Posts Tagged ‘system’

A lot of roleplayers believe that game mechanics are evil things, to be minimised if not completely rejected. A common complaint is that they get in the way of “the story” – which, to story-lovers like myself, is most definitely a Bad Thing.

But is this really justified? Certainly in many games (especially traditional ones), the mechanics are convoluted and difficult to remember, and this can definitely lead to them claiming the focus of the group’s attention, at the cost of the fictional aspects. But is this an unavoidable consequence of mechanics?

I suggest not – and in fact I think mechanics can help the story-focussed group avoid other things that might distract from the story. Here are three examples.

Removing GM responsibility

A roleplaying game is essentially a series of statements made by the various players about things that happen in the fiction. In a “traditional” GM / player model, many of these statements are made by the GM, who, without mechanics, has to decide “what happens” using only their own intution. Sure, they might use some guiding principles (e.g. drama, fairness, plausibility, “cool”, etc.), but fundamentally it’s their call.

Not only is this potentially disempowering for the other players, but it’s also quite risky socially – it’s very easy for GMs to upset or frustrate players by making a call the players don’t like (too harsh, not harsh enough, and so forth). Even with an extremely close understanding between the GM and the players, no GM is flawless – and besides, such understandings are rare treasures indeed. For a new GM, a new player, a new game, a new group, the potential for misjudgement is huge.

A mechanical framework distances the GM from these decisions. If the dice (or whatever) come down against you, then Bad Things Happen, and you’ve accepted the risk by agreeing to play within this particular framework. No hard feelings toward the GM. As Apocalypse World shows extremely clearly, this doesn’t remove the GM’s creative input – there are plenty of different ways Bad Things can Happen – but it can provide a bare-bones structure for the GM to enhance and flesh out in play.

Managing Pacing

In games which focus on “story”, pacing is paramount – but tough to get right. Whoever’s responsible for managing pacing, it’s very easy for it to fall by the wayside in favour of the other jobs that player’s juggling, leading to play that gets bogged down in mediocre scenes rather than staying focussed on the action.

Using mechanics to handle pacing allows it to be more strictly guided and emerge naturally through play. Sorcerer’s advice: “Get to the Bangs!” is exactly this sort of thing in action.

Clarifying Authority

Any system, no matter how freeform / mechanical, defines who can say what, when, about the game’s fiction. The more freeform (or less strict, or less clear) a system gets, the easier it is for clashes to occur between two (or more!) players whose statements conflict – “hey, GM, you can’t put that into my character’s backstory”.

Having a clear mechanic for who is allowed to say what sorts of things can help avoid such conflicts, and keep the game running smoothly. (Indeed, I think even most “mechanics-light” systems tend to have this dictated somewhere, though not always clearly.)

What I’m Not Saying

Important note: I’m not saying a good GM / group can’t do the above things themselves, without the help of mechanics. They can, of course! But when they don’t, the results can be just as detrimental to the story as the most convoluted mechanical systems out there.

So no, mechanics aren’t the only way to get these things done, but they are another way, and one that might leave the GM / group free to spend effort on other things, e.g. contributing cool stuff to the game, playing more games, or even (shock, horror) their lives outside of roleplaying. (I believe such things exist.)

But wait, there’s more…

But those are just my three things, right? What else can a system do for story-focussed groups, that I haven’t considered?

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In the last post, I discovered that my inner roleplayer is a Narrativist – I want to find the hard questions that surround the human condition (premise) and address them through play. Now I need to think about how a system might help players do that. I also promised you mechanics. Well here they are.

I consider “addressing premise” to be “dramatic” – that is, the source of the drama portrayed in the game’s events. With that in mind, I wondered if it were possible (and if so, desirable) to use some score or other function to keep direct and explicit track of whether the system is doing its job – i.e. encouraging drama. If we can monitor it, then we can adjust the system to keep the levels high, right? From that were born Drama Points. The central idea is…

When dramatic events go against a character, that character gains Drama Points. When they go in the character’s favour, the character spends Drama Points.

Simple, I know – and I’ve read games with similar mechanics, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as explicitly focussed on drama as a measurement. (That said, I’m sure there are some systems out there that do this – just not any I’ve seen.)

This opens up some interesting possibilities, though. For example, to gain drama points, players can define what the central dramas are for their characters – e.g. “I want to overcome my cowardice”; “I want to get revenge on my husband’s killer”; etc. These dramas can then be used to earn Drama Points every time they come up in play. If things go against those goals, the characters are rewarded with Drama Points, which they can later spend on making things go their way later on.

I still need to lay out the possibilities for spending those points. I envisage a mechanical system which is actually relatively harsh, but which is made survivable because the players can use drama to get out of difficult situations. For example, Drama Points could be spent to:

  • “just pass” a task attempt that would otherwise have failed – e.g. hanging on to a cliff by the very tips of the fingers;
  • survive an otherwise fatal blow, but have the conditions of survival be entirely at the GM’s discretion (e.g. Fate Points in WFRP and similar games)
  • be warned before a surprise attack kicks in – “my spidey sense is tingling”
  • buy time for discussion during combat, which might ordinarily be restricted because in-character discussion wouldn’t be possible – but this way the players can set up cool dramatic sequences for the combat, making it more interesting for all concerned.

Essentially, Drama Points could be used to power any and all “cool dramatic effects”.

There are a lot of questions still to be answered – for example, I need to define exactly how they’re spent and earned, and whether there’s any limit on how many points can be moved around in this way. Also some powers (especially e.g. in a superhero game) would probably want to be an innate part of the character’s capabilities rather than needing to be powered by Drama. But it’s a start.

In the next post I’ll expand further on this concept and see if I can flesh out some of these details. Meanwhile, if you know of any games that use something like this already, I’d be really grateful to know about them! That way I can steal their ideas study them for inspiration. Drop a comment in the box below :-)

Insert whiny excuse about life getting in the way of blogging here. Now let’s move on.

After much searching, I have found myself. Too pretentious? Yeah, I know. But in fact it’s actually been quite a relief. Hang on a second, I should probably give you some context…

I’ve been reading a load of articles about RPG design (see the last post for a selection), and one of the key concepts I’ve found useful was Ron Edwards’ three suggested Creative Agendas. (Agendae? I’m pretty sure Agenda is plural already, actually. Aaanyway.) The three agendas are the three (he suspects the only three) core reasons why people play a roleplaying game. They are as follows:

  • Gamism – “Social assessment of personal strategy and guts among the participants in the face of risk”;
  • Narrativism – “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”;
  • Simulationism – “Commitment to the imagined events of play, specifically their in-game causes and pre-established thematic elements”.

The definitions – from the Forge Provisional Glossary – are by necessity quite broad; I’d strongly suggest reading the articles to get a better idea of what they mean. I had to read and re-read before I got it –

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. What I want most from roleplaying games is:

  • a realistic experience of being a person in a different world or situation to my own
  • provided that situation is interesting and/or exciting.

This confused me, because of the following sections from the Forge articles. Firstly, this about Narrativism:

Narrativism is expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme.

… and this about Simulationism:

The players may be greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency of that Exploration.

What I read there was Simulationism is about presenting a realistic world (which fits perfectly with my first bullet), and that Narrativism is about producing a story. While a story should be interesting and/or exciting, and hence is related to my second bullet, to me it sounds like more than that – it sounds like a laborious and precise construction with three acts (maybe) and a conclusion and all that jazz. I’m not fussed about that – I just want my experience to be interesting.

Therefore I thought of myself as a Simulationist but a Simulationist who wants to simulate a world where the laws of drama apply, in order to keep things interesting. I was thrilled; I thought I’d discovered a new branch of Simulationism and was about to revolutionise RPG design. Unfortunately not. Something didn’t quite sit right with me – such as this example of “Simulationism overriding Narrativism”:

The time to traverse town with super-running is deemed insufficient to arrive at the scene, with reference to distance and actions at the scene, such that the villain’s bomb does blow up the city.

That seems totally wrong to me. So perhaps I wasn’t a Simulationist after all? I certainly think too much focus on realism can detract from the excitement. What to do?

Well, I read and I read and I read. I read about “El Dorado”, a term used to describe a game that (reliably) realistically simulates a situation but still produces a good story. And then I read this:

I think some people who claim to desire such a goal in play are simply looking for Narrativism with a very strong Explorative chassis, and that the goal is not elusive at all. Such “Vanilla Narrativism” is very easy and straightforward. The key to finding it is to stop reinforcing Simulationist approaches to play. Many role-players, identified by Jesse Burneko as “Simulationist-by-habit,” exhaust themselves by seeking El Dorado, racing ever faster and farther, when all they have to do is stop running, turn around, and find Vanilla Narrativism right in their grasp.

That’s me. Right there. Hi, I’m Blackrat, and I’m a Narrativist.

I hadn’t understood that “story” in the context of these articles was a much broader concept than I’d picked up initially. I’d guess that’s why Ron Edwards changed the definition to the one at the top of this post, about addressing premise (rather than story). “Addressing Premise” is equivalent to my “making things interesting / exciting”, but much better defined – my version is meaningless and given meaning only by the reader’s personal taste :-)

A long way round to a simple conclusion. One thing I realised along the way, though, is that I want my Narrativism to be focussed on consistent in-character experience and reactions, not on creating the story out-of-character and then justifying it in-character. And that’s useful.

The next thing to do is to work out how to apply these aims to the system I’m (slowly) designing. So, next time, ACTUAL GAME DESIGN at last :-) I hope your patience hasn’t worn out yet…

Gah! Alright, it’s been ages since I posted – I’m sorry. The problem is, in the last post I suggested that the next post would examine my goals for the system in RPG theory terms – and I still haven’t been able to fully work out how it fits.

In particular, I thought I had it mostly figured out, and then I read another article that turned my previous perspective on its head. Since then I’ve been trying to mostly-figure-it-out all over again.

Sadly I haven’t got enough material nor enough time to write a full post on it just yet – but perhaps I can at least recommend the articles I’ve been reading.

They’ve mostly come from The Forge – which won’t surprise anyone who’s been looking into RPG theory already, but may be new to people who haven’t. I strongly believe that good systems (RP and any other kind) only come about as the result of good design, which itself follows on from good theory – and that seems to be one of the central goals of The Forge community.

So here are the articles that really got me thinking about RPG theory and how to apply it to my own game design – in what I consider to be a sensible reading order. Perhaps it’d be useful for me to put these on their own page, but for now this post will do :-) Note that the summaries are my own – the original writers might not agree with them!

  • System Does Matter – an explanation of why it’s important to design your system to suit the play style you want.
  • GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory – a more detailed examination of the ideas raised in “System Does Matter”, showing how to analyse a system to see what sorts of play it will encourage. In particular, formally sets out Ron Edwards’ GNS theory.
  • Simulationism: The Right to Dream – the first of three articles each examining one of GNS theory’s “core” play styles. This time, Simulationism – the desire to explore a shared fiction purely for the sake of exploration.
  • Gamism: Step On Up – the second such article. This one covers Gamism – the desire to play a roleplaying game in order to use the mechanics to overcome a challenge.
  • Narrativism: Story Now – the third such article. This time it covers Narrativism – the desire to address a premise through play, in order to produce a story as the primary goal of play.
  • Applied Theory – an article looking at how to apply all of the above theory in real mechanical terms.
  • 3 Resolution Systems – introduces some interesting points about the relationship between the game fiction and the game mechanics. With diagrams!

Alright, so they’re almost all from the Forge in fact. It’s not that I necessarily agree with everything in those articles – but I do think they’re an excellent way to prompt your own thoughts about RPG design & theory. Other non-Forge things can be found in the links in the sidebar – in particular for RPG design stuff I’d recommend anyway., Deeper in the Game, Some Space To Think and Transneptune Games‘ blog.

So with that, I’ll lazily sign off – and come back next time with something a bit more concrete.

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.

Engaging

  • 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)

Satisfying

  • 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.