Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

This Is Why You Don’t Know How to Design an RPG

“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.

17 responses to “This Is Why You Don’t Know How to Design an RPG

  1. callin August 14, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Thank you for sharing how you like a game to be run at your table.

    • jeffro August 14, 2014 at 9:00 am

      Thank you for admitting that you are unable to define the quintessence of tabletop rpgs.

      • callin August 14, 2014 at 10:06 am

        “To have fun by being challenged as a player.”
        How that is defined depends on the individual. You gave us one version of that definition. I actually agree with some of your points. To always win is fun but in the long run becomes empty and eventually a waste of time…much the same way making a character and having it die 2 hours after creation is also a waste of time.

        My definition of the quintessence of tabletop rpgs has a lot of room for interpretation. Some people like the “can die at any moment”, some like the “can die if I do something stupid”, some like the “can die because I rolled a crappy character”, some like the “can die only after a long series of really bad die rolls”, some like the “can die at any moment regardless of my chosen actions”. They all still provide challenges but of varying degrees.

        Also one thing you fail to realize is that the table next to you that you deride as being too easy…their rules still allow for failure and even character death. Sure, it might be really hard for that to happen but I do not know of any rpg that removes the possibility of character death from the game.

  2. Bob Weaver August 14, 2014 at 10:27 am

    “much the same way making a character and having it die 2 hours after creation is also a waste of time.”
    Callin, Yes, it can be a waste of time – if you, the player, did not learn anything from those two hours. Why did your freshly minted PC die? If you were able to go back and do it all again, what would you, the player do differently? Have you learned anything about assessing what your PC is actually capable of? Was there a better way to handle the particular challenge the resulted in PC death?
    Choices matter. I think this is the central point Jeffro made. In an RPG as in real life, choices matter. The possibility of failure/death is what makes you really pay attention and think about what is going on. When you think about what you are doing, you learn. When you don’t, you don’t. The short-lived PC did not die in vain if his successor doesn’t make the same mistakes.

    • jeffro August 14, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Thanks, Bob.

      Yes… the quick player character death, the low chance of success, and the high difficulty factor are there in order to make a point. It’s to shock the players out of their conventional expectations and get them to engage a real challenge. The point is to get them to start thinking, to reward the cunning, punish the foolish, and get them to start coordinating and working as a team instead of hanging back and waiting for their time in the spotlight.

      I’m using a simple dungeon premise to explain this and, yes, the concept of stakes and consequences can be translated into other genres and system. The default setting in our culture right now is to completely not grasp this! Which is why I’m stating this so forcefully– it’s just not widely understood and it goes against the grain of most people’s intuition.

    • callin August 14, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Actually his article started by stating “Character generation with “3d6 in order” followed by a player-character death within two hours of play is utterly essential”.

      The implication here is that low stat rolls followed by character death because of those low rolls is okay and even preferred. What’s to learn here, to roll better next time? Now you could say that maybe next time the character should make sure to avoid that house cat (that does 1d4 damage) when the PC only has 2 hp because they rolled crappy on their Con and hit point roll. But some people want to be heroes, not people who run away from house cats. That is why some people play rpgs.

      I actually agree with a lot of his points. What I do not like is his telling people “they are doing it wrong” and “his way is the only way”.

      • jeffro August 14, 2014 at 10:43 am

        A hopeless character has a higher chance to die. The new player that gets one will more than likely get a better one when he rolls up another two hours into the session. He will also choose a class that (more than likely) fits with the needs of the group and the demands of the adventure and will probably try something different and discover that they like a different class from what they expected.

        The point is to encourage the players to think as a team rather than as a half dozen “armies of one.” The point is to get them to thinking in terms of adventure tactics rather than character builds. The essence of play is in an entirely different place, an the other assumptions need to be broken quickly.

  3. callin August 14, 2014 at 11:17 am

    …but “3d6 in order” actually doesn’t get people to think as a team. If the party needs a thief and a person rolls a 6 Dex…or a healer and a person rolls a 6 Wis…or a person rolls a 18/26 Str but the group has 3 fighters already…how does that help a person create a character that will fit into a team? “3d6 in order” almost forces a player to create a character that plays to the strengths of the die rolls (and avoid the bad stats) and not what the group/team needs. In a way, you are saying that a point-buy stat generation system is better…

    • jeffro August 14, 2014 at 11:23 am

      >> “3d6 in order” almost forces a player to create a character that plays to the strengths of the die rolls

      In Moldvay Basic D&D, you can play any of the four classes without significant penalty regardless of your attributes. Only elf, dwarf, and halfling classes have attribute requirements. Poor stats usually mean not much more than a penalty or two and a slower rate of advancement. The latter is irrelevant in the case of introductory sessions and the former is an encouragement to play to your strength whatever that may be.

      A truly hopeless character can (cynically) be used to try something totally reckless. In the case that this actually works more than once, the character will become a legend.

  4. callin August 14, 2014 at 11:24 am

    and for the record I agree with the gist of the article…some of the new players can come in feeling entitled.

  5. Omer Golan-Joel August 15, 2014 at 6:42 am

    A somewhat rekated piece I have written about death in Traveller character generation.

    • jeffro August 15, 2014 at 7:17 am

      Thank you, nice illustration. In some discussion, Traveller is invoked as a counterexample to my thoughts here. It actually codifies some aspects of it. And yeah, I love how character generation is not a separate activity from playing the game. It’s brilliant.

      • dgarsys August 15, 2014 at 4:35 pm

        My first “push your luck” gem – before I knew the term….

        On another note, one of my favorite AD&D stories was an occasion where my fairly new character, trying to get clever during an unavoidable run-in with a dragon the rest of the group had met before, got swatted, and then jumped on until squashed to ooze….

  6. Jason Packer August 25, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    I know I’m late to the game (if a week or two counts as late – it’s Internet Time, so I suspect I’m geological eras late) on this post, but I think I bristle at the notion not because it’s incorrect so much as it is wearing blinders about what the goals of the people at the table are sharing.

    One may be very interested in the glory of victory by way of his own player wits and the luck of the dice, while another may be there with the intention of telling a story about heroes that doesn’t involve them dying, and a third may be primarily interested in testing the strength of his particular mechanical build and not terribly keen to rely on his own wits instead leaning on those of his character. While a fourth, well, he’s just there to spend time with friends, tell a few Monty Python jokes and eat junk food like he’s 12 again.

    To declare that any game, be it D&D or Fate or GURPS or Burning Wheel or anywhere in between, can only be enjoyed in one fashion – well that just rubs me the wrong way.

    I think, from this post and others I’ve read lately, my new mantra is “don’t look for the perfect game, look for the right game for you.”

    • jeffro August 25, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      Well hey, if some people really truly love Rifts, then more power to them. But I think now that once we nail down the fact that nonprocedural elements are inherent to rpgs and that iron clad rules for the procedural side don’t have to destroy those same elements… that we begin to get a clearer picture of what this is all about.

      • Jason Packer August 25, 2014 at 1:54 pm

        To a degree. We at least begin to define terms. But I challenge you to find anything approaching a universal acceptance of where the dividing line between the two types of elements falls…

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