The Pros and Cons of Open RPG Systems

David and I have been very encouraged by the RPG discussion we have had with everyone as we consider moving Infinite Black in that direction. We have been especially encouraged by how frequently people mentioned the importance of world-building. Many said they would rather us focus on that aspect and not expend the energy on developing an RPG system of our own. As it happens, world-building is one of the things David and I are most interested in. In fact, on the $500 Tabletop Games Giveaway, one of the ways to enter was to answer the question:

Which worlds would you like to explore through games, stories, and videos?

  • A dark Lovecraftian world about the pursuit of forbidden knowledge across the Earth and Dreamlands. 
  • A world governed by a magocracy fighting a magical war that is threatening to tear the world apart. 
  • A world set 10,000 years before the Garden of Eden with an empire of angels stretching across a primeval earth waging war against the djinn.

I’ll write a blog on the results of that question when the giveaway is over. But, those are the worlds David and I are interested in developing. We have spent a lot of time thinking about how we might adapt existing systems to those worlds. So, I thought it would be a good idea to break down some of the pros and cons of different systems. Here the are:

Dungeons & Dragons, 5th ed.: An obvious advantage of developing for 5th edition is that the mechanics are so well-known. Its disadvantages, as I see them, are that it is based on the roll of a d20. I prefer a system which uses a bell curve for its dice rolls (like a 3d6 system). When you are randomly generating a number between 1 and 20, it overwhelms many of the bonuses you might get to complete the task.

D&D is also based on hit points, which brings up the whole “hit point debate”. While I don’t think hit points are the problem per se, I think they are a problem for dramatic story telling as they have manifested in D&D. Combat in dramatic stories is seldom about wearing away an opponent’s hit points a few at a time, back and forth.

Another core component of D&D is that it is built around classes. I think I generally prefer classless systems, but I recognize that character classes can have a lot of advantages. The D&D classes would have to be reworked for any of the worlds we developed. That is an important part of capturing the feel of the worlds. A great example of this appears to be Adventures in Middle-earth. I was skeptical of it at first, but, after reading it, they are close to winning me over. Part of the reason why is the care they took to design character classes that were appropriate to Middle-earth.

Pathfinder OGL: Pathfinder also has a large following, but it has many of the same disadvantages that I articulated for D&D above.

Fate - There is a lot about Fate that I love. I think it can be an excellent system for epic RPGs. I have found that it is easy to put together memorable games for players in ways that I had not been able to with D&D. Players seem to remember Fate games and the battles they fight in ways that they don't with other games. I like how easy it can be to get up and running  with Fate and get players into the story. Fate games also do not seem to get as bogged down with roll after roll to accomplish a task. Making sure that even many failed rolls drive the plot forward in some way is an important part of the game system.

One of the problems I have with Fate is that I always want a little more crunch. “Crunchy Fate” is an ideal I have always been after. However, the rules are very adaptable and they have been used to develop other settings. Even though I am not familiar with it, I know the Dresden Files RPG is based on Fate.

Open Legend - I have recently been introduced to Open Legend and, although I have not been able to play it yet, I am interested in what I read. Although it is based on the roll of a d20, it creatively uses additional polyhedral dice to give bonuses based on your character’s abilities.

Dice rolls can also “explode” allowing you to roll more and more dice if you roll well. This reminds me of penetrating dice in Hackmaster. That may not address the core issue of understanding how good your character is at any particular task because the random roll can far exceed your bonus (especially when the dice explode), but those people who love rolling dice will enjoy being able to suddenly roll a lot of them.

Open Legend does not have character classes, but has all the parts from which to build them. It even has suggested character archetypes on the website. Open Legend also includes the Fate-like idea of “failing forward”. Even a failed roll is still expected to move the story forward in some way.

What major advantages and disadvantages of these systems did I not mention? What other systems should we be considering? Which system would you be most interested in having us develop worlds for?

Heath Robinson
Follow Me on Twitter: @EHeathRobinson