Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Build A Better RPG

Innovation is key

I'm not much of an expert when it comes to game design. I've never published a role-playing mechanics set that stands on its own. I haven't even played that many different systems. I am a gamer, however, and I have sat behind a screen with my head in my hands from time to time thinking, "Isn't there a better way?"

Lately I've been considering many aspects of game design, and how it is approached by many of the pros out there. As something of a designer, myself, and more importantly as someone who must work within existing canon rules as a game author, and even more importantly as someone who enjoys the role of Game Master at my table, I have some thoughts and advice. Please take them as you will. Read on for more.

The system matters

I love to write. I love to world-build. I love flowery prose and complex settings and characters written so well that I want them to exist in real life so I can meet them. I love maps and points of interest and mysterious descriptions of the world around my characters. I love all of that in a game setting, just as much as I do in my favorite novels.

But this isn't a novel. It's a game. Games, by definition, have rules. I feel like some authors, and I certainly fall into this trap from time to time, feel that a strong setting for a game can override the need for a good, strong, playable rule set, but that just isn't the case. The rules are important, and any awesome world that is built for characters to explore must have mechanics that govern the behaviors of the things and people that exist within its bounds.

The rules don't have to be heavy, complicated, or advanced. In an adventure game, the rules just need to establish the basic expectations to which characters will be held. The rules tell us that characters should fear a knife more than a fist, and a gun more than a knife. The rules establish whether the characters should flee the monster or stand with it, toe-to-toe. The rules govern how characters improve over time, gaining skill and ability as they become more experienced. The rules exist to provide objectivity in the resolution of conflict.

If the rules are choppy and inconsistent, or if they interfere with the flow of the game, then they are bad rules. The system mechanics don't have to accommodate every situation or possibility, but they should be coherent enough to prevent blatant irregularities. If the giant robot is purported to be the ultimate power according to the game's setting and background, then a player character shouldn't be able to take it out with a handgun. If a non-player character can dodge the character's bullet, there had better be justification.

Develop a core mechanic

No set of mechanics can predict every possible situation that may arise during a game. Those that try become very unwieldy and end up filling tome after tome with rules, addenda, examples, and clarifications. It simply can't be done, and even if it could, it wouldn't be any fun. And, even if it could possibly be fun, who has the time to learn such a thing?

Game systems, however they may be developed, should revolve around a core mechanic. It doesn't matter what that mechanic is, but it should be consistent enough such that when that one mechanic is learned, a new player can more or less jump right into the game. Further, if one of the many situations not anticipated by the game designer comes up, then it gives the Game Master a place to go.

Let's take the core mechanic of "roll a D20 to beat a difficulty level established by the Game Master" as an example. It's very common, easy to understand, and can work for just about anything. Once a player understands that rolling high on the D20 is good, and that the character receives bonuses to the roll when attempting things that he or she is good at, then the player can jump right into the game and charge ahead. And, should some situation arrive for which the Game Master is unprepared, he or she can fall back on that same basic mechanic, assign a difficulty for the situation at hand, have the players roll a D20 to determine the outcome, and then move along.

The core mechanic can really be anything. It can be rolls against difficulties, competitive rolls between characters or events, coin flips, poker-style cardplaying, darts thrown at a board, or rock-paper-scissors. In the right system, with the proper set of rules, what the core mechanic is doesn't matter nearly so much as the fact that there is one to begin with.

Mix it up

Everything changes in this world, with time. Trends come and go, new developments arise to replace old standards, and often it helps just to get a breath of fresh air. Just so, the designs of various games need periodic refreshing and updating.

There is no perfect system, as I noted before, and even if you have established a core mechanic that works well, a game designer should never be afraid to try new things. Most new concepts will never get into a final product, but just simply the act of throwing out the old and attempting a reinvention of something familiar is a productive exercise. Usually it will only create notes that will be tucked away for future consideration, but sometimes you'll stumble across something new and exciting, and your fans and customers will be excited by it as well.

And more

I have more thoughts on this, but who doesn't? It will be a good topic to bring up again at a future date, hopefully including some of your ideas. What do you think makes for good game design?


A.L. said...

I've been a fan of John Wick's four questions of game design since I've found them, and they have been what I have gone to in the game design exercises I have done. They also are what I have used for designing M.A|C.C (which is almost in a 'ready for editing' state finally). Essentially, when starting to make a game, answer these four questions.

1) What is my game about?
this isn't a question of setting, but of theme. Legend of the Five Rings is about Honor (something AEG may have forgotten). Pendragon is (was? haven't played in a decade) about chivalry. Houses of the Blooded is about Tragedy. This sets the theme for your game, and brings up the questions you want to have players and GMs asking themselves about their characters.

2) How is my game about this?
What does your game do, mechanically or otherwise, to be about this core theme. To use L5R for another example, with the theme of Honor, the game is about it by being in a world where Honor is stronger than steel, and is able to carry a character through a lot of things.

3) How does my game encourage this?
Essentially, how do you encourage people to play out the theme. Again, with L5R, characters who are high honor have a significant advantage over low honor characters. Better able to resist fear, temptation, and other negative affecting aspects, as well as an ability to retest rolls with their honor (replacing a skill of 3 with an Honor of 5 is a HUGE boon).

4) How is this fun?
this is what Wick added to the three questions, and is a very good question. Sure you have a theme, and how to do it, and how you encourage people to do it. But is it fun? How do you make it fun? How do you keep it from (hopefully all the time, but as much as possible) becoming frustrating for the players?

These 4 questions don't handle all aspects of the game design, but they give you a very solid foundation to start from. Sort of a detailed "declaration of intent" you can use as a guide when going through and designing the systems that will make up your game.

Bahamut said...

As someone working on a new RPG game system, I truly appreciate this entry. I fully agree and will take your thoughts into account.

Something worth mentioning is an RPG can't be too vague or too specific. It shouldn't focus too much on flavor or too much on mechanics, it has to be balanced and yet flexible. Which is perhaps the toughest challenge in game design.

A.L. said...

Something else to add thanks to Bahamut's comment.You need to understand that your game won't be able to do everything, at least not without completely bogging itself down with rules upon rules to handle things. As such, you need to focus on what you are trying to do. What feel you want people to have when playing your game. Realism is secondary to consistency in this regard, especially when dealing with the fantastic.

As such, you need to also keep your scale in mind, and keep consistency in the scale. You also need to understand that some little things that seem weird may come out to bother you. For example, when doing a game that assumes hyper-competence in the skill level of PCs, you would expect some particularly hard things to be fairly easy (i.e. say, dodging a bullet at 10' is a difficulty 12). This however means that something not so hard (say, punching through 6 concrete blocks) will be even easier. Which brings up problems when you consider how attainable that lower number is. It is a side effect of assuming hyper competence, and one you should let the GM handle, but also something to keep in mind in case something slips in that does break the feel you want your game to have.

Helmsman said...

I love game design, and while I do like John Wick's advice (which I've heard before) because it keeps things in perspective as far as RPG's are still a game rather than some sort of convoluted structure to tell an interactive story.

So I can't disagree with anything you've got to say. Innovation and smart design should always continue and hopefully the best innovations will find their way into the commonly accepted rules.

Jason Richards said...

Good comments, all. I always appreciate the good discussion around here. :)

SigurĂ°ur said...

I find it hardest to find the perfect equilibrium between fluid game play and coverage within the rules. Fining that optimal point where the rules don't get in the way of the game but still manage to make it clear on all the important matters how things work.

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