Friday, October 4, 2013

Fantasy Objectives (Part 3)

Ugh. I know no one cares particularly about my problems, but yesterday was a real mess. Hell, most of the week has been less than ideal. I won’t go into detail (especially about work-related stuff that won’t matter to most) but for those readers who know him, my brother blew back into town Saturday night and I and my family have been dealing with that train wreck ever since.  It’s been enough to put me off my game…literally. Last night I went to the bar completely unprepared, even forgetting my beans at home, and ended up doing little in the way of playing or testing because AB was down at the bar and I had to handle his shit. Ugh.

Which is pretty sad because I had two new players who were really down to get on some gaming. And by “new” I meant really and truly new…they’ve never played RPGs, other than a couple computer versions and they were really excited to play “real Dungeons & Dragons with a real Dungeon Master.” Well, the girl was very excited…her boyfriend seemed to be more supportive and curious than “really excited.”

So it was unfortunate that we didn’t get started till 10 or so, and then I spent a whole passel of time explaining what an RPG is and how it works in the simplest terms. By the time we got through that and character creation (and the general rules overview which is decidedly simple compared to “actual” Dungeons & Dragons), it was close enough to midnight that I really had to call it. I still had to drive my brother back to Shoreline after all. But they were both enthusiastic to return next Thursday…the girl more so than the guy.

Age of the Newbies: 28 (female) and 38 (male).

Even though the game itself was a wreck, I still got some good ideas for tweaks to the game just from the character generation process. Remember, I’m trying to write a game for non-(RPG)gamers, and this would have been an excellent test…if we (I) hadn’t been distracted by my brother’s antics.

We’ll see if they actually show up next week. Fortunately, they live close by.

Regardless, I need to start “getting it together.” Now, part of that is getting back to my objectives series. The point of the last two posts, by the way, may have been lost on some folks…I was trying to lay a little groundwork for my thought process when I turn to designing a fantasy adventure game with different goals than D&D. Here are the things I’d hope people would take away from the last two posts:

  1. Having an objective of play is part of what makes a game a game.
  2. D&D had an objective of play (finding treasure), that was later subjugated (in priority) to a secondary feature of play not necessarily conceptualized by the designers originally: role-playing.
  3. Role-playing (of which I’ve written before) is the thing that makes RPGs unique in gaming and as such this aspect has taken priority in RPG design since the advent of the medium.
  4. Unfortunately, this has led to a loss of the thing that made RPGs “games” in the first place, namely an objective of play. Instead, emphasis on the play itself has supplanted objective leading to games only being playable when A) objective is added by pre-existing suppositions, and/or B) when players “in the know” can create pastiche of specific IP. Some (emphasis on that word!) indie-games in recent years have incorporated objectives, though the motive for this may be different from my own (i.e. making a game a “game”) and may lack broad appeal because of the type of objectives being included.
Now let me throw in a slight, amended disclaimer here and now: these RPGs I’m calling “unfortunate” or “flawed” or lacking in “broad appeal” are not necessarily BAD pastimes. There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with creating Firefly pastiche with Traveller, for example, or Neuromancer with Cyberpunk. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying GURPS role-playing because you like the system better than D&D, even though you want to do the same thing with the game (explore adventure sites, find treasure, etc.). If you are a veteran gamer, and you like the genre and system and are willing to put in the necessary work to make it functional, something like Starblazers may be right up your alley…and dammit, I’m not trying to tell you you’re doing it wrong, or you need to stop playing, or you should spit on these games or their designers. Likewise, there ain’t nothing wrong with playing an indie game like, say, Nicotine Girls if you’re feeling like that’s going to be a fun time that particular evening…certainly it’s cool to experiment and enjoy different things, and we can learn about ourselves stepping outside out comfort zone.

I was just kidding about the stomping, okay? Jeez.

Here’s the deal:

  • I want to write a game that is fantasy without a wargamey or kill-and-loot basis to it (i.e. a game with different objectives from Old School D&D). Not because D&D is wrong, but because sometimes you want to eat an apple instead of an orange.
  • I want to write a game that is accessible to non-veteran gamers, especially young ones. And one of the strategies to doing this means making the game more “game-like” by providing an objective of play. “What’s the object of the game? What are we working towards in-play?” The game should be able to answer this question, preferably on page one and in an explicit fashion.
  • At the same time, the game should be loose enough in structure to still allow and encourage imaginary role-playing because THAT is the main stand-out feature of RPGs or (as I like to call them) “fantasy adventure games.” It’s the thing the medium offers that other games cannot.
  • Finally, I (personally) would like the game to be serial in nature…not a one-off story like so many Story Now games…because I feel there is a benefit to extended play, character identification, and gradual (not slow!) development.
Now I wrote the first two posts on this topic before I ever bothered to check Wikipedia on the subject of game; the stuff I wrote was coming straight off the top of my head. However, I did take the time to look up the subject yesterday and found nothing terribly contradictory with my definition of “game” (specifically as to having an object of play). What was more interesting to me was what the Wikipedia had to say about role-playing games as a sub-category: there was a lot written on the way the game is played (duh) and very little on the general objectives of play. The text appears to suggest that the RPGs are “collaborative story-telling games” which implies the object is to create a story…definitely an object of many indie-games but really hard to do with your average commercial RPGs. I suppose the point can be debated (the ease of creating “story,” whatever that means, with a non-story focused RPG)…but regardless I have not known many players – certainly not a majority – that sit down the RPG table saying, “Let’s create a story tonight.”

And with regard specifically to table-top RPGs, we find this text:

During a typical game session, the GM will introduce a goal for the players to achieve through the actions of their characters…the goal may be made clear to the players at the outset, or may become clear to them during the course of the game.

To me, this just emphasizes what I’ve been writing about: there isn’t an objective to this thing called a “game” except what the participants bring to it. In which case one might ask is this really a game? Or is this it just “play” with some rules tacked on? For that matter, if the GM can change the rules and goal at a whim, doesn’t that move it farther from game and closer to play anyway? A free-for-all controlled by one egomaniacal participant?

Hopefully that’s not the usual case: after all, plenty of these games counsel the GM to be fair and even-handed when dealing with players. On the other hand, several RPGs also imply GMs should use their authority to manipulate the system and players in order to get a “fun game” (and who’s standard is used as the judge of fun?).

Whatever…that’s enough beating of the dead horse. People do have reasons for playing RPGs over other games, even without objectives, and here’s what they are, as far as I can tell:

Escapism from reality: first and foremost, imagining yourself in the fantasy world, taking on the persona of someone other than yourself: a wizard, a superhero, a gunslinger, a secret agent, whatever. The RPG medium provides structured play for pretending to be a particular “not me” person.

Exploration of the unknown: playing an imaginary character allows a person to experience (in their imagination) things they never would (or would never want to) in real life. High speed ar chases. Hyper-space travel. Fighting dragons. Fighting anything. Getting killed.

And that’s about it.

In-game achievement, collaborative story-telling, one-upping your buddy…these are things one can do without a role-playing game. Same with exploring a favorite genre: read a book or watch a movie. Same with kibitzing with buddies. Same with having “fun.” There are other games and pastimes that will satisfy these entertainment needs.
Immersive gaming, or so I've been told.
Now video games can provide this exploration and escapism…especially as vid technology improves to create a more immersive game experience. If I want to escape daily life and explore the criminal underworld, I can pick up a copy of Grand Theft Auto V and go to town. If I want to experience the horrors of war without enlisting in the army I can play Call of Duty or whatever the coolest army game is these days. But I’d argue there are a couple-three things that RPGs have up on video games, even leaving aside any social benefits from interacting in person or educational benefits from forcing players to read and do their own math. Those things include:

  1. Freedom of action: a video game can only allow you to do what the game has been programmed to do. An RPG is as wide-open as the participants imagination allows.
  2. Speed of update: video games can add additional content to increase replay-ability and/or extend normal gameplay experience. But an RPG can be updated easily and constantly – on-the-fly as necessary – and “bugs” and “patches” easily removed by the participants at the table. In the past, Dragon and similar publications made a business of ideas for additional, optional content that gamers could throw in their game. Again there are little limitations when the game resides in the minds and imaginations of the players (as opposed to requiring hard-wired programming).
  3. I’d argue that the trained imagination provides a more powerful experience in play than a video game…the video game (generally) removes the player from the experience. But some folks might debate this depending on the game; “first person” games are especially effective in providing an immersive experience and generating emotional response.
The point being: there’s still a reason to play…and in some cases to prefer…table-top role-playing games. They’re still relevant form of entertainment, even in our 21st century. But to compete with other forms of entertainment requires an ease and accessibility to non-gamers that I think is conspicuously absent in a lot of game design.

All right, in my next post on this subject (which I may or may not get to this weekend), I’ll try to bring this discussion “home” in terms of the game I’m working on. However, I want to take a look at a couple RPGs that I haven’t played/read, especially Barbarians of Lemuria. From the reviews I’ve read on-line, its system seems remarkably similar to the one I’ve been developing/testing.

[to be continued]


  1. Interesting series. A thought on the whole game/goal topic: combat is ubiquitous in rpgs. It often conprises a major portion of the rules, and some players live for combat, only enduring the interludes between as a necessary pretext. I have often wondered why "slaughter" is so important. But maybe it is because in combat, your undirected play suddenly turns into a game, with indicate rules and very clear objectives: Kill or be killed. Win or lose. Maybe this is what many of us yearn for but can't or won't recognize or admit. Not the violence... the game. (Though I am sometimes awed and dismayed by the revealed bloodthirst!! Clearly there is more appeal than merely the "game". )

  2. @ Alcamtar:

    The whole attitude of "let's get to the dice rolling part" is symptomatic of the issue. It's a concrete goal to roll and attempt to get a target number (momentarily putting off the question 'what are we doing here?').

  3. Symptomatic of what issue? Where is this issue? You've made the ad hoc statement, "RPG is about roleplaying," followed by another ad hoc assumption about what roleplaying is, followed by an ad hoc condemnation of what doesn't fit your completely arbitrary definition, ending with a call for action of some kind in order to manage this utterly invented nonsense.

    Combat is enjoyable because the outcome of the dice are unknown, and because that unknown is more interesting that people pandering to their egos muttering supposedly in-character phrases which ultimately are designed to produce a response of, "Oh look at me, I'm SOOO impressive."


    1. I'm sorry, but "combat is enjoyable because the outcome of the dice are unknown" is as much of an ad hoc statement as "RPG is about roleplaying" (which statement, by the way, never appears in the post).

  4. All dice games are about not knowing the results. Thus, the popularity of dice games. Craps, for instance.

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