Sunday, April 22, 2018

RPGDM #1 Introducing the RPG Designers Manual & My Definition of the term “Game”

The Plan is to systematically go through books on game design relevant to RPG’s.  Detailed notes will be kept and a review of each will be posted. All of this is in support of the project I am calling the RPG Designers Manual. It’s a lot, but I was doing it half-assed anyway. I’ll just be doing a better job of documenting things. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

I have been reading on this subject for decades primarily for amusement. What there was up until the last 10 years or so was pretty sucky. With the popularity of MMORPG's new books are bubbling up to the surface. Likewise, reading “Playing At The World”, which is an exhaustively researched and well written history of D&D also spurred me on. RPG’s can be more than schlock entertainment. 

My goal is to make the RPGDM more than a few abstract theories on how to make games fun. Using research as a foundation I will document my own thoughts of game design, first as blog posts, then collected into a RPG Designers Manual. I plan to cover a lot of ground by going through every aspect of what goes into an RPG. This will include scale, time, skills, IP, first & second order mechanics, encounter systems, the level of detail, system focus, tools, character design, table design, variable results, probability, complexity...the whole thing. The stuff I was always looking for in a book that was about game design. A book that does not exist.

I imagine this to be an actual discourse with anyone who cares to participate. I’ll be posting all the bits and pieces here. I think this covers my statement of intent. Let’s begin. To kick things off I’ll start with the big definition, one that in every text I read is different.

Here is my definition of the word game:

1) Has mutually agreed on rules
2) Has consequences which are not real
3) Has quantifiable states
4) Has clear end conditions

Chess has a set of rules that are mutually agreed on at the start of play (1). When a pawn is lost and removed from the board the player does not suffer any real world consequences (2). During play the current state of the game is easily defined by the positions of the pieces on the board (3). Lastly, the game ends when one players checkmates the others king (4). 

Now, consider how actual warfare differs from chess. One could argue that there are agreed on sets of rules for combat, such as the Geneva convention, Chivalry or MAD for example (1). These rules seem to get thin when the existence of a country is on the verge of losing. War also appears to have a quantifiable states and a clear end condition (3 & 4). It is with #2 however, that war diverges sharply from being a game as the consequences are very real. War is not a game.

What about auto racing? (take your pick, Nascar or Formula). It has a mutually agreed on set of rules (1), quantifiable states (3) and winning the race is a clear end condition (4). However, the consequences can be very real during a crash (2). Typically racing is thought of as a game, but that term is not used to describe it. Any type of game in which you are essentially using your body as a piece of “game equipment” (like Basketball, Pool and Soccer) is a specific kind of game called a sport.

Are RPG’s games? (For clarity, I mean the original type which are often referred to as “pencil and paper” games. Most people nowadays would think an RPG is an MMORPG). Here is my swing at the definition of RPG:

1) mutually agreed on rules to create a narrative
2) consequences which are not real
3) quantifiable states
4) indeterminate end conditions

The first difference seemed relatively minor, that participants are creating a narrative. I was sure there were a slew of games out there in which you create a narrative. Turns out there are not. There are games that have an existing narrative running in the background (Clue, Zork, Pokemon). There are a few in which you choose a path within existing branches provided (the early Tunnels & Trolls and Fighting Fantasy books). But, other than role playing games, I did not find a game in which you create your own narrative.

Number four trips us up as well. Think about when a non-gamer has asked you “did you win your D&D game?” Winning D&D would be like Daredevil “winning” in his serialized comic. RPG’s do not have a defined end or winning condition. Again, this is a grey area as this depends on whether you are playing a campaign at home or a four hour tournament module at a con. When playing a campaign in your basement, the narrative will run as long as the participants choose. At a tournament there is definitely a fixed time limit and set winning conditions. It is worth noting that RPG’s have a lot in common with serialized adventure stories like Flash Gordon, Daredevil, Harry Potter, James Bond and Doc Savage. They also have a lot in common with improv. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is also important to think about the idea of what an end is...Is the end the same as winning? On the surface, it would seem you cannot win an RPG the same way as Chess. However, what if the idea of “winning” Chess was tweaked? Figuring out another players strategy is a win. Blocking an important move is a win. Taking a rook is a win. “Win” is a wide term and as such can be interpreted in different ways. Now, apply to role-playing. You survive the dungeon. You level up. You solve the riddle. These are expansions on the idea of winning. 

The short answer is RPG’s are games. They are a specific kind of game.

Next time a review of “The Art Of Game Design” by Jesse Schell

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