Nutshell, a minimal game engine

It began with an internal conversation running through my head one morning.

“Why is character generation so complicated, grey?”
“Well, it’s part of the game. Making characters is fun!”
“I know, but sometimes you just want to jump right into the game. Making character is fun, but playing is more fun. Why can’t we make a character in under two seconds and just start playing?”
“And why can’t we make any character we want without being restricted to races and classes published in the books? I want my Catfolk and Badgerkin, dammit!”
“Ok, so you want completely free-form character generation in under two seconds? Good look with that one.”
“Bah. How hard can it be?”

I have these internal conversations sometimes. They rarely end well.

Here’s the character generation rules:

You can be Strong, Fast or Smart. Pick two, or pick one twice.

And that’s it. The traditional D&D stereotypes (or archetypes, if you prefer) are covered – Choose Strong twice (Strong+) if you want to be a Fighter, Fast+ for a Rogue or Smart+ for a Wizard, though those are far from the only definitions of those traits. Your Strong+ hero could be a Barbarian, Circus Strongman, half-Giant, or whatever.

Where things get interesting is with the other combinations. Your Strong-Fast hero could be a Human Ranger, Elven Fighter, Badgerkin Rogue…… and the Fast-Smart heroine be a daring Femme Fatale, Battle Wizard, Gnome Alchemist bomb-maker or cunning Ratling Assassin.

You’re limited only by your imagination, and that’s just how character generation should be.

While character generation is numberless, the game isn’t. You begin with 20 hit points. Each trait gives a +2 to d20 checks and damage rolls where the trait applies. Your hulking Strong+ hero, for example, has +4 to hit and damage with melee weapons, climbing and other feats of strength, while your Fast-Smart Catfolk Scout is +2 to hit and damage with his bow, stealth, tracking and natural lore.

You can be any race you want subject to the campaign setting and GM approval, and as with any other part of your backstory this helps guide whether your trait bonus applies to rolls. Just because your Drow Priestess is Smart+, she won’t be able to apply her +4 bonus to see whether she recognizes a certain type of bird, for example, because nothing from her race or backstory suggests she knows anything about birds. Her Wood Ef Wizard Smart+ ally, on the other hand, could add the bonus, but would struggle to recognize certain types of fungi.

Whether your spell-casting is Arcane, Divine, Psionic or wrought from the minds of forgotten Demons is up to you; it’s all powered by Smarts. Describe the spell you want to cast and the GM assigns a DC. Smarts applies to both the d20 roll and the effect (damage, healing, duration, etc). Optionally, Fast can be used as the attack bonus for direct attack ranged spells (Acid Arrow, etc) though Smarts is still used for effect.

Not all Smart characters necessarily know magic of course, though these characters usually compensate for this by having greater access to a wider range of lore knowledge. Your Half-Elf Scholar doesn’t know how to cast Fireball but he might know how to trigger a rockfall in a dungeon, and that makes him every bit as deadly.

Use the D&D equipment lists. Trust me. It’s just easier that way.

Your Armour Class is 10 plus your Fast bonus and any bonuses due to armour or shield. Armour bonuses (including Shield bonus) act as a penalty to spell-casting rolls.

At the end of each story arc (or whenever the GM says so), gain 5 hit points and add one to one of the three traits. This could include adding one not previously gained. A true jack-of-all-trades could take Strong-Fast-Smart (though his +2 wouldn’t necessarily apply to everything, see above) though he would be outshone in combat by the hulking half-Giant Strong++ Fighter by his side, and at magical lore by the Fast-Smart+ Elven Enchantress.

The rule of 1 and 20
If you roll an unmodified 1, something bad happens – your weapon breaks, you lose access to your spells for the rest of the day, the trap you’re avoiding does maximum damage, etc.

If you roll an unmodified 20, something good happens – maximum damage, the GM allows you to change the scene in some way (add a secret door, discover a useful non-magic item, remove a monster due to hilarious accident, etc) or you gain a +4 bonus to your next roll.

And we’re done.

Take that, internal conversation.

10 Comments on “Nutshell, a minimal game engine”

  1. Great idea, wish my internal conversations could be resolved so easily.

    It looks like you’ve got the nucleus here for an entertaining lite RPG dungeon bash boardgame, you should publish it.

  2. Super micro-microlite? :) have you play tested internally, in your mind? Although, consistent with the reason for this, fun and easy, having it ultra balanced is not a big deal probably. Very cool.

    1. That sounded like I’m critiquing. I’m not, this is great and I don actually care if it’s balanced or not. :)

    2. My internal conversationalist didn’t want to come out and play. He’s sulking :)

      Yeah, there’s no attempt at balance whatsoever. That’s a feature.

  3. If you character creation is fun and playing is more fun, why not have a character creation system that happens while you’re playing? “You enter a forest, roll to determine if you’re an elf.”

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