Elegance and Symmetry for Characteristics in Do-It-Yourself d100 RPG Design

In his four histories of the tabletop rpg hobby, Shannon Apelcline claims that the industry moved, from the 70s through the 90s, roughly from D&D-centric to complicated and simulationist to emulationist, this last often with a specific intellectual property as its referent. Our beloved Rolemaster belongs in this second category, of course. It is a more granular and “realistic” derivative of D&D.

One aspect in which RM is more detailed than D&D is in its range of Attributes. RM uses ten of them, whereas D&D employs six. Is it desirable to have ten rather than six? Well, I consider Attributes to be tools first, descriptors second, and if they prove to lack any real mechanical component—or if, in other words, there is no device to fit the tool—then they are devoid of purpose and threaten to disrupt elegance or symmetry in game design. This observation is not meant to argue that D&D’s six characteristics are a reasonable amount; we all know that Charisma is a frequent “dump stat.” Nor does this argue that ten Attributes should be the high end of descriptive qualities in character design. I maintain that if there is a meaningful purpose for, say, one hundred characteristics, then those one hundred qualities should be baked into that specific game design.

A further consideration for characteristics in game systems should be the intended emulation. If a game focuses on investigation and discovery, for example, it might not make sense to commensurately detail physical, combat-oriented aspects of character design. Of course, RM wasn’t interested in emulation but simulation (at least within the context of D&D-esque fantasy), so I think the ten stats were an attempt to codify as many aspects of the human person as is reasonably possible within an rpg. Of course many games that came after RM cared less about this.

I also must notice that RM is a d100 system, so it might be no accident that it contains ten Attributes. This raises yet another consideration of systemic and thematic elegance and symmetry. I’m not convinced that RM is able to find a symmetrical use for all ten Attributes—many of them appear synonymous or overlap with other qualities—but the impulse is admirable. The latest version of RM has streamlined this design by applying three distinct Attribute bonuses to every Skill, whereas earlier versions of the system seemed unclear which Attributes to apply to which Skill and lacked symmetry by not codifying the amount applied to each Skill, sometimes averaging the results instead.

RM’s ten stats is an example of systemic elegance, but theme and intended game experience should be a further influence on this aspect of game design. One feature of the rpg Yggdrasill (translated from the French by Cubicle 7 and published in English) that fascinates me is its Nine Characteristics in character definition. I have capitalized “nine” because these strike me as simultaneously simulationist and emulationist. To begin with the simulationist quality, Yggdrasill regards the human person as being composed of three basic aspects: Mind, Body and Soul. Each of these components is subdivided into three micro-stats for a total of Nine. This is neat systemic symmetry but also meaningful while considering Yggdrasill’s Viking Age emulation: Odin hung on the World Tree Yggdrasill (Odin’s “horse” or gallows) for nine nights; his ring Draupnir makes eight new ones every ninth day; the Old North cosmology contains nine distinct worlds.

Why have I been thinking about this? Well, though I love Yggdrasill, some features of that system stopped working for me at the table. In spare moments my mind returns to it, worrying at it, redesigning it until, by now, I think I might have something serviceable. Then, in another spare moment, I began imagining what a d100 Viking game might look like (Yggdrasill is sort of a dice pool system), using, perhaps, VsD’s promised Open100 license. So I began to build, and of course I started with VsD’s six MERP/D&D stats.

I used these for awhile, during my process. Finally I needed to discard them for Yggdrasill’s nine, with much better results. It’s difficult to find symmetry in six stats. There are three keyed to body, two to “soul,” and one to mind. Or perhaps the six break down more neatly into just body and mind, convenient for worlds and worldviews that don’t precisely accommodate beliefs in “souls.”

As I developed my emulation, I changed more of VsD’s system, too, then still more. I fell down a rabbit hole: what I wrote exceeded what I had produced for my Yggdrasill redesign. For my d100 emulation, I rejected subsystem after subsystem, and the possibility of telling the stories of just what I wrote and what I discarded strikes me as tedious. In the end, though, I believe I have built something considerably new, something that uses the nine stats of Yggdrasill, a vastly reduced Skill list fit for a northern milieu, a spell system lifted right out of the Havamal, a Skill Resolution table adapted from VsD, and a combat system inspired by Antony Cummins’s ebook An Illustrated Guide to Viking Martial Arts and Peter R’s claim that “realistic” combat must entail nearly every blow landing nearly every time.