First, I want, no, personally, I need rules to be simple. To not get in the way of the game. To be the thing that we fall back to when in doubt. Something that assists play and does not intrude upon it. Like you do, I've been tinkering with what this means to me for the past few years and finding that I really want less and less in the way of rules since I'm going to ignore large swaths of them anyway.
I can't describe the thought process that led me to decide that I wanted to run a Barsoom-influenced game, but I'm pretty sure that somewhere in there was picking up Warriors of the Red Planet by Al Krombach. Now that I think of it, I was pretty inspired by some early readings of Traveller and thinking about how to Barsoom it up, and a lot of those thoughts have been with me for awhile. But I really loved Krombach's approach of a Barsoom-flavored game that wasn't quite Barsoom, but was recognizably Barsoomian. Also, in its style and format, Krombach's book reminded me of an earlier text, Gygax & Blume's Warriors of Mars, which, I suppose, is the point, right?
G&B's Warriors of Mars was written as a wargame, but hey, this was 1974 and back then D&D was still considered a wargame. WoM does include 1-to-1 scale rules, which makes me think that it was intended to at least occasionally be run as an adventure-style game the same way D&D was, or at least it was designed to include that mode of play as an option, perhaps using D&D as an adjunct to facilitate it. This is probably where I started to think that what I wanted to run was an OD&D Barsoomian-style game, the white box-ier the better.
When it comes to White Box-style gaming, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to look at three specific rules sets: OD&D itself, Swords & Wizardry Whitebox (duh) and Delving Deeper. Regular readers of the blog (any of you who are left) will know that DD is my go-to rules set here, but I have some commentary that goes beyond "Adam likes Delving Deeper the most-est." First, while I do want the rules to be simple, I also need them to be clear. I don't feel that OD&D adequately hits that particular rubric; you'll often have to re-read the same passage over and over before hitting the ODD74 proboards to sort out what other meanings people have teased out of that oracular text. Aside from clarity, there was a degree of authenticity that I wanted to preserve as well, a sense of playing the game the way it was played in 1974, and I don't get that feeling from S&W's ascending AC and single saves. There is one thing, however, that I feel S&W White Box hits squarely on the head and that's ability score adjustments. 3-6 is -1, 7-14 is 0, 15+ is +1. I love that sort of simplicity, so that's something that we're stealing right there. As far as the nuts and bolts of the game go, I a huge fan of how Delving Deeper handles... pretty much everything else. So, with some minor substitutions, Delving Deeper is the chassis onto which the important moving parts get bolted with some important replacements.
But that isn't where I stop because something big is missing to me. So far, we have a few rules for the thing that's hardest to adjudicate in games without those rules; combat. As an aside, I'd like to go out on a limb with a wild supposition that I just came up with right now for why so many games have rules for combat even if combat isn't the thing they're supposed to be about: think back to when you were a kid playing in the backyard or on the playground with other kids. My big childhood example is Star Wars, but yours could be anything. When imaginary play comes down to shooting each other with imaginary blasters or dueling with imaginary light sabers, eventually one kid asserts "I killed you!" to which the other kids' options are either to die or to "nuh-uh!" as loudly as they can. Either one of these options are equally possible, and imaginary play gives us no structure for how to adjudicate the possibility beyond "nuh-uh"s and "yeah-huh"s and name-calling and threats to call someone's mom, which never ends well. Instead of that stuff, in D&D-ish games, we have rules for combat, but that doesn't mean that's what the game is about.
Old Dogs, New Rules
In keeping with my goals of simplicity and clarity, I want a way to adjudicate non-fight-y stuff that comes into question. Where does one character's wheelhouse butt up against the world in a way that requires a method of sorting out which wins?
Bear with me a moment, friends, as I take you on a little trip through my own thought process about a number of topics, because we're about to mash up a bunch of rules into a huge mass of that thought-ouroboros that we were talking about earlier, only to end up with a coherent system where the parts of that system end up making sense out of the influences and the answer. Here goes.
Way back when this blog got started, I was really excited about the Fate RPG. For a moment, let's suspend our later judgments about the faults and failings of that system (yes, even my own!) and think about the one way that Fate got one thing fantastically right: it uses common language to define details about characters in a contextual way. If my cowboy is The Fastest Gun in the West and has that detail as key part of his character (in Fate terms, an Aspect), then that detail, that rule element can have a bearing on gameplay whenever it is appropriate. This hits my sweet spots as far as rules go: common language is used and it's contextually applicable.
Another game that does things well even if I'm not 100% on board with everything it does is Christian Mehrstram's WhiteHack. In a lot of ways, I think that the biggest thing that WhiteHack gets wrong is only being in print and not offering a pdf version, but that's a shot that I'm obligated by own personal goals to include, not because it has any bearing here. The applicable rules element from WhiteHack is what that system calls "Groups." As bland and obfuscatory as that name is, Groups are basically the same thing as Fate's Aspects: short, common-language terms that define details about the character. While the name is strange, one of the cool things that WhiteHack does is give some PCs more Groups to make up for poor stats; after all, if you're the incapable, unwise, clumsy guy in the party, why are you even there? Groups give us an answer by providing a competency for each deficiency, often in the form of a tie to a group beyond that character themselves, called an "Affiliation" in the text.
However (and you knew there would be a however, right?), I take issue with one thing in WhiteHack and that's its roll low mechanic. Ugh. Not a fan. The "roll just under" mechanic and the "roll below this but above that" mechanic that show up here and there make it a little more interesting, but rolling low just isn't my bag. Also, I'm not a fan of the lack of strong central tendency in the distribution of a d20. (This is the point where I grudgingly admit that Fate got something else right, even if I don't like their implementation of it.) Instead, I'm a bigger fan of "success counting" mechanisms like that of Shadowrun or The Burning Wheel. Let's all take a moment for ourselves to scoff at the complexities and time-sinks of these games before we all come back and actually give their mechanics the attention and focus that they deserve.
I love dice pools, but they have to be of a manageable scope. Rolling 36d6 is not an option. BW does a better job here than SR. Also, I don't want to track a bunch of discrete skills the way either of these games does, so we're going to do something different instead. Some of you may remember my post about my negotiated skill system [HERE]; in this post, I posit building a dice pool based on a dialog between the player and the DM where, in the end, you've managed to roll a die for each relevant factor that you can apply (or convince the DM that you should be allowed to apply). For DWIMMERMARS, I take this basic concept and tie it to Mehrstram's "Groups" (but we really need a better name for them, any thoughts? Maybe "background elements?"), so that your short descriptions of story elements of your character can have a real impact on the game itself. Thus, +Gabriel Perez Gallardi's Fonso, the fugitive anarchist, may negotiate bonus dice whenever he has to deliver a screed against an unjust power structure, hiding from the authorities or when making explosives. Oh, and we'll give Fonso a bunch of bonus Groups/Aspects/Whatevers because he has a 6 (-1) in one thing and a 5 (-1) in something else. That's how we roll, but literally and figuratively.
|A perfect use for these dice|
In the end, our skill system works like this: tell me, the DM, some junk about your character. We're going to pick some of that stuff as being important, relevant from a rules perspective. If you didn't come up with a detailed enough story (because we have some "open slots" yet to define), let's make your story more convoluted. Every time one of those relevant elements comes up, you get to add a die to your dice pool and we'll count successes. Since I don't want to get into a "number of successes necessary" trap here, let's say that all you need is one success to do the thing; since we're requiring so few successes, it makes sense to make those successes scarcer than they are in something like the Burning Wheel. For most heroic tasks, you succeed on a 6; for easy ones, you succeed on a 5 or 6. That's it. While we're at it, let's throw binary success/failure out the window, too. If you don't roll any successes, the DM can rule that you do succeed, but at a price; or introduce a complication that explains why you didn't do it. Basically, if you succeed, dear player, you take authorial control of the situation; if you don't, you pass that baton to the DM and they take control.
What do you think? What's a better name for the Groups/Aspects thing? What problems can you see taking shape here that I haven't foreseen? How can you see this working (or not) in your own games? I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback.