Thursday, September 29, 2011

Objective-less or “Crippled” RPGs

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:

Basic Rules:

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.
Expanded Rules:

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.
: )


  1. I'm not sure that I agree with your rather provocatively title - that an RPG without an explicit objective is crippled. I've played three or four RPGs over the course of my life - not a great number I admit, but I cut my teeth on (A)D&D. Was my gaming experience better playing that game because it had a clear objective? I very much doubt it. Other factors that I will summarise as 'playability' (whatever that means) are more important to me.
    I see objective as one of the things that I would expect the GM and/or players to bring to the table rather than something that the game system provides.
    Your theory that without this coming from the game system the system is doomed to failure is IMHO highly questionable. But keep writing.

  2. So, my thoughts, for whatever they’re worth...

    I think this is a very valid criticism—especially for commercial games. This is definitely a factor in some games I’ve bought but never played. And I can confirm that there can be disappointment when player expectations don’t jibe with the game the GM is offering. (Though, I think that’s a manageable problem.)

    I would—however—also say that some things sold as RPGames ought really be labelled “toolkit” or “toy”.

    Toolkits are for the GM who already has an idea of the objective to put before the players. They just want mechanics that come without built in expectations. And I don’t think this needs to lead to a railroad any more than a game that comes with an objective does.

    Look at “games” like Sim City. No clear objective (at least in the original) yet lots of people—including me—wasted lots of time playing with it. People have argued that Sim City should be called a toy instead of a game, and I agree. I have seen the same kind of thing work in an RPG. The GM drops the PCs into a setting and the PCs choose their own objectives. It takes the right players and GM, but it works just fine. I also think it works best when the rewards are in-game rather than meta-game as is the norm.

  3. D&D= Good
    "...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."

    Star Frontiers = Bad
    "will see that character rewarded, becoming richer, more powerful and able to handle more difficult missions."

    To me, these are essentially the same.

    I will agree with you that some game systems are nothing but rules, How to do x and y. Some systems do not talk about Why things are done, but there is a general understanding that the purchaser will be providing that.

    Also, I think there may be an assumption amongst a lot of game designers that the "object" of D&D is the default "objective" of every rpg game out there. Maybe Star Frontiers did not phrase it the same way D&D did because it was assumed the "objectives" were understood, especially since Star Frontiers was produced by the same company. And game systems that do spell out their game's "objectives" are doing so either to cover all the bases or to signify that their game's "objectives" are different from the "default".

  4. @ Callin: Perhaps Star Frontiers isn't a good example to use, as I've played it quite a bit myself and know that the description given does not "map" onto the rules as written.

    "Able to handle more difficult missions?" As defined by what? D&D has a system of levels (for characters, dungeons, and monsters) that, while imperfect, gives one a fairly good idea of how things integrate. SF borrows (in its text) the ASSUMPTIONS of D&D without providing a method of delivery.

    I originally intended to quote another game (and will do so in a later post) that is "good" when it comes to the objective thing AND a current (still published) game that is NOT D&D-esque.

    @ Robert: You're right, they don't NEED railroading (light or heavy). But it is a common pitfall based on the lack of objective.

    And, hey, maybe players WANT a little bit of a railroad, if it means they get to play a game where they're Han Solo (or whatever). My original post was just that *I* don't like it, and it has led to problems for me (both in playing and running).

    "Toolkit" is valid, but unfortunately, that's not what they're marketed as.
    ; )

    @ savage: Yeah, I love me my provocative titles...sometimes I get a little over-dramatic.

    "Doomed to failure..." did I say that? Maybe I implied it. Okay, well, look...with a strong enough force/presence acting as GM, and a table of players willing to delegate authority and be led by the nose to whatever "adventure" said-GM creates, I suppose an insular, on-the-same-page group can last for a long, looong time in any particular "objection-less campaign." Certainly, I've held stuff together at times in this way, only allowing it to collapse when I finally became mentally fatigued with the exercise.

    However, those were definitely my LEAST fun games to run, even when I was totally into and interested in the material and/or game system. And when I've PLAYED in games like this...woo-boy, they NEVER lasted very long at all (one or two sessions MAX). And I've played with a variety of gamers from different walks of life and different education levels in many different games.

    I honestly believe that a large part of D&D's longevity stems from some excellent bits of game design, and one of those bits is its very clear objectives of play.

  5. I think it's funny you use SF as an example of a crippled system with no goal. It was one of the easiest RPGs to start folks in as they could enter play as StarLaw agents and being in the space-patrol/galactic secret police offers plenty of opportunities for adventure.

  6. wrong:

    “The objective of the game is to pretend to be an imaginary character having adventures in an imaginary game world.”


    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.

    the only difference is the fact that the second quote mentions what you get xp for. while "overcoming perils" is very vague, "gaining treasure" is quite specific.

    so whatever gives xp in a game is it's objectice, right?

  7. I never really saw defined objectives in a game as limiting, but providing a baseline for everybody to understand what the game is about. I also think that most(if not all)Scifi games have a problem communicating their system's objectives(Alternity, Fading Suns, D20 Modern/future, heck even Shadowrun has this issue at times) because they all seem to be trying to do too much with the system.

  8. JB, stop punching cripples. Nobody plays Star Frontiers.

    In your opinion, what objective-less games are today's players making the mistake of playing?

  9. Spot on. Here's a modern rpg that delivers. Dying earth rpg. The goal is to have characters win the game by deploying witty dialogue and flowerly language to defeat their enemies (and baring that an excellent prysmatic spray will do the trick). The rules provide this in spades.

    Game states the goal and then gives you the tools to meet those goals. D&D does this perfectly. It's almost laughable how hard some designers find this--as if it's enough just to make a character to be in "their" world.

    Go back to war-games. Imagine a war game that stated, "make your own armies!" but then said, "do whatever you want with them". That would be a failure, what I want to do with them is fight battles.

  10. @ JDJarvis: SF would have had much more concrete objectives of play if it HAD been set up with PCs as "Star Law" officers; there's nothing in the game rules about this being the case. In fact, the example scenarios from the Basic rules assume PCs are agents of the Pan-Galactic Corporation...troubleshooters for a futuristic combo Walmart/Blackwater type organization (actually, that sounds more interesting to me than SF's description of the PGC). If you simply start a campaign with the Volturnas module, PCs appear to be no more than galactic tourists.

    @ Shlo: For the most part, no. XP is not the objective for most games that have "objectives."

    Call of Cthulhu has a definite objective of play: PCs are investigators that are supposed to be unravelling some terrible mystery (and then either trying to stop the cosmic horror or join it in terrible ecstasy). The GM facilitates this objective by creating the terrible mystery for the PCs to investigate. There is Chaosium's usual "advancement scheme" for improving characters, but that is hardly the objective of play...uncovering the mystery IS.

    Horror Rules (about which I hope to write more in the next post of this series) features survival as one possible objective of play. HR provides multiple ways to play (one of its strengths) but ALSO provides rules to follow each style regardless of chosen objective. Gaining XP is not the objective of ANY of the styles of play, however,

    In D&D, growing in power IS an objective of play, and earning XP facilitates growing in power (more spells, more combat ability, titles and land grants and followers, etc.). The advancement system is tied directly to the objective of play. It's really quite eloquent when you think about it.

    @ 2eDM: What you're stating here may be a reason/excuse for the poor design choice in these games...wanting to do EVERYthing, means failing to make concrete choices about what a game's about. This has interesting repercussions commercially-speaking for these (genre-specific) games, by the way...but that's a whole 'nother topic.

    @ Fumers: You made me snort martini out my nose!
    ; )

    Some recent games that suck include Hollow Earth Expedition, Wild Talents, and anything produced by White Wolf Game Studio. I admit, I'm making an assumption about the last, as I haven't bought anything by them since 1999 or thereabouts. I've been trying to be very discriminating in my game purchases of late, or I might have more examples...I have quite a few examples from the 90s.

    @ UWS: I put Dying Earth in the column of RPGs WITH objectives of game play. Characters approach a "situation" in the form of a town with strange customs, and then proceed to get in trouble through the use of their vices...player and GM roles are both well-defined, though a knowledge of the source material is pretty darn handy.

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  12. I have always seen D&D and its various incarnations as extremely limited in scope as a result of the very things you mention as benefits.

    Star Frontiers on the other hand (which I agree was not a great game mechanically despite being fun to play) is much more in line with the kind of game I want to run and play since I can do whatever I want with it.

    Can I not do that in D&D? Sure I can. Yet the attitude I've always felt coming off the page was, 'Do this. Only this. This is what this game is about. Why are you thinking of using it for something else? What's the matter with you?"

    Sorry, just not my bag.

    The line where you ask, "how do you determine which goals to make?", strikes me as rather odd.

    How do you determine what to have for breakfast? What clothes to wear? What movie you're going to go see? Are there rules for that lying around your house somewhere?

    Why would you need rules to determine your and your PC's goals. Can't you think of some? What would a guy like him want out of life (imaginary though it is)? If you made an explorer, maybe he wants to explore? Dunno. It's a wild theory.

    I can't tell if I disagree with the viewpoint in this post or the wording is throwing me off.

    Personally I see D&D as crippled. If I want to amass an army and avenge my dead brother, discover a new magic spell or unite the Dwarven Clans of the Iron Highlands, I don't get any experience points for any of it unless I kill someone and find gold. Eh? Lame.

    IMHO of course. : )

  13. Despite the fact that many RPGs don't have their objective clearly stated, many of them had (and still have) a huge success. This leads me to believe that perhaps the term "objective" is not as well-defined a concept for RPGs as it might be in more traditional games.
    Personally, I tend to evaluate a game based on how it supports, rules-wise, a Theme. Actually, supporting a Theme might be seen as a sort of objective, seen as an emergent property of the act of gaming according to the Theme.
    Also, in many games the Objective might be a moving target itself. Look at D&D itself, for example. At low levels the definition in the Basic set might be fit. But when you go into high levels, the "end game" rules suggest a completely different Objective. In the Companion set, the PCs become rulers. In the Masters set they ascend to godhood. In the Immortal rules they expand the influence of their Sphere.