As you may know, I'm currently in the process of building an RPG system and world, known respectively as The Imperial System and Xasine. This has been a process that has taken almost a year now, and is slowly coming towards completion. As a result of that journey, and the research I've done in that time, and the things I've learned over the past however many years of playing games, I've got some thoughts on what makes a good system.
This has a modification on The Usual Disclaimer - these are just my thoughts as a designer. If your players are having fun and rolling dice, all the rest is gravy.
So, with that in mind, here's my thoughts on what it takes to design a good RPG system.
What's the Point?
This is the first set of things to answer, in my opinion, and I like to think of this in four parts: the What, How, When and Where of a game...
- What is the game about?
- How is the game's premise reflected in gameplay?
- When does the system reward players?
- Where does this create tension and interest?
For example, D&D 5e:
- It's about fighting monsters and overcoming challenges through force
- You're rewarded through completing encounters
- You receive loot and XP when you achieve things (mostly via killing things)
- Interest comes from tense, challenging combat and having stakes if you lose
In the case of Xasine, I was inspired in no small measure by these two scenes from TNG:
Living is making choices
It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose
In the case of The Imperial System, it was built around the idea that characters have arcs and the players should be enabled to take them on a journey. This is why it lacks the concept of alignment, and has heavily specific character attributes, rather than having only default ones like Strength, Charisma etc in D&D.
It instead is designed around the idea that roleplay that advances the character in some way prompts XP and advancement specific to that roleplay. A character who regularly climbs walls to break into places will gain skills in picking locks, stealth and climbing. One who often gains intel by going to dinners and social occasions and interacting with those there will gain skills in schmoozing. Thus what a character regularly does, is what they get good at.
This brings me to the third snippet of inspiration:
Now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all.
In this way, by having system mechanics designed to reward players for solving problems using their character's skills, and a story that pitches power against morality, the players engage with the idea that no matter how much personal or political power they gain, it's their choices that matter most. And having more power often means having to make harder choices.
So for Xasine and TIS:
- It's about gaining personal and political power
- You're rewarded through interacting with the world in a consistent manner
- You receive XP and advancement when you solve problems with your character's unique skillset
- Tension comes from wielding power and influence and changing the world, with no undo button if you make the wrong call
Once I'd decided on what Xasine and its underlying system were going to be about, I then approached the second part of the system design: what would the mechanics look like?
On the surface, there's some very simple choices - roughly how often do I want players to succeed at things? Therefore what does the conflict resolution mechanic look like? But it's also more complex and nuanced - how do I want to reward people for doing what I want them to? How do I make them less likely to play the game in ways that the story won't reward? How do I encourage them to engage with the premise of the game?
Can You Do A Thing?
This is where the mechanics come in to play. The core mechanics of the game answer the question of how successful were you at what you tried to do, given the method you tried to accomplish it?
For example, if we've got a group of people who are trying to get into a room with a locked door, there's lots of ways they could try to do that:
- Smash the door down
- Pick the lock
- Find someone who has keys and convince them to open it
- Find someone who has keys, get the keys somehow and open it themselves
- Open it with magic/turn it into a chicken/phase through
...and so on. These each would required differents tests. Strength, lockpicking, persuasion, skill at arms, and magical ability. What, and how. In each case, different characters may have different levels of skill at those things, so each could try their own method of solving the problem, given their specific skill set.
How you encourage players in the how aspect of achieving a what, and how you resolve the attempts, are your core mechanics. In TIS, that's mostly a D12 plus an ability level, plus any relevant modifiers. For example, attacking a door with your fists is going to be a pure Fitness check. On the other hand, going at it with an axe or warhammer will give a bonus of the weapon's damage output to your Fitness, making the test easier.
A lot of room is given for the DM to work with the players on what they want to bring to a test and how they'll solve it, to encourage creative solutions to challenges encountered. As DM, you'll decide how challenging something is, and then let the player(s) come up with a method of addressing that challenge. If their method ends up with more points than the difficulty of the task, it auto-succeeds, otherwise they roll.
So if the player tries to get through a locked wooden door with a warhammer by smashing away at it, I'd state that it takes a minute or two, but it automatically succeeds because it's a standard door and they're good at smashing things to pieces with their weapon. On the other hand, if it's a reinforced door, I'd ask for a roll and we'd see if it's something they can manage to break through. Then again, they might decide three of them are going to go at it with two axes and a warhammer, and at that point I might decide that their group total is now higher than the level of the challenge, and so it auto-succeeds again.
How Well Did it Go?
The second part of a mechanic is the outcome of it - after the mechanic is used, what happens next? In Xasine, there's two options: you roll above the target, or you roll below it. In the case of the former, you succeed. In the case of the latter, either you succeed with a complication, or you fail, and the player can choose whether to accept the complication. For example, with the door smashing, they might roll badly and so I could offer them that they succeed, but they injure their wrist in the process, and will suffer a -1 penalty to anything involving Fitness or combat for the next day. The player could decide they're OK with that, and the door is broken and they get inside. On the other hand they could decide no, they'd rather just fail, in which case simply whatever they wanted to do, they don't manage.
Now, this is where you as a DM have to choose consequences. For Xasine, the consequences of failure are rarely bad outside of combat - if you fail to jump over a gap, you stopped before jumping, rather than you jumped and fell to your death. In combat though, obviously if you fail to block, you take damage. On the other hand, you could succeed in a block, but your weapon gets hit out of your hand.
This "how well did it go" is the second part of any mechanic. But how do yoh resolve whether or not it worked in the first place?
Well the classic solution is a dice roll, on x number of n-sided dice. However, I've also seen and enjoyed games where the mechanics were pulling out Jenga blocks, drawing cards from a deck, or spending points from a replenishing stat pool. There's no right or wrong. The main question for me tends to be how much agency you want to give the players, and how well the mechanic supports yhe central theme of the . In most systems, the mechanic is entirely luck based. However, some add the idea of a stat pool, so you can add levels of success if you need them, at the cost of either not having that option later, or incurring a penalty down the line.
Think about to what extent you want fate to be able to decide what happens to your players, and how much you want the resolution of their choices to be down to them.
The final part of a mechanic is whether or not people get to retry at things they failed at previously. In Xasine, you get one go. If you don't manage it, you don't manage it, because it's beyond your ability to do so. However, in something like D&D, you might fail to break down the door, but you try again and thanks to your mighty willpower, this time you manage it.
This is what I think of as double jeopardy mechanics - will the system allow multiple attempts at single goals, without things changing? Notice, this is not the same as "I try to break the door down with my hands - Fail, I try again with my axe". In that situation, something's changed, so a fresh roll is allowed in a system with double jeopardy mechanics.
With your mechanics, you'll need to address how failure is handled, and retrying will absolutely be a part of that.
The final part of any system is creating a way for the players to have a character and stats. This can be super simple, like how it's handled in Axe / Not Axe
(you are a dwarf with skill in axing stuff), or complex, like Burning Wheel, or anything in between.
For a basic framework though you'll want to consider three things: character pasts, present and future states.
For the past, who are they? Why are they here? What situations have they been in that they've learned from? What's informed their outlook and personality?
For the present, what skills do they possess? What's their outlook on life? How do they tend to respond to situations? What are their flaws?
For the future, how can they advance? What can they get better/worse at? What do they desire to change in the world? What would they want to change about themselves?
How you allow and help people to deal with those things in their characters informs a lot of the roleplay aspect of your system. It also allows for differentiation and flavour for your specific mechanics and world, by fleshing out the way players will interact with the system.
It's also where a lot of the fun for a DM comes from, as the system has a way of working, and the character has a way they are, and so you can use those things to put players in interesting situations. For example, if you know someone's default position is to pick locks, you could have them face a door which, upon picking, pretends that it's unlocked but activates a hidden trap. Or if a player is bold and brave and will always march into a fight to defend their friends, have them face a situation where they have to do that in a court surrounded by warriors. Or if a group will always defend their king, have them do it, even when the king has gone mad and the players have come to help. Cue fighting...
They really should be glad they didn't take the staff
Remember, character creation and evolution should support and be supported by the mechanics, which in turn should allow for engagement with the world. All these three things come together to build the experiences players will have with this thing you've designed.
Well, I hope that helps a little. As always, if you've any thoughts or comments, feel free to let me know on Twitter (link below).
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