The Deceptively Simple PBP System Edit
I have been thinking about a simple PBP system that can incorporate all d20 systems, but that also prevents games from dragging at a glacial pace. The best I could come up with is little more than a slight modification, along with a different explanation, of the SimFanSys. See http://simfansys.wikispaces.com/. There is a lot of good stuff in SimFanSys, which I shamelessly thieve by espousing this DSPS system. DSPS is a quasi-freeform system that should be simpler and more direct.
The Controlling Concept Edit
The GM has to be “basically fair and reasonable,” and err on the side of letting the players do what they want, within reason. The players have to be focused on 1) acting out the character, 2) making the story, and 3) building the game world in whatever way the ever-evolving and mutable story directs. The game world is the PCs’ world, meaning the characters’ world. It is also the players’ and GM’s world, but not merely theirs. And, the collaborative story is the polestar.
The Basic Mechanic Edit
The basic mechanic is: GM rolls to determine every chance-based contest, but the GM and the players can break-down the contest into however many rolls they see fits, and however they determine works best in that given moment. Use whatever dice-rolling feature is built-into the forum software. It can be one, a few, or many rolls. A contest can be combat, social interaction, some non-combat physical act, or anything a person would roll for in a d20 game. The roll = d20 result + player’s storytelling modifier + any situational modifier + character’s level modifier (if the contest employs the PC’s class or chosen ability, see below). The roll succeeds if it is greater than or equal to the DC. DC is set at GM’s discretion, but this places the GM squarely in charge of game-balance in addition to storytelling. Nevertheless, since it is a PBP game, the GM has some time to mull over the appropriate DC. All of this data can be told to the player before the player makes the final decision to act, if it is helpful/desired. Or, the GM can keep it confidential. The level modifier is the character’s level number (e.g., lvl 5 = +5, etc). A situational modifier is anything unusual about the scene that may affect the outcome of the contest, either positively or negatively. The amount of the situational modifier, and whether it is positive or negative, is determined by the circumstances. The storytelling modifier is determined by the player’s forum post/s related to that act being rolled for, determined by GM’s discretion. The storytelling modifier is, basically, a GM’s grade given to the player’s storytelling and roleplaying as it pertains to that specific act; so be careful, fair, and flexible with this. Players and GMs can argue over the situational modifier and whether the level modifier should apply (in the OOC thread), but there should be no argument/haggling over the storytelling modifier even when there is disagreement (and there certainly will be). Enticing good, solid play with storytelling or roleplaying modifiers is the crux of this system, and the lynchpin that holds it all together. If the GM fails at this, everything about that PBP game fails.
The Reward Mechanic Edit
The greater the success of any given roll, the greater the reward for succeeding at the contest. The negative-inverse is also true. For example, if the contest is combat (resolved in one roll or very few rolls) and the roll is much higher than the DC, perhaps greater treasure is found or the PCs retain more net HP when the fight is over. If it were a social interaction, better rolls would mean better deals. If the contest is combat and the roll fails, perhaps the characters barely escape with few HP remaining or with some lost equipment (maybe could spend XP to heroically recover lost items just as the party escapes or to otherwise mitigate the negative consequences of the failed roll, see XP below). If the roll is very far below the DC, perhaps character death occurs (or requires a lot of XP be spent to overcome death). Similar ideas apply to non-combat contests. Imagination is the limitation, and the advantage.
The Character Sheet Edit
This is almost the same as the SimFanSys. The character sheet is nothing more than a base class (ex: rogue) and one base ability (ex: charisma), plus the character's current level. The players can be any base class from the d20 genres, with a focus on one of the primary six abilities. Any time a die roll (or check) employs aspects of either the character’s class or the character’s chosen ability, the roll is granted the level modifier (see Basic Mechanic, above). If the GM chooses, the character’s race may also bestow bonuses to rolls employing aspects of that race. To use an obvious example, if a thief tried to pick a pocket, that roll would get the level modifier. If the contest employs both the class and ability, then an increased modifier might be appropriate in certain instances. If race is used and the act employs all three, a rather high modifier that almost guarantees success might be appropriate. If the contest only partially or tangentially uses aspects of the class or ability, then perhaps the modifier is proportionally less than what it might otherwise be (i.e., less than the character’s actual level, but still a positive bonus). In other words, there are infinite gradations that could be applied to determine the exact modifier—but, be careful with this. The default rule is: if a level modifier is granted, it should be equal to the character’s level. If the contest does not involve either the class or the ability (or the race), the GM might decide that spending one or more XP points will bestow the level modifier to the roll. Alternatively, maybe one or more XP points are necessary just to attempt the act (because the act is so different from the PC’s class and chosen ability) and additional XP must then be spent to bestow the level modifier. A simple example of this a barbarian focused on strength who attempts to cast a lightning bolt spell. In any event, the spending of XP depends on the specific circumstances, people’s imagination, people’s storytelling ability, and the story itself. Lastly, the GM might also allow the players to focus/refine their class as levels are gained (the equivalent of gaining new powers and skills, and somewhat similar to taking a prestige class or multiclassing). Doing this would grant an additional bonus on contests employing specific areas of the class that are focused-on and refined by the player. However, there are no powers or skills to add to the character sheet. Instead, the character is simply developed in a purely textual sense, through prose. If there is anything substantive to the character sheet, it is merely the player’s prose, not numbers. The character's current level should be the only number.? Further, it is up to the GM to grant an appropriate modifier when these more-focused aspects of the character are used (just like it is up to him to determine the appropriate DC). This is something that must be handled on a game-by-game basis because proper management of it depends on the nuances of the group and the game. A good GM is probably worth his or her weight in gold, because it is a hard job. This system depends on an effective GM.
Levels are purchased for 20 XP, but this purchase amount can be adjusted if desired. The cost per level might increase as the levels increase. For example, the cost-per-level may be 20 + the lvl being attained. However, a flat 20 XP cost-per-level is simple; and is, therefore, the default rule. It should be understood that PCs do not build-up XP overtime like in a traditional d20 game. Rather, XP is awarded to and spent by the PCs, just like money or gold (but its the GM that acts as the merchant, so to speak). This idea comes from some of Monte Cook’s discussions regarding Numenera. See http://www.numenera.com/more-on-experience-points/. XP can be spent in any way that is appropriate for the game, the story, and the characters. It can be spent to do anything that is unusual for an RPG hero, or for that particular RPG hero. Spending is XP is always up to GM's discretion, erring on the side of allowing the players do what they want to do when it is a close call.? If the GM has serious reservations about permitting it, increase the cost just a little bit more and permit it. Balance is always hard, and never perfect. XP is awarded by the GM however he sees fit, but is primarily awarded for good storytelling and good roleplaying. Of course, it is also awarded for completing important plot elements (e.g., rescuing the princess, defusing the bomb, etc). In awarding XP, the GM has to be “fair and reasonable.” In other words, just don’t be a jackass, and err on the side awarding XP and letting the players do what they think is best—as long as the players are being reasonable. It is when the player wants to do something “unreasonable” or unusual for that character, that the character must spend XP to do so. The crazier or more unusual the idea, the more XP needed to do it. Examples include heroically dodging a lethal hit, or convincing a highly distrustful NPC to consent, or a shy character going on national television to court fame and fortune (well, in modern genres). XP is spent on actions that are out-of-the-ordinary, even for the heroes. This requires both players and GM to be flexible and fair, and focused on the story. Obviously, this requires a deft touch. This is the nature of collaborative storytelling.
Game Balance Edit
This is a tough one. The GM has to balance-out the chance of success as a rough percentage-likelihood of success, then work backwards to get the appropriate DC. The GM will not always be perfect; but, like NFL refs (the non-replacement kind), if the GM makes a bad call on one play, he must make up it for it somehow—in some reasonable way—in the near future. But, however this is accomplished, the GM has to make the world feel is if it real or legitimate (it cannot feel as if it is a farse), while also giving the players an engaging game over which they have control/input through the PC's actions, the PC's developmental choices, and the player's storytelling/roleplaying. Also, on a side note, the GM should structure the game and the story around the the developmental choices made by the player for the character. Meaning the game and the story are mutable. To predefine the story and/or the flow of the game, explicitly or even subconsciously, is nothing more than railroading the players. The story is whatever the players make it, in response to the GM's setting. The story is not, merely, whatever the GM says it is. For a simple example, it is not fun to have a character focused on stealth, only to be confronted by situations that involve brute force, social interactions, or some other non-stealth situation. This same idea applies if the players want a city-intrigue campaign where the GM wants a dungeon maze campaign. The more important balance issue is determining the appropriate range of the storytelling and situational modifiers—particularly storytelling. Because the system's reward mechanic is based on the degree of success of a given roll, the potential range of a modifier must take into account whatever the various available degrees of success happen to be within the story (in story terms). In other words, a character can only be so successful on any given task, with the likelihood of success diminishing as the degree of success increases. The GM must understand that likelihood of success diminishes exponentially as degree of success increases linearly. This means that whatever the range of the modifier happens to be, with each successive increase in the modifier (i.e., with each additional +1), the basis necessary to achieve this increase must be disproportionately higher. Earning a +2 storytelling modifier will require some specific level of storytelling performance by the player. But, earning a +4 storytelling modifier must be something more than twice that same certain level of performance. For example, earning a +4 will require something more than twice as good of a storytelling performance required to earn a +2. A +6 will require storytelling performance more than three times that required to get a +2. And, so on. Now, this is not to say that the GM must be doing arithmetic to calculate these values precisely. That is the opposite of what this system calls for. Rather, this is to say that the GM should sense how the numbers work together and use the appropriate values for modifiers and DCs, accordingly. Further, this principle directs that the potential modifier range must be based on some notion as to just how successful the character might be at the given action. As the range of success—that is realistically available to the character—increases, the potential range of the modifier must also increase proportionally. The difficulty to achieve the ever increasing modifier must be marginally more difficult with each successive increase (i.e., disproportionally greater). This precise calculation of the modifier (and the DC) is the hardest rule to apply by the GM, yet, this difficulty is the crux of any RPG system. The GM is essentially designing his roleplaying game as he plays it with the players. This is why this DSPS system is so versatile, but also why it requires some deftness by the GM. Game balance will require fine tuning as the game is played. Balance will start out far from perfect, but get more precise and correct as the game is played. Every game will be different and have its own subtleties informing the application of this rule to game balance. Also, what the game and the story call for will change over time as things develop, thereby changing how game balance is applied.
The Benefits and Difficulties of DSPS Edit
The benefit of this system is that combat, or any contest, can be as quick or as slow is needed, and still retain any desired features of any d20 setting. An entire encounter can be glossed over in a single roll, or broken down turn-by-turn. There is nothing worse than spending months playing out one encounter via PBP posts, never giving the story a chance to develop. But, more to the point, this system encourages good storytelling as long as everyone is on the same page. It is up to the group to collectively decide what is appropriate. This could easily devolve into an ugly situation, I am sure. This is the difficulty of the system, but this difficulty is unavoidable in any game, no matter the system. Just don’t pee in the sandbox, and all should be fine. The other big difficulty is game balance, but, again, this is always true when running a homebrew operation—whether a homebrew adventure, campaign, or game system. The GM controls the world outside of the characters, and the players control the world inside of his/her character. This gives the upper hand to the GM. However, it must be remembered that the world is the characters' world, at least as much as it is the players' and GM's. The story is about the characters. This system could easily devolve into a skirmish of arguments. Everyone bears responsibility for making a good story and a fun game. Once the GM sets the stage and a plotline, the players should make the world whatever it needs to become. A good GM will know where to draw the line, and where not to, to make it enjoyable for all.