roleplaying games

Continued adventures in game design

I run into the same problem with my game ideas that I do with my writing, the crippling notion that someone else has done this before and probably better than me. It’s one reason that my ideas, outlining and scribbles about designing a game for my group’s playstyle haven’t really gone anywhere. That said, I’m probably thinking about this the wrong way. If I’m trying to write something that works well for my group, the fact that games exist that we all like doesn’t diminish that. With that in mind, I’ll jump back into the mode of design thinking.

Sid Meier said games are “a series of interesting decisions”. Role-playing games, in particular, are easily distilled to this conceit once you realize that a GM’s role in game mechanics is to establish the situation and say “what do you do?”. After the player (or players) respond, the GM uses the rules to alter the situation, explains the alteration to the players, and once again say “what do you do?”

Traditionally, role-playing games were built around giving models of how their worlds worked in order to allow the GM to produce logical and internally consistent results to character actions. The mechanics of essentially all of these traditional games, from D&D to Cyberpunk to GURPS to Rolemaster to Traveller, were designed to cover the range of actions and circumstances that characters would find themselves in. To use GURPS as an example, the Campaigns book for GURPS 4e has separate sections on hunger, falling, poisons, acid, exhaustion, and numerous other things that a designer thought might happen to characters. It’s a gamut, a large palette of possible choices to allow a GM to adjudicate anything that could happen in the game. Game designers could take the GURPS approach and design a system that covers as many eventualities as possible, or take the Fate approach and try to collapse all possible events into few actions (Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, Defend) and conditions (Boosts and Aspects). Both are valid.

The other thing that has happened in game design is the introduction of elements that produce models of how the players can impact the story, other than strictly through the game’s physics. While games like Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 used the abstract notion of “luck” to tie this to game physics, the fact remained that these were systems to let a player overrule the probabilistic model of the game system to change the events of the story.

This has progressed in some indie games where the system primarily establishes rules by which a GM and players can create an interesting story. The logical extreme of this is Fiasco. While there are rules governing establishing the setting via playbooks, literally anything can happen within the scenes with no regard to physics beyond what the players at the table deem believable. The only mechanics in scenes are establishing the roles of establishment and resolution, and then resolving a scene by deciding whether it goes well or goes poorly. These mechanics, it should be pointed out, are 100% narrative and 0% physics.

So Fiasco is built around creating a story, and a fairly short one at that. Is there any reason you couldn’t use those sorts of mechanics to create a more character-focused narrative? While Fiasco is very simple, one could imagine creating a more restrictive version of the game by adding another pool of tokens, corresponding to say locations or objects. If a player wanted to throw out one of their black dice, they’d pick up a token. So in the next scene, something bad must happen to whatever the location is. So the bar gets blown up. Or the high school auto shop catches on fire. I don’t necessarily think this would improve Fiasco per se, but it shows by using this relatively flexible set of designations for narrative objects, you can do a lot more.

How would you make a role-playing game in this framework produce results more akin to the stories generated in RPG campaigns as they already exist? One of the reasons Fiasco works is that in the context it’s just as fun to fail as it is to succeed. When provided with a game which doesn’t exclude you when your character dies, and one where failure and success are equally likely to produce entertaining results, you can go with what makes the best story, even if your character suffers for it. A traditional roleplaying game does not follow this paradigm, and outside of horror games and special cases like Paranoia, it’s assumed that the PCs generally succeed. Apocalypse World spells this out specifically: “Be a fan of the characters”. In order to tell a story in a longform mode like a roleplaying game, the pendulum is going to swing away from the chaos of Fiasco and back towards control, towards tighter narrative devices like “dungeons” and “missions”.

What I’m envisioning is back towards the Fiasco side of the map, though. The characters will go through a crazy set of events and come out different on the other side. That’s how most long-term RPG campaigns I’ve run have worked, and I don’t want this one to be any different. What should be different, though, is how things are structured. We want to talk about the story, not what Billy’s Sword skill level is and what my modifier is when I roll d20 to swing on the chandelier.

So let’s set out some design principles:

  • The game should generate and benefit from evocative characters. There are elements of characters which are interesting. In some cases, their potent abilities are interesting, but in other cases they aren’t. Same with their shortfalls. Characters should be designed not only with an eye to what makes them interesting, but also with an eye to what makes the group interesting.
  • The game should produce the most interesting result. Games like Apocalypse World are written in such a way that every result has an opportunity to create interesting outcomes. This is key. If only one result of an action is interesting, it happens. If success and failure could be equally interesting, only then does a randomizer come in.
  • The game should generate a story. Ultimately, there needs to be a difference between playing a game, even a narrative game, and just sitting around a table writing a story together. In my ideal world, the players could come away from most if not all sessions thinking “wow, I did not think that was going to happen.”
  • The game should promote character attachment and role-playing. To be engaged in a role-playing game, players need to care about their characters and what they do. Unfortunately, that gets boiled down to advancing abilities and improving stats all too often. Characters need to be grounded with understandable traits and actionable relationships, so that players can see them as people and see them change as gameplay goes on.

I’m not yet sure how this would work, though I have some ideas. Still, the overarching principle is for players to interact with the story and the scenes in it as much as they direct their characters. In fact, it’s not clear to me that this game would have people playing individual characters, though that’s certainly the most familiar way to organize it. If not characters, players would have differing roles based on the types of actions they could use…someone could be storyboarding (determining the story elements that come up in the scene), someone else directing (actually running character actions), yet another producing (introducing ties to the broader plot).

Of course, disassociating players from single characters takes away one of the strongest narrative motivations in roleplaying games. What there needs to be is a motivation to flesh out the scenes and the arcs, likely one that comes in the form of either narrative or advancement currency. That’s also an interesting idea…a number of available twists, tie-ins and outcomes which each player can put down exclusively for their character. Don’t play a move, don’t be involved in that scene. This also means there needs to be a system in which it’s ok to have scenes with only a couple characters, and a system for that as well.

I have ideas coming together in my mind. It’s clear that Fiasco and Primetime Adventures are influences, but I want to step away from the somewhat limited portfolio of both of those into something a bit broader. My end goal would be a framework as flexible as Fate, where a couple basic concepts can be used to simulate most genres. The one overarching similarity I’d want in any game run using this system is the notion that characters are central.

These are interesting ideas. Now to go sketch this out in more depth.

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