Core 5e: Distilling the Game Mechanics

For those who may not know, I’m what you might call a shade tree dice mechanic. I like to tinker with different types of systems to see how things like rules, character traits, and randomizers come together. I believe that nexus is what ultimately makes the game experience either flow well effortlessly and coherently or turn into a hot mess of tedium. My background in research and statistics (they don’t call me “Doc” for nothing) sometimes gives me an appreciation for how math works in games that may not be apparent to everyone but is tirelessly working in the background.

The mechanics in the most popular role-playing game (RPG) of all time — Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons* — have evolved over at least five different versions. A few basic elements have persisted from version to version. The battlefields of internet chat rooms and message boards run red with rivers of blood from the version wars. I’m not really about to get into the middle of that. Most versions that I’ve tinkered with had redeeming qualities. Over the years moving toward the fifth edition (5e) and the upcoming rendition we’ve seen some changes to in some ways make the game’s core mechanics more consistent and easier for new players to pick up on but in other ways much more complicated with huge variations and detailed rules and character specializations etc. that they fill volumes. For my purposes I am primarily focused on the rules outlined in the Creative Commons version 5.1 System Reference Document released by Wizards of the Coast in January 2023.

Simple vs. Crunchy Simulations
I’ve encountered more than a few people who will argue that the rules for this game about wizards and dragons need more math and more numbers (crunch) to be more realistic. If you believe adding together a bunch of arbitrarily assigned numbers makes something more realistic, you might want to google how simulations work. If it takes 20 minutes to resolve a basic fight between a few player characters (PCs) and a handful of goblins then people are going to lose interest quickly. In a movie that scene might take a minute or two and in a novel, it might not have gone over a page. In a solo game where the player may have to handle actions for their character plus any non-player characters (NPCs) plus the baddies, it’s probably going to deter a lot of players.

I think it’s possible to look at these massive tomes of rules and distill them into simplified, intuitive elements and keep the familiar rule concepts that most people know without all the extra stuff that complicates things. I also want a high level of compatibility for the games I’m developing so they can be used in conjunction with the huge body of RPG material that’s already out there. I’m particularly interested in finding ways to improve the solo tabletop RPG experience.

Where Will This Lead?
I’m thinking about this the way I think about implementing a large project. The first step will be to identify requirements. IYKYN but if you don’t that’s a list of things I want this to do. Some of those things are going to be deal-breakers. They have to be included. Others might be “nice to haves” but ultimately something that might get dropped along. This list is probably going to shift over time because this is a thought experiment but here’s a starting point:

  • Characters should have the six core basic ability scores (STR, INT, WIS, DEX, CON, CHR) and they need to have Hit Points and an Armor Class.
  • Action resolution (like attacks) will be made by adding bonuses or penalties from applicable Ability Scores plus any special modifiers from magic or equipment to a dice result and compared to a target number. If it’s higher than the target then it succeeds and if not it fails.
  • It would be nice if the result of an action roll helped to determine how successful it was and not just that it was or wasn’t. It always bugs me that other than rolling a natural 20 to inflict a critical hit, there’s no real connection between an attack roll and the amount of damage it inflicts. In my own mechanics from the early editions of Don’t Look Back you subtracted the target from your roll and the difference determined things like how much damage a hit did or how much further ahead a character may be in a race. Is it possible to use a similar concept with 5e rules without adding unnecessary complexity?
  • Character classes are important because they provide an easy way to differentiate skills between characters, but do we need so many different ones with so many types of specializations? Would fewer classes with greater flexibility in customizing skills etc. provide as much variety and richness with fewer special rules etc.?
  • Group actions like group combat has to be simplified so it moves along faster.
  • It would be nice if character levels were translated more directly into bonuses for their skills/proficiencies, available spell levels, number of spells, etc. Do we need to reference so many tables?

Those are some of my initial thoughts. What do you think? How would you streamline some of these game mechanics processes down if you wanted them to work more smoothly or make more sense?

*Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons & Dragons are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast. They are used here for reference purposes only.

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