Thursday, May 26, 2011

Amateur RPG Design: Atlantis City

© 1983 John Stireman III

A few months ago, I wrote about the first RPG I tried to design shortly after I’d been exposed to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.  That particular game, Quest, was created for a school project and was, sadly, extremely lacking in any kind of cohesion or actionable rules.  It was the kind of game that only a precocious 7th grader who barely knew any of the actual D&D rules would try to create only because he was so excited about the concept of RPGs.  For all its faults, though, Quest was, in its own way, a “complete” set of rules.  It had a cover, a table of contents, and basic sketch of rules, including a sample adventure.

My second attempt at designing an RPG, when I was a more seasoned 8th grader, was a much more serious endeavor, but sadly it was never finished.  It marked the beginning of a trend that continues for me to this day.  I always find that I much prefer thinking about, researching, and “noodling” with RPG ideas than I do actually writing them down and committing them to paper.  Even as we speak, I’ve got three other ideas for games and campaign settings rattling around in my head.  I’ve made notes for them in my notebook, even done some research online to come up with rules modifications, and started sketching out backgrounds and characters.  What I should be doing, though, is getting ready for next week’s World of Samoth game.  I suppose I’ll get around to it on the day before our session.  I guess people these days refer to it as “Gamer ADD.”

Anyway, my second RPG was called by the very poorly chosen name of “Atlantis City.”  I still have a stack of notes tucked away in my “game design file box” in my office, and I dug it out just to see how bad it was.  And believe me, it was as bad as a game designed by a 13 year old could be. 

The game was billed as “…a Science Fantasy Underwater Roll-Playing [sic] game.”  I re-wrote that particular passage at least five times from what I could find, along with a section on “how to use the dice” and a table of contents that was mostly blank with place-holders.  I had a very bad tendency back then of re-writing everything I’d already done to try to make it look nicer.  Again, this was in the days before everyone had a computer, so this was all hand-written.  I’ve got about 150 pages of hand-written pages for this game, but about 60 of them are actually just repeats of the same thing over and over.  I even drew a little sketch of the dice, based on the picture in the Moldvay D&D Basic rulebook.  I patterned the entire game off of the presentation in Moldvay Basic, but I also clearly had been exposed to 1st Edition Gamma World by this point since the label for the game of “Science Fantasy” was something I can tell I copied from GW. 

There’s really not too much to say about the game rules themselves.  It was for the most part a direct translation of D&D, so what I was really doing, in retrospect, was creating a campaign setting, or a “rules modification” of Basic D&D to fit a more futuristic setting.  The premise, from what I can glean from skimming my notes, was that in the future, Earth was being destroyed on the surface for some reason. Shortly thereafter, the surface-dwelling countries somehow find Atlantis and its inhabitants, and adventures ensue therefrom. 

The classes and races seemed to change with each “edition” (ha!) that I wrote, but many of the basics stayed the same.  The game was a class-and-level system with no skills.  Like D&D, I even used level titles, partly because way back then, I really liked them, even though I didn’t ever use them in play.  The basic classes consisted of Fighter, Scout (a fighter subclass), Buccaneer (a fighter subclass), Burglar, Magician (later changed to Clairvoyant, and then finally to the more futuristic Psychic), Sailor, Technician (a sailor subclass, which eventually I deleted), and Marine (a “new” sailor sub-class that showed up in the last version I worked on before giving up).  Also like Basic D&D, I had a “race as class” section, but oddly I divided the races up into different classes.  So, there were sea-elves, but you could play a Sea-Elf Fighter (a separate class) or a Sea-Elf Buccaneer (another separate class).  Both had completely different level titles and experience point progressions.  I also created a new race I called “Finams”, which were short 3 ½ feet tall humanoids with webbed fingers and toes.  They were their own race-class, acting as fighters but with a few more special abilities (like underwater breathing) and a level limit.  Later, I added a bunch of other races, namely the Shape Changers (listed at the end of the section on classes because they were “so powerful” and a games master might not allow them), and the Water Lords, which I gather from trying to read my notes were basically the Atlanteans.  Near the very end of the time I worked on the game, I added an Explorer class.  Each new class got more and more special abilities, with no concerns for balance.  Explorers were given a huge some of starting “gold nuggets” based on the assumption that they had been exploring for awhile and were already successful at finding hidden treasure.  Marines were given a good selection of modern weapons and training in how to disable bombs (?) from “The United States Government.” 

There’s no explanation why sea-elves would suddenly appear in the future, and why, if there are “sea elves”, there aren’t any other kind of elves.  Thinking on it now, I can come up with a variety of reasons, but back then, that didn’t concern me.  Elves were cool, so I wanted to have elves.  Laser guns were cool, so I wanted to have those, too.  Laser-sharking?  Yeah, probably.  But, I was 13!

I made a homemade character sheet (again, all hand-written) that mentions the following character stats: Class, Behavior, Level, Armor Protection, Energy Points (e.g., HP), Physical Strength, Mental Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance, Charisma, Ego, Gun Accuracy, Power Points (i.e., XP), Special Abilities, Special Skills (spells, burglar abilities, etc.), Endurance Saves (later changed to the simpler term “Resistance”) against Drowning, Spells, Fire, Wands/Staves, Poison, and Paralyzation.  There’s also a little chart showing what you need to roll “to hit” in order to attack different AP (Armor Protection) numbers.  Like Basic D&D, I used a system of descending armor values.

The equipment list is almost exactly like Gamma World, but with magic weapons thrown in for good measure.  It’s a mixture of swords, battle axes, laser guns, machine guns, ice bows, grenades... anything you’d want. 

The setting never was fully fleshed out beyond the simple idea of “explore the undersea ‘city’ of Atlantis.”  I never wrote down whether the Atlanteans were good, evil, or indifferent, and what the point of a long-term campaign could be.  It took place in the future, but not far enough that our current governments didn’t exist, given the reference I made to the US government training the Marine class in its class abilities. 

Really the only cool thing to come out of all of this mess was some pictures that my friend John created for me, which I included at the top of the post.  I’ve posted some of his drawings before.  This was just the kind of guy John was – he loved to draw and if something inspired him, he’d do a whole set of drawings and then just give them to you.  You can actually see on this one where he wrote, “For your game?” and I wrote back with “YES.”  This would have been a “note” that we passed back and forth during class.  I remember after I said “YES” he finished the drawings and cleaned them up a little bit before passing it back to me.  To us, this seemed much more important than Spelling class. 

I still remember having conversations with John where I acted the part of the dorky and ├╝ber-excited gamer who talks at length about his game or character, and John making fun of me but at least listening to what I had to say and even offering ideas to make it better. 

Despite all of the time and effort I put into the game, it eventually faded away from my memory to just be filed away in a green hanging file folder, with the pages yellowing and paper-clips creating rust-shaped patterns over words written with my poor adolescent penmanship.  

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