Content types

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Game design is making others play in ways they wouldn’t play on their own, without being present. The game then is your means of making others play in a certain way.

This concept is important for understanding the various types of content in an RPG book and their use. Those include:

  • Procedural rules: Do this…, then do that.
  • Advice, guidelines.
  • Choices for character traits, equipment, spells…
  • Character sheets and other fill in forms.
  • Tables, maps, flow charts and similar visualistion methods.
  • Pictures of characters and locations.
  • Maps of the game world / setting.
  • Tokens and other playing materials.
  • Ready made PCs, NPCs, monsters, locations, treasures, adventures.
  • Signature characters. Named and archetypal example characters, that may be used in…
  • Short stories, at the beginning of the book or chapters.
  • Quotes from other media, often at the beginning of chapters / paragraphs.
  • Lists of other works that inspired this game.
  • Fictional table dialogues: A written interaction that might happen at the gaming table.
  • Actual play videos.

Not all games use each method and there are probably some I forgot. The important thing is that each can contribute to have the players play in certain ways and you can use several of them in concert. For example if you want to make a game of hunting monsters, you will probably include some advice on making the monsters and some ready made monsters. But there are other still some other aspects. Is it a comedy something more gritty? What’s the tone? You can throw in some lists of inspirational works, pick proper pictures and throw in some media quotes. What is the typical structure of a monster hunt? You can use some procedural rules and a flow chart to symbolize it. Or rely on advice and an example scenario. Or you do both.

One very powerful tool is relying on other games your players have played. There are some very short RPGs, a page or two. Those cannot possibly work on their own. They work for people who have played other RPGs in the past and can provide all the missing pieces themselves. The more you deviate from what people likely know, the more work you have to put in to make that game work. And the more of the channels from the list above you likely want to use.

Genre, in general

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Last week I talked about setting. Let’s talk genre. The curious thing about the term in RPGs is that it is not actually used for RPGs. That’s actually weird. We would readily agree that Slasher Movies constitute a movie genre. But in RPGs we do not use the term for types RPGs but for types of settings which are part RPGs and the categories we use mimic what is used for genres in literature. Like Fantasy and Superheroes, instead of Adventuring Party RPGs something.

So let’s have a look at that. What is genre? How do we know whether a particular work belongs to a genre? How many genres are there? So, first of all, genre is part of the reception of creative works. People will find similarities between works and apply a label to it, when they talk about it. Once a genre is recognized, creators might actively try to put their works into a genre. Perhaps there will be even guides on how to that. In a next step, other creators might try to subvert the genre, playing with the elements. Then the cycle starts anew. That pattern is older than dirt, in TVTropes speak. Ovidius is already a master of subverting the classical genres of hellenistic literature, writing epics that are not epic in their subject matter and didactic poetry that give up on their own lessons. Genre therefore has a time and place in history. No one writes Augustean epics nowadays. Genres come and go.

Because genres are part of the reception, they do not have analytic definitions, but work on prototypes. A prototypical fantsy novel nowadays is quite long. They often come in trilogies. The often feature a hero’s journey. There are often takes on creatures from fairy tails or myths. There is usually some kind of magic. The setting is a not our world. Note that none of those rules is absolute. There can be a Fantasy Novel that is standalone, does not have fantastic creatures etc. As long as some points are met it can be sorted under Fantasy Novel. Of course an individual work can therefore show traits of various kinds of genre at the same time. Some of which might be child genres of one another.

Because genres are prototypcial they are multi-dimensional. They can be about typical plot, characters, location, but also length, format, medium, publication, style. Some genres that are currently active. Manga, fanfic, dark fantasy, progression fantasy, LitRPG. A creative work might theoretically belong to all of these at the same time. So genre and perception of genre is an interesting subject, but it is not a very good analytical tool.

Setting rules

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In an earlier post I called setting a kind of rule, as it informs on what we should say or not say during play. That is basically what rules in RPGs are about: How to develop a shared fiction through talking to another. There are a few different ways how setting information might do that. Let’s have a look.

Conventions are information that everyone should respect. While playing the game you should not say anything that contradicts these conventions. For example, if elves have pointed ears, you should not describe elves as not having pointed ears. Rule. Conventions help set the tone for a game. Since people have to know them without looking them up during play, you cannot have too many of those. A good example I found is the in Masks: A New Generation. A single page describing the four generations of super heroes. You can read it out aloud.

Canons are type of rule that you should pick one from a list, when introducing an item. For example the sentient creatures in the world are humans, dragons, gorgons and sphinxes. Obviously, you should make each character a human, dragon, gorgon or sphinx. Rule. You can use this type of rule for anything that might be created by the group. These rules are less upfront than conventions. You can consult a specific canon, when you actually need such a thing.

Random tables are much like canons except that you can roll for the specific expression. They can be therefore longer, as they don’t have to be perused on short notice.

Regions are a special type of canon. When you make an adventure, choose a region where it takes place. Rule. The region colors how things might look and feel, even if the adventure structure is otherwise the same. A whodunnit in the Widowlands will feel different than in Wild Reaches (two regions from Agone).

Patterns are about what a certain thing typically includes or has. For example a vampire city typically has Prince. When you make a new city, invent a Prince for it or some alternate type of government. Rule. A pattern is not a convention as it may be broken, but it still sets a baseline. Vampire cities without a Prince are atypcial. It is also less upfront than conventions. You can play without knowing the pattern, if you are not required to fill it in, even though it might lessen your enjoyment.

Examples are the loosest form of setting. You might put them wholesale into your game or make something like it. They can be very useful though, especially if they are easy to plug in.

The important thing is that good setting information should have a notion on how to incorporate it into the game. Who shall know this information? Who shall use it? How? Setting details without such a use become useless and people will likely complain about it. Histories and calendars are typical candidates.

This is also how designing an RPG is different from world building. It is one level higher. When you design a game, you give the playing group tools to build their own world.

Choosing Stats

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Last week, I talked about two common types of numbers used in RPGs, statistics and traits. Statistics are only applicable in certain fictional contexts, traits are rationalized during play.

Of the two types, statistics are much more common. How should we choose the basic statistics for a new game?

Start with the use-cases

This is the most common error. While attributes can describe a character, that’s not what they are made for. They are to be used as input for certain mechanics. So you have to have an idea of what mechanics there are. You can still fiddle with the internals, like what dice are to be used. But you need a good idea of what people will actually roll for during play. What are the regular rolls that are made each session? If you have that, you can also balance your statistics by grouping the less prevalent cases under one statistic.

Make sure you actually need a special statistic for a use case

The way attributes and skills typically work is that different characters have them at different levels and these levels change during play.

Make sure this is what you want. For example if all characters should be able to do this and get better at the same rate, you can just use a general character level.

If characters should have different capabilities in this regard and these relative differences remain fix, you can just give a bonus based on character class or something.

Ignore symmetry

Many games do something like x physical, x social, x mental statistics. If you follow that route, you have to find viable use cases for each number in your roster, which is hard. Of course, if you just follow the previous point, you won’t have this problem.

Use none or all for subsystems

If you have extensive subsystems, say combat, either make all statistics in as category usable there or none. For example, if your main phases of play are courtly intrigue and and hunting monsters, you can either have separate statistics for both areas. Or you can each statistic do double duty in both areas. You can make the pairings however you like, because according the first point, you started with two separate sets of use cases.

Keep layers ortgogonal

Many games use more than statistic in rolls. You do not just roll A, but A and B, combining the two somehow.

The relationship between As and Bs can be of two kinds. Bs could be specializations of As. That means each B is used with exactly one A. On the other hand As and Bs could be separate layers and you combine them case by case.

If you do this, make sure that each A can be used with each B without doing mental gymnastics. It probably won’t work, if As are attributes and Bs are skills. It might work if As are personal traits and Bs are environments, relationships, motivations… Cortex+ Games do a nice job here.

tl;dr: Do not recreate the World of Darkness.

Adding value

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So in my first two posts, I talked about different occasions for when to roll. But a common feature in RPGs that you add some numbers to the dice roll and these numbers depend on your character. Of course that isn’t strictly necessary. Most rolls on traditional random tables for example do not take any numbers to the die roll. And in a way a random table is a much more general representation on what we use dice in RPGs for. Success checks can be seen as random tables with some very generic results.

So let’s say that players should roll some dice and there should be a value added. How do we know what value that should be? There are are some options.

  • The value depends on the occasion or situation. These are your typical attributes and abilities. Depending on what the roll is about, it’s one on the list. I’ll call these statistics.
  • The acting player can more or less choose any value on their sheet. Often this is used with free-form traits, like in Risus, Wushu or The Pool. There should be some explanation on how the trait fits the situation at hand, but that might be rather far fetched.

In more complex games there might be several numbers combined that work on this scale. Games like World of Darkness combine attributes and abilities into combined statistics before each roll. In Fate you roll a skill depending on what you want to do, but you can pull in any aspects you like.

Like in Fate, traits often come with some mechanical limitations, because there are no hard fictional limits on their use. For example in Hearts of the Wulin your attributes, which are trait-like, are damaged when you fail a roll with them.

Another options to limit traits I have first seen in Fate Accelerated Edition: Approaches. Approaches are, according to their description, about how you do something. From a game design perspective that isn’t very useful, yet. Why shouldn’t a player always use their best approach?

The idea is that approaches form a certain set. Depedending on the approach you choose you give up on certain parameters. For example, if you act forcefully, you are not sneaky. FAE sadly doesn’t do a very good job explaining that, in my opinion.

These are approaches I made to play Nobilis with FAE.

  • Aspect – You bring to bear your miraculous body or mind. You lack range.
  • Domain – You rule your Estate to its full effect. You lack subtlety.
  • Persona – You call on subtle shifts or metaphorical extensions of your Estate. You lack immediacy.
  • Treasure – You have your toys do the job. You lack control.
  • Passions – You rely on your skills and connections to the mortal world. You lack power.

Getting Class-y

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What use is character class? Wouldn’t a class-less game be simpler? To answer this, let’s first understand what character class is.

It isn’t necessarily any category within the game’s shared fiction, which can be best seen in D&D. While Wizard and Cleric might be considered recognized jobs or professions in D&D’s implicit setting, this is much harder with Rogue, Fighter and Barbarian. And in early editions your class might have been Elf or Dwarf. If anything, the actual class of a modern D&D character would be the combination of race and class – or classes, if multiclassing is a thing. I might be an Eladrin Mystic. Likewise, the effective class of a PC from Werewolf: Forsaken might be Rahu of the Iron Masters, with the Lodge of Crossroads, the third item being a prestige class.

A class therefore doesn’t have to prescribe a leveled progression, either. It might make certain choices available, cheaper or simply provide certain benefits when initially chosen. This already makes one of the benefits. You can use classes as a package deal, selling the players certain non-competitive elements that wouldn’t make it on an open point-buy market. For example, in the context of D&D, most players probably wouldn’t pay for a Dwarf’s ability to sense secret passages. But it’s nice to have, even if all you wanted was the Constitution bonus.

The other use of class is a reduction in complexity, not necessarily for the character’s player, even if perhaps a new player might grok the necessary choices to make a D&D character better than Gurps or Hero. No, it’s for your fellow players. Because even if you spend increasing amounts of time on fiddling with your perfect character build, the attention span of your fellow players won’t scale. For example, in a game of Risus, when introducing your character, you can just read aloud your whole character sheet. In D&D that is not feasible, instead you might say that you are Tabaxi Tempest Cleric and convey some useful information to your group.

Although in a game of D&D3.5 even your effective character class might not do, looking at my longest running character:

Brinihera Tiefgang, Dwarven Psion(Shaper)/Constructor/Ardent/Archivist

Which actually undermines the benefits of class in that regard. Note that communication is not only useful, in communicating niches of challenges, a character might fill, but maybe even more importantly communicating how I expect my character to be seen by the world and addressed in play. Like, when I’m a Halfling on Eberron, I expect people to ask me about dinosaurs. I might then tell them that – no! – not all halflings breed dinosaurs. Thank you very much.

So, if your game is more complex than Risus, and if you want to forego the benefits of class, you might want to provide an alternate system for players to succinctly describe what their character is about. In Fate you might cite your High Concept.

Of course, defined classes are especially useful, if you want to depict a particular setting by actually associating the classes with certain elements of that world, be it the orders of Ars Magica, nations and and schools in 7th Sea, or breed / auspice / tribe in Werewolf: Apocalypse.

Character Sheet Complexity

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When I want to learn about a new game, I usually look at the character sheet or similar. This gives me a good impression on the complexity of the game. So I wondered, can we make this measurable somehow? After all there are is much discussion on what is a complex game or not. To try this, I devised this simple system.

  1. Count fill-in fields on the character sheet for 1 point.
    1. Ignore intermediate calculation fields, like for Armor Class on the 3.5 D&D sheets. They are a service and make things easier.
  2. Count checkboxes / radio groups for 0.5 points.
  3. For list fields that take a fixed number of items count that number, max. 10 points.
    1. If the number is indeterminate, count 10 points.
  4. Do count things like name, hair color etc., if present.
  5. Do count fields that only certain types of characters would fill in, like spells.
    1. If the game has different sheets for different types of characters (e.g. playbooks), take the most complicated sheet.

Some random stats from my book shelf:

41: The Dark Eye 1, Anniversary Edition
51: Nobilis 2nd
64: Mage: The Ascension 2nd Revised (aka 3rd)
71: Wraith 2nd
77: Legends of the Wulin
90: 13th Age
123: D&D 4th
133: Ars Magica 4th

Is this method perfect? Certainly not. For example Legends of the Wulin is surprisingly complicated during play, which cannot be seen from the character sheet at all. Still, I hope it might serve as a start for discussing various games.

What are your games like on this scale?

Another take on difficulties: Area Levels

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I abhor setting difficulties as a GM. When I GM, I have all kinds of things to do and figuring out situational difficulties for various tasks is just one more thing that bogs down the game. For most of my GMing days, I therefore just set an inofficial baseline difficulty and stuck with that. Something that PbtA games made official policy. That’s one of the reasons why I dig PbtA games.

Of course, there are other ways to solve this problem. The Pool allows the GM to set a difficulty between 1 and 3, but not by any standard or in-world justification. You can just set the difficulty depending on how hard you want to make it, depending on your own aesthetic prerogatives. Primetime Adventures does something similar, but adds a budget for the GM. You spend your budget to set difficulties.

Today, I present another approach. I first encountered it in the form of Donjon‘s dungeon levels. The idea is that a place has a difficulty. You announce that difficulty when the PCs enter the area or at an earlier opportune moment. For example the Dark Lady’s Tower on the horizon is certainly evident as a very dangerous place, once you see it on the horizon.

This solves the problem for me, because I do not have to adjudicate every single action.

Here is how that might look in a Fate game:

0: Gardened – This place is perfectly safe, equipped with everything you might need in abundance, e.g. Rivendell in LotR.
1: Quiet – Like home. You are mostly safe here.
2: Unruly – Typical wilderness, the “urban djungle”.
3: Inhospitable – The characters are not welcome here. Either the natives don’t like you or the environment is frozen, a desert etc.
4: Hostile – Someone or something wants to actively hurt the characters. Enemy patrols or a snowstorm.
5: Deadly – A high security area or an active volcano.

Increase the difficulty by +1, if:

  • The area is unknown, like they are camping on another continent where they don’t know what’s edible and what’s not. Likewise if the characters do not know local cultural symbols or language. This penalty will go away after the characters become familiar.
  • The area is weird, like another dimension, hell etc. Not made for human inhabitants. This will usually not go away.

An area might be both unknown and weird, like when you are in a hell using a foreign culture’s cultural symbols.

What DnD5 does right

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I often here that D&D5 is “everyone’s second most favorite edition of D&D”. That might be, but I think there is something D&D5 does better than earlier iterations: Character Fantasy.

I first came about that term reading a dev blog from the guys at Riot Games. They do this League of Legends thing in case you haven’t heard. Anyway, the idea is that player’s get into the fantasy of playing a particular character. The one thing that computer RPGs and… well… RPGs have in common. So in order to enable character fantasy you have to offer players a character that jives with them, and D&D5 makes an effort in that regard.

Firstly, this iteration has more variety in playable races – I won’t go into the discussing that term here – than previous editions. And looking at places like /r/characterdrawing those turtle and cat people are quite popular. These picks are also mechanically distinct, which is important for good crunch. Personally, I rolled a hobglobin lady recently and their special ability giving yourself a bonus, when you would fail in front of other people otherwise, I find hilarious. The authors also accounted for the various kinds of elves from the start by directly introducing subraces from the start. (Except for Half-Elves and Tieflings, which might have been obvious.)

The same focus on character fantasy can be seen in redesigning the Feat system compared to earlier editions. Because in order to induce character fantasy, you want some broad strokes, but not bothersome mechanical details. For example, if I take the 5e archery feat, that says I’m an archer. In 3.5 that corresponds to a whole feat chain, which makes the concept more fuzzy.

Those ideas of broad strokes and plugability also apply to the subclass concept which incorporated several concepts that were prestige classes in 3.5 like Eldritch Knight and Bladesinger or separate additional base classes like the Hexblade. This allows for a great variety, while keeping creation of first level charcters relatively compact. You don’t necessarily have to worry about subclasses at first level, unless your power is inborn or result of otherworldy investiture.

The only common area, I can see, that D&D5 has opted out of for now is exotic fantasy weapons. We like those oversized swords and stuff. And while I certainly don’t miss those 3.5 spiked chain builds, games like Legends of the Wulin show how strange weapons might be possible with a set of simple weapon types and the option to combine two at a cost.

The FATE of Old

Back in the day (when did it happen that I could start like this?), there was a game called FUDGE. It had some new ideas like using those fudge dice and using adjectives instead of numbers. Otherwise it was more like a toolkit. Choose the attributes and stats for your campaign, pick whatever other rules you might need and have fun.

Now, my first exposure to Fate was with FATE 2 (pdf). It was more specific than Fudge but still pretty open. You still had to make up the skill list for your game. The one big thing was a new take on attributes. Instead of the GM making a list for that too, players would make up their own traits. That became popular at the time.

From such games, a caveat was learned. Very broad traits are boring. But it is tempting to make the broadest trait possible. So the Fate took that to heart. Instead of rolling those self-made attributes, you could spend them for bonuses. So you always roll a skill and, if you want, spend a charge from a fitting “Aspect” for a massive bonus. Of course, this solves the Broad Trait Problem, because any Aspect is finite. If you spend all your All Might early, you don’t have anything later and must rely on your other Aspects. Granted, the Aspect examples in the Fate 2 rulebook might not fit our nowadays refined tastes for literary expressiveness, but I’m looking at their functionality here.

There were Fate Points, too. You got them, when an Aspect became a problem, but they were a simple +1, while an Aspect charge meant a sure +2 or a full reroll. Fate Points and Aspect charges were not interchangeable. There were no scene and campaign aspects. The game also made a big point of Extras, which can still be found in the toolkit nowadays, but I’ve never seen anyone bothering either way.

It was a good system for its communicative power. Setting up the skill list, the GM says: This is what will be important for the campaign. This is what the characters will do. Making your Aspect on the other hand, you say: This is cool and important about my character.

Of course, newer editions don’t do it that way anymore. The question is why, if it was such a nice system. It’s certainly not about general simplicity, because in the same stroke that aspects were changed to simple tags, we also got Stunts, which are actually more complicated internally than the old Aspects, and another thing to keep track of. It might be a case for consistency, after maneuvers and their effects were invented. But those could have been handled without connecting things to Fate Points as well.

The only problem with the old Aspects I can imagine would be them being too good at what they do, that is limiting constant use of broad traits. We might call it the Aquaman problem. In order for Aquaman to shine, there should be water. So a particularly narrow Aspect might be wasted. But that might be fixed as well, as PDQ# has shown. The rule would be to discard Aspect charges in lieu of Stress. This could happen without regard to the current situation. Aquaman could still take a beating, but not use his Aspect actively. This would also remove the need for separate HP or stress tracks. Conditions could work unchanged.

So to use this Fate 2.9

  • Make a skill list for your campaign.
  • Use the Aspects the old way.
  • Use Aspects as stress, too.
  • Import the four kinds of actions from later editions.
  • Import Conditions as you see fit.
  • Gracefully ignore stunts.

Personally, I’d also make a ladder that requires less interpretation, but that might be another topic.

Originally posted at rpg.net, where it also got a comment by iago.