Saturday, June 18, 2011

Carts, Horses, and the Arrangement Thereof

Over at “The Sky Full of Dust” they’re designing an RPG! It looks like a fun project. Mr. Forster has started his exploration of rules by poking at stats. I think he might have things a bit backwards, however. Yes, stats, if you chose to use them, will form the bedrock of your game and its mechanics. But, exactly because of the central place of stats, you might want to leave them as the last thing you nail down solidly.

I'm going to use an example from wargaming. When designing a wargame based on an historical battle, exactly what features you focus on depend upon your interpretation of what happened in the battle. The battle of Hastings is a great example for this. The old story of the Battle of Hastings was that Harold’s army was all tuckered out after marching all the way north to York to fight Hardrada’s Viking army at Stamford Bridge before marching all the way back down south to fight at Hastings. Under this model, the most important attributes are the resilience, morale, and rested-ness of your troops. The game is strategic and probably solo with the player taking on the role of Harold and trying to do as little as possible to thwart the Vikings in order to leave enough troops in good enough condition to stop William.

A more current theory about the battle says that the deciding factor was matériel, the Norman use of combined arms and mobility versus the Anglo-Saxon static shield wall. This is a much more tactical view of the battle, in which the placement of troops, the layout the terrain, and individual unit statistics become vital. Balancing the resilience of the shield wall, the long-range harassing affect of archers, and mobility of cavalry in statistical form is central to modeling this sort of battle.

But there is also a third view of the battle. At one point in the fight, word spreads that William has been slain. Hearing this, William removes his helmet to show his fleeing warriors that he is in fact alive. His soldiers rally, and William notices that parts of the until-then impenetrable shield wall had broken loose to chase his fleeing soldiers. The shield walls quickly reformed, but it gave William a clever idea. After a few more feints, his soldiers faked being routed. Sections of the shield wall broke off to chase down the fleeing Normans, but were themselves surrounded and wiped out by prearranged ambushes. With the shield wall fatally compromised, the Normans are able to chop it up and wipe it out piecemeal.

If you want to model this view of the battle, you’re less worried about some sort of rock –paper-scissors balancing act between infantry, cavalry, and archery, then you are about the command presence of officers, the obedience of the troops, and the morale of individual units.

The same holds true for RPGs. A game about slaying vampires and finding a date for prom ought to have very different stats from a game about exploring dungeons. Mr. Forster has decided to limit himself to just three stats, boiling them down to only those immediately useful in combat. But now what is he going to do about adjudicating those abstract languages rolls? Does everyone have the same chance of knowing a language? Or is it based on class? I could certainly see reducing things down to a single stat measuring mental strength which would handle learning languages, resisting spells, and similar issues. But if he's making the game I think he's making, there's a good argument for stats beyond those used in combat.

And what sort of combat does he want? To-hit rolls and hit points work great, but they're not the only option. What about a combat system based more on unit tactics, shield walls of hirelings or hired goblin skirmishers? In that sort of the game, charisma could be far more important than individual stamina. On the other hand, a game in which combat is specifically designed to only take up a limited number of decision points might not need hit points at all. Instead, the vital combat stats might be which schools of combat your character has mastered (di Grassi versus drunken boxing or somesuch).

You can start with stats and have everything flow from that. But to my mind, it makes more sense to decide what sort of structures you want in your game and then design your stats to support those. The stats are the bedrock of your game, and as such, go a long way to not only defining what the PCs are like, but also what your game is about. Having a solid idea as to what both the players and the PCs will be doing in an average game session can go a long way to helping you decide which stats you need.


Robert Fisher said...

Good point. Allow me to play devil’s advocate, just for fun. Or four devil’s advocates. ^_^

(1) What if you want to create a generic system?

(2) I posit that the mechanics of a role-playing system shouldn’t tell you what the game is meant to be about. Rather, the mechanics should handle the things that referee fiat doesn’t handle well. (Which may vary from group to group.)

(3) I posit that wanting to create your own system means that you’ve already thought about these issues. You may have just not formally laid them out.

(4) I posit that the best designs are made by simply jumping in without much up-front planning. You know that you’re going to throw away the first design, but in building it and testing it, you’ll come to understand your goals and the best way to achieve them better than you would have otherwise.

Anonymous said...

To agree with Robert -- as I design and write, I think that his point #2 is always on my mind. I also think that a system shouldn't tell you what a game should be about.

And the interesting thing about the battle of Hastings game comparison is that all three of the prevailing theories could have been contributing factors... i want my system to handle all three possibilities, not tailored to reflect only one.

trollsmyth said...

Robert: Please do! The more, the merrier.

(1) What if you want to create a generic system?

Well, I could counter by claiming the impossibility of designing a truly universal system, but I'm already guilty of way too much blah-blah-blah on this blog lately. ;)

But seriously, in that case, you'd want as broad a design as possible, and the challenge would be balancing covering as many bases as possible without making things too complex. Broad, and vague, statistics would likely work best in this case.

(2) I posit that the mechanics of a role-playing system shouldn’t tell you what the game is meant to be about. Rather, the mechanics should handle the things that referee fiat doesn’t handle well. (Which may vary from group to group.)

Whew! This could be a post in and of itself. Or maybe many. So I'll just say this: I consider the rules to be aids to the ref. They don't make the game, they help the ref and players make the game. The goal is to give every group (or, at least, as many as possible) the tools necessary to create the experience they're aiming for.

(3) I posit that wanting to create your own system means that you’ve already thought about these issues. You may have just not formally laid them out.

Verily, but not working it out ahead of time can result in you making a game that hamstrings itself. Yes, I have frequently resembled this remark. ;)

(4) I posit that the best designs are made by simply jumping in without much up-front planning. I don't agree (see above) but as I've yet to produce a best design, feel free to take my opinion for whatever you consider it to be worth.

trollsmyth said...

morrisonmp: But if you don't know what the game is about, it's easy to design a game that does more to get in your way than help. Take post-LBB D&D as an example. If you, as many people did, want a game of tactical detail, D&D is woefully broken. Issues like facing and endurance have been abstracted to near banishment from the game. If you really want a game about man-to-man fighting, hit points are anathema, as what you really need are hit locations and a death spiral that puts the emphasis on techniques and styles.

The mechanics dictate what your game is about as much by what they don't cover as by what they do. When you take an activity out of the hands of the player and give it to the dice to handle, you've effectively removed that aspect from the focus of the players by abstracting it. By surrounding a topic with resource management issues or other mechanical choices, you draw attention and the players' interest to it. Simply by having any design at all, you've done both of these things.

Anonymous said...

But that presumes that system can take those things away and that I want my system to do something specific.

I've played a lot of systems -- and enjoy playing new systems all the time. Some do seem to value or prioritize certain aspects of the "mechanical game" but the more a system specializes to focus on some element or another -- the less I'm likely to be able to enjoy it.

I, as a player or a GM, don't usually want a system "about man-to-man fighting" or about "tactical detail" but that gives me tools that allow me to take the game wherever my group and I tend to go.

You mention how D&D went astray after the LBB (with the premise that people want a game of tactical detail). That supports a view that you want a narrower system that does one thing really well. Nothing wrong with that, but what later editions of D&D seemed (to me) to do was broaden the playing field to open up new possibilities while still offering tactical elements (in the context of each new iteration). 2E D&D and Pathfinder are two games I truly enjoy for the way they broaden the scope of what D&D (?) can be.

I mean, Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd Edition's combat system fits your criteria for "man-to-man" systems really well, but the game is about so much more -- and the combat system seems designed to encourage PCs to only fight when necessary instead of simulating tense, one-on-one fighting... you know?

I'm not saying that your position is "wrong." I'm simply saying that for my own enjoyment -- I prefer working from a different starting premise.

Simon Forster said...

All good points, and I will be going back to the start and re-evaluating everything after I've gone through a bunch of ideas.

At the moment, at least with the posts I've been working on and have scheduled over the next few days, I've been gearing towards a more generic rules mechanic thing, but fantasy focused.

Now, however, I'm thinking that it'll probably turn into something else. Either a setting neutral rule system, or something more genre specific; in which case I'll have to re-think just about everything, but that's part of the fun.

This is an experiment and it's fun. Your points are well take though (all of you), and I will be looking back over them when I come to putting things together and giving it another 'coat of paint, so to be speak.

Does that make sense?

p.s. thanks for mentioning it. Nice to be noticed :)

trollsmyth said...

Simon: My pleasure! It's a neat pair of articles. Please don't take my comments as discouragement. Quite the contrary, it was only by doing things like this that learned what I want from an RPG and helped me to pick ones that do what I want. For example, it wasn't until after I'd wrestled quite a bit with D&D 3.0 and then with my own designs as well that I discovered that complex and detailed skill systems inhibit, not help, creating the sort of play I prefer. (Which isn't to say I can't enjoy 3.0 or Pathfinder, only that they are not optimal.)

I'll be watching your progress with quite a bit of interest. Good hunting!

trollsmyth said...

morrisonmp: Um, you've lost me, I'm afraid. What premise is it that you prefer to design from?

Let me see if I can explain my argument a different way. When you roll the dice in D&D to decide how many hit points a foe loses, you are taking away the ability of the players to decide what sort of wound was dealt, or how deadly it was, or where it landed.

If you roll the dice to set local commodity prices in a starship merchant game, you're taking away (or severely limiting) the ability of the players to manipulate those prices.

Whatever the dice decide, the players don't get to pick. If the dice say "red" then the players didn't get to pick the color. If the dice say "true" then the players did not get to arrange for things to be "false."

The minute your design invokes the dice, you are taking choices away from the players. In general, this is a useful thing, because it allows you to streamline complex, detailed, and time-consuming issues (like combat) that might otherwise bog the game down.

Deciding which issues to dice away and which to linger on is central to game design; it's what crafting a new game is all about.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

The last two paragraphs of what you wrote do make perfect sense, but I don't really understand the part above...

I completely agree that what you choose to create "rules" for and what you don't is at the heart of designing a game... but rules/stats/stuff doesn't mean dice.

One of my favorite games to play/run is the Amber DRPG. It leaves all decision-making in the hands of players and GMs. But the rules still manage combat and powers and stats. The player can decide that they want to describe their combat actions in extensive detail -- or not. Ultimately, what matters there is the way the GM and the players agree to work together to define the action. The mechanics don't really care...

But I am confused by the other point... the roll of the dice doesn't take away choices, it simply decides the outcome of player choices based on mechanics. At least, that's my perception... I think I may get it a little -- I mean, if I build a chart that shows lifting capacities for strength, or use a random hit location chart that determines where a hit strikes, then yes, I'm concretely limiting decision making in some way...

And yes, any design does limit something -- of course it does. That's the point, right? As you say, some design stuff is necessary to make complex interactions actually work at the table.

I guess I don't understand what your solution would be though... what I'm getting from your statements is that you'd prefer no dice... but I'm not sure. I don't understand why rolling for HP damage is bad, or why you would roll for the price of commodities (and why the PCs can't influence that price in play.)

In the end, I prefer a balance of rules to help me keep play manageable along with setting the tone of play at the table by the virtue of our shared decision-making.

I am of the firm opinion that system matters far less than the decisions a group makes together about how they play.

Doesn't really matter, you are welcome to your way and I to mine and if they don't match up, that's the beauty of our hobby, but I guess I really don't understand your premise. On the one hand, you want the system to mechanically focus on "what the game does" which seems a very "indie" concept -- while at the same time you seem against the system affecting player ability to make decisions.

richard said...

Thank you. Good, thoughtful post and comments here!

I am totally with Robert's 3 and 4, but that's an issue of work style/method. I would say that, if you can pick any aspect of your design and set it down then you already have some theory in your mind about what the game is. Where you might want to make a list of the top 10 things you want the game to achieve, another person might start with those bits that make sense to them (like how would you possibly make a game without this?, and work towards what's distinctive later.

I find that ideas set down wrongly set me back. I have to go away for them for some time, so I may come back with fresh eyes. But ideas not set down tend to fester. Either they go off themselves, so I can no longer recapture what was exciting about them, or their mistakes pollute other ideas I'm having, making all work harder. Let them out into the light, I say!

trollsmyth said...

morrisonmp: Ah, ok!

First, there are absolutely no value judgements in any of my examples here. In and of themselves, no mechanic or device is good or bad. Not dice, or bidding, or fiat, or whatever, is inherently good or bad. They are simply tools, like hammers and screwdrivers and saws, and each should be used as best suits the project.

the roll of the dice doesn't take away choices, it simply decides the outcome of player choices based on mechanics. At least, that's my perception...

Ok, look at it this way: if a player wants to attack an orc with a sword in D&D, they roll a d20. If they roll above a certain number, they hit. If they don't, they miss.

The player does not get to decide if they hit or miss. The dice do.

We could, conversely, imagine a game that uses a bidding mechanic that gives a player the power to decide hits or misses. If you win the bidding, you get to say, "My sword cleaves into the orc's face!" Or, "My sword wiffs, slicing though only empty air as the orc ducks."

In our imaginary bidding game, the choice is given to one player as to whether the attack hits or misses. In D&D, the choice does not belong to the player; the choice belongs to the dice. The player can attempt to swing the odds one way or another (using a magic sword, for instance, or getting buffed by the cleric), but the dice have the final say in the matter.

Sometimes you want the players to decide an issue, and sometimes you want the dice to decide. For instance, if I'm playing hex-crawl D&D, abstract combat in which the dice hold a lot of authority works great; we can quickly get through combats and back to the hexcrawling. But I don't want to let the dice decide which route the PCs take; deciding if they should play it safe by following the river or take the faster but more dangerous route of cutting through the swamp is at the very heart of the fun of hexcrawling. Taking that choice away from the players would make the game less fun.

And that's really what I'm driving at here: you want your rules to reinforce the fun parts and help you gloss over the less-fun parts. But to do that, you first need to decide what's fun and how you plan to support that fun.

JB said...

@ Troll:

I am totally on board with the initial reflections of your post (they echo my own thoughts on game design) and pretty much on the same page as your rebuttal of Robert's "devil's advocacy." Or to answer them in my own fashion:

#1 Good luck.
#2 This seems completely ass-backwards.
#3 Maybe.
#4 Again, good luck. No really...and the second part of the point refutes the first part.

Tim Jensen said...

John Wick's videos about designing a RPG should interest you.

Another good place to start learning about RPG design is with the seminars Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen give at conventions. This one was recorded last year:

faoladh said...

This is a point well-taken. As a result, I've scrapped the work I've done so far on my RPG exercise derived from a Jeff Rients challenge. I've also decided to start blogging the process on my blog Ongoing Campaign. Now, to find a group to play with the ideas…

trollsmyth said...

Richard: At that point, is partly different-strokes, and partly your goals. Designing specifically with a "how do you work without this" type of limitation can be a great way to exercise your mental muscles. Ditto for the various 24 Hour and Iron Designer type contests

trollsmyth said...

Tim: Thanks for the links.

Faoladh: Feel free to include a link. Looks like a neat project.

faoladh said...

Thanks! And thanks for the link as well.

It's something that I think should be done, as it can serve, at the very least, to help understand why the first roleplaying game was designed in the particular way that it was.