Deus Ex Human Revolution has one type of gameplay I always kind of liked: Stealth. I’m not very good at it because I do not have patience to plan my whole inflitration. But I like sneaking, because I overhear interesting stuff, find holes in defenses and most of all avoid interacting with people. Sneaking makes me feel cunning.
After pondering what kind of a roleplaying experience I would like to play but what has never been done well, stealthing is my first answer. I have yet seen a system that handles stealth well. Granted, most systems do not allocate a lot of rules for infiltration. Since small, focused roleplaying games are all the rage right now, let’s add one to the world.
The usual dynamic for an infiltration is that first you take a gander at the building/area layout. Entrances, objects, guards and so on. Using this knowledge you plan an optimal route. Then you execute the infiltration by crounching low, hiding behind objects and timing your movements to the guards’ movement. Then you either
A) Pass unnoticed
B) Get noticed
Getting noticed results in three typical events: Total alarm, which results in game loss, local alarm and a lot of reinforcements, or a fight with the on-site guards. The local alarm usually shuts down if you can hide somewhere for a while and the guards resume their patrol routes. Not very realistic, but it’s a way to keep the game going.
This is the main thing the system needs to simulate. Staying unnoticed and dealing with failing that. D20 games usually have one Stealth-skill, which is rolled when a character wants to stay out of sight. There are specific rules on when you can stay hidden, but those usually rely on a detailed environment, something I would rather avoid. And due to the lack of normal distribution in d20, the player has about 25 percent chance of failing any stealth check. This, combined with the rigid combat system almost guarantees that the player cannot stealth again. One solution would be Skill Challenges, in which the player needs to garner X amount of successes before Y amount of failures. However, this tends to reduce the stealthing to a die-rolling race, which in turn reduces roleplaying. So it seems I need to deviate from the traditional roleplaying systems.
First of all, I would like to once again eliminate uncertainty from things the characters are good at. And since this is a stealth game, that would be sneaking. But if you automatically succeed at being stealthy, won’t this be a boring game? Not if we autosucceed in normal sneaking. In Deus Ex, finding the most direct route to your objective is quite easy. But there are usually store rooms, computer terminals and all sorts of interesting places sprinkled around. The promise of experience, interesting tidbits and loot usually overrides caution, and breaking into those places adds to the risk. Let’s use that. Moving from an area to another is easy, but doing things unnoticed in those areas is not.
Roleplaying is traditionally done in groups. Infiltration is traditionally done solo. This would imply a fundamental conflict, but only if you look at it from a narrow perspective. In Metal Gear games, the main character is in almost constant contact with someone with access to the facility blueprints. Same goes for Deus Ex and Splinter Cell. By making the other character an eye in the sky with access to information processing tools, we can add another role into the game.
And at this point I realize that I’m making a mechanic for a very specifically defined experience. That thought fills me with uncertainty. Is this a good idea for a roleplaying game, or rather for a board- or card game? I will think upon this and return with a decision.