Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What *IS* an RPG?

So, as I've mentioned here, I've been toying with a few different systems and settings for RPGs. I was thinking about whether or not I could actually devise a new and improved RPG. I'm sure that there is ground yet to be trod. But, how to find it?

An awful lot of the indie games seem to delight in spewing forth wacky mechanics. I think that, as a community, they are attempting to derive the perfect RPG through some sort of Darwinian process. They create games like you create creatures in Spore, then have the games compete for "survival" (measured in mentions on Forge and, as many of them don't actually have sales). Key features are then re-incorporated in newer games (though generally with the key terms changed, so that the writer can convince people his work is "original").

I thought that I would rise above this mish-mash, powered by nothing but my own hubris. I will devise the perfect RPG, not through some messy evolutionary process, but with SCIENCE!!! (Please don your protective goggles at this time.) (Ze gogglez! Zey do nothink!!!)

In some seriousness (since I seem to be incapable of all seriousness), what I am looking for initially is some idea of what RPG rules actually do. I know what an RPG is. And I know a couple dozen rules sets. But, if I want to make a contribution that is an actual revolution, and not just a gimmicky new mechanic, I need to have some idea what my goals are. So, what needs do the rules of an RPG need to fill?

Verisimilitude - The rules of an RPG need to create a system of checks and balances that enforce genre expectations. That is, each character needs to be capable of doing everything she logically should be able to, and needs to not be capable of doing anything she logically shouldn't. Now, most modern games have come to the realization that vast swaths of this territory can be covered by simple common sense. If you're re-creating a modern cop drama, then jumping down a couple steps should not require a roll, jumping over a low fence should probably involve a roll, and jumping over a building should not allow a roll. (Note that the "genre expectations" clause is important. In a wuxia game, jumping over a fence might be automatic, and jumping over a building could be possible.) One of the things I've noted in this is that skill systems which have a threshold for auto-success do this much better. World of Darkness and Deadlands are set up so that, no matter how easy the task, it's still possible to roll all 1's and fail. d20, on the other hand, actually has three levels of auto-success. If you can succeed even if you roll a 1, then you will obviously always succeed. If you can succeed if you roll a 10, and aren't under pressure (i.e., failure is not interesting), you can "take 10" and automatically succeed. If you have all the time in the world and can just keep plugging away at it, you can "take 20" and automatically succeed at even relatively difficult tasks. I happen to really, really like this feature of d20. Since many common tasks have a DC less than 10, you can use these rules to eliminate routine skill checks without arbitrarily ignoring the rules. That is a sign of a good skill system in my book.

Communication - The rules of an RPG need to facilitate communication of ideas, desires, and consequences. That is, the character sheet needs to be able to tell the GM exactly what the character can do, but more importantly what the character wants to do. The stats and abilities of a foe should build a picture of how that foe is actually a threat to the character, without the GM needing to layer the mechanics with fluff text. When a character engages a scene and uses a power, the simple description of what he does added to a simple description of his degree of success or failure should give a clear picture of what happened, even before mechanical results are calculated. This is one area where, IMHO, d20 fails badly. Despite being nominally a "storyteller" system, WoD also pretty much fails in this area. However, if you look at FATE or PDQ, you see some excellent rules that enable communication. Picking FATE's Aspects in particular, it is all about communication. The wording of the Aspects tells the GM explicitly what makes the character awesome. When a player tags an Aspect, he is telling the GM how he thinks the character should succeed in this scene. When a GM compels an Aspect, he is telling the player how the character should fail in this scene. Just writing down a list of the Aspects of each character should have the GM positively sparking with ideas for good adventures that are tailored specifically to those characters. You don't need to take time out from play to discuss expectations or ideas for where to take the character next, because it's all baked right in.

Common Framework - The rules of an RPG need to give the GM and all the players a common framework to understand and speak about events in the game. That is, when the GM says "that's a 10th-level orc barbarian wielding a huge halberd," all the players can not only conjure up a mental image of what the characters are facing, but have a rough gauge of the severity of the threat it poses and the options it is likely to pursue. This is actually a corollary to both the verisimilitude and communication points above, but I thought it was important enough to call out on its own. Much of what the terminology and jargon in an RPG does is provide a quick short-hand to call out specific points. The important take-aways here are that the rules need to be coherent (i.e., the players can understand what a given rule means), consistent (i.e., the rule doesn't change arbitrarily, and rules don't contradict one another), and comprehensive (i.e., the players can feel confident that any given situation is covered by some rule). Note that many people disagree with the "comprehensive" bit, mostly by confusing it with "exhaustive." It is true that you don't need to detail sub-systems for determining whether or not the characters get a good night's sleep based on the quality of their lodgings. However, the rules should be written in such a way that, should it become important to know how well they sleep, the existing system can be easily extended to cover it.

Tactical Choices - The rules of an RPG need to support a variety of tactical approaches to problem solving. That is, there needs to be more than one viable option to engage an opponent or situation, and the options need to be clearly distinct from one another. This is an area where many indie RPGs fall down. The system has been simplified and "streamlined" to the point where option A gives you a +X to the roll, or option Y gives you +X to the roll, and the only difference is how you describe the outcome. This is boring. If I am engaged in haggling with a merchant, I want it to play out differently mechanically based on whether I am sweet-talking him, scamming him, or intimidating him (even if the difference is only which skill I actually use, and which skill he uses to counter me). And, I want to be able to build my character to be specifically good at sweet-talking (or scamming or intimidating). Obviously, the more rules-heavy systems such as 4e, GURPS, or HERO succeed more often at this task. However, even rules-medium systems can do this well. FATE is pretty good at it, as placing temporary Aspects on opponents or scenery can get very tactically interesting, as can choosing consequences. Dogs in the Vineyard also introduces interesting tactics, though in a very different way, through its stakes-setting and resolution mechanics. One caveat here, though, is that it is very easy for a system to start chasing its own tail in this area. Choices need to be tactically interesting in the way the characters interact with the situation, not simply how the numbers on the dice interact with the numbers on the sheets.

Pacing and Strategic Choices - The rules of an RPG need to keep the action of the adventure flowing in a logical and interesting fashion. That is, important scenes need to feel important, unimportant scenes need to get out of the way, and players need to be able to have mechanical support for pursuing their characters' story arcs. In contrast to the tactical considerations above, this is generally where rules-light systems shine and rules-heavy systems fall down. I have become a big fan of the scene/session/adventure/campaign timing structure for abilities and durations, rather than the hour/day/etc. structure. It helps significantly with the pacing (especially with combating the 4-hour day problem in D&D), because you are making choices based on where your character is in the story, not where the sun is in the sky.

The other thing I've become a big fan of is a script control currency. Everybody at the table has some doodad in the system that helps them say, "Hey, this thing? This is important. I need to win one for the Gipper." Spycraft has action dice, the direct descendant of 7th Sea's drama dice. FATE has, oddly enough, fate points, as does Deadlands. A lot of indie games have much more explicit and more powerful methods, but I tend to like the action dice level of interaction. Too much script control breaks me out of my "gamer" mode and puts me into my "author" mode (where I tend not to play well with others).

A lot of the older games don't have any kind of script control mechanics. However, they do have some interesting mechanics that have since fallen by the wayside: resource management. Old school D&D wasn't about telling a story, it was about experiencing an adventure. Part of that adventure was the challenge of rationing out your limited resources. The whole deal with spell memorization came out of that, as a challenge to the players of magic users. Limited-use magic items were more common, and you had to decide when the right time to use them up was. As games have moved away from a focus on challenging the players to a focus on engaging the players, this aspect has faded from the rules. Of course, 4e has brought it back in entirely new clothes. I can decide if that's a good thing or not.

Conflict Resolution - The rules of an RPG need to give clear, concise, and preferably mechanically interesting methods for determining outcomes of character decisions. That is, when you try to do something, there should be a way to definitively determine whether you succeed. Ideally, the system would also include some mechanic for determining the margin of success or failure, and possibly even some details on the flavor of the success. This, of course, is the meat and bones of RPG rules. It is what separates RPGs from interactive fiction. And the resolution mechanic is generally where one RPG attempts to differentiate itself from the others.

What else do you think RPG rules need to do, in the abstract?

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