The other evening I was shooting the breeze with a friend, talking about various mechanics that could be used in constructing a traditional-style tabletop role-playing game. Here are some of the brainchildren of that conversation, in no particular order:
Stat balance: Min-maxing, in which a character’s statistics are manipulated in a way that renders the character overpowered in a chosen sphere at the cost of most or all others, is a perennial problem in this sort of game. One possible counter-measure would be what I call “stat balance.”
To wit: complementary stats are paired together and assigned a mutual maximum so that the more one is raised, the more the other decreases. In D&D, for example, you could say Strength + Dexterity must be less than or equal to 24, rendering it impossible to create a strong-and-agile combat machine at the expense of social and mental acuity. If desired, in-game training or the like could be used to raise the cap for more experienced characters. This would allow them to transcend their starting limits while still curtailing min-maxing at the beginning.
Tech Tree skills: A skill system often involves raising the score of a single metric: adding bonuses to a single die roll, or adding extra dice to a “pool.” How about a “tech-tree“-style progression? Each gain in experience allows new skills to be purchased, which in turn become prerequisites for various in-game actions and/or more advanced skills. For example, “Literacy” would allow the character to read and write and act as a prerequisite for “Calligraphy,” while in turn relying on “Language.”
This runs some risk of devolving into a replacement “adding bonuses” system: if Swim 1 leads to Swim 2 and then Swim 3, then there’s not much point. But a system with streamlined skill mechanics (a simple pass/fail or on/off system; rolls based on stats rather than skill values; etc.) could benefit from this kind of structure.
End-of-turn Action Points: Some systems use an allowance of “action points” to determine what a character can do in a single “turn.” These seem to be universally renewed at the start of the character’s turn, leading to the question of whether the characters can act in response to other events “off-turn.” Special reaction actions and borrowing against the next turn’s action points are both solutions I’ve seen to the problem.
But why not just have a character’s actions refill at the end of their turn? If pressed by dire circumstances, they can spend these freely to react and defend themselves from accident or attack, and then on their turns use any that remain to pursue their own agenda. It makes organic sense, too, that if the character is sorely put-upon then they don’t have time to do anything but react; a system like this would model the benefits of taking the initiative.
Renamed Stats: Okay, I’m being more than a little tongue-in-cheek here. But what if the traditional D&D stats (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) were renamed (Example: Brawn, Agility, Toughness, Cleverness, Sensitivity, Presence)? Would this have a meaningful impact on the players’ perceptions of the system or the nature of the characters they play?
Devotions: Last but not least; rather, this is my centerpiece and the one idea that I really want to use. In D&D and related fantasy games, it’s relatively common to have “clerics” capable of channeling the power of the gods to aid their companions… but almost unheard-of for the gods to have any say in how that power is used. Another complaint common to recent editions is that clerical magic is essentially identical to wizardly magic, but with a slightly different focus (more healing and disease-curing) and based on different stats.
No more! How about priests be required to perform specific acts of devotion to their gods in order to be granted miracles? How about those who would receive divine blessings also be required to show their devotion, or at least make a meaningful gesture? A community might be required to perform a harvest festival and sacrifice the first fruits before their priest could bless the fields for next year’s crop. Donations to a shrine might be required in return for healing or curse-removal because the coin pays for incense and candles that please the resident god.
“Good” gods would be pleased by benign or benevolent acts. “Evil” or wrathful gods would enjoy human sacrifice and ritual torture. A system of Devotions like this can easily be used to support the tropes and tone of your genre of choice.
It could also present players with interesting moral choices: if they’re in a town full of dark cults but need divine magic, what devotions are they willing to perform to get what they want? Can they convince the cultists to take simple monetary donations? Would even a cash donation, ostensibly for church-building upkeep or fragrant spices, be acceptable? How about priests of god A, who grants one kind of miracle, but need the kind granted by god B? What compromises are they willing to make; how far can they go before A becomes jealous? Would pantheons under this system simply be alliances of deities willing to trade favors and devotions from a body of mutual worshipers? I definitely want to expand this idea further. 8^)