Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Structure of the Role-playing Games

Image by Stux from Pixabay
As I have been building my own system, I find I've been thinking a lot about what goes into a role-playing game. This weekend has been exceptionally good time for helping me organize my thoughts. I was able to enjoy a one-shot game of Cha'alt run by Venger Satanis himself. I also spent Sunday night up late with some friends talking about game design as we are all at various stages of development in our TTRPGs.

And I wanted to point out an idea that I have mentioned in passing before, which is a notion of how a role-playing game is structured.

This is going to be a grounding for talking about kids' games. 

Bare Bones: Task Resolution System 

In essence all a role-playing game needs is a task-resolution engine. A roll, a card draw, or a coin flip (or drawing a Jenga brick, for that matter) to determine whether a character succeeds or fails when the outcome of their action is unclear: something to tell us where to go with the Narrative when we reach divergent paths and neither makes more logical sense.

And however we might choose to design them, these task resolution systems only come in two flavors: a binary task resolution system that tells you if the character succeeds or fails at their task, or a gradiated one that tells you both whether a task passes and fails and to what degree the success puts the character at an advantage or disadvantage. 

Mind you, played with enough dicey granularity, binary task resolution systems are also gradiated, because they handle a series of independent cascading events that will show in time how bad an initial failure, or how useful an individual success is. See this great example by Ian over at Dweller of the Forbidden City. 

It also helps if you have a protocol that determines who narrates when and for which character they make task resolution tests. 

In theory, this is it. You can leave a game as bare bones as "set a scene, narract actions, use this tool to figure out what happens when there is suspense, and roll with the results." Certainly, games like MINIMO by M. A. Guax do just that.

This creates a field of infinite possibilities... But it is also frequently unsatisfactory because it can be just too big.  It can be hard to know where to start and what parameters there are on play.

Subtracting Potentialities 

Once you have that bare bones Task Resolution system, the rest of the function of game design is a mix of establishing protocol and narrowing the experience. Adding more rules is really about subtracting potential experiences from the game.

Every rule or subsystem added to the game makes how players experience that game different. It creates a narrower but richer experience. Good mechanics are designed to refine the game.

As an example: adding hit points to a game makes getting hurt and taken out of the action a part of the game. A character is on the clock once you have hit points: if they lose hit points when failing certain kinds of tasks, then the chaaracter has a limited amount of time to reach their goal within the narrative. If they drop to 0 hp before they hit their goal, they have, in effect, lost the game.

This takes away the possibility of playing fearless or invulnerable characters. It takes away the possibility of playing gods, or action heros who never really get hurt. By implication, it also takes away the possibility of a story where nothing bad happens to people. Hit points create a game where the threat of a violent end for the PCs is a part of the narrowed scope of the game. 

This will affect how players play: now, if they want a particularly good end-point from the perspective of their characters, they will have to make decisions that conserve got points, or at least subject them only to high-reward risks. If fighting monsters costs too many hit points, a player will both worry about the monsters catching them (creating tension in the narrative) and plan their battles to use only a few.

Of course how many you have is a factor, too. The hit point scale in BECMI Dungeons & Dragons is such that players are going to play cautious characters that prefer sneak attacks and ambushes. While Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition offers so many hit points and ways to recover them that players will charge heedlessly into combat, and only become circumspect when they run low on healing resources.

A game of tense and furtive exploration is what remains possible with the tight hit points of TSR-era D&D; and game of Heroic battles is what remains possible in the Wizards of the Coast era D&D

The same tension and urgency can be created in other ways. Blades in the Dark creates a system of progress clocks where PCs only have a limited number of risky moves they can take before the authorities - or worse show up and ruin the caper. This forces players to play a Tense game of calculated risks. They take away the possibility of long, meandering plots and endless dicing, or stories that are not contained in that caper structure. Fast, punchy goal-driven are what remains possible.

The Power of Constraints

Once a game's rules and protocols have been established you know have a clear set of constraints about what the game will be about and how it will be played. These Constraints are what makes the game interesting as a game: the rules and protocol of the game tell you that you will be telling a story about X sorts of characters who face Y sorts of risk, and have to overcome Z sorts of tasks. 

Consider the original one-page version of the TTRPG Everyone is John by Michael B. Sullivan (right):

  • This is a competitive game where characters score points by attaining goals, based on number of times they succeeded in reaching that goal multiplied by a rating of 1-3 based on the complexity of the goal. 
  • Only one player gets to control the action and collective PC at a time.
  • Players spend a limited resource to get control of the action. Spending it brings the game closer to the end. 
  • Each player has three skills where they have a 50% of succeeding when used, but have only a 17% chance of  succeeding at anything else. 
  • If players fail a roll, get the PC hurt, or let the action lapse, they have a chance of losing control. The PC cannot die, however. 
  • The game is played for humor. The result of things like violent action are entirely adjudicated by the GM. 
  • Once the resources have been expended, the game is over and points are tallied. 

With these constraints in place, players must:

  • Build very specific characters whose skills complement their goal. 
  • The action must be kept fast and furious. Lulls risk costing a player their turn and valuable resources. 
  • Players have to choose between a strategy of pursuing an easy goal they can complete multiple times, or a difficult one that other players are not likely to foul up. 
  • Players need to be careful not to take risks that will get the PC hurt. Without systems of injuries, etc., however the character cannot die. Injury is not a fail state, per se
  • With the game driven by PC goals, the GM has a lot of improvisation to do, and can do  very little to prep for the game. Their job is to create reasonable, but ideally funny results for 
  • Players must decide when to spend their resources to give them the best opportunity to attain their goal. 
  • This creates a game where the players are constantly causing fresh mayhem to keep control, and waiting for an opportunity 

It is because of the constraints that we will see lunatic behavior, comic mayhem, and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of play. The constraints make this style possible in a way that a vague open system cannot. 

Integrating Past Player Experience

One of the things that I find interesting about modern game design is how many holes you can leave in a game, on the sheer basis that you can expect players to import understanding, an active engagement with narrative tropes, and protocol from pre-existing games and media. Almost no game really needs a "What is Role-playing" section, because the odds are good that if you have arrived at a smaller independent game by way of a big, corporate product like Dungeons & Dragons, and you do not need another run-down of the core game play loop of a narrative game.

Bearing similarity either to an existing Roleplaying games or to a literary genre is going to make it easier to understand and engage with the game. For example, Alan Bahr's Tiny Dungeon 2e is far from a complete dungeon crawling game: it includes no advice on how to design, narrate, or run a dungeon adventure. Things like torches are mentioned in equipment, but how to use them is left mostly to the GM to handle as he or she sees fit.

Tiny Dungeon 2e relies on you knowing the tropes and mechanics of a dungeon crawling game to fill in the blanks. 

The expectations created by genre and past-game experiences are very important when discussing games for children in particular, and as I talk about playing games with them, I will talk about how a fresh and uncluttered mind approaches Fantasy, because it is refreshing to see, but also challenging to work with as an adult.

I would call this component of the Structure of TTRPGs Context, and it has a significant impact on its own as to how players engage and use the game.

And it is a much larger component than most people might thing. Let's take the example of another one-page TTRPG: Lasers and Feelings. (right).

The ship design of the Raptor in the illustration actually does a lot more than the rest of the text to tell you what kind of game this is. It is unmistakable an echo of the star-ship design from the first four Star Trek series of shows. From that alone, you can get the idea of how ships are supposed to work, as well as what kind of organization the starship Raptor represents. And why characters might be going on the missions generated on the table in the upper right.

You can build your entire adventure based on the structure of a Star Trek episode and be guaranteed that the players will buy in. They don't need an equipment list to ask if they can have a tricorder, or whether or not their weapons can be set to stun. The will assume it, saving the GM a huge amount of front-loading. 

If the Trekie design of the ship didn't do enough to establish what we are playing, the title Lasers and Feelings comes with enough semiotic clout to do a great deal of the work. You know that the game us made for an exploration of the human condition, not pitched space battles. And the fact that "sexy" is one of the few suggested character descriptors certainly gives you, as someone who knows at least a little Scifi, that it is the kind of setting where characters are prone to "Kirking around."

This same game becomes radically different by changing only a few words. Lasers and Feelings "Hacks" are numerous and fascinating exercises in changing the game by changing its context.

Making games for different audiences requires an understanding of how to make context work for you, and take advantage of the players' previous experience to work around the need for an exhaustive and encyclopedic system.

The Task Resolution system, combined with rules that add Constraints, and built on a foundation of a meaningful Context let you construct a particular Narrative experience in a TTRPG. And these days allow lighter systems to be built because we have have older systems to build o, and a more evenly disseminated popular culture. 

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