Today’s prompt is ‘Simplicity’.
I’ve written before about how RPGs are about something. The challenge then becomes to model that particular thing in the rules in the simplest way possible. At least, I vastly prefer rulesets that are simple: overly complex rules break immersion, and rather than spend a lot of time on resolving an action, I prefer to resolve quickly so that the narrative can progress. But everyone has their own trade-off between simplicity and whether they feel the thing the game is about is modeled with enough detail. I’m firmly of the belief that realism in RPGs should not be a goal in itself because that produces overwrought rulesets.
But if you want to play a game that is precisely about duels with swords, then you probably want to spend a lot of attention to all the ways people can stab and slice, feints, ripostes etcetera. That ruleset would be so much more complicated in the combat department than D&D’s simple “you attack, if you hit you roll for damage” mode. So I do think it’s a trade-off between simplicity and ‘enough’ fidelity — and every game has its own trade-offs to make in there.
One of the things I noticed in the Amber Diceless RPG is that actions get really complicated precisely because of the simple rules. The rules state that if you’re in a Warfare conflict (anything involving weapons), the character with the highest Warfare score will always win, all things being equal — no dice rolls necessary. So if you’re not the character with the highest Warfare in a conflict, you have a vested interest in not making things equal. Suppose you have a much higher Endurance score than your opponent: you could fight purely defensively and tire them out. If you have a higher Psyche score, you could try to use magic or one of your powers during the fight to destabilize them. If you have a higher Strength (which covers physical conflicts without weapons), then you could try to take a hit (if your Endurance is high enough to take it) and grab ’em to wrestle them to the ground…
So rather than standing toe-to-toe and taking turns to bash each other with a crowbar with a sharpened edge, fights in the ADRPG tend to be very descriptive, with combatants trying to gain an advantage through their actions. Rather than model this all in the rules, it is precisely the simplicity of the rules that makes a more narrative approach vital.
Of course, this requires a large amount of trust between the GM and the players, which I’ve written about earlier this month.
Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Foundation’.
RPGs tend to have a lot of rules for all kinds of different thing. But as we had established earlier, all an RPG really needs is a task resolution mechanic. For instance, in D&D you roll a D20, add or subtract your skill modifier, and if you beat the target number, you succeed. In Rolemaster, you roll a D100, add your skill bonus and any circumstantial bonuses (or maluses) and if you beat 100, you succeed. In Amber, if your score for the attribute being tested is higher than the attribute of your opponent, you succeed.
Of course, you can add lots of stuff on top of that, but if the system is well-designed, it will keep using the foundational resolution mechanic for everything. Some games insist on different things for different subsystems, giving you for instance one set of rules for combat and another set of rules for magic. Such games often chase ‘realism’, but realism in RPG rulesets is kind of bad because it’s too complicated. And rulesets that are too complicated give a bad play experience.
Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Theme’.
Working in software as a product manager, it’s easy to get stuck in thinking about features and improvements all day, every day. But I see my role also as strategic — every so often, you have to ask yourself what it is you want to achieve with your software. Having this as a clear mission statement in one or two sentences will also help you decide what to do too. If you’re making software for a managing finances, you probably need an export module to Excel — but you probably don’t need a module that renders objects in a 3D space.
A clarity of purpose gives you clarity of direction.
It’s the same with theme for RPGs. A theme (in the literary sense) acts as a vision of the kinds of narrative you want the game to produce. From there, you can create mechanics and settings that support the kind of gameplay that you’re aiming for — and you can also decide what you don’t need mechanics for. If you want an intensely social game with lots of wheeling and dealing, then you probably don’t need mechanics for fire-fights. But you will need mechanics for social standing and applying your influence.
Every game has a theme. But for some games, the theme is implicit — maybe the makers even never bothered to explicitly state their theme to themselves. Sometimes these rulesets are muddled with all kinds of special rules for situations that might or might not come up. Contrast that with the ‘mission statement’ from Blades in the Dark: “We play to find out if the fledgling crew can thrive amidst the teeming threats of rival gangs, powerful noble families, vengeful ghosts, the Bluecoats of the City Watch, and the siren song of the scoundrels’ own vices.” This gives us a direction, and informs the kinds of mechanics we can expect from the game.
As a player, games with explicit themes are much easier to play, because you know in advance what is expected of you.
Today’s RPG-a-Day prompt is ‘Write’.
I still need to finish writing Fearless!, but I have not worked on it since the end of that one week. I haven’t found the mindspace to really sit down, design some leviathans and then run a simulation of combat to see how it works. Maybe that will come in the coming weeks. There was no interest in the draft (only one person bought it), so there’s no horde of ecstatic fans waiting with bated breath until it’s done anyway.
Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Trap’.
There was a time when GMs were supposed to be antagonistic against the players — the ol’ Gygax school of GMing. Many games were created to have people unlearn this and to heal the trauma of players. I have one such player in my campaign of The One Ring, and he was constantly over-analyzing and was very reluctant to act, in case there was an elaborate trap waiting to be sprung. Of course, my job as the GM is to make the characters have cool adventures, and that doesn’t really work if the characters die at every corner, right?
Anyway, back to the “good ol’ days”. Of course, traps are a great way to punish players who are not constantly paranoid. There is a notorious series called Grimtooth’s Traps that detailed all kinds of diabolical contraptions to let your PCs meet a gruesome demise. And I always thought these are all kind of boring. Is it fun to have the characters advance super-slowly through the dungeon because they want to exhaustively check for traps at every point of the way? Because that’s what you’re training them to do…
I did have some traps in The Secret of Cedar Peak, but these were mostly meant to restrict the PCs movement and to delay them, so that the cultists would have time to get their defenses in order. And if you saw through them once, you could pretty much detect them further down the line, so it did not slow down play. That’s what I think the best traps are: alarm devices so that any residents can get their response prepared. There is a cost to falling for them, but it’s not immediately fatal.
Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Move’.
I’m going to riff off Paulo’s entry on ‘Move’ over on his blog where he compares boardgame moves with player agency in RPGs. I’ve been reading quite a few Japanese RPGs (currently I’m going through Floria) and there’s a trend in those games that is shaped by the RPG culture in Japan.
In Japan, it’s uncommon to invite people over to your home, and people lead busy lives. This means that most games of ‘table-talk RPGs’ are played in some kind of public/communal space. Long-form campaigns are rare, and most sessions are one-shots that are played with rotating GMs and players. Floria and Ryuutama have rules for making sure that your character has indeed ‘earned’ the XP that is on the sheet, etcetera — like the rules for D&D’s organised play programme, except not centrally managed.
In a long-form campaign, it’s not that bad if your character doesn’t get to shine this session, because their time will certainly come in the next. But in this ‘serial one-shot’ format, every character has to have their equal time in the spotlight. This means that the structure of the session is quite codified. For instance, in Floria, there’s an abstracted map of the forest you’re investigating, and characters take their Move in turns. During their turn, they can move a few spaces and undertake one of a list of possible actions, and then your turn is up and the next character goes.
This is also a lot like a boardgame, but to me it’s different from the way that Torchbearer was like a boardgame. I think that is because Torchbearer emphasizes the individual character, whereas Floria emphasizes the collective experience of everyone at the table. Torchbearer characters are encouraged to be unique and have beliefs and goals that might not align entirely with the rest of the group, whereas Floria basically tells you in the rules that you should make a character who is motivated to join today’s scenario and to coordinate your magic types with the other players because you really need all three in a party. In a ‘character collective’, it is much more palatable for me to take defined turns — maybe that’s a personal quirk and it’s just me?
Today’s RPG-a-Day prompt is Supplement.
(Every day there are alternative prompts, but I guess on Sunday everyone must talk about the same thing? Huh.)
A good supplement adds a new perspective to an existing game, vastly expanding the roleplaying and/or adventuring opportunities for the game. As such, I think Shadow Knight, the (sadly) only supplement for the Amber Diceless RPG.
There are ten Amber novels, and they come in two cycles: the first one is narrated by Corwin, one of the nine princes, and talks about his battles to acquire the throne of Amber. The second cycle is set much later and is narrated by Corwin’s son Merlin, who is building artefacts and trying to manoeuver his way around the political situations in both Amber and the Courts of Chaos. The second cycle is not universally loved, and it was not uncommon to see a GM state that the Merlin-cycle had not happened in their game.
While Corwin is single-mindedly pursuing his goal in the most military manner possible, Merlin is playing both sides and building up his own power-base in order to set his own agenda. And Shadow Knight supports that mode of play, with new powers and descriptions of the characters encountered in the Merlin cycle. The irony is that even if the GM disliked the Merlin cycle, most Amber games were more like that saga rather than the Corwin saga — a rich setting populated with many different factions with their own goals and motivations is much more interesting to set characters loose in.
But the supplement I used the most is, beyond a doubt, the Rolemaster Companion II (which we abbreviated to ‘RoCo2’). It is very popular in some circles to sump on Rolemaster for being too complex, but it’s really not. Yes, there are many charts, but often, a simple chart-lookup is much faster than doing all kinds of calculations at the table. And the tables allow for subtle things like ‘electricity does more damage to a guy in full plate’ without any extra rules needed.
Another thing I like about Rolemaster is that it’s skill-based. Your attributes do factor in on your chances of success, but beyond lvl 3 that influence is only minimal — so it’s all about the training. And every character can learn every skill, so you don’t have to feel restricted by your profession. But your profession does influence how many Development Points a rank in a skill costs. Weapon skills are really cheap for a Fighter, a bit more expensive for a Thief and very expensive for most magic users. If you were playing a Fighter and you had quite a few points left, you could invest that in learning some magic!
So when you were creating a character or giving them an additional level, you had to know the cost of their skill ranks for their profession. And at the end of RoCo2 there was a large table that listed all the skills (and which stats were involved) and the point cost per rank per profession. We had made photocopies of these pages and created several booklets so that everyone could refer to their own copy. I think I even might have my own copy somewhere…
Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Safety’.
As I wrote before, I like having rules for travel in an RPG — your adventure is not a picnic, it’s a journey through the unknown. Dangerous things might happen! Ryuutama, the One Ring and Against the Darkmaster all have travel rules that mean that you’re never really safe on a journey. One of the tropes of RPGs is that you regain your hitpoints under certain circumstances, which means you’re ‘good as new’ again. D&D heals you fully at each eight-hour period of rest, no matter where (unless you are interrupted). But (most) games with travel rules only give you HPs back in safe locations — and a camp out in the open is never safe. Only when you reach your destination (or even only when the people at the destination welcome you and it’s a ‘sanctuary’ for you) do you heal from any wounds you got on the road.
That puts a whole new dynamic on the whole thing. If you’re exploring a dungeon or a wilderness, you have to manage your resources more carefully than if any night’s sleep will heal you fully. Events on the road can have a real, lasting impact on how the ‘real’ adventure progresses. Because to me, travel is its own adventure, not just a prelude.
Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Flood’.
Once, way back, I was GMing and improvising the scenario for a group of fellow computer science students — people from different parts of the country, who all ended up in Nijmegen at the university. I told them that they came to a river, and they started to plan how to cross it. I made the mistake to not clearly communicate the situation (even if the players don’t ask, the GM should always provide any pertinent information that their characters could see, and I didn’t) so they started working from their own images of what a river would be.
To me, a river is a small affair of a few meters wide, like in the village I grew up in. With a few long sticks you could build a makeshift bridge and cross. Most of the players were doing exactly that. But one guy was totally not on board with any of those attempts, and he blocked the progress quite decisively. Until one of the players expected something was up, and asked how wide the river was.
That’s when the one guy stopped the game, and told me: “Hey, you said ‘river’. It’s great you grew up in a village with a river of only a few meters wide, but I grew up in Nijmegen. To me, when someone says ‘river’, I think of the Waal!” The Waal is the busiest river in the Netherlands, and is about 425 meters wide at Nijmegen…
I learned a lesson about being a GM that day!
A day late, but you’re still getting prompt number 12 for RPG-a-Day, which is ‘Think’.
Nobody expects a player to act out all of their combat moves in a game — the character you’re playing is a trained professional (at least in most games), and most players are not. Combat is pretty abstracted: you roll your dice, add or subtract some numbers, and that determines whether you hit or not. But what about intelligence? Playing a character that’s not as smart as yourself is maybe not that difficult, but what about playing characters that are smarter?
Intelligence usually covers things like recall (do you remember something you learned?) and the ability to make deductions (can you deduce who is the culprit from all the clues you have?). (As an aside, I think Rolemaster is the only game that separated those two into two separate stats, Memory and Reasoning. Still, most knowledge skills used both of those stats.)
Recall is easy to abstract away. Your character knows much more about the world they live in that the player, because they have actual lived experience, while the player can only experience the world through the words of the GM — and many minutiae that are obvious to an inhabitant are unknown to the player. So you roll you dice, add your bonus and if you beat the target number (which expresses how obscure that piece of knowledge is in general), your character recalls the information.
Deduction is much harder to abstract away. Well, you could do the same as with recall, but is that really satisfying? Suppose there’s a murder mystery, and you collect clues. You roll the dice, and then your character solves the case. Is that fun?
One ‘solution’ would be to just not have a stat for intelligence, and stating in the rules that players can apply their full intelligence to any situation the characters are in. You can’t play characters that are smarter than yourself, but is that a really big loss?