Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 25, 2014
The use of game analysis

A lot of the posts on this blog are about game design: What makes a game fun? What motivates players to act in certain ways? How can good game design make a game better? Of course if we talk about video games and MMORPGs all that game design discussion remains rather theoretical. I don't have illusions of grandeur believing that game designers are reading my blog and will implement my suggestions for improvements to their games. But when we move into the domain of pen & paper role-playing games that changes the situation dramatically. Here, if you can find the strong and weak points of various systems, you can actually make changes to your game and put together the best elements of different systems for your own table.

One thing that few people realize when discussing pen & paper rules systems is that no two table play the same game. Just look at the various videos I linked to earlier this week, with different groups playing the 5th edition starter set, and you will notice how different the different versions of the same adventure in the same rules system are. The result of that is that is that not all criticism of for example an edition in the edition wars is true for all groups playing that edition. I've read a lot of people saying that 4th edition has no role-playing and the fights are extremely slow, and then I watch those 5E videos and have to say that on MY 4E table there is more role-playing and faster combat than shown in most of those 5E videos. That is why I tend to focus my game system criticism on the rules and the maths behind the rules.

Having said that, you can also approach a rules system from the point of view of a hypothetical newbie group playing the system as written. And there it is clear that for example 4th edition is a more balanced and less random system of tactical combat, but has clear weaknesses in not having systems in place which encourage or reward role-playing. 5th edition has a far superior character creation system which not only pushes players to create better backgrounds, but also encourages role-playing your flaws by handing out inspiration bonuses; but then 5E isn't good for tactical combat at all, because its high damage versus low hit points and little healing makes combat very random, and there are fewer tactical options based on positioning.

The solution is to make my own Dungeons & Dragons Edition 4.5 for my table. Which isn't just selecting the best bits from every edition, but also tailors them to the individual needs of my players. What is "best" for my table isn't necessarily best for a different group. In my group role-playing already happens, but much of it is a bit stereotypical (e.g. elf vs. dwarf rivalry), and only one player made a really good background (sorceress who is a Vistani soothsayer). So the 5E character creation system with the personality traits, the inspiration system, and a better background (including the "one unique thing" rule from 13th Age) would surely improve role-playing at my table. But as the players very much enjoy tactical combat, and most of them would not enjoy playing a minor role in a campaign ultimately dominated by wizards, for my table it is very much preferable to stick to 4th edition powers and combat rules. That also has the added advantage that we can keep playing with the existing 4th edition books and their existing French translations, and not switch to a system that only exists in English and doesn't have translations announced yet. It is a lot quicker to just translate rules for background and personality trait creation than to translate all the rules regarding combat, including all spells.

Where our group is somewhat wary of extensive role-playing is because of previous experience where typical role-playing scenarios ("Here is a mystery in a city, go out and solve it by role-playing!") led to the game getting bogged down in role-playing the details of everyday life and not much happening which actually advanced the story. With the particular situation of my group, which only meets twice per month, the overall result was that three months later we still weren't anywhere near having a clue regarding that mystery. Furthermore, with role-playing usually being a lot less structured than combat, the more extroverted players tended to dominate the sessions, while others just sat back and didn't contribute much at all. But I believe I have found a solution to those problems in recent multi-system adventures like Murder in Baldur's Gate or Legacy of the Crystal Shard. The idea is to give somewhat more structure to role-playing when it is supposed to drive a story forward by introducing "turn-based" elements into it. Which means that the DM makes sure that every player gets his chance to contribute his ideas, and then also gives "turns" to the NPCs, especially the villains. Which means that stuff always happens, villains act after some time, and the way the story progresses depends on whether the players did anything which affected the villain's plan or not.

That will need some practice, so I'm planning on a last adventure of the current campaign in which I will try to make a city adventure that doesn't stall. And if that works well, we should be ready to start a new campaign, starting with an improved character creation. Technically it will still be 4th edition, but with none of the flaws that people believe that edition has. Because the flaws of 4th edition are mostly flaws of omission, and those can be more easily fixed by just adding the stuff that isn't done so well in the books.

I tend to see most nails as needing a product and software hammer.

They could productize it: You go to a site/app, answer some questions about what you like (combat vs RP, class parity,etc.) and it pulls rules from all editions into a custom blend for you. You override anything you don't like, hit accept, and it generates a custom Edition. The DM & players then download the D&D "Tobold Abbey 2014" rules edition to their iPad and off you go.

I doubt it is a viable business unless some tech billionaire wants to vanity fund it. OTOH, after reading you, I am not quite sure how long it is viable to sell $50 paper books either.
You may also want to take a browse through the investigative portion of the GUMSHOE system.

I haven't looked at it closely, but I understand that it's apparently designed to help along mysteries/investigative scenarios by changing the focus from 'finding a clue' (and failing to do so if the dice roll goes badly, leading to a bogged down game) to 'interpreting a clue' where as long as a player uses an investigative ability at a relevant place, they automatically get -some- kind of a clue.

That might help move the story along a little more.
I'll agree, different people want different things from a roleplaying game. I have almost no interest in 'balance' as far as roleplaying games are concerned - I want the rules to reflect the setting. If PC Race A is more powerful than PC Race B - that's fine, if the setting reflects that - a perfect example being White Wolf's Exalted setting.

I learned how to roleplay when my parents got me Red Box D&D. I'd never seen a roleplaying game, there were no game masters around, and I had to learn through trial by fire. The game wasn't balanced by any stretch of the imagination, but it was fun as hell.

As for playing, I prefer a lot of out-of-combat scenarios, exploring the world, and using unconventional tactics to get things done. Combat, for me, is the last resort after negotiations have failed - and if there is combat, I try to finish off the opponent in as few rounds as possible. Efficiency.

4E... didn't really allow for that. We'll see how 5E does.
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