Unwritten Games

Posted: 2024-02-08
Last Modified: 2024-02-08
Word Count: 2284
Tags: astral elf-game openquest paranormality rpg shadow-vale third-system world-of-qi zeta-world

Table of Contents

Warning: I’m going to be whining for this whole article.

The Problem

It’s easy to come up with ideas. It’s hard to put in the work to turn the idea into a final, finished form. This is especially true for games, where an initial playtest can completely upend a designer’s assumptions.

Not that I’m a designer. I’d have to finish something before I call myself a game designer. But I do want to finish something … I just have too many ideas of what that might be.

New Projects

I just can’t help myself. Here are the new ideas on the horizon.

The Grim Lands

One project I haven’t blogged about yet is “The Grim Lands”. It’s inspired by Deathbringer, D&D house rules by “Professor Dungeon Master” a.k.a. Dan Masters a.k.a. Dan DiFazio (sp?). Like that system, “The Grim Lands” reduces power levels and magic to fit a grimdark setting of my own, but with the Elf System as its core rather than OSR or modern D&D. In my private notes I’ve sketched out the prime characteristics (Strength, Agility, Toughness, Perception, Knowledge, Willpower, and Charm) and how they play into the combat and ability check systems. What I have, though, are brief notes, without (as usual) a step-by-step procedure for creating player characters or (unusually) a verbose setting document. Unlike Deathbringer I plan to produce a comprehensive, working magic system, maybe with level-less spells … which is one of my stumbling blocks.

Bergarus Vale

Developing a campaign setting as an exercise now makes me want to run the thing for real. Maybe even as a West Marches campaign … if I can find not just players but co-Referees. And, of course, the time to finish the thing.


At some point while watching Frieren and/or listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack I typed up a setting document about a more explicitly Norse fantasy world. Elves were strange and mysterious, dwarves were hardworking and disciplined, giants are huge and terrifying, and the Gods remote and unresponsive save through the miracles of priests. There was also a Dark Lord, at one time, but after his defeat the world pivoted toward practical alchemy and modernity.

What to do with this, I don’t know. Run it under Fate or Everywhen, maybe? (Or any of a number of systems I’m dying to try or retry.) I might combine the elves and dwarves into one species, since I don’t have a real role for both; for a change I’ll make them more dwarfish. It makes the parts of the backstory involving half-elves and “dark elves” a little stranger, but that’s what I want.

Low Magic D&D

Somehow I developed the mad idea to run at least one D&D game with almost no magic. I hadn’t even come up with an adventure idea yet, just that I wanted to do Sword & Sorcery in D&D 5e. Some discussion on the Nimble Discord server made this idea less mad:

An easier option would be to use something besides 5e, e.g. Barbarians of Lemuria, Swords of Cepheus, Swords of the Serpentine, Barbarian!, Crypts & Things, Low Fantasy Gaming, or any of the other games I own where magic is optional. But I’m stubborn.

Old Projects

Meanwhile, I’ve written at length about the following, less so on the following.

Astral RPG

The Astral RPG represents characters traveling into or through the Astral Plane, which has its own metaphysical rules and denizens. I’ve written about it at length. The project has languished after my current gaming group seemed decidedly averse to the idea. I still want to do it. At the very least I’d like to post a version that supersedes the half-baked alpha version. But I’m not there yet.

The Elf Game and Others

The Elf Game is, in brief, D&D if elves were the primary species and humans either side characters or “monsters”. I’ve written a lot about it.

As I said in a previous post I have been pondering how to make the original concept work on its own terms, not just as a reference to old-school D&D. I’m also trying to make my grand concept a little more modular, so I can build the core before I have to deal with all the elaborations. It turns out, though, game design is hard, especially when you’re responsible for the core engine and two magic systems and enough setting information to make someone want to play the game.

OpenQuest Something Something

OpenQuest is a D100-based system based loosely on older editions of RuneQuest. OpenQuest simplifies a lot of mechanics. As the name implies, there’s a Creative Commons SRD available for the latest version. I really want to try it.

At one time I wrote a lot about the system and all the settings I wanted to run with it. Most of those settings involved adding new systems, mostly magic. That’s where my ship ran aground. Even after backing up and conjuring a world runnable with SimpleQuest – an even simpler OpenQuest build – I ended up not running anything, due to lack of time and players.


Paranormality started as an exploration of what Astral characters do in the material world, and expanded to encompass a world of paranormal powers.

My idea of the core system keeps changing, from a Cepheus-like system to a 3d6 version of the Elf System to at one point percentiles. The associated psionic systems remain even more in flux.

Shadow Vale

Shadow Vale takes place in an “otherworld” where unusually hardy humanoids eke out a living in a mountainous wasteland in perpetual shadow, envying their distant kin in a Supernal Realm of plenty while fearing the creatures of the Infernal Realm. The system is mostly Cepheus Quantum with a few Fighting Fantasy mechanics and a limited freeform magic system.

Despite all the verbiage, Shadow Vale isn’t a complete system. At some point I decided the setting was a little too static, so before I got too deep into the details of the mechanics I stopped to consider the problem. So far I haven’t found a solution.

The Stellar Alliance

The Stellar Alliance is an intentionally Star Trek-like setting using first Mini Six and more recently Cepheus Quantum as its base system. For the purposes of the setting I had to build out an entire set of mechanics for “Warp Drive” and other Star Trek-with-the-serial-numbers-filed off technologies. (Hey, it worked for The Orville.)

Right now it’s on hold, pending another round of playtesting, i.e. some people who’ll play the thing. I ran one adventure under the Mini Six rules, before I’d built out Warp Travel and the rest, so I don’t really know if the Cepheus Quantum version is better or worse, or if the Warp Combat bits actually work.

World of Qi

The “World of Qi”, as I dubbed it originally, featured a vaguely Asian-themed world in which “Heroes” mastered five types of Qi – intrinsic, battle, magic, enhancing, and fluid – to combat Monsters and Demons invading the Middle World. I also detailed three other worlds – Upper, Lower, and Spirit – and four other types of qi/energy, as well as various practices including alchemy and sorcery. The core system is a D6 pool, used for skill checks, combat, and saving throw.

First off, I’ll probably retitle it Heroes of the Middle World. Second I’ll pull back to the core concept – Heroes vs. Monsters – and bring that to completion before I start elaborating on other worlds. Assuming I ever get back to it, that is.

Alternatively I could dump everything but the central conceit – martial characters gaining superhuman prowess and durability by channelling magical power – and dump all the rest. I wanted to create anime-style battles. Do I need a whole magic system (or three) and four Worlds for that? No.

Zeta World

Zeta World describes one of several worlds of sword-and-sorcery or sword-and-planet adventure, full of mighty-thewed warriors battling for supremacy. Notionally it was an homage to Tunnels & Trolls, particularly combat. That said it was pretty nebulous in past posts.

I’ve defined it a little better in my notes – five characteristics Might, Stamina, Skill, Luck, and Psi (or Magic) – and I know what I’d like the system to do – characters with an arbitrary mix of combat, skill, and magic/psi – but I only have the basic concepts. I haven’t even decided whether the D6 dice pool will simply total the number of pips on the dice, use a success-per-die mechanic, or use a Fudge-like mechanic where the average is equal to the attribute or skill rolled.

Abandoned Projects

Sometimes you gotta throw in the towel.

Showdowns and Shadows

At one point I was enamored with the Aces & Eights Shot Clock1, less so the rest of Aces & Eights. I thought of grafting the Elf System or something like it onto the Shot Clock mechanic for a weird eerie west game. Then I fell out of love with the Shot Clock.

The Third System

The “Third System” was mostly a dice mechanic – roll a pool of d6es, each five or six is a success – with elaborations and ideas for use. I folded the mechanic into “World of Qi” and left it there.

Troika Redux

After some tricksy math to simplify Troika!, I realized I essentially had Cepheus Quantum or Cepheus Something, depending on how many skills I added. So I decided just to let Troika! be Troika!.

What Do I Do?

Fit the Concept to a System

While I think of this as the Procrustean Method, it does make a lot of sense.

Instead of inventing a whole system for Heroes of the Middle World, why not just implement it in Fate Core or Fate Condensed and add enough Stunts or Extras to represent supernatural powerups? Instead of inventing a whole system for Paranormality, why not leverage Cepheus Quantum or OpenQuest as a base system then add the psychic powers as needed on top? And speaking of OpenQuest, why not pick a setting that requires the least house rules – ideally none at all – and run that?

Well … I’m not sure how I’d give the sense of players having depleting injury shields under Fate apart from, well, giving them depleting injury shields. In Paranormality the psychic powers are the central design problem; system is nigh irrelevant. (I even thought of making it as systemless as possible.) And if I could constrain my ideas to the existing OpenQuest magic systems, I would.

Play the Originals

Rather than create Zeta World that plays a little like Tunnels & Trolls, why not just play Tunnels & Trolls2? If I want grimdark D&D Lite, why not just play Deathbringer? Or Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing?

T&T, much as I like it, might prove too clunky and facetious for modern gamers. Deathbringer, as I’ve complained before, has just enough to suggest how it should run, but leaves out lots I’d have to house rule. And WFRP is a large beast, especially in its 4th Edition.

Ultimately, I like putting my own stamp on any game I run, and playing WFRP as written won’t satisfy that itch. Nor would Deathbringer’s implied world, nor would a “normal” game of T&T (if there is such a thing).

Pick One, Forget the Rest

This is the hard choice, but I can’t do all dozen ideas at once. I have to pick the one I feel most strongly about and finish it.

For now, I’m going to work on the Elf System. Maybe it turns into Grim Lands, maybe into The Elf Game or one of its prequels/sequels/sidequels. At the very least I’ll end up with an Alpha core engine that other people can play, rather than a grab-bag of ideas.

So I guess The Astral RPG, Paranormality, Shadow Vale, The Stellar Alliance, Heroes of the Middle World, Zeta World, and whatever “Elfworld” was trying to be all go in the closet for now. Maybe I’ll have time to throw together an OpenQuest or SimpleQuest game; maybe not.

But easier said than done …

  1. Overlay a transparent “clock” over a silhouette of the target, then roll dice to determine the degree and direction in which your shot veers off target. That indicates where the bullet actually hit, and what type of wound the target takes, assuming it hits at all. The big drawback, apart from being suboptimal for online play, is that you need a silhouette for all possible targets in all possible positions. It’s easy to do so in a pure Western game, but less so when you mix in monsters. ↩︎

  2. Ironically Tunnels & Trolls was Ken St. Andre’s attempt to create a game like D&D, but simpler. ↩︎