May 13, 2014

Game System Innovation

One of the strengths of D&D was its strong game system foundation. The game system defined many things, enough to provide a solid groundwork for rpgs that came after. It gave us the concepts of different character types, stats to define and quantify those characters, sub-systems for different character abilities, reward systems, rules for interaction between characters, monsters, traps, spells, etc. In short, D&D, defined the rpg gaming system that all rpgs have followed in one form or another. The amount of innovation in the original D&D was staggering and defining. However, since then there have been other game system innovations that expanded the tools game designers have at their disposal.

This article is going to look at some of the more innovative game system concepts introduced after D&D, including what I feel is the latest innovation from last year. However, first I want to explain what I mean by "game system innovation". Throughout the relatively short lifespan of rpg games there have been a number of new concepts and design that fundamentally changed the way game designers and players look at an rpg game system...but there are less than we would at first think.

The definition of innovation is...
1: the introduction of something new
2: a new idea, method or device

My definition "game system innovation" excludes minor or semantic changes. For instance, renaming the Constitution stat to Sturdiness, is not an innovation. It is taking an old idea and renaming it, thus it is not new. So what are some things I consider to be innovations?

Skills. One of the first was skills. With the original D&D there were no true skills. Everything was driven by stats and sub-systems. The introduction of skills opened up a wide area of customization and targeted abilities. It allowed for expansion of character types. It removed the need for some sub-systems, thus providing for more streamlined and cohesive systems. It radically changed the approach many designers took to game systems. The majority of game systems since D&D have included some form of skill system...and some even forgo stats and only rely on skills to drive their game.

Point Based Character Generation. Original D&D's character generation is highly random. There are times when a player had a set idea in mind for a character but was unable to fulfill that vision due to the random nature of stat generation. Point based character generation took character generation away from the random. It let players design the characters they wanted to play. It also opened up other options, especially where a character can be dependent on multiple factors, such as the superhero genre.

Of course, not everyone liked the concept of point based character generation, but it was certainly an innovation that altered approaches to game system design thereafter.

Generic Game Systems. D&D was a game system written for one genre, fantasy. Many of the early systems were written specifically for one genre; Boot Hill - Western, Traveller - Space/Science Fiction, Gamma World - Post Apocalyptic, Bushido - Japanese Samurai, etc. Then came game systems that were designed to work with any genre from fantasy to science-fiction and beyond. They allowed for cross-genre games. They also provided a common language of game system between players who liked different genres. Now a group could play their fantasy campaign and when that ended move to something like a post-apocalyptic campaign without having to buy or learn a new game system.

Dice. D&D was postulated on rolling a die for whatever effect was desired. Soon designers began to alter dice rolling conventions. We began to see dice pools, drop/keep, variable dice, etc. The gist here is that designers changed the way dice were used. It was those early games that showed us the variance of dice mechanics that could be applied. In this one area, designers are still looking for new ways to roll the bones, to interpret the odds.

From here innovation becomes smaller and less substantive. Such things as the TN (target number) were always around, but never quantified as such. When the TN was given a label it changed the way designers approached their own systems.

Which leads me to the newest game innovation, which came out just last year. Player Facing. The concept here is that the players are the only ones to ever roll dice. When attacking they roll dice as normal against a static defense number. When the PCs are being attacked, instead of the monsters rolling dice to hit, the PCs roll dice to defend against a static attack number. It puts everything in the player's side of things; keeps the action with the players (and speeds things up as well). Sure, the concept of player facing may have been in existence before but until it was given a name, it was just an obscure idea.

What other truly innovative things do you think have come along  through the years? What game system mechanics have been developed that fundamentally changed the way designers look at game systems?
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