Tag Archives: RPG Theory

The Trouble With Finding New Systems

Your campaign is ending. It’s been a good time but the story is coming to an end, and your players are looking to the next big adventure. You want to switch it up, and they’re on board. What do you do?

There’s a whole lot of game systems out there, and you probably could run a fun game with any of them. That said, you’re not picking a system because it meets the low bar of “could be fun”. You want a system that will make your game better because it’s there, either because it makes it easier to have fun or it helps you do a fun thing you wouldn’t otherwise be able to or would have thought to do.

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What Does The Game Bring To The Table?

Over the last week or so there appeared the most recent incarnation of a frequent discourse, one about the quality of games correlating with their likelihood of success. Now, that’s bluntly and hilariously untrue, which is clear to anyone who has ever enjoyed a niche of anything in their life. In tabletop RPGs, though, it appears, from certain lenses, to even be anti-true. Games which make choices actively hostile to such simple traits as being able to play them still become sales successes, often becoming more successful than the indie games which old guard designers seem to snark at between requests for employment. Ultimately that’s not because TTRPG purchasers are irrational (I mean, they are, but not for the reasons we’re talking about here), but rather because they’re buying games for different reasons.

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RPGs Have Two Sets Of Rules

Role-playing games are different from any other type of analog game because of their relationship with rules and procedures. When you sit down to play a board game, or a card game, or even a game of darts, you follow a set procedure to determine an outcome. Wargames took half the steps away from board games by introducing rulesets which could be adapted to a wide range of scenarios, the only limits being how many minis you had and how big your sand table was. The early ‘Braunstein’ campaigns started the other half, walking away from simple win/lose conditions in scenarios. For the role-playing game to turn from a weirdo version of wargaming a couple nerds were running to a repeatable, salable product, existing wargaming rules had to be supplemented with rules for writing and executing free-form scenarios which very much didn’t resemble battles any more. Every traditional role-playing game, from the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons onward, has rules for players and rules for the person running the game.

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Revisiting Blacow’s Model

As soon as a role-playing game had been run in at least two places, the attempts to categorize and catalogue gaming styles began. Even in the 1970s, when most of the market only knew D&D, foundational work in understanding how and why role-players play had already started. One of the most influential early theorists was Glenn Blacow. Originally exposed to D&D at MIT, Blacow published an early typology of gamers in the small gaming zine The Wild Hunt. This typology, after being expanded for publication in another, larger zine, Different Worlds, became one of the first and most influential classifications of RPG playstyles. Among other things, Blacow is credited, through the Different Worlds version of his essay, coining the term ‘power-gamer’.

Although one might guess that Blacow’s model has declined in relevance somewhat since its original publication in 1980, in reality it still serves as a foundation for many player and play style classifications in wide use. GNS Theory owes its start point to Blacow’s Power Gamer and Storytelling archetypes, and D&D’s seven player types start from Blacow’s four play styles as well. As much as we still see story and optimization as driving forces among gamers, the dichotomy of fantasy and wargaming is a concept that has slid from relevance as the days of the wargamer/fantasy reader schism grow further behind us. Still, behind this dated framing is an idea that’s still worth investigating.

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The Elusive Shift Review

Jon Peterson has done it again, my friends. The author of Playing at the World, arguably the most comprehensive history of the creation of Dungeons and Dragons on the market, has released another book. While Playing at the World covered anything and everything that led up to the first publication of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, Peterson’s second book, The Elusive Shift, focuses narrowly on the time it took for ‘role-playing game’ to become an established medium. The story of how D&D and indeed the tabletop RPG itself matured in this roughly five year period is fascinating, eye-opening, and ends up asking a lot of questions about the state of the hobby some forty years later.

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Are RPGs Fun?

The English language would make a terrible role-playing game. There are a lot of rules, many of them contradict each other, and in certain places there still isn’t enough detail to make the mechanics do what you really want. Some words, therefore, words we use frequently in some cases, are surprisingly hard to define. Imagine, if you will, that someone asks you why you play role-playing games. Many of us will answer such a question with our favorite aspect of the hobby, saying something like “I enjoy playing interesting characters” or “I enjoy making a story with my friends” or even “I enjoy the thrill of combat”. These can all be chased down, toddler-like, with another question, “why do you enjoy that?” When you’ve been run down by questions, how many of you will end on (for either accuracy or to get the questions to stop) “because it’s fun”?

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What Are Rules?

Role-playing games are perceived as complex due to their volume of rules. What really makes RPGs complicated, though, is the relative dynamism of these rules and the degree to which they sit in the text. In other words, the rules of a game you must know in order to play an RPG are not limited to those which are printed in the rulebook.

While this of course varies from game to game, it can be generally stated that a board game will contain all the rules necessary to play inside the box. This is not always true with an RPG. Given the significant breadth of concepts that a game could potentially cover, RPGs have usually needed a GM to establish a more concrete set of boundaries which make up a campaign. The key here is that what the GM is doing, from writing the world to tweaking the mechanics to actually running the game, involves making and enforcing rules which are supplemental to those actually written in a book.

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Level One Wonk: Narrative

That’s right, the Wonk is back in the building! Today we’re getting super wonky. While my last foray into RPG theory was an examination of an old universal theory, GNS, today I’m going to be looking at a narrower component of games, and a particular dichotomy which, after some examination, I realized shapes the core of how I want to play and run games, as well as what game systems I enjoy. I’m talking about narrative, but I’m not talking about whether a game is “narrative” or not. Rather, I’m going to talk about the two types of narrative which are generated in the course of playing an RPG: Prescriptive and Emergent narrative.

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The Noob GM: My First Original Scenario

It was time to take the training wheels off. My previous attempts at GMing have, up to this point, been drawn from modules and published campaigns, or had been drawn up using notes provided to me when I stepped in to guest GM. Now, there is nothing wrong with running from a module, and it is required for something like D&D’s Adventurers League. However, with an upcoming gaming marathon on the horizon (As Aaron, Seamus and were running the planned scenarios, it was dubbed CHGCon) I found myself preparing to run a session of Blades in the Dark, something I had been looking to do for a while. The problem, however, was that the first time everyone would be able to sit at the same table would be gametime. There wouldn’t be time to weave together the backstories of characters without making them myself. I would have zero idea of team dynamic, or what kind of gang they would be, and that would prevent them from having access to team benefits. While I could have made characters in advance, I didn’t want to take away from the character creation process for them, especially with a system with fairly streamlined and boilerplate mechanics for character creation.
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Level One Wonk Does RPG Theory: GNS

Theories are tools for understanding and explaining any number of different subjects. As role-playing games began to increase in subject matter breadth, there immediately followed an attempt to explain what different games do, and what games do best. Unsurprisingly, attempts to “explain” the range of games on the market were typically incomplete and sometimes dreadfully inaccurate. Despite this, some theories stuck around, usually because they were punchy and easy to remember, and were “close enough” to work as a shorthand. Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look a bit at game design theory, and use one of the most popular theories as a springboard to discussion about RPG Theory as a whole and what it’s trying to accomplish. As George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That is the best way to understand many RPG Theories, including the GNS Model.

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