PORTAL: A Spankin' New Roleplaying System
Welcome to PORTAL (Player Oriented Roleplaying: Timing, Action & Lucidity), a universal roleplaying system ready to be adapted to whatever your imagination can come up with. It's a system which strives to strike a balance between roleplaying and gaming.
I started my roleplaying career like many, with Second Edition AD&D, with all its tables, THAC0 and number crunching. Somewhere along the way, I noticed I was spending more time being a D&D accountant than I was having fun roleplaying. For several years it was what I used, because it was what I had. It was fun. More fun than not roleplaying at all, anyway.
Eventually, Third Edition AD&D came out which simplified the math a little, but ultimately suffered from the same problem. Things weren't streamlined enough for me. I had this crazy idea that the rules of a game should facilitate the game and the player's enjoyment of it. The rules shouldn't be the game in and of themselves. How novel.
This eventually led to my complete hatred of dice; I set out to find a system of roleplaying that didn't use the nasty things. After many months of searching, I found there was no such thing. Not on the whole of the Internet. I amassed over 200 pages of different systems, and all of them used dice; some used more dice more often than others, but they were still there.
All this searching taught me that what I hated wasn't dice at all, but math. I was always good at math; I just never found it fun. Many systems used too much math to determine every little detail of what could and couldn't be done in the system. If I wanted to do math for fun, I would have been an accountant. I loved imagination and freedom. This eventually led me to The Window: a system that was less a roleplaying system than a philosophical set of concepts which facilitated roleplaying.
I was not alone anymore. The Window was driven by character and conflict, not dice rolling and number crunching. Combat was part of the plot instead of the entirety of the game. Above all, The Window was about telling a good story, and not letting the rules get in the way of that. I had finally found the system I'd been searching for.
I used The Window to finally turn some of my own settings into playable games. I got my group together and started to play, and found about half of my group hated it. I found two distinct types of tabletop roleplaying game players: those who mainly focus on character and story, and those who focus mainly on mechanics and system: "Roleplayers" and "Gamers." At the time I was solidly in the "Roleplayer" camp, so part of the group divided, and we went and used The Window in our games.
We soon discovered that our "Gamer" brothers had something going. We found the lack of structure that we loved so much was leading to misunderstandings which slowed the game down, making it less fun. We started altering the system and came up with a set of house rules that we liked, although it had two or three different variations, depending on who was running the game.
Those games concluded and I got back and played in a few games with my "Gamer" group. This reminded me of all the things I didn't like about gaming: lack of control over your character, having decisions forced onto your character due to dice rolls, severely limited actions in the game compared to realistic situations, having characters run by the GM... the list goes on. Things weren't cooperative enough. There were, on the other hand, many things that were good about the "Gaming" system of doing things. Everyone was on the same page, misunderstandings were at a minimum, things were very balanced by design, and there was an even playing field. Nevertheless, the focus was far too much on playing and mastering the game system, and not nearly enough on playing and mastering your character.
I was also tired of the GM having all the answers. How could someone else know my character better than I did? Players might not have all the answers, but they do know what they're doing, and deserve some credit in the cooperative process that is roleplaying. They collectively do just as much work as the GM; in many cases completely handing over their precious character to the GM to use as they see fit. Sometimes even expanding the game itself.
I wanted to come up with a system that had enough structure to make "Gamers" happy, but focused enough on character to make "Roleplayers" happy. There were a lot of gaming systems out there, and there were a few role playing systems out there. What I wanted was an RP&G system, a "roleplaying & gaming system." This started with altering The Window, but it soon became apparent that what we were playing was no longer The Window, but a unique creation of our own. Over time, the structure of the system changed and matured, coming up with better and simpler rules. Much of this process was verbal agreement, and was never actually written down. I have now decided to put it all together in writing. This is an RP/G system, a structured way to create and play dynamic characters in engaging stories driven by an easy system that provides enough structure to keep everyone balanced and on the same page.
What PORTAL is:
A system with necessary structure
A system based on character and story
A universal system
A "bare bones" system
A common sense system
A system that gives power to players
What PORTAL is not:
A beginner's system
An armory or general store
A physics engine
A combat driven system
A skills and powers list
A setting or sourcebook
PORTAL lends a necessary amount of structure to the process of creating and playing unique characters. I say "necessary" here because, in my experience, a certain "critical mass" of structure is needed to make players and storytellers happy. Without some structure, the process falls apart, but structure for structure's sake limits creativity and interrupts narrative. PORTAL is founded on the belief that any good roleplaying game should be based on character and story, not dice rolls, charts or math. Dice should be tools that help tell a good story, not ends in and of themselves.
PORTAL is a universal "bare bones" system that can be easily and seamlessly molded around any genre, any setting, any story, allowing the Storyteller to focus on telling their story, not on mechanics, charts or numbers. There is no setting here. The best stories come not from predefined settings, worlds, or characters, but are collaboratively told by the storyteller and the players, using their collective imagination. This system is designed to work with users' original ideas in a way that allows them to focus on developing story and setting without worrying about the system. There are no charts or tables of equipment of any kind in these rules other than in examples, because a good roleplaying game should be more about story than about getting cool stuff. Not to say cool stuff is bad; quite the contrary, it can be a wonderful motivator for players, but since cool stuff should help facilitate telling the story, there is no set chart on it here. There are no skills, or powers, or feats, or abilities lists in PORTAL. Players and storytellers come up with better ideas than even the most comprehensive list could ever include. Lists do nothing but limit creativity, so it isn't found here. PORTAL is a common sense system which lets players and storytellers make their own choices about how to act in a situation; a system that refuses to pigeonhole creativity for the sake of ease, balance or structure.
PORTAL is not a beginner's system. If you are new to roleplaying, this might not be the best place to start. This might be right up your alley, but if you don't have some experience with a more structured system, you will likely have trouble with PORTAL. This is especially true if you want to tell a story using PORTAL. If you're unfamiliar with storytelling a more structured system, you will likely have trouble storytelling PORTAL. PORTAL puts its players above any book or rule, respecting that they know what they're doing. PORTAL puts true power and responsibility in the hands of its players.
PORTAL doesn't pretend to have rules for every possible interaction conceivable by Newton. A lot of what makes roleplaying fun is the stuff that breaks the rules of physics; like magic, superpowers, miracles, and technology. PORTAL does have an action resolution system, but it's much broader than physics. Likewise, PORTAL isn't driven by combat. In good stories, combat is just another scene in the story, not the story in its entirety. Although combat is necessary (and fun) in roleplaying, it shouldn't be the focus of everything that happens. Although much of PORTAL deals with combat, the driving idea is combat should be dealt with the same way as everything else.
PORTAL is by no means a new idea. As was said earlier, many of the ideas presented here are based in part on other systems that have been around for years. The underlying philosophy has been thought of by many people in many places at many times throughout the thirty(ish) year history of roleplaying. PORTAL is simply one take on these older ideas presented here for ease of use.
The root of PORTAL is a series of philosophies I came upon in my search. I picked up and used what felt right and left what didn't. Where there was nothing, I fit what I knew to be true. The following are a set of ideas I feel are important to all roleplaying, regardless of what system you use.
The RP&G 9 Commandments
1. An RP&G should be fun. This one should go without saying, but isn't the goal of any game, roleplaying or otherwise, to have fun? If an RP&G isn't fun, you aren't doing it right. This goes for players and storytellers alike; fun for everyone is the first and most important goal of roleplaying.
2. RP&G systems should be simple and fast. A system should be simple to use and easy to understand. The fewer charts and numbers the better. The harder it is to learn a system, the harder it is to have fun with. The KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) mandate is a good rule for everything, and games are no exception. The faster a system is to use, the more transparent it can be, reducing interruptions to the flow of the game and the narrative of the story.
3. Character should be most important to an RP&G. Without good characters, an RP/G wouldn't work. Characters should therefore be well thought out, well rounded, and well balanced. Time should be spent on making original and unique characters, not sets of numbers with a name at the top. Make a background for your character; make them real and believable. Personality is not determined by a character's abilities; rather, their abilities are determined by their personality. Characters should be created accordingly.
4. Players should play their characters responsibly. Nothing kills a good game faster than a player who suddenly decides they're God. Roleplaying isn't about egos or power trips; it's rarely even about personal glory. Respect the limits of a character; they're there for a reason. Stay in character while playing the game, and play the character ahead of playing the system. After all, it is the whole point of a roleplaying game.
5. Storytellers should cooperate with players. A character's creator understands their character better than anyone else. Storytellers should work with this fact, not against it. Players should be allowed to make their own decisions for their character, both while creating it and while playing it.
6. An RP&G should be realistic. The system should be as realistic and consistent as possible to its setting, allowing users to make realistic decisions for their characters. This level of realism should be reliable, not changing partway through a story or varying for different characters.
7. Good story should be the goal. The goal of an RP&G should be to tell a good interactive story. Anything hindering that process isn't needed. The more things get in the way of the story, the less engaging it will be. Be they systems, players, storytellers, mechanics, or anything else, if it doesn't help tell a good story, it doesn't belong in a good RP&G.
8. Game elements should be described, not numbered. In good stories, things aren't represented by numbers, they are described. Bill doesn't have a dexterity of 18, he has a sharply honed dexterity from his many years training as a pianist. Kate doesn't have a charisma of 25, she has a smoldering appeal that gets the attention of everyone in the room. Things should be described with words first. Then numbers should be assigned to the description for use in the system. This also includes a description of the character and their background. Remember, abilities come from personality.
9. Special effects should help the story. The definition of special effects will vary from one setting to another, but the truly extraordinary should be special and awe inspiring, not boring and routine. Good stories have arcs; anticipation, climax and resolution. Special effects are great for a climax, but do little to tone things down in a resolution. If every fourth event in a story is truly extraordinary, it looses credibility and becomes taxing on players and their characters, who need some downtime too. Make sure anything truly extraordinary is there to help tell the story, not just to be cool.
Player Oriented Roleplaying
PORTAL stands for Player Oriented Roleplaying: Timing, Action, and Lucidity. So what does all that mean? One of the biggest philosophies that led to the creation of PORTAL was that the player is always right. In many ways a storyteller should be there to manage and direct the players' stories, more than to tell their own.
Far too often my character was mandated to do or not do something because it fit a scenario the GM had laid out. As a player, this really irritated me. In the real world, how would I feel if a retail clerk said I had to buy jeans instead of a shirt because it fit the plan they had set out for the store before I walked in? Real people would never put up with this kind of abuse; why should characters?
Player Oriented Roleplaying means trust that players know what they're doing. It means cooperative storytelling. It means that each player acts like a node, expanding the setting with their character, background, and personal play experience. Player Oriented Roleplaying embraces this idea, working with a player's idea of what they want to do in the story, not against it.
Timing means just that: what time things happen. One of the most important functions of a roleplaying game is determining in what order things happen. Like somebody famous once said: "Time is the universe's way of making sure everything doesn't happen all at once." Roleplaying games need to have a system for dealing with time for the same reason: to make sure all hell doesn't break loose around the gaming table. The problem lies in managing time realistically, without dragging it out.
I found many systems had very arbitrary rules in place to manage the flow of time. To a point, any time management rule is arbitrary; after all, time itself is. The random, dice-rolled initiative was an oversimple, unrealistic rule for determining timing. I found the vitality system much better. With it, people can get tired, rest, overexert themselves, or collapse, which is a much more realistic way to deal with timing. It does demand more responsibility of the player, which is probably why it's used so infrequently.
The other big function of a roleplaying game is action resolution and a representation of chance in a character's experience. This should allow for actions as free, open, and creative as players can imagine. To limit actions available to a character limits the creativity of the player, and dampens a story's realism. Dice rolls should be simple and kept to a minimum.
PORTAL aims to be as simple and straightforward as possible, while still lending enough structure to the process to put everyone on the same page and avoid disagreements. This doesn't mean a list of possible actions that everyone can take in the game system. If a player is creative enough to invent some new and interesting way to use a character's skill in cosmetology to avoid being assaulted by a mugger on the street, great.
As mentioned many times in this chapter, PORTAL is designed to be as transparent as you the user want it to be. Feel free to change any rule that does not fit your goal in telling your story. PORTAL is designed with the guiding principle that users know best. In your use of the system, strive to keep the system in the background and focus on the flow of the story. Above all, have fun. Do whatever you need to have an entertaining time roleplaying.
I know that many of you out there have been chomping at the bit for a system like PORTAL. Unhappy with the overly restrictive systems? Think d20 has cornered the market and there's nothing better out there? I thought this for a long time, and my search online confirmed that if you want something done, you do it yourself. So I wrote my own system. I am first and foremost a roleplayer, but like many, I have gamer tendencies, so this system is perfect, striking a balance between the overly structured and the completely open. If you like living on the gaming fringe, this is for you.
Check it out at http://www.lulu.com/content/818803
Take back roleplaying from the big megacompanies and support the system written by a gamer, for gamers.