Sometimes, as a creative person, I get inspired in inconvenient ways.
Particularly, I recently thought about things I'd do if I happened to be transported back in time 100 years, to 1914, and the idea of inventing Dungeons and Dragons 60 years too early crossed my mind.
And now, because this thought occurred to me, and because my brain is wired the way it is, I have been spending entirely too much time and mental energy concocting the setting and the game mechanics of a roleplaying system I'd present to the denizens of 1914 and I don't want to be thinking about that right now.
So, in the hopes of exorcising this project from my brain - a project I have no intention of actually working on or bringing to completion - I'm dumping what I've got so far here to this site. Here goes.
First and foremost, bear in mind this would be not only an attempt to create a fun roleplaying game, but an attempt to introduce my ancestors to the idea of tabletop roleplaying itself. Sure, they have board games already. They have strategy games with little miniatures. They are familiar with the concept of pretending. But tabletop gaming as we know it - and all the stereotypes and mannerisms of the subculture - would not yet exist.
Secondly, bear in mind that the modern fantasy genre would not exist. Tolkien won't publish The Hobbit for another 23 years. Fairy tales exist, stories of monsters and adventure and fantasy would be common, but D&D or WoW styled worlds would be entirely foreign.
So here's how I'd start.
Yes, I'd use the name "Dungeons and Dragons". It's not copyright infringement if the copyright doesn't exist yet, and if I'm making this kind of change to the timeline, TSR likely won't come to exist in the first place. There have been other names for fantasy roleplaying games, but none so evocative and explicit. You know what you're getting, with Dungeons and Dragons - you're getting at least one dungeon and at least one dragon. You don't need to tack on the words "adventure" or "exciting". Plus, it abbreviates to "D&D", which is visually distinctive and easy on the tongue.
I'm dropping the classes and the levels - everything is based on points and their distribution.
I'd change the core mechanic from d20 to 2d6, because I'm trying to make the game as accessible as possible, especially to the young and the financially destitute (remember, the Depression's coming soon enough) and forcing people to track down and buy twenty-sided dice is a high cost of entry. All damage and other rolls will use d6s as well. Other roleplaying games can follow in my D&D's footsteps, let them introduce the fancy dice market. Plus, I like the idea of critical hits on boxcars and fumbles on snake eyes.
Yes, I'd still have the same six stats (though I'd probably rename Wisdom to Awareness, just to make things clear). Rather than having a stat and a modifier, I'd just make the stats themselves between 0 and 5. You get 10 stat points to distribute, point for point, and if you feel inclined to randomize, you can roll a die ten times, putting a point into Strength on 1, into Dex on 2, and so forth.
I'm only having four core races: humans, elves, tieflings and warforged. Elves are immortal (but tend to forget anything they've done or been that's more than fifty years back unless they write it down), can talk to animals, don't leave footprints, they get -2 to Strength and +2 to Charisma. Tieflings have a wide variety of demonic features (cat, goat or pure black eyes, various horns, red or grey skin, possible tail, varying numbers of fingers, etc), they see in the dark, they can spend one Energy Point to create fire from their fingertips like a match, they get +2 to Dex and -2 to Awareness. Warforged don't breathe (they can't drown, but they sink in water), don't eat (they can't starve, but also can't gain benefits from food or potions), don't sleep, don't age, don't get sick, they get +2 to Strength and -2 to Charisma. Humans get an extra feat.
(I'd throw in verbiage into the description of humans, mentioning specifically how skin colour and gender don't factor into game mechanics or your character's abilities. I figure that's important to get right from day one.)
In the absense of a class structure, your attack bonus, saves, magic, and hit points are all based on skills. Particularly, you'd get twenty skill points to distribute between Grapple, Melee attack, Swim (Strength); Dodge, Nimbleness, Ranged attack, Reaction, Stealth (Dex); Endurance, Energy (Con); Arcane magic, Craft (specific types), Linguistics, Knowledge (specific types), Tinker (Int); Divine magic, Notice, Profession (specific types) Read Person, Survival, Willpower (Awa); Bluff, Diplomacy, Natural magic, Perform (Cha). You can only put as many points into a skill as you have points in the associated stat. Thus, if you left your Dex at zero, you couldn't put points into Ranged attacks, and if you put it to the maximum (7, if you're a tiefling), you could put seven points into it, meaning that your ranged attacks would be 2d6+14.
You have both Hit Points and Energy Points, which are 20 + Endurance and 20 + Energy respectively, so they're both at a minimum of 20 to a maximum of 30. Your Defense is your Dodge +7, meaning that it's a minimum of 7 to a maximum of 21. (Armour doesn't factor in - I'm making armour function like Damage Reduction). Reaction checks function both like Reflex saves and for Initiative, Endurance checks are the equivalent of Fort saves, and Willpower, of course, is for Will saves. Arcane Magic is book learnin', Divine Magic is for magic you get from gods or spirits or nature or goodness, Natural Magic is mystical power that's just sparking up from inside you.
Typically, you roll Reaction at the start of combat, and can do two actions per round. I'm not differentiating between move and standard actions, so yes, if you're standing still, you can cast two spells per round. Anything impressive, magical or physical, costs Energy - and regardless of what sorts of actions you take, you always lose at least one EP at the end of every combat. When you're out of Energy, you're Fatigued - you can perform only one action per round, and, of course, can't do anything that requires EP. You regain 1 EP per ten minutes of rest, or all of them with six hours' sleep - bed rest also allows you to regain an Endurance check's result in HP.
Everything else is all based around feats, you get three to start (or four, if you're human). You'd have fighter-type feats like this:
Massive Smash: On a successful melee attack, you may spend one Energy Point to deal an additional die of damage. Prerequisite: 3 or more skill points in Melee attack.
You'd have bard-type feats like this:
Song of Courage: You take one action to spend one Energy Point singing a motivating song for your allies. For the next round, all allies within earshot that can hear your performance gain +1 to all attacks, damage, and their Defense. Prerequisite: 3 or more skill points in Perform, 1 or more skill points in Natural magic.
You would, of course, have rogue-type feats:
Precise strike: When a foe is either unaware of you or unable to defend himself, your melee attacks bypass armour. Prerequisite: Weapon Finesse
And healer-type feats:
Cure Light Wounds: You take one action, spend three Energy Points, and make a Divine magic check. One willing target touched regains HP equal to the result of your check. Prerequisite: 3 or more skill points in Divine magic.
And magey feats:
Magic Missile: You take an action to send out a missile of pure light and force. This missile can be directed to any target you can see, and will always strike it unerringly. It deals a single point of damage that bypasses any sort of armour. You may send out multiple missiles as part of the same casting, and they may be directed to multiple targets or the same target. You may launch as many missiles as you have skill points in Arcane magic, and the energy cost is equal to the number of missiles you send. Prerequisite: 1 or more skill points in Arcane Magic.
And, of course, plenty of generalized feats:
Toughness: You may add your Endurance skill points (but not your Con stat) to your Hit Points again. You may take this feat multiple times, gaining Hit Points each time. Prerequisite: 1 or more skill points in Endurance.
Desperation: Even when at 0 EP, you may still perform feats that require energy... but the cost is now taken from your HP. You still only perform one action per round. Prerequisite: 5 or more skill points in Willpower.
Now, classes provide much-needed fluff to D&D, and with so many aspects of the game now bundled into a huge catalogue of feats, I've chosen to add Archetypes, which are basically recommended feat trees, each focused around a particular type of adventurer. The Archetypes are: Assassin, Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Knight, Priest, Scholar, Soldier, Sorceror, Thief, and Wizard.
Later expansions, of course, will introduce additional races like Dwarves and Orcs, and additional Archetypes and sub-Archetypes like Ranger or Alchemist.
As you play, every challenge or fight you surmount grants you XP (usually one point per fight), and you can spend 5 to gain a skill point, 10 for a feat or 20 for a stat point (though they can only be added to your character sheet when your character has had six hours' sleep).
Conversely, if your character is ever knocked down to zero HP but their body is recoverable, they can regain consciousness with a Wound (Roll 2d6 on a table, get things like injured eye, injured hand, -1 to a stat, etc.)
I'm intentionally prioritizing ease of play and intuitive mechanics over class balance and realism. I figure that smart people finding broken optimization techniques is a part of the hobby, and I might as well let it happen.
The key to making this game popular in 1914 will be making it as cheaply and commonly available as possible. I'm picturing printing it all on cheap newsprint, making it available at every newsstand and corner store for a dime - even if we have to pay them to stock it and sell them at a loss, to start with. Then, of course, all we need is for some authority figure behind a pulpit or a podium to decry this filth that's poisoning the minds of today's youth, and sales will skyrocket!
There. Now it's out of my damn head. Now I can think about other things, goddammit.