Just before I start stomping on toes, let me just state that this is a blog and personal soapbox, not a forum/workshop on game design. As such it reflects my thoughts and opinions…things that have certainly changed over time (and will probably continue to change). I welcome discourse and disagreement for a couple reasons: it’s more interesting, it helps me rethink my own position, and it helps me refine my ideas/theories.
All right, let’s start stomping.
Yesterday’s post touched off a number of disagreeing responses regarding my complaint that most RPGs have no inherent objective in their design, and that this is a BAD thing.
Since this is a blog, I don’t have a provisional glossary and tend to throw around terms willie-nilly…when I say “objective” I’m talking about the object of play for the non-GM players, and (as a consequence of this) how the GM creates a game to meet that objective.
The following are NOT objectives:
“The objective of the game is to have fun.”
That’s not an objective…that’s a self-evident truth of game playing (as in, “we hold these truths to be self-evident…”)! If a game isn’t fun, why the hell would we play it? To keep our spouse happy? To get a job promotion? I guess there are other reasons to play a game, but for most of us, we aren’t being paid to play. We assume that RPGs are written for entertainment and recreation (i.e. “fun”). If having fun isn’t an unspoken goal (at least) of sitting at the table, then it may not be worth playing. Jeez!
“The objective of the game is to tell a story.”
Unless your game system provides specific rules for structuring the game in something resembling a traditional narrative structure (you know, like having a beginning, middle, and end centered around a plot and conflict and climax, etc.)…unless you’re playing a game that provides you with the specific tools to do this, then no, that is NOT an objective of play.
Now I’ve written before that story CAN come out of play (or has the potential to do so) regardless of a game’s strength at facilitating a story-telling agenda…but such is an afterthought, or “gravy,” not an objective of play. Without tools to structure your game as a narrative, there’s little one can do to guarantee a story (at least a coherent or quality one) arises out of play. This is one of those reasons why “system does matter.”
“The objective of the game is to pretend to be an imaginary character having adventures in an imaginary game world.”
No, that’s just defining adventure role-playing.
Okay, so getting THAT out of the way, what exactly are some valid objectives of play?
Depends on the game. An objective should provide a foundation for play and should point both players and GMs in a direction of “what to do” both in play and preparation. Good game design will (in my opinion) clearly state the objective(s) of the game…usually somewhere near the beginning of the rules (as you might find with most games of the board- or war- variety). Good game design will also establish a “road map” (at least) for the GM to see how to get to that objective.
Let me give a couple of examples, good and bad. I’ll use out-of-print games so as not to wreck anyone’s current revenue stream:
GOOD: Dungeons & Dragons
I’ve quoted this before, but here it is one more time: the opening paragraph of the introduction to Tom Moldvay’s Basic set.
In the D&D rules, individuals play the role of characters in a fantasy world where magic is real and heroes venture out on dangerous quests in search of fame and fortune. Characters gain experience by overcoming perils and recovering treasures. As characters gain experience, they grow in power and ability.
It really doesn’t get any clearer than that. In chapter eight, the rules describe how to create an adventure scenario for players. Later rule sets (like the Cook/Marsh Expert set) builds on this foundational objective, explaining how to take characters out of the dungeon and become movers and shakers in the world (establishing castles and dominions).
BAD: Star Frontiers
Yes, yes, I’ve taken flak before for lambasting Star Frontiers. What can I say? It’s a sorry-ass game (it is also the second RPG I ever owned/played, after B/X and the AD&D hardcovers). There are two books in the SF set, a Basic book and an Expanded rules set. I’ll quote each:
Each player in a STAR FRONTIERS game plays a character, either a human or alien living in the far future...characters can do anything a real person could do if he was living in a STAR FRONTIERS world: shoot a laser, drive a skimmer, chase dangerous interstellar criminals, explore alien worlds, or anything else the player wants the character to do. Players are not limited to only a few actions by the rules. A player has complete control over his character, and makes all decisions for him.
Unlike many other games, there is no clear winner or loser in a STAR FRONTIERS game. In most games, the players will have a goal, such as capturing a group of terrorists who have kidnapped a politician or recovering a rare medicine that was lost when a spaceship crashed on an alien planet. If the players cooperate and reach their goal, everyone wins. A skillful player who uses the same character in several adventures will see that character rewarded, becoming richer, more powerful and able to handle more difficult missions.
STAR FRONTIERS Science Fiction Game is a role playing game. In this type of game, each player controls an imaginary hero, making all his decisions and guiding him through heroic exploits: defeating villains, capturing criminals, and exploring strange alien worlds.
To me, this says nothing of how to play the game: your character is an imaginary hero. You control him doing heroic exploits. "In most games the players will have a goal." What about the other games? Some possible, specific examples are provided but the main focus is on "be this guy, cooperate with other players, shoot lasers." It is emphasized that you have "complete control over your character," but then, why are you not determining your character's own goals? Or if you are doing so (because you have complete control), then how do you determine which goals to make?
To me, the game crippled…like a bird with a broken wing. Yes, you can pick up the bird and move it around, but it doesn’t move by itself. The Star Frontiers game provides some ideas for creating “adventure scenarios” but without objectives for players, there’s no incentive for them to do anything, other than “well, if you don’t go on the adventure I’ve created than we won’t have a game tonight.”
That’s lame. That might as well be a railroad. The adventure included with SF is a total railroad: you’re on a ship that gets taken over by pirates. You have no choice but to escape in an escape pod sans your standard weapons/equipment and end up marooned on a hostile planet.
[my one-page dinosaur game maroons players in a prehistoric past, but that’s a premise of the game, in the same way that SF’s premise is “characters in space”]
But we’ll come back to “player incentives” in a moment; let’s talk about crippled RPGs from a GM perspective, first.
When a game doesn’t provide clear, valid objectives of play…in other words, when all it provides is a system for interpreting player actions and a game setting…it is left to the GM to make the game “go.” This is problematic for a number of reasons:
- It relies on a high level of motivation/drive from the GM, which often relies on GM railroading (and thus player de-protagonization) to make the game “coherent”
- It produces wildly divergent, possibly unrecognizable styles of play…something that can lead to a conflict in player expectations and thus dissatisfaction
Dissatisfaction? Yeah. If I expect grand space opera and I get gritty noir or over-the-top space comedy (all possible ways of playing Star Frontiers), I may very well be disappointed. Do folks not see how this can happen?
If I sit down to play D&D, there might be dungeon delving or wilderness exploring or political intrigue, but regardless I know that overcoming challenges and finding treasure is going to net me experience that will ramp up my level and get me closer to individual goals like personal power (spell casters) or titles and land grants (fighters). The objective of play doesn’t change, regardless of campaign or adventure (or individual) goals.
Some folks have stated this “concrete objective of play” limits their creativity. I don’t see how it limits creativity, only that it focuses game play. Nothing stops a GM from modifying Expedition to the Barrier Peaks to allow the PCs the opportunity to get the space craft up-and-running again (exploring brave new worlds). Nothing stops a GM from providing PCs with a temporal gate back to “dinosaur land.” I have rifted AD&D characters into Boot Hill through the Machine of Lum the Mad before, and it didn’t change the game except to provide a few new challenges and toys to the players. And I’ve had plenty of intrigue and romance and vengeance –based campaigns as well…all build upon the same foundation of play.
For me, games that don’t have objectives have never lasted very long except on the strength of predesigned/pre-written adventures (I ran a long Vampire chronicle using all those 1st ad 2nd edition adventures). Without that structure (um, “railroad?”) things tended to devolve into “um, what do we do now?”
More on that (and more on player objectives) in another post.