18 July 2012

The Rollplay Engine

About a month ago I posted about eschewing character sheets in favour of managing everything through dice. I have been mulling the idea over and over the recent long weekend I whipped together a basic RPG system built around the concept. I am tentatively naming the resulting game the Rollplay Engine. It is a silly name, but also a relatively apt description. It is also a bit of a cheeky nod at the term "rollplaying", which is one of the few hobby-related words that make me want to strangle my monitor.

A lazy mockup of a die used by the Rollplay Engine.

What I have written is a basic system using fantasy archetypes which we can call Fantasy Rollplay for now. I have used fantasy archetypes for the basis of the system because I find them easy to work with. If I find that the system is fun then I will probably expand it into other genres. Actually, when I was writing this I thought that the game would work very well adapted to a mech theme. Right now the game is very much in a draft form, but if you take a look (or play the game) please let me know your thoughts.

I should note that I have included dice values next to things in the rules because I haven't actually made any custom dice yet (I am planning to do this with stickers). To play this game you will either need to refer to these rules or write the numbers out on cards or pieces of paper. 

Some Design Notes

Spotlight and Opposition Players

I decided to make the Rollplay Engine one of those artsy story games that feature shifting narration responsibilities. There are a couple of reasons for this:
  • Narrative controls seemed a natural fit for a system that gives players limited options. By using narrative control the game becomes more about taking the options the dice give you and narrating something fun than it does about rolling to see what your character does. It puts the control back in the hands of the players instead of leaving things at the mercy of the dice.
  • I wanted the game to be something that could be picked up and played with no preparation. In a game that is about improvised narration the GM role was already reduced, so it made sense to remove it entirely as a requirement
Despite the game defaulting to having no player wearing the GM/Storyteller mantle in the traditional sense, there is no reason why a group of players couldn't select someone to take on that role. The game should work fine with a single player acting as the Opposition for every scene.

Difficulty Isn't so Difficult

I think this is somewhere where I really veered off into unfamiliar territory. Most role playing games, if not all of them, have some kind of difficulty mechanic. Players need to roll over or under some target number or they need a certain number of successes or they have a percent chance of being successful at something. The only games that do not do things this way are the ones with bidding and similar narrative control mechanics, but the driving force behind these mechanics is in narrative competition.

With Rollplay I knew that I needed some kind of difficulty mechanic some way for players to succeed or fail at what they are trying to do. I came up with the difficulty dice. The idea with these is that the dice represent a chance for something to go wrong, which is something I found to be much more flexible and easy to manage than a bunch of contextual values. I then mixed things up further by having players set their own difficulty in a kind of gamble mechanic. The more difficulty dice they bet the greater the narrative reward.

If players manage their dice well and are able to tackle any complications that the difficulty dice throw their way then they should be able to overcome any challenge. Cowardly players can always gamble the minimum and be all but assured success, but a minimal success like that would be... well, minimal.


There are a number of different classes and backgrounds listed in the rules I linked above, but the beauty of Rollplay is that more can be made with such little effort. New faces and narrative keys can be created and arranged as desired. During the very first playtest of the game we whipped up a new background (craftsman) in less than a minute for a player that wanted their character to have worked as a smith before they went adventuring.

First Playtest Observations

I playtested this game with my regular group of players last Wednesday. It went surprisingly well. Overall things flowed quite naturally from scene to scene and the constant barrage of obstacles set a kind of manic pace. 
  • A flowchart laying out the game structure would be useful. I wasn't having problems with it, but I wrote the damn thing. I think it would have been very helpful for the other players to have it written down somewhere.
  • We tried different was of selecting the opposition, different XP mechanics and even different ways of deciding which player narrated what. All seemed to work equally well in practice, with the exception of randomly determining Opposition. One of the players kept getting left out when we tried that and I don't think that is a good thing.
  • It is clear that the advancement/XP mechanic needs work. Right now it isn't particularly satisfying and I don't like needing to write down XP on scrap paper. Rewarding a single die at the end is also pretty boring as the players seem eager to have a more fast and furious approach to advancement.
  • The injury/hits mechanic also needs more thought. Right now it seems simultaneously too lethal and not lethal enough. I'll need to think about this one.
  • One player expressed that they would like to be able to lower their chance of success in exchange for trading their Narrative Key for something they didn't roll. I'm not sure how I feel about this one. It is worth considering. What I might do is group Narrative Keys into categories that can be swapped in this manner. For example, Might and Melee are similar enough that a player could trade one for the other at the cost of adding additional difficulty dice.
  • It might be a good idea to define an overarching adventure somehow and have "successful" scenes push towards some eventual conclusion. During the playtest there was no end goal and we/the players jumped around from minor conflict to minor conflict without hitting a nice flow.


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