I always winch a bit when a player wants to do something in a roleplaying game and the game system denies it. They tend to look at me (if I’m gamemastering) with disbelief and say: “That’s stupid”. And I always silently answer: “No, that’s game mechanics”. No-one complains about a seemingly invincible queen who kills fully armoured knights on horseback without getting a scratch… in chess. That’s because chess is a very abstract game and people accept it right off the bat. And there’s the problem that plagues many roleplaying game systems: Abstraction.
D&D is a mashup of abstract concepts and hard representation. Hit points are an abstract generalization of one’s physical damage, morale and stamina. Squares are light abstractions of about 2×2 meter area, where only one person can fight effectively. People tend to take things at face value, imagining that when you roll enough attack to overcome the opponent’s armour class with your axe attack, you will hit the opponent with the axe. It takes damage and keeps on going. One asks “How did it take an axe into face and still keep on going?”. It’s game mechanics. It’s there to organize the in-game events (or in some cases, to invoke excitement). The abstractiveness of the system conflicts with the representation. That causes problems for people who either can’t or won’t suspend their disbelief.
As a great comic book character once said: “Never compromise”. I believe that there are only two routes to a working, internally consistent roleplaying game system: All-out abstraction or all-out representation. A representative game system should adhere to how this world works: To physics, to moral ambiguity, to common sense. Very ironically, the way to achieve such a game would be to eliminate almost all rules and give the game master full power over the happenings. No tabletop rule system will ever achieve such level of versimillitude that there are no conflicts in it. Hit points would have to go. Even some sort of hit location rule would be either too cubersome or too irrelevant to be of any use. Any sort of success/failure mechanic would most likely produce outlandish results at some point. I would like for someone to prove me wrong and present to me a realistic, easy-to-use tabletop rule system that won’t require any suspension of disbelief.
A fully abstract system is a much more interesting prospect, at least to me. It enables me to explore game mechanics and makes explaining in-game events easier (no reference points to reality sets imagination free). Dust Devils, an indie roleplaying game system that is based on poker, is an abstract system that enables conflict resolution without intruding upon the game world. Plus, it has cards. My inner card player (Magic, not conventional) is always dancing in glee when cards are involved. That is why I started to think about a card-based abstract conflict resolution mechanic.
Dominion, a crafty little card game, has an interesting progress mechanic. The players start out with a deck of three victory point cards and seven copper coins. At the end of their turn, they discard their hand and draw five cards from the deck. At their turn, they can use the coin cards to buy new cards that go to their deck and action cards to get more gold, more cards or other effects. The way the players constantly upgrade their deck and use their cards was the inspiration for my idea somewhat. I thought about the players’ characters being a deck of cards from which they draw their skills to use in a crisis. Let’s use this as the base for Champions of Ilea, a card-based roleplaying game.