Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Objectives versus (Simple) Existence

My days are relatively boring, often quite similar to each other. I suspect this is the nature of human existence no matter what one’s culture, status, or geographical location…at least when one’s country isn’t at war or in the midst of a great social upheaval.

No, life is boring and that generally means things are going smoothly. There may be the occasional accident or drama or upset that occurs to “shake the tree” but boring is good and comfortable. Go to the daily grind (whatever that is for you), spend time with the family (no matter what “family” looks like), find something to eat on a regular (relatively speaking) basis, and indulge in the occasional vice (football watching and weekly role-playing, for example).

That’s LIFE, though…life as (one hopes) it should be: routine and comfortable. Most folks want something different in their fantasy role-playing.

At least, I do. I enjoy playing role-playing games but not for the simple escapist fantasy (or, I should say, not for that alone). Personally, I prefer there to be some OBJECTIVE to play; it’s not enough to imagine myself as a cool character in a strange place/time and occasionally roll a few dice. Maybe for some folks, that’s enough. Personally, I don’t see how that can sustain long-term interest.

Unfortunately, most RPGs provide no objective for play.

I went through a quick list of role-playing games, including only games that I owned and not counting different editions as different games (for example, only 1 D&D, 1 Vampire, 1 Shadowrun, even though I own 2 to 5 editions of each of these). The total number of RPGs totaled 60 (and as this is just off the top of my head; I’m sure I missed a few). Of these, at least 70% have no objective.
[and just as an aside, I own absolutely zero versions/editions/supplements of GURPS]

At least 70%...some of the ones I included as objectives might be a bit of a stretch. For example, Battle Tech has definite objectives of play (destroy all enemy mecha on the battlefield), but Mechwarrior does not (except as pertains to piloting mechs in combat missions). Since I combined these as ONE RPG on my list, it went into the “yes” column, though if one is just playing MW with spies or technicians (??) “objective” is pretty much undefined.

Here are some positive examples of what I’m talking about.

D&D has definite objectives of play. Characters travel to an adventure site (called a “dungeon,” created by a “Dungeon Master”) and look for treasure, while trying not to get killed in the process.

Everyone knows what they’re doing there, right?

Call of Cthulhu (and Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE games: Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues) has a pretty well defined objective, too: characters have a mysterious situation (created by the GM) that needs to be investigated…hopefully without succumbing to death and/or insanity.

Shadowrun, Top Secret, and James Bond also have specific, concrete missions: characters are assigned a “mission” with “mission objectives” (pretty explicit, huh?) and get paid if and when they complete the mission. That’s about as clearly defined as it gets.

Even a “story game” like Sorcerer can have explicit objectives of play; in the case of Edwards’ game, play is about resolving the player designed “kicker” and in doing so, address a specific premise. That may be hoity-toity and abstract, but it’s still an objective.

Most RPGs, though...even the really slick, “well-designed” ones...are ridiculously ambiguous about what the hell players are supposed to do. “Characters are supposed to have adventures.” Um, what kind of adventures? “Anything you want, or anything the GM can imagine.”

That tells me nothing, pal.

White Wolf games (of which I’ve somehow managed to collect a great number: Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Aberrant, Adventure!, Trinity) are some of the worst when it comes to this. “Create a story about vampires!” How exactly do I do that? “Have the players make vampire characters and then have the GM make an adventure!” About what, exactly? “Anything you want! The pain of losing humanity, the conflict between young and old, vigilante justice through the use of your vampiric powers…whatever!”

See, that’s bullshit. “Anything you want” or “Whatever” are extremely lazy choices of game design. It’s actually NOT making a choice. Your game is about vampires, sure. Vampires doing WHAT exactly? Anything you want? No, that’s stupid…give me a reason to play the f'ing game.

Games based on specific intellectual property tend to be equally stupid. ElfQuest is about elves. Elves doing what? Whatever you want. No, that’s not a useful answer. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (a game that I consider to be The Most Boring RPG Ever Written) is about “life in the Xenozoic Age.” What do your characters do? “Whatever they want.”

No, that’s stupid.

As a GM, I understand part of my responsibility is being creative; that’s part of what I sign up for when I take on the role of "Game Master." However, I need a framework to work within…and the players need expectations, too, besides “entertain me.” Watch the difference here:

D&D: Players create characters (as explained in rules); DM creates dungeon (as explained in rules). Players ask, “Have we heard of any dungeons ripe for plucking?” DM says, “As a matter of fact, you’ve come across info on just such a place.”

Ars Magica: Players create characters (as explained in rules); GM considers possible conflicts/antagonists (as SUGGESTED in rules). Players ask, “So what are going to do tonight?” GM asks, “What are your characters interested in?” Players say “Getting more magical power by spending ‘seasons’ experimenting and researching.” GM: “Okay, um…what are your non-magi characters doing?” Players: “Um, what is there for them to do.” GM: “Well, they can…um…well, there’s this baron who’s kind of a jerk…um…” Players: “So what? He knows better than to mess with the covenant house, and anyway, we’re not antagonizing him.” GM: “Um, you’ve heard about a dragon in the hills.” Players: “No way we’re going near it! Those things are dangerous and we don’t need treasure.” GM: “Ummm…well what do you want to do?” Players: “Hey, we agreed to play this stupid game; YOU entertain US.”

Most games without objective are like that: Rifts, Marvel, Castle Falkenstein, Over the Edge, The last is an example of a tasty little system with utterly nothing to do. Oh, excuse me: it has “wide open possibilities.”

Translation: no explicit objectives or direction for play.

I hate that. As a player I hate it, because I either end up bored or railroaded (or both) more often than not; as a GM I LOATHE it, because the author is giving you ammunition without a gun and telling you to go out and “do something.” Just providing “sample scenarios” or “adventure seeds” isn't enough. What is the objective of game play?

“To play vampires in the modern day.” Doing WHAT exactly? I can play vampires using GURPS or D20 or RISUS or Toon(!) for goodness sakes…what the hell do I need your book for? Mood? Pretty pictures?

“To play undead cowboys in a horror/fantasy Western.” Doing WHAT exactly? At least in Boot Hill, the gunfighting rules are quick and efficient.

“To defeat the Empire!, without treading on the toes of Luke Skywalker & Co.” How exactly am I supposed to do that? Just create random “situations” that may or may not have any rhyme or reason or consistency or pertinence to anything?

As I write/design my own games (slowly…oh so slowly) I try to keep in mind exactly what players and GMs are supposed to do and HOW they are supposed to do it. One of the complaints Josh had regarding my dinosaur game was he didn’t really know WHAT he was supposed to do in the game, even after reading the rules. And while I can say (in my defense) that a one-page micro-game doesn’t provide enough space to list an objective, I totally agree that it’s certainly more fun to play a game when you know exactly what you’re supposed to do IN the game.

I am really, really tired of lazy game design that simply assumes “Oh, GMs will know what to do with THIS.” Even if that’s true (and certainly not even experienced GMs have the time, energy, and/or creativity to craft adventures and sagas from scratch ALL the time)…EVEN IF it’s true, it’s still laziness on the part of the author. And it makes me want to chuck ALL these games out the freaking window. Give me something to do besides "make a cool character for a cool setting."

Adventure doesn't just happen, idiots. Ugh.


  1. Instead of the order of operations being:
    1. Pick a fun game
    2. Figure out the objectives of the game

    it could be
    1. Figure out some fun objectives
    2. Pick a game that matches your objectives

    Then it doesn't matter if the system has implied or explicit objects. I'm not saying one is better than the other in general though, but games with obvious objectives are probably better for the lazy gamer.

    Other games you probably hate would be Traveler and Savage Worlds. Those are definitely systems where you have to have campaign idea ahead of time.

  2. while i just argued on another blog that soemtimes designers are stupid i will do the opposite here.

    maybe not chosing definite objectives was the choice made by the designers.

    i have never had any problems making up objectives for my characters when i played an rpg. i think thats "part of the game" for the players. being able to to "anything i want" sounds marvelous to me and that is exactly how i describe rpgs to newcomers.

    why would i need the game to tell me what to do? i can decide that for myself. that's part of what sets rpgs apart from other games. the game better give me the tools to do what i want. if the game has an objective and you like it... fine. if you don't or if there isnt't one simply make up something you find enjoyable.

    "go to dungeon and get the loot" became old for me quickly and only after i realised that rpgs can be much more i began to love them.

    Adventure doesn't just happen, idiots. Ugh.

    weird, it seems for me they do. Ugh. :)


    aw yeah

  4. Game systems don't have to have objectives built in, but adventures should. Campaigns should have at least some adventure objectives built in, but also have space between for player/party goals that may or may not be part of the DM's (or module author's) plan.

    That's how I like to play, I think.

  5. Back in the day when everyone was playing Vampire for the first time, THIS was exactly the major hurdle - what are we supposed to be doing again? Objectives were so tenuous or nebulous and adventure so far in between that games petered out and we went back to D&D or other games. I think that is why WoD morphed into Hunter - you know exactly what you are supposed to do (i.e. kill the vamp), but what is a 1,000 year old bloodsucker supposed to do, besides drink and sleep? This is also why IPs can be good games - everyone playing Star Wars knows who the bad guys are and what they can do about them.

    Good post.

  6. To me, the lack of a specific objective in RPG rules is a feature, not a bug (which doesn't mean, by the way, that RPG rules with objectives are bad in any way, and such objectives can be very useful). A rules set should be the "physics engine" and a uniform method of describing characters and other entities/objects, while the Referee develops background and interprets rules, and the PLAYERS are the ones who develop objectives. The Referee deserves to be entertained as well, and it is in the decisions made by the players as to their actions and objectives that she is.

  7. @ Fumers: Yes, Traveller would be in my list of "objective-less" games (and was one I forgot to include on my list!), unless you simply go with the game-within-a-game "trading to pay off my freighter."

    The problem with "figure out your objectives first" approach is that not everyone has a huge library of RPGs to draw upon. Yes, you can use a generic system (like D20 Modern or GURPS or HERO or FUDGE) but that's hardly satisfying (from my perspective). I don't know about you, but I generally buy the game first (because it intrigues me or I read a good view or I dig the subject matter) and then look to set up a game. However, when I find the game doesn't present me with a method of generating on-going objectives...well, I tend to get tired of doing all the heavy lifting. And I'm not THAT lazy of a gamer.

    @ Shlom: Part of the joy of MOST RPGs is the ability to do "anything" with it. D&D (for example) can be used to run a variety of campaigns of various styles, as has been demonstrated over the years. But it has a BASE, a FOUNDATION on which those alternate ideas are built.

    Most games don't have that. They have an IDEA (wouldn't it be cool if gunslingers came back from the dead? And gamblers in the Old West were secretly wizards? And giant worms and monsters prowled the desert?)...they have an IDEA and then say, "go do something with it."

    Look, *I* can do that, and I'm no "top flight game designer." Come up with mechanics for modeling actions (or steal them from another game) and come up with a "kewl setting?" Sure, most people can with a little imagination.

    "Going to a dungeon for loot" is simply the base adventure format in D&D. But that objective (find an adventure site, look for treasure, overcome challenges) can be spun in many ways (the site can be a city (B6) or island wilderness (X1) or another plane (H4)), and "treasure" isn't necessarily monetary in nature.

    Without objectives built-in to a game, your probably going to be creating adventures with light-to-heavy railroading.

    @ Josh: I'm talking about something a little different from adventure goals. The goal of the AD&D adventure Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is to "escape before the poison gas kills you." The goal of Against the Giants is to "deal the giants a decisive, fatal blow of vengeance."

    The OBJECTIVE of D&D is to grow in power and renown by overcoming challenges and accumulating wealth.

    @ Ted: Thanks.

  8. @ Faol (sorry, cross-post):

    See, I disagree with this: that rule sets should be "only a physics engine."

    If I hand you a ball and say, "go play" you can do a lot of stuff with it, based on the physics and dynamics of the ball. Doesn't mean your game is going to be as fun and interesting as say, baseball or basketball or football or soccer.

    Each of those established games use a ball (different shapes, sizes, and colors, but still balls) but all have different objectives of play and rules that define how those objectives are accomplished.

  9. OK, but what I'm saying is that RPG rules are fundamentally different than the rules of other games. The rules of an RPG are the physics, because imagination has wide-open physics and we need a coherent physics that all of the players can agree on. The scenarios and player goals are the analogue of the rules of other games.

    RPGs are not like other games or media in that they are created by and for the benefit of the players (including the Referee in those RPGs that have one). It is possible to create an RPG which has a fixed objective (Grognardia mentioned Sandman recently, which is a perfect example of this sort), but it is equally possible to create an RPG which has an open system allowing for any objective assigned by the players. You could consider this in comparison to wargames - Third Reich has a specific set of objectives and a limited set of scenarios to play through (much like Chess), while Squad Leader is designed as an engine to play out any number of scenarios. Or, if you prefer, Godsfire is designed to play out one specific situation, and that is built into the rules, while Starfleet Battles is designed to work out many different scenarios using the same set of rules.

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  11. It's the VERY essence of RPGs let the players do what they want. If the game forces the story to go in one way or another, call it what you want; it's not a RPG anymore -for me, at least-.

    D&D was good back in the 80s, or for new players who look instant shock and emotions. Experienced (mature) players look for something more than kill-and-treasure, or should they once adolescence is left back. In my case, if the story would be limited to throw us into dark dungeons among lots of goblins or any other bloody and childish creatures and to get some treasure, I'd have left RPG loooong time ago.

  12. i agree with faoladh obviously. ;)

    If I hand you a ball and say, "go play" you can do a lot of stuff with it, based on the physics and dynamics of the ball. Doesn't mean your game is going to be as fun and interesting as say, baseball or basketball or football or soccer.

    true. but before there were any regular ballsports people "just played" and the rules for certain games developed over time. while kicking a ball around with their feet they found that trying to get it into a "goal" might be fun, so they did that. wait, what?! they created their own objective?! is that even allowed?!

    i can't tell you if they had fun, but if they didn't they most likely would have stopped, right? maybe creating objectives IS fun (for some)?

    the number of different ballgames that evolved over time indicate the unlimited potential of a simple object, a ball. the same is true about rpgs without a definite objective, there's unlimited potential there too.

    most players today would have a number of ideas what they might do if you handed them a ball and told them to "go play".

    i also want to point out that i don't believe having an objective built in is bad in any way. maybe a little limiting, but not bad. necessary for some genres? maybe. but for the majority of games? i think not.

  13. @Faol: I'm not sure if our disagreement is being caused by MY loosey-goosey use of the term "objective" or by actual disagreement in terms of "gaming philosophy." While I don't like your use of the term "physics," I think I grok what you mean when using it and I seem to be in agreement with everything in your first paragraph...not sure why it goes off the rails later.

    Obviously, I'm going to need a follow-up post to address this stuff. I'm not sure it's going to end pretty.
    ; )

    @Jose: One can do more with D&D than "explore dungeons" but (as I said) the basic adventure scenario provides the foundation for everything that comes after, allowing one to build on it.

    You can't just say "here are a set of rules" and expect people to do something with 'em...though this is exactly what most RPGs do, to my frustration.

    @ Shlo: There is PLAY (structured or unstructured) and there are GAMES. If an RPG purports to be a "game" than it should provide something more than rules for unstructured play. Yes, you can do "anything you want" with unstructured play. You can also do that with games by changing the rules (for example, saying that XP isn't gained by gold but only by killing monsters, or that XP is only gained by doing class-specific actions like "researching magic" for MUs and "spreading religion" for clerics).

    Sure, you can have fun with unstructured play, and in fact may have MORE fun than playing some games (especially if the latter is poorly designed in other ways). But you can higher degree of fun, or (perhaps a better way to say) a MORE READILY REPLICATED TYPE OF FUN if you have an actual game, not just a bunch of rules for "how the RPG world works" (Faol's "physics").

    I hold no value in "unlimited potential" - again, you can pour near any amount of creativity into most games and I feel that RPGs by their nature have certain limits (if for no other reason than for player expectation due to the name on the cover, if nothing else). So having an "objective-less game" is NOT a feature. It's a crippled RPG, requiring a crutch from a (hopefully creative) GM to keep it propped upright. Without that crutch, the thing falls flat because it lacks a structure to sustain it.

  14. Of course it won't "end pretty." You've taken a position, and broadly and unambiguously insulted those who might think differently. How is that supposed to end well?

    You state that people who think differently are idiots, and suggest that your perspective is obvious and should be the only one. It seems insincere to then act surprised when people object.

  15. @ fictive:

    Um...I have NOT stated that those who think different from me are idiots (at least, I just read back through my post and comments and don't see that) and I don't think I've unambiguously insulted anyone, except those that I deem "lazy game designers." And anyway, that's a knock on myself regarding a couple of the games on MY design desk, too.

    But it appears YOU feel insulted by what I've written. Sorry about that...just venting my opinion into the blog-o-sphere (as usual)!

    For the recorn, I'm not surprised that people take umbrage; someone usually does.
    ; )

  16. funny how you see the dm as a crutch for something that (in my mind) the players should provide.

    i think i understand where you're coming from from a design standpoint, but as a player i tend to avoid any rpg that sets me obvious limits.

    looking forward to your "not pretty" post. :)


    Eh, here you go off into Forge-land. This idea, that fun can be manufactured to order as if it were a science, is one of the reasons that I moved away from that design philosophy. Fun is a complex and subtle entity, an art that is highly dependent on the very specific situation. The things that are fun in one situation are not-fun in others. Different people have differing areas of fun, as well. Some love logistics, for instance (such as myself - it's one of the things I greatly missed while playing Story Games), while others think that accounting for torches and arrows is about the most un-fun thing possible.

    Anyway, I second what shlominus said, and also look forward to your follow up post.

  18. Oh, no worries, I am not offended. Further, it's fine if you do not agree with how I see your post. I was just pointing something out that seems clear from my point of view. Maybe you really CAN'T see it.

    Carry on.

  19. I would have to take issue with D&D having a "mission". It still has the same problem.

    PC's "I create a character!"
    DM's "I built a dungeon!"
    PC's "Now what?"
    DM "Go in the Dungeon!"
    PC's "To do what?"
    DM "Explore it!"
    PC's "Why?"
    DM "...its full of treasure?"
    PC's "So, we have enough money, its also full of monsters"
    DM "Cause if you don't we'll be bored shitless?"

    So if Mechwarrior is "weak" on the mission, D&D is even more so. Its a "If you build it they will come" situation in exactly the same way.

    Now you could say that gaining levels is the point of the game (how you "win") in which case anything that grants XP is the mission.

  20. @ ZZ: I wouldn't say D&D is "mission-based," but htere's no question of what PCs are supposed to do in it: go on dangerous adventures (wherever they find it) and bring back treasure. The game is pretty up-front and explicit about it.

    Likewise, same with the DM's least in the Basic game, you're provided the tools for creating a dungeon for the players to explore. Assuming they are "on board" with the explicit objective of the game (as explicitly set out), then they'll have no problem "doing what they need to do."

    My D&D games generally start with players asking "have we heard about any dungeons/treasure in the vicinity?" Pretty darn easy to build on THAT.
    : )

  21. I'm going to unlurk here and make a few comments, mostly because you were trying to explain this concept to me in person a few months ago and I didn't really get it, but I think now I have a better understanding (and am also looking forward to the follow-up posts).

    I'm definitely in the camp of the sandboxers. The problem I have with most indie games is that they come with objectives and once you've done that a few times and are looking for something new, you have ... nothing. The scope is small and so the potential is small.

    The thing that gets me about games with a particular objective, is that how is it any different than railroading? If I'm not into my Shadowrun character being hired by a Johnson and doing the mission, I'm being just as railroaded as a similar mission in a sandbox game. Now, the rails are setup and explicit to begin with, which is good, but is it better? Is it better game design to do one thing, or to encourage play in many different ways?

    I would actually argue that "Anything you want" is harder for a game designer to pull off because there are so many more decisions to make -- both about how to model and what to model. Since D&D is about killing monsters and getting treasure, it has rules for determining what monster have which treasures; it doesn't have haggling with merchant rules. If D&D was trying to encompass all aspects of fantasy life, it would have to decide first if haggling was 'important' to the setting/physics and if it was important, decide how the haggling rules worked. But it is actually the "lazy one," having decided that social interactions were outside of its scope and ignorable.

    That said, you are certainly correct that new players and campaign starts are poorly treated by many games, both ones with explicit objectives and those without, because the game does not address their basic question, "What am I doing here?"

    It's probably a cop-out (and thus a sign of laziness) to say that the particulars there are so easily affected by individual GM styles and campaign peculiarities, as to make advice in this arena either too specific or too vague to be of any help. I mean, make a character, travel to a dungeon, kill things and become strong are still _very_ vague and nebulous objectives. Does that really give me an idea of what to expect as I sit down at the table? It tells me that my character shouldn't be a pacifist but beyond that?

    As a new GM is that formula helpful? Maybe, but I think I would get the point a lot faster by reading a sample adventure and copying that formula, rather than by being given the formula in the abstract.

    Just my two cents and looking forward to following the discussion to follow.


  22. @ Tim: You raise some good points. However, regarding

    "...I would actually argue that "Anything you want" is harder for a game designer to pull off because there are so many more decisions to make -- both about how to model and what to model..."

    See, personally I see the ATTEMPT to do this as a fool's errand. I know many designers (for some inexplicable reason) try this, but for my money, the results are always mixed.

    I don't mind "small scope games" like, say, My Life With Master or 3:16...I like to play a lot of different games with different themes and ideas and I'm not a believer in "one size fits all" when it comes to RPGs. That being said, I also prefer long term play with character development. But there's a definite balancing act between too much objective and too little.
    : )