What does it take to set up, from scratch, a fantasy dungeon-based roleplaying campaign?
How can we keep things simple and yet also create an experience that satisfies for a solid evening of play. What’s the design process that we’d need to go through? I’d like to posit using a simple set of rules that I’ve been tinkering and experimenting with, on and off, since June 2019.
In a fantasy dungeoneering game, characters don’t need to be very complicated – as a concept, we simply need folk who can wield a weapon against the monsters, navigate and survive the dungeon environment, and perhaps interact with interesting non-player characters that we might meet along the way. The primary goal of the dungeon adventure is, I think, to locate and retrieve the treasure. The default action of the player in a dungeon game is to pick a direction – often a doorway or passageway intersection – and explore the next location. If they are not sure what to do, players just pick a direction and explore some more… searching for that treasure. I realise that’s very much boiling the game structure down, but this is a thought experiment in keeping things simple.
As for the world, in a fantasy dungeoneering game we don’t need to make this very detailed. We can rely upon the common tropes of Fantasy Land to get us through. Let’s strip it down to basics: we’ll stick to Humans as the dominant species, we’ll make it a low-magic world, and we’ll assume an Earth-like world in a faux-medieval state of technology. My tastes run to the late-medieval period at the latest and I much prefer the Dark Ages. Because I’m British, I’m going to present a kind of faux European culture.
That’s the game structure and the world outlined. This leaves us with the last of the three points of the roleplaying triangle: the system of adjudication. Most people would call this bit the Rules. It’s the bit we gamers spend the most time talking about, as if the hard definitions of adjudication were more important than the fluid choices of the world, or the options of game structure. But, hey, I didn’t make the roleplaying hobby all about the rule books.
I do like a game with a simple set of core mechanisms that everyone can grasp easily. I’m going to have three major mechanisms front and centre: a core dice-based resolution mechanism for testing character abilities; a simple dice-based random damage generation system for injury; and a neat little Reaction Table for randomly determining the responses of Non-Player Characters to the player’s own characters. I am pretty Old School in my sensibilities and prefer to leave a lot of space for randomly generated details to provide for emergent surprises which the group, myself and the players, will naturally convert into emergent story.
Because I like six-sided dice – D6s – I am going to arbitrarily decide to use 3d6 and have people try and roll under the value of an ability score. I like when the rules test your ability, rather than some arbitrary difficulty number based on an adjudication of the situation, and I like using the actual value of the ability being tested instead of mucking about with bonuses attached to attribute scores while ignoring the base values. I also enjoy the fact that 3d6 has a bell-curve that makes a higher ability really much more likely to succeed in a non-linear manner. But that’s my perversion for what little maths I understand leaking through into my design preferences. Let’s keep it simple: you’ll roll 3d6, under the ability. As the 50% mark on the dice is 10, that’ll mean a value of 10 on an ability will succeed half the time. That’s a very useful mathematical benchmark.
Right then. We are going to need some characters. I’m not calling them “heroes” because they’re not – at least, not yet. They are cheeky, sneaky, tricksy adventurer types who are all about the loot. Where’s that long lost dungeon, they’ll ask, and what’s inside it that we can steal?
While my personal tastes run towards MORE detail – in most of my own designs I ended up with 8 to 12 stats – I’m going to try and get away with just four major attributes to outline each character. Because they’ll be fighting and they’ll be traps to injure folk, I reckon we should have some kind of Strength attribute to deal with “how strong am I?” and another to deal with how healthy and resilient I am. Let’s just call them, simply, Strength and Health. Good start. From there, I reckon we’ll need to know how dextrous and slick with the reactions, how manually skilled a character might be, and so I am going to add Dexterity to the list. Finally, because we all like to use our wits and learning, I’m going to lump all of the intellectual abilities into a simple Intelligence attribute. Done, at least for now.
Strength and Health. Dexterity and Intelligence. The only thing that bugs me is that I know, from long experience, that the Dexterity and Intelligence attributes are going to come up a lot more often than the Strength and Health ones. I am wondering how we can make that feel fairer. But, hey, let’s keep it simple right now. As the 50% mark on 3d6 is 10, lets start all characters with a baseline attribute of 10.
So, everyone starts with Strength 10, Health 10, Dexterity 10, and Intelligence 10. But that’s a bit boring – everyone’s the same. Let’s give players some power to customise those attributes. Let’s give them some points to spend, and make 1 point of Strength or Health cost 10 points. Because Dex and Int will come up more, let’s make them both cost more: 1 point of Dexterity or Intelligence costs 20 points. Let’s give the players a simple number to play with: go and spend 50 points. I’ve picked 50 because, as I understand it, psychologically we find making choices between 5 and 9 things easier. I want this to go quick, so taking 5 as a base and then making it sound cooler by multiplying by ten feels nice to me. 50 points. Strength and Health cost 10 points per +1 to the attribute; Dexterity and Intelligence cost double – that’s 20 points per +1 to the attribute. What’s that? You’d like to be able to have an attribute lower than 10? Oh, you would have to go and complicate things, wouldn’t you!? Ok. Let’s arbitrarily say you can’t have an attribute score below 8. You can trade in attributes at the same costs – 10 points back for a Strength or Health point; 20 points back for a Dexterity or Intelligence point. Just bear in mind, on 3d6, a score of 8 will succeed only 26% of the time. Mind you, if you get things up as high as 13, you get an 84% chance of success. Sweet.
Let’s recap the main rule of the game: if you want to do something, roll 3d6 and try to score equal to or less than the value of the attribute score that’s most relevant. Thus, if you’re trying to do a Strength-based task, that’ll be roll under Strength on 3d6. Simple, right?
That said, many things in life require skill and training. Raw Strength can help with hurting someone with a sword but it takes coordination and training to use one effectively, and that’ll be Dexterity at play. I like the idea that you can learn some skills and get to leverage the full benefit of your attributes. Because being untrained should suck, I’m going to give you a penalty to any attempt to use a skill without training. I’m also going to point out that some skills are Easy to learn, some are pretty Average, and some are Hard. So this is the general rule: doing something that needs training subtracts from your attribute for the 3d6 test roll. If the GM thinks that’s an Easy skill – like wielding a Knife, or Climbing – if it’s Easy, it’s -4 when you’re untrained. Don’t worry I’ll tell you about training in a minute. If it’s an Average difficulty skill, it’ll be -5 when you’re untrained, and if it’s a Hard to learn skill that’ll be -6 to attribute. Easy -4. Average -5. Hard -6. Got a Dexterity of 12 and you’re trying to climb a cliff wall? You haven’t practiced that – even if it is Easy to learn how – so your DX will be rolled at -4, leaving you with an 8 or less. Grab the 3d6 and roll.
Right, yes, ok then. You want to give your character some training. To choose your skills, you’ll get some more points to spend – we’re building a character and you’re spending points, so let’s call them Character Points. You’ll get some more Character Points to spend on learning some Skills. I’ve knocked up a little table to show what things cost, just for quick reference, but knocking out that untrained -4 penalty for Climbing costs 1 point and allows you to roll Climbing at the same score as your Dexterity – in in other words, training at all reduces the untrained penalty down by 4. Another point – two points in total – gets Climbing at your DX+1; 4 points lets you have it at DX+2, and every 4 more points gives you another +1 with that easy Climbing skill. I think that’s simple to grasp and let’s you ace out some skills for a fair cost. Average to learn skills start by knocking the untrained penalty to -1 for 1 point – remember: training starts by reducing the penalty by 4, so with the Average penalty at -5, that makes 1 point of training kick the penalty for a skill with an Average-difficulty to a mere -1; Hard to learn skills start by knocking the untrained penalty down to -2. It’s the same points scale to buy improvements from there. Oh, and most of the skills in the game are Average to learn.
And that’s about it for the basics of how this game handles making a character. I like the idea that you can build your dungeoneer. Of course, if you really fancy a random set of Attributes then you can just roll all four on 3d6 and see what you get. Either way – whether you build that character with 50 points of Attributes or roll them randomly – you can have 25 points to spend on buying some training in Skills.
Right then, having done your character and teaching you how to roll 3d6 below an Attribute or a Skill to do stuff in the dungeon, I want to just cover a couple of other basic rules.
First, damage will be rolled on D6s too. I can’t be bothered with the polyhedral dice and it’s far more Old School to use six-siders for damage anyway. We’ll use the dice plus adds approach – you know, 1D plus 2 or 2D minus 3 or whatever. Just be aware that melee weapons, and ranged weapons that leverage your muscle-power, these improve the damage your Strength can inflict rather than just having an innate flat damage roll for each weapon. What I mean is that your Strength gives you a raw damage roll, so Strength 10 characters will roll 1D when they are swinging weapons – like swords – around. The sword adds to the damage, in the case of a broadsword it’ll give you +1. There’s a little table for the basic damage from your Strength but, simply, if you’re stronger then you’ll do more damage. And armour reduces the damage people take. Leather armour protects for 2 – because armour reduces damage, let’s call it 2 Damage Reduction. Your Strength 10 character with a broadsword rolls 1D+1 to wound me, my armour takes 2 off the damage, the rest goes into my body. Easy.
The last rule to worry about right now is that when you meet some NPC in the game, there’s going to be a Reaction Roll. We’ve got a 3d6 core rule for tests so let’s use 3d6 on a table for Reactions, in the classic Old School style. High scores get better reactions, low scores get worse reactions. We’ll modify that on the fly based on the relationship between your characters and the NPC, or the situation, or whatever. Rulings, not rules – right? But there’s a Reaction Table. I like Reaction Tables – they make for some cool emergent story-telling.
And that’s about it. 3d6 roll low; damage on dice plus adds using only six-siders; there’s a Reaction Table.
Time To Delve!
Now we can go Dungeoneering with your character built with 75 character points.
This game system needs a name. Oh, that’s right – it’s already got a name.
I’ve been tinkering with this set of rules for months but I didn’t write it. It’s not really all that complicated to play. The game is called GURPS – it stands for “Generic Universal Role Playing System”. It’s published by Steve Jackson Games and has been around since 1985.
This is an extract from my podcast episode: Simple Dungeoneering, Part One. Click and hear the whole thing.