Developer’s Diary: Game Principles

When I started looking at my fourth edition of my classic role-playing game, I wanted to make some interesting decisions when it came to the game principles.  During the various iterations of the game, I have always struggled with the concept of making the game more or less a derivative of Dungeons & Dragons.  It its first inception, I wanted the game to feel familiar to those that played the famous title but also contain rules never seen before.  In my second printing I moved grossly away from Phantasm Adventures being anything like Dungeons & Dragons, in the hopes that people wanted something fresh.  On my third attempt, I moved closer to adopting more D&D game mechanics but also made the rules overtly complicated, with dozens if not hundreds, of intricate rule expansions for each rule.

In the third edition of Phantasm Adventures, for example, I used very familiar statistics to represent the qualities of a character. Taking the familiarity of D&D, I then turned the generation of the scores upside down with a highly complicated set of rules starting with rolling two ten-sided dice, then adjusting the generated scores with innumerable modifications and ultimately converting the value back into a number very close to 3 through 18.

In the fourth edition, I removed much of the complexity leaving the basic roll of three, six-sided dice.  The values are not converted, but simple adjustments are made. Because of the tried and true mechanics of the game, I do take the three values and apply some rule changes on to how they are added together and the final score generated.  This is just one example of how I am moving back towards a more familiar concept of game mechanics, yet still offering unique rules for play.

I made an early decision not to use the open 4E rule system offered by Wizards of the Coast.  First, I find the acceptance of such to be horribly constraining, both intellectually and creatively.  Each role-playing game must have its own set of core rules accentuating specific aspects of the game that differentiates it from other rules.  

In the future,  I will be showcasing a new role playing game that I wrote fifteen years ago called Troy’s Enhanced Dungeons & Death, with the acronym TED&D – pronounced Teddy (like the bear).  Even with this tongue and cheek naming convention, the game will not use the 4E rule system but will have its own set of unique rules (though they will be more familiar with old school players, drawing upon their memories of the first edition Dungeon & Dragon rules).

In Phantasm Adventures, there will be many concepts that will be familiar to players of Dungeons & Dragons, but the rules will be unique.  For a system to stand on its own legs, it will need to garner its own unique following among players.  Some may find the rules complicated, while others will want to add their own “house” variants. Hopefully there will be enough room within the set of rules to allow people to play the game and feel comfortable enough to experiment with the game. I can attest that people that have tried the game, all find it fun and enjoyable, and they find it no more difficult as a whole than Dungeons & Dragons.

The true test of the game is ultimately time and the number of players that consistently play it.  I know from those that still play games and who have had the opportunity to play the game, they still have active campaigns in the world of Monokon.


1 Comment

  1. First of all, if you’re going to be writing a regular design diary I will be reading very closely!

    It’s been my position for many years that while there are some good reasons to stick to tried-and-true D&D concepts and design philosophies, there’s also been 30 years worth of other systems derived to one extent or another from those same principles. Palladium and Rolemaster are two of the longest-lived titles that started out at least as D&D variants, and while both moved away from that starting point to different degrees, the fingerprints of D&D are still very evident on them. There are dozens of other examples.

    I am in complete agreement with your position on D&D4; the new arrangement is very constraining, and although I’m sure there will be publishers who will make that work, my own goals are really incompatible with the new license. The 3.0/3.5 license was such that you could really dig into the nuts and bolts of the system and change it radically, while stil keeping it a recognizable take on D&D concepts. I’m not sure that’s possible anymore, although there’s still room for things like third-party modules and the like. On top of that, the new system is kind of precariously balanced in my opinion, such that it’s hard to modify without complete redesign of parts of the rules.

    Complexity is a tricky subject. The overwhelming majority of serious commentators online (i. e. at places like RPGNet) will swear up and down that everybody hates complex rules and designers should always go as simple as possible. But I don’t share that opinion, and I think that over the history of the hobby, sales numbers and game longevity bear me out; if you look at the systems that have been around a long time or have been very popular, virtually all of them are at least somewhat complicated, and absolutely none are really simple, rules-light games.

    Of course, it goes without saying that complexity for its own sake is pointless. If you have a complex rule, what is that complexity gaining you? Is is worth it? If not, a simple rule should replace it. For this reason, as a (still aspiring) designer, I’m not afraid of complexity, but I seek always to simplify things whenever possible.

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