Here's my essay from the third round of Thought Eater (you can click here for the post from D&D With Pornstars with the topic/rules for that round). I was eliminated this round, but there's still one more round where the two remaining writers will battle it out. Keep an eye on Zak's blog in the coming months for the two final essays.
Making Your Character A Character
You’ve just bought a new RPG for your group to try out, and if it’s organized like most RPG rulebooks there’s a players’ section and a GM’s section. If the game is at all well-designed, the GM’s section has tons of useful information to help you figure out what you’re supposed to do both before and during the game. There will be rules you need to know, tips on using the built-in conflicts of the game world as hooks for adventures and campaigns, formulas for coming up with the right level of challenge, ideas to help you set the tone and mood during the game (horror games in particular like to talk about music and lighting), tricks for making action resolution easier, advice on creating memorable NPCs, and lots of other stuff. In the players’ section, you’ll find--well--setting background and basic game mechanics.
Ok, some games go a little farther than that. Sometimes the players’ section also gives you a few paragraphs about creating a character backstory or coming up with character goals and story hooks, but it firmly falls into the preparatory “character creation” step of role-playing. If the rules tell you anything at all about how to play your character once the game begins, it’s all very generic surface-level characterization stuff, like “use an accent” or “give the character a distinctive mannerism or nervous tick” or “masturbate vigorously when your character triumphs.” Most game books tell you how to create a character sketch, but offer very little information about how to tell a story with that character. They help you create an action figure, but don’t tell you how to play with it. If you’re mostly interested in the strategy game aspect of role-playing (hacking monsters, solving puzzles, that kind of thing), that’s probably all you need. If you want to focus more on storytelling, it might not cut it.
You might be inclined to think that game books don’t talk about how to tell your character’s story because people can figure that out on their own. After all, it’s not like you have to give a kid instructions on how to use an action figure. The problem is that an RPG is not the same as playing childhood imagination games, no matter how many cookie-cutter “What Is Role Playing?” sections claim otherwise. There are a enough similarities that a lot of people can make the jump, but there are also enough differences that not everyone can figure out how to make their character and that character’s story a real part of the game. How many players have you seen show up to a game with pages and pages of character background that never comes into play during the game? Or worse, extensively detailed characters that they try to shoehorn into a game they don’t fit into well at all?
To tell a story with a character, you need three things. The first is a character that the audience (in this case, the other players) can identify with in some way. This is the kind of “don’t just make a dead-eyed murderhobo” stuff that lots of game books (and thousands of gaming articles and blogs) have covered endlessly, so there’s no need to waste ink on it here. The second is the sense that the character fits into the group: giving the character a reason to be there, the group a reason to keep him around, and building relationships between the characters. This often happens naturally, and can be improved by making sure everyone knows the premise of the game and building connections between PCs from the start, either by working out more than just who has to be the cleric during character creation or by using something like Dungeon World’s Bonds mechanic. Most groups have no problem with players talking about the game before it starts, it’s talking about the game after the characters have left the tavern that some people have a problem with.
For some games, that’s all you need. A mission (the story provided by the GM, whether in the form of individual adventures or an over-arching plotline), some characterization, and a sense of group unity were the key ingredients for most TV shows and movies until around the turn of the century. The thing that’s missing is the character’s story. Without character-driven subplots, the character doesn’t really have a life of his own. The character only exists within the context of the group and the story that the GM has set up (and sometime he’s only involved in that story because he happens to be a PC). Especially in today’s world of seasonal (as opposed to episodic) television and cinematic universes where every major character has their own story that weaves in and out of the main plotline, more and more gamers want their characters to have arcs and subplots as well, and that’s the thing that most RPG books don’t really explain how to pull off (the lacuna, for those of you who have been wondering when I’d get to the point for the last five paragraphs).
Most game books give the GM all kinds of information about telling the main story. Many also give the players good information for providing set-up for the character’s story (those pages and pages of background that never become relevant), but very few touch on how to make the background stuff an actual part of the game. Since story is traditionally the GM’s territory, the few games that talk about character-driven subplots put the pressure on the GM, assuming that it’s her job to bring all the stuff from the character background into the game. I think this is unfair to the GM (she already has enough to do) and to the player (who shouldn’t be completely dependent on the GM to tell his character’s story). It also ignores the reality of how most games work. In my experience, the players with fully-realized characters were the players who actively worked to tell their character’s story by playing character goals and introducing supporting characters, character-driven subplots, and other character-centric stuff in a way that naturally fit into the larger game (just forcing your way onto center stage just annoys everyone). They also worked with the GM to make sure the player’s story got told.
The “working with the GM” part seems to be where most games drop the ball, in part because most game designers seem to be writing for an extreme (and mostly straw man) audience. For games aimed at the “let the dice fall where they may” crowd, who are nothing but power-gaming munchkins, any out-of-character discussion about the game is meta-gaming*, which is inherently evil, so talking about it would alienate the audience. On the other end of the spectrum are games aimed at the “drama club” crowd, where it’s taken for granted that every character is a special snowflake and the GM is not allowed to cause them any “agency”-destroying inconvenience without a drawn-out negotiation where everyone talks about their feelings. These games either talk about character subplots in vague terms or just assume that anyone playing them already knows what they’re doing.
Most games ignore the vast majority of gamers who fall in the middle and want character-driven stories and surprises, but don’t really grasp how to accomplish it. That’s unfortunate, because RPG players are both audience and authors, so their connection to the story doesn’t fit the author/reader relationship, or even the co-author/co-author relationship. A lot of people, even game designers, have trouble grasping that. My third criticism of first-time adventure writers (after passive verbs and misplaced modifiers) is almost always that they’re trying to tell the GM a story rather than give the GM the tools to tell the story. If the stable boy is a vampire, the adventure writer needs to tell the GM about that when the stable boy is introduced, not when players are supposed to figure it out. On the player/GM side of things, if you want your character to settle his score with Jabba, you need to let the GM know that your character wants his debt to Jabba to be a subplot sometime during the game, and probably give her some background about Jabba and his resources. She’s got this whole “galactic civil war” plotline to deal with, so she’s not going to have a lot of time to fully detail the Hutt crime syndicate. At the same time though, you don’t get to stage manage your character’s encounter with Jabba or decide how it turns out. That takes away the uncertainty that makes the story fun. If you get some bad rolls and end up getting frozen in carbonite, you and the rest of the party have to deal with the consequences. It’s the risk you take when you decide you want your character to have his own story.
Giving players the tools to work with the GM to tell their characters’ stories requires accepting the idea that not all meta-gaming is bad (just like most spoilers don’t actually make a movie less fun to watch), recognizing that playing an RPG isn’t the same as either creating or consuming fiction, figuring out what division of authorship between players and GM allows the players to enjoy the story both as a co-creators and as audience members, and providing advice about how to talk about it so players can figure out what works for their group. On the most basic level, this missing section is something like “How to Compromise,” but it’s a little more complicated than that and requires breaking down some long-standing gamer fallacies about how fiction, gaming, and adult social interaction work. Some of this involves theory and process that’s kind of hard to pin down, some of it involves basic interpersonal communication stuff that’s obvious to most people and potentially deeply upsetting to the people who need it most. I think I’m starting to see why most game designers just skip it.
*While talking about the game does meet the dictionary definition of meta-gaming (if it were in the dictionary, at least), when I first encountered the word (probably in the early 90s, when people added “meta” to everything), it specifically referred to using player knowledge to give the character an unfair advantage. I’m not sure where or when the usage drifted to include any and all out-of-character discussion of the game, but I’ve run into it online and with a few flesh-and-blood gamers. Depending on which definition you’re going with, meta-gaming is either absolutely essential (actually talking about the game) or cheating (reading the module), but the negative connotation of the most obvious term for the kind of thing I’m talking about is kind of annoying.
Different kinds of games reward different abilities. Pictionary rewards players' ability to draw recognizable clues and to guess the right answer from the clues other people draw. Poker rewards understanding the likelihood of winning with a particular hand, strategic betting, and bluffing. Candyland rewards the player with the best luck. I've talked before about the difference between strategy-oriented games that primarily reward understanding how the game rules work and other types of games where the rules are secondary to some other ability or talent (like trivia knowledge or throwing a ball through a hoop), usually in the context of my preference for role-playing games that reward creativity and storytelling ability rather than understanding of the rules.
While I tend to prefer to keep strategy gaming and story gaming mostly separate (I enjoy strategy games, but want something different out or role-playing), I can at least understand why some players prefer strategy-oriented RPGs or games that provide a mixture of strategy gaming and storytelling. It's a matter of personal preference, and most of the wrong ways to have fun are already illegal. But the way role-playing games work leads to another kind of play that doesn't really reward "rules mastery" so much as "rules fuckery." This kind of gaming often uses the language strategy gaming, but it's really something different.
Rules mastery, unlike rules fuckery, rewards actual gameplay. No matter how much time you spend memorizing chess strategies, that knowledge is only as useful as your ability to adapt them to the moves that your opponent makes. In a well-designed strategy game, it's impossible to create an "unbeatable" strategy. Some strategies are harder to beat than others, but there's always a chance of he killer strategy losing, either through the actions of other players or (in a game with random elements) through bad luck. Your chess gambit only works if your opponent falls for it and you can't buy Boardwalk and Park Place if you never land on them. A strategy game that allows players to create a strategy that can't be countered through gameplay is a flawed game design, and more rules tends to lead to more flaws. That's why the best strategy games are the ones with very simple rules that provide a wide range of possible outcomes.
Rules fuckery turns flawed game design into a feature rather than a bug and (conveniently enough for game companies) is usually based on introducing new rules or playing pieces with the potential (and sometimes the explicit intent) to change how the game works. In order to maintain rules mastery, you have to buy the new books or game pieces and figure out how the new elements change the game. Its' the "Mr. Suitcase" strategy of Magic deck building or the Games Workshop business model. At some point, "winning" the game becomes less about about how well you play the game or understand the rules than how much disposable cash you have lying around to buy new rulebooks and new miniatures and new expansion packs.
The storytelling element of role-playing makes RPGs ripe for rules expansions since it's easy to bring things that were previously "off-screen" into the game, introduce new sub-systems that provide more depth than the core rules, or just add some new monsters or character classes or magic items. RPG expansions are also cheaper than expansions for most other games since you just need text and maybe some artwork. You don't have to change the board, cast new miniatures, or create new playing pieces or cards. While not all rules expansions are intended to encourage rules fuckery, many of them do it unintentionally and a few companies have figured out that a half-assed supplement with a few well-placed game-breakers often sells just as well as (or better than) a well-crafted sourcebook that takes a lot more time and energy to create.
Before we start the blog, the essays for the latest round of Thought Eater are up at Playing D&D With Porn Stars. The entries are anonymous until voting is finished, so I can only tell you that I wrote one of them, but not which one. Vote for the ones you like best.
So, if you've been following along, you know that I've come to the realization that the "how to adapt the rules to the game you want to run section," which was originally a single chapter with some general advice, has turned into a whole section because it's kind of the central idea that makes the game adaptable instead of generic. The first chapter of that section is largely an overview of how to decide what aspects of the game need special rules and some very general guidelines. Subsequent chapters will describe how to actually construct different kinds of rules for your game.
Even though the introduction of the book already goes into considerable detail about the role that rules play in an RPG (I previously posted an earlier version of that particular manifesto here), part of deciding whether new rules are worth creating is asking "what do these rules accomplish." Since (hopefully) the core rules cover all the rules functions from the introduction, any new rule you add needs to add something to the gaming experience that's missing when you just use the basic rules. Since these considerations may be useful for other game designers, rules tinkerers, and DIY-types, I'm going to cut and paste them here. Just ignore the reference to Chapter XX.
To Clarify How The Ficton Works
A lot of special rules are really just clarifications of how ambiguous story elements work in the fictons of the game. Established ficton typically need less clarification than original ones unless you’re adding something new or exploring a part of the world that doesn’t get much (or any) screen time. If you’re playing a Supernatural game, everyone already knows how vampires work from watching the show. If you’re running a generic monster-hunting game, you’ll have to decide which version of vampires exists in your game. Are they disgusting rotting corpses, stylish European nobles, or moody goth kids?
To Clarify The Game Rules
Sometimes you know how something works in the world, but need to decide how to model it with game mechanics. For example, maybe you’ve decided that vampires can be killed by a stake through the heart. Since the basic combat rules don’t specify where an attack lands, you’ll have to figure out what kind of roll a player needs to make in order to stake a vamp. A lot of rules clarifications involve deciding what kind of trait describes unusual character abilities. For example, is “Psychic” a Role, a Trademark, a Special Effect, or a Plot Device in your game?
To Provide Detail
Different genres and story styles focus on different character activities. In a typical cop show, some guy in a lab coat tells the protagonist “we found the suspect’s prints on the murder weapon.” In CSI or Bones, the protagonists are the guys in the lab coats, so at least some of the work involved in finding the print and linking it to the suspect happens on screen. Since some of these sorts of character activities require knowledge that players don’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) have, rules can fill in the details with information, structure, complications, and decision points to help players create the scene. The process outlined by the rules may only be tangentially related to how the activity works in the real world, but it gives the players a starting point for the scene and hopefully promotes dramatic, interesting, or entertaining developments.
To Simplify Through Abstraction
Sometimes rules work in the opposite direction, providing abstract methods for handling things that would normally require tedious detail. In most games, the amount of food the characters have at home isn’t important because they can just go to the store and buy more whenever they run out. In a game set shortly after the apocalypse, on the other hand, the amount of food the players have available may be extremely important to the story. Rather than make the players keep an inventory of how many cans of beans or ears of corn they’ve got in stock, you can just define a standard unit of food (maybe 1 unit is enough to feed 1 person for a day), decide how many units of food the characters start with, and make a rule for how their scavenging, hunting, and other food-gathering rolls translate into food units.
Just like some games may require more detailed handling of equipment (as discussed in Chapter XX: Auxiliary Rules), sometimes other story elements need more detail than the basic rules provide. Customization is often required for unusual character traits like supernatural abilities or robotic bodies where each character with the trait has slightly different characteristics or abilities. For instance, in some stories wizards just use magic in the same way a scientist uses his knowledge or a warrior uses his fighting skills. In a lot of fantasy fictons, though, wizards must learn specific spells and every wizard has a slightly different arsenal of magic at his disposal so you need a way of deciding which spells a wizard has when the game begins and what he has to do to learn new ones.
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Last time around, I talked about a problem I was running into with a disconnect between intent and interpretation when it comes to rules. Basically, since we usually think of games as "systems" where all different rules concepts are interconnected, some players assume that anything not clearly marked "optional" is essential. The truth is that most systems aren't as interdependent and finely-tuned as game designers like to pretend (or at least they don't have to be; a lot of the interdependence that does exist is wrapped up in the myth of game balance). A good system uses a set of core mechanical concepts to handle different aspects of the game, but each of those individual subsystems is mostly independent. Changing the target number for pickpocket rolls or giving fighters a higher damage bonus for specialization isn't going to change how the game plays. Ultimately, I realized that my challenge was one of presentation: I needed to organize a rules in a way that clarified where different rules concepts fell on the spectrum between "core rules" and "random ideas I thought were neat."
Looking over the rules, I came up with a few general categories of rules that needed to be dealt with:
Core Rules: These are the central mechanics that you need for just about any game you decide to run: the basic rolling mechanic, character trait definitions, basic combat rules, using Acclaim, etc.
Options: These aren't so much specific rules as things that you define (or ignore) to fit the specific game you're playing: game-specific concept traits, allowable Tropes, starting Hero Factor, some details about how leveling up works, that kind of thing.
Non-Core Rules Concepts: These are basically the crunchy rules concepts like extended rolls or teamwork rules. They can provide more detail when you need it, but you should only use them when that level of detail is actually necessary. These (along with the core rules) are the "toolbox" concepts I've mentioned in a few posts and often they're used to create the rules or subsystems you need for a particular game.
Specific Sub-Systems: These are kind of the things you build with the stuff in the toolbox: a description of which rules concepts to use for a specific kind of character action along with target numbers, what different results mean, and any additional rules that are added on. I've written up sub-systems for things like investigation, persuasion, and research, but for most of them you can easily use the core rules unless that particular activity is central to the game premise or story. The only specific sub-system that almost every game needs is a combat system. The necessity of others depends on what kind of game you're running.
Pet Rules: These aren't so much rules concepts or sub-systems as a case where I've noticed a way a rules idea could be used and crammed it into the game. There were a lot of these in some of the early versions of the combat chapter.
It took some trial and error and a lot of cutting and pasting, but eventually I think I worked out the organization. It follows a set of guidelines that I probably could have saved a lot of time by working out ahead of time instead of as I went along. Here they are:
- The core rules chapters are for core rules. Anything else should only be referenced briefly or used as an example for how to use particular rules. Those examples should be clearly marked as such.
- Some options (like the idea of game-specific traits) need to be introduced in a general way in the core rules chapters, but detailed discussion should be saved for the section on adapting the rules to your game.
- The non-core concepts go into a new chapter, which I decided to call "Auxiliary Rules." I didn't want to use "Advanced" because that almost sounds like a challenge to game nerds to use them whether they're needed or not. I also didn't like "Optional" because these aren't really something like psionics or exceptional strength that you take or leave at a game level. You use them when you need them and ignore them when you don't.
- I looked through the sub-systems and pet rules to see if there were any auxiliary rules concepts hiding in them. In a couple of cases, reframing the basic mechanics behind subsystems or pet rules as generic rules all but eliminated the need for the subsystem or pet rule. Those that are left will be used as examples, either in rules chapters (especially the adaptation section) or in specific game set-ups.
Going through this also made me realize that the chapter I had about adapting the rules to your game isn't nearly enough. The idea of using the rules to create the exact game you want to play has become more and more central to the system's purpose, so I need to really tell players how to do that rather than giving a general chapter and trying to show the possibilities mostly by example. So now organized into 3 sections (4 if you count appendices): the basic rules section, the section on adapting the rules to your game, and the GM's section. Part 1 is basically revised, part 3 doesn't need a whole lot of changes, but Part 2 is going to require a lot of new material. I should probably get to work.
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The first step in solving a problem is identifying the problem. For some problems, like being on fire, that's not very hard to do. For other problems, like being addicted to meth, (or having an irrational dedication to a particular die type) the big step is recognizing and admitting to the problem. For more complex problems, it's not always quite so straightforward. Sometimes, for example, you think you've identified the problem but it turns out just to be a symptom or side-effect of a different or more fundamental problem. In the work I've done on Cinemechanix this week, I think I've hit on one of the latter.
One distinction I've tried to make between an "adaptable" game system (which is what I'm shooting for) and a generic game system is that a generic game system tries to find a one-size-fits-all solution and an adaptable game tries to provide the tools to let you find the solution that actually fits in your game. The problem I've run into a couple of times, and have been trying to solve with the current draft of the rules, is that stating that distinction doesn't quite get the point across. I've run into several instances where players have been annoyed by rules that I thought were pretty obviously take-it-or-leave-it ideas that could easily be ignored. Despite the repeated reminders that everything is optional, the fact that these easily-skipped rules weren't explicitly marked as optional made the playtesters feel like they had to use them.
Trying to find a way to short-circuit the impulse of assuming that anything not clearly marked as non-essential is essential got me thinking about the difference between a game system and game concepts or mechanics. The word "system," implies a certain level of interconnectedness, so it makes sense for people to assume that everything is necessary unless specifically identified as non-vital. The truth is that for most game systems only some of the rules and concepts are interdependent and necessary. There are a lot of sub-systems and add-ons that you only need occasionally and may not need at all for some games. This got me re-working the text to make it more obvious which rules concepts were central to the system and which ones were part of the "toolbox" that could be used to build the sub-systems you need for the particular game you're playing.
From there, I realized that I needed to move from the specific to the general on a lot of things. I'd provided some sub-systems in the early drafts of the rules for things like investigation and persuasion and specific combat mechanics I thought would be cool. Several of these were among the things playtesters didn't like or thought were unnecessary. Like the sub-systems in most games, these relied on some basic mechanical concepts, but they were concepts that built upon the ideas in the core rules rather than directly using the core rules. In some cases, these concepts were already introduced in as generic concepts in other parts of the rules. The trick was to stop doing a little of both and get rid of the sub-systems in favor of the mechanical concepts, then to organize it in a way that separated the mechanics you use for building the rules for your specific game (the "toolbox") from the rules that you're probably going to need for every game (the system).
That's when I realized the difference between a generic system and what I'm calling an "adaptable" system: generic systems don't give you the toolbox. If the system is well-designed enough that the sub-systems are coherent with the core rules, you can usually figure out the underlying concepts on you own, but the game designer isn't going to tell you. Most generic systems are, it turns out, adaptable systems, but the tools for creating that adaptability are proprietary. You might be able to run a wizard in GURPS* with just the basic rules, but it's going to take a lot of work on your part and Steve Jackson isn't going to give you any pointers. You're going to have to buy a copy of GURPS Magic, and even that's just going to let you run a generic wizard that's sort of a gestalt of wizard archetypes and fantasy fiction. If you want to play anything that doesn't fit the standard paradigm, like wizard in the Harry Potter Universe, you're going to have to wait for GURPS Harry Potter to happen. Chances are both of those books will rely on a number of ideas that show up in a lot of GURPS books but aren't spelled out as generic mechanical ideas anywhere in the main rulebook.
Why keep these rules concepts a secret? Part of it's convention, some of it's probably ego, but the big reason is obvious from the example: the game designer wants to sell you more books. Despite the conventional wisdom that people don't buy games because of the system, most game companies seem to think that filling in system holes is what sells game supplements. In my opinion, the conventional wisdom is right for a change in this case. Most people aren't going to buy GURPS Harry Potter to find out the stat adjustments for half-giants or whether Parseltongue is an advantage or a skill, they're going to buy it because they know the designer has mined the source material for gamable ideas and has probably come up with some ideas they wouldn't have thought of themselves. Giving the players guidelines for building the game-specific stuff isn't going to stop them from buying the supplements the company releases. They're still going to buy supplements for the research, new ideas, and convenience of having someone else do the boring, tedious work for them and put it all in one convenient package. Telling them how to do the boring part themselves just makes it easier for them to come up with their own Harry Potter rules without having to wait for Rowling to give up a license. It also helps them come up with rules for their own original game that the company will never write a supplement for.
So once again, the root of my problem is "it's the way things are done." And because that's the way things are done, readers are going to assume that's the way I'm doing it. Fixing the problem requires making it clearer where I'm departing from the standard operating procedure.
*I'll use GURPS here because from the few interactions I've had with him, Steve Jackson doesn't seem like he's got an easily-bruised ego. Besides, he's too busy counting Munchkin money to read this anyway.
I don't have Munchkin money, so I have to panhandle on Patreon.