Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 27, 2012
Reviewing pen & paper RPG systems

I have always thought that bloggers held the crown of being opinionated: What else is a blog than first-hand opinions and arguments about second-hand news or memes? But now that I've been watching more videos with various people talking about role-playing games on YouTube, I think I'll have to cede that crown. Most of the videos I saw were pure opinions, not marred by anything like logical arguments or facts. The nature of the medium, where editing is obviously more difficult than editing text leads to most videos severely lacking any sort of structure. I was looking for reviews of various pen & paper roleplaying rules systems, and was very disappointed by the quality of what I found. The average blogger is doing a lot better job of reviewing a game in a way that gives useful information than the average YouTube video poster.

If you take a typical basic rules book for a pen & paper roleplaying game, you will usually find the possible races and classes listed first. An lo and behold, many of the videos I saw reviewing pen & paper rules systems like D&D or Pathfinder started with discussing what races and classes the system had, and then never got to discuss anything more fundamental. In my opinion for a pen & paper RPG system the races and classes it has are only of secondary importance. If you come to me and want to play a bard in World of Warcraft, and WoW doesn't have bards, you're out of luck. If you come to me and want to play a bard in 4E Dungeons & Dragons, and 4E doesn't have bards, I say "sure, go ahead!". I'd just take another class and template and give it a new coat of paint. For example for that bard I'd just take the inspiring warlord build, rename the powers without changing their effects, e.g. inspiring word becomes inspiring song, and voila, instant bard.

Pen & paper roleplaying game systems differ from computer games in that the pen & paper rules do not provide 100% of the game. Pen & paper roleplaying is interactive storytelling, is actually about pretending to be different character, and most of that is done by interaction of the players with each other and the dungeon master, and is not part of the rules system. If you want to play an effeminate elf wizard whose spells are all based on summoning birds, you can do that in every rules system as long as the dungeon master is half-way decent. And if you say that this wouldn't be possible in 4E D&D, I happen to have a link to a video of a player doing exactly that with a DM from Wizards of the Coast.

So if it is the players and the DM who ultimately decide whether your game session ends up being awesome, then how do you review a pen & paper rules system? Basically we need to state what the function of the rules is in the first place, and then we can judge any individual system to see whether it fulfills that function. So why do RPGs have rules? Rules have two main functions: First they limit what the players can do, and by imposing those limits create a challenge. If there were no rules, players could imagine themselves being characters of ultimate power, and there would be no challenge. It is the rules that tell you that your character has a limited number of hit points and that he dies when losing them, and it is the rules that tell you how much damage your character can do to a monster. The second function of rules is to create a balanced and fair environment, minimizing needless conflict between players or players and the DM. As players learn the rules, they go from "can I do this?", "can I do that?", to actually doing things without having to worry that somebody constantly tells them they can't do what they want. Written rules are superior to DM rulings in that they are inherently perceived as more fair.

Now of course the DM still has to do a lot of decisions in a game. But it is important that this decisions don't contradict the rules where the rules are doing their job of creating a challenging and balanced game. That is why my instant bard works: I didn't create new powers which would make that character more powerful or less powerful than something that already existed in the rules. A very experienced DM with a group of veteran players can come to a sort of inherent understanding of what is possible in their game and what is not, at which point they presumably don't even need a rules system any more. But for a review it is better to assume new or average players, and see how a given pen & paper system would serve them. And while some DMs might prefer a rules-light system in which everything is decided by the whims of the DM, I don't think that such systems are the best for the players, especially not for beginning and average players.

RPG systems are more than just rules, obviously. So in addition to the rules we also need to look at what else the system is offering, which is often in the form of a campaign setting. The interaction of campaign settings with rules is a tricky one: Sometimes you can switch the campaign setting with only minor changes to the rules. The Zeitgeist campaign setting exists for both Pathfinder and 4th edition D&D, for example. But if you want a horror campaign setting in which players react to seeing a ghost by running away screaming instead of firing a magic missile, you're better off playing a completely different system, like Call of Cthulhu, than trying a to add a horror campaign setting to your Pathfinder or D&D rules. It is safe to assume that people play a game like Vampire: The Masquerade more because of its unique setting than because of its rules. But many fantasy RPG systems are less specific on the setting, and allow a wide variety from high fantasy to low fantasy, so that a review of these systems better looks more at the rules than at the setting.

What do you think the rules of a pen & paper RPG system are for? What criteria (beyond YouTube-style ranting based on gut feeling) would you use to review such a RPG system?

Rules systems that I've encountered all seem to be much of a muchness. Whether you're rolling out of five or twenty, World of Darkness or S.P.E.C.I.A.L.'s extensive skill lists versus the simpler D&D feats, they all seem to be serving the purpose of balancing what you THINK you can do, versus what the character is able to do.

In a way, it's enforcing some virtual 'reality' on how players guide their characters.

I found the Penny Arcade branching out into different systems to be very interesting. Things like Mouseguard, where the rules systems seem to serve to prop up consistency of motivation. You choose overt and covert motivations, fears, and behaving in ways that adhere to those motivations rewards you with re-rolls for mechanics down the track.

It's a very interesting way of not just enforcing the mechanics of how a player guides their character, but also how they roleplay. It's not impossible for a character to suddenly behave 'out of character' (out of line with their motivations), and it can cause interesting conflict within the party where one character's driven 'at all costs' motivation might be spurring them to move the party onward while another's bleeding heart might have them want to help everyone they meet along the way - and by aceding the point, one of them's going to be worse off on stat rolls.

I guess you see bits of this lightly touched on by the SPECIAL karma, Vampire:tm humanity, and D&D's alignment, but those all seem very two-toned, running the risk of encouraging black and white characters. The examples I saw in the PA piece indicated not-entirely-conflicting but also not intuitively compatible motivations of unusual specificity.

The theme is also dramatically different for mouseguard, but any clever writer could probably adapt that same background mechanic for whatever setting their players are most comfortable with.
Bonus, Tobold: Youtube comments make even the most antagonistic, intractable, irascible misanthropes of your blog comment crowd look like mmebers of the UN security council.
Agreed. I saw a video of a girl talking about playing Dungeons & Dragons, and half of the comments were about how cute she was. I never get those here. ;)
maybe if you posted a picture...
Picture is at the bottom of the sidebar. :)
>So why do RPGs have rules?

Here are my thoughts.

1. Reinforcing game structure.
There's a way the game was meant to be played by designers, and the rules are forcing or at least nudging the players to that sort of play.

Separation of combat and roleplaying encounters with different mechanics (D&D) enforces one kind of play, spotlight mechanic (Fate) is good for another, narrative control (Fiasco, Houses of the Blooded) - for different sort of games altogether.

There's an ideal image of the game somewhere out there as seen by designers, and the rules are there to describe it. So the RPG shouldn't be judged by how far is this "ideal image" from your own expectations, but by how good are the rules at describing the game designers wanted you to play. That was my first criterion.

2. Enforcing consistency.
You should have some basic facts about what you can do and those facts should be persistent.

In good RPGs there's solid underlying logic about what is possible and why it's so, and this logic is reflected by the rules. It's my second criterion.

3. Generating challenges.
It's mostly about combat, but also problem solving and sometimes roleplaying challenges, depending on what is the core of the gameplay.
Either way, the players want to solve puzzles of some kind, and the system is as good as puzzles it allows to craft.

Good RPGs should have a rich toolkit for creating interesting challenges, it's my third criterion.

So a good review should probably describe all three criteria.
I think how easy it is to pick up the rules should also be important. The basics of D&D are laid out pretty well, but some other games are brutal to learn. I had some friends who wanted to pick up Shadowrun, not sure which edition at this time, but we wound up coining the term "You've been cross-referenced" because of the insanity of that rules book. Every single thing you needed to look up would send you to other parts of the manual. And somewhere else from there, and so on.

I think you also need to control how many dice people are rolling as you progress as well. D&D before 4e could get really silly for casters and their damage spells when you're rolling your level in dice.

Speed of play is also important. Some speed comes from knowledge of your rules system, but if you've got to spend alot of time scanning through a spellbook it can take away from the game.
I don't know if reviewing a game system for being "good" or "bad" is really helpful. Instead I think a useful review would tell you what is unique about the system so that other people can tell whether that interests them. Of course that ventures away from being blindingly opinionated, so maybe it's not fit for YouTube.

For example, if I were reviewing 4E I would focus on the fact that it is simple to play, that combat moves along quickly, and that they succeeded in making the combat options of fighters just as interesting as the combat options of wizards. I might also mention that you don't have to worry about people accidentally making characters who can't really do anything (this was really easy to do in 3rd edition).

On the other hand, there seems to be a downside to having so many game-given combat options because people forget they can do other things too; and the recommendations to DMs about how to resolve improvised actions generally makes those actions worse then using the game-defined ones.

I could say a lot more about 4E and about a lot of systems, but that's the kind of thing that I think is helpful. Of course it assumes a lot of knowledge about RPGs in general on the part of the reader, but I guess it's like a movie reviewer assuming you've already watched a lot of movies and not going over the rapidly-moving-images-fool-your-eye-into-thinking-it's-moving bit.
Yes! That's exactly the beauty of Pen and Paper RPGs, Interactive Storytelling!

That's why I was so excited when I heard about D&D Online, because I thought it was basically going to be a digital version of pen and paper -- you use an instance creator to make a dungeon, and get a group to join the story you create as you dynamically assist them through it.

Unfortunately, it was just your average MMO.

But wouldn't that be incredible? Not just one campaign, but dozens and dozens of dungeon masters, collaborating in some kind of massive hierarchy, telling hundreds of stories that all related to a single, shared world?

Now THAT'd be a worthy application of MMO!
They have that already it's called never winter nights for the pc you can get it off of for $10
@1000damage:Heh. That's an interesting idea, but... y'know. The Internet.

"OMG, n00b DM, fail-adventure. /ragequit"

"Party has no rogue and I seem to be spawning traps every few feet... problem? L2P, scrubs."

"How do I report griefing DM?"

"LF DM to powergrind toons. +10 DM rating guaranteed per run. Send ur toon-name and we will powergrind urs in return."

In the parlance of my people: This is why we can't have nice things.
thanks for sharing.
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