Moulding The System To Suit Your World
How It Started
My Old School Essentials game has truly grown in ways I never expected. What began as a modest attempt at trying Moldvay D&D within the organizational structure of a West Marches game has now become a couple dozen players, five referees, and well many more RPG enthusiasts discussing the games throughout the day.
Originally, I had every intent of taking a considerable length of time to build a deep world for them to play with. Instead, I opted for scheduled dungeon delves in a shared world, such that the players get an opportunity to get their feet wet in some instant dungeon madness, laser-focusing their time into the thing that the game is all about. I decided that I'd make a regional map, write a couple dungeons, and get the ball rolling.
Where It Has Gone
I don't want to dwell here too long, but to be brief, I started putting in fairly vague world details for the players to work with. It was enough to help them understand, from a basic perspective, what the PCs' cultures are like in the world and some rudimentary history. But as I began opening the doors to the open world, it became more and more important to nail these things down. Which brings me to the topic at hand.
I Want The Mechanics To Reflect The World
I'll admit now that it may not be the wisest decision to overcomplicate a game with this kind of format. Players need to have a quick entry-point when joining this kind of a campaign, and this means that I agonize over every house rule I implement. In general, unless it's causing a serious issue in the way the game is being played, it's wildly unrealistic, or it's thematically inappropriate, I've tried not to mess with it.
But as I started filling in the details of the world, I could see a golden opportunity is being missed. I feel a profound calling to truly make the system and the setting mesh together in a way that I have never made the effort to before. A great deal of this has been influenced by my friend, Ian, of BlackDragonGames, and his work in his AD&D supplement Bhakashal. It customizes and contextualizes each class to fit within his setting exactly, working in conjunction with his vast library of game content and house rules.
While I don't have the decades of experience and material at my beck and call that Ian does, I do have a strong desire to have this harmonious synchronization between system and setting. Whether for the OSE game or for something else, I'm going to make this happen. Because of the many things I have various misgivings with, I see this becoming what many would consider a full hack in its own right, if not a system in and of itself. I don't believe I'd ever intend to publish it, but I'm seeking to create the setting and system combination that will become the sandbox for my players of present and future to enjoy with me for decades.
First, I am not a fan of world-influenced accomplishments that are tucked away for certain levels. You get a steed at this level. You get followers at this level. You get a barony at this level. Much in the way that time+gold is a great abstraction for handling the effort and resources in research, item creation, or construction, levels are a great abstraction for accomplishment that can be easily applied such that we can decree "you've done enough, here's your reward." However, I do not believe that this is the best way to do things for what I have in mind.
The Druid was an interesting counter to that abstraction, in that it required performing specific in-world tasks (fights to the death) to achieve that higher level. Again, I think it's an interesting concept that could have some merit, but it's not quite what I'm after.
Third Edition has the concept of the Prestige Class, along with many other designs that put the onus on the player to plot choices within an intricate web of customization mechanics, and commit to them obsessively. I hate this.
Fifth Edition has subclasses, which aren't inherently awful, but often are acquired a few levels in; this means that you have what amounts to a generic archetype for a few levels that suddenly becomes more specific.
Here is the approach I'm most leaning toward: Background, Class, Expertise, all three defined at character creation.
The background is determined by roll at character creation. As it stands, I merely adapted the DCC occupations to OSE. The options amount to basic pseudo-medieval fantasy trappings. I'm going to further refine this to make it incredibly setting specific. Backgrounds will be race and culture specific, and add subtle additions to the character in the form of implicit skills.
Class will fall under the four main archetypes we all know and love: Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, Cleric. I will tweak a few things in the existing classes such that some classes will have more of their weight in the Expertise than others. The desired end-state is that the Classes will serve primarily the same function they always have, but the subtle differences will bring the nuances of the world to life, and allow duplicate classes to not feel overly redundant. Niche will still be protected.
Expertise will add the direct context of how the character archetype fits into the world, and will feature particular specialties that will only improve as the character progresses in level. However, unlike the aforementioned situations where achieving a level causes a direct game-world alteration (barony/followers), such things will be achieved by achieving tasks particular to that Expertise type. If an Expertise involves belonging to an order of some type, it may involve slaying a certain kind of creature and conducting a ritual, for instance. The benefits are reaped for accomplishing these tasks. They will often be open enough that continued play will not feel repetitive, but they will still be a feat being accomplished.
Some Expertise options will be locked behind certain backgrounds, and they're all limited by class. For instance, a Cleric of Chulsland will belong to the Church, and will be particularly adept at handling the undead, the unclean, and the sinful. I'm leaning toward dumping the entire Cleric magic system entirely and reworking them into something more akin to Lion & Dragon's prayers. The Cleric of the North would be more akin to a medicine man, or a shaman, and his abilities would be in line with that theme.
The Magic-User would be the closest to form than any of the rest, in that the expertise may offer some culturally-specific esoteric knowledge and/or capabilities, but I see as mostly remaining untouched. Perhaps they grow their lists of spells by separate means, but I plan to keep the magic still very much Vancian in form.
That's all I have in mind for class-related changes at the moment. Next, I think I'll be tackling how I intend to handle skills.
Note: my purpose with this entry is to organize my thoughts, so it may not be terribly entertaining or enlightening.