If you ever toy with designing a game, or get serious about house ruling one, you eventually start asking yourself the metaphysical questions of game design. What is fun? How is an adventure supposed to flow? Why are these numbers the way they are? Any game's rules are made on top of foundational beliefs and decisions by the designers. I first started designing my own RPG back in 1992 - given that it's not finished yet you can tell I'm rather bad at the whole thing; but a part of the delay has been asking myself deeper and deeper foundational questions that keep shaking the rules I have on top of them. So this post is going to be really theory heavy (in a way), and maybe just flat out crazy rambling in some places.
I posted a while ago a quote about how the two most important things in a role-playing game are player choice, and that player choices have an impact on the game world. In retrospect I think I was a little off on that. Those actually seem to be one element, in my current way of thinking. In fact, I think there are 3 essential elements that make the kind of game I want to play and run. You might be able to guess that they are the three parts of this post's title. In which case give yourself a cookie.
I want to share something from the Lost Mine Of Phandelver (hopefully the WotC lawyers will give me a pass on this):
"The chest also contains a +1 longsword in a silver-chased scabbard. The sword is inscribed with the name "Talon," and its hilt is worked in the shape of a bird of prey with outstretched wings. It once belonged to a great knight named Aldith Tresendar, known as the Black Hawk. A character who succeeds on a DC 15 Intelligence(History) check recognizes the sword and recalls this lore.
Sir Aldith died fighting off the orcs that attacked through the hidden caverns below this manor. Talon was lost here until the nothic found it."
I know that I have recently, well for a while actually, fallen into the 'boring magic item' trap. Magic items become just another piece of gear, and you gloss over them except for their abilities - and know that odds are someday they'll be replaced for an upgraded version. Which is not a good thing. How can a player, or even a GM, become attached to something they do not know about? This doesn't just go for magic items, when running Phandelver it was hard because I know very little about the Forgotten Realms setting and WotC has not yet put out a book on it. So I couldn't give my players any real back-story for where they come from or what they might know about the area and local history. You need knowledge, you need stories and information to get to know something or someplace or someone. While an RPG is an exercise in imagination, it is hard to imagine a rock if you've never seen one before. Likewise, it is hard to imagine a fantasy world and races and things that don't exist in our own (or that few really see, like ancient armor and weapons). In that vein, if my players find this in the game I'm not going to roll, I'm going to have the bard recite all this good history - if I didn't have a bard in the party then I'd have a fighter recognize a notable weapon and hero, somebody. Why waste such useful detail that helps bring something to life?
This is such a big issue, a foundational thing really. Forget magic items, how can a player connect to a character class? In most books the "fighter" is just a list of powers - no actual story or frame of reference. I like the 5th edition idea of Backgrounds, to help fill in some of that; but I don't think they go quite far enough. There is a big difference in the feel between a "warrior" who fights alone as a champion of a people or place, and a "ronin" who has no master and just wanders the land, and a "soldier" who has comrades and belongs to a specific group and fights with allies, and a "mercenary" who is just in it for the money. Each of these is a fighter, but they all feel much different, have different goals and priorities, and will appeal to different types of players. And yet, what do we get in most games - just "fighter." Sure, you can come up with all kinds of back-story on your own - but then does that fit into the game? And do you agree on the same definition of a "whatever" as your GM does?
Knowledge is the beginning, it is the foundation. It is something you can build upon. Without it, or when it is weak, you have shaky ground to build your character upon or connect with the game world through.
Knowledge is such a foundational concept to a game that it is everywhere. I've talked above about describing the world and items - but you need knowledge about everything in the game. You need to know what your character can do, you need to know how the game works, you need to know what is or is not possible in your game and even know what kind of GM you're dealing with. There's a whole bunch of things you need to know. And that is good, the more you know, the more you understand the more you can do - the more options you have and the more clarity about how to create the character and story arc you want. Mind you, here I'm talking about player knowledge - character knowledge like the dribs and drabs of information from "knowledge checks" and such are not really knowing the game and the world. Having a fleshed-out world, even a good example of play, all are knowledge to help you connect to the game.
I've had a dream of making the "smart character" in a new way. Like, give the player a list of "tells," little behaviors that mean something. So, "looking up and right" could be a tell for lying (I think it was looking up that accessed the creative side of your brain, and down the memory - not sure now that I type it, oh well, roll with me here). So when the GM describes an NPC who is talking, and that NPC lies, the GM would say that the NPC, "looks up and right while saying gruffly, 'No sir, never heard of that bloke.' " There would have to be lots of tells, and multiples for each meaning (like, say, 5 tells for lying, 5 more for guilt, etc...) - plus some "neutral" tells that didn't mean anything (the "nervous ticks" I guess). The higher the level or skill of the character, the more tells they had revealed. With a system like this the player could have the same knowledge as the character. Another blog also talked about "5 things everybody knows." (might have been Charles Ryan)(yeah, here) Making 5 things that everybody knows about, well, everything. Places and items and stuff like magic and on and on. This way, with some things everybody knows, you can give extra facts to the player who wants to be the "smart guy." Or diseases, there could be a list of symptoms (many of which would be common) and the character/player could test to determine what exactly someone had and what course of treatment (since treating the wrong disease is usually a bad thing). I believe it was Hack and Slash who had a lock-picking mini-game with how to pick locks using a simple formula that the player and character could both learn (here's one link, think there was another I can't find). There are a lot of ways to build knowledge into the game.
Along with this idea, I really like descriptive ranks. I think your character sheet saying you have Remarkable (30) strength or Monstrous (65) intelligence is a lot better than the D&D-styled 14 (+2) or 18 (+4).
Knowledge isn't just between players and the GM either, the game designers need to provide lots of examples of play and the foundations of the game to GMs so every GM knows how the system was meant to work: that way they know how far they can house rule it to taste. I do love the Hero System for this, even if the game is rather dense; there must be a happy medium somewhere.
I think all the work it takes to create this level of detail is worth it. A lot of games don't give the players very detailed knowledge. And that's fine in general, better to keep things simple; but when it comes to something important, or something special, more knowledge can really help the player become more immersed in the game. Even min-maxers want to know everything they can about the rules and how each ability interconnects.
Knowledge leads to Consequences
What I missed in my old post about player choice was that really player choice is about knowledge. Knowing what your options are, and most importantly what consequences those options will have. If the game world ends in the same state it began with, then why did you bother playing? (the reason I hate MMOs) Likewise, if your character takes an action that has no effect on the game world (ah, the whiffle-ball combat phase - love you flat-curved d20), then you feel like you wasted your time. Because you did. The whole point of playing the game is to change things. Acting, expressing your character, is really just fluff. Making the world different, taking out the marauding orcs, or just lining your pockets with more gold, doing something - that is the game part of playing the game.
But there is a difference between consequences and calculations, as a great Extra Credits episode pointed out. If one choice is always better than another, that is not a choice it's a calculation. A choice is when either decision has both potentially good and potentially bad consequences. Which is why I didn't put "choice" in this section's header. The focus is on consequences, for both the game world and your character. When you talk about GMing you often talk about reducing rolls. "Don't roll, think" was a great title to a post (cannot remember from where now)(found it). If there is no choice, if it's just a calculation, then don't roll, don't waste time on it - just choose the best option and move on. This comes in large part from the game, from how the rules are structured. If your only option is to attack - then there is really no choice and only one possible consequence, pretty flat. If you have a million choices, but you have no knowledge about how successful they might be, or how big an impact they could have - again, very little choice and you'll end up with few consequences when the players find the simplest option and just repeat it.
Fighting Defensively is a good example. I can choose to not attack and instead increase my defenses. Okay, but by how much? If I'm only getting a +2 to my AC, is that really big enough to matter to the monster attacking me? If I'm using 5th ed Disadvantage, well, that's pretty significant, but still can be kind of hard to tell sometimes. And what am I doing in return? Nothing. I'm not attacking, so I'm not moving the combat towards a resolution and I'm running the risk of getting hit anyways. Not a great option overall. When I tried to think of a tactic for this I chose something different. When being Deliberate, choose a number (from a d6, could be whatever). Attack and defend normally, but the maximum damage you can deal is the number you chose, and the maximum damage you can receive is the number you chose. This way, I know exactly how much the situation can change, I am in control of the damage "crazy train." I can put on the breaks and slow things down. I can control the consequences and clearly see/know the effect of this choice. I can still have an effect, but the safer I'm playing it the less effect I can have. Not always a great choice, if time matters I'm dragging out the fight a lot longer. Likewise, more time means the situation could change, reinforcements could arrive - for either me or the monsters.
Chance really comes out here. What are the odds of success? And can you figure them out yourself? Do you really know the odds of this action succeeding? After all, if you don't have good odds of success then why bother? A lot of combat maneuvers fall into this hole. Sure, in Pathfinder I could disarm the bad guy, which might be very helpful, but if my odds of success are 10% then why bother? Or, if I have no idea what the odds of success are, then why not do something safer and more reliable?
I think that consequences, and the choices that precede them, are where RPGs shine. A pen-and-paper RPG, people thinking up crazy stuff that other people are responding to, has something no computer game can quite capture. Or card game, or board game - both can be complex and unpredictable, but an RPG can go to places that literally its designers never thought of. It's the most amazing thing to me about playing RPGs, those stories of the totally unexpected that you'll tell over and over again, or will become in-jokes between the people who were there.
I really like the idea of giving the players plenty of clear and distinct choices, and making the mechanics as simple as possible so that the players are spending all their brainpower on choosing wisely- and not spending so much time adding a fist-full of dice and modifiers that are really out of their control. Randomness seems to belong more with the GM - is this an honest guard or a corrupt one? Is this an easy lock to pick or a masterwork dwarven mechanical/magical hybrid? It feels like the GM should be rolling from a limited pool of possibilities more than the players should be rolling and hoping they can do that thing they chose to do in the first place. Honestly, is there so much a chance for failure, or is it that you might have to work harder or differently than you expected before you started? Forget that "fail forward" stuff, in life I think it tends to be more "try a different approach." Failure does not have to mean that everything is lost, the world has come crashing down. It could just mean that you have to stop, you've hit a wall with that choice, choose something different and try again. This style tells the players that success is always possible, at some sort of cost - which sounds like a good premise to me since it implicitly asks, are you willing to pay that cost?
Consequences lead to Growth
"Change" is one of those words I don't like in connection with gaming. Change is random. A goblin turning into a candle is a change. Growth however implies a movement from one thing to another thing, which can imply possible future movement. A goblin becoming a goblin champion (and maybe one day leader) - that's growth. We have plenty of change in games, stuff that just happens without rhyme or reason; I think we could all use more growth, more guided progression.
When I reviewed The Last Witch Hunter a few days ago I commented that RPG-based novels did not tend to have super well-written storylines, much like the RPG adventures they were based on. That wasn't meant to be a dig at either RPG writers or players, it's a simple fact that with so many people all contributing to the development of the "story" it is almost impossible to have something tight, focused and with the typical structure of a novel. An RPG is very improvisational, things just develop during the course of play that sometimes no one could have predicted. Which is good, everybody needs to contribute, but can also feel un-focused and scattered. Ironically a core mechanic, classes, are all about growth. You start with a few abilities and you gain more over time, but they are all built around a specific theme and usage (if it's a well-designed class at least). You grow into you class - but in your character, in the story? Not the same kind of help there.
Now I'm not advocating for a straight-jacket outline of the hero's journey that every character must follow - that would suck. Really, growth isn't about following a pre-destined path, it's about a series of questions I think. It's about moments of choice, moments that have far reaching and long lasting consequences, moments that change the paradigm to follow - and the "story" is all about the lines connecting those moments. I don't like background stuff that says "you did xyz" as much as I like background stuff that asks "what did you feel about xyz, or why did you do xyz?" Growth is a measure of how we face the choices of life, not tactically like the choice of what to do in combat but strategically like the choice of who to be and what to believe in. Choices that are not fixed in stone. People change, life events change them, stuff happens. Like I said above, if the game world ended exactly the way it began, that would be pretty boring - but if your character ends the same way they began, isn't that also boring? And does gaining new powers from leveling up really count as growth? Or at least as meaningful growth?
Stories grow, at least the good ones do, they don't just change. Characters grow, and the character growth is reflected in the story growth. Vin the street urchin becomes Vin the Hero Of Ages. Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. And the world around them changes in response to and reflection of their choices. Something I don't think many RPG characters go through - and again, not to blame the players or say that every character should have a super-huge arc. Rather, I think some structure would be a good thing, and I think that most players could have a more engaging time with their characters if they had a guided series of questions to help them grow over time. How exactly to do that, and what it should look like I have no idea, there is a reason it hasn't really been done, it's incredibly subjective and hard to do; and co-ordinating it with 4 or more players all at the same time is a whole extra level of tricky.
A part of this for GMs I think is Justin Alexander's advise of "Don't Prep Plots." He talks about making nodes, places and people that the players can interact with and understand the goals and purpose of the bad guys. If you "begin with the end in mind" as the writing advise goes, then you have a goal to always be working towards. Like my complaint about Rise of the Runelords, it did not seem to be written to really drive towards the final showdown, instead it ambles and rambles its way along with no clear goal in sight - so the final battle was very anti-climatic and didn't really feel worth all the time and effort to get there (didn't help that one player pretty much finished the final battle by himself, though that was hilarious). I think if a GM knows where he is going, and why things are headed in that direction, then he/she can freely let the players interact with the world and still maintain a sense of growth instead of randomness.
Also my idea for "social levels" in a previous post is a nod towards that. Having a class and level, and straight progression is a good thing. But I wonder if having more that just one thing to spend XP on would be better. If there were some options about how your character grows, not just in personal power but in other ways that seems like a better progression system that can more richly model different types of characters and tell different stories easier (not that you can't now, but again having a list of options makes being creative easier than a blank page). More growth than change maybe (since I don't have a system for that fleshed out, that's pure speculation).
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Wow, so this turned into a super-long rambling discourse about I don't really know what :)
Like I said, game design is sometimes about the big concepts, the foundations of what a game is and how you want it to play. I guess this is a part of my ideas on that, on my "ideal" game that exists only in my head. I have no idea if this is useful for anyone else - but I am glad I got some of this down, because it has been influencing how I've been running games and house ruling them lately, and it is always good to take a look at one's assumptions. Most importantly I need to make sure my players are okay with the same outlook I have, so that they can also enjoy the kind of game I seem to be morphing things into. Surprise is not good, better to discuss all those assumptions openly between players and GMs so everyone is in agreement. This was all off-the-cuff though, so I need to think about it and polish it up some more.
Still, if I had to sum up my philosophy on RPG design in one line it would be: Knowledge leads to Consequences which lead to Growth - and the game mechanics should facilitate all three stages.
As for you, dear reader, hopefully this can inspire you to look at your own game assumptions, or at least was not a total chore to read. As always feel free to leave any comments below.