The Edwards Roleplaying System
(TL/DR: I wrote my own tabletop RPG. It’s terrible, but I love it. The files are at the bottom.)
I’ve been mulling over an idea for a new blog post. It’s about the idea of “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and how it’s negatively affecting discourse, opinion, and results. It’s a heavy one, and I know it’ll probably piss off a few liberal and conservative friends, or possibly everyone. However, it’s so heavy that I haven’t mustered the energy to produce it. So this post has nothing to do with it. I don’t even really know why this is the introduction to this post, which is about role-playing games. I guess it’s because I treat my blog like a conversation between the two of us, and if you’ve ever talked to me in person you’ll know that I ramble a bit and go on tangents, especially when I’ve had a couple drinks and I’m my Authentic Self. So here we go on the blog post that is about as opposite as a heavy politically-motivated discourse as can be without being just a post of pictures of otters being the representation of everything that is good in the universe.
I love role-playing games of all sorts. LARPs. Video games. Hell, Choose Your Own Adventure books. But my ultimate love of the form is one of the first ones I discovered: the tabletop RPG. I read my first DnD rulebook when I was 10 and fell in love. My imagination soared with the never-ending story potential, and the side of me that later became an accountant loved the idea of rules providing a framework on which I could hang my imaginings. It was like playing Guns (that venerable game wherein two or more people take sticks and pretend to shoot each other, followed by the volleys of “Nuh-Uh” and “Ya-huh” to determine if someone was hit) but with a way to prove who had shot whom and what would happen. I loved it.
I also didn’t really have anyone to play with, besides a couple of brothers who were mostly disinterested in listening to a ten-year old telling them what they could and couldn’t do. Over the next 13 or so years I only sat at a table to play the game with other people three or four times. Now, before you get the impression that I was a mostly lonely kid hanging out alone in his room reading DnD books and making characters and playing through modules alone eating beef jerky that sat soaking in a glass of Pepsi, you should know that… well, that’s exactly what was going on, so nevermind.
Anyway, I never lost that love of the games and rulesets themselves. I bought almost every 1st edition ADnD product out there, got Gamma World and Star Frontiers (fuck Boot Hill), Top Secret, TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes (god I still love that game so much – in fact, it’s the last system I ran a regular game in, 6 or so years ago), Mechwarrior (the BattleTech RPG), Melanda (shoutout to my Wilmark Dynasty peeps what-what), Vampire: the Masquerade, Call of Cthulhu, probably several more I’ve forgotten. Then I discovered Middle-Earth Roleplaying and, from there, Rolemaster. It was Rolemaster that transformed my love into a near-obsession. For rules.
You see, Rolemaster was a rules-heavy game. It’s sarcastically and fittingly called Chartmaster because of the reams and reams of charts and tables that were used to resolve a nearly infinite array of actions, from climbing to falling to swinging a weapon (a different chart for each one!) to bartering to seducing to… you get the idea. I LOVED IT. I only got a chance to play it a few times, because even other roleplayers don’t always love rules. I get nostalgic for Rolemaster more than any other tabletop RPG, mostly because the game was heavily skill-based even though they had classes. I loved the long lists of different skills and what could be done with them. Want a rogue who had a bunch of music skills and could credibly pretend to be a minstrel to gain access to places? Easily done.
So over the years I kept buying new and different systems just to check out the engine – the rules systems. I loved tinkering with them, seeing how they worked to mimic reality or, even better, how they supported the movies and books and stories of the swords-and-spells-and-spaceships-and-lightsabers worlds I loved. I always found something I loved in every new system, and always found a lot that I hated. Especially despairing was the d20 clone era, when for some reason a whole lot of people cloned the DnD engine and made it practically the default. Not that I hate DnD. It’s a nice engine. It’ll take you where you want to go, as long as you want everything to go the same way every single time. It’s the Plymouth Reliant K of game design. It’s ugly and a lot of what’s under the hood is a mess, but it’s reliable and drives.
Finally, one day, about 10 or more years ago, I decided that no rules system was going to be able to do everything that I wanted, because the things that I wanted and loved just weren’t common. Some of those things had been codified in the first iteration of what became DnD and so became ubiquitous in the systems that followed. So I decided I was going to create my own.
I ended up with a list of things that I wanted in my system, kind’ve the blueprint for what I was aiming for and wished I could find in an off-the-shelf game. Once you see it, you’ll understand why.
Character classes are almost synonymous with RPGs. They are a shorthand for what a character’s skills are, an archetype they fit into, an easy way to categorize them. Very very few games don’t have them. They were in DnD, and therefore in practically every game after that, including video games. Only TSR’s Marvel game was classless, that I remember. It’s basically a standard. I also hate them. I never liked the idea of a character’s skills, abilities, and worldview basically put in a little cubicle and separated from everything else. Want a fighter who’s a good tracker? Nah, have to make a ranger for that. Plus, classes lead into subclasses and more subclasses and it gets out of control. I prefer characters that are skill-based and can choose whatever mix of things that they like without being defined by a restrictive and arbitrary class.
Here’s another near-standard in RPGs. Levels rank a character’s… nebulous level of power. Some consider it a measure of their experience and that’s how the person can be shot with a machine gun a bunch of times without dying. It’s what gives birth to those scenes – most often in video games – where a character is surrounded by a bunch of low-level MOBs attacking them and doing no damage at all. It makes it so a character can have someone threaten them with a loaded crossbow and the character, even though naked and unarmed, doesn’t feel any fear, because the crossbow does 2-5 points of damage and the character has 108 hit points. I hate levels. Too often it’s just a tool for character advancement, and what happens is this: at low levels, the players just want to get up to the point where their characters can do the things that make them cool in the first place, and at high levels they become too powerful for anything that isn’t an existential threat. The mid-part is the fun part, so why not stick mostly to the mid-part from start to finish? I want a player to be able to make a character that can do what they want it to do from the first game.
Simple on the Surface, Complex under the Hood
I want a system that feels approachable and simple on the surface. As far as the players are concerned, the game seems approachable and intuitive. The engine, though, can handle practically everything that gets thrown at it. It’s an approach I’ve learned from accounting. I’ve often said that, as an accountant, I’m doing my job if everything seems simple and easy to understand. I can only do that with incredibly complex rules, but I don’t need to show people that part.
I like skill and ability score points able to be described with something other than a number. How strong does that guy look? He looks like he’s got Excellent strength. How good is this smith at weaponcrafting? He is a Grandmaster. Things like that. Even things in the world that pose challenges have the same descriptors. How complex is this lock? It’s Poorly made and easy to pick for even an Average lockpicker. That kinda thing. In the game, that means that someone with higher skill than an obstacle’s difficulty can automatically succeed at the action, unless they’re under duress.
On top of that, I want to use one die. No d20 for an attack and a d4 or d6 or d12 for damage. Just one die, for everything. Every action, no matter the kind, determined by a player roll against an opposing GM roll.
Different and Distinguishable Types of Magic
The magic of wizards, the songs of bards, the prayers of priests, the rituals of witchcraft – all of these are very different approaches to changing the laws of nature and should be treated accordingly. But since they are all skills that can be learned or practiced, there is no reason why they are exclusive from one another. Why can’t a priest learn the magic of a wizard?
Also, no Vancian magic. No spell slots. Spells/abilities/prayers are ranked at different power levels, and using more powerful effects means more point expenditure from a pool, like games that use Mana or other point systems. Vancian magic is dumb and I hate it.
The World is Dangerous and You Could Die
Similar to the No Levels idea, I want characters, and their players, to be afraid of a loaded crossbow in the hands of a barely-trained peasant. Also, not every priest can heal. Why exactly does the Thunder-God priest know how to heal? Also, a big-ass bear should be deadly, no matter how much experience a character has. Experience should lead to not-fighting-the-bear, instead of I’ll-just-box-the-bear (no matter how much fun it is in Witcher 3).
I want the basic rules to be usable regardless of setting or game type. This is hard to do. Mostly, I want to be able to do it by swapping skills for era-appropriate ones. Also, I want people to be able to create a (non-demigod) Gandalf the wizard, a witcher like Geralt, a thief like Grey Mouser, a (god help us) ranger like Drizzt, an assassin like Kalam, all in the same party. I don’t want the tired (for me) system of Tank, Healer, DPS, Support mantra to be a requirement. I want people to be able to fight, talk, or sneak around their obstacles and get rewarded for however they approach it.
Those were the basic things I was looking for. It took a long time. But I wrote it. I created the game I wanted and longed for. It’s overly complex, probably unwieldy, includes too many things, and will never be able to be run by anyone but myself. I’ve play-tested it a couple of times and it survived, but the tests were probably not overly rigorous and certainly not of a long duration. It’s ugly and bad and I love it so very much. Hell, it’s not even finished – I need to finish the Rituals and Alchemy section still, and probably more. Character creation is so complex and brutal that the character sheet is like 8 tabs of Excel goodness and I’m pretty sure is impossible to complete without me there to do it for you.
But I’m including it here, for anyone so bereft of something to do and therefore want to look at it. It’s my longest work, the backbone of the world the Stormreach Saga is set in, my magnum opus of sheer unadulterated Nerdery.
Behold, my Cones of Dunshire.
And my Excel masterpiece:
Look ye mighty on my works and feel pity for me.