Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Weird Idea

Back in May (on Friday the 13th no less), I was finishing up side work and knocking out trash at my job. Doing tedious tasks makes my mind wander and I began contemplating a what if scenario for the development of Dungeons and Dragons.

Somerset House Conference (Wikipedia)
D&D comes from wargaming origins and that shows in some of the design. You'll find the rules for combat to be more comprehensive than other aspects of the game, XP for killing and getting gold, combat uses for skills and feats. This isn't a negative mind you, nor is it me saying 'you can't roleplay in D&D'. Some of my best roleplaying stories have come from D&D 4e, the edition which has been often derided for being non-conducive for RPing. But in every edition of Dungeons and Dragons, you can see the wargaming aspects in its ruleset, passing down like a gene.

So I was thinking... what if D&D descended from a different hobby? Like say, a debate team, or a story telling game.

What if we flipped some of the assumptions and even mechanics on its head?

In general, you have combat scenarios and roleplaying scenarios. A bit of an oversimplification, but bear with me. While combat rules are more complete and exhaustive, roleplaying is generally left up to the players with minimal conflict resolution mechanics (generally a simple Charisma roll). So what if we switch the assumptions around? Have combat with a simple conflict resolution mechanic adjusted for the difficulty of a battle, and make the social aspect of the game more comprehensive.

Right off the bat, the focus of the game would be very different. I feel you would have a more political game where things like diplomacy, intrigue, and investigation take the forefront. Exploration probably wouldn't change. Combat would still be important, but it would certain be different. Much like social stuff is, combat would be a lot of flavor and description with the occasional die roll to resolve conflict. Perhaps a Strength or Dexterity roll, or a Fighting skill roll, all modified by difficulty penalties and bonuses. It'd probably me more kin to combat in Dungeon World.

Social conflict and discourse being more comprehensive would be an interesting aspect, but one that would have to be handled differently than combat is in D&D. It should be flexible in allowing the players to do clever things when trying to roleplay out social situations while still being robust enough for those of us that don't have the natural charisma or mental energy to play a social engineering con man. In addition, and this is my opinion anyways, it should be applicable to the PCs. Just like the PCs take damage and injuries when treading into combat, they too can make social faux pas or fail in diplomatic scenarios. And most importantly, when making rules for debating, bluffing, and diplomacy, it is important to make sure it isn't mind control. With social combat, it is very easy to cross the line and take control away from the player. While I feel the term "player agency" gets thrown around too much, if the rules ultimately force the player to act against their will, then it's just not fun.

Burning Wheel and the Song of Ice and Fire both have cool discourse rules that look interesting and I would love to try them out in an actual game one day. Burning Wheel in particular has an interesting concept where social conflict only happens if both sides agree to it. So there is still a player opt-in before social combat even happens. But, once you are in it, you are committed and have to accept the results (at least for the interim). It's a cool concept and on paper at least, it seems to have the flexibility I'm looking for in a diplomatic ruleset.

I'm also interested in seeing how classes would fit in something like this. In general, the base 4 classes have assumptions that you'll be adventuring in the wilderness, fighting orcs and taking their stuff. It shows in things like extra attacks, extra damage, backstab/sneak attack, weapon and armor proficiencies, AC/THAC0, etc. I wonder how we would format classes that focused on diplomacy, intrigue, and investigation? For class names, I'd like to change them, at least to something more evocative of the courtly nature. Taking the Fighter, Mage, Cleric, and Thief/Expert, I'd probably call them the Warrior, the Magician, the Priest, and the Spy (although Expert is still very fitting). I'd also fit them out with diplomatic abilities that would fit with their archetype. The Warrior, being the knight or samurai equivalent, could have a bonus to seeing through lies, or being stubborn against people that try to extract information. The Priest could trade Turn Undead for bonuses to appealing to emotion, or using their position of holy reverence to extract favors and demands much easier. And so on. It's an interesting idea.

I think the most important thing to do for these types of rules is to calibrate the expectations and desires of your players. Players come into role playing games with certain expectations and non-negotiables out of their D&D game. It's critical to be upfront and let them know about the change to this style of campaign to prevent miscommunication and PC-GM dissonance.

So what would this type of game look like? Would it even work, or more importantly, would it even be fun? I would like to try and build a game like this with OSR materials and see how it'd work.