If I were to pick pieces and parts of various role-playing games and then put them back together to fashion one “perfect” RPG, this is what my little Frankenstein’s Monster would look like.
From the get-go, D&D gave us very good “To Hit” mechanics: this is a kind of simplicity I like. With one die roll, you know. Monster’s Armor Class, and there – you need 15. And the hit location doesn’t matter. Head or toe? Don’t waste any time rolling for that crap – the amount of damage you deal gives you a fairly good idea of where you struck your opponent, and that’s enough. In the White Wolf system, it’s much more complicated. Attacker rolls his seven, eight, or nine dice, says “four successes”, and then the defender rolls his Parry or Dodge, seven more dice, and says “three successes, you got me”, and now the attacker rolls his nine damage dice, says “five”, and the defender rolls his four or five Soak dice, says “two”, and registers three points of damage on his character record sheet (five Hits minus two Soaks). So, fourteen dice were rolled before any damage was dealt, as opposed to the one die with D&D. And that’s just one sword swing, mind you. Imagine the dice-rolling extravaganza if four player characters square off against six bloodthirsty scimitar-wielding ghouls! (When I’m gonna lay on my deathbed, at age 90, I’m gonna be able to say: “Well, one cumulative full year out of those ninety was spent rolling 10-sided dice!”)
D&D also gave us the “levels” mechanics – and this is the kind of simplicity I don’t like. Players can’t spend XP where they want to, because all XP are automatically funnelled into levelling up. New spells, improved skills, augmented Hit Points, it’s all bundled up together. Too generic. All sixth level thieves are identical: they all have 45% in Remove Traps and 92% in Climb Walls, unless they’re Halfling, in which case they have 50% and 77% respectively.
Level is the big impediment, here. Without it, you can have “spendable” XP, but you cannot have a one-die “To Hit” roll, because one-die To Hit is based on the monster’s (or opponent’s) Armor Class, and the character’s level. So if there are levels, you’ve got that easy breezy beautiful one-die To Hit, but won’t be able so spend your hard-earned XP as you see fit – they’re all gonna go straight into levelling up... Unless your To Hit is simply made into a skill (a skill you can therefore improve with XP).
I prefer XP to be spendable separately and anywhere. Get a new useful spell, or boost Dexterity by one point? Increase your Drive Cart and Orientation skills, or get three more Hit Points?
With Games Workshop things were certainly less monolithic, but Chaosium and White Wolf really unbundled the XP and it was great. “Increased Toughness can wait until the end of the next adventure, but I really need to improve Perception – for Initiative – and Missile Weapons – to defend our new stronghold from wandering goblins.” This way, each PC is totally unique and original.
Skills are important, but AD&D had very few of them. What’s the roll if you’re trying to hear guards whispering in the next room? What’s the roll if you’re trying to remember which narrow alley you came out of when you escaped from those haunted sewers five nights ago? With Oriental Adventures, AD&D included “non-weapon proficiencies”, which are basically Skills. Newer editions of D&D added things like Perception and Will. You need those. Can’t play without those.
Now, the magic system – that’s a headache. Oddly enough, I think the best magic system was the one found in Star Wars: the role-playing game. You only had three things there, called Sense, Control, and Alter. That is what you do with magic, isn’t it? You “sense” someone or something, you “control” natural or supernatural phenomena (a wound, a ghost, whatever), or you “alter” mundane or magical stuff. In the very good Ars Magica system, that would translate into Intellego (sense), Rego (control), and Muto (alter) – the other two forms, Creo and Perdo, being different combos of Control and Alter.
That is a fine, simple system. And it also gives you a dice roll to see if you cast the spell correctly – a thing gravely lacking in D&D. And last but not least, to get a perfectly good magic system, you need Magic Points (thank you, Chaosium). To hell with that “cast and forget” thing; just consider how many Magic Points you’ve got, and you manage from there. Need to cast three fireballs in four rounds? Go right ahead, Quick Ben, but it’ll cost you thrice the Magic Points, of course. But it’s your spell. You know it. You’ve spent weeks studying it – not just the words, but all the inner workings of that particular sorcery. You won’t forget it every time you cast it. That’d be annoying. And what about magic-users learning a spell twice? How can you know by heart the lyrics to a song twice? It makes no sense.
Magic Points, definitely. And when you level up (or spend enough XP), you add more to your base score. Easy. Like Hit Points. And those magic-user players will still need to “rest” often, not to relearn the same spell for the hundredth time, but to replenish Magic Points.
To sum it up, the best RPG system would have:
- A one-die “To Hit” roll.
- No hit location.
- “Spendable” XP.
- No experience levels.
- Magic Points, and a spell casting dice roll.
Some games came close, indeed, but I’ve not yet encountered the one with 6 out of those 6 specificities.