I want to start my process by taking a high-level look at the design goals I’m trying to reach with a custom set of rules.
1. CUSTOMIZABLE: Players should have a lot of options when creating and leveling characters to customize them in various ways. The difficulty here is making those options play well together and not requiring players to sort through hundreds of differently powered choices in order to build a character that can hold its own in, and out, of combat. A player should not have to find the right combination of options in order to avoid a crippled character, and players should not get to pick combinations of options that lead to “super-characters.” I’d like custom content to be easy to generate, whether that’s custom classes, skills, feats, races, spells, divinities, etc.
2. FAST PACED: We don’t have a lot of time to get through content. My group is able to play approximately twice a month. Combat should move quickly. This means efficiency in the resolution system, avoidance of tracking too many resources, there shouldn’t be too many options/powers/decisions that paralysis sets in, or if there are, there should be a mechanic to keep play moving anyway. Ideally, the system would be able to handle tactical encounters when they are called for, but not require all encounters to be played tactically.
3. ROLE-PLAY FOCUS: I want to create a game that is primarily a role-playing game rather than a story-telling game. See this post for a good distinction between RPG and Story-Telling games. I’d like to avoid disassociated mechanics to a large extent, but because of the limited amount of time my group is able to play, I’d like to include some story-telling elements as well. To focus this design objective a little bit, I’d like the bulk of play to avoid disassociated mechanics but leave very specific areas for story-telling elements to grease the wheels in getting the game going in the direction the players are interested in.
4. MAGIC IS RARE: This is more of a campaign setting flavor, but is often directly impacted by the way the system rules are laid out. I don’t much like when “magic” loses all wonder and becomes a list of attributes (+1 cold iron magic beast bane defending battle axe). I don’t want the math of the game to require players to acquire magic items in every magic item “slot.” Spells (both arcane and divine) should be unique and interesting as well.
5. EQUIPMENT MATTERS: That being said, I still want equipment to matter. I think I can resolve some of the cognitive dissonance with magic items by simply having item qualities. One of the major reward centers for people who play RPGs is acquiring loot. That loot should matter. In addition, rules for lots of non-combat uses of loot should be available as well. I think that listing items on an equipment list acts as a suggestion to players. Put animals on an equipment list, and players will buy them. Put construction of a fort, or storefront, or castle on that equipment list, and suddenly players start thinking about how to use that wealth to impact the world.
6. EASY TO PREP: When we were students, we had a lot more time to put aside for building out stat blocks or playing with character generators. Now, I want a system that makes prep elegant and fun. For example, creating a monster that the players may choose to fight shouldn’t require me to figure out ability scores, feats, skills, etc. When reviewing a stat block for a monster, the monster should have clear and thematic abilities, and I shouldn’t need to remember what all 11 feats it has can do in the middle of a fight. See this post from the Thoughtcrime blog about 13th age for the right approach building monsters.
7. DANGEROUS ENOUGH: I want the threat of failure to be real enough that players legitimately worry about success and failure. At the same time, I don’t want a system that’s so lethal that character’s routinely die. This is going to be a fine line to build around. I’ll attempt to quantify: I think the old-school / 1st edition take is too lethal for my tastes, and the 4e take is not dangerous enough. The more dangerous/lethal combat becomes, the more outside combat actions become important, including selecting the battleground or avoiding a battle altogether. Related is this discussion of combat as war vs combat as sport. I’d like to encourage some combat as war in other ways though, not just through lethal combat.
8. THINGS TO DO: This feels like a corollary to principle #1, but I want to give some mechanical powers to everyone, not just spell casters. It doesn’t have to be completely even across classes (if I ended up using them), and maybe this even becomes a matter of player choice in building their characters. This is going to be tricky to balance with principle number 2. Too many player options during combat will slow things down. I think I may lean a bit more on triggered powers to help avoid some of the decision paralysis from slowing things down.
9. NON-COMBAT RULES: Every version of dungeons and dragons I have played has had a combat focus. I’m not looking to go away from that. However, I do want to have clear rules for all the out of combat stuff. If there are some rules, or even guidelines, for it – it’s more approachable by the players. This includes rules for exploration, travel, encumbrance, fame, social interactions, etc. Players should be encouraged through the rules to engage in these other aspects of the game. For example, awarding experience only for combat encourages combat. Awarding experience for completing quests, exploring areas, acquiring wealth, or spending wealth can distinctly change the flavor and goals of the game.
10. ENCOURAGE ACTION: There is a fine line between encouraging smart play and planning, and finding that players are unwilling to take heroic risks. The system should provide rewards for heroic actions while still being lethal enough to encourage non-combat solutions. The 15-minute adventuring day causes the game to drag for players and GM. It’s pretty boring, and really stretches belief, and it’s based entirely on resource allocation rules that seem to need some improvement. On one hand, resource allocation can be fun for a lot of people, and on the other, it can lead to significant portions of an evening being spent mechanically finding ways to refresh resources instead of adventuring. Additionally, I’m considering other methods of rewarding continued play, pools of resources that recharge after each combat and escalating experience awards or heroic points that can be used as some kind of game currency are examples.