Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Basic RPG Game Engines

In my gradual shift from huge roleplaying game tomes to short-and-sweet mechanics I’ve come across a few very basic systems that appeal to me. They might not have the depth of complexity many other games offer – both simple and comprehensive – but they provide a core task resolution system with potential for expansion and an ease of adapting to various settings.

Since the dawn of roleplaying games in the 1970s gamers have tended to take existing systems and modify them to reflect their personal play style and expectations from the mechanics. Initially this came from deficiencies gamers found in the earliest versions of Dungeons & Dragons, classes, monsters, and other rules they felt the original rulebooks lacked (as Jon Peterson documents in Playing at the World). Wargamers had already been “modding” rules for years, creating new scenarios and variants for their favorite titles. The trend continued throughout roleplaying games’ further development. Some variations remained “house rules” among small groups, while others found momentum and support to become original games for publication. While I enjoy playing and house-ruling games to reflect my own expectations for established games, I find intuitive, basic core mechanics engage my urges toward more simplified systems to adapt to appealing settings.

Although the game systems that caught my eye recently have their merits (as outlined below), this trend toward basic mechanics with further adaptability isn’t new. S. John Ross accomplished this in Risus: The Anything RPG way back in the 1990s with its system of die pools assigned to broad (and often humorous) clichés; it remains one of the most elegantly intuitive roleplaying game systems with the potential to expand the core mechanic and ability to adapt to any setting. The system works well in both group and solitaire play, with the free solo adventure Ring of Thieves masterfully demonstrating the solo potential. The basic Fighting Fantasy system from the eponymous solitaire game books also provided a basic framework with its Skill, Stamina, and Luck stats, each working in their own way to determine attacks, absorb damage, and modify rolls. (The Sorcery! series also factored in a basic, memorization-based spell system). The mechanics worked well for the solitaire adventures, though the self-regulated combat often devolved into back-and-forth die-rolling contests between the hero and monsters. An ambitious gamer could easily adapt either system from its original form and modify it for a deeper complexity and specific setting (though Risus remains solid on its own without much system modification and encourages adaptability to any genre).

I’ve found other basic systems with similar potential for adaptation and modification. Compared to Risus and Fighting Fantasy they’re relatively recent releases, yet they offer some intriguing ideas useful within their framework, modified as the basis for deeper games, or ported as elements to enhance existing games. Each employs a very concise core task/combat resolution system with plenty of room for further mechanical depth and flexibility between genres. These could easily function as solitaire game engines – in fact one comes from a solitaire game book – as well as for group play, particularly among newcomers who might not care for all the specialized game jargon or complex processes in established roleplaying games.

Barsoom! Rise to Power

I discovered this title by Felbrigg Herriot and K.A. Cartlidge while wandering around Lulu.com one day looking for solitaire adventure gamebooks to satisfy my occasional need for such fare (an urge I’ve discussed before). It enables readers to assume the role of a four-armed green Martian warrior and undertake a quest in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantastic “swords and planets” setting established in A Princess of Mars.

The 409-entry adventure relies on a small collection of character stats and a basic task resolution system. The character begins with 10 Health (the essential hit point stat) then assigns seven points to Combat, Athletics, and Mental, self-describing characteristics used in overcoming appropriate challenges. (The book also uses a Time stat to track a character’s temporal progress, a nice touch I’ve seen previously in such enjoyable fare as Noah Stevens’ The Hounds of Halthrag Keep.) Task resolution proves very basic: roll 2D6 and add the sum to the appropriate stat to equal or exceed a set difficulty number. This mechanic greatly streamlines combat resolution. Rather than the player rolling his character’s Skill against the monster’s Skill and comparing the two to resolve combat over several rounds as in Fighting Fantasy, the player just makes one Combat roll and compares it to the difficulty number assigned to his adversary. Success vanquishes the foe, but failure subtracts a monster’s damage rating from Health before enabling the character to move on. It essentially condenses conflict to a single die roll, with success enabling the reader to continue and failure incurring a penalty that (in most cases) allows the adventure to advance. Of course if Health reaches zero the character perishes and the adventure ends. Failed tests of Athletics and Mental ability can incur penalties against Health and Time, giving those challenges greater tension.

This seemingly simple core mechanic provides some interesting possibilities in the realm of group roleplaying experience and modification to provide greater depth of play beyond the solitaire gamebook environment. For group adventures it defuses the sometimes-adversarial relationship between gamemaster and players by limiting the former’s role to passively stating difficulty numbers and doling out damage values in the case of failure (though he no doubt takes an active role in determining adversary difficulty and damage beforehand). How a band of adventurers would take on a single large adversary – instead of pairing up against more numerous, smaller foes – remains problematic, but a not insurmountable challenge; one might simply increase the difficulty beyond the ability of one character to overcome and combine Combat roll results, with damage doled out evenly among characters in the case of failure.

The system seems suitable for expansion along the traditional lines of roleplaying games. Using the basic characteristics provided, one could offer +1 bonuses for particular classes of weapons or magical arms, an armor rationale for reducing damage, and even skills or specializations related to characteristics to provide circumstantial bonuses. A scale of difficulty numbers could provide guidance in gauging various obstacles, and a list of monsters with difficulties and damage ratings could form the basis of a brief yet entertaining game system. Ambitious gamers could modify the system to take into account magic and other fantasy elements.

Overall the game mechanics outlined in Barsoom! Rise to Power have their appeal, though primarily for solitaire or one-on-one play. The solo game book delivered a few entertaining adventures in Barsoom’s intriguing environs. Felbrigg Herriot lists several other solitaire gamebooks on Lulu.com; I can only assume these offerings use a similar system.


Nathan Russell’s Free, Universal Roleplaying Game (FURPG) introduced me to a D6 mechanic with a range of success and failure options. Instead of a simple yes/no dictating the result of an attempted task, the 1D6 roll yields results of “No And,” “No,” and “No But” on the odd numbers and “Yes But,” “Yes,” and “Yes And” on the even numbers. Does the character have some kind of appropriate descriptor, gear, or other advantage? Roll 2D6 and pick the better of the two results. Does some situational modifier significantly increase the chance of failure? Roll 2D6 and pick the worse of the two results. Through the “but” and “and” results players or the narrator can add “conditions” affecting the character or details one might use later.

Players define characters by choosing brief descriptors for Body, Mind, Edge, and Flaw and determining two pieces of useful equipment to give them an advantage at certain tasks. The base categories easily span any genre, and the textual nature of descriptors easily enable one to port this nuanced game engine to any setting. Characters also get several “FU Points” to further modify die rolls as players see fit, either adding an extra die for each FU Point spent or re-rolling an unsatisfactory result.

While I find the even/odd results a little non-intuitive (I’d just use a straight scale of 1-6, with 1-3 being “no” results and 4-6 the “yes” results, as Russell suggests in some alternate die-roll methods), the core mechanic and the means of modifying it remain wonderfully simple yet open to some fun interpretative possibilities in the “but” and “and” results. While I enjoy a game with more crunchy rules bits than what I see in the FURPG, the narrative elements inspired by interpreting the “but” and “and” results provide some control to both players and narrator. Given the wide range of possible descriptors one could easily adapt the system to any genre; its simplicity could also enable characters from one setting to easily port to another setting with little change to the significance of their descriptors.

The free 23-page rules PDF includes plenty of examples and tips (some covering half of each page), some very basic guidance on running the game as the narrator, a brief pulp scenario, lists of suggested descriptors, and a blank character sheet. The game’s website includes several links to “hacks” using the FURPG system. These resources offer some basic guidance in customizing the game system to particular genres; just compile lists of descriptors and gear relevant to each stat that key off core setting elements. Russell has graciously published the system under a Creative Commons Attribution License enabling others to release material using the FURPG (with appropriate credit to the author). The FURPG provides an elegant roleplaying game core mechanic that balances traditional crunch with some narrative elements one can easily adapt to any setting. The set-up seems basic enough – determine a descriptor for Body, Mind, Edge, and Flaw and choose two significant pieces of gear – one could use it to introduce newcomers to the intricacies of roleplaying, especially when adapted to a world that engages their imagination.


Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying (USR) provides another basic framework – a bit more rules “crunchy” than the FURPG – yet easy enough to teach to newcomers and open-ended enough to port to any genre. This pay-what-you-want PDF download comes from designer Scott Malthouse, creator of the phenomenally successful and innovative solo game, Quill: A Letter-Writing Roleplaying Game for a Single Player. Character creation relies on three core attributes, Action, Wits, and Ego, with players assigning a D6, D8, and D10 among them; D6 is considered below average and D10 above average. One’s Hits (functioning as hit points) come from a totaled roll of the Action and Wits dice. Players then choose up to three “specialisms,” skills (including combat-oriented ones), professions, or other exemplary traits each tied to a particular attribute and, in the right circumstances, granting a +2 bonus to the attribute roll result.

To attempt tasks players roll their character’s appropriate attribute die, adding +2 for any relevant specialism bonus, and comparing the result against the task’s chosen difficulty. Opposed tasks require a roll from the player and gamemaster, with the higher one winning the contest. Combat takes the opposed roll one step further, allowing a bonus for combat specialisms based on the weapon’s class – +1 for light, +2 for medium, and +3 for heavy weapons – with the difference between the rolls serving as a damage value subtracted from the loser’s Hits minus any adjustment for light, medium, or heavy armor (-1, -2, and -3 respectively).

The rules themselves cover eight pages; the rest of the document includes character creation and play examples, the obligatory “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” section, and some optional rules for “narrative points” and character advancement.. Three one-page setting packages detail sample wild West, space opera, and urban fantasy settings, including suggested locations, weapons, specialisms, and character roles. Malthouse also offers several free USR-based setting sourcebook PDFs at his DriveThruRPG e-storefront, quite a bit more voluminous than the 21-page USR core rules, yet serving as solid examples how one could take the game’s basic concepts and run with them in specific settings. Using the setting packages alone gamers could easily customize USR for their favorite genres.

USR presents a concise core system using the three polyhedral dice, with room for enough adjustments or embellishments so gamers can easily customize it to their preferred play style and setting. The mechanics remain so basic and intuitive they serve as a nice introduction to roleplaying newcomers.

DIY Gaming

All these games and their unique systems can inspire gamers to customize them for their own experience. It’s an alternative to playing published games that don’t quite cater to gamers’ specific play styles and settings, but one that shouldn’t discourage gamers from exploring new options on all fronts, amateur and professional, free or paid. (a subject I’ve discussed before). Gaming, including roleplaying and even wargaming, has a long history of gamers tinkering with rules to create a customized experience, and of some of those gamers moving on to publicly and professionally offering their greatly re-designed iterations of games in original forms. These three games represent some good examples of new systems ripe for gamers to make their own; they’re by no means the only sources of inspiration, just ones that happen to cater to my own penchant for short-and-sweet mechanics easily adaptable for play with newcomers or in a solitaire setting.

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