even if you aren't planning to use this rule.

Combat: Rolling an attack is pretty complex. Weapons are properties and ranges for the attack, rather than entities that determine damage. Coming from a standard d20 style background, anything beyond 1) roll to hit number 2) if hit roll damage, makes me a little weary. I imagine that the process of swinging a sword at something would be slightly more laborious at the table than I find ideal. Similar to systems where you "build your spell as you cast." Which I think you do in OLRPG, too. However, I am very intrigued by the boon/bane system and how it redefines and broadens what a typical d20 game lets you attempt in combat within the rules. Sure, you could knock someone prone in D&D 3.5, but it was a pain in the ass to look up the extremely unique rule for doing so. Open Legend has a streamlined way of attempting nearly any self/ally-benefitting or enemy-sabotaging action that scales with how complex/useful the boon or bane is. I myself think that just an attack roll or ability roll is abstractly enough rule to cover anything a player might do, but that means my players have to take it on faith that I will be fair with what they can do and what their enemies can do. OLRPG takes a little bit of that judge-jury-executioner responsibility that old-school game GMs have and puts a more robust actions-and-consequences skeleton into play. I can always respect a little modern-game sensibility, even if I don't feel I need it.

Monsters: Where are they? Do I make them myself? I may have missed this, and I haven't even begun to delve into the OLRPG Blog so that could be my fault. But I am certainly interested in how a game without scaling HP can survive the difference between the PCs fighting a group of goblins, and the PCs fighting a group of dragons....

And that's all I've got. Make sure you go check out Open Legend and follow them of their social media.


  1. Thanks so much for your time in reviewing Open Legend! Disclaimer: I'm the creator.

    You said:
    > Then suddenly, a score of 5 yields the greatest chance of exploding dice (1/6 + 1/6) for an exploding die roughly once every three rolls, as well as the most consistent high rolls, given the unique bellcurve of results. This by no means breaks the system, but it will create strange patterns where a little bit of talent in an area yields randomly huge rewards, but a lot of talent in the same area can't (mathematically) reach the same heights nearly as often. Weaker characters will surprise you more than stronger ones. Weird.

    I'm a bit confused by this one. The bell curve is uniform in the positive direction. When you jump from attribute 4 (d20 + d10) to attribute 5 (d20 + 2d6) your expected value progresses from 17.1 up to 19.4. When I read your comment, I get the impression that you think 2d6 means only keeping one of the dice. Attribute dice in Open Legend come in multiples. So, at the peak (attribute 9) you roll d20 + 3d10 (all of these dice are "keepers", not just the highest d10). Which works out to an epic average roll of 29.4 with an attribute score of 9.

    Excellent observation about Hit Points. It's true that there is a big range, I made the tough decision with the mechanics that "Yes, it's true if you want to be the ultimate glass cannon character, the system supports you in doing that." In reality, my expectation is that every character can choose either Will, Fortitude, or Presence as a supporting attribute which will also provide them with hit point increases.

    But at the end of the day, combat in Open Legend tends to feel like each side is gradually hindering the other with status effects or healing from them until, suddenly, someone rolls a total of 40 and nearly kills their opponent in a single hit. The low HP potential support the maintaining of that "at-risk" feeling which applies to both sides. High level characters continue to feel like they are mortal and can't be easily killed (though banes and boons play a large role here, e.g. the "Resistance" boon which can halve or completely negate damage of a specific type. Healing to full HP after each fight means that the game is not really about resource management so you can wade through combat after combat without the very silly effect of "I can't remember my magic any more today, need to sleep and re-study". But with each fight, you expose yourself to potential lethal damage. If a d20 explodes, the follow up d20 re-roll is "lethal" damage which doesn't heal. Your HP max is reduced by that amount or damage suffered, whichever is lower. In this way, you see characters wind up bedridden or partially crippled until they recover.

    For the attack roll question: it actually turns out that Open Legend has a huge advantage over traditional d20 systems because 20's don't have the risk of being followed by double 1's on damage. Also, the calculation of damage is just the total minus the target's defense. It winds up being far more dramatic when you see people roll 60+ totals and one-shot kill foes. It also really helps avoid the drudgery of swing-miss-swing-miss-swing-miss. The only time that attack rolls truly become laborious is when you see MANY dice explosions, but since you're about to do something legendary that has never come up as a problem during actual gameplay. Most rolls are actually faster and more straightforward than what's typical from D&D.

    Monsters: I take this as a compliment that you thought the system was complete when in fact, it's not. The monsters and NPCs are one of two final unfinished and unpublished chapters at the time of this writing.

    In the meantime, check out our FREE learn-by-play module which has examples of a bunch of our favorite iconic RPG monsters:

  2. Great clarification! Always good when the creator puts his two cents in the review.

    I did understand that 2d6 meant both d6s together and not 2d6 "choose one". But I also assume that each d6 explodes whenever it independently rolls a 6, rather than when they both roll 6s (for 12, total). Because of these independent explosions, improving a score from 4 to 5 is a big increase compared to improving it from 3 to 4. As long as the die sizes get bigger, the chance of exploding decreases. It's an innate form of diminishing returns. Ideally you want as many middle-size dice as possible (like 3d8s or 4d6s) rather than one or two huge dice (like 1d12 or 2d10) because the "best" results curve would have consistently high rolls with enough explosion frequency to make a number spike likely at least once per encounter (the part where you slay the monster).

    You see what I mean? It seems to me that combat could be over before your d10 stat explodes. Meanwhile, your buddy fighting with his piddly d4 stat is likely to have two or three explosive results over seven or eight turns. Even though the d4's explosions are small each time, they are far more likely to "double" or "triple" explode ("incepsplosion", if you will) than the bigger dice.

  3. Thanks for clarifying that, it’s a big help. I can completely understand where you’re coming from now that I know what you mean a bit better.

    The good news is does actually work well at the gaming table. There are to 2 factors that you’re overlooking:

    1) Mathematically, when you compare an attribute of 1 (d20+d4) to an attribute of 2 (d20+d6) there is a definitive increase. While it’s true that the d4 explodes more frequently, it’s also true that even on a successful explosion, you can still roll less than the d6, even if it *doesn’t* explode. Consider rolling (d20: 10 + d4: 4->1 = 15) vs. rolling (d20: 10 + d6: 5 / 6 = 15/16). Believe it or not this happens all the time in the game. Also, advantage (rolling an extra die) which is central to the core mechanic and when it’s in play, it favors the higher die even more. That’s the big difference, and it’s also the answer to your question about omitting the d12. If the d12 were in the equation, then the step following it would need to be 2d8. The problem there is that the average jumps from approximately 17 all the way to approximately 19.5. The step is too big of a jump, when compared to the other steps, also, the goal of increasing dice in your die pool is important and including the d12 would push that off too much. I can understand the impression about this psychological phenomenon but it will fade if you play the game, I know it to be a non-issue both from actual statistical calculations and at a “gut level” from spending lots of time rolling Open Legend’s dice.

    2) The d20 also serves to “overpower” the attribute dice at lower levels. So, you’ll see people with attribute scores between 1 and 5 hit or miss fantastically due to the d20. As you work your way toward high-level, however, it gradually gets drowned out by attribute dice. At the top of the curve, attribute 9 has an average roll of 29.2 and only 10.5 of that is from the d20. It’s actually not the small dice, but the d20 that is the one that sometimes seems to “favor” the lower attribute rolls. Since the d20 explosion (which is familiar as a critical hit from other systems) often makes the numeric total of the attribute dice seem inconsequential (but that too, is just a mind trick). On an average 20 explosion, the follow up average is of course 10.5. So we have a base of 30.5. If a typical defense is 15 - 17, you’re looking at a 33 total with attribute 1 (around 2.7 on the d4) for about 18 - 20 damage, compared to about 34, (3.6 on the d6) for 19 - 21 damage. The fun part is that sometimes the stars align and both explode at the same time, that’s when epic and unforgettable dramatic moments happen.