Two Branches of RPG Design

December 26, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about a foundational idea in RPG design that’s been happening since the early 2000s.

Codifying Fiction

There’s a core idea in most RPGs, which is the idea that the system’s role in determining outcomes is to take a set of fictional factors (“Strength 12, Athletics 8, Climbing Difficulty 15”) and run it through a process and produce the outcome from that.

A key point of this style of design is that the rules have to also help teach the people playing how to create or find ways to assign those factors and translate them back and forth between mechanical aspects and fictional aspects in play.  Quinn Murphy has labeled this process “Thingification”.  Also springing from that idea, we see this post on Lost Worlds talking about the struggle of what happens when games have gaps in that process.

It’s important to understand that fictional factors can include things like “How much does this character love this other character?”  “What is the strength of this character’s Lassitude?” and other abstract ideas.  It’s also important to not mix this up with Simulationism – there’s plenty of non-simulationist games which use this from Tunnels and Trolls to Apocalypse World and so on.  This also can include games with rather non-conventional factors like My Life with Master or Steal Away Jordan’s Worth mechanics.

Fictional Quality Independence

(yes, this is a shitty term.  I need to come up with something better.  Whatever, I’m not here to shit out jargon, I’m trying to focus on ideas. )

There’s been a branching out of games where the system does not engage with codifying fiction, but rather the outcomes are mechanically independent OF any qualities of elements within the fiction.

In more plain language – “Can I climb that cliff?” isn’t answered with “How strong are you?” “How tall is the cliff?” “What is it’s rating?” and so on, but other factors that drive play.

The easiest game to point to would be 1001 Nights.  The GM describes a story, the other players put forth questions about the story.   The GM chooses to push the story towards answering some questions and not answering others, which then creates the dice economy in play.  Ideally, the GM tries to spread this out to answer questions relatively equally to get themselves more dice in the process.   “Can Aladdin escape the sword wielding guards?” is not resolved at all with how fast, strong, or smart Aladdin is, or the guards, or the layout of the palace or anything to do with the fiction at all.

This kind of game design is extremely interesting because it ends up focusing play on player choices and player input in a more direct manner. It cuts out the middle man of having to juggle the qualities or stats of fiction to drive play straight into the choices or experiences it wants from players.

These games tend to simply bypass a lot of issues people find in games built on Codifying Fiction – “How do I improvise?” “What do I do when too many characters are involved in a conflict?”  “How do I stop XYZ from being overpowered?” etc. Of course, these games are also usually targeted for “That’s not a real roleplaying game” fallacy.

Examples include: 1001 Nights, Dog Eat Dog, Hot Guys Making Out, Drifter’s Escape, Mist Robed Gate, The Dance and the Dawn

I think there’s a lot to learn and develop from this kind of design,

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