Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Neo-Classical Social RPG

It occurs to me that I haven't posted yet about this odd little social RPG I've been hinting that I'm working on, and since it is basically in a semi-playable form at this point there's not much danger anymore of my writing about what I'm going to do and then never doing it. It's not in a form that anyone else could run at the moment, and there are still some pretty serious holes than need to be patched and various areas that still need to be tweaked, but the shape of the thing is there.

What is it? Basically, it's my stripping off a lot of things off of D&D and then tacking new things back on, to transform it from a game about exploration where you don't roll Search checks to a game about talking to people where you don't roll Diplomacy checks. (When I say "D&D" in this post, and generally, I almost always have in mind something between Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord, specifically. But for the most part I think of all the pre-3e editions and retroclones as "D&D with different hats on.") A lot of it is riffing off of Trollsmyth's ideas about building a neo-classical RPG about social interactions. (And, since he's run a game like this and I've mostly just played in one, we've been chatting a bit on Wave about the various different elements of the system. Wave is really handy for that sort of thing.) Some of it is also built around the setting that I've been working on at the same time, though if I ever create a publishable version of the thing I'm likely to adjust certain elements to make it more generic. But it helps to have a clear vision of the kind of game I want to run with it.

Combat is lifted straight from D&D. The only changes to it are actually changes to the class system: your attack and hit dice don't go up as you level. Right now all the numbers are pegged at what would be about level four in Labyrinth Lord; I may adjust those up or down once I see it in action. Hit points do change as you go up in level, since you re-roll them and keep the new score if it's higher. But mostly, since combat isn't intended to be a big deal, I'd rather keep everyone at "the sweet spot" through the life of the campaign.

Ability scores are generated on 3d6 and generate bonuses (+2 to -2, at the moment, though that may change) like they do in D&D, but there's a whole different set of six, (Shadow, Flair, Identity, Breath, Will, and Heart) based on a very badly mangled version of ancient Egyptian metaphysics. I swear. Blame Trollsmyth. I may fall back on the D&D system because I know it works, but Trollsmyth has pointed out that changing the focus of the game suggests dividing up the conceptual space occupied by ability scores in a different way. I'm trying not to make ability scores too big of a deal anyway; they matter in combat and the other hard-coded subsystems, and I do want them to differentiate the characters a bit, but I don't have a skill system or an ability check system. So we'll see how it works when I actually start running the game.

I haven't completely decided what I'm doing with magic, partly because I haven't nailed down what I'm doing with priests in the setting. I may ditch the arcane/divine distinction entirely and just divide up spells along the same lines as the ability scores. But it's definitely going to be Vancian based, if not pure Vancian magic, and I'm probably going to borrow either the Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord spell list, at least at first, to minimize start-up time. (My plan is to get whoever plays the magic-user in that first campaign to at least some of the work in the "filling out the spell list" area, honestly. I do have a few ideas already, but I won't really know what magic a social game needs until they start throwing parties.)

Classes right now are Artist, Athlete, Merchant, Noble, Officer, Priest, Scoundrel, Sorcerer and Templar. Most of those are what they sound like. Priests might be a placeholder class; once I have a better handle on the setting I'll have a better idea what I want to do with them, but I at least have a possible implementation now. Templars are basically Jedi. I may change the name; they're pretty setting specific, so the setting may suggest a better name for them. I'm also considering some kind of Courtesan-type class, but I haven't come up with a system to handle them with that I'm happy with and wouldn't turn into too much of a solo mini-game. The Artist and Noble are already have a bit of that problem.

The big thing that makes the game different from D&D is a set of new sub-systems: Reputation, Warfare, Events, and Politics. Most of the classes interface with one of those systems in some way or another; Officers are basically "the Warfare class," for instance, and the Athlete's schtick is pulling dumb stunts to impress people at Events. (It's really impressive if they get themselves killed. Unfortunately, they can only do that once.) I won't go into much detail now, but the goal with all of these is more to provide a backdrop to the main activities of talking to people and getting into trouble than to be interesting to manipulate in their own right. The Events system in particular is basically intended to answer the question "Who shows up at our party?" and otherwise make the DM's life easier if the players are doing a lot of that kind of thing.

Mostly I'm just glad to be finally doing something like this. I always kind of wanted to do a big homebrew project back in high school, but never had any particular reason to, and even if I did, I would have abandoned it in favor of the next project in fairly short order. But I've been wondering if it would be possible to do something along these general lines for a while now, and Trollsmyth has handily been pestering me about finishing it. Even if it doesn't end up running the way I want in play, putting it together has been a useful exercise, and seeing how it ticks will be even more so.


  1. Sounds like fun, keep us informed. If you need another set of eyes to review things, let me know.

  2. Have you taken a look at Pendragon? This is an Arthurian game which blew my mind back in the day with a system designed around social interaction and personality traits, eschewing a focus on combat. If you're not familiar, you may find something to plunder, or perhaps something to fix.

  3. seaofstarsrpg: Thanks. :)

    Michael: I've been following The RPG Corner's recaps of his solo game and they have me *very* intrigued. I'm still sort of shuffling around and trying to figure out which edition would be best (the new one looks intriguing) but that's definitely a system I want on my shelf at some point.

  4. I'm intrigued by replacing the traditional abilities with some gleaned from Egyptian metaphysics. It makes me want to experiment with doing something like that in a more traditional exploration-based campaign (perhaps in a pseudo-Egypt, even).

    It sounds as though the subsystems you're developing could be used as an add-on to an existing D&D campaign that veers into more social territory, rather than being limited to a campaign that starts up with social engineering at its core. Do you foresee any special difficulties with using it in that way?

    My players enjoy throwing semi-apocalyptic parties when they return to town with sacks full of treasure, and before the campaign took a break, were getting ambitious about socializing with some of the major players in their base-town. The "who will come to our party" idea seems like it could be of great use to me when we re-start.

    Looking forward to reading more as your project develops!

  5. Odrook: Using those subsystems with any old school or retro-clone should be perfectly doable, yeah. You might need to fiddle about with the ability scores but that ought to be a fairly obvious process. Now that you mention it, in fact, I may even include a few immersion notes to smooth out that process, since it strikes me that a few people who wouldn't be interested in the system as a whole would be happy to tack on bits and pieces of it to existing games.

  6. Have you taken a look at Spellbound Kingdoms from T. Shield Studios? They have...well, pretty much everything you're talking about -- social combat, similar classes (including the courtesan), various mechanics for organizations that influence the "outside world," etc. I don't know if the world is the kind you're looking for (it's a blend of fantasy and Enlightenment) but the mechanics might be worth a look.