Thursday, September 24, 2009

Elthos RPG Design Goals

Whenever you work on any project that is going to take a long time to complete, you have the risk of diffusion, where your interests and energies tend to draw you away from your goal toward other things. It is perhaps passing strange that in all the years that I've worked on Elthos, my attention has never wandered far, and I've maintained a relatively constant focus on the project. Some people would say, and perhaps rightly, that it is a bit weird. But then again, I don't look at Elthos as something To-Be-Finished, but rather as something that is, and will always be, in a state of continuous evolution.

I started Elthos RPG back in 1978 shortly after I was introduced to the original Dungeons & Dragons RPG. At the time I had no plans to publish it as it was simply one among many homebrews that were spawned in the early days of RPGs. It may come as a bit of surprise to those who never read the first three D&D booklets but Gary Gygax and David Arneson encouraged us to take his original rules and spawn our own individual systems from them. And so that's what many of us did. It's been a delightful hobby all these years, and I never seem to tire of it.

As for my own homebrew, I wanted it to meet certain design goals. Principally I wanted a system that would be easy to run. The original D&D was pretty easy to run, but it was still, even then, just a little too complex for my tastes. There were simply too many divergent charts, and rules. I wanted my RPG to have a single centralized mechanic for conflict and skills resolution, and as few charts as possible. Really, I wanted to focus on the story aspect of the game, more than the gamist aspect. To that end I came up with the idea of a General Resolution Matrix which pits Skill Level vs. Difficulty Level and comes up with a chance of success. Roll higher, and the character succeeds. A very simple system. I'm gratified to see that many systems since then have also decided this is a good way to handle conflict and skills resolution as it gives me a little vindication every time I see it. As there was not much to perfect with this idea, it has remained the central mechanic of Elthos RPG for 30 years. I did, however, did come up with several versions. One uses a 100 sided die for the resolution, then I had ones for three six sided dice, and now, I've boiled it down to one six sided die for the "One Die System", which is currently my new favorite.

I wanted to limit the tendency of ever expanding charts, and so I deliberately created core charts that would suffice for as much as possible, and so I tried my best to make those core charts as generic as possible so that I would not have to expand the number of them too much. In the past thirty years I've come to about 10 charts total. That's quite enough for me.

The third thing I wanted was for the system to be reasonably easy to run, with math that would not require too much brain power, since I wanted to reserve as much of that as possible for my favorite part of the game - the creation and running of my World, Elthos. To this end I've tried to make the Elthos charts as simple and clear as I can, mathematically, so that they are easy to remember, and take very little effort to expand with new items. The numbers in my world, now, have become very small. 6 is a big number in Elthos. 12 is almost unheard of. I like it that way. It makes the math easy.

These design goals culminated into the Elthos RPG, of which there are two versions; Elthos Prime which is the original larger system, and the Elthos "One Die System" (ODS), which is much condensed, though they both have the same general mechanics which are based loosely on the original D&D. Thus Elthos uses a Life Points system, with Skills and Classes, Experience Points and Levels. In that sense, it's not very original. However, it does resolve what I considered to be imbalances with the original D&D, and so as far as I'm concerned, it's a nice little system, which I am my players have been happy with for a long time.

In 1994 I decided to program my system, since it already had a modular and relatively simple resolution mechanism and a few simple charts. I conjectured that since it was far less complex than many of the other RPG systems that came out by then it should not be so hard to program. Problem: I didn't know anything about programming. Ancillary Problem: because I had no knowledge of programming, I had no way of estimating how long it would take to develop the system, and so as a result I vastly underestimated. That's ok. I've really enjoyed the process, and in the meantime made a career for myself as a programmer / analyst. The symbiosis has been helpful on both sides of the equation.

To help me in the process, and with some help from my dear friend David, I taught myself programming, and then got a job as a programmer. I learned database design, project management, and the skill of programming. And so it took me 12 years to finish the Elthos Prime Gamesmaster's Toolbox, which was based on my original 1978 rules. Then, in 2006, I decided to start over with a new web based application that would be much simpler to build, and much easier, therefore, to maintain.

And so, the the Elthos "One Die System" was born out of my interactions with The Literary Role Playing Game Society of Westchester. We were meet at a local pub and discuss the topic of "How to make better, higher, more literary quality RPG Worlds". It's an interesting group with an interesting topic. I decided it would be helpful to be able to use a very tight mini-system so we could experiment with ideas at the table, with just one six sided die, and very few, easily memorized, charts. And so this is how the Elthos ODS was born.

The Elthos ODS Web Application took three years, and is quite close to being finished (I honestly believe that, but have to laugh because I know just how wrong I can be about such things). It's design goals are fairly straight forward: provide Gamesmastering services such as character generation, print outs, and help to manage and maintain the back story and history of the world and it's campaigns. I'm using it now in play testing mode. The play tests are also going over the rules and how well they work, to make sure that they're simple, yet effective. Overall, it goes well. Albeit, veeeerrrryyyyy slowly. As always.

And no, I don't expect to actually ever Finish. It is a work in progress, and if I have anything to say about it, it always will be.

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