If I were design a totally conventional role playing game (GM and Players taking the roles of characters in a directed ‘scenario’ and defined setting, in comparison to a GMless shared narrative story telling game), it would have the following characteristics:
- Character overview defined by Clichés. Risus pioneered this view. A character can be defined by a few sentences that give a colourful portrait of what they are and what they do. The clichés for Knight, for example (Riding, Lancing, Sword-swinging, Heraldry, Being Chaste), convey a pretty clear picture in very few words. D&D, in its earliest forms, had the cliché system down pat: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Magic User.
- Character capabilities become apparent by verbal reference to the defined clichés. The character can do whatever fits into the clichés you set up at the beginning. So a Fighter can do anything a Fighter would be expected to be able to do. I don’t need to define that he can swing a broad sword and a short sword and list every other piece of hardware he can or cannot use. All of this comes out as the players talk through the action.
- In other words: no specific Skills. Skills, Proficiencies, Feats, or whatever are limitations. Their specific job is to limit what a character can do, not enhance – and that just throttles a story. A bigger skill and more detailed skill list just implies that there is a whole lot more you cannot do. All it does it focus the mind on tedious rules detail.
- Baked in system for rewarding narrative play. Verbal description of events should be immediately and concretely recognised, not just a speed hump on the way to a sterile dice roll. FUDGE and FATE have this covered beautifully with the system of Aspects. In many ways, these are very similar to the character clichés. However, the full Aspect system allows you to invoke these personally and generally to places, objects, and events, and this ‘tagging’ concretely affects the direction of the play. The goal, basically, is to ensure that every player is involved in creating a shared adventure, and not just a passive receiver of imagination magic from a god-like GM.
- Unified mechanic. Much as it pains me to say, the new SRD d20 mechanic is unified, consistent, and works just fine. Rolling a d20, adding and subtracting factors (each of which are in 5% increments therefore) and comparing this to a target success number, is OK. Buckets of dice, dice pools, funky dice, d% are all very clever. But do they really add anything to play? The dice are there to resolve only unexpected events. Dice and system mechanics slow down play – I want less of them, not more – and a unified system is one way to cut down the dice play by building ease and familiarity.
- Seamless integration to miniatures. In truth, my wargaming and my roleplaying live in two different portions of my brain. When I roleplay (story tell) I don’t use miniatures. But I do also wargame and sometimes try to insert a few limited roleplay (story) elements. Savage Worlds is by far the best integrated system. The exact same set of rules for the miniatures game applies to the roleplaying game. Despite D&D’s wargaming origins, this is something that is not matched there.
- Aside from these major considerations, in a fantasy setting I would probably take the spell list from 2nd Edition AD&D including Cantrips; The hit location table from Runequest (Basic Role Playing); make Hit Points static (not incrementing as they are in D&D because that makes no sense to me).