This Is Why You Don’t Know How to Design an RPG
August 14, 2014
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“While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism?” — Starship Troopers
Character generation with “3d6 in order” followed by a player-character death within two hours of play is utterly essential if you’re going to introduce people to what role playing games are really all about. The second dungeon-run looks decidedly different… and if they come back with even a single magic item, it is something of a triumph. You have to communicate quickly that failure is possible, success is not guaranteed, and choices matter… and this does it as well as anything. And no, I have no idea what the people doing “everybody wins; nobody dies” at the next table are getting out of their game. There can be no glory if there can be no failure. Their players have nothing to boast about after a session. But the guy that died in my game falling off the side of a volcano… hestill talks about it. Something happened.
The rules in a “real” rpg are largely theater. Players only cite them when they are in their favor. The real work of the referee is not constrained by them. The referee does not “win” by using the obscure rules against the players. He lets the players coast along making informed decisions on the basis of the 10% of the rules that they are familiar with… so that when they undeniably screw everything up, there is no argument about who is and who is not dead. The fact that the players know what it means and what the consequences are before the dice fall is the entire point. But there must be something at stake for them to actually care about what is happening!
Most people designing rpg’s have no clue about this. They see something in the old games that looks stupid or broken to them, and they go off to make these bloated monstrosities, the bulk of which either adds nothing to role playing or else completely undercuts it. What you really want to do is engage people and get them playing and get them learning as quickly as possible. They are familiar with the tropes of classic dungeon adventures, but they have no concept of either the “push your luck” aspects or the absolute necessity of learning how to cooperate with the other players. Gaming appears to be ubiquitous, but a great many “gamers” have had essentially no exposure to this!
Most people try to make some kind of role playing experience by eliminating those two things as far as possible, but there really is no game there. It’s a mode of play that emerged in browser based video games that are designed to hold the attention of people that do not actually like games. There is no substance there, just a never-ending stream of easy victories and hollow rewards. “Everybody gets a trophy” is a dead end mentality, at the tabletop and elsewhere.