Archive for February, 2011

In the last post, I brainstormed some of the features I want my system to have. In the next post I’ll examine those a bit more closely in terms of RPG theory, but for now I wanted to pick out two that particularly struck me – “Immersive” and “Strategic”.

I guess this is a bit of an aside, really, but they are both things I really enjoy about roleplaying, so I wanted to examine them a bit more closely.

First, I think the terms are a bit woolly, so let me clarify exactly what I mean.

  • Immersive: Providing the experience of “being” a different character. Perceiving the game world as if through that character’s perceptions, reacting to those inputs as if you were that character, and acting on the world according to the capabilities of that character.
  • Strategic: Requiring the players to take a limited amount of information, come up with the best possible plan of action to achieve whatever goals they have, and then perhaps change that plan on-the-fly as the game plays out.

I enjoy both of these a great deal, but it immediately jumped out at me that these two are not compatible, at least not completely. By definition, a strategic game is not about acting “in character” like immersive play is – it’s about making the best plan.

To clarify this with an example… If my character has (using some hypothetical system mechanics), a mediocre intelligence and no points in the “strategy” skill, then immersing myself in a strategic game is going to be very dull because my character is not capable of contributing to a strategy. But as a player, I like strategic games because they challenge my strategic thinking, regardless of what it says on my character sheet.

Another example… If I come up with an excellent plan (objectively) but roll low on my “strategy” test, why does my plan suddenly fail? (Or indeed the reverse – a high roll mysteriously saving an objectively rubbish plan.) Not only does this not make sense (and so it’s not satisfying), but it also requires a lot of work from the GM who has to invent reasons why despite the objective value of the plan, the actual outcome was wildly different.

I guess, in short, I like my strategic play to be very game-focussed, whereas immersion is (by my definition) character-focussed. For strategic play I like a strict set of rules for whatever situation I’m planning, so that I can ensure I’m making the best use of those rules – I don’t care what the rules are governing the character in the planning room. For immersive play I like a believable simulation of the world around the character, and I like to play to that character’s traits, which may or may not include “good at strategy”. The two styles of play are very different – and they therefore require very different systems.

So what does this mean for the system I’m currently working on? Well, it means I need either to pick which of Immersive and Strategic play I want to focus on and build a system appropriate to that, or to build systems for both and find some way to interrelate them.

For now, I think I’m going to focus on the Immersive play. I feel like I’ve done quite a lot of strategic play in my recent roleplaying, and there are plenty of games beyond roleplay that are also heavily strategic – for example, I’ve just started playing Middle Earth Play-By-Mail. Immersion is something that’s a lot harder to come by, at least in my personal experience.

I can always come back later and develop a system for Strategic play – and at that point I could even see if there is a sensible way to combine the two! But for the rest of this series, the system I’m developing will be aiming at Immersive play. In the next post, I’ll examine what that means in RPG theory terms.

In the last post, I took a step (or several) back from the specifics of system design to think about what I’m actually aiming to get from the system. I ended up with the following two qualities I want it to have:

  • Engaging: I want it to produce a game that’s interesting, stimulating and challenging for both the players and the GM.
  • Satisfying: I also want it to feel “complete”, i.e. not to feel like something is lacking or unfinished or half-baked.

I then went away and tried to explain exactly what I meant by those qualities in practical terms. I even drew MindMaps. And I hate MindMaps.

Below is the outcome. I’ll tidy this up into some stricter requirements later, but for now it’s just in bullet point brainstorm format so you can see my thought process.


  • Interesting / Stimulating
    • Nobody getting bored
      • All players involved in the action, even if their character isn’t
      • No character overshadowed by another
      • Play is inherently watchable
    • “Dramatic”
      • Has moments of tension
      • Even failures can be rewarding / interesting
      • Has a mechanism for encouraging dramatic / exciting character actions
    • Encourages varied play
      • Supports different settings
      • Supports a good variety of character actions
  • Challenging
    • Requires and rewards imagination / good ideas
      • Doesn’t limit character actions to a restricted set (e.g. a skill list)
    • Low / Medium power level
    • Has clear consequences of PC action
    • Strategic
  • Immersive
    • Not hampered by out-of-character stuff
      • Quick resolution mechanism
      • Mechanics that are easy to remember
        • Simple
        • Consistent
        • Intuitive
    • In-character knowledge = out-of-character knowledge
      • Restricted conferring / tactical planning time
    • Focussed on the player characters
      • No mass combat
      • Heroic not Epic characters (as per this post on Transneptune Games’ blog)


  • Reasonably realistic simulation
    • At least from the players’ point of view; behind the screen it can be less so.
    • Believable character descriptors and advancement
    • Mechanics for chance need to be realistic for the game world
    • This will lead to intuitive mechanics
  • Fictional world supplies the mechanics, not vice versa
    • Including character development – not powered by beating challenges (or at least not only by that method)

It’s clear that some of these points naturally reinforce each other, while some may be at odds. Still, my system doesn’t have to capture every single point on that list – the main thing is that I understand what those points are, so I can make explicit decisions about what to include and what to leave out.

To me, the most interesting points are Immersive and Strategic, which are quite ill-defined in my mind. In the next post I’ll consider those two a little more closely. After that, I’ll come back to the points above and re-examine them in light of the articles I’ve been reading on RPG theory.

I’ve looked at a bunch of roleplay game systems, played a few, read many articles about them, ranted a lot and thought a lot more, and I’m increasingly drawn to the conclusion that the only way I’ll find the perfect system is if I write it myself.

Alright, that’s not actually true. I’m sure that there are plenty of systems out there that I’d really enjoy. There may even be some that I wouldn’t want to tweak, even a little bit, even just to be contrary. But I do think that designing a system will be a good way to analyse what I want from the game, and what part the system plays in delivering that. And if I end up with a usable product as part of that process, so much the better.

So where do I start…? Well, it’s all too easy to jump on tweaks I have made or would like to make to existing systems – but that misses the point. Just because something improves one particular system doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do in a scratch-built system. I think to truly start from the beginning, I need to establish what I want the system to deliver. What are my objectives?

It’s at this point that I start bandying around terms like “realistic”, “story-focussed” and so forth – but I still don’t feel this is core of the matter. Do I really care if it’s realistic, provided that it gives me the kind of experience I’m after? Should it really be story-focussed, or is there something more central to the experience I want from the game? I need to be thinking in very, very broad terms.

Ultimately, I suppose I want it to be engaging, both for the players and the GM. I also want it to be satisfying for the same people. Yeah, those sound suitably vague. Let me examine exactly what I mean.

  • Engaging: I want it to produce a game that’s interesting, stimulating and challenging for both the players and the GM.
  • Satisfying: I also want it to feel “complete”, i.e. not to feel like something is lacking or unfinished or half-baked.

The two are closely related, of course, but I think there is some separation, perhaps best clarified with an example. I can envisage a system which provides extremely engaging gameplay but which contains some glaringly unrealistic mechanics. Sure, this might not prevent the actual in-game experience from being thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable, but somewhere in the back of my brain it’d be bugging me. And that’s what I mean by “satisfying” – I want it to not bug me. I want it to feel right.

I should clarify who the players and the GM are – obviously that directly affects what they find engaging and satisfying. At the risk of sounding egomaniacal, I think they are both me – not because I have a habit of running games in which I am all the players, but because I want to write the sort of system I would enjoy playing in, and would also enjoy GMing. As I mentioned above, it’s at least as much a learning exercise as it is about producing a finished system – and I’m only going to learn about my own relationship with gaming if I consider myself to be the audience I’m aiming to please. So that’s what I’ll do.

Ok. So we have two properties to aim for; two criteria on which the final system will be judged. Sure, they’re very nebulous, but they provide some direction for considering the more specific features of the system, to ensure that they really are going to produce the result I want. That’ll be the next step. For now, this foundation is an excellent start.