Friday, July 10, 2009

What is the Counting Game System?

The name is not very sexy but it is what I have called it all these years.  I am content with the name because I have not come up with anything better and my kids are happy to call it that.

Now what is it?  In a nutshell of RPG design babble, it is a generic, point-based, rules-medium, skill-oriented system with a flexible classic die rolling system.

Before I dissect what that gobbledygook means to me, I want to say that the mission of this game is to provide a system where anyone can play it at any time with materials at hand.  I am not fond of LARP, I personally feel too self-conscious acting out my character, so the mission does not include the need to consider LARP as a playing option.  What the mission does mean to me is to provide a balanced and flexible system where the basic rules are simple enough to be remembered and the game can be played wherever there are people with paper and pencils.

First the system is Generic.  It is not oriented to a specific genre or setting for a game.  This is in homage to GURPS and the fickle nature of my pool of players (kids you know, one day it is spaceships and the next day it is giant robots).  As we all know a generic system with no game world is very boring (unless you are a fellow game designer), so a major impediment to publication is the lack of a game world. In a future post I will go over some of the best game world candidates for my initial release.  At this point I see the system as a way to describe and play in a world of the player's choosing with characters of their choosing.  As a web developer the system is like HTML and the game world is a fully designed web site, so the same people who are interested in a generic system might also read up on the latest HTML 5 specification (but most people would prefer to go to a fully developed web site).

Generic systems have a few pitfalls.  The first pitfall is the issue of over-generic-ness.  A GURPS implementation of the D&D world is very different from the D&D world.  A GURPS version of a 7th level Mage is... well it should be a crime to do that on top of the fact it is a lot of work to not only design the character but also pick the advantages and disadvantages that mesh with D&D.  It would require several books to just begin to cover all the material necessary.  In this system the creation rules are straight-forward and simple.  Each character, item, skill or power is evaluated for it's useful parts to determine its value in points - more on that in other posts.

The more major pitfall of generic games is the idea of character progression and playing the same character long term.  In a D&D game (should I specify that I only speak of the Second Edition?) you start with a character that is basically worthless but work to become more and more powerful.  Working to get those xp becomes an obsession.  Generic games do not really have this, they are typically class-less and level-less, so the character you start out with is the one you envisioned during creation.  There is no next level that drives you on to play.  This leads generic games to be more one-shot or shorter term than other styles.  I don't actually see this as a problem, if you were to take the average ten year old through the creation process and then have a few asthmatic cockroaches nearly kill them after six hours of play?  The would be back to their Nintendo before you could tell them that they still needed to play a few dozen hours before they could last 10 seconds with a dragon.  A generic game lets the player choose the character they want to play without hours and hours of dealing with level 1 issues.

This is a point-based system.  In this system every attribute, skill, power and weakness is worth points.  These same points are used for healing, damage, purchases and skill rolls.  This is a universal currency for everything in the game.  Some systems have hit points, skill points, attribute points, luck points, kitten points, etc - each with a unique exchange rate.  This is way too complex.  One attribute point can be exchanged for a point to increase a skill/power/buy equipment/etc.  On a side note, there are no hit points - when you take any sort of damage it comes off of the character's attributes or skills or powers (it might even increase a disadvantage or weakness).

This is a rules-medium system, meaning that it is not rules-light or rules-heavy.  My exposure to rules-light games left me feeling of potential anarchy, many people hate the government but it comes in handy when people try to steal from or kill you.  Rules are the same way, there must be some rules to check a permissive or obstinate Game Master.  On the contrary, rules-heavy games are gigantic books with tables and formulas for everything.  I would prefer to guess at the velocity of an unladen swallow than check a chart that takes into account fifteen variables.  In this game there is rounding and even bad math just to keep things simple lest someone be forced to look at a chart. 

This is a skill-oriented system.  Many systems are combat oriented, which is fine since most players prefer to "kick butt".  My daughter was the primary reason to change this in my system.  She would prefer not to kill every dragon but instead befriend them and help them live a vegetarian lifestyle.  So, the classic sense of combat is not primary in this game.  Combat is a contest, not actually different from arm-wrestling, competitive eating or even trying to get your boss to give you a raise at the office.  Keeping with the theme of flexibility, skills are all based on attributes so a skill can be untrained and used in relation to the skill's controlling attribute.  But if you take damage, then the decrease in attribute points can lower a skill.

Finally this system has a flexible die mechanic that is based on classic dice rolling.  I love dice, the dice section is my second favorite part of a game store.  A system that would only use one of them is just wrong.  On the other hand what is a person to do when they have a 1d8 axe but no 8 sided dice are to be found?  My super-flawed math skills allow me to suspend belief in my players to substitute dice.  In this system a 1d8 is the same as 2d4, 1d6+1 or even just '4'.  The thought is that the possible values of a 8 sided die are 1 to 8, with 3.5 as an average of those values.  In rounding up that 3.5 becomes a 4 just as a 1d6 becomes a 3 (and so on).  It is imperfect but it is more important to me to have a flexible system than force people to walk around with dice bags tied to their belts (like I did back in 1985).  Since this is a point based system, a 1d8 axe costs 4 points in the first place because that is the average damage it can do.  If a Game Master didn't agree with such silly math then they can play without rolling for damage (but the foundation of role playing is rolling for damage, so I think they will overlook it).

Obviously there are a lot of details to explain in these posts.  My intention with this blog is to explain it and eventually it will be so concise I can publish it (after I decide which game world to go with).  So, for those of you still awake.. you have now read a brief rationalization of this game system with specifics to follow.  

Questions, comments and random musings are welcome!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why do I home-brew a game when there are other "Open" systems...

I have joined the RPG Bloggers Network.  There are some great blogs as part of this network, any time I had recently to collect my thoughts on my game has been devoted to mindless surfing these RPG Blogs.

My fascination with these other blogs is part of the same issue I have with using another game system, I am old.  In 1982 my father got a photocopied edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  I was able to look at it for one whole day before my parents discovered that it would turn me into a suicidal devil-worshiper so the "pirated" book was thrown out while I was at school.  But the damage was done, what little I had seen in that book was enough.  I wanted to play D&D but my parents would not have it, so I eventually acquired the contents of the Star Frontiers game box.

Always the oddball, I was forced to shun D&D (my parents opinion mattered, I was 8 to 10) and try to play Star Frontiers.  Most of my friends would rather play Atari, but I had a Commodore Vic 20.  Typical visits from friends went like this:
"Hey Chris, let's play D&D."
"I am not allowed, let's play Star Frontiers."
"What? Nevermind, let's play Atari."
"I don't have an Atari, we can play Vic 20.  I have a new math game I typed in from the back of a magazine."
"Nevermind, lets go ride our bikes."

It was not until 1986 that I actually played Star Frontiers with a neighbor.  I made up the rules because I still didn't understand the book but I loved the art in the book and the game world.  We had fun and played my made up rules a few times.  In 1989 a new kid moved to my school who had a ton of brothers.  Their house was like a toy store with the biggest collection of Legos outside of LegoLand.  They were playing the second edition version of D&D.  Ever the goofball I still shunned it for the sake of my mortal soul, but at this point there was no denying that I knew the rules and the classes and was able to play it.  I knew enough to understand that the rules for D&D had changed with the second edition, it seemed complicated then.

I eventually broke down and played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons (second edition because no one had the first edition any more).  I liked it compared to the other Role Playing Games I was into (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG, Robotech RPG and eventually Rifts RPG - so, all the Palladium games).  D&D was so well organized it was beautiful.  You played a character for the long haul instead of just one time.  It was so well crafted and complex it was an art form, compared to the other games I was playing.

But there were problems.  Like most of the game systems of its time, what the character did outside of combat didn't matter at all.  When you added house rules, optional rules and supplements the people who wanted to "munchkin" their characters could do so in the most heinous ways (custom character classes where levels were 1xp each, I am looking right at you).  Most of all, I didn't always want to play sword, magic and get the treasure.  So I stopped playing D&D (I played GURPS instead but that is another story for another time).

In the years since, D&D has changed a lot.  During the resurgence of Role Playing Games in my life thanks to free efforts like FUDGE and the others, the Open Source mentality got into the Wizards of the Coast and they put the d20 system out under the Open Gaming License.  Now, back in 1992 I began this system I blog about and once the OGL/d20 was released quite a few people felt I should use that system.  Most of the homebrew web sites (before blogs there were forums and bulletin boards) had member populations moving to d20 in droves.  I resented Wizards of the Coast for that migration.  Overnight discussions of die rolling systems were replaced with what feats Neo would have in the Matrix and other stuff.  I moved on because in a wold of forum trolls and d20 fan boys there was no room to discuss my ideas.

To this day I have a mental block when it comes to the OGL, d20 or the new editions of D&D.  I have tried several times to "get it" but can't.  Now, I don't need another "but I'll teach you" session from a zealot who only wants to convert another person to the system.  I don't need a thinly veiled explanation of why d20 is superior to the system I am working on.  Maybe I do need young eyes to look at d20 and get excited, maybe even recapture the feeling I had when I looked at that photocopied book all those years ago.

But maybe I am too old and set in my ways to put my ideas in another framework.  My framework has developed over time and it fits the concepts I use when I run or play a game.  I am not sure what d20's roots are but they are not appealing to me.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Character creation is the most important step in playing a Role Playing Game.  Past games basically had the players sit and randomly create characters to play.  Such randomness was fun and quick but did not allow a player to use the character they wanted.  The randomness also allowed for cheating and players could get maximum attributes with "lucky" rolls.

The lesson of these early systems and rules was to allow some flexibility to allow a player to create a character they wanted to play but still provide balance to the game.  There are many modern ways this issue is dealt with and perhaps many go too far and character creation becomes hours of pouring over books and selecting skills, powers from lists.  

The more time that is wrapped up in creation time, the less available for playing the game.  A creation system for a RPG must balance flexibility with speed to have a player create the character they want in a minimal amount of time.

Here is the creation process for this game:

Step 1: Think about the character you would like to play.  Think of their most distingushing characteristics, things like what they can do, how the act, things that are good about them and things that are not good about them.  There might not be much that is interesting about your character at this point other than maybe an occupation or skill, and that is fine.  When you have a concept of what your character is like, move on to step 2.

Step 2:  Attributes:  Consider your character concept.  Are they smart?  If so, how smart are they? Normal people have 10s for all attributes.  A Nobel scientist might have a MS of 18 or 20, just as an Olympic gymnast might have a BS of 18 or 20. Now down the following on a piece of paper with a pencil: MP:10, MS:10, ME:10, MI:10, BP:10, BS:10, BE:10, BI:10.  These are the attributes.  As you raise one attribute you must lower another, or take disadvantages (later).

Step 3: Skills:  In this game, a skill is necessary for everything the character can do.  Quite often they are default and based upon the controlling attribute.  But there is no substitute for training and skills that are untrained, or default will suffer more modifiers than skills which have been trained.  A skills costs one point per point increase (1/+1), a skill that has a negative modifier is a disadvantage and can be used to pay for other skills, powers or equipment.

Step 4: Powers and Equipment: Selection of powers and equipment is best from a list to speed the creation process, but a basic idea of the cost of an item has to do with it's value in a contest.  For each point the item increases or decreases a skill or attribute in yourself or others, it costs one point.  For each 3 feet (or about 1 meter or yard) of range the item has it costs one point. So a sword that can reach about a meter/yard away and does 5 points of damage, would cost 6 points. (more on item creation later)

Step 5: Disadvantages: A disadvantage is the opposite of a power and instead of costing points, they add points back to the character.  Disadvantages must be played and must have a point value - they are more than "afraid of the dark" where a character carries a glow-stick to avoid the effects of the fear.  Creating disadvantages will be covered further, later.  Basically there are two kinds of disadvantages, constant and conditional.  Constant disadvantages apply all the time, such as blindness where a character is always -10 to see (and would be worth 10 points).  A conditional disadvantage is only in effect for part of the time.  "Afraid of the Dark" where the character is -2 to ME, -2 to MS and -2 BS when they are in the dark.  If this were a constant disadvantage it would be worth 6, but since the character would expect to only be in the dark roughly half the time it is worth 3 points.

Repeat, if necessary.

The most important rule is "you get what you pay for".  If you didn't pay for it then you didn't get it.  So if you make a power called "invisibility" and figure it costs 10 points, because everyone is -10 to see you.  Well, that effects seeing the character, not hearing or smelling them.  On the same note, if you have a disadvantage which is "forgotten" and not used, the points must be given back. Disadvantages that can't be given a rating in numbers are not worth anything.  Like "Kleptomania", unless you can attach a value to the disadvantage then it is not worth much.

Another key thing to remember is that all the points you spend are part of your character.  When you take damage, anything can have points deducted.  So, if you take 6 points in damage it can come from attributes and skills. 

Many things are fun to add to a character, such as hair color and favorite colors.  If you make an especially entertaining character the Game Master running the game might give you some extra points, but a character's favorite color is of little value in a contest.

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