All posts by Ewen

Tools for Dreaming: Defining Characters

This section is basically about how we write up characters in RPGs, and how designers create processes for doing that. Some parts of this chapter aren’t quite there yet, but overall I think it’s coming together pretty well.


Given that the word “role” is in the name, we can assume that an RPG calls for having defined characters. The question is how we go about providing a way for players to effectively define their characters. It’s in the nature of RPGs that character creation is generally a combination of dreaming up a fictional character and assembling an abstract mechanical construct. These two aspects of RPG characters necessarily interrelate and have decidedly blurry edges.

Statistics

Most RPGs give characters some kind of numerical values, variously called stats, attributes, ability scores, etc., to represent how effective they are in various areas. Some games make the actual numbers for characters’ stats substantially larger or smaller than others. In my mind this is another case where designers have been a little too willing to base things on tradition and the apparent feel of things rather than what function they serve at the game table. D&D traditionally had stats that ranged from 3 to 18 (coming from a 3d6 roll), but in earlier editions they didn’t distinguish characters mechanically all that much, and in later editions the ability score modifier mechanic meant that they were a step removed from the smaller numbers you actually used in play.[1]

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Tools for Dreaming: Randomness

This is the all-important chapter on randomness. I feel like it needs more detail and rigor about statistics, but that’ll require me learning more about statistics and probabilities. Right now this chapter is a lot about how randomness fits into the overall experience. There’s a short section I want to do but haven’t yet on “other uses for dice,” with things like using them as counters, stacking, roll-and-spend (a la Dogs in the Vineyard), etc.


The vast majority of RPGs make extensive use of randomness, and most of those use dice to achieve that randomness. Randomness isn’t a necessity, but it’s deeply ingrained and legitimately useful. It introduces a level of controlled unpredictability that can keep gameplay popping. However, it’s important to also think about where the randomness slots into the overall experience, and be aware of what the actual odds are.

Doing the Math

If you’re going to make a game where probability plays a role, you need to understand the math involved and make it work as well as you can before you even begin playtesting. Games tend to have enough moving parts that it’s hard to anticipate everything, but that’s all the more reason to begin with a sound theory. My own preferred approach is to keep the math simple and the numbers low. That’s partly because I don’t have that much of a head for numbers, and partly because it makes it that much easier to figure out what’s going on and fix things that aren’t working right.

A traditional RPG has an action resolution system, which is to say a set of rules to determine whether a given discrete action succeeds. From 3rd Edition onward, D&D’s action resolution system has had you roll a 20-sided die and add whatever applicable modifiers you have, and you succeed if your total matches or exceeds a target number. In the case of an attack, you add your attack bonus, and you hit if you can reach the target’s Armor Class, while for skills you add your skill bonus and need to reach a Difficulty Class. That mechanic itself is simple enough, but the things that go into it get a bit complicated, since a character’s attack bonus comes from a mathematical formula involving around 2 to 6 different numbers. Thus, the designers at Wizards of the Coast have the rather complex task of making sure that the bonuses that characters get add up to something that leads them to have a suitable ratio of success to failure.

There are many different types of dice (and other randomizers) that RPG designers have used over the years. The most important distinction is between flat and curved probabilities. If you roll a single die, each possible result has an equal chance of coming up. On a d20, the numbers 1 through 20 each have a 5% chance of coming up on any given roll.[1] On the other hand, if you roll two or more dice, it creates a probability curve, and results in the middle are more likely to show up because there are more combinations that can produce them. If you roll two six-sided dice, you only have a 1 in 36 chance of rolling a 2, but a 1 in 6 (or 6 in 36) chance of rolling a 7. This is because there’s only one combination of two dice that can add up to 2, whereas there are six different combinations that can add up to 7.

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Tools for Dreaming: Structures of Play

This is probably the most important chapter of Tools for Dreaming, as it delves directly into the core structures of RPGs and role-play. Particularly in some of the later parts it still feels underdeveloped, but I feel like I’m definitely on the right track in terms of what ideas it is that I’m grappling with.


Role-playing is an activity that you can do without rules. A group of people can decide what characters they’re going to play and in what situation, and just start role-playing. There are a lot of areas where people do just that. In terms of the sizes of their followings, freeform fandom RP, therapeutic role-playing, educational role-playing, and improv each dwarf tabletop RPGs. Saying that these activities lack rules is misleading, but what “rules” they do have are structures and parameters rather than the kind that involve numbers or dice. We’re now seeing a flowering of a niche of RPGs that are closer to these other forms of RP, but these forms are also a useful tool for better understanding how things work even in traditional RPGs.

One non-definitive way to look at RPG rules is as a labor-saving device, a means to shape role-playing to achieve a specific type of play more easily. Freeform role-play forms a baseline, and an RPG is in a sense a set of modifications to that. From that point of view, the question of RPG design then becomes “What modifications do I need to make to help achieve the kind of experience I want?” You might be surprised just how minimal an RPG’s rules can be and still foster compelling and flavorful play, though of course more complex rules have their own merits, provided the complexity is purposeful. While the die rolls are important to how an RPG works, the broader structures of play are vital.

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Tools for Dreaming: Games for the Human Animal

This is kind of a weird chapter, directly inspired by a particular Adam Curtis documentary. If you’re not familiar with his work, I highly recommend checking out basically anything he’s done, though they’re one of those things (like Charlie Brooker’s various -Wipe shows) that the BBC doesn’t bother releasing outside the UK, so you may have to look for them on YouTube or whatever. I think the conclusion of this chapter is kind of weak, and it’s something I need to figure out how to develop better.

Games for the Human Animal

Adam Curtis is a brilliant British documentarian whose work is mainly about, as he puts it, “power and how it works in society.” A lot of his films are about things like the War on Terror and geopolitics, but in The Century of the Self he explores how Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays and others applied psychoanalysis to foster the consumer culture we have today and reshape modern politics, particularly in the US and UK. That’s some heady stuff. It’s well worth seeking out the documentary for purely educational reasons, but there are also ways in which it’s relevant to role-playing games.

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Tools for Dreaming: Walking the Path

This chapter isn’t really done, but I’m pretty happy with the parts that are finished. It’s sort of a catch-all for different things about what being a game designer entails.

Walking the Path

Playing RPGs is already a niche hobby that requires effort and creativity, and while making them doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might sound, it’s a strange and wonderful niche within a niche. I’ve tried my hand at several other creative pursuits, and while RPG design has some distinct quirks, it’s still fundamentally a creative outlet. That means that there are distinct parallels between the emotional life of an RPG designer and a novelist or graphic artist. It requires constant striving, always working to improve your craft. This chapter has some thoughts on the creative life of an RPG designer.

Just Make Something

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Tools for Dreaming: Conscious Design

This chapter of Tools for Dreaming is an attempt at pushing a philosophy I call “conscious design,” in contrast to what I see as the problem of unthinking repetition of RPG design cliches. This is so, so not me lording over other people. There are so many design cliches that I struggle with all the time. The influence of Apocalypse World has helped me get better at realizing my RPG ideas, but I’m well aware that that comes with a set of deign cliches too.

Conscious Design

“Engage in conscious design.” That’s my most important bit of design advice, not only for RPGs, but for anything. I put it on a T-shirt even.[1]

conscious design

When you design a game, you can do just about anything, but you need to do it consciously, and be aware of the effects things have on play. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s something that RPGs need to get better at. There are patterns that RPG design falls into, and while there’s merit in using methods you and your audience are familiar with, the unthinking repetition of well-worn conventions may have stunted the medium’s growth. That’s to be expected when such a large portion of this hobby is dedicated to relatively minor variations of D&D, but unless Wizards of the Coast or Paizo are seriously looking at your resume, you shouldn’t be beholden to Gary Gygax’s highly specific vision.

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Tools for Dreaming: What is an RPG?

The first proper chapter after the introduction to Tools for Dreaming delves into the question of what the heck an RPG actually is. There were a few unfinished sections I cut out of this blog post version, most notable a piece about how whatever the designers might try to sell their games as, RPG play is often silly and violent.

What is an RPG?

No, seriously, what exactly is a role-playing game? If you’re reading this, chances are you already have your own answer, but I guarantee there are people out there who disagree with you. Luckily (sort of), there’s no single right answer to that question.

Having a clear definition of something is generally useful. If I use the word “ostensibly” in a sentence, it’s better for you to know that it basically means “apparently” or “outwardly.” On the other hand, there are cases where trying to come up with a definition becomes counterproductive. That’s especially true when the thing we’re trying to define has a lot of fuzzy edge cases, and even more so when the people writing definitions have an agenda. People who argue over the definition of “RPG” tend to be pushing for one that emphasizes their preferred kinds, and sometimes one that excludes other kinds. Ultimately, “RPGs” are “the sorts of things that people call RPGs,” but whether a work is compelling is much more important than whether it technically fits into a box.

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