HOW A PERFECT RPG SHOULD BE
Creating the perfect RPG is about balancing many things: creating a balanced system, balance between RP and combat elements, rules elegance, and overall complexity all while making an interesting and cool system. Previous editions of D&D have been able to produce some very good steps in certain elements of an RPG system, but never been able to create what should have been “the perfect system”.
So here are a few general thoughts about what each element of an RPG system should be:
Ability Scores are a core characteristic of D&D and it’s cool to have them. However, they should have some characteristics:
- Limited range. With no limits there is a loss of meaning for ability scores. Strength 28? Just becomes a number. What is the meaning of a score at 32, 37, or 40? None really. A better system has a limited range (whatever that may be) with meaningful steps each having a name and representing something. Also, there should be limits for Physical ability scores (Strength, Dexterity and Constitution) for natural development depending on a creature’s size (not race).
- Everyone starts the same.Again, using point buy systems, random rolls, etc. doesn’t really work. Your character just becomes an excuse for min/maxing. So, here is my suggestion:
- Completely remove the “score” part in ability scores.
- No negative modifiers (unless caused by some Hex, Curse, etc.) ‘cause no-one likes those.
- Everyone (human) starts with all modifiers at 0.
- Ability modifiers should exist only in steps of “+2”s.
- Make these +2 steps meaningful & cool. These bonuses could be provided by things like special “ability score feats” (insert cool name here), each providing a +2 modifier to an ability score each time it is taken. So, instead of having:
Strength 17 (+3), you could have
Strength Class II: Strongman (+4). In this way you have a system that is simple, meaningful, and cool all the same time.
I am going to say something shocking, but you know which edition had the best feat system? The 2nd edition (Skills & Powers). Wait, what? Of course it didn’t have feats…and yet it did, but under a different name. A feat was something like Weapon Specialization, Favorite Spell, etc. and it all felt very, very good, because you bought those with Character Points that you could use on a lot of cool stuff. But also it was great because it felt a well-integrated part of the system.
Feats, as they have been in the 3rd and 4th edition) feel like something that doesn’t belong. To make things worse, they have very specific (and sometimes unrelated) requirements that require you to plan ahead many levels before what you have to choose (and yes, sometime you have to choose feats you didn’t really want).
The attempt of fixing all this planning was made in the 4th edition, but things became worse with re-training, since it completely destroys believability and makes you feel as if you are playing a video game on paper.
So, how to fix this?
1. Make feats about the character. Having feats like “Improved Initiative”, “Weapon Focus”, etc. makes you feel as if your character gained an object, not an ability. Do we say in real life “I have Improved Initiative? Not a chance. What if I had instead it was renamed something like “Battlefield Strategist”? It would work in exactly the same way but it would tell you something about who you are, not what you have.
2. Make the acquisition of new feats part of the story. One of the many ways of killing the Role-Playing elements of a game is automatic ability acquisition. You level up and bam! You now know kung-fu! Feats should have a Role-Playing requirement (i.e. a mini-quest) like having to find a rare book, a special teacher (you are not expecting to become a great weapon master by reading fortune cookies, after all), or to find the ingredients for making a new venom, making feats a part of your story.
3. Make feat trees. I always loved in the 2nd edition the fact that you started off in a weapon gaining weapon proficiency, weapon specialization, and so on until you became Great Weapon Master and the only requirement was to have the previous feat (although then it wasn’t called that way). It has meaning, it makes feel as if you are actually achieving something beyond leveling, and you have something to brag about. your character because it makes him special (I am the best swordsman in the world!). The important thing about feat trees is that they should be without a level restriction so that if a character wants, he could take all of the feats in a tree whenever he chooses, and even if he would be overpowered for his level, he should be allowed to have it, because it’s a reward for a sacrifice and even if it’s a little unbalancing it would give players a sense of freedom from the pre-packaged class levels and make them feel as if they are in control of their character’s life.
Classes should be designed around a character concept, not combat. Let me make an example. Ever heard of the 3.5e class, the Corruptor? (Lawful Evil Paladin from Dragon Magazine). That class was designed completely around the concept of corrupting people of other faiths by introducing doubt in their gods. That was achieved by giving that class abilities that that would hinder Priest’s spellcasting, along with bonuses to Bluff to misdirect them in any way possible. The class had a very specific purpose and worked well given that paladins focus on Charisma (hence more bonuses on Bluff, making it really hard to resist). The concept is solid, fun to play, and it gives you a role-playing purpose.
So here is what I think about classes:
- They should be more specific. So, ok you are a Wizard. But why? What do you do? Saying you are a Wizard is like saying that you are a Scientist. What kind? While I agree that iconic classes are a good starting point, they should be categorized into sub-classes, each with different class abilities and story, and each having a different feel (in terms of rules too) from other subclasses. Some examples:
Paladins: Bring back the Corruptor, but also make Paladins about a specific God/Cause.
Psions: Telepath, Psycho-Metabolists, Psycho-Kineticists, etc.
Priests: Priests of different Gods should feel different. They should use different armors, weapons and definitely a different selection of spells. A priest of Nerull should never be expected to be a walking band-aid nor a nurse, it makes no sense. Make each priest feel and play completely different from each other: this provides originality and make sure each priest has a certain modus operandi and general purpose and way of gaining more spells/favor from his deity.
Ranger: As this class stands it doesn’t make sense. What is it about? Hunting? Why not making it (finally) about Headhunting? He could be someone that seeks revenge against a certain race for a specific reason, or he could be a mercenary that seeks elusive criminals/targets.
Wizard: Magic is the mystic equivalent of Science. You don’t become a Scientist, you become a doctor, an engineer, a chemist, etc. The same should be for Wizards. They should be either a Necromancer, an Illusionist, a Transmuter, a Summoner etc., with a distinctive feel and class features.
Even with these specific categorizations there is still room for further specialization (Prestige Classes, Epic Destinies) depending on what someone is trying to achieve. For example, a summoner could become a demonologist, an angelist or whatever you can imagine. A priest could further a more specific part of a God’s portfolio, a ranger could become a dragon hunter, etc.
1. Races should have options for their class. The general direction of racial feats is good. Races move along with their classes, although I would prefer some automatic Racial Feat acquisition by level: after all there are so many feats for everything I don’t want to miss out on my racial advancement.
2. Multi-Class: The best I’ve seen was on Unearthed Arcana 3.5e for Gestalt characters.
What I hear as a frequent complaint from 4th edition players is that previous iterations of D&D only featured one attack type for melee and ranged physical attacks. That explanation comes as a great disappointment in RPG players. Why? Because
- An RPG should not be combat-centered
- Having “just” one attack doesn’t mean it can’t be described (using a resource called “imagination™&rdquo in an infinite number of ways. And, unfortunately, having many fancy physical attacks
- I never had such a problem while playing a fighter in 2e and 3.5e. That said I enjoyed the extra options provided by the 3rd edition such as Cleave Attack, etc. and having many of these options is good.