Tag Archives: RPG Theory

The Trouble With Drama Mechanics

Role-playing games are all about characters, otherwise they wouldn’t be role-playing games. And what really gets someone invested in a fictional character, whether they’re playing the character or watching or reading the character, is the character’s personal journey. We love to see it in books and movies and we love to see it in RPGs, but in RPGs we typically aren’t given additional rules to support these sorts of stories. This is in part because these stories haven’t been the focus of most RPGs, well, ever, but it’s also in part due to the belief of designers that characters’ inner lives should be governed by the people who play them, not by rules.

The issue with this is that mechanics are what provide richness for games. We want PbtA games to have a palette of different moves, and we want each playbook to feel different. We want a military simulation to differentiate between all its guns and vehicles. So why would we not want rules that help us look at and play out character drama? When I looked at Hillfolk a few weeks back, one thing I thought it did very well was stake out three necessary drivers of dramatic conflict: character desire, character internal conflict (the ‘dramatic poles’), and character external conflict (‘fraught relationships’). What was missing was the next step, which was to provide structure and guidance to build and play with those drivers.

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The Five Mechanic Game

There’s a wide world of games out there, but the ones that get played and talked about the most are more similar than you may think. In the realm of traditional games, most games have their rules structured the same way, at the same level of detail, to accomplish roughly the same goal. It means many of us that grew up among the bursting libraries of games in the 80s and 90s thought we were well-read, only to be waylaid by some markedly different ideas when the games of the Forge era like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World started becoming popular.

Last week, I talked a bit about the idea of complexity, and grounded it to the idea of how many mechanics a game has interacting at once. This makes a game like Blades in the Dark, with many overlapping systems, more complex, while a game like Dread, where there is only one mechanic and it’s essentially ‘Jenga Or Die’, is less complex. What’s more interesting, though, is what it says about the middle. Basically every traditional game, from the real bloats like Exalted all the way down to little digest editions like Savage Worlds, have roughly the same type and number of mechanics. That number is five: character creation, task resolution, combat, game mastering, and at least one subsystem of note.

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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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