Thursday, January 28, 2021

Organization and Presenting Content When Making an RPG

Art credit: Trina Schart Hyman
The original Knave ruleset is a 7 page document. The current "latest draft" of Brave on the sidebar of this blog is 10 pages. I already know the final version will be expanding at least a little bit more. Part of the wonderful thing about Knave is how short it is. Players used to 300+ page rulebooks are shown those measly 7 pages and are amazed by how quickly they'll be able to jump into the system. So, obviously, I'd like to replicate that virtue.

But I have more content to add in. While many gamers prefer "rulings over rules" and don't want the game to tell them how to do every single last tiny activity imaginable, the implication is that they'd rather come up with their own rules for those activities. Maybe on the fly, but their own rules nonetheless. These same people often advocate making sure to use your on-the-spot ruling consistently from then on if possible, meaning that it would best be codified somewhere. Well, while I have shared Brave with the world with the intention of other people using it, it is fundamentally a collection of my houserules for my table. If I played something like 1st Edition AD&D and rejected their rules for an activity, then the substitute I come up with would go in Brave, because Brave is "the rules DwizKhalifa uses in his campaign." I've made a special effort to make the whole thing as modular and hackable as possible, just as most other DIY games do. Just like any good OSR game, nothing will break if you substitute my HP system or my magic rules or how I run wilderness stuff. But on the other hand, I know I'm not the only one tired of buying "incomplete rulesets" because creators are just a little too dedicated to the DIY ethic. In my mind, my own rules wouldn't be worth putting out to the world unless they were comprehensive enough to cover all of my needs. So, yes, it's worth including, say, the rules I use for sailing.

So we have a problem. I want the "core rules" to remain simple and easy to offer up to a player (like how 1st edition AD&D had the Basic counterpart, or how 5E D&D offers free Basic Rules online). But I also want to add more content, and when that sort of content is adopted for your campaign and you find yourself commonly using it, you'll wish it were included in the core rules. I play 5E D&D and ever since Xanathar's Guide to Everything was released, my group has been using the expanded rules and guidelines for toolsets. They're great! But we constantly find ourselves wishing that stuff had just been in the Player's Handbook rather than looking it up in the "miscellaneous other shit we're adding into the game" chapter in a supplement book. I'm sure if 5.5 Edition ever came out, they would relocate that stuff to the PHB. The only reason it wasn't there all along was because those rules didn't exist in 2014.

So how do I package all my content? I have a few ideas, so strap in.

For starters, I want to take a page from Old School Essentials. A retroclone repackaging of D&D B/X edition, they had the brilliant idea of dividing the rules between a handful of reference books instead of having one huge book (like most RPGs would do). So for a while now I've known about a handful of Brave supplements that'll definitely be standalone books.

  1. Bestiary / Monster Manual
  2. Magic Items
  3. Grimoire (the base game will have a spell list, but this expands on it, adds schools of magic, plus big rituals and other related stuff)
  4. "Enchiridion" (classes and probably races, even more optional than most other parts of Brave but designed to tie into every other rule module I develop)
  5. Referee Guide (GMing advice, design notes, homebrew guidelines, behind-the-screen resources like treasure hoard generators and stuff)
Aside from that, I have a lot of topics I'll want to cover somewhere in the core rules, a secondary rulebook, or other supplements. I'm going to list below every single chunk of rules/content that I need to squeeze in somewhere (including everything already in the core rules):
  1. Basic rules
  2. Character creation
  3. Equipment
  4. Combat
  5. Dungeoncrawling
  6. Wilderness
  7. Overland Travel
  8. Spells and Magic
  9. Non-combat crises (explained below)
  10. Mazes
  11. Sailing
  12. Politics/factions
  13. Cooking + eating
  14. Crafting
  15. Writing letters (it's gunna be a thing, okay?)
  16. Domains (employing crews, running enterprises, and owning property)
  17. Calendars, PC ledgers, and campaign management
  18. Warfare
  19. Underworld adventuring
  20. Urban adventuring
  21. Downtime
  22. Law, Crime, and Punishment
  23. Feudal economics??

Looks like a lot, I'm sure. Those first 8 are definitely core rules material. I had the idea early on to have a whole supplement book dedicated just to the topics of warfare, and then one for the Underworld. The reason I felt like I could give each their own book is because I can think of multiple procedures necessary for each of them.

I should explain something. In Brave, there are 4 common timescales I use: 6-second turns (urgent time), 10-minute turns (active time), 1-hour turns (steady time), and turns of 1 day or longer (calendrical time). The nice thing about having dedicated broad timescales is that I can write rules and features tying into them, and I can apply them to different activities. For example, the 10-minute turn of active time is used during dungeoncrawling of course. But it can also be used when urbancrawling, as well as caving and maybe navigating a battlefield. Thus, 10 minutes is not merely a "dungeon turn," because it applies to other contexts. But I might say you can do X activity "once per active turn" and it applies to every procedure that runs on that timescale.

So I thought, "If I want to write rules for when PCs get involved in warfare, I might need to account for a few different levels of activity. I'll need a procedure for overseeing a battle at the level of steady time and for overseeing a campaign at the level of calendrical time, but I'll also want a procedure that's closer to the ground level on the battlefield. What if the PCs aren't in charge in any capacity, but are fighting in the battle nonetheless? Or they have a specific objective to accomplish within it? Then there should be an active time procedure. And I can think of enough variables and factors unique to battlefield combat that I can make a special variation of the combat rules for this context, giving me a new procedure taking place in urgent time." Thus, there is no single "warfare procedure," but rather 4 separate procedures that cover different levels of warfare activity.

It's the same for the Underworld.

  1. Urgent time: combat in caves (rules for verticality, tight spaces, collapsing walls/ceilings, etc.)
  2. Active time: cave crawling
  3. Steady time: hexcrawling underground
  4. Calendrical time: underland travel and downtime in the Underworld and whatnot
I still feel like between 4 new procedures and whatever other stuff also related to the subjects I can add (new equipment, new spells, new generators, etc.), I can justify making "Brave: WAR!" and "Brave: Underworld Adventures" their own well-rounded, robust supplements. But I also noticed that my core rules had one procedure for each timescale, too.

  1. Urgent time: combat
  2. Active time: dungeoncrawling
  3. Steady time: wilderness adventure
  4. Calendrical time: overland travel
Maybe "second core rulebook" (what D&D would probably call the "Player's Handbook 2") would be built around 4 more procedures like this, plus other bits of content. I have, after all, thought of a handful more procedures I want for my game.
  1. Urgent time: crises
    • Non-combat challenges that nonetheless happen at a fast pace and with life-or-death stakes. I'm thinking of drawing on stuff like Escape Rooms, Runehammer's timer mechanic, 4E D&D's Skill Challenges, and other collaborative puzzle/task-solving stuff.
  2. Active time: mazes
    • Cannot be run exactly the same as dungeons. Expect a forthcoming article where I review the history of RPG attempts to design maze gameplay, but to skip to the end just know that my rules will end up looking a lot like this.
  3. Steady time: sailing
  4. Calendrical time: probably also sailing?
  5. Calendrical time: politics
Shit, is that two new procedures I thought of for one timescale? Dammit. Well I thought, "hey, the first rulebook gets the basic rules, character creation stuff, and equipment list. That's a lot, so I'm okay to just jam-pack the second rulebook with other stuff. Throw in the crafting, cooking, domain gameplay, etc." But that feels a bit sloppy to me. Not much rhyme or reason to what you find in Book 1 versus Book 2. Reminds me of Xanathar's Guide. Maybe I can think of a more deliberate scheme to package things?

Second idea: instead of just "Player's Handbook 2: everything new we've come up with since Player's Handbook 1," I can organize the rulebooks by stage of play. This is how the original TSR D&D Basic line went. Basic covered rules for levels 1-3, Expert covered 4-14, Companion covered 15-25, Master covered 25-36, and Immortals covered 36+. Of course, while a lot of that is, "new info for character advancement" (largely unnecessary to my game, where character advancement won't get all that complicated), each of them also introduced new procedures that were fitting for characters of that level range to use. For example, Basic had rules for dungeons, but Expert introduced rules for Wilderness traveling. That's because a level 1 character is just plundering the local ruins, but a level 4 character is ready to make the trip to the ancient temple on the borderlands. Rules for running warbands and owning and running a stronghold were added next, then rules for mass warfare (the infamous "siege machine" rules procedure), and eventually rules for dealing with gods and the affairs of the multiverse.

So if I were to copy this, I'd have "Brave: Core Rules" be everything needed for adventure at levels 1-3. This might end up including the crises, mazes, crafting, cooking, and other miscellaneous activities that make sense for any level of play. But the second book, "Brave: Expert Rules" would then be stuff for levels 4-6. Domains (employing crews, running enterprises, and owning property), rules for crews and strongholds in combat, politics, maybe overland travel, and probably all the warfare procedures. Well, maybe the two lower-scale ones, but not the higher scale ones where PCs are directing the war as commanding officers. Then the third book, "Brave: Master Rules," would cover those last two warfare procedures, running kingdom-sized domains, and... shit, I don't know. Maybe I should add "epic-level play" rules into Brave, even though I never considered it before. Maybe rules for making pacts with otherworldly patrons, or inter-planar travel (analogous to wilderness hexcrawling, wavecrawling, or cavecrawling). I really don't want to think of that stuff.

But with this second idea, I'm not sure where a handful of necessary rules and content will go. It sounds like I've butchered the intended "warfare supplement" and distributed its pieces across the books. Should I do the same with the Underworld supplement? Or the urban rules? Honestly, the following items all feel like they could form an "urban supplement" or they could be split across the three "stages of play" books:
  1. Urban adventuring (investigations and shopping and street-crawling and stuff)
  2. Downtime
  3. Law, Crime, and Punishment
  4. Feudal economics??
  5. Urgent time: chase scenes (duh. Why didn't I think of this before?? Perfect procedure to design for the urgent timescale)
Of course, this option is making the core rules book begin to look a little bloated, since the system will necessarily be a bit front-loaded if the first book contains "everything that is fitting for characters of level 1+ to be concerned with." 10 pages I can handle. 20 is a bit intimidating. 40+ might just be too much for me to be able to call my core rules "simple" or "minimalist" any more. Luckily, having drafted the pages for most of these new rule modules, I know they will rarely take more than a single page (any second page is usually a new equipment list corresponding to the rules added). I have the pages on domain play, crafting and cooking, and letter-writing (it's important for conducting political intrigue, okay?) basically finished, and they're all 1 page each. And I have enough experience to know that many of the others will be the same, such as any of the activity procedures.

So what am I to do? I know for sure I'll have the 5 optional side books I mentioned at the beginning, in the vein of OSE. But as for the rest of the content, do I:
  1. Have a core rulebook of essentials and a second rulebook of miscellaneous bonus content?
  2. Have themed supplements for war, the Underworld, urban adventure, and so on?
  3. Have three major rulebooks covering everything, divided by the stage of play when they're relevant?
  4. Do something else not even considered here?
These aren't all mutually exclusive, but I need to settle on a concrete answer for each of them. The main thing I want to consider is, "what do people want out of a ruleset they buy and use at the table?"


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