Friday, September 30, 2011

Objecting to Objectives

Didn’t do any gaming last night, though I was down at the Baranof tipping a drink. My original plan had been to get some writing done. That didn’t happen either, though, as people kept “dropping by.” First my brother and his new buddy, Joel, showed up wanting to play D&D (like I’m a vending machine?!) and conversation devolved into how Google has a pipeline to extraterrestrials and the 'droid phone is reverse engineered alien tech.


More intelligent conversation followed, though, when Tim (head honcho from Gary’s Games) showed up after his pizza party at Razzi’s (it was Tim’s B-day a couple days back). Tim follows my blog and as a fellow game designer, had some thoughts on the whole objectives thang I’ve been talking about lately. While I managed to bring him around to my way of thinking (more or less), we realized that part of the difficulty here is my use of the term “objective.”

So while yesterday’s post made a half-assed stab at what I mean when I use the term, I can see that it’s a problematic one as it gets all jumbled with “goals” and “mission objectives” and such.

The problem is, I can’t just say “I want games to be ABOUT SOMETHING” (which is kind of what I want to say) because all RPGs are “about something.”

Deadlands is about “undead cowboys and weird horror in the Old West.”

Ars Magica is about “a group of magi and their companions in Mythic Europe.”

Vampire the Masquerade is about “vampires hiding and surviving in a darker version of our current reality.”

Traveller (and many other space travel games) is about “dudes in space” with a particular setting (Terran Empire, specific aliens, whatever) built in.

See, all those games are about something. But they provide no BLUEPRINT for how the game gets played. That’s what I meant by “objectives of play.”

Here’s what they DO give you:

  • Interesting character creation (everyone wants to play a neat character, right? Part of the joy of role-playing is the escapism in pretending to be someone else).
  • Interesting systems, what we call rules or mechanics (designers feel the need to distinguish their product from others AND it’s nice to have nifty rules specific to the particular setting).
  • Interesting and/or inspiring premise or setting (dinosaurs in the Hollow Earth! Thousand year old vampires partying at night clubs! Star-travelling inquisitors of an undying god-emperor rooting our demonic heretics threatening the stability of the Imperium!).
And that’s it…aside from a large page count and slick graphics.

That’s not enough.

Nothing in Deadlands (or Hollow Earth Expedition or Vampire or Rifts or whatever) explains why the characters are together doing anything. Nothing explains what they’re supposed to do. Nothing explains to the GM how to facilitate game play. There are suggestions for players to “check with the GM to see if a character concept is acceptable.” There are “adventure ideas” for the GM. But for the most part, all you’ve got is a pick pile of pieces…possibly shiny and newfangled but not assembled…rather than an actual engine for doing anything.

And a pile of pieces may as well be a pile of shit.

Sure (to take the analogy a little further) RPGs may be “some assembly required” but the GOOD games (my judgment call, folks) have INSTRUCTIONS FOR ASSEMBLY.

For example, Moldvay’s Basic set explains how to make a dungeon: think of a scenario, draw a map, add specific challenges and treasures, stock random challenges and treasures (if desired).

Edwards’s Sorcerer explains how to create a story driven scenario using PCs demons and kickers and relationship charts and how to drive the story with bangs.

Weedin’s Horror Rules explains how to write a script (HR’s term for “adventure”) using mood, antagonists, chain of events, and cast of characters, all in a style that mimics classic horror/slasher films. It also explains how to run the game, drive the plot (using actual rule mechanics) and how to adapt different styles of play (ranging from humorous to heroic to PVP) to the game.

These are examples of well-designed games that provide more than just “pieces” for play. They actually provide what could be called “a complete game” unlike the majority of commercial RPGs on the market.

Let’s look at it from a player’s perspective, for a moment:

I find a copy of HEX (Hollow Earth Expedition) at the game shop, and say “Right on! Human adventurers mixing it up with dinosaurs! And it looks a LOT less boring than Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (The Most Boring RPG Ever Written). Let’s pick it up and give it a whirl!”

I purchase the game, read through it drooling at the neat options for character creation, loving the simple even-odd dice mechanics, totally digging the Dinosaur-Nazi-Ancient Atlantean setting. I convince my group to run the game. Everyone digs it and buys a copy (yay! A win for the designer/publisher!)!

We all read it so we know how to play! The players agree not to read the sample adventure scenario so as not to spoil the “surprise.” We bring characters to the first session:

Player Joe creates a total hardcase bootlegger/gangster. Player Christy creates a Laura Croft-esque treasure hunter with an Indiana Jones-like code of ethics. Player Jimmy creates a “mad scientist.” JB, of course, creates a big game hunter hoping to mount a stuffed dino-head on his wall.

The GM says, “Well okay so you’re all on this movie set…” WTF?!

The GM explains that’s the sample scenario: everyone is a part of a movie crew that gets sucked into the Hollow Earth. Nobody in the group wants to play “members of a movie crew.” The example characters are things like “treasure hunter,” “mad scientist,” and “big game hunter.”

Okay, says the GM…scratch that…I’ll think of something that uses your characters.

A week later, the GM is at a loss. I mean, he supposes he can make them all a part of a group testing an experimental digging machine…but why would they be together? The gangster character is looking to exploit opportunities, the BGH wants fame in the form of killing the most dangerous game, the scientist wants to create crazy shit, and the treasure hunter with the heart of gold wants to find fabulous treasures without anyone getting hurt in the process.

The game doesn’t explain this. The game doesn’t provide a blueprint for this. The game suggests that GMs find a way of unifying the group (as with the movie folk scenario) but then doesn’t explain how to reconcile players’ disparate expectations…expectations created by the game’s own character creation section.

In the end, the GM has a couple-three options:

  • Require the players to create new characters that work within the GM’s concept of how the game is going to be played. “You’re all part of a movie set,” or “You’re all Arctic explorers in the Royal Military qualified for airship duty.”
  • Force the players to give up their own preferred character concepts for ones that “work together.” The mad scientist invented the digging machine, using the gangster’s money. The gangster hopes to exploit the resources of the Hollow Earth. The other players have been brought along as “special consultants” (in archaeology and big game, respectively) setting aside their own pre-conceived agendas. This still doesn’t explain how to create an adventure, nor how to keep players cooperative in the face of different goals/motivations…but at least it gives some semblance of “reason” for the characters to be together. So long as no one else joins with a wildly different character concept.
  • Allow players to keep their character concepts, and just hamfist them into the game environment (i.e. who cares why they’re together, let’s just play!). For example, “You’re all refugees who somehow ended up stranded in the Hollow Earth: survive and find your way out!” To which Jimmy says, “but I want to build crazy inventions” and Christy says, “but I want to find lost civilizations.” And the GM says, “Well, right now you’re being chased by a T-Rex backed Nazi platoon…what are you going to do about it?” And next session it will be, “Well, right now there’s an exploding volcano and hostile natives…what are you going to do about it?” Etc. until players get tired of “lip-service protagonism.”

Now, Tim pointed out to me that games like GURPS or Rifts requires a GM to make some stiff choices in order for the game to “work” as in: “Okay, folks this is the game, this is what it will be addressing, this is the type of characters allowed, this is what’s not allowed, this is what the adventure is about.” Fine; dandy. But then:

A) Make it explicit in the rules that this is necessary for running the game (‘cause it is).
B) Make it explicit in the rules that the players are only empowered in so much as they are allowed empowerment by the GM. In other words, there ain’t nothing “wide open” or “endless possibility” about the game, except so much as it applies to the GM’s preference.

For me, as a PLAYER, this is a turn-off. At least in D&D, I get a say in my own character concept (I can play a fighter with a 9 strength and an irascible attitude if I damn well please), within the framework of the game. Being told, “well, you can’t be a Ventrue elder or a bloodbound Tremere because all the PCs are going to be young anarchists of the 12th generation” is sucky. That ain’t what I signed up for.

That’s just the player perspective though. From a GM perspective these games are just as much a headache…but I’ll get to that in another post.

; )


  1. This is a pretty big reason for why D&D (and Traveller IMO) were so much more popular than other games that boasted better mechanics.

  2. Again, you make some good points.

    However, in the past I have run a White Wolf campaign (which spanned years of play time-it was not a one-shot) wherein I allowed any type of Vampire, Werewolf and Mage to be made at character creation. I also gave the players no inkling of what the campaign would entail so they could not dovetail their characters together. The campaign was a solid hit from the start and continued that way for a long time. Yes, I, as DM, provided the "objectives", but it does go to show any system can be utilized.

  3. "Nothing explains to the GM how to facilitate game play."

    This seems to me to be the core of the problem; it was certainly my problem with Traveller 30+ years ago. I had no idea how to design an adventure for the game, because there was no clear motivation for the characters to do any one particular thing (unless they were merchants trying to pay off their ship: that gave them a clear objective, but not one I was interested in roleplaying).

    I want to be clear that I agree with much of what you said here and in the last post, because now I'm going to disagree...or at least point out something that really puzzles me. You seem to think that, if a game doesn't set out one paradigmatic type of adventure (such as the dungeon crawl in D&D), the only thing the GM can do is construct something he likes and hope the players will go for it. If they don't, his only option is to say "Tough $h!t; you'll play the game my way and smile!"

    Here's what puzzles me: Why can't you talk to the players before you start preparing your adventure and come to some consensus about what you all want to do? I've done that with a group of people, so I know it can work; given your apparent interest in allowing players real agency instead of "lip-service protagonism" (excellent phrase, BTW), I'd think you would consider it possible as well. But your hypothetical examples all suggest a group of players where no one has the same interests or goals as anyone else. First, I don't think such groups are the norm; second, I don't think that such a disparate group will play well under any set of rules.

    I may be misreading your attitude here, but if I'm not, it seems that you think objectives baked into the game system are the only thing that allows a group to play coherently. I agree that objectives are necessary for coherent play, but I would suggest that it is possible for a group (that's players and GM) to create a set of mutually agreed-on objectives that are allowed by a game system, rather than mandated by them. Indeed, that's how I finally made Traveller work.

  4. A warrior who wants to raise an army, a wizard wishing to make a magic scroll, a cleric desirous of building a temple to his god all have different character goals, but the players all have the same goal--gold.

    Any army costs gold, spell and magic item creation (in 0d&d) costs gold, building a castle costs gold.

    This is why d&d works so well, radically different PC's, but they all need gold.

  5. That's what turned me off, or left me disappointment with a whole range of RPGs I foolishly bought, the whole lack of direction. Now, I'm a good enough DM to come up with something, but if a game is to get me hooked, I want it to give me some ideas at the very least.

  6. The HEX characters have each chartered passage on a ship headed across the ocean: the gangster is on the lam, the hunter seeks exotic trophies, the scientist's machine is being transported, the adventurer is on her way to adventure--maybe they're all bound for different ports along the way, but there's a shipwreck! Or a whirlpool! Or whatever, and the rest of the passengers and crew are dead or missing and the heroes must band together for survival.

    Every 1st adventure in any game requires some suspension of disbelief for the setup or hook, I think it's really rare that such excuses to get a party together are both interesting and sensical (is that a word?), but it's fun when they are.

  7. /agree
    I look forward to seeing your thoughts on how the absence of baked-in objectives is an obstacle for the GM.

  8. @ Callin: It would appear you were willing to do far more work than I myself was willing to do. But how many players were in your game? Three or four? It certainly harder to make it "work" when you've got that six to eight or seven to nine range that I've been seeing lately.

    @ John: Sure, you can do that (develop an objective of play based on consensus at the table); that would seem to be the "presumed" method of games like Ars Magica.

    Unfortunately (for me, I guess) I'm usually the one introducing the game to players and they aren't so much into that kind of social contract building. Or when they are into "brainstorming the campaign" it is often extremely difficult (in my experience) to build any kind of consensus. One guy says, "whatever I don't care." One guy says, "just so long as I can do X, Y, and Z." One guy says "what weapon does the most damage?" You know, it's just hard to get everyone on the same page when there's no "baked in" objective. A lot of times, MY players look to me to "run the game" and they see this prep stuff as part of MY role in the whole gaming exercise.

    @ Josh: I think one of the main problems with HEX is it "lost its way" in development. It started out with an "escape the hollow world" premise and moved into a "we do all things pulp" kind of game. The set-up seems to be made for "episode 1: discovery of the hollow world." And yet one of the example characters is the survivor that's already been there for years, lost and trying to keep from being eaten. For me, that's a cool concept...and it absolutely does not jibe with the characters that are "discovering HE for the first time."

    I don't think it NEEDS to be rare for party meet-ups to be "interesting and sensical" but it requires the game designers to be more focused than what HEX does.

    [and by the way, I love the idea of HEX and much of the books themselves, which is why I'm so disappointed at its failings]

    @ Heyjames: Thanks...I'll be working on it this weekend (hopefully).
    : )

  9. Thanks for this series of posts. It's made me realize what's been missing from my Flying Swordsmen RPG. I took out all the setting information of Dragon Fist (the game I'm semi-cloning), which removed all the baked in reason for these martial artists to be adventuring together. And I'm left with a toolkit that just says, "here's how to make a cool martial, have fun with it!"

    I'll be doing some editing to add in some specific goals for players and some more detailed tips for the GM on how to create adventures to facilitate that.

  10. @ Lord Gwyd: It's definitely something to consider in your design...after all, a GM that DOESN'T like the specific objectives of a game can always tinker with it (and generally will) once they've got a handle on the standard rules.

    Personally, I know I'm going back to the drawing board on several of my own games based on these musings.
    : )

  11. after all, a GM that DOESN'T like the specific objectives of a game can always tinker with it (and generally will) once they've got a handle on the standard rules.

    you mean they can cripple it?

  12. Your comments on my last post explain a lot: if you're working with seven to nine players who aren't already familiar with the game, baked-in (or at least really obvious) objectives are probably a practical necessity. I'd have a hard time running anything but D&D (or a close relative) with a group that large; my experience has been that most other RPGs bog down with that many players. I think D&D actually works better with a big group than a small one, though.

  13. @ Shlo: A "crippled" game (to return to my admittedly derogatory term), is one which does not function by itself but needs a "crutch" to work...for example,"strong minded" GM.

    A non-crippled game functions without the need for a crutch. Tinkering with the rules or drifting the game doesn't cripple it...the game is already functional. The GM is building on a functional game.

    For example, say I want to run a D&D game that uses the D&D rules, BUT I want it to be court-intrigue based rather than "dungeon delve" in nature. I decide to make the following changes:

    - no XP awarded for killing monsters/gaining treasure, but XP awarded for one-upping court rivals (as defeating monsters) and increasing one's holdings (as acquiring treasure)
    - I take physical death "off the table" (PCs cannot be killed except by mutual agreement of DM and PC and only for dramatic purpose), and hit points instead represent "social HPs." Plots and master strokes "damage" characters and if they die a "social death" they lose their noble status or something.

    Such a game is far "drifted" from actual D&D, but if I have an idea how I want to run it already (with specific villains and foils, pre-planned plots, intrigues, and social "adventures") then it's fine. I broke the game in a particular way because I already have "my own blueprint." But this tweaked game is specific only to my own table (and possibly limited to a single experimental campaign)...who knows if the ideas can be 'ported into another DM's game. Only I know how to run it.

    D&D is already "cripple-free" (at least in terms of objective). It can't be broken, but it can be modified to taste. Other games require modification simply to make them work.

    @ John: I would say they (game objectives) are a practical necessity at ANY level, except perhaps 1-on-1 (and even that's a fairly big maybe). But it is much easier (i.e. less work) for the GM to invest the necessary energy to make an "objective-less" game work when there are fewer players to deal with.
    : )

  14. I see where you're going with this, but I still think that there is a place for games that you call "crippled". As pointed out in various places in the comments to this trilogy of posts, there is value in allowing the Referee and players to develop their own set of goals for a particular campaign (I still like the old wargaming terms).

    As I said at first, there is also a valuable place for games in which the goal is hardwired into the game system (D&D: "Get gold! It not only allows you to get stuff but also to improve your inherent abilities! The normal way to do this is to loot underground complexes"; Traveller: "Get credits! The only 'improvement' your character can realistically have is to get better stuff! The normal way to do this is to engage in interstellar trade and find patrons willing to pay for your services"; and so on).

  15. There's an obvious objective for Hollow Earth: Survive while isolated in a hostile, strange environment, and either obtain mastery of the situation, or find a way home.

    I think the way to go with the first play of the game would have been to discuss ahead of time with the players that, to learn the game, you'd be going through the sample scenario, with the pre-gen characters. Once you'd gotten the hang of the system, without necessarily finishing the scenario, you could decree that one of the pre-gen characters made it back to the surface world.

    You could have the players roll up new characters with whatever concepts they wanted. The gimmick to get them together would be that the pre-gen survivor character is trying to get back, to save his wife or whatever, and is getting a group together for an expedition.

    And I don't really see Traveller as being without an objective. Your objective is to survive and make a living, and, perhaps, to be successful in your trade, probably in as exciting a manner as possible.

    You've just mustered out, but you're not ready to be turned into soy lent green, so you need something to do, and your pension (if any) isn't going to give you the standard of living you want.

  16. Wouldn't experienced roleplayers just assume that the objective is the same as in D&D ie do whatever causes your character to get more powerful? Not that that would necessarily be a good thing if the designer had a different objective in mind.

  17. weird, when i read your example about court-intrigue d&d, the term crippled does indeed come to mind. :P

    anyway, in the end it is just a matter of taste. there are enough games for everyone, and i will gladly go on playing "crippled" ones. i have never experienced any of the problems that seem to be inherent to those games. :)


    joe's gangster is involved in a racketeering scheme involving the production company
    christy works as a stuntwoman part time
    jimmy's job on set is science advisor (he is also a sfx-geek and hopes some of the gadgets he brought might be used)
    JB has hired himself out as a bodyguard to one of the actors

    that took more time to write down than think up...

  18. @UWS guy Really nicely and succinctly put.

    You know, mechanically, most systems do have something analagous. For example, for a White Wolf character to advance (buy more circles in skills, abilities, etc) experience is needed. But that doesn't really work all that well much of the time.

    In other words, "we need more experience to advance, let's go do shit" totally destroys the suspension of disbelief (or at least feels lame), whereas both in-game and out-of-game "we need more gold" works really well, and is one of the reasons why GP = XP is one of the major lynchpins of D&D, in my opinion.

    I think it is a failing of the original game that they were unable to communicate this fact to newbies that picked up the game without being connected to the community (it was much harder to be connected in the past, before the Internet was used so heavily by niche communities, especially for players who started when they were kids and didn't have money for lots of periodicals and other such things). I know that when I was playing in the 90s, there was no way I would *ever* play with GP = XP. It just seemed silly.