A response to "Six Things..."

I started this as a comment on the original post, and got very wordy indeed. So I decided to move it here and link back to Jeffro's recent post, Six Things Role Playing Game Designers of Today Overlook.


Being fair, I think that the games that try to provide a rule for every situation and the games that provide for a narrative focus mechanic both have goals based on real-world outcomes of play rather than an idealized game.

An idealized game requires literally no rules - a bunch of friends get together, one of them starts telling a story that they all take part in, everyone interacts, they decide on outcomes as appropriate to their roles. Perhaps dice are thrown, or perhaps trust is implicit that decisions will be made fairly. There's no need for anything to be written down in advance of the game, and rules would just get in the way.

The only ingredient you absolutely need is trust. And at many tables, especially in modern gaming, that trust either isn't there, or can't be because of the thrown-together nature of the gaming group. You don't implicitly trust the guy running the game because he's just a guy you've seen at the store before and he happens to be wiling to run a game. You don't know him from Adam. Or worse, you are playing with a group of "friends" but you know full well that the guy playing the fighting man has only one goal in mind - to "win" the game, and he'll do whatever it takes to make sure that happens, or the woman who always makes a character that uses an odd intersection of rules to become an overpowered behemoth.

So, to deal with the unknowns at the ad hoc game table, the more rules the better. The fewer decisions over which there can be dispute, the better. This is where good, iron-clad rules are better than wobbly, flexible ones, which may inspire greater levels of dispute. As soon as you introduce a point of "up to you to decide" that occurs in play (not so much in pre-play planning), you've introduced a weak point in the system. If we can reduce that outer circle of "GM Rulings" to a few bumps on the outside of the inner circle, with plenty of places where the rules interact with the inner circle of the campaign state directly, without possible interpretation, that reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation, either by accident or deliberate malfeasance. More rules is important, but just as important is that they be solid, without so much wiggle room.

On the other hand, the narrative-focus games are designed to solve another problem that crops up often enough to be an FAQ in every RPG focused forum - "how do I get my players to role play?"

Everyone has had at least one at the table, a player who is only interested in the mechanics. Perhaps they're a Gamer, and all they want to do is win. Perhaps they're a min-maxer or other munchkin, and they're only interested in playing the system in a game of optimization. In either case, a game that doesn't so much encourage role play as demand it can be the solution to that particular problem. Add in the side effect of pleasing another group of players who envied the power and authority of the GM, and you've got a system type that takes care of a few problems that many tables have encountered.

I guess, in short, it seems like the ideal game design paradigm is a bit like Communism. It's great on paper, but it has a really hard time surviving contact with human nature. I think it also explains why, amongst hard core gamers, there seems to be an inevitable slide towards designing your own system, because there's no one system out there that's perfect for everyone, and all of our gaming is colored by our experiences of games that have gone wrong and the systems that failed us.


  1. "The only ingredient you absolutely need is trust. And at many tables, especially in modern gaming, that trust either isn't there, or can't be because of the thrown-together nature of the gaming group."

    I would argue that trust (which I refer to as "consensus") is a prerequisite for role playing. You simply cannot have a role playing game without it-- not for long anyway. The attempt to create rules as a substitute for trust creates an entirely different genre of game. There's a spectrum here, sure, but at somepoint... you end up creating something that is not really a role playing game anymore.

  2. Interestingly, many of the "new wave" of games seem to solve many of those sorts of lack-of-consensus problems, even if they're not immediately predicated upon finding those solutions. Narrative games tell you they're about "making sure you tell a good story" but that means enforcing a mechanic that forces suboptimal play. D&D 4e was about making every character have the same sort of power curve regardless of class, and reducing the amount of work required by the DM, and in the process made it harder to fudge the rules because you couldn't be as sure that you'd maintain that balance if you started coloring outside the lines.

    I really wonder if we wouldn't benefit from a more robust taxonomy of games. Let the games fall into different categories without everyone jostling elbows under the RPG umbrella so much.

  3. I concur with jeffro; and I believe Kromm has said several times that GURPS isn't designed to be resilient against malicious players (including the GM).

    What I see in a lot of modern narrativist/"indie" games is a decision to take power away from the GM (I assume they've had experiences with bad GMs spoiling games) and spread it among the players. This doesn't actually prevent a bad player from spoiling the game.

    Jason, I agree that a better taxonomy of games and of mechanics would be tremendously useful.

  4. I read the originating post, as well, and was struck first by the "things were so much better when" quality of it, which damaged some good arguments that followed.

    I agree that a stronger GM role is important, particularly in settings or stories where mystery or suspense is essential. It's hard to have a true mystery evolve on the fly via committee. A strong GM role makes for a tighter game world, event cohesion, and yes -- narrative flow (which can be achieved without railroading.)

    The notion that players have as much narrative control over a game by asking questions and taking actions is well-taken, but I've also encountered GMs that, by the nature of their being the referee, can make it very difficult for players to succeed in a misplaced attempt to "challenge" them. I've never taken to the antagonistic GM/player relationship that seems baked into the old-school D&D paradigm.

    For that reason, I've been fond of mechanics like hero/plot/story/fate points that allow for a "get out of death" card or allowed the character to either turn a critical test from failure to success (or failure that led to another opportunity.) In later game design, I find the use of these mechanics to alter elements of the story generally unnecessary, but I'm sure there are groups that embrace the idea. More power to 'em.

    Equally, I've found over 30 years that the idea of the open-ended sandbox can bog a game down. Yes, you can present interesting hooks, but too much choice is often as debilitating to decision-making of players as too little.

  5. I think instead of "things were so much better when" a "things are so much better when you can sit down and play". I hear more on blogs/forums/Facebook about why games should do this and not do that than time actually PLAYING. It's almost like a group discussion on a grail quest. Except no one can agree on what the grail is or looks like. And what's worse, most people aren't willing to even attempt the quest just sneer or speak negatively about people that are in the trenches playing the 'wrong' game the 'wrong' way.

    Does it matter if it what "Bob" does at his table meets the RPG blog definition of a roleplaying game?

    I think today, and yes I am more than a bit naive and stupid, all this discussion has finally hit the politic level.

    To me that means all talk not activism. Jason wants 1.35 billion rules. Great, I hope he and his group has fun with that.

    Good God. I am ranting. /rant off


    1. I'm as guilty as any of not playing, and just kvetching, Chris. I am very much inclined to let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough. I have access to a dozen or more RPG systems just in the Dropbox folder I use for game PDFs, and every one of them has something wrong with it that looms far larger in my mind than it ought to, keeping me from diving right in and playing those games.

    2. I have done the same, countless times.

      Yours and +jeffros discussions have actually helped greatly over the past two years. I get to see a great slice of myself and my thinking in each of you.

  6. After reading my post, it sounds very combative. That was not my intent. Anyone is of course entitled to their opinion. Just to clarify.


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