Update: I wrote a quick follow up that can be seen here: Chess is Not an RPG: A Quick Follow Up

Hi there. My name is John and I design games. Lots of them. Over twenty years, I’ve designed over twenty roleplaying games. I’ve had a hand in card games and board games, too, but the thing I’m best known for is roleplaying game design.

Now, this isn’t an article about game design, but rather, an article about being a game master. But, in order to get to that advice, I need to spend a little bit of time talking about game design. Trust me, it matters.

So, I’d like to begin by asking you a question. You’re playing a science fiction roleplaying game and your character is about to face Vin Diesel’s character, Riddick, in a fight and you get to choose which weapon he uses.

Do you pick sword, gun, hammer…

How about “tea cup?”

A follow up question. Same situation. Except this time, you’re facing Sean Connery’s character from The Presidio, Lieutenant Colonel Alan Caldwell. You get to choose which weapon he uses, but he says, “I don’t need a weapon, I’m only going to use my thumb…”

How much damage does Sean Connery’s thumb do? What’s the save vs. Sean Connery’s thumb? Does it have an initiative bonus? Can it block or parry? Does it do Megadamage?

When I first started designing roleplaying games, they appealed to me because they were kind of like writing a philosophy: “this is how I think the world works.” Games like Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon were great examples of this. The systems were tailored for the setting. And in the world of Riddick and Lieutenant Colonel Alan Caldwell, a tea cup and a thumb can do a whole helluva lot of damage.

One of the most common features of roleplaying games are weapon lists. Especially guns. You could tell a gun porn enthusiast just by looking at his stats for guns. Different damages for different calibers, range variants, range modifiers, rate of fire, burst fire, on and on and on.

Same thing with sword porn. Reach modifiers and different die types based on the target’s size and bashing or slashing or piercing and… gulp… speed factor.

And yet, here’s Riddick killing guys with a tea cup.

And so, again, I ask you, what weapon do you choose for Riddick?

It’s a trick question, of course. It doesn’t matter what weapon you give Riddick, he’s going to kick your ass with it.

Does the tea cup have a speed factor? How about Sean Connery’s thumb?

More important question. In fact, perhaps the most important question: how do any of those things–range modifiers, rate of fire, rburst fire, slashing, piercing, etc.–help you tell stories?

Just a moment ago, I called weapon lists one of the most common features in roleplaying games. These things are not features. They’re bugs. And it’s time to get rid of them.

Why? Because they’re screwing up your game. They’re distracting you from the focus of the game.

Because the focus of an RPG is to tell stories. Let me explain.

Chess is not a roleplaying game. Yes, you can turn it into a roleplaying game, but it was not designed to be a roleplaying game. If you give your King, Queen, Rooks, Knights and even your pawns names and make decisions based on their motivations–instead of the best strategic move possible–you’ve turned chess into a roleplaying game.

You can successfully play chess without roleplaying. In fact, roleplaying can sabotage the game. Now, the definition of a roleplaying game is fuzzy at best, but I think you can I can at least agree that if you can successfully play a game without roleplaying, it can’t be a roleplaying game.

Video games like World of Warcraft call themselves roleplaying games, but are they? Can you successfully play WoW without roleplaying? In fact, you can. Can roleplaying sabotage your enjoyment of the game? In fact, it can. My friend Jessie tells the story of being kicked off a roleplaying server because he was talking in character. Another friend of mine tells the story of how she was wearing “substandard” armor and equipment because “my character liked it.”

Choices such as “How do I level up my fighter?” do not make a game a roleplaying game. In that case, games such as Dungeon and Descent are roleplaying games, and even their designers would probably tell you, these are board games.

World of Warcraft is a very sophisticated board game. The goal of WoW is not to tell stories but to level up your character.

Remember the Three Questions:

  • What is your game about? Leveling up your character.
  • How does your game do that? Loot drops for killing monsters and completing quests.
  • What behaviors does my game reward? Bigger loot to kill bigger monsters and complete more difficult quests.

Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro asked their community, “If you’ve stopped playing D&D and switched to WoW, why?” Their answer? “Because I get the same experience from WoW I got from D&D.”

Listen to that answer again. “I get the same experience from WoW I get from D&D.”

You know why they get the same experience? Because World of Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragons have the same design goals.

When 4th Edition came out, there was an almost universal negative reaction. Why? Because the designers had given up the ghost. D&D was not a roleplaying game. It was a very sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game.

A very sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game. Just like giving your rook a motive, players used a board game to play a roleplaying game.

Can you successfully play D&D 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th edition without roleplaying? Yes, you can. Notice I didn’t mention 5th edition. That’s a different kettle of fish that I’ll have to talk about at another time.

The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, is a game you cannot successfully play without roleplaying. If you try it, you get… well, you actually violate the basic tenant of the game: to make yourself scared through your character’s choices.

You can play board games such as Rex and Battlestar Galactica and even Settlers of Catan without roleplaying… but roleplaying seems to make them more enjoyable. Talking in character, making (apparent) choices based on character motives… but if you go too far in that direction, you’ll lose. And the goal of those games is to win. Roleplaying, in the end, sabotages the goal of the game.

But if you try playing games such as Vampire or Pendragon or Our Last Best Hope or World of Dew or Deadlands without roleplaying, you’re missing the entire point of the game. In fact, I can’t even imagine what those games would look like without roleplaying.

I’ve been trying for many years to come up with a satisfactory definition for “roleplaying game” and while I’m not entirely happy with it, this is what I’ve got so far:

 

roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices
that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

 

Like I said, I’m not entirely happy with it. It’s a working definition and far from complete, but I think it’s a good working definition.

Now, with all of that said, you’re probably wondering, “John, what does this have to do with game mastering?”

My friend, it has everything to do with game mastering.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

And you need to stop it. Because all that crap is getting in the way of telling a good story.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters. “Game balance” has nothing at all to do with telling good stories. It’s an archaic hold over from a time when RPGs were little more than just really sophisticated board games. Or, as someone once told me, “An RPG is a strategy game in which you play one hero rather than a unit of heroes.”

If that’s the case, HeroClix is a roleplaying game. And I think that all of us can agree that HeroClix is not a roleplaying game. Why?

Because I can play it successfully without roleplaying.

“Game balance” is important in board games. It means one player does not have an advantage over another.

In a roleplaying game, game balance does not matter.

Let me say that again:

 

In a roleplaying game,
game balance does not matter.

 

What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

Whether the fighter is balanced with the wizard is balanced with the thief is balanced with the cleric demonstrates a mentality that still thinks roleplaying games are tactical combat simulators with Monty Python jokes thrown in for fun.

No.

The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where we walk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

I think it’s even more than that. In his classic game, Runequest, Greg Stafford created a world where mortals go on vision quests into the spirit realm where heroes and gods live, become one with the hero, and live out one of that hero’s stories. He comes back to the mortal realm transformed by the experience.

That’s the genius of Greg Stafford. He made the very act of playing a roleplaying game a mechanic in his roleplaying game. You step into the hero realm as your character who then steps into the hero realm to become transformed by the experience of becoming a hero and by doing so, you are transformed by the experience of becoming a hero.

And what exactly does speed factor have to do with this? Or ablative armor? Or rate of fire? None of it.

These days, as a GM, as I’m reading through a game or as a game designer, making my own games, whenever I encounter a new mechanic, I ask myself, “How does this help me tell stories?”

If it doesn’t, I throw it out.

When I run Vampire, I keep the Humanity rules and throw out the initiative rules.

When I run Call of Cthulhu, I keep the Sanity rules and throw out the gun chart.

I don’t want you to think I just get rid of combat mechanics. On the contrary, for Vampire, I usually get rid of that whole Social trait thing entirely. Why? Because this is a roleplaying game, and that means you roleplay. You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

My response to that is, “Then, you should get better at it. And you won’t get any better by just rolling dice. You’ll only get better by roleplaying.”

If you want to get good at playing chess, you play chess.

If you want to get good at first-person-shooters, you play first-person-shooters.

If you want to get good at roleplaying, guess what?, you roleplay.

And if that’s too much of me to ask, you can go right across the room to the RPGA where they let you make as many charisma rolls as you want because the game they’re playing is not a roleplaying game.

So, GM’s… I now ask you… I urge you… I beg you… go through your favorite game. Right now. Get it off your shelf, pull it out of your back pack, and open it up. Get yourself a big, fat sharpie. And go through each page and ask yourself this question.

“How does this rule help me tell stories?”

If you can’t get an answer in ten seconds or less, get rid of it. Because all it’s doing is getting in your way. It’s another hurdle you have to overcome. It’s another minute of wasted time while you or another player look it up to make sure you got the rule right because that’s what’s important… getting the rules right. Game balance. We must make sure our game is balanced.

No. You are not playing a board game. You’re playing a roleplaying game.

Start acting like it.

Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance

98 thoughts on “Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance

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  • John,

    Another could of thought

    Can I suggest that game balance is absolutely vital & totally key to roleplaying games but that we often balance the wrong thing:

    Smallville (Cortex+ Drama) balances not the amount of damage a character can dish out, or endure, but the dramatic impact a character can have on scenes.

    Prime Time Adventures balances a characters spotlight time.

    Fate Core balances a characters ability to bring about their own agenda and be awesome against the frequency with which their own character traits work against them.

    But my favourite is Microscope which controls the players talking time, requiring other players to shut up when the spotlight characters player is making a decision, so they get to make the decision for themselves, preventing a strong/loud/aggressive player from dominating the table

    All of these are doing the same thing – balancing the characters importance within the story. This is the sort of balancing I feel we need within roleplaying games.

    Also, I’m going to suggest the weapons table really adds to games, because it provides context for the fiction. I have no idea what an elven dagger is like, but if I know if has the traits glowing, enthralling and tainted, is rare, incredibly valuable amongst the human desert nomads and weighs half as much as a standard dagger that sets context for my actions involving one. Weapons are some of the most common items we interact with in games. Its useful to have a crutch to fall back on when narrating scenes involving them

    Cheers, Declan

  • Excalibur is a big part of the story of King Arthur. Thor’s hammer, Beowulf’s blade, Posideon’s trident…weapons are a significant part of legend. Unlike most objects, weapons have a certain mythical potence.

    In some cases they’re as important as characters themselves. So it makes sense to spend a lot of time detailing these objects, the same way you might detail a character. What are its capabilities and limitations? What can this weapon do that others can’t? What makes it special?

    Now, you could argue that these questions should just be answered on a case-by-case basis by the GM, but that can be a lot of work. Weapon lists are a way of doing this work for the GM, so they can just look at a chart and say “Your blade can penetrate an ogre’s hide but it won’t be enough to cut through the dragon’s scales. For that, you’ll need to find an enchanted greatsword.” In my opinion, that’s a great framework for some story right there.

    So like most resources in RPGs, it’s all in how you use them. I think it’s perfectly fine to say “That’s not how I like to play”, but that doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

  • You don’t need rules at all if your goal is “telling stories.” For me and the people I game with, stories may well emerge from the gameplay, but they are not “told”, which requires someone to know what the story is beforehand. That seems like an inappropriate and awkward use of the game format, and robs everyone involved from the thrill of not knowing what might happen next. The most imaginative, fun, and memorable events happen when we just let the game play out and see where it takes us. And yes, some of those great game stories can come out of the more mechanical aspects of the rules, as they do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of the play and the interactions of the people playing. It all gels when you are actually playing and not overthinking the design aspects.

  • roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices
    that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

    D&D is not a roleplaying game? How about the following:

    2nd Edition Paladin rules. Combat system of 1st edition (PCs are so low-power that you have to use MacGuyvering or Diplomacy to get through encounters, rather than combat). In every edition DMs are encouraged to give “story” experience awards for role-playing. In 5th edition we have backgrounds. In 4th edition we had action points (you could get more for roleplaying well).

  • I disagree with your central premise. I think what you refer to as a “roleplaying game” is actually what I would call a “storytelling game”, especially when you go so far as to say that game balance doesn’t matter. I believe when you try to redefine roleplaying games to fit your ideal gaming style, you’re trying to use the umbrella term for the whole range of games for just your specific subcategory.

    For example, I would call Vampire and DitV roleplaying games, but I would further assign them a subcategory of storytelling games. 1st edition D&D is a roleplaying game but its subcategory is something like “small team strategic and tactical crawler for dungeon, wilderness, and town adventures.” If I played Vampire I’d probably have a more complex subcategory for it. Shadowrun would be a roleplaying game with a subcategory of “heists and espionage”.

    Anyway, my point is that “roleplaying game” is a term on the same organizational tier as “motor vehicle” or “mammal”. When you try to redefine roleplaying games as strictly rules-pointless storytelling aids, it’s like trying to get everyone to agree your Mustang is a “motor vehicle” but a Prius isn’t.

  • well just who the hell are you to say D&D is not an RPG? you sound like a pretentious prick to assume such a thing and I wont bother reading your boring, long attempt at saying why D&D is not an RPG.

    Far as I’m concerned, being a D&D player for nearly 25 years, you, whom I have never heard of, John Wick whoever the hell you are can shove your pretentious notions right up your stuck up ass..I’ll keep playing D&D..a true RPG..thanks, asshat

  • D&D is a [original] role play game. I have no idea why this matters, but if it makes you feel better calling WoW a board game, then good on you. *jealous much…

  • I like your definition of a role playing game. Stories are told by the characters taking actions derived from their motivations and needs. Conflict comes about by an obstacle that prevents them from getting their need. Likely the story was not pre-planed, or apparent in the moment, but the story is fully present when looking backwards down the chain of actions.

    I do feel that removing everything that doesn’t support the story can go to far to the point where it may no longer be a game. The “game” Fiasco where the rules help setup a situation and then provide a pacing mechanic. I’ve enjoyed Fiasco and the stories it produces, but to me it felt more like guided childhood make believe than a game.

  • There is a difference between a roleplaying game and a story telling game. In a roleplaying game you take on the roll of a character and while reacting to the environment a story occurs. In a story telling game you act as a character and influence the environment and other characters with the intention of telling a story. Dungeons and Dragons has developed over various editions from a miniatures game into a roleplaying game.

  • RPG isn’t just story telling. As the game can flow from the story so too can story flow from the game.
    Weapon lists are only a bug to a specific RPG if the application of the impact of difference is negligible. If you are playing . Soap Opera RPG set in a typical T.V.soap opera setting a weapon list would be pointless as a weapon is simply a plot device to facillitate a character engaged in murder or some other crime it has no real use beond window dressing and it doesn’t matter if its a candlestick, crossbow,, or 9mm pistol. If your RPG repeatedly has situations where combat in ranks matters a weapon list that differentiates which weapoons can be used in from and reach each rank is signifigant. It all depends on the frequency and signifigance of combat. As soon as a game has a situation where a mugwump takes half damage from blunt weapons, and Clickityclicks are only harmed by thrusting weapons the need for a weapon list is present.
    When constructing or applying a weapon list the wouldbe game/campaign writer should consider what will really matter of the course of an entire campaign, if character skill and ability wil. Render many differences meaningless the differences may not be worth cataloging. But don’t forget stories about archers or swordsmen aren’t about pugilists and catapult opperators for a reason: all weapons are not equal in all situations.

  • I don’t have a problem getting rid of mechanics that don’t aid storytelling. I do disagree that rules that help flesh out and detail the world–weapons and armor lists in particular, but really anything of the kind, are the stuff that needs to be gotten rid of. I think a real part of the jeopardy you feel in a roleplaying game comes from knowing what the dangers are in the game world are–and how much they meet up with our expectations. If all teacups do chainsaw damage because Riddick–that damages the integrity of the world, and through that, the stories I can tell there.

    I’d offer a much different definition of a roleplaying game versus boardgames, wargames and other sorts of games:

    A roleplaying game is one in which there is no established win condition beyond those set by the player based on the desires of his character–and no limitations placed on how those win conditions are achieved–that the player may employ any means that would occur to his or her character.

    In L5R you can literally kill yourself and win. I love that.

    But rewarding you for roleplaying? It seems like if you’re really roleplaying for the right reasons–the reward should BE the roleplaying. The story at the end.

    I don’t want the game rewarding me artificially for stuff I’m doing outside of the game. I want to be plunked seamlessly into a world that gives me the freedom to follow my bliss and take the consequences.

    Which is why games like Thirty are ultimately boardgames. You start with a tightly constrained kind of character (a Templar Knight), a single specific goal (flee into the mists with a treasure and “fix” your way home) and a very specific means to accomplish these ends (there’s a list of bosses you have to engage, one by one and overcome–often in painstakingly specific ways). As much as I love the philosophy and ideas behind the cosmology here–it could be done almost exactly like the Arkham Horror boardgame and it would lose nothing. That’s a shame because the ideas I love.

  • I disagree. The rules, weapons tables, spell damage and descriptions, status effects (of which sanity loss is one if you want to call it that) are there to AID and GUIDE the GM to make a story around.

    The halberd has a longer reach than a dagger. it says so in the rules, but then again it’s also obvious. You better explain exactly how you’re making this attack and or I’ll give you a penalty.. no it doesn’t follow the letter of the rule for having a straight strategic battle following specific rules, but as a GM it’s up to you to use the rules that can ground the for the player but force them to tell you how they’re doing what they are doing. If you find it consistent with the halberd, then by all means they can roll that hit/damage to see if the enemy is good enough to block/dodge it.. (and I’ll explain to you how that happens based on the roll.. ) or if there was a hit the damage done (and lets make sure to explain that too)..

    If a player wants to use a “tea cup” as a “dagger”, or perhaps a stretch of vine with a rock tied to the end, the hilt of a broken sword as a “brass knuckle”, a small cart wheel as a shield or perhaps that peice of rebar that was on the ground as a club.. I’ll let you do it and just skin something similar and let you go at it.. Just explain how you’re doing it or be prepared to get shut down..

    I happen to like the rules and charts.. stats are fun.. but just use them to help you instead of letting them run you..

    If you just want to play a strategy board game with a veneer of a story then that’s fine too if that’s what you want to do.

    You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater though..

    1. I just realized my comment came off as a little more critical than I intended.

      I loved your article, it’s just my OPINION/ That’s what it is, no one is correct here, just correct for YOU.

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