I’ve noticed a trend among people in the tabletop RPG scene to describe all games as though they derive from Dungeons and Dragons. New games are described in the ways they alter the Dungeons and Dragons formula, and decidedly non-Dungeons and Dragons traits of games are considered oddities. For example, a member of my gaming group, who basically has only played D&D, looked confused when I explained that the new system we would be playing tonight required you to roll below a target number, instead of above, before finally remarking “Oh, it’s one of those games”.
Yes, Dungeons and Dragons was the first known tabletop role-playing game, and thus, in a historical sense, calling D&D the source of all games is right. However, much in the same way most modern movies don’t look much like The Story of the Kelly Gang, the first feature-length movie, plenty of modern RPGs don’t look much like Dungeons and Dragons. There are dice and skills and classes, the same way most movies have shots and cuts and soundtracks, but they manifest in extremely different ways. Like any other designer or director, the creators of these projects made decisions to fit to their vision, but since they were the first, some of these decisions have been codified as “fact”.
There is an ur-game, though, one which sits at the center of all role-playing game design. In fact, here are the rules, printed in all their glory:
Whenever a character performs a task that they have a reasonable chance of failing at, flip a coin. Heads, they succeed. Tails, they fail.
That’s it. That’s the game.
All role-playing games can have their design carved away until they reach this essential, core game. Every action, no matter who’s doing it or what it is, fifty-fifty. Every game simply exists as a series of layers of complexity placed over this basic game.
It can be hard to recognize, but that’s really all it is. Layer after layer of mechanics are added to this game, and after a certain point, they start modifying each other, instead of just that core game, until the final product is almost unidentifiable from the original game.
The first, and most core, modifications most games make to the Ur-Game is to play with that probability curve. Maybe you don’t want characters to succeed half of the time. No problem. Just make it so that the result that indicates “success” comes up the amount you want. Obviously, a single coin isn’t really going to provide that much probabilistic flexibility, so switch to a die, and denote a number of spaces on the die “success” such that the probability is to your liking. Want a 12.5% success rate? That’s…oddly specific, but switch the coin to a d8, and say the character only succeeds upon rolling an 8.
If no die can achieve the precise probability you’re looking for, then you’ll probably want multiple dice instead. Multiple dice also grant you an uneven probability curve, unlike that provided by a single die. Of course, that only counts if you’re adding the die results together. If you’re treating them each as an individual success or failure, the whole thing gets flipped on its head, even though it doesn’t: each of those dice is still a single instance of the Ur-Game, you’re just making players play several games of it concurrently.
Do you see how this spirals rapidly into complexity? I bet there’s a way to control this spiral, by making a series of single, thought-out alterations to the Ur-Game, just like a sculptor making an intricate sculpture by making single, thought-out strikes to a block of marble. Take the Ur-Game, then make a single change, a thoughtful change. Turn the coin into a different random number generator. Make it multiple coins. Whatever. Keep doing that, keep making single changes, until you’ve created that sculpture.
Why am I recommending this? After all, it doesn’t seem like to amazing a revelation, hardly something to shout from the hills. But too often, amateur RPG designers start by taking a mechanic they already know and like and making modifications on it until it resembles a mechanic they want, but this is like trying to carve an old sculpture into a new one: you’re going to end up destroying some integral parts on accident, tacking on new parts where there were never intended to be any, and you’ll never be able to shake the resemblance to your origin point.
By starting with a blank canvas, a single block of marble, the Ur-Game, you’re starting at square one, and instead of finding yourself trapped by the limitations of another mechanic that you are modifying, you’ll be free to explore the entire possibility space of your design instead, using other games as reference, not as your foundation.