Sunday, March 6, 2011

Game Design: Quest - My First RPG

This is kind of a goofy one, but this will be the first post in a series covering my adolescent dream of being a professional game designer by trying my hand at creating my own RPGs back when I was I Junior High School.  This was about six months or so after I’d first learned about D&D from my friends in Sandy, Utah. 

I think it was Spring of 7th Grade, and as a project for our Reading Class (which, mystifyingly, was a completely separate class from English, which was also separate from Spelling.  People wonder why Americans are so bad at math – I had three separate classes that were all about reading, writing, and spelling, but only one math class.  Then again, most Americans don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s”, so maybe having three English-based classes wasn’t enough for some people) we were tasked with creating a game for a book we had read.  Well now!  This was the perfect opportunity to show off my gaming chops and create a totally awesome RPG, wow the teacher and my classmates, and be super cool.  And, who knows? Maybe I could even sell my game to a game company and get rich!

I started to work right away, firstly trying to think of a proper book as the basis for my game.  This right here will give you a perfect snapshot of how much I differed from my friends who had taught me the game.  My best friend at the time, a guy named John, had just finished reading Lord Foul’s Bane from the Thomas Covenant series.   If you’re not familiar with that series, all I can is that it’s quite honestly way too deep for a 7th Grader (in my opinion), and it involves a lot of very dark things including rape, thoughts of suicide, and a complete and utter douche-bag for a protagonist.  But, it does include some really nifty and creative fantasy stuff like the Bloodguards, Cavewights, and the Ranyhyn.  Anyway, that’s what he was reading.  I was reading a book of legends about King Arthur.  John and I pretty much came from different backgrounds.  I think he tended to kind of look on me as a total hopeless dork who didn’t quite “get it”, whereas I pretty much worshipped his artistic ability and his knowledge of all things fantasy and science-fiction. 

John ended up making this really cool kind of wargame based on Lord Foul’s Bane that included some really minimal role-playing elements.  I, meanwhile, went full-bore into writing the “Basic Rules” for a game I had come to call Quest: The Fantasy Adventure Game of King Arthur and the Round Table.  I thought that sounded like a very good grown-up adult title, but which also grabbed at the imagination.  Who wouldn’t want to go on a “quest” with King Arthur? 

My basic rule-book ended up being 21 pages long on three-hole-punched lined notebook paper.  This was back before people had personal computers (or, at least, before anyone I knew had one), and also before kids were expected to know how to type in 7th Grade, so it’s all hand-written.  The table of contents is quite funny:

Part 1:   Introduction                                                            1
                Explanation of terms used in this book                   1
                How to use the dice                                              2
Part 2:   How to Make a Player Character                               3
                Explanation of Characters                                      3
                Character Tables                                                  4
                Notes Regarding Characters                                   7
                Special Abilities                                                     8
Part 3:   Spells – Explanation                                                  9
Part 4:   Costs of Weapons and Equipment                             10                                                                                              11
Part 5:   Monsters                                                                 12
Part 6:   Encounters/Attacking                                                13
Part 7:   Treasure                                                                  13
Part 8:   Character Sheets                                                      14
                Example                                                               14
                Empty                                                                  15
Part 9:   A Quest Sample for Beginners                                   16
                Map                                                                     17
                Quest of the Golden Cup (Sample)                          19
                More Information                                                  21

There was also a “Before You Start” page indicating that you would need the basic polyhedral dice used in a typical D&D game (which I noted were available at “FMS Hobbies” – a place I have no memory of whatsoever), a “Quest” Master, a character of your choice, and a “Quest” place to explore ("one included in this book!"). 

It’s pretty obvious that I was following the basic structure and rules of the Moldvay D&D Basic Set, which I guess is pretty understandable seeing as how, at the time, it was the main form of D&D to which I had been exposed, and was the only rules I actually owned that I could use as inspiration.  At this stage in my RPG career, I hadn’t played any other RPGs so the rules were bound to basically just mimic what I was familiar with.

For the characters, instead of classes, the player basically chose a famous character from the King Arthur legends, including Arthur himself, “Guenevere” [sic], Lancelot, Gawain, Gaheris, Agravane, Gareth, Geraint, or Merlin.  There were some really odd things, like noting that if you chose to play Merlin, you could only advance to 7th level, and then after that you were assumed to have left to live with Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.  But, if you wanted to, you could then create another Merlin, who started over at 1st level! 

I also included some basic rules for “Your Own Knight” (such as “Sir Martin”), or “Your Own Magician.”  Following the very sexist overtones of early D&D, I specifically called out that “girls can be magicians, such as Morgan Le Fay.”  The underlying assumption was that they could not be knights. 

Similarly to the D&D Basic Rules, the character advancement tables (which copied D&D’s format almost exactly) stopped at 3rd level and then noted that advancing past 3rd level gained you 1 hit point per level and cost a variable amount of experience points, dependent on the class.  Of course, with the exception of noting that Merlin and “Your Own Magician” had access to spells, I never described any of the class abilities of the different characters, so the Experience Point Tables were completely arbitrary.  At this point in my exposure to RPGs, I really hadn’t connected that experience points were dependent on how many abilities a class had. 

However, I did include a very rudimentary skill system, which at the time was pretty revolutionary, considering that I hadn’t played any class-and-level games that also had skill systems.  My system was, again, completely arbitrary: you rolled a d6 for each ability, and if you happened to roll a 1 or a 2, your character had that skill.  The skills were: Open Locks, Find or Remove Traps, Pick Pockets, Move Silently, Climb Sheer Surfaces, Hide in Shadows, and Hear Noise.  Astute readers will notice that these are not the types of skills one would assume would be prevalent among the Knights of the Round Table.  So, really, all I did was take the Thief class abilities from D&D and apply them to any character. 

I also randomly included skills/abilities for Dwarf and Elf characters on the same page as my skill system, even though they aren’t mentioned elsewhere in the book.  All Elf and Dwarf characters had “infravision”, as well as the abilities to find slanting passages, find traps, find shifting walls, and find secret doors.  I didn’t explain what any of these terms meant, and also since both elves and dwarves had identical abilities, there was nothing to distinguish them from each other, mechanics-wise.

Then, inexplicably, on the same page as all of the above, I then detailed the special ability of Cleric characters, which was to turn undead, even though I had never listed clerics as an option in the earlier section on characters.    

The “Spells” section was a very in-depth 2/3 page examination of three spells: Disguise, Make Light, and Magic Glowing Arrows.  No – it’s not Magic Missile. This was totally and completely different.  This was Magic Glowing Arrows, damn it!  

The “Monsters” section included Bears (Black, Grizzly, Polar, and Cave), because, apparently, I thought that Knights of the Round Table would be regularly fighting Polar Bears.  The other monster listed is Dragon, which came in the standard rainbow of colors as normal D&D dragons.  That’s it. 

In the “Sample Quest”, which was entitled Quest for the Golden Cup, I laid out the scenario, which was that Arthur’s Golden Cup had been stolen by a knight in red-golden “armour” (I used English spellings for maximum cool factor).  Then I noted that this scene was “from the chapter: The Coming of Percival”, presumably from whatever book it is I read to form the basis of my Arthurian knowledge. The quest was defined as “capture or kill the knight, and bring the cup and the armour back.” 

Then there is a very bad map which includes a line-drawing of a castle with a party of figures standing out in front, a road heading to the East, and at the far end, another picture of a knight holding a cup in his hand.  It wasn’t keyed for the referee – it shows exactly where the bad guy is right directly on the map. 

In the “for more information” section, rather than listing which book(s) I had used for inspiration, it instead mentions “get the Advanced Quest rulebook, coming out soon.”

Then came the cover, which is obviously a rip-off of the Erol Otus cover to the Moldvay Basic D&D Set, drawn in colored pencil in my very bad style at the time.  But, you can see that I got an “A”!  I was on my way to great things. 

I actually do remember working on writing this game, and in the folder I just found it in, I had all of these notes scribbled on scratch-paper that didn’t make it into the final rules – things like hiring henchmen, more classes like Hunters and witches, and in general just much more explanation of the rules.  A lot of this is stuff I worked on afterward, when I had seen the AD&D Player’s Handbook and decided that I wanted to increase the level of complexity and “realism” to my game. 

I also remember that as part of our assignment, we had to gather a group of our classmates and play our game with our teacher so he could grade how creative we had been and how well our game actually played.  I was the referee, and I remember that the teacher asked a lot of questions like “how do I know how much damage my battle axe does” (because, oddly, I had not included a table for weapon damage in my rules), and I had answered, “Well, as you play, you just get used to it, and you know how much damage each thing does.”  He looked to my friend John, who was playing, and John actually agreed, because that was how we played D&D at the time.  The referee just kind of made things up as we went along.  We didn’t use the attack tables in the books, or even the saving throw tables, really.  We basically just rolled a twenty sided die, and the DM would tell us what happened based on what seemed reasonable to him.  Once in a while, he’d say things like “roll a d8 for damage” and we did that not because the table in the book said that a sword did d8 but because the DM had told us to.  That’s how I thought RPGs were played, so you can hopefully understand why my “rules” for Quest were not really “rules.”  As I think about it, they actually bore a close resemblance to the way we play Cal & D these days.

Looking back on it, I do remember that writing this game up was very difficult for me.  I hated writing the “boring parts” like the example of play, the equipment lists, and the stuff about “how to play.”  I really liked coming up with my list of potential character types and writing out my basic skill system.  And creating characters is still probably one of the things I enjoy most about RGPs these days.  It’s partly why I prefer class-and-level systems to skill-based systems.  I like classes. 

I also think it’s cool that back then, teachers had the flexibility from the administration to basically design their own curriculum that included trying to inspire our imagination.  I highly doubt that 7th graders these days are given an assignment to “create a game based on any book you’ve read this year.”  Things seem so much more structured now, and less creative.  And that’s really a shame. 

So, I’m sure some of you reading this blog took a stab at creating an RPG back in your youth.  I’m not talking about your professional writing, but an honest-to-goodness amateur attempt when you were still a young teenager.  I’d love to hear about it.

Hanging: At my desk in my home-office (as usual)
Listening: "Blue Train", by John Coltrane
Drinking: Nothing

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