After many years of creating game projects for personal use in paper notebooks and pencil sketches and a few successful stints as an RPG freelancer, Brian Brousseau is attempting to create and publish a new RPG from scratch. Brian contributed to the Iron Kingdoms World and Character Guide and recently From the Imperial Library for the Wyrm Roleplaying System. He contacted me on Facebook about his efforts so I followed up with this interview.
Michael Tresca (MT): What kind of system are you designing?
Brian Brousseau (BB): What I’m designing is a generic system to run the kind of games that I like to run. I looked at all the games I enjoyed playing and running, then thought about the parts that I never use and decided to make a system that only has the parts I like.
MT: What kind of system do you prefer?
BB: I really like the idea of a rules light game, but every rules light game I’ve seen has felt too light for me. Some of them seem so bland. When I look at them, I can’t help thinking that you could make a character whose only combat skill was “Win fights +4” and you wouldn’t be any worse off than “Ninja Assassin +4” or “Berserker Barbarian +4”. It’s nice that you can flavor it however you want, but that flavor is only cosmetic.
MT: Fair point. How do you plan for your role-playing game to be different?
BB: The game I’m working on is more of a traditional game with a set skill list but I’m also including several player-defined descriptive features inspired by rules light games. I’m trying to make it relatively rules light but without being too light.
MT: What are your inspirations in designing this new game?
BB: My original inspirations when I started working on the system were D6 and Savage Worlds. The things I like about those systems is the way that it’s easy to use the mechanics. There aren’t a lot of miscellaneous modifiers and little fiddly bits to keep track of. It’s easy to create stats for NPCs on the fly. In those games, it’s easy to say “I wasn’t expecting him to be involved in a fight, but I’d guess this guy has Melee skill at 3D” or “He has Shooting at d8”. I really like being able to run the game in broad strokes like that without worrying about players asking “How can he have that ability if he doesn’t have this other prerequisite ability?” such as often happens in level-based games or games with skill “trees” or other heavy use of prerequisites.
MT: How complicated is the character sheet?
BB: Everything on the character sheet means something, even the character description. I’ve been involved with gaming a long time and I’ve been in some deep, involved campaigns with intense, dramatic role-playing, but I couldn’t tell you the height, weight, and eye/hair color for any of the characters. That stuff was usually on the sheets, but it never really mattered and those aren’t the parts I remember about them. I remember stuff like “Tom Three Arrows was a really huge mound of muscles who slouched a lot to try not to loom so large over everyone else” or “Stahldrache had a really nasty grin full of crooked teeth”. I want that kind of stuff to be in the description instead of height/weight, etc. but I want it to mean something when it comes up in play.
MT: Since this is a streamlined game, how difficult are the mechanics?
BB: The mechanics should be easy to remember so no one needs to check the rules for an ability during play. The skill list is fairly short and self-explanatory. The Talents (equivalent to Feats/Edges/etc.) are simple enough that you only need to read them once and the name alone will remind you what it does. There won’t be any need to double-check the book to see if an ability gives you a +2 or a +3 or whatever.
MT: But like other RPGs they are interconnected.
BB: Right, everything is interconnected in a way that makes it possible to use any ability to augment another (in appropriate circumstances). Backstabbing assassins can use their Stealth skill to boost their sneak attacks. A frightening warrior can use his Intimidation skill to throw his enemies off balance and strike them while they’re cowed. Football players can improve their game by studying ballet. A wuxia doctor can use his knowledge of anatomy to strike pressure points with his kung fu. Like skill synergies in D&D, but generalized: if it makes sense in the genre, the setting and the scene, then you can do it.
MT: Are there prerequisites or preset limits for Talents?
BB: Nothing is interconnected in a dependent way. There are guidelines but no real restrictions. For example, the system might say “This ability isn’t very helpful when used with skills below 3.”, but it won’t say “You can’t have this ability if you’re skill is below 3”. If there are some unforeseen circumstances where that combination would make sense, then why should I disallow it?
MT: How literal is this game? A common criticism is that you can’t do a certain action in RPGs because you “don’t have the right skill.”
BB: Everything is relative. I’m not tying the skills down to exact numbers like “If you have Athletic 3, then you can lift X kilograms or long jump Y meters”. It’s just “Athletics 3 is more athletic than Athletics 2”. What those numbers mean will depend on the setting. In a wuxia campaign like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a character with Athletics 3 could run up walls and leap from rooftop to rooftop like a feather on a breeze. In a gritty urban crime thriller like the world of Dirty Harry, a character with Athletics 3 could scramble over a chain link fence but would break a sweat while doing it. If a character wants to jump across an alley from one rooftop to another, you don’t need a map to measure the distance and consult a table. You just need to ask, “Considering the genre of this setting, how hard would it be to jump that gap?” If you’re a criminal punk being chased by Dirty Harry, it’s probably hard but doable. If you’re a kung fu monk that regularly skips across water like a ballet dancing Jesus lizard, then it probably wouldn’t even make you break your stride.
MT: Your system sounds similar to other D6 systems.
BB: What I basically wanted to do when I started was to combine Savage Worlds and D6. I wanted the limited, easy to use skill list and generic Arcane Backgrounds system from Savage Worlds but the unified mechanics of D6. I wanted to trim the D6 system down and get rid of the bloated skill list and the excessively large dice pools. I wanted to eliminate Savage Worlds’ tendency to give everything its own subsystem.
MT: So you’re not a fan of specialized systems.
BB: I’ve noticed that when I’m running a game, I tend to avoid scenes that require specialized subsystems. I just hand wave vehicle chases if vehicles have a separate set of rules. So a core mechanic that could cover those different situations without separate subsystems was very important. I also wanted the system to be quick to use. I chose to use a success counting dice pool system rather than an additive one like D6 because it’s easier to count a few dice than to add up a lot of pips.
MT: It sounds like the game has evolved beyond the basic D6 system.
BB: As I went along, I broadened my base of inspirations. I thought about campaigns I enjoyed running and playing and what exactly I enjoyed about them. I looked through the games that I had bought but never got a chance to run and looked at the things that inspired me to get them in the first place. I spent some time reminiscing about all the experimental systems that my college gaming club cooked up back in the 90s, loved for a month, then discarded for the next thing we created. I watched a lot of my favorite movies and paid attention to the way they were structured from a game play point of view.
MT: What major media inspired you when crafting this game?
BB: This is a list of some of the major influences that I try to keep in mind: Star Wars; Firefly; Aliens; Pulp action like the Indiana Jones and The Mummy series; Space opera like Flash Gordon or sword and planet stories like A Princess of Mars and its sequels; Ghostbusters; Pirates of the Caribbean; kung fu wuxia epics like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; pretty much any movie where Toshiro Mifune touches a sword; the sword and sorcery stories of Howard’s Hyboria or Leiber’s Lankhmar; the swashbuckling adventures of Dumas’ musketeers; RPG settings like “Deadlands”, “Dark Sun”, “Fading Suns”, “Iron Kingdoms”, “7th Sea”, and “Legend of the Five Rings”; The video game series “Silent Hill”
MT: What’s next after you finish creating the core rules?
BB: I’m going to put together a few small sample settings to include in appendices to show how the rules can be used in different ways and to give players some ideas about how they can apply the rules to different genres and on different scales.
MT: And after that?
BB: Later on, I’ll write up some more detailed settings if the samples in the core book are well-received and release them as supplements. I’ve got a long list of setting ideas, but I haven’t decided yet which ones will be included as the examples in the book. I think it’s mostly finished.
MT: How soon will we see this RPG?
BB: In a few more weeks, I’ll distribute it to a couple proofreaders and editors to double check things for clarity then I’ll start laying it out. I’m still collecting art and I’ve never done digital layout before (I learned layout a long time ago when “cut and paste” still referred to scissors and glue) so I’m not sure how long that stage will take. I hope it won’t take too long. I just got some new desktop publishing software that promises to make it easy, but I don’t know if they mean “easy for anyone” or “easy for graphic designers who do this stuff all the time”.
MT: How much will it retail for?
BB: Once the PDF is finished, I’ll be releasing it for free.
MT: Where can readers find out more about your game?
BB: At my blog, Wooden Pencils.