The Assumptions

I had originally been planning to take this and turn it into a podcast, but I’m still having trouble finding the time to do that sort of thing, and with this post already mostly written up I decided to finish and post it. It touches on a lot of stuff I’ve been blogging and tweeting about of late.

One thing that’s been on my mind a lot about tabletop RPGs is that there is a set of assumptions deeply ingrained into how people typically approach the hobby. For the most part these are things that are harmless in and of themselves, and in fact making their opposites the norm would be a terrible idea. However, I think the way people are so attached to them, so willing to assume that they’re absolutely necessary, is harmful to the hobby. All of this comes with the caveat that I’m in part reacting to people on RPG forums, and that’s an environment where a small number of very loud people can create the impression that their view is more widespread than it actually is.

You Don’t Need to Explain Stuff

There’s a ton of stuff in RPGs that’s left unsaid, and which people expect to be left unsaid. At the furthest extreme you have games with rules for character creation, skill checks, and combat, and pretty much nothing else. Compare that to a game like Polaris where the text outlines a very clear set of procedures of play, or games like Mouse Guard or Apocalypse World that function more traditionally but explain the designers’ best practices much more clearly. In the Japanese TRPG scene, where publishers know they can’t count on the “oral tradition” of gaming, they developed replays to better communicate how a game session flows, and for a lot of people Fiasco is vastly more comprehensible because Jason put a replay in the book.

I think of the things I’m going to bring up here this is going to be one of the hardest to properly address, because it’s difficult to step back and think about this sort of thing. It’s very ingrained in gamer culture that there are some things we expect everyone to just sort of muddle through, and at times the Forge’s exhortation to stop and examine what goes on at the gaming table has been met with out-and-out hostility. Some people have also reacted badly to how Apocalypse World so clearly lays out the canon method of being a GM/MC in it. (Though in AW’s case we are talking about one of the few games that includes a chapter on how to radically hack it.) To the extent that that’s simply based on how Vincent happened to phrase it, personally I’m aiming to use more accommodating language in my own games (“This is what I think is the best way to run Magical Burst, but of course you can do whatever works for you.”), but personally I just can’t find fault in a game giving clear advice on its own best practices.

This is also one of the areas where RPGs definitely lose out to the better board games and video games. A typical tabletop RPG dumps an awful lot of options and parts on the table and expects you to more or less figure them out before you really start playing. RPGs that have any kind of incremental teaching approach (again, Joel Shempert’s thing about “fluency play”) are very hard to come by. Even a small amount of gradation can go a long way towards making a game accessible.

RPGs Must Use (Standard) Dice

Many gamers balk at deviating from standard polyhedral dice even to the tiny extent that Fudge and FATE do (where Fudge dice are the default but there are half a dozen methods for substituting more common dice), and things like cards and diceless games as beyond the pale. The key issue with using cards and diceless games is that they don’t work well when you just slot them into the standard action resolution paradigm in place of dice. If your cards are just paper dice you might as well not bother with the cards, and spending points in place of rolling dice creates weird incentives in players. It’s one of my pet peeves on RPGnet that people will routinely try to turn “a thing to be aware of” into “an excuse to never try.” Players will hoard points, and some people will count cards, and a game designer needs to be aware of those kinds of things, to design while taking them into account, but should not be afraid of them.

There’s a corollary to this, that components required should be limited to dice, character sheets, and maybe a map and minis, often accompanied by horror at the idea that a component might go missing. It’s really strange that this is raised to the level of a deal-breaker for an RPG when it’s a fact of life for board gamers, and it’s odd that the DIY spirit of RPGs seems to go on vacation when it comes to things like the cards in WFRP3e or Gamma World. People with the talent to make feats and classes and worlds don’t seem to even consider that they might also have the talent to make new or replacement cards. It certainly hasn’t held back the fans of the 4E Gamma World from making up new material. One rather important thing I’ve learned while getting into making a card game is that while fully professional card design does take a lot of time and effort, making cards good enough to use at the game table is actually very easy. Card stock is really cheap, and with a printer and a pair of scissors you can have serviceable cards in no time. There are also an awful lot of different kinds of standard board game components, including a dozen or so varieties of colored pawns, bits of colored wood cut in a ludicrous variety of shapes, coins, chips, spinners, meeples, timers, little plastic vehicles, and so on that can be had for pocket change.

On top of this, doing anything remotely electronic is a high form of heresy to some. Given that I’m working on an RPG to be distributed as an iPhone app you can guess how I feel about that, but like a lot of things the big question is how to find the right way to go about it. I keep running into gamers who assume that “putting an RPG on a smartphone” means looking at a PDF with tiny screen and kludgey interface. Mixing tabletop RPGs with electronic stuff in a way that keeps real role-playing is going to require some amount of rethinking how the game is going to work. People accuse D&D4e of being an “MMO on paper,” but it has a huge number of elements, including foundational stuff like marking, that wouldn’t translate well to an electronic format without substantial modifications. On the other hand even with e-ink’s slow refresh rate an e-book or app that’s well-designed for the hardware could gracefully work around that and be quite playable.

Player-Created Characters

One of the cool things about playing an RPG is that you get to make your own character and have him or her go on crazy adventures. There are a few drawbacks to this approach though. The big one is that it’s another thing you have to do before you can actually get started playing the game. You can make it quick, and you can make it fun, but there’s no reason it has to be the standard for every RPG ever. With pre-made characters you can more fully tie them into the game ahead of time, which can have all kinds of benefits during play.

I think a big part of why RPG players tend to dislike pregenerated characters is the simple fact that most of the time the pregens they get kind of suck. In games where optimization plays a part, pregens from the publisher are almost always sub-par. It doesn’t take much experience with the game to do better than the pre-made characters in Pathfinder, D&D, or Shadowrun. They’re often also kind of bland just as characters. I’m currently working on two games that assume you use pre-made characters–Raspberry Heaven and Peerless Food Fighters–and I feel like I’ve put a lot more thought into giving them some real personality than the likes of WotC typically do. Board games sometimes give you specific characters to choose from, and within the scope of the game they’re usually very well-made and show excellent variety. For my part I’m still feeling out how to go about this, but I do enough things where I have to think in terms of creating a cast of characters that I seem to be making some kind of progress.

RPGs Need an Omnipotent Game Master

Some people have this totally bizarre idea that GM-less games exist because someone thought that Game Masters were these terrible tyrants, and things would be better if only we could free ourselves from them with new kinds of games. For that matter, people say similar things about any game that doesn’t give the GM absolute power. There is utility and power in having an old-school GM role, but it just isn’t the only way to apportion participants’ roles in an RPG. It’s not that we need to get rid of GMs–though I think we do need to find better ways to teach people to be GMs–but rather we need to be more willing to consider whether other possible arrangements will work for any given game. Fiasco wouldn’t be better with a GM, and D&D wouldn’t be better without one.

RPGs are About Action-Adventure Stuff

By and large the medium has been limited to action-adventure (with some horror thrown in) in various milieus. In the great span of human narrative, this is a rather small slice of what’s possible. It also says something unflattering about RPGs that people have trouble even conceiving of one without any violence. I’ve successfully had fun with non-violent and even relatively mundane RPGs like Golden Sky Stories and Clover, and the kinds of problems that gamers typically hypothesize about those kinds of games have never once materialized. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that slice of life games should replace all other kinds of RPGs, but I know for a fact that they are possible and can be enjoyable. Emily Care Boss and Jake Richmond have also done games just about romance, and there are plenty of other possible kinds of RPGs besides the typical action-adventure approach. Recently I came across a blog post on kishoutenketsu, a sort of four-act structure from Asia. I had been familiar with this through manga, but I hadn’t realized that it’s different from the Western-style three-act structure in a much more fundamental way, namely that it steps away from axiom that a story must have a central conflict. I suspect my exposure to so much 4-panel manga has a lot to do with why that sort of thing seems so natural and reasonable to me.

A corollary to this is that some gamers are very attached to the incredibly high lethality of old-school D&D, and many gamers are vehemently against removing or sidestepping the possibility of character death in RPGs. As always, the question isn’t so much how you keep your character alive, but what’s at stake. For a conflict-oriented RPG (not every game needs to be like that), having a good answer to that question is key. Death is really visceral (and can instantly become a concern for any character), but it can also be just plain unpleasant in terms of the effect it has on gameplay. The issue with other kinds of things being at stake is that we’re not used to having good tools to come up with them. The pro-PC death crowd seems bound and determined to push the point that there will always be times when a character logically should die, but for my part I have no trouble at all thinking of situations and whole genres where that’s just not going to be a thing that happens.

RPGs Must Have Speculative Fiction Elements

If you bring up the mere possibility of a game that doesn’t involve wizards or superpowers or spaceships, some gamers will act like you’re asking them to play a game about an office worker staring at a blank wall for 8 hours. So far the games I’ve seen that lack “genre” elements (in the genre vs. literary fiction sense) have been Clover and GxB, both of which are quite good at putting you into an interesting situation where stuff is in fact happening. Needless to say I’m not the slightest bit against fantasy and sci-fi (the briefest glance at my bookshelves is evidence enough of that), but yet again we have an assumption that something needs to always be the case 100% of the time.

Immersion is the Highest form of Role-Playing

There are RPGs where the GM makes you feel like you are your character interacting with a world. Some people love that, but an awful lot of people act as though it were the highest and definitive type of role-playing rather than one of many possible approaches. There have always been people who treat their characters more like playing pieces, or who look at the game from a more authorial perspective. There have since been games that sought to better support one approach over the others, but from everything I’ve heard about the early days of the hobby, there was never any point where there was one dominant style per se. The whole concept of “immersion,” although certainly worthwhile, is relatively new in the history of the hobby, and the immersion-only rhetoric even more so. I think the real issue here is that an RPG needs to either have a style and articulate and support it properly, or be open to multiple styles (in which case articulating stuff is still a good idea). That’s not an easy thing to do, since there’s such a massive amount of gray area between a pure immersionist traditional RPG and an RP-free story game (and plenty of other axes to explore besides), so that trying to create definite labels seems like an exercise in futility.

RPGs Must be Long-Term

More than once I’ve been asked if Maid RPG is suitable for long-term campaigns, and it always comes off as though people are asking not so much because they want to do long campaigns about maids, but from a notion that as an RPG it ought to support that. Long-term campaigns are great! You get to really know your characters and watch them change and grow. On the other hand you can get a good experience out of anything from a one-shot to a mid-length campaign if you do it right, and the shorter the game, the less likely you are to have real life circumstances bring it crashing down. And that’s before we get to what happens if you in effect tell someone new to the hobby, “And now we keep getting together to play every week for a couple years to get the really good stuff.”

The need for long-term play in turn dovetails into a need to stick to a single game, and a need for games to have a large, ongoing body of supplements. You would be hard-pressed to find any medium of any kind where it’s the norm to stick to a single work, however expansive, yet an awful lot of people stick to D&D and ignore the rest of RPGs. When I’ve asked D&D-only players why they stick with D&D, they tend to talk about the difficulty of learning new rules, the financial investment they’ve made in the game, and the difficulty finding new players for any other game. The last one is hard to do much about, but the first two rest on the assumption that other RPGs are or should be as involved as contemporary D&D. Short-form RPGs can be amazing, but they definitely work best when the designer has taken the time frame into account when designing the game.

Anything New Must be a Total Game-Changer

Whenever we try to do something new or unconventional with RPGs, there’s the question of where to go from there. Making some kind of mainstream oriented RPG and selling millions is a pipe dream at best. I’ve been a lot happier with the whole thing since I realized that while I’ll probably never come up with the thing that’ll make RPGs mainstream, I’m already doing more than most to get RPGs to people who might not otherwise have given them a second glance. I’m publishing Golden Sky Stories, and thanks to Jason Thompson OtakuUSA magazine had a 4-page article on it that’s garnered plenty of attention. Even without publishing a nifty new game, every person you introduce to the hobby, however you do it, is one person who probably wouldn’t have run into RPGs otherwise. And if you get a fun game session or two out of it, it’s time well spent even if they never play an RPG again. The question isn’t “What can we do that’ll change everything?”, it’s “What can we do that’ll be fun and make things a little better?” If you pick a scale that’s realistic, you can do amazing things within that realm and not sweat the rest. And if you really insist on aiming for the stars, consider building a foundation here on the ground first. One person can design an RPG or write a novel, and those things can provide a solid base for something more ambitious.

Exemplary Games

There are a few games that I feel really exemplify the stuff I’ve been talking about here, though there are also some things where someone still needs to create the exemplar. Whenever I finished Raspberry Heaven and Peerless Food Fighters I’ll have proof of concept games for RPGs with electronic and board game style presentation for example.

Ben Lehman’s Clover is a serial numbers filed off Yotsuba&! RPG, a loose adaptation of an utterly brilliant manga about the everday adventures of a quirky, energetic little girl. It comes in a little booklet full of cute artwork, and the writing is in a colloquial yet clear style that doesn’t fall into typical RPG text cliches. It comes with a pre-made set of characters (though you’re welcome to make up new ones), and it replaces the traditional GM with the role of Clover’s daddy.

Fiasco breaks the traditional RPG paradigm, and breaks it hard. It’s a GM-less game that puts rules where most RPGs have improvisation and vice-versa. It’s designed around self-contained one-shot game sessions, but it has tremendous replay value and a clear space for fan content. (The other day I realized that if you wanted to you could play Fiasco once a week for a year and never use the same playset twice.)

The Mouse Guard RPG just plain raises the bar for presentation in an RPG. There are very few RPGs where you can pick up the book, read it cover to cover, and understand the game, but Mouse Guard pulls it off. It also takes time to explain a lot of stuff about role-playing that other games just gloss over, and the newer boxed set version is quite comprehensive in the supplies it includes. On top of all that, it has a simple, accessible, kid-friendly premise.

Kyle Simons’ Magicians, which recently had a successful Kickstarter, is a very bold game in more ways than one. It bills itself as a teaching tool for the Korean language, when pedagogy of any kind and tabletop role-playing games have very seldom met. It has adventures that come in the form of a handful of cards. Instead of rolling dice, you speak a Korean word into a free dictation app to see if you said it correctly and cast a spell. I’m looking forward to seeing how the final game turns out, but the ideas going into it are phenomenal.

In Conclusion

First and foremost I want to see more diversity in RPGs. The alchemy of mixing role-playing and game can come about in so many different ways, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Some people bemoan the splintering of the hobby caused by there being multiple strains of D&D, but I think a truly strong RPG hobby would support a larger number of games, a bit more like how board gaming does. Maybe this experimentation will let us stumble on something that’ll revitalize the hobby, but I’m much more interested in getting to play new games that aren’t like the ones I’ve played before.

7 thoughts on “The Assumptions

  1. A really nice article containing a lot of wise words, but a rather long one so you should perhaps have divided it into two parts. Anyway, I nodded at most things while reading it. You really challenge a lot of the conventions in RPGs.

    One thing that came to mind when reading about creating a character was when I made my non-gamer girlfriend at the time to create a character to my fairly traditional RPG. It was hard, because she didn’t know what all those things on the sheet was supposed to do. Why should she buy skills and what ARE skills? The whole experience made me think about how dumb it is to create a character before you play. Isn’t it smarter to first play and then do the character when you know what the game is about?

    Another thing, slightly related to character death, is the notion that to create a challenge for the player, you need to let the dice roll. In my fairly traditional RPG, the characters are swashbuckling heroes that always succeed at the end. I got one question from one of my buyers how he should challenge the players – for example with a locked door – if they just can spend a point to unlock the door.

    Perhaps it’s just me who is taking the word “challenge” literate, but is really rolling a piece of plastic a challenge? I’m talking about a challenge for the player. Sure, if the player had to do some kind of -important- choice before the roll, it would probably be some sort of challenge. But not that many RPGs have that in their game system. It’s just some kind of assumption that the GM challenges the players by putting things in the character’s way that the players have to use the game system to pass through. Well … it’s not.

    1. In general I think character creation is something that needs more reexamining. There’s a variant in Fudge (that’s very easy to port to FATE) where you assign skills on the fly as you need them in the game; the skill pyramid used in FATE is pretty much ideal for that in fact. There’s definitely a need for games that teach players what’s what before they commit to making a character. For Peerless Food Fighters I’m including character creation rules, but they’re presented as an optional rule for experienced players, while using one of the game’s pregens is the default.

      There are several things going on with the whole “player challenge” thing. The OSR playstyle calls for a lot of the gameplay to have an informal structure where a skilled DM presents a situation and the players simply describe what they’re trying to do to deal with it. Rather than rolling to detect traps, you explain the specific things you’re doing to try to find them safely. Rather than rolling dice, the DM may sometimes take your character’s ability scores into account by eyeballing the character sheet and making a judgment. This can be a compelling style of play, but it requires a certain level of skill on the DM’s part, and it has the danger of turning into a kind of “pixelbitching.” The “skill check paradigm” came later, but it was also unstructured and informal, leaving lots of room for people to struggle with how to go about things. A Perception check in theory would let you find the trap, but how do you decide when someone rolls? That’s a big warren of questions that the games don’t provide good answers for. The question of how to handle social skills is even more difficult. Dice rolls can be a very useful tool, but they’re also a easy to use as a way to circumvent challenges to the player. Also, taken in isolation a skill check has all the challenge and sophistication of Candyland, as the extent of the player’s engagement with game rules is generating a random number and tabulating the result.

      Actual challenge in an RPG tends to come from things like resource management, tactics, creativity, portraying a character, and so forth, and awful lot of which are orthogonal to engaging the rules per se. This isn’t inherently bad, but I do think it’s something a designer needs to be aware of. On the other hand an RPG doesn’t necessarily need to be about challenging the player, at least not in the sense of putting difficult obstacles in their way. An RPG can be more of a storytelling exercise, a way to vicariously experience a setting, or any number of other things. Also, where there are challenges for PCs, you can still focus on ones that are actually interesting and pertinent for the kind of game/story you want. If your game is about swashbuckling adventure, a locked door the heroes can’t get through could be interesting in the right situation, but by itself it’s something boring you should steamroll over on the way to something more fun.

  2. While I agree with you on most accounts (although I don’t like accessories much – even regular dice. The less of those the happier I am), I do have something of a comment about your issue with none action-adventure games: I think a large part of why gamers like those is because, frankly, they are emotionally rather “shallow”. They don’t require really advanced acting, or soul searching, or the like. Romance, for example: it’s sort of a “guilty” secret for me, but I adore romantic stories, and I love romantic RPG’s. I am can only play those in play by post settings, though, because face to face with your gaming buddies it cab just be kind of… Embarrassing. Especially if it’s a homoerotic story or something.

    1. That’s one of the reasons. Another is that roleplaying gamers are so indoctrinated with combat as the prime example for a conflict. Just think of this the next time someone gives an example of how a conflict works in a RPG. 95% of the time, it’s going to be about combat. Combat got a clear goal (beat your opponents), and a clear investment (the character’s life).

    2. By and large I don’t take issue with people’s preferences (even if I do wish some people would be more open to new experiences), so the issue for me is less what people prefer and more what people are even willing to admit is possible. No one game can be all things to all people, but I think the totality of games should get close. Not everyone is going to get into role-playing, but I bet there are a heck of a lot more people who would if there were games about subject matter that interested them, if it were easier to fit into their lifestyles, and so on.

      For a lot of this stuff it’s interesting to contrast the freeform online RP scene, which probably dwarfs the tabletop one. I’d be hesitant to praise those folks for emotional depth or whatever, but I get the impression that they don’t hesitate to deal with stuff like romance. (There also seems to be little to no resistance to playing canon characters.) But as you say, a lot of that stuff is easier to deal with online rather than when you’re seated across the table from each other. And really, “RPGs Should Be Played Face to Face” probably belongs on the list of assumptions, and it’s showing my biases that it’s not.

  3. I’m a little late to posting this, but hey, may as well.

    I did this a while back on TCGs, and I find it amusing that someone thought to do the same for RPGs. Unlike you, though, I have set out to design a game that breaks the format’s assumptions. Fiasco more or less already does this for RPGs, but have you put any thought into what a game that breaks it could look like other than Fiasco?

    I also missed your discussion on the forum about board vs. book games, and unfortunately, don’t really have much to contribute to that any further.

    What I do have to contribute is more along the lines of your phone game. I think that the creation of a phone based RPG will inevitably require breaking some of these assumptions, and it seems to me that doing so will actually allow for a larger audience to see that they are making many assumptions about RPGs in general. This goes for the new people as well as the “old guard.”

    On that note, you’ve mentioned an iOS game, and I’ll volunteer to work with you on an Android version.

    Lastly, I’m not sure that “RPGs should be played face to face” is a valid assumption anymore. There’s plenty of people that have trouble finding an in-person group, and so go online. Definite preferences exist, but it seems we are enough used to technology that it does not merit assumption status anymore.

    1. Part of the problem with the assumptions is that they can be so ingrained and subtle that they can be hard to set aside even if you really want to do so. I’m trying a few different things, though I kind of feel like I’m groping forward in the dark. Aside from Raspberry Heaven, I’m also working on a new version of my Peerless Food Fighters mini-RPG that runs almost entirely off of custom-made cards. I’m essentially making a game with an overall scope kind of like, say, the Space Hulk: Death Angel card game from Fantasy Flight, but involving role-playing. My aim is to make a game similar to Fiasco for how you can have a satisfying one-shot in a few hours, but with even less reading required to get started, and all the necessary materials already included in the box.

      I do need to get back into working on the Rasperry Heaven RPG app, and I need to see if the publisher I’d been talking to is still interested in it, but it is definitely something I want to get done. I had been thinking in terms of iOS simply because I own an iPhone, but from the very start so many people have been asking for an Android version that it would be downright stupid not to provide one. The publisher seemed to have something lined up, but I’ll definitely keep you in mind if I need help with such things.

      I don’t normally play online myself, but I have plenty of friends who do, and some friends who want to because it’s the only way they’re likely to get any actual RPG play in. It’s definitely something that’s only going to become more prevalent with time, and for that matter (I’ve been reading Jon Peterson’s excellent book “Playing at the World”) the trend of using remote communication to play games goes back at least as far as wargamers playing Avalon Hill games by post in the 1960s.

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