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Game system design manifesto
worldbuilding
saxifrage00
So I've been thinking of designing a game system to fill a niche I've been kinda bumping into sideways recently and only just started to look at closely. The niche would be fun to fill, and my views on system design would make it a realistic project (i.e., I like elegance and simplicity of use).

I wrote an essay in the old, original sense ("essay" used to mean "attempt" or "try" [check the French], and was a long rambling thing that was intended to get one's thoughts in order) and spontaneously assigned the system a codename because I needed a noun. It appears in the cut. Comments, half-formed thoughts (half-formed would be in kind with the essay!), critiques, ideas, and whatever are welcome. Note that this isn't a design document so much as an idea and why it should happen—thus my calling it a "manifesto". I'll let what all I'm getting on about with this be answered by the essay, since that's it's purpose in life.


Vertigo
A heroic-adventure gaming system


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Purpose

The purpose of Vertigo is to get back to the roots of modern role-playing with a modern system. Much like sidescrolling platformer videogames had good gameplay but have been replaced by 3D shooters, 2nd- and 3rd-generation role-playings games have supplanted 1st-generation-style games without providing the same experience. Modern board games have crept into this niche part-way with games such as HeroQuest and Descent. Some second-generation role-playing games such as D&D3e have regained some of their gaming heritage. Still, there remains a space between dungeon-crawl board games and modern role-playing games where open-ended action is the focus, and gaming purely for the sake of gaming is the goal.

Filling this niche is the aim of Vertigo. Many players of role-playing games yearn for both the gaming and the role-playing aspects, and many systems try to deliver both to varying degrees of success. Vertigo intends to focus on just the gaming aspect, providing a system that allows—nay, encourages—players to indulge in the gaming aspects for their own sake without the dilution that sometimes comes with combining gaming and role-playing.

Heroic-Adventure Gaming

Vertigo is not a role-playing game in the sense that the term has come to mean. "Roles" are taken on by the player in that they control an avatar in a created world, but contrary to the role-playing games of today, the role is not the focus. The "character", which will be more accurately called a "hero" in Vertigo, is an avatar in the purest sense. Like a game piece controlled by the player in a board game, a hero is the means by which the player interacts with the world. Heros aren't acted out, don't have motivations, and have only as much background and description as make them interesting to the player.

The rewards of heroic adventuring are familiar to nearly everyone who has played in a role-playing game. Exploring dangerous settings, evading traps and tricks, defeating monsters, gaining treasure, and increasing the hero's power are all rewarding to players. Whereas depicting a (semi-)realistic character in a living world, role-playing social interactions, politics, negotiations, inter-character conflict, and the like are staples of modern role-playing games, they exist in a tension with the purely game-playing aspects in all second-generation role-playing systems. Does the player make the "right" choice for their character in terms of improving their statistics, or do they make the "right" choice in terms of faithfully portraying a fallible person?

Third-generation role-playing games dispense with the gaming aspect in whole or part in favour of the role-playing aspect. This design choice, shifting the balance toward role-play, is a design choice that satisfies the desires of many role-players for a different kind of play style that is not hindered by the distraction of statistics, combat rules, competitive balance, and so on. Rather, they emphasise narrative storytelling, collaborative play, character development (in the literary sense), and so on.

On the opposite side, there are no gaming systems designed with an eye to eliminating the concerns of role-playing in favour of gaming. Old systems such as (original) Basic D&D offer this style of play, but playing with a 1st-generation system would be a step back in time that doesn't gain from the advances in systems design and technology that has taken place in the last thirty years.

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Gameplay

Vertigo is purely heroic adventure. The heros occupy a world of swords and sorcery where they are offered quests, delve dungeons, explore wondrous settings, unearth artefacts and magic, collect treasure, fight monsters, and advance their proficiency as heros. Much like in a board game, surviving and advancing are the paramount goals. However, unlike a board game the action is unbounded, allowing players the choice of any actions they can imagine their hero attempting, and a world unlimited in scope and places by the edge of a board. The GM is similarly unlimited: they can have the action mapped square-by-square as heros explore an old dungeon, or they can skip from encounter to encounter, bridging with little pieces of narrative.

"Narrative? I thought this wasn't a narrative game?" you might say. Narrative does have a place in Vertigo. Every dungeon needs window-dressing, as does every game. Any game, stripped of its window-dressing, is reduced to an exercise in statistics and probability. Narrative in Vertigo is used by the GM and players to enhance the adventure and heroics: a GM's description sets a mood that can make the difference between a dim and dank dungeon or an eerie and fey cloud castle; a player's description might make the difference between a fatal blow being a memorable moment at the end of a long quest and just another successful roll of the die, or between the lovable thief that all the players remember fondly long after her retirement and the dangerous bandit that everyone loved to hate. The difference between Vertigo's treatment of narrative and its treatment in a "narrative game" is that it is only window-dressing for the players better enjoyment, rather than the central point of the exercise.

Mechanics

Vertigo is about simplicity. Just as cutting out the distraction of *role*-playing simplifies the goal of playing in an exciting game, simplifying the rules makes learning and using them easier for players and GM alike. An exhaustive list of possible combat actions, monsters to face, equipment to purchase, or even hero classes to play increases the amount of information that must be committed to memory (or looked up during the game, slowing it down) and limits the possibilities. Some rules are necessary of course. Unlike freeform or rules-light 2nd- and 3rd-generation role-playing games where the demands of creating an enjoyable narrative lends structure and purpose to the game, Vertigo requires a strong but flexible suite of rules to give the game structure within which players can strive with their heros to overcome obstacles and can enjoy the rewards of playing well.

Vertigo is a suite of rules, or meta-rules. It has a resolution system, and to support that a statistics structure for equipment, heros, skills, monsters, treasure, and all the other trappings of an adventure game. Vertigo could be complete with only this, but it would not be a very exciting game out-of-the-box (or website, as the case may be). To round out Vertigo, an implementation of the suite is included as a skeleton which players and GMs can use, modify, and build upon.

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I can't claim to be an expert on role-playing games, but I have noticed the trend you are describing. The shift over from adventure game to role-playing game with focus on character and story and little else.

And I have noticed, too, how endless possibilities within a game can be a little too overwhelming, and indeed become boring.

I think this is a great idea. I used to be all gung-ho about the role-playing side of things, because I thought that character-development would be more satisfying and exciting for me. Except that, in an RPG setting, it just wasn't as flexible and felt more frustrating than anything, because you still had to conform to the rules of the game and those around you. If I wanted character development I should have just written a book!

I've never thought of this approach to gaming, but now that I think about it, it sounds like something I could get into and hooked on for a much longer period of time than conventional character-driven rolep-playing! The more structured side of things and building up your "hero" sounds a lot more like the games that used to have me hooked, like Might and Magic V and-- dare I say it -- the pokemon games.

I can't wait to hear more about this if you do develop it; it sounds like it would be a heck of a lot of fun to try out. =)

I do actually really like the character-driven roleplaying games. In fact, I use The Window to run my current campaign and it's the exact opposite: all character-development and story, almost no "rules". It was actually the inspiration for this, because I love how much easier it was to play a "story" with The Window than with something like D&D 3e. But, I was missing the "gaming" part, and I've started to feel like typical systems like D&D 3e split their attention between the gaming and the roleplaying sides so much that they don't do either in a satisfying way.

Thus, Vertigo, or whatever it will be called! Ideally, it will be the counterpart to systems like The Window: where they provide the character- and story-focused playing, Vertigo will provide the hacking-and-treasure style of gameplay.

Oh, I love the character driven side as well! What I meant was that in "traditional" systems like D&D 3e it's just how you describe; trying to cater to both sides too much and thus not satisfying either.

But sometimes it's fun to sit down and forget about the character side and just hack up some orcs. =) Or, at least I should imagine so! Like I said, I'd love to give it a try!

I like this idea - it will require, however, a unique brand of GM that doesn't mind seeing his master narrative squished, that can have multiple branching pathways, and that is okay with both rules lawyers and freeformers. In short, you may need a perfect GM to get this system right.

I expect that a lot of the final system will be just me talking about how to run and play in such a game since it's uncharted territory. I'm thinking that the gameplay will be much more akin to a dungeon-exploring board game, just minus the board (and the board-edges too), than to what most people know as a "roleplaying game".

So, master narrative? Out the window!

Rules lawyers? Just as welcome as at a board game!

Freeformers? Well... this is where it will get tricky, and addressing this will be a major focus of my rules designs/experiments. Conceptually, I expect this will be accomplished by building freeforming into the action system. (Some of that is hinted at in the Mechanics section above.)

Not sure how relevant this is, but I have notes on an RPG system which varies in a varitey of mathematically elegant ways (simple, yet representative). It includes a unified character statistics system - there are not attributes and skills and perks and backgrounds, but only one kind of variable, "abilities" if you like. It also involves a unit system, whereby one can gauge the diificulty or margin of success of any task by camparing it to an easy--to-memorize logarhythmic scale. I'd be up for meeting for food and chatting about it.

That might be interesting! I'm looking to implement a system that is unrigid in what sorts of actions can be taken. Particularly, I'd like the player be able to say "I search the room" or "I swing from the chandelier and kick the half-orc in the head" or "I leap off the cottage's roof, handspring off the giant's shoulder, and land in the tree opposite" and have it fall under a "skill" or something gracefully and use a single resolution mechanic. A unified system like the one you hint at might be well-suited to that, maybe with some munging.

So we're basically talking about Descent without a board, then? Slightly more generalized, but still. Hmmm.

It strikes me that it would be easier to add narrative to a tabletop hack-n-slash than to add detailed combat and character advancement to a narrativist system. This is probably a good first step in finding a compromise.

It's pretty much Descent without the board, and an eye to making hero-advancement work on a long-campaign scale rather than a single-dungeon scale. The trouble is going to make the hero-representation schema simple enough that it's easy to use and maintain without getting lost in the details (i.e., D&D 3e) but granular enough that there's lots of room for advancement. Also, the concern of balancing lots of room for advancement with each advancement being meaningful and satisfying is going to be an important design issue.

I suspect that's why this niche is empty at the moment: it's a natural evolutionary move for a gamery system to gain more role-play elements. The current sentiment seems to be that "role-play" is more legitimate than gameryness, so I'm kind of bucking the trend. (Though I do think that role-play is a good thing, and in many contexts more is good.)

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