Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Reason to Kill

[somewhere in the air, halfway to Miami]

Much as I prefer RPGs (tabletop) to video games, there is one area (or potential area) where the video RPG excels and where the tabletop RPG falls short: exploration. And that is to say, exploration for the sheer joy of exploration.

In many video games, whether you’re talking Super Mario Brothers or Mass Effect, one of the things that instill a sense of wonder in the gameplay is the opening of new areas and seeing the graphics that the designers have created. Even if there was nothing to DO in the game except “run around,” you could still have an enjoyable time exploring different areas, seeing the flora and fauna and marveling at the fantasy world. I know that when I played the game Fable, I spent a lot of time just wandering around villages and forests, not necessarily engaging in combat (or the plot) just wandering in a fantasy land. That was cool way to blow a few hours.

[maybe that is the appeal of the Sim games. As I’ve never played them, I don’t know]

But just “wandering around” in a tabletop RPG is, well, kind of boring. No matter how elegant the description provided by the GM, there’s no real engagement until the players have something with which to engage: a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, an opponent to defeat. Old adventure modules that have many paragraphs of boxed text just bore the players…at least that’s been my experience over the years. Tell me I’m in a desert and its hot and ask me what direction I want to go…don’t describe the endless hills of bone white sand and the shimmering of the air and the blah blah blah. Tell me that in the light of my torch I can see the corridor goes left or right and ask me what I want to do, but don’t waste my time describing the type and coloration of the stone and mold in loving detail.

With a video game, part of the reason why folks play (and why they keep upgrading their hardware and why each new piece of software is judged by what’s come before) is to see how far our technology has advanced and just how lost we can get in the beauty of gameplay.  But a picture is worth a thousand words, and since the RPG GM has nothing but words (and an occasional illustration/handout to give the players), it’s going to take many, many thousands of words to try to duplicate the wonder one would get from the latest vid. And that’s just f’ing tedious.

Action…that’s what the tabletop RPG thrives on. LARPing may be different (I haven’t LARPed but from what I gather Camarilla folks aren’t biting each other), but even those drama-filled story games that are the antithesis of an Old School dungeon crawl has something happening in them. There is conflict and there is resolution in all RPGs, but the game begins to fall flat in the exploration for the sake of exploration.

But okay, so what? Why is this interesting? Well, just look at how much adventure fiction involves exploring new things…and how much the enjoyment of the adventure comes from enjoying the marvel of the exploration, in all but the most fast-paced of pulp action.

I just finished reading Doyle’s The Lost World (it’s a long flight) about a group of explorers that set out to find an isolated plateau abounding with a mix of prehistoric life: dinosaurs, ape-men, etc. Yes, there is action that takes place a couple-three “encounters” with monstrous antagonists. But most of the book is just wandering around, getting lost, looking at neat stuff, and trying to get un-lost. It’s still an adventure book…it’s still interesting and exciting. But you couldn’t run an RPG like that. There’s just no way to make a game that translates a scientific expedition…even one in a fantasy realm…into an exciting role-playing experience.

“Make your zoological skill roll to identify a thought-to-be-extinct insect?” No, that’s just silly.

When I consider this, I suddenly see why combat takes precedence in so many RPGs. Yes, yes…it’s an accepted trope of RPGs that descends from their wargaming roots, I get that. But, it’s also a very easy and straightforward method of injecting conflict and action into the imaginary game world. Things getting boring? Throw an encounter at the players and watch them engage.

Maybe this is elementary school stuff to others but I see it as a big stumbling block of the (fantasy RPG) genre. I’ve asked before on this blog “Is it all supposed to be about combat?” considering the answer to be “no.” But while the enjoyment of fantasy RPGs may NOT be all about combat, that doesn’t mean they can go without action, drama, and conflict. Those things are necessary to engage in gameplay. Otherwise, what are we doing at this table listening to this GM guy yak at us about his/her wonderful fantasy world?

Can you play Star Trek without phasers? Maybe…but you probably can’t play it without the misunderstandings and random conflicts that occur when the landing party encounters a strange, new cultures. What if Kung Fu’s Kane just wandered around the Old West without getting into fights or conflicts due to discrimination? Would that be interesting to anyone? What would Robotech be like without the Zentradi?

RPGs need conflict to engage the players. It’s why ElfQuest is such a damn, hard game to use to emulate the comic books. Yes, you can use the Chaosium system to pick fights with trolls and humans and MadCoil (good luck with that!), but trying to play something that looks like Cutter’s “quest?” It’s real, real tough. You might as well just go back and reread the comics.

That being said (and I really do want to wrap this up and sleep a bit before landing), I have a feeling that giving precedence to a combat system is kind of a lazy way of injecting conflict into your RPG design. And count me among the guilty parties (many of my concepts for games come out of a spontaneous “neat combat system” idea…but then, felling foes with a mighty axe is my daydream of choice). Maybe we just need to kick out the idea of “exploration” (of setting, of character) as a design priority, and instead focus on what kinds of conflict we want…which may not be oriented on “killing stuff.” Maybe the KERNAL of fantasy RPG game design should be taking that conflict and building around it.

People are already doing this, by the way…consciously or not. Look at Hillfolk and its main conflict system of seeking emotional concessions. Look at Sorcerer and its goal of resolving the character’s “kicker.”

RPGs without conflict and challenge…even the simple one in Traveller of making money to pay off your ship and fuel…are boring. Games that leave the injection of that conflict in the hands of the GM (hello, White Wolf!) as opposed to putting it front-and-center in the design are just lazy.

Anyway, that’s my thought of the evening (or rather morning, since we’re well past 1am). Maybe I’ll feel different on the next flight.
; )


  1. I dunno... going into a new town, going down in a dark haunted hole, jumping into some new plane of existence... those things certainly 'feel' like exploration to me during an RPG session. There's often a threat of danger but not always... and a good GM, armed with a handful of well-chosen descriptors, can make them shine.
    It's true that video games supply great images these days... but they're never going to be much of a rival for the ones in my head.

    1. very true!

      it does take a good gm to pull it off though.

      in a new campaign that started a few weeks ago, i play an elf with very little knowledge of human civilization. most experiences he has are new and exciting. having a good gm helps, but so far it has been great fun "exploding" humans and their lifestyle. the first 3 sessions have been a blast, despite just 2 combats (and little other conflict) in about .20 hours gametime.

      i also agree with what professoroats says below. the videogames you describe also have conflict at the heart of them. doing nothing but running around looking at the nice scenery would get boring quickly in a pc-game as well.

      ps: i noticed the typo. so?

  2. My first impressions of D&D was that it was a game of treasure seekers in a mysterious and dangerous fantasy world. The first illustrations that I remember looking at seemed to convey that message. One of them was the cover of the 1e PHB and the other was Trampiers Magic Mouth drawing. Those Dwarves and Halfling never gave me the feeling that they were trained warriors looking for a fight. Instead, I imagined they were ordinary folk lost in a labyrinth only to find themselves going deeper and deeper in search of gold. Even the original cover of Gamma World made me feel that way. Really, treasure hunting was at the heart of the games back then. Conflict was created by any road block to obtaining treasure that the creative GM could come up with- trick, trap or trial. But, as you point out, alot of the conflict involved combat. How else would you interact with that wandering troglodyte or black pudding the first time you encountered them?

    Maybe what you're looking for is a game that captures that feeling again.

  3. I'd think video games would also require conflict. One could render an absolutely stunning fantasy world for me to explore, but the novelty's gonna wear off if I can't interact with the environment in ways that feel meaningful

    I don't think exploration's a poor focus for tabletop gaming either. What we need to do is ask what sorts of conflicts exploration provides us and how those conflicts should be prioritized based on that theme. Within that context, combat would be fairly low priority, and should be treated with all the attention of a goomba in Mario. Combat is nothing more than an obstacle and deterrent