Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fantasy Objectives (Part 2)

Okay, so where was I? Oh, yeah…objectives.

Dungeons & Dragons, regardless of its wargaming roots or its role-playing features, meets the definition of game because it has an objective of play. People sit down at the table asking, “What are we supposed to do in this game?” and the referee/DM can answer them succinctly. Specifically:

You’re looking for treasure; don’t get killed doing it.

Other early RPGs, too, have (relatively) clear and explicit objectives of play…though perhaps only because the design was informed by the D&D/wargame model. In Top Secret you are given missions and receive cash and XP in direct relation to the actions accomplished, especially as relates to your character’s “bureau” classification. In Gamma World characters search the post-apocalyptic ruins of ancient cities and installations, looking for treasure in the form of “artifacts” and, yes, gold. Boot Hill generally boils down to a number of gunfighting scenarios where the object is the simple kill or be killed…all roads lead to the same destination in BH.

However, once RPGs start getting away from the wargame/D&D paradigm, we see games start to lose any type of concrete objective of play. And losing that concrete objective means losing the very thing that makes the game a “game.” This problematic flaw of design (I’ll call it a “flaw” now, though I’ve used more derogatory language in the past) persists for a couple decades until the advent of the indie RPG “movement” and the creation of those “Story Now” games that tend to be relegated to the back shelf of the game shop.

[we’ll get to that in a moment]

Non-RPG games have objectives of play…and these objectives are explicit in their instructions. The instructions, the rules, give the parameters for achieving those objectives. Now some folks might ask:

JB…are you saying all these RPGs need to be as competitive as card and board games? That they need “victory” conditions of some sort? Like Monopoly or Magic: the Gathering or Chinese checkers? And if they don’t have a winner than they can’t be considered “games?”

No, a game can be a game without an objective that involves beating someone’s ass. Games can be cooperative, and not just in a “my-team-versus-your-team” kind of way. The object of the card game Once Upon A Time is to create a story using the cards dealt to the players; yes, the game has a “winner” (the person who drains their hand first), but it is explicitly emphasized in the rules that this should be a secondary consideration to the crafting a good tale. In Jenga, all players are working to build the tower with the object of not knocking down the blocks…the game doesn’t have a “winner” only a “loser,” though really EVERYONE loses if the blocks get knocked down, since this stops play (games like Twister are similar). In the classic party game Telephone players take turns whispering a particular sentence from one to another, with the explicit object being to perfectly “pass” the phrase all the way down the line. Of course this almost never happens, resulting in much fun and hilarity…but the “rules” and “objective” of the game are clear, with the play itself resulting in a fun “win” for everyone.

The object of a role-playing game doesn’t have to be killing things and taking their stuff. That works for the somewhat thuggish, treasure-hunting premise of D&D but is decidedly inappropriate for other flavors of fantasy role-playing. But as a game, you still need some objective. You need something as an object of play.

I wrote previously that “to have fun” is not an objective of play; fun is an expectation of play, and we play games expecting to have a good time. Here’s another thing that’s NOT an objective of play:

Creating an imaginary character and going on adventures.

The phrase isn’t the object of play, it simply describes play itself…the action that should, in theory, lead to the objective (if the RPG were written with objective firmly in the cross-hairs of the designer). Without creating the “roles” for players to play, no “role-playing” can occur. And since the act of character creation isn’t itself the game (all apologies to White Wolf and Pathfinder), the adventure – i.e. the exploration of the imaginary world by the characters – is a necessary part of game play. Without it, you simply have some nice concepts written on paper: beached whales longing for the open sea.

[yeah, that’s a weird analogy]

So the game play of a role-playing game has “imaginary characters going on adventures,” with the specific systems (“rules”) differing from game to game. But for a game to be a proper, functional game it still requires an objective of play…and it’s downright incredible to me how many games fail in this regard.

Yes, yes, yes…I know there are plenty of people who have played and enjoyed these “flawed” games. Hell, people continue to play and enjoy them. There are couple reasons why, even in the absence of a specific objective, such games can “work” (I use the term only to mean that there is functional play that occurs, regardless of the quality of that play):
  1. Long-time gamers incorporate previously learned suppositions into the game play of otherwise objective-less games; for example, creating site-based adventures (i.e. “dungeons”) into fantasy games like Stormbringer or Star Frontiers (the introductory module for Star Frontiers includes an actual cavern complex…with numbered encounters and monsters…for exploration).
  2. Games based on specific intellectual property (or IP with the serial numbers filed off) rely on participants’ knowledge of the IP or genre to create pastiche play aping the designated concept (see ElfQuest, Star Wars, Serenity, etc. for examples, as well as most RPGs of the “space opera” or “superhero” genre).

I would argue that gameplay for 99% (or more) of objective-less RPGs falls into one of these two categories, which basically means the participants are injecting their own objectives to account for a flaw of game design.

What if you took a game like, say, Risk or Monopoly and deleted any part of the rule book that pertained to the object of the game? You’d still have some rules available to you…how to set up, the order of play, etc…but you’d be missing a key part to the instruction, right? If you could find a person or two who’d played the game before (or who’d played a similar game) they’d certainly be able to help you out…but if you had no knowledge source to draw from? You’d be left grasping and guessing as to what it was all about. But then, maybe you just enjoy the accumulation of plastic army counters or fake paper money and that’s enough to satisfy you.

There is a conceit shared amongst many longtime gamers that all RPGs play pretty much the same…that the systems change, the themes and genre change, but that gameplay is “pretty much the same.” Here is a game about undead cowboys. Here is a game about pulp-era explorers. Here is a game about intrepid fantasy adventurers delving dungeons. Here is a game about steampunk time travelers in zeppelins.

Change character generation, change setting, change rules for “doing stuff,” change “reward system” (usually understood to be the method by which the imaginary avatar of “character” increases its in-game effectiveness)…but still doing the same old, same old. The only thing that causes one game to be played over another (besides group consensus at the game table is):

-        Interest in the new/different setting and characters
-        Interest in the new/different system of doing “that stuff we do in all RPGs”

Only as intense as you make it.
Now in recent years (the last decade or so) that’s changed a bit as the indie-game movement (especially folks interested in those damn Story Now games that facilitate a “narratavist” creative agenda), have made some inroads into returning RPGs to real games…i.e they’ve included objectives of play in their design, that have been so badly lacking in most “new” RPGs since the early 1980s. Games like Sorcerer and My Life With Master and InSpecters and Baron Munchausen (itself a hybrid game with a competitive edge) have distinct goals of play that the participants work towards over a session…much like an Old School D&D party works at digging the treasure out of well-guarded and hard-to-reach caches. Not every indie game does, of course…some (like The Riddle of Steel) fall prey to the same “flaw of design” found in other RPGs. And I don’t think the intent behind including objectives was to make the games more “game-like;” I think they were just trying to really define WHAT IT IS THE PLAYERS ARE DOING IN-PLAY WITH THE AUTHOR’S SYSTEM.

Specificity. Don’t fear it.

Now people who enjoy the hell out of “universal” RPG systems like GURPS and RISUS and whatever hate this kind of discussion, because the whole point of universal systems appears to be “give the players the tool kit they need to do anything they want.” They take umbrage with the idea that GURPS (for example) isn’t a “game” simply because it doesn’t include an in-play objective. “Bloody Hell!” they shout “That’s the whole damn POINT! I want a system that doesn’t tell me what I’m supposed to do, I want to create my own objectives of play.” Fine and dandy…GURPS isn’t a game; it’s a tool box to help you design your own game. (insert objective and) Enjoy it.

[actually, the snarky side of me would say GURPS IS a game with an actual objective of play; however, that objective is “to create a workable game using the GURPS system,” and that the play is in the design of the world/setting…i.e. the GM prep work…not in the actual play of the RPG itself]

Okay, that’s enough stomping on people’s feelings for now. More later.

[to be continued]


  1. I don't fear specificity, I just think its a load of bunk. Assigned game objectives? In a dullard's voice: "Yeah, ya know, 'cause I don't know what's the first thing I do in the morning when I get out of bed." Find the door, you idiot.

    I don't know what your point is, JB, but nothing on this post is relevant to it. It doesn't matter what other games do, or how they define themselves as games, or what they think an objective is, or indeed what you think an objective is. The whole, entire reason I enjoy the game of D&D is because it is utterly like any other game that came before it, and any game like it that came after was a pale, dim, pathetic pox on D&D's butt.

    And now you're arguing that D&D needs to have objectives and design like other games? And that these other poxy games you reference are somehow meaningful alternatives because your straw man 'flaw' in D&D has been defined by you as a flaw?

    This is drivel. And you should know its drivel. But go on, write a third part, the straw man needs a wife and a daughter and probably a dog too.

  2. To some extent I agree. Games have objectives. An end game. Without them, games aren't games, they're story-telling or some other form of "play." The nice thing about a role-playing game? Players can make them up from session to session and evaluate whether they've "won" or not that session based on whether they achieved their objectives.