Introducing Sinter RPG

In the two-week interim between dissertation submission and defense, I’ve been stir crazy. For the past seven months, I wrote 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week. In the final month of dissertation writing, I was writing 8-12 hours a day, 7 days a week. I wrote at home with a daily quota that I stuck to adamantly. The rigidity of a writing schedule can be grueling, but it also has a comfortable regularity. Once that schedule halted abruptly, I found myself locked into a daily routine with nothing to write. Eventually I will pick up the dissertation again to shape it into a book, but I needed at least a few weeks of mental respite from all things Nintendo Famicom.

It was clear I needed to write my own tabletop roleplaying game.

During the summer, some friends and I revived our tabletop roleplaying group. A few years back, we jumped headlong into Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition (4E). We had a blast playing, but our group eventually fell apart after one of our friends moved away. We also found the 4E rules to be a bit of a grind. D&D 4E is a rich tactical game, but far afield from the Dungeons & Dragons I grew up with. It requires miniatures, physical maps, and complex strategy based on player and enemy positioning. It felt more like a board game or videogame than traditional roleplaying. We’d spend six to eight hours running one encounter. We had a lot of fun, but we didn’t make much progress.

I’ve owned and read several editions of D&D since I was in middle school. In high school, I had a group of friends that played 2E, primarily dipping into the Ravenloft (vampires!) and Dragonlance (dragons!) campaign settings. In reality, I read more than I played. Planescape, introduced in 2E, was a particular favorite. I was fascinated by the steampunk-flavored extra-dimensional play introduced into a game world otherwise governed by high fantasy of the Tolkien variety. After college, I picked up both the 3rd edition rules and the 1st edition Advanced D&D core books.  I frequented and a number of other roleplaying forums. I was soon exposed to all manner of roleplaying games, from Nobilis to Call of Cthulhu. Turns out there was a lot more to roleplaying than looting and dungeoneering.

Nonetheless, at heart, I like high fantasy settings. My reassembled roleplaying group is playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, a ‘retro-inspired’ D&D homage that strips away a lot of the cruft of 4E (and 3E and 2E), favoring old-school dungeon exploration, dangerous magic, and descriptive combat. It emphasizes speed, fun, and weirdness over tactics and rules. DCC is also a cruel mistress–the game skews toward danger, emphasizing the disposable nature of heroes and rewarding graceful retreats as much as clever swordplay. Our DCC sessions have been a lot of fun. Now we’re able to run entire adventures in a single session since we don’t have to be so picky about player positioning or daily feats. ‘You’re about 25 feet away from the gelatinous cube’ replaces ‘If you move two squares left, you can trigger an opportunity attack.’

DCC is part of a larger ‘Old School Renaissance’ taking place in roleplaying games. Players are returning to older, ‘antiquated’ versions of D&D and mining them for use in slicker, more modern game designs. The fantasy RPG landscape is abundant with worlds and systems that fit all players’ needs, from the most fiddly mechanical bits to grand narrative storytelling. And many of these new games are made by a single person or small teams, distributed via PDF or print-on-demand. (For instance, check out Adventurer Conquerer King, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dark Dungeons, Fantasy Craft, Dungeon World, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry.)

After several months of catching up with the world of modern tabletop roleplaying systems, I had the desire to create my own. And thanks to the aforementioned lull in writing work, I had the time to do so. So I dove in.

I’m about 7,000 words deep into my new roleplaying world/system, called Sinter. As I work through ideas and systems, I’ll post them online. I’ve found it surprisingly rewarding to work through the mechanics of dice probabilities, character leveling, weapon stats, and game balance, all while trying to marry mathematical systems with narrative content. In the end, I would like to have a fun, elegant, and playable system—one that my roleplaying group will be excited to test out.

Though I will share more details in subsequent posts, I thought I would lay out Sinter’s main themes, objectives and inspirations:

Sinter is a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game designed for four to six players (who each control a character) and a Companion (or Game Master). The game is inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (namely the Basic, Expert, Master, and Companion rules written by Frank Mentzer in the 1980s), but diverges from its core conceits in a number of ways. First, there are no archetypal character classes: Cleric, Magic-user, Thief, etc. Instead, players choose from one of six trades tied to Sinter’s mythology. Trades, inspired by Final Fantasy III’s job system, function like heroic professions, providing benefits both in and out of combat. The Archinxect, for instance, specialize in crafting mechanical devices, from traps and war machines to miniature automata. They share characteristics of thieves, rangers, clerics, and other classes from classic D&D.

Sinter’s core theme is bond. Each trade is connected to the others in complementary ways, encouraging players to work together to successfully complete adventures. As such, each trade is meant to be fun and balanced so there are no weak links in the party. In some D&D editions, magic-users start out nearly useless then bloat to overpowered killing machines in upper levels. Sinter aims to smooth out the level progression so all trades are enjoyable (and useful) throughout the character’s career. Similarly, combat is designed to be fast and synergistic, with a lot of potential for combined effects. Many RPG systems tend to fall into lockstep, turn-based combat that tends to focus on a single player at a time. I hope to provide players means to stay engaged in the game even when it’s not their ‘turn.’

Sinter has no dragons. Or swords. And probably no dungeons. There are also no orcs, elves, dwarves, halflings, or other Tolkien critters. Sinter has its own history, mythos, and menagerie of beasts and character types. But more on those later.

Other inspirations from the worlds of tabletop gaming and videogames include Dungeon Crawl Classics, Planescape, Dark Sun, Warhammer 40K, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, Dark Souls, Judge Dredd, the HERO system, GURPS, Mouse GuardDungeon World, and a host of other great and innovative games. In short, Sinter is not meant to ‘revolutionize’ or ‘fix’ Dungeons & Dragons, or any other roleplaying game. I am more interested in world-building, then fashioning a gameplay system around that world. Fantasy is a well-worn genre, but there is always room for a different angle. Game of Thrones, for instance, is full of stock genre cliches, but it has great storytelling. And dragons.

On second thought, maybe I should have dragons.

Dragons or no, my humble goal is to design a game system that I and my friends will enjoy, then hopefully share that enjoyment with others. As Frank Mentzer wrote in the introduction to the Basic set in 1983: ‘This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine.’