Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Six Things Role Playing Game Designers of Today Overlook

There are two primary “pulls” within a role playing game. On the one hand, nothing impacts the game state without it being filtered through a game master ruling. A consequence of this is that the rules do not so much govern the game master– they tend to be just a prop or a baseline to facilitate play and communication. Secondarily, the game cannot move forward without player consensus. The players have to come to a consensus about how they will approach the scenario. If they fail to do this, it can bring a session to a halt in spite of a game master’s best efforts. At the same time, the players can also veto the game master’s direction or else beg and appeal and argue against him until he gives in to whatever they want to do. Compromise is unavoidable in role playing games.

Now, I admit that for the most part my view of role playing games is fairly well rooted somewhere in 1981. Observing more recent games and the gamers that play them, I’m not always sure that people really “get” the implications of all this. Here, then, are six things that role playing game designers of today tend to overlook:

1) There is a great deal of tribal practice involved in how this sort of ruling and consensus is carried out within the form. Most role playing game designers do not understand how to communicate this, so the uninitiated cannot have a real game unless they bootstrap themselves somehow. Novice gamers are pretty much abandoned to figure this out on their own. (The arrogance of the average game master and the contempt that he might have for the rules is probably rooted in this.)

2) Today’s role playing game designers actually fight against the nature of the form. They do this by eliminating game master rulings as far as possible or else turn their designs into de facto board games. This reduces the game master to something of a robot observer, and eliminates the more interesting distinctives of the form.

3) Today’s role playing game designers think they can create narrative or emphasize narrative by having plot points, fate points, or other game master type abilities doled out to the players. This is idiotic because the players can already completely change the nature of a scenario just by asking the game master an odd question about the context. By giving players actual choices with real stakes, the players become co-authors of the campaign– but many designers chaff against this very thing!

4) Today’s role playing game designers too often think that having a rule for everything will some how make the game “fairer”. Given that no rule is applied without a judgement call or ruling, this is a fairly pointless exercise that only ratchets up the learning curve while adding to the overhead required for running the game. (Note that a toolkit system like GURPS does not make this error: it is quite consciously a “rule zero” game where each component constrains play only at the game master’s discretion.)

5) Today’s role playing game designers claim to want more story and narrative than what the traditional “hack and slash” games supposedly give… but they actually eliminate drama and suspense when they engineer rules for doling out spotlight time and/or enforcing particular outcomes on the plot. All great stories deal with overcoming failure and setbacks… and dramatic tension is only possible when you have to face the possibility of failure– yet many designers seem to be oblivious to this!

6) The only way to “balance” a truly wide open role playing game is to have an effectively infinite scenario. There is no shortage problems, so it is okay if the players blow through many of them. If the players happen to get stuck or else stymied on one in particular obstacle, they can go do something else. Regardless of what the players do, they will find the equilibrium point where they are challenged or where they push their luck too far. This is the chaos-point where things actually get interesting… and today’s role playing game designers have no idea how to create this. What looks to be a good idea to them too often eliminates the possibility of this sort of thing!

Admittedly, these are all generalizations. If work is actually being done on “real” role playing games that I don’t know about, please enlighten me in the comments…!

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15 responses to “Six Things Role Playing Game Designers of Today Overlook

  1. Yora November 26, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I think you’re mostly spot on with the general idea of this post. Making rules for everything you can think of has the actual effect of reinforcing the notion that players have to always act within a very narrowly defined range of options, completely forgetting that one of the main point of PnP games is the ability to come up with new ways to do things at any time. Same thing with adventure modules that want to put so much story into the game, that you actually have to stay on the prewritten path or it all falls apart.
    However, I don’t think that you can just say that it’s because the current writers do things different than writers in the writers in the past. These are no homegenic groups and there was terrible railroading very far back (Dragonlance for example) and quite simplistic RPGs that barely define anything now (like Dragon Age RPG). It’s probably just the nostalgia filter that makes us see only the gems from past decades while having completely forgotten about the huge pile of dung that was just as big as it is today.

    • jeffro November 26, 2013 at 10:03 am

      Oh yes, certainly. Back in the day, every conceivable approach to role playing emerged rather quickly– and often coexisted within the same game or community. Car Wars, when played as a role playing game, had a linear plot with a focus on tactical combat that is almost identical to what 4th edition D&D produces. The points I make here were a part of the Olde Games, but this was not necessarily well communicated at the time. But old school gaming is an active and vocal niche today precisely because of the trends away from these points.

  2. Jimmy Anderson November 26, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Look at the Edge of the Empire rules and dice. Fantasy Flight Games has really done it right, IMHO.

  3. Tedankhamen November 26, 2013 at 10:44 am

    I think that you put your finger on the source of many problems with the reference to ‘tribal practice’. This is often left so vague in a gamebook as to leave a decent game unplayable for newcomers, or else the plethora of rules actually limits the actions selectable, working against the form as you noted. I think newer designers who nerf their game with rules bloat are actually just filling in a hole that was already there since the beginning, while older games were for wargamers-cum-rpgers who were also tinkerers and adapters, and thus could make do with a gaping hold in the explanation of practices or ignore the superfluous rules used to patch it.

    Good insights. If you add that gamers range from DIY handymen to idealists who believe the ‘perfect game’ exists and can be run RAW, to newbies who need training wheels that sometimes aren’t there, this explains edition wars and the range of rpgs from Story Games (all tribal practice without the rules) to Phoenix Command (the opposite).

    • jeffro November 26, 2013 at 10:49 am

      The thing that bugs me the most is that even trying to discuss this signals to most gamers that you are not part of their tribe…!

      • Tedankhamen November 26, 2013 at 12:10 pm

        I don’t think most gamers are that self-aware, they just like what they know and think it is the end all and be all, sadly because gaming face to face requires playing what is offered due to the social contract. That is why Constacon and Google+ gaming offers the opportunity to try a whole gamut of games and open your mind. I am glad my first gaming group had ADD together and changed games monthly – makes me understand better why I like what I do, and crave for different experiences. Even the games I love I don’t think are perfect.

  4. Jason Packer November 26, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Started to reply here, and got, well, a little wordy. So I moved it to my own blog, as not to take up too much space here: http://rpgsnob.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-response-to-six-things.html

    • jeffro November 26, 2013 at 11:25 am

      Heh. I forgot that this sort of post would flush you out! Thanks for the detailed response. Hmm…. In the absence of trust, killing people and forcing them to roll up new characters over and over is a great way to build it up. (Of course… it builds trust by alienating the “wrong” kind of player…. And allows you to skip wasting time on the uninvested. Plus: instant story with a very definite ending!!)

      • Jason Packer November 26, 2013 at 11:42 am

        Well, it certainly forced me to consider why I am so invested in games that have “a rule for everything” and why I bristle at those that try to force me to play a role when that’s what I’m already inclined to do.

  5. dither001 November 26, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I feel like there’s something I disagree with in #5, but I’m having difficulty wrapping my head around exactly what you’re saying. The more I read it to try and put my thoughts into words, the less I feel I understand what’s written.

    So, designers are creating opportunities for shifting spotlights and predetermined plot outcomes? And that takes away from the suspense that comes with the possibility that the player characters might fail? Your point seems… vague.

    I mean, I’m pretty sure I know what you’re talking about — 4e has the whole Ritual subsystem for spellcasters and the whole Skill Challenge subsystem for skill monkeys. And, each class can be subdivided into a combat role, where there’s a clear need for different roles in a fight (and those roles are jealously guarded). Is that what you mean?

    Because I can also see how it might factor into adventure writing, where events have certain outcomes predetermined should the PCs either ignore the relevant plot points or fail to meddle properly (“I would have gotten away with it, if not for you!”), or perhaps include “safety nets” to keep things rolling if there’s an unexpected TPK…

    …But those seem like valuable, I don’t know, “emergency resources” as opposed to, eliminating drama and suspense the way you said it does. I mean, doesn’t that mean “Raise Dead” is a rule that eliminates drama and suspense because a PC who’s KIA can “come back?”

    I guess I just missed the point of #5. I pretty much agree with the rest.

    –Dither

    • jeffro November 26, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      Setting aside rules systems– which I fear are kind of a mirage anyway at least as far as this point goes– I have observed game masters take any character and any choice and then alter the scenario on the spot to give them “spotlight time” because everyone deserves it. He is solving a perceived problem, but he ultimately sacrifices player autonomy in the process. A better solution would be an “infinite scenario” like I describe in #6. Also, I think it is far more interesting to let the players fail, sweat, worry, and try something else… or else just suffer a little when they don’t have the requisite character types on hand. People seem to have a tendency to dodge around the exact point where my concept of “play” begins!

      • dither001 November 26, 2013 at 2:39 pm

        I still feel like I’m missing something, even taking #6 into account. Is this really a design problem that’s being overlooked, or is this a game master problem?

        As a designer AND a game master, I find that creating an “open sandbox” frustrates my players more often than not because what they seem to want are scenarios that cater to individual tastes/PC builds.

        At the same time, it can be difficult to cater to them because they don’t really know what they want until they see it, so I have to create the sandbox anyway and then improvise whatever they take a specific interest in.

        –Dither

        [Jeffro: Well it’s either that you have players that want things that are inimicable to the very concept of rpgs or else you have excluded the sorts of situations that the players like from your menu of adventure hooks. Personally I would be wary of anything that undermines player autonomy or that shields players from the consequences of their decisions. If you give them a resource, for instance, then let them spend it or save it was they wish. The infinite scenario has a steeper learning curve than the alternatives, but it is far more sustainable than trying to juggle unarticulated player demands and preconceived notions of how everything is “supposed” to play out!]

  6. Karl Gallagher November 26, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    I’ve had arguments like that with people wanting to make everything independent of the GM’s call. It broke down when I pointed out that as GM I was defining the world that the players were using their independence to interact with.

    If you want to look at a different take on design, check out Robin Laws’ Hillfolk/Dramasystem RPG. I picked it up from the Kickstarter and loved reading the book but don’t know if I’ll ever run it. It boils down to improv acting, with an economy of tokens given as compensation for being told “no” by another player, and cashing in the tokens to force a “yes” in a later scene.

    Looking at the player types Robin put in his Laws of Good GMing, this is a system that will thrill Method Actors and Storytellers, and drive Butt-Kickers, Tacticians, and Power Gamers away from the table. Which is why I don’t expect to run it.

    • jeffro November 26, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      I’ve never quite accepted those player type breakdowns. I think player consensus and player autonomy are more fundamental to what’s actually happen. And of course, the players will have to play what the game master is running even as he attempts to meet them where they are.

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