I am the Warden!!
Several hectic days have come to a close and peace has settled across the land. While a few skirmishes break out here and there (particularly between the armies of Dog and their newest recruit sneaking into enemy territory to get revenge on the realm of Cat for drinking from her water dish), I'm ready to sit down and tell you some more about the Optional System.
With some of the basics in mind, I can finally start to develop a signature for this blog. Or at least think about what that signature might be. To be completely honest, self-promotion is one of my weakest points. This blog was intended as an introductory tool-slash-live exercise in RPG creation hoping to cash in on followers through discussion and curiosity alone, giving it room to flower into something beautiful from there. So with the basics on options and dice in store, we can begin to discuss the means behind the madness.
Dr. Mearls or How I Learned To Love the Opposing Roll
Back in 2005, Malhavoc Press released the Iron Heroes alternate d20 system written by Mike Mearls. (You may have heard of him. He's the one who saved and/or destroyed D&D.) It offered a gritty, realistic fantasy setting with altered rules suitable for a wide variety of martial characters. Class options and the like aside, it provided an alternative to Armor Class.
You rolled your defense. No preset number for the DM to roll against, you rolled your defense just you would your attack. Brilliant.
Since my first RPG in... oh, 1991?... I've never been fond of defense in most games. Mind you, I never really played anything other than D&D during the first decade, but sitting there hoping the DM would roll low on his attack roll seemed counterproductive. More so after taking several classes in swordhandling, where equal time was spent in blocking with your shield or parrying with your boken. Our instructor even lectured us on it. "This isn't a roleplaying game. If you don't want to get hit, you have to do something about it, not just stand there in armour and hope he doesn't hit you hard." (Needless to say, there were a lot of geeks in the class.) So when I read Mike's rules for an active defense roll, I immediately inserted it into my homebrew campaign.
Determined to set about making a completely different RPG system than the standard order (Dragon Age, I'm looking at you), the first thing that came to mind was the active defense of Iron Heroes. I had to use it. No sooner had I made that decision, I began to think about the weakness of said book. There were still DCs (Difficulty Classes), predetermined numbers you had to roll against for skill checks, ability checks, and the like. This made active defense rolls the exception to the rule rather than the standard and that didn't seem right.
Numerous games do this, in my experience, though always unintentional. Many games use opposed skill checks between characters, yet have locked difficulties for others. If you're trying to pick a lock, couldn't you roll against the locksmith's design and build? Different components of the game work separately from each other and do not work under a unified application. Was there a way to avoid this friendly fire? Yep. Everything is an opposed roll. Jumping a cliff? Opposed roll. Smashing down a door? Opposed roll.
Real life has variety and an impossible number of variables complicating what appears to be a simple situation. Take one of the quintessentials of any fantasy game: kicking down a door. Yes, the door is a solid, immovable object (for the purpose of establishing conflict) and is not actively working to keep that foot from pounding it open. Does that means the door is perfect in every conceivable way? Isn't it possible there's a weak board along the edge, rust has worn out the hinges, moisture has weakened its core structure, or the character happens to hit it in just the right point that it shatters on impact? And what if your roll fails the first time? Did that not weaken the door just a little bit? Shouldn't it get easier with time?
Making opposed rolls for every attempted action in the Optional System, I feel, provides a missing element of most RPGs: unpredictability. If you need to roll at least a 15 to knock down the door, you can project your odds before even trying. I'm sorry, but that last time I tried to kick down a door, there was only the apartment number written on it and I thought I had a hell of a good chance of knocking it down. I was very wrong. If the difficulty of the door varies with each attempt, you're simulating the variety of reality, a crucial property for instilling believability in your game. Does that means you can kick down the door with just a roll of 3? Sure, but only if the door doesn't roll better than you (and it likely will).
Join me next time when we discuss difficulty dice, nature's answer to the opposed roll.