Archive for the ‘roleplaying101’ Category


A Broken Wheel – A reminder post

December 31, 2020

A few conversations online has let me know it’s time for a reminder about… I guess one of the most basic theory things that directly, immediately, and completely impacts play.

  • No game system is good at everything; each system is good/bad at certain things
  • Trying to make a system do what it’s bad at, means more work and probably unfun experiences for the group

Improvising, to start

One of the conversations I saw was someone asking about improvisation play; specifically within D&D – but, given D&D’s tight expectations of encounter balancing, D&D is bad at improvisation. The conversation had someone giving advice with the usual “Improvisation is hard!” opener, but that’s exactly the problem. Improvisation in other rules sets is easy, just as much as crossing a river in a boat is easier than trying to cross it in a truck.

Consider: every player of a character is improvising every session they show up. They have no idea what is going to happen, or what their plan is, but they come up with dialogue, choices, and actions just fine. Improvisation is one of the first skills of roleplaying, period. When you’re not required to tightly balance specific numbers and factors in a minute or less, with the consequences of making the game unfun for everyone, yes, improvisation is easy.

But yes, also applying to everything else, too

Extending this beyond improvisation, this issue that some games are good at some things and not others covers a whole lot of possible things people might want in a game:

  • Character drama and character development
  • Moment to moment tactical choices (block, parry, feint, etc.)
  • Resource tracking/logistics
  • Rising/falling story arcs and tension
  • Collaborative world building
  • Low cognitive load for math
  • Quick handling time with mechanics
  • Social tension between players (not just characters)
  • Deduction, deception and hidden information games

And of course, more. Literally this is why I have the Same Page Tool to help people sort through “Do you want to play this system, this particular way, this campaign?” and to make sure people aren’t confused about mixing up other possible (but not well fitting) ways.

House rules vs. Broken Goals

Another car analogy. It’s one thing to mod your car. That’s a choice you make because you want your car to work different in some way. There might be some tinkering, but basically the car does the basic thing you want it to, and you’re just making it a LITTLE better in the way you want.

If you have to fix your car all the time, or because it keeps not doing the thing you want (working), that’s not the same at all. That’s a problem.

House rules are the former, trying to get the game to do what it’s bad at (that you want to do instead) is the latter. If you spend a lot of time constantly having to ignore the rules, fudge dice, or change them repeatedly to because it’s still not doing what you want – you should probably use different rules.

RPG myths that hold us back

Hand in hand with “this game can do everything!” are the myths that:

  • All games are as hard to play or run
  • All games are as expensive
  • You have to “master” this game to get it to do what you want

In all of these, the benefit for publishers is monopolizing a customer base and making sure they don’t look at any other games. I remember in the early 2000s when I suggested people play 3-4 very different kinds of RPGs to get a feel for what is out there, Internet Doodz(TM) claimed I wanted everyone to play one particular way. (Even though, I myself, have a few drastically different ways I prefer to play and that hasn’t changed, really.)

And that ties back to the problems I mentioned long ago when I first shifted over to making this blog – a lot of the history of tabletop RPG design has been poor design propped up with “We’re the real roleplayers! Not like those guys over there! Don’t look over there! Don’t try any other games unless you want to be a loser like them!” – some people believe the ONLY way you can recommend a game is because you want no one else to play any other game, ever again.

I said many times it’s a game, not a marriage. Or perhaps more accuately, it’s not a religion demanding you disavow any other ways along the way.

I often point to boardgames as a healthier example – boardgamers often play many types of boardgames, and while they have some favorites they come back to, outside of things like Go, Chess, etc. most people play many of them without a problem. And, equally important, the variety allows them to have examples and language to talk about what they like vs. what they don’t like – which helps you ask for what you want and lets you find people who also want the same thing, so you can play together.

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How roleplaying works: All of the above

January 29, 2011

There’s a lot of conversations going on right now which have the same base problem of folks trying to take one facet of roleplaying and use it to explain the whole affair.

It’s rather like arguing whether the wheels or the gasoline or the motor is the part that makes a car work – when you need all of them for it to function.

What are we playing and why?

“Roleplaying games are games where imaginary fiction is the focus of play and influences play choices.” – here, I mean “focus” as in the medium of play, not as in, the point of play.

The point of playing, the why, is the Creative Agenda which is most reliably fulfilled when a group is on the same page about it and aided by Reward Systems to help organize play. Without clear communication and organization, you consistently run into problems which we’ve seen for decades of play and are obvious when considered.

How do we make it work?

With this in mind, both the fictional events & the systemic methods matter to shaping play.

What we imagine, the fiction, shapes choices as the group decides both importance & plausibility.

What we do at the table- the system by which we organize play, works by organizing who can say what gives consistently good play when it’s working and is a source of conflicts when it fails to match the group’s goals.

A well designed game uses both of those features to help the group coordinate and mesh ideas with specific ideas, description, and mechanics. Looking at fine detail- the most mechanical elements exist as tools to feed back into choices and meaning in play.

The Big Picture

Simply put: Yes, system matters, yes, setting matters, yes, fiction matters, yes, the people you play with matters.

All of these matter. This is what the Big Model Theory from the Forge has been saying the whole time. People keep asking “wait, how can this AND that both apply?”

Vincent Baker has an awesome diagram of how major components of roleplaying fit together. The cohesion of that, and how it is written vs. how it is played is often a source of confusion. The gaps Vincent points to, are mostly dealt with by having a good set of procedures and directives and using unstructured authority with clear directives to fill the space.