Skip to main content

An Organic RPG

It may be a natural law that rule-hacks must constantly vacillate between (1) coming up with delightfully specific systems (for, say, regional haggling, or watercraft chases, or being an agnostic cleric in a world of exoteric gods), and (2) paring things down to the cleanest, simplest, write-it-on-a-single-grain-of-rice set of ultra-light rules.

The former is fun, even when you're creating things that you know will never see play (f'rinstance, Hummels as a playable race). Like every creative form I can think of at the moment, there is joy in articulating experience and imagination within the limiting strictures of the chosen medium—the meter of a poem, the panels of a comic, the mechanics of an rpg.

The latter is refreshing, because it reminds you how very little you need to invoke the magic of this hobby.

An Organic RPG
Character Generation: Each player briefly describes who their character wants to be. The referee decides how close they are to this ideal, so that they're all at about the same level of capability when starting out. Maybe the ref writes down a few keywords to reflect this.

Starting mechanic: roll a d20; higher is better; bonuses can be negotiated based on the situation at hand.

As certain situations re-occur, make a note. In the course of play, those negotiated bonuses will establish precedents, which become conventions, and then rules. How long will it take to get from this to something really specific and ornate?

Metaphorical coral
You probably wouldn't get out of character generation without accruing your first couple rules. One character wants to be strong and another wants to be smart and another wants a magic wand that will let them do anything. So you invent some standing bonuses for the first two (Strong +1, Smart +1) and maybe you have to invent a magic system for the other (the wand can do anything, but it's ornery, and will only act on a roll of 16-20, and will do things its own way).

The rules would build themselves around whatever you and your players were most drawn to doing. Do you need mass combat? Social combat? Will you break turns into rounds into segments? Is crafting a big thing? Oh dang, do you have competing magic systems?

Of course, this has happened before. This must be every campaign of Sword & Backpack, right?

Tunnel Goons
I received another lovely packet from Nate Treme of Highland Paranormal Society, that included two wonderful, deeply saturated mini-setting/adventures (The Eternal Caverns of Urk and the Moldy Unicorn). As an appendix to Urk, Nate includes a ruleset fit to run his adventures with, Tunnel Goons. It's very Arnesonian, and very prime for organic development. I can't wait to play.

In the wake of G+, I've been pretty out of the loop, OSR and rpg-wise. But I gather everyone is talking about Arneson, at the moment. I'm sure you've seen, over on  Darkworm Colt, Norbert Matausch's posts on Arnesonian styles of play (1234567). I thought they were a lot of fun, whether they accurately reflect Arneson's style of play or not. The hobby will always be dominated by Gygaxian super-systemization, because you can market that. So it's up to us to remind ourselves of the Arnesonian impulse.

And we don't need to be partisan about it. Both are fun, and both can compliment each other. For instance, what's the first thing people did with Tunnel Goons? Spin dozens of hacks and optional systems for it. I especially enjoyed Dish Pit Witches. It's just so oddly specific to somebody's experience.


  1. I've been thinking lately that most of any RPG is basically campaign-specific content.

    Which means that the problem with trying to slim down to the barest possible rules is that you're left with nothing to build a campaign out of - and that the moment you start using these rules to play with, you start accumulating content, making them no longer so slim or so bare.

    Think of it like Magic: The Gathering. The "rules" are pretty short. They define the 5 colors and what colorless means, they define the card types (creature, artifact, land, enchantment, instant, sorcery), they explain the rules for generating and spending mana, casting spells, and engaging in combat.

    The "rules" basically just set the parameters for what kind of things can exist, and lay out how to resolve the most common interactions between cards. The enormous, unwieldy, impossible-to-hold-in-your-mind edifice that is MTG is all in the cards, not in the rules.

    Which is to say that rules are only short in the beginning, and only stay short if you don't use them. Like you said - they're organic, they grow, and they only get longer over time as you add and add and add.

    1. An excellent point. I think this is one of two major reasons why fantasy is consistently the dominant genre for rpgs—magic is such an open-ended excuse to craft specific opportunities to break (or complicate) whatever the existing rules are.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Knaves, fancypants

I've prepared a new layout document of Ben Milton's Knaves . Knaves is a great, light rules set that has an extremely elegant core mechanic while retaining total compatibility with OSR material. It's pretty much the rpg of my dreams. This document contains the complete rules, plus a bunch of useful hacks from the community, plus a few of my invention, plus some useful resources from Ben Milton's previous effort, Maze Rats . EDIT: I've updated the layout to fix errata and make a few tweaks. Further, I've made 3 variations: KNAVES TABLET LAYOUT The Tablet Layout is meant for scrolling on screens, and contains hyperlinks. KNAVES SPREAD LAYOUT The Spread Layout is set up to print on Letter-sized paper. KNAVES A4 LAYOUT The A4 Layout is set up to print on A4 paper, and is probably the most elegant of the three versions. This is presented with generous permission from Ben Milton, and should in no way be an excuse for not purchasing a copy of Knav

Reviewing Rules for Play-by-Post Optimization

I’ve played a lot of PbP games: all your favorite flavors of OD&D, AD&D, and their retroclones, Call of Cthulhu, Marvel Superheroes, Traveller, Dungeon World, etc. ad nauseam. In almost every instance, I forgot what ruleset we were using at some point. Which is a good thing. Once chargen is over, you spend a lot more time describing your characters actions and poring over the GM’s descriptions than you spend interacting with rules. When you do roll, it’s usually a combat to-hit roll, which you’ve probably programmed into the online dice-roller as a macro. Pretty much any game will work for PbP. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t points of possible optimization. Point 1: Resolution. Anything that can keep the action moving is a boon to PbP. A game that requires a back-and-forth exchange of information to resolve an action is going to progress very slowly. A good rule of thumb is that it’ll take 2 or 3 days to get a response from any given player. At that pace, an exch

Maze Rats by Post

In my previous post , I reviewed a bunch of my favorite rulesets for optimization for Play-by-Post. It occurred to me almost immediately that I hadn't really thought about Maze Rats enough. In fact, I'd mis-remembered and mischaracterized it. Upon reflection, one of the mechanics I took issue with is actually a big strength. Re-reading the rules, it seems like just a few very simple hacks could make it a highly-optimized PbP game. As follows: Danger Rolls are rolled by the GM. Danger rolls usually fail, so it is in the player’s interest to describe their actions plausibly and mitigate as many risks as they can, in the hopes that they don’t trigger a danger roll. 2d6 + ability bonus ≥ 10 If you have taken enough precautions to have a distinct advantage in an action, but not enough to have eliminated the distinct possibility of danger, the GM will give you a roll with advantage. 3d6 keep 2 + ability bonus ≥ 10 Because each character only has 3 ability scores (S