Last time, I outlined what I particularly enjoyed about d20 and 3.5e. There’s a lot to love about the system: the elegance of ability scores, the descriptive nature of actions, the adaptability of the ruleset, domains and feat, easy plug-and-play mechanics, and the extraordinary level of content – all colored by my nostalgia glasses.
But there are some things to hate. My list was long but not exhaustive: combat maneuvers, caster vs. martial growth, save or sucks, high-level play grinding, and monsters generally being substandard.
Today’s blog will discuss our guiding principles for addressing some of these concerns. I’m not going to get into the details of the crunchy fixes today; instead, I will outline the overarching principles and give some examples of where the base game violates that for us. We want to emphasize simplicity, depth, engagement, and speed.
Simplicity vs. Complexity
We prefer simplicity. I think it’s important to understand that I enjoy a crunchy game; I like my fantasy RPG system to have a lot of tactical decision-making. However, I like that decision-making has a core of simple mechanics.
What do I mean? Part of my objection to grappling and other combat maneuvers is their inherent complexity. A character has to make a melee touch attack to grab the target to initiate a grapple. Most of the time, that touch attack causes an attack of opportunity, and that can cause the grapple attempt to fail. After surviving the AoO, we’re back to the touch attack to grab. If successful, there’s a grapple check, which gives both combatants the grappling condition. Oh, it also deals unarmed strike damage.
The grappling condition says this: “Engaged in wrestling or some other form of hand-to-hand struggle with one or more attackers. A grappling character can undertake only a limited number of actions. He does not threaten any squares, and loses his Dexterity bonus to AC (if any) against opponents he isn’t grappling. See Grapple.”
Grappling leads to pinning, and the pinned condition says, “held immobile (but not helpless) in a grapple.” It also applies an AC penalty, prevents speech, and limits your actions to “try to escape the pin.”
That was 237 words just to summarize, and I skipped some things. Grappling is a wrestling mini-game with specially created mechanics (grapple check, special size modifiers, modified actions, etc.) so close to regular combat to make it exceptionally confusing. That’s complicated; frankly, it feels complex simply to be complicated.
Deep vs. Shallow
We prefer depth. We want the room in our mechanics to explore and create variation. Classes and feat systems already provide immense space for deep mechanical systems, but there are some areas where the game chooses to be shallow.
What do I mean? Haste is a pretty standard spell. When a character casts haste, there’s a clearly defined set of consequences. Haste is shallow. But what if haste was a spell with various casting intensity levels starting at movement speed increase? And for additional resource costs, could the caster add an AC and Reflex save bonus? And for more resources, add another attack or target? And for truly powerful spell casters, haste grants an additional standard action?
It’s not more complicated. Haste is still haste, and it does certain things that align with the core principles of the d20 system. But now haste is a little deeper – it provides more options and can provide different solutions.
Indulge me with a few notes here – 1) haste is just an example, and 2) we firmly believe there are no sacred cows.
Active vs. Passive
We prefer engagement. We want the game to demand your attention even when it’s not your turn. We’ve all spent time sitting at a table for 90 minutes during combat, while you personally only acted for 5 of those 90 minutes. It happens – and it sucks.
There is a ton of space in the game to engage players. First, the players should roll more dice. Magical defenses should not be set-it-and-forget-it. Offensive and defensive abilities should benefit from proper timing. By creating a more active gamespace, we reward system mastery. We can do this without making the game so obtuse that a lack of knowledge is detrimental to play.
Our design and development choices will emphasize player agency and engagement. Bracers of armor provide a flat AC bonus. Suppose they had a reaction ability that increased AC by +4 for some rounds determined by the strength of the magic item. The bracers become an active resource that has tactical applications.
What if countering a spell were a reaction-type activity instead of a readied action? What if a successful counterspell with the correct feat created a magical backlash that opened the caster to an attack of opportunity from the party fighter? And what if hitting with that melee attack enabled the party archer to fire a haphazard shot into the spell caster?
Suddenly, there are satisfying action chains and outcomes that only players paying attention can initiate. That game keeps focus and runs faster while being more captivating for everyone.
Fast vs. Slow
We prefer things to move fast. We want mechanics to resolve quickly and combats to move swiftly. In a fast game, every action matters. I’m still looking at you, 4th iterative attack.
Everything I’ve outlined above dovetails directly into speeding up the game. Things go faster when rules are more straightforward, when using depth to expand existing abilities instead of creating new ones, and when everyone is engaged all the time.
Monsters should be fast and should “do their thing.” The GM shouldn’t have to shuffle through a 20-spell list to determine the following action. They shouldn’t need an advanced calculus degree to increase their difficulty on the fly. And monster stat blocks should be designed to eliminate extraneous information and speed up the GM’s ability to run the game.
Math tends to bog the game down. The mix of bonuses, penalties, and situational modifiers can be daunting. At high levels of play, the math can sometimes require a calculator, if only to more easily keep track of everything. We can simplify the math to speed up the game.
Slow things should happen off-session, during downtime. We should reserve game time for fast things.
That’s it. We want to make simple games that provide depth and encourage active play without getting bogged down. We have tons of ideas about making that happen within the existing framework.
Some of them are tweaks, and some of them are entirely new systems. I’m excited to share them with you.