Similarly to Tasuret in his question about running a game within a game, I am looking for a system to model something that feels like a MMORPG or CRPG. Here are some more specifications, roughly in descending order of importance:

  1. extreme power difference between high- and low-level entities; by the higher-end levels, you could be dealing two orders of magnitude more damage than at starting levels
  2. simple (but with-randomness) mechanics; these games are real-time, and it should be possible to have a very short shot clock per combat round
  3. a way to emulate the equipment-optimizing obsession of these games without complicating the mechanics so much that things slow down
  4. non-Vancian magic
  5. a few simple status effects to be used frequently
  6. death is an inconvenience; you respawn; this can probably be tacked onto nearly any other system without serious difficulty

Since I'm guessing I'll have to "settle" for something matching only a subset of these properties, I would enjoy suggestions on how to, for each recommended game, make up the difference. Maybe in AD&D, character damage would get a bonus of (character's level cubed) or something…


5 Answers 5


Dungeons and Dragons 4th had a lot of controversy because it feels like an MMO in multiple ways. I actually didn't like it at first because of that but with retrospective I realize that it's an interesting system indeed. Here's an answer to all of your points:

1) 4E split the levels in 3 tier. Heroic, Paragon and Epic. On each you gain access to a more refined choice of your build (Basic class, Paragon Path, Epic Destiny). Each of them pushes the game to another level both in terms of game mechanics (in the epic levels most classes will gain a way to be "immortal".

2) 4E is rather simple to play for new players. I found it really easy to teach because the classes are using color coded abilities and everything is streamlined in a way that at X level, you know exactly what every character gain (a feat, a power, a paragon path etc.) The system was built around tactical combat (which is an aspect of the game easy to learn but hard to master).

3) If you play by the book, 4E magic items are somewhat (arguably) easily available. 4E has tons (and I mean it) of equipment. This is not uncommon in the gaming industry, but in almost every player book you'll find additional equipment. Gear is also tied to your class. Some classes will have totem and others will use knives specifically as focus for their spells or attacks. It really feels like an MMO.

4) 4E spells are like any other abilities in 4E. You have at-wills, encounters and daily spells. You also have rituals which are really awesome in 4E I must admit. So this is not a Vancian system at all. You can perform as many rituals as you want (cost money and take times) and you'll always have access to at-will spells.

5) Statuses in Dungeons and Dragons have always been... exhaustive. But in 4E they are easier to apply and remember (to my opinion). This is also subject to debate if you compare to other game system around.

6) Dying is 4E still mean you are dead. But, you always have the possibility to resurrect someone. I just want to say that to die in 4E..you must be either really unlucky or playing your role wrong. Characters have daily Healing surges that they can spend to regain HP and healing classes will let you spend a healing surge or simply gain the benefit from it without spending one.

Extra point: In 4E, the roles are clearly identified. Defender (tank), Striker (DPS), Leader (healer/buffer) and Controller (AoE). They are not even subtle. In the class description you can see what is the role of your character. In the later days of 4E some classes were literally hybrids but most classes are well defined and encourage tactical play around your role. Tank can mark (taunt) targets, controllers can move targets around the field and do AoE.

Another extra point is that monsters are built in roles as well. Minions (dies on hit, period), Lurker, Elite (version) etc. This way you can create encounters in a really tactical and interesting way.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I actually run a 4E game. :) I meant to specifically exclude 4E, as I did when I tweeted about this question, but I forgot. Oops! My primary objection is that 4E is, in my opinion, far too complex (too many enumerated options per unit per round), and combats rounds take much too long. I also don't think the difference in power level between levels 1 and 30 is great enough for what I was hoping for. Also, I was hoping to avoid any bad feelings from such comparisons. :-) Still, your answer fits my question! Thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – rjbs
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 2:55
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ To make 4e really feel like an MMO I'd remove Second Wind and add respawning. Adventure design would be based on quest-givers and instances, instead of being plotted stories. Magic gear would be tied to instances and quests and what each one "drops" would be public knowledge. It just might work (for someone other than rjbs wanting to emulate an MMO). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 3:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MrJinPengyou If the objective is to emulate a MMO or CRPG, that's not even necessary. Those games often don't bother explaining that, so neither would an emulation need to. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 15:32

I've used Tri-Stat Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) for a console-style JRPG-styled game before, and it satisfies a lot of the conditions you've placed on what you're looking for:

  • Arbitrarily different entity power (through point-buy)
  • Mana-style casting works out of the box
  • Super simple mechanics
  • A small number of predesigned status ailments that feel to me appropriate for video games

We used a save spot mechanic, too. It leads to very interesting play, and an interesting meta-narrative to the game, as you can see what happens when things go wrong.


If you're willing to replace actual, mechanical levels with an abstraction of them, I think HeroQuest fits the bill:

A brief introduction to HeroQuest

HeroQuest is classless and levelless, using rated "Traits" that represent aspects of your character, such as possessions, skills or flaws, or even a group thereof. For example a vampire hunter's character sheet could look like

Alexander Belmont

  • Wielder of the Vampire Killer 17ш2
  • Trouble with Authority 13
  • Incredible Jumps 19
  • Trained in Tracking

So "Wielder of the Vampire Killer" could be used as much to represent combat ability as a symbol of status or ties to the Belmont Family depending on the situation.

Tests are simple. Roll a d20, if it's under your rating, it's a success, a failure otherwise. 1s are Critical Successes, 20s are Critical Failures. Now, the important part:

You probably have noticed the ш symbol in some of the numbers above. Well, it's actually supposed to be a rune and look like this: ш but the font makes it a little weird. Anyway...
Each time a trait is bumped past 20, it goes back to 1 and the character acquires a Mastery (numbered after the symbol: ш2, ш3, …). A Mastery raises the success level of a test by one rank or lowers the success level of the opposition, with the differences between success levels determining the Outcome of a Contest. Opposing Masteries thus cancel each other out.

HeroQuest: The MMORPG

As this is a generic system, HeroQuest is sold as being able to model any of the usual genres associated to RPGs. Superheroes, Hard Sci-Fi, Road Movie, you name it. In those genres, the book tells us, the margin of competence between the best and the worst of the dramatis personae is such that high masteries are rarely seen: Superheroes are high above human levels of competence, but since they're mainly confronted to Supervillains, there's no point in accounting for high masteries that will be cancelled out by the opposition most of the time (Void Master 10ш5 vs Sorcerer Supreme 12ш4 is basically the same as Trucker 15ш vs Bar Brawler 17).

In our case, though, we want to model the gap that exists between a high level character and a newbie with 5 hours of game, so we'll keep counting the Masteries.

Now, all we have to do is assimilate the character's class and level as a single trait and we have a basic MMORPG character.

The result:


  • Cowren Spiritist 17
  • Alchemy 15
  • On good terms with the Raptor Tribe 13


Fal'kon Highwind

  • Halfling Fellknight 5ш4
  • Full set of Diamond Dragon Armor 4ш3
  • Revered by the Knights of the Pale Order 15ш3
  • Smithing 17ш3
  • Enchanting 20ш2
  • KOS with the Confederation 1ш4
  • Officer of the Roxxors Forever 18ш3

Pit one against the other. Even in the case of a failure vs. success (which should be the most common outcome with their numbers), Fal'kon's masteries will bump it to a clear win, which is only logical considering the gap in in-game power of their avatars.

The important thing here is that the first Trait abstracts 60% of your character. In a real MMORPG, a level 85 Fellknight has 450 Dexterity, 520 Strength, a Passive Skill that absorbs the souls of his enemies for bonus Mana and many other details, all of which are abstracted under the one trait. The armor gets its own trait as it implies other things, such as pure bragging rights in the right circles and an advantage in contests against other level 85 characters who haven't raided as much.

As a bonus, you can see that modeling Guild Status, Crafting skills or Faction Standings is done just as easily, which allows for depth of character while remaining simple.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice touch with the social skills, letting you model social interactions with NPC "players"! +1 \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 20:19

Probably a bit hard to find today, but for any kind of quick "game-inside-a-game" I'd go straight for Dreampark.

I'm too lazy to get up and check but I think it even had some mechanics for this specific situation (after all, the original Dreampark novel was precisely about people from a sci-fi future playing elaborate, hologram-enhanced role-playing games for fun and profit).

I checked online (including eBay) and apparently the manual is not available at the time being, not even in PDF, most probably due to the license being expired long ago.

As I admitted already in the comments, this was mostly to address the general idea of "game within a game" to which Dreampark I think is a perfect solution.

More specifically:

  • extreme power difference between high- and low-level entities; by the higher-end levels, you could be dealing two orders of magnitude more damage than at starting levels

The game covers everything from "normal" humans to superheroes, and you can fight dinosaurs, dragons, etc.

  • simple (but with-randomness) mechanics; these games are real-time, and it should be possible to have a very short shot clock per combat round a way to emulate the equipment-optimizing obsession of these games without complicating the mechanics so much that things slow down

The system provides a simplified and an advanced combat/resolution system. Even the advanced version is quite straightforward and should play out quickly (I use "should" because I own the manuals and have adapted at least one adventure to play with a different system, but I never used the rules by themselves.)

  • non-Vancian magic

Yes. And a simple "power" systems that can be used for PSI, Magic, Superpowers…

  • a few simple status effects to be used frequently

Not sure what you mean here.

  • death is an inconvenience; you respawn

This latter requirement depends is just a matter of convention, I suppose. Anyway Dreampark also provides mechanics for players to use NPCs (and get experience points for playing these intelligently) in case their own PC is killed or incapacitated – the idea is to use Dreampark as a filler game, and to allow everyone to keep having fun/playing even if their character is not in play anymore.


One system specifically designed to replicate a JRPG is Anima Prime by Berengad Games. The non-illustrated Anima Prime PDF is free to download.

The combat feels like a typical JRPG's combat, with turns spent charging power bars and turns spent emptying them to attack. It is fast and fun and features powerful magic items.

However, it's not "the" game you're looking for (using your numbering):

  • (1) There's no power level difference between the beginning and the end of a game. You deal damage in "wounds" and the typical monster or character has three or four wounds. You can easily color your attacks with steadily increasing numbers – the more damage you do at a certain level, the more HP the opponent has.

  • (3) Equipment is never bought or sold, nor are there better weapons to find as the game progresses. In any case, some characters can have the big, powerful weapon – with a materia-like set of powers that allows customization between encounters

If you're looking for a WoW-like experience, you can just assume you're all level 80 now, everyone's at full equip, and that's when the real game begins.

All the other points are satisfied:

  • The combat is easy. Roll a bunch of d6s to charge your pools (take some from the maneuver pool, add some from a list of three attacks that gives you bonuses every time you cycled it all, choose 5 dice: all dice that come up 3–5 become strike dice, all 6s become charge dice); Spend charge dice to activate spells; Roll from strike pool to deal damage.

    • (To make things more interesting, players can ask for or GMs can set goals. Goals are objectives that need to be "hit" using the same rules for wounding enemies. They provide enemies with vulnerabilities to elements, lower their defences, save hostages and so on.)
  • Magic works on a "when you gain enough charge you can use it" so it's not Vancian and most powers use statuses such as poisoned, blind, or slow.

  • You don't die – if you go to 0 you're out for the encounter.


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