Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Three Things an RPG System Provides another RPG communities abound with commentary on the "real purpose" of RPG systems, which are "good" and which are "bad," and what one needs to craft a well-designed RPG system.  Many of these arguments, it seems to me, stems from not just from conflicting views, but conflicting definitions and conflicting needs.  After all, what Mary Sue gets out of an RPG might be different than what Bob gets out of a game, which might explain why she thinks D&D 4e is great, and he thinks she's mad.

After years of listening to the commentary and studying different systems, I've found three elements that an RPG system can (but doesn't have to and doesn't always) provide, and I think the arguments between the unknowing proponents of these three things explain many of the contradictions found in RPG tastes.  Before I begin, I want to make a few things clear.  First of all, these elements are provided primarily by the system.  RPG settings and fluff play a distinct role too, but for the purposes of this discussion they're of secondary importance, namely providing a support role to the system. Any well-established publisher can tell you about the importance of excellent artwork, marketing, layout, editing and writing in the selling of his product, but we're just discussing game-design here.  Second, unlike some other theories, this isn't about "flavor," and these three elements are not mutually contradictory.  Some games place a greater emphasis on one or another, and not every game has all three, but games can certainly contain all three if they wish, and not every gamer needs all three.  This is not a case of "Which sort of gamer are you?" but "Do you like this element? Yes or no?"

1. Systems provide a social contract.

Social Contracts have become a bit of a buzzword among RPG designers, but I think that's appropriate, as they're a key element of game design.  A social contract is an agreement, unspoken or otherwise, on the appropriate behavior between the players (including the GM) and the game.  These might include elements like:

  • "The GM's word is law"
  • "Let the dice fall where they may"
  • "No PC will die meaninglessly"
  • "The story matters more than anything else"
  • "Everyone brings a snack."
These can extend quite broadly, and where an RPG's social contract ends and a group's social contract begins is often hard to define, but (for example) few RPG systems will dictate that every player should bring a snack, but they might dictate that PCs will not die meanginlessly.

In this context, I mean that an RPG system needs to help the players define their setting, characters and rules of play in clear and well-defined terms so that everyone is on the same page.  When RPGs say things like "Rules are a conversation between players and their game master," or "the rules are there to prevent arguments about who shot whom when and who would win a fight," they're referring to social contracts.  In a well-designed system, if I define my character as "the greatest swordsman in the world," then he should be the greatest swordsman in the world.  This fact should be clear to me, to the rest of the players, to my game master, and in the narrative.  If this sort of design isn't possible (for example, it violates the premise of the game, which might involve relatively simple people, or a setting where swordsmanship isn't particularly important), a well-designed system will make this clear to me, directing me in a more useful direction.  In a poorly-designed system, I may discover that, in fact, my "world's greatest swordsman" isn't all that great, or the GM and other players might not realize what I'm doing and be utterly surprised when my character devastates a group of enemies that the GM thought might be a challenge.

I've stated that all of these elements are optional, but this one isn't.  A game without a well-defined social contract always falters and creates a toxic environment for players trying to create a shared imagination-space.  While few players actually discuss "bad" RPGs as failing in regards to a social contract, such games inevitably create controversy and strife.  Such games can be enjoyed, but only when a strong game master or group replaces their social contract for the one provided in the game.  Arguably, every group should be willing and ready to provide their own social contract on demand, and thus a flawed social contract often goes unnoticed, but a game should still try to provide a clear vision of its goals and premise, and it should stick to said vision.  It must remain consistent throughout its execution, to prevent arguments amongst players.  While a game master can replace such a social contract, doing so puts extra stress upon the GM and suggests that the book itself might not be worth the money paid for it, while a well-defined social contract has no downsides.  Often, when you hear people complain about roll-playing vs role-playing, or complaining about "twinks" or the like, they've often had a bad experience due to a poorly-crafted social contract system.

Nobilis exemplifies a system with a top-notch social contract system.  The core of the system revolves around writing out the rules of how you see your character working down on a piece of paper, and manipulating those social contracts to achieve your ends.  The entire game, from character creation to the evolution of the story, revolves around discussing the implication of the rules set forth explicitly by players and game-masters.

Vampire: the Masquerade is a fine example of a system with a broken social contract system in that it has rules and attributes that violate their stated premise.  The Conscience mechanic, in particular, creates a contradiction between what it says it does and what it actually does: In principle, a character with a higher Conscience refrains from committing wicked deeds because he has a good heart, according to the description of the trait.  In practice, Conscience acts as a savings throw against losing one's Humanity when committing vile deeds, and thus characters low in Conscience are punished more harshly for committing wicked deeds (and thus less likely to do so), while high Cosncience characters are punished less harshly for the same, creating the exact opposite effect: Conscience is defined as a trait possessed by those unwilling to commit wicked deeds, but is best taken by those willing to commit wicked deeds.  This sort of mismatch between description and mechanic captures perfectly the problem with broken social-contract systems.

2. Systems provide inspiration

Game-masters and players have but a limited scope of creativity and imagination.  RPGs provide a unique experience by combining the creativity of the players, the GM, the vision of the developer and the emergent properties of the system to create a story and a sequence of events that none of the above would create on their own.

RPGs can provide inspiration in numerous ways.  Dice and cards provide random outcomes.  Systems encourage and punish certain behaviors, thus shaping play.  The interaction of simple systems and small choices create unexpected, complex results.  Beyond that, a well-written and a beautifully illustrated RPG can inspire stories and character concepts that might not have arisen from the group without outside assistance (thus blurring the line between fluff and system in this case, though the system needs to reflect said fluff, but see point 1 above).  More directly, some RPGs even offer charts filled with events, brutally descriptive attack results, or random characters, or even write your stories and characters for you.

Unlike social contracts above, this element isn't strictly necessary, though most RPG systems include at least a random element to encourage unexpected results that surprise everyone involved.  A system that provides a great deal of inspiration saves the game master a great deal of creative effort and can surprise everyone involved, for good or for ill.  This means such systems can have the drawback of unpredictability, taking some control out of the hands of the GM or the players, or creating unexpected results.  Most games get around this by making such randomness optional and giving players and the game master the ability to impose their vision over random events, if they see fit.  On the plus side, a very inspiring system can make up for weaknesses elsewhere.  Many of the most broken games I've seen have a steady following based on the sheer beauty of their artwork and the way in which the character concepts or the setting speaks to the players.  An inspiring system can be a powerful tool, in the right hands.

When players discuss systems with poorly-implemented or absent inspiration, they often use terms like "boring" or "front-loaded."

Maid exemplifies inspiring systems.  It has random character creation, random events, random story seeds, and charts and charts and charts of random tables for just about everything. As a result, one can sit down with absolutely nothing and have a game up and running in 10-30 minutes.  In another direction, Exalted offers a distinct and evocative setting and character concepts, with elements like Limit Breaks, Willpower and Stunts encouraging unusual behavior, unexpected events and descriptive gameplay that might not have existed without the rules within the book.  Everway represents a relatively simple, diceless game that nonetheless manages to create unusual situations and inspires with its Fate Deck.

Opinions will differ hotly on uninspiring systems, but I find Wushu and nWoD's combat system particularly uninspiring.  In the former, your skills and character descriptions matter little beyond the bulk of your word-count, and you simply roll until you're done rolling, meaning that neither the dice nor the rules do any of the heavy lifting when it comes to telling a tale.  The new WoD has a similar problem in combat, with most choices and tactical options representing a waste of time, and most combat boiling down to the superior combatant winning, the randomness of the dice changing nothing except "by how much did he win?"

3. Systems provide gameplay

This element provokes the greatest contention between different views on RPGs, in my experience, particularly since the word "game" is nebulous and poorly defined.  Many people use it to mean a pleasant and unpredictable pastime, which RPGs certainly are, but in this context I'm referring to specific scenarios with win/lose conditions and a sequence of interesting, varied choices that shape your ability to win or lose, where the quality of the game is often determined by the scope of the options you can explore.  Simple games, like tic-tac-toe have a narrow scope, quickly mastered, while complex games, like chess, have a much wider, and more "interesting" scope.  In this context, gameplay is a celebration of system for its own sake.  Gameplay explores the options and abstract ideas laid out by the system.  When players discuss "min-maxing," "game balance," "crunchy," and "builds," they're usually referring to the gameplay element of the system, most often combat (which is usually the core "gameplay" element of most RPGs).

To be explicit: This element is not necessary for a good RPG.  One can have an inspiring game with a very clear-social contract where one player takes on the role of an elite swordmaster, and the other takes on the role of his halfling man-servant, and it's quite possible for both players to enjoy themselves.  You include this element explicitly for the enjoyment of people who like messing with gamplay.  It's a genre like any other, and as such is subject to tastes: Some people like romance and some people do not; by the same token, some people like crunchy, detailed gameplay, and some people would rather just tell their story.

The most abused and misunderstood aspect of this element is the term "game balance."  Game balance exists to ensure that the many options offered to achieve win conditions have equal applicability, provided one uses them correctly.  If a game has only one or two winning strategies, then the game quickly loses its appeal.  Game balance ensures that multiple perspectives and approaches allows for a dynamic and unexpected experience, thus maintaining the interest of the players.  Said differently, "game balance" is about balancing alternative gameplay strategies against one another.  It's not about anything else.  

For example, game balance does not apply to "inspiration."  The elements in a random chart do not need to be balanced against one another.  There's nothing TO balance, since their sole purpose is to provide interesting ideas to the GM and player.  Balance might be required in the sense that everyone gets to draw from the same deck, roll on the same charts or roll with the same dice, but this returns us to our gameplay concern of ensuring that gaining access to the "right" deck, chart or cards doesn't short-circuit the gameplay that the players are exploring.  

This applies to social contracts too: Some would-be designers argue that "game balance" is about equal air-time, but a moment's reflection shows this isn't true: Nothing in a system regulates how much of the plot revolves around a character, or how often a player is allowed to speak.  Some argue that it means that all PCs should be equally awesome, but if the "awesomeness" of various character classes is clearly defined, then players might willingly choose "lesser" character classes because they wish too.  All a well-designed social contract needs to do is carefully outline what the player is getting himself into.  Moreover, "awesomeness" generally applies to the "core conflict" of a system, the win/lose conditions as outlined in the gameplay, and thus this returns us once more to our "Systems provide gameplay" concept.

Likewise, when players discuss how "broken" or "imbalanced" a game is, they often mean this element, referring to poorly-designed gameplay, though "broken" can sometimes refer to a lack of proper social contract.

A game with well-designed gameplay has a clearly defined set of win/lose conditions, not necessarily in the classic sense of "if you lose, you're out of the game," but in the sense that players will have a goal that they're trying to achieve with the design of their characters.  Moreover, such a game will have multiple, alternative strategies to achieve this win-condition, and will provide "interesting" choices.  This final is, necessarily, subjective, as good game-design is an art, not a science, and is thus subject to taste, as any art is.  Some people prefer simplistic gameplay, while others prefer complex.  Some prefer resource management while others prefer playing the odds.  This article is too brief to go into the full depth of game design theory, but a good primer might be a Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.

D&D 4th Edition exemplifies the sort of game that centers itself around gameplay.  It establishes as its core win/lose condition "killing monsters and taking their stuff," and centers all the player's choices, from their class to their race to their feats to their choices in the midst of battle, around this central conceit.  Arguably, it does this to the exclusion of all else (particularly inspiration, as it provides precious little support for events or ideas outside of dungeon crawling), but such games don't have to work that way.  Legends of the Wulin has a similar laser-like focus on combat (in this case, on kung fu duels), but provides considerable support and inspiration for evocative games via its Secret Arts and Lores systems.

Scion might exemplify a game with terrible gameplay, depending on how you interpret its design goals.  If one views it as a game about super-heroes of modern-myth fighting Titanspawn, then its gameplay elements quickly fall down, with certain strategies far outshining others, with gameplay elements existing (seemingly) solely as traps for the inexperienced, and with advancement dictated by one's willingness to spend experience on a single trait (Legend).

Bringing it all Together

What makes up a well-designed system necessarily varies from user to user, depending on their personal tastes, but I think most of the best-designed RPGs contain the above elements in some degree.
  • A well-designed system must have a clearly defined premise and it must remain consistent throughout its explanation of its rules.  Traits and mechanics should do what they say they do, and the game must clearly communicate with its readers, so that all the players of the game have a similar understanding of what to expect from teh game.
  • A well-designed system often provides inspiration to the game-master and player, usually by creating emergent gameplay through a mixture of tactics including randomization (dice, cards), a system of rewards and punishments to shape player behavior, and an evocative and inspiring setting.
  • A well-designed system may provide unique gameplay centered on a series of interesting choices that a player makes in an effort to achieve a win condition and/or avoid a lose condition.  These choices should be sufficiently varied and balanced to maintain the players interest throughout (at least) the extent of the campaign.
These three elements are distinct, and while they can help one another (well-explained and consistent rules are a boon for explaining complex gameplay as well as establishing a social contract), they require different things and each pursue different goals.  Other than well-written social contracts, none are strictly necessary, but neither are the elements mutually exclusive, allowing a skilled game-designer to include all three, should he wish.
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