George’s Saga: RPG Basics (UPDATED)

George So when you’re writing RPG software, eventually you need an RPG to base it on. What I mean by that is, you need a model of characters that includes basic statistics, skills, combat, damage, and the like, and how they all work together.

I’ve got a very simplistic RPG at the moment. Characters have “life points”; they can take damage, and if their life points drop to zero they die. They can wield weapons; the amount of damage a character can inflict in combat depends only on his weapon. They can wear armor, which absorbs a percentage of the damage done to them. This seemed like a neat idea when I first came up with it, and then I realized that a powerful character with lots of armor would still take damage from a cub scout with a pen-knife. Of course, they are no powerful characters, because I’ve got no notion of leveling up.

As you see, It’s easy to put together something, you should pardon the expression, half-assed. It’s less easy to put together something that works, and so great minds (and mine too!) look to see what others have done. And here’s where there’s a problem: the models underlying computer RPGs are often obscure. They’ll tell you a certain amount about the stats are, enough so that you can customize your character as you level up…but they won’t tell you what the stats of the monsters are, or just how all of the stats are used in combat and other activities. It’s possible to reverse engineer some of this, some of the time, but ugh! This is supposed to be fun.

That leaves looking at table-top RPGs for inspiration. That’s also a problem, because table-top RPGs don’t really translate well to the computer world. They assume lots of discretion and intelligence on the part of the GM (computers have none), and allow for a vast range of choices on the part of the players, many of which don’t translate well to the GUI world, and would be tedious as all get out if they did. But at least they are well-documented: they have to be, or people can’t play them.

So I asked Tom McDonald, Games Maven, for advice. He suggested I look at a number of freely available RPG rules:

to which I added Legend, a set of rules I downloaded a year or so ago and never did anything with.

The d20 System is basically a set of rules abstracted from Dungeons&Dragons by the owners of D&D, and made free to download and use. It is Very Complete. It is also Very Complicated. And some of the things I’m most interested (like how to put together a character and level him up) were judged to be Proprietary and Left Out, so far as I can tell. There is much to be learned here, but not World Enough and Time to learn it given my limited resources.

The Saga rules are defined by a short rule book (about 30 pages) which I found to be rather un-succinct. Characters have skills, and assets (which doesn’t mean what you think it means), and traits, and I found numbers and concise definitions to be scarce on the ground. I’m not saying that what I need isn’t here; I’m saying I had trouble finding it.

Legend looks more interesting, but the rule book is much longer (almost 200 pages); plus, it’s based on a specific fantasy milieu. I might be able to pull what I need out of it, but right now I’m looking for quick-and-dirty.

And so I’m looking hard at GURPS Lite. It’s short (32 pages), and heavily focussed on the mechanics: what are the stats? what effect do they have? What die rolls are used, and what do they mean? How do you get critical hits? And what does that mean? How does armor work? It’s all here. More than that: GURPS characters are point-based: the GM gives you a certain number of points, and you pick the set of stats and skills that you like, within your point budget. This gives me a path to allow the user to define his own characters; and even if the characters start with a fixed set of stats, it gives me a leveling-up mechanism: give the player some points, and let him buy skills and stat improvements.

Whatever I implement will evolve, and will likely end up looking entirely different in the long run. (See below.) But this looks like it’ll get me off dead center with a minimum of effort, so there you are.

UPDATE: I’ve just glanced at Steve Jackson Games’ policy for use of their intellectual property, which GURPS is. I am not allowed to release a computer game based on GURPS unless I’m willing to get a license from SJG. As a would-be author, I find this to be completely reasonable. It does mean, however, that I will be looking at GURPS for inspiration rather than copying it slavishly, and that I will not be making George’s Saga available for download so long as it is distinctively GURP-ish. Just to be clear.

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