8 min read

Open game mechanics in Fantasy Role Playing Games

Open game mechanics in Fantasy Role Playing Games
Samurai Fighter in the Cloud - from MidJourney AI

I started playing tabletop role playing (TTRPG) games with my brother in the 80's, when he bought a second hand copy of the Moldav Basic Dungeons and Dragons, and boy did it blow my mind!

Over the next years we played many different games, from AD&D (1st and 2nd ed.), Traveller, Rolemaster, Gurps, Mech Warrior, Star Wars (d6), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Paladium Ninja's and Super spies, et al.

But growing up in Australia meant games were scarce. Not surprisingly, some of our gaming group (me included) tried to write our own systems. My first attempt I tried to write up on my sister's typewriter -  no room for errors with that machine!

My early design endeavors taught me a very clear lesson: writing good games is hard.

The more rules written, the more complexity is introduced. The more that needs to be play tested. My zen of game design codifies this with `complicated is bad, always!`!

A few years ago, I bought Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) after a friend suggested it. The shipping cost was as much as the book, so not too much had changed in distribution in 20 years.

When it arrived, I did my usual cursory read, and three things stood out:

  1. A strong heritage from Moldvay Basic D&D. It uses four model classes, each class has their own sub-system mechanic: Warriors develop the Critical Hit system, Clerics develop alignment magic system curtailed by their God, thieves get backstab and skills, and Wizards get arcane magic. Demi-human classes are a blend of these four models, but you don't choose them, they are a random outcome (see below).
  2. Your class defines the die you use for actions (attacks, spells), criticals, luck etc. This improves with level progression, and additional actions come in form of additional dice - e.g. 5th level Warrior gets 2 Action Dice = 1d20 and 1d14. Yes, it has some additional funky dice like d14, d16, d24, d30.
  3. The game holds your character to chance/fate via randomness. Never clearer than at the start of the game with the infamous "level 0 character funnel". In a funnel each player creates several (2 to 4) 0 level characters. To make this you follow 5 steps (which a super quick):
    First: attributes are rolled in order with 3d6 for each;
    Second: Luck is rolled, it defines a special use for luck for that character;
    Third: is Occupation, this gives the character one weapon (and training in it) and one trade good. It also specifies if the character is a demihuman (e.g. Elven falconer);
    Fourth: you roll 1d4 hit points and 1 randomly item; and lastly
    Fifth: you name the character. And even this can be determined randomly if you like.

Randomization is at the core of the game. Critical Hits are 5 tables, as is each individual spell, and most other game mechanics too. So few outcomes are never predetermined, and the better you roll the better your outcome. Also, if you roll badly, its often has a really negative outcome - from fumbles to magic corruption.

The only thing to curb the fate that the dice create is your character's luck - which for most classes is a single use resouce; thieves are the exception here, their luck get's returned each day, but they are often dealing with a lot of save or die effect, and only the lucky retire. Hazard pay anyone?

DCC was an interesting game on first read, but like many in my collection, I read it and added it to my library.

Elven Dragon Knight - from dandwiki.com

But this game doesn't rest easily. Its simplicity and open rules work like a brain itch, gnawing at the friction you get with heavy rules systems. I kept finding myself grabbing for DCC, or other OSR games on my shelf. It gives such a different and refreshing design perspective I think it should be required reading.

There is one mechanic in particular that I can not shake - Might Deeds!

I became enchanted by the Warriors Mighty Deeds and how it instantiates the promise of an open fantasy game.

The design was deliberate by Joseph Goodman, as he writes within its description:

"The mechanic for Mighty Deeds of Arms was designed to encourage exciting stunts by ambitious warriors in the tradition of literary heroes. The goal was to create a rules system that encouraged situation-specific freedom without creating a lot of cumbersome rules."

For those of you who don't know it - Mighty Deeds has two parts - a Deed Die, and Mighty Deeds.

Deed Die. Is a special die that a Warrior can roll with each attack and add its roll to the attack to-hit and damage results. It favors a random die over a static bonus. At 1st level this is a d3, and increases each level to d4, then d5, d6, d7, and d8 at 6th level respectively. Other than some funky dice, this isn't very amazing, but this is really only background mechanic for Mighty Deeds.

Mighty Deed of Arms. The warrior declares a mighty deed before attacking. If the attack hits and the deed die roll is 3+, then the mighty deed occurs. The outcome is often a combat effect such as a shove, trip, entanglement, temporarily blindness, or the like, of the target.

Importantly, the player must describe their action in enough detail to trigger the feature. This puts the features use into the player's imagination.

DCC gives some play test examples in the Mighty Deeds in Action description:

"When hurling flasks of burning oil at a giant toad, the warrior aimed for the toad's open mouth to throw the oil down its gullet."
"When fighting a chaos beast with a scorpion tail, a character attempted to chop off the tail"

The combat section gives players and game master a guide to common outcomes such as disarm, blind, pushbacks, trips, aimed shots, and even rallying etc. This also includes examples of how deeds get better outcomes with a higher roll - which follows the general rule.

That said, the actual outcome is deliberately left for the game master to adjudicate.

"The Deed must be within the reasonable ability of a warrior to perform, given the character’s level and the enemy’s size and power. ... For example a low-level warrior could not throw an arch-demon even with a great Deed roll, but a great Deed roll might let him throw a large orc that no normal man could budge."

This leaves the game master to interpret the player's action into a roll with odds and an outcome within bounds. Perfectly reasonable, as something as simple as a magic sword can easly change the fantasy, and we don't need rules for everything.

The Mighty Deeds feature for me firmly puts the player of a martial character into the fictional positioning - meaning the action, the scene, and the setting. The player needs to think and describe their interactions with the world, as the meta and rules of rolling 3+ has little friction.

It avoids abstract crunch, getting the rules out of the way of imagination, and making the feature a hands down epic success for game play. We need more game design like this in my opinion.

Mighty Deed (for 5e games)

Design Note: This hack goes directly against the grain of 5e because it moves away from finer grained specific rules to general open system and play. That is my design intention and inspiration, as discussed above. In essence this contrasts the 5e Fighter's Battlemaster maneuvers to such a degree that I would advise against having both in play at the same time. It wouldn't surprise me if Mike Mearls or other Wizards of the Coast designers sayd they were "inspired" by Mighty Deeds, or more broadly DCC, such is the overlap. But I digress.

Fighting Die. Starting at 1st level, you get a special fighting die that can be used to improve your attacks and movement tests.
  When making an attack you can use a fighting die:

  • before an attack: allows you to add your fighting die roll as a modifier to your to-hit and damage rolls.
  • after an miss: allows you to roll your deed die and add its result to your to-hit roll only, potentially turning a miss into a hit.

Also, when using your Strength or Dexterity ability in a skill test you can use a fighting die to add to your test roll. This can be done after you d20 roll, but before the result is determined.
  You get a number of fighting dice equal to 1 + your proficiency bonus. Your fighting die is initially 1d4, and improves at 4th level to d6, at 7th level to d8, and at 10th level to d10.
  Additionally, when you roll a critical hit or use *Second Wind*, you recover 1 expended use of your fighting die. You recover all uses after a long rest.

Mighty Deeds. At 4th level, you can use your fighting die in combat and when doing movement.  you can declare a mighty deed in conjunction with your attack. A mighty deed can include shoves, trips, knock downs (prone), quick draw strikes, heroic jumps, swinging on chandeliers and acrobatics moves, pulling a tapestry down on enemies, cutting a rope your holding to take a fast trip up the mast to the crows nest, throwing an oil flask above the goblins heads and shooting it with a flaming arrow. Use your imagination. You need to describe what you are trying to do and the game master will adjudicate what is possible for you.
  If your attack hits and your deed die needs to roll 3+, your mighty deed is successful.
  If the outcome directly effects an enemy that has a Creature Rating (CR) higher than your roll, the game master can make a saving throw (usually Dexterity or Strength) to avoid the mighty deed. The DC for the save is equal to 8 + your weapon ability modifier + your PB. On a critical hit the enemy doesn't get a saving throw.

Heroic Momentum. At 11th level, you generate momentum if your fighting die roll for a Mighty Deed is 8+. Momentum restores one use of your fighting die.
  At 14th level you get momentum on 7+, at 16th level on 6+, at 18th level on 5+, and at 20th level you get momentum whenever you succeed at a Might Deed.

Hedge Knight - adapted from he-xiaosong image

Wrapping things up

DCC provides a wonderfully different perspective on TTRPG game design. It's Old School, uses randomization for balance, and rewards players who know how to play the odds.

It also provide a different approach to rules writting - one that builds towards an open system, where play brings the players into the magic circle (fiction). The adjudication by the game master is simply to put a chance of success to the move, which ultimately gives space for epic moments to occur from randomness.

Retro fitting open style rules into 5e isn't hard - but does dispense with the need for some of the existing deep rule mechanics already in the game. I think more broadly it challenges much of 5e ethos. But perhaps it doesn't sell as well over time.

I can certainly see that this is a direction that I will head in with my design activities in the future.

Boons to the Brave!