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

  • An article in which Pathfinder Roleplaying Game supplement “Wicked Fantasy” writer John Wick concludes that Pathfinder is not a roleplaying game.

  • Cool article although you had me flinching at the idea of using a marker on my books. (Perhaps I should buy a second copy of my favorite rules.) 🙂

  • Ya see… I don’t agree with this at all. Because certain weapons DO function differently than others, and WoW IS about telling a story (Though the interactions between players isn’t mostly.), and finally, that game balance, fundamentally, matters. Why? If you could choose between someone who swings a sword, someone who wields a bow, and some who commands unstoppable power, who would you choose? Game balance is needed so that everyone feels like they’re contributing, and so that no one jeers at them for choosing a “substandard” class. The rules are made not to limit, but to equalize, so that someone who’s a 6th level wizard, doesn’t completely outshine a 6th level fighter. Finally, upon your comment about removing those rules… Then you aren’t playing a game. You are telling a collective story, something you can do without a $60 core rulebook filled with cross-outs. I’m of the opinion that all of these little rules are not just added bloat (Though I do believe weapon charts can be overhauled a tad.) but are actual, key functions that separate a game, from a novel.

    If you actually read this, then thank you for at least that, and please have a nice day.

    1. Matthew, these things you mention are indeed quite important – crippling imbalance can ruin a game for everyone. But whereas a board game will have everyone playing by the same set of rules specially designed for this game and no other, role playing games are different.

      In role playing games, you are not merely another player who has been given the honour of reading the rules, you are the Game Master. You are the Master of the Game, everything within the game is subject to your whim.

      This means that if you don’t like something, you have the absolute power to change or ignore it. It also means that if there is something that is ruining the game, it is your *duty* to change/ignore it. If the wizard is ruining the game by being more powerful the the rest of the party combined, then you need to find a way to address that. That is your responsibility as GM, and you alone have absolute power to do so. If you are so bound by the rules that you would allow imbalance to ruin the game, then you are not actually being a GM, you are simply running a board game.

      Roleplaying, taking on a character and playing the game *as that character* can in reality be closer to collective storytelling – many games actually are run completely without any sort of rules system. If there’s a challenge, you might roll a dice, and see if you get high or low, or you might throw paper, scissors, rock with the GM/other player, or the GM might just make an executive decision.

      RPG’s can have rules, but they don’t need to. What they do need, is a story. Rules are fine, Rules can help, but these rules systems are not laws. They are, as wise man once said, “more what you’d call… guidelines”. If a rule is getting in the way of telling the story, then it needs to go.

      1. I bluntly disagree in the idea that RPG equals absolute power over the story from part of the players. Why would you, player of the role of a determinate character in the story I’m leading, and in which you take an important place, want to change what I’m setting to your will, and why would you consider that’s playing a role?
        If you like that, you are in fact in a group narration, or creating a novel. If it’s a novel or a group narration what you want, then call it that, don’t call it “RPG”, because there are already terms which have existed for millenia for those actions.
        An RPG introduces the players into characters’ lives. The point is conducting those characters through a given setting. The setting can be ANYTHING. Obviously, games will often drag you to certain settings.
        For example, character: yourself; setting: our world. You have absolutely no power to change everything you dislike at will. And your characters in role-playing games don’t either. Unless you are playing a role-playing game in which roles taken are gods or similar powerful beings.
        A Role doesn’t mean Your will shalt be done.
        A Role means you play a paper in a certain situation.
        Playing means you do something for entertainment.
        Role-Playing means you interpretate a role for entertainment.
        And finally, Game is something meant to be played.
        So there it is your definition, and how it works in a reality where we all use the words for what they stand for.
        Now there’s the obvious option to invent these things you want to call RPG. Novel-playing games? Narrative games?
        No-one will detract them. But someone who understands a “Role” equals not a “Power of Significance” (and you can even role insignificant characters, and there’s your Will), will disagree with what you are trying to demonstrate.

        1. I’m not entirely sure who you’re disagreeing with here, the point you’re rebutting has never been made by anyone, least of all me. In fact I went so far as to specifically say that the *only* person who had such power was the GM, and not the players.

    2. Matthew, I must say that some of the best characters I have played have been the deeply flawed characters that were actually incredibly under-powered. When you play characters that are under-powered in a role-playing environment finding challenging ways of overcoming their handicaps can actually be extremely entertaining.

  • I never ever post in blogs but this is something I have focused all of my games on for years. “Telling the story rather than winning the game.” But it is very difficult to find players who understand this. I agree with almost everything you said. I understand what you are getting at regarding doing away with the social stats but I have taken a different direction and simply used them like a hammer in the roleplay. Especially when high social skill players play characters with low social stats or low social skill players playing characters with high social skill characters. I do this by appointing an in game leader character based only on their characters social skills and then awarding higher experience points to the other players for making their characters “followers” of the high social skill character. Its painful at times but it encourages low social skill players to assume leadership and it forces high social skill players to take a back seat and rewards them for “roleplaying”.

    I also see what you mean by removing the rules which hinder the roleplay. I dont remove them per say, rather I just make the rules for combat for example less the point of the game. By the way Call of Cthulhu is my favorite game exactly because using weapons of any kind as a first course of action usually gets the characters killed.

    This was a truly excellent blog post for those who care about the quality of their roleplaying games and less about powerful characters.

  • Here’s the tl;dr version: “My way to play-make believe is the only correct way to play make-believe.”

    Suuuuuuuure it is. Just like when you were five years old and some blowhard kid was telling you that his imaginary friend could beat up your imaginary friend, the correct response to this kind of drivel is for you and your imaginary friend to go find someone with a broader definition of fun.

  • I played a lot of RPGs in college. We tried a bunch and liked some but didn’t love any. So I ran a campaign with no rules. You tell me what you do, I tell you what happens. It was great. Suddenly players were roleplaying – acting like their characters, talking like them. Deciding like them. Most fun we ever had with the genre.

  • Loved this article. It sums up smartly things I already tend to intuitively do while mastering (mostly CoC) and I’m happy to be able to put concrete ideas on all of that. I feel the rules and tables and stuff are a good common ground for players and GMs to understand the game world and help bring some “realistic” cohesion when needed.

    But I think it brings better understanding of game design to see two aspects of roleplaying. My personnal favorite is what you mention in length in your article: to play the role of your character in an interactive story. The second is playing a role in a group: being the tank, being the healer and so on. And in that aspect, D&D and WoW and the sort are indeed “RPGs”. I just think we need to separate the two notions with different words, but that both are valid points.

  • There is an antecedent to “roleplaying” games, dinner party conversation. The host or hostess was the “DM” who invited the guests, placed their seats, and decided the setting.

    Her job was to direct the conversation so that people were entertained and the spotlight highlighted those who desired it. A good host never kept the spotlight and story on herself, and she would, gently, rotate the story among her guests.

    In today’s society, the “role” of guest has lost much of its meaning. But in times past, this was a defined “role” people took on depending on the formality and class of the event.

    The Paizo GM’s Guide chapter on directing the session based on the personalities and styles of the players at the table reads no differently from hosting tips from social guides from earlier eras.

    Game balance from the perspective of an event with host/guest is not so much an “illusion” as it is a conceit, a set of shared rules between the participants.

  • He’s wrong on two counts. 1) tabletop role playing games were created by tabletop wargamers who were tired of playing wargames at the regimental level. They wanted something at the ‘squad’ or even individual level. Then they threw in fantasy. This is well documented. 2) Role playing games are not about story telling. Storytelling is a part of RPGs, but it is not a requirement.
    I’ve always wondered about guys like this. When did this role-playing Nirvana ever exist? When were RPGs not about hack and slash? Guys like this make it seem like RPGs were once pure and *devolved* into hack and slash, when that was never actually the case. We need to get rid of weapons lists because “they’re screwing up your game. They’re distracting you from the focus of the game.” I’m sorry, but I think it is kind of up to the GM and players to decide what the focus of their game is or is not.
    We went down this road in the late 80s / early 90s and frankly changing the focus from combat to role playing is in no way guaranteed to make the game more enjoyable. Ultimately enjoyment comes from the GM and all the players and the individual group dynamic. The “focus” of the game is really just a matter of personal (by group) taste.

    1. I suspect you’ve read a bit too much into the original post – I don’t see any mention of a gaming Nirvana when all games were perfect before they were ruined by weapons tables. Weapons tables can be a useful crutch. You don’t need to burn them all because they’re ruining Role Playing, you just need to consider whether it’s helping the game or not. That’s what he was saying – “does it help or hinder”?

      I don’t need to decide whether a longsword does more damage than a rapier, because that’s covered in the weapons table – as is what damage it does when enlarged. In this, the weapons table is helping me. If someone, while enlarged, grabs a tree and tries to use it as a weapon, I could work out the size of the tree, whether it counts as a mace, club, sap or hammer, work out what the base damage is, whether they get a penalty to hit because it’s a size category too large for them, and then give them all this information written down where they will be able to remember it… OR I could just make something up. The rules table may decide that given the dimensions of the tree it should probably be 2D8 instead of 2D6, but it would take 5 minutes in the middle of combat to figure that out, so fuck it, let’s just run with it.

      This is my understanding of what weapons tables should do. Of what any rule should do. They should help the game. In Wargaming, if you think a particular bit of the rules is stupid and just makes the entire game worse, then you should change or ignore it (in consultation with your opponent of course). If adding a miss chance to all plasma weapons aimed at infantry armour is too confusing/annoying, just reduce the to hit by 1 instead. But you do that when it is slowing down combat, because Wargaming is all about combat between combatants. That is the point of Wargaming, and you should not let any rule get in the way of that.

      Similarly, role playing is about taking on the role of a character. I think people have focussed too much on the storytelling aspect. While telling a story is important, the thing that makes role playing, what it is, is playing the role. And you should never let a rule get in the way of good character development.

  • I love that you wrote this article! In many ways, I agree with you, but two things immediately pop into my mind. 1) There have been innumerable attempts to create purely “roleplaying” systems in the past. And they have all joined the dust heap of history. IMHO, it’s because many people in our society aren’t comfortable with real role-playing. It’s a skill that is not taught, celebrated or reinforced in any other area of our lives, so expecting it or even emphasizing it in a commercial product relegates it to a hardcore niche. And for better or worse, RPGs are commercial products. Which leads me to point 2) I agree that the basis of many (most? all?) modern RPGs is a big ‘ol board game. But I have always enjoyed the tactical aspects of RPG combat. As far back as 2nd edition AD&D, I combed through the rules to pull out all the tactical combat rules, codify them and then adapt them to use on a hex-based battle mat (our group also played a lot of Champions at the time). The end result is (perhaps unsurprisingly) very similar to the 3rd edition and 3.5e combat rules. And that’s because D&D started as a miniatures combat game (Chainmail!). I love terrific roleplaying in my gaming sessions. But I have also observed players gain more mastery over the tactical aspects of the “board game”, and derive a great deal of satisfaction from that. My” aspect of modern RPG rules is that, frankly they are unmanageable. I’m sorry, but the idea of “marking” targets for arbitrary plusses and minuses can only be a good idea to designers who are writing rules, but not playing them. Even the best game masters admit that they ignore all that stuff when trying to manage the complexities of combat. For me, the ideal would be an RPG that rewards role playing, but also gives me a meaty, satisfying tactical game that I can manage as a game master, and that my players can learn and master.

    1. So you want a tactical game, that’s fine. But Roleplaying Games have the word “roleplaying” in them. And, what is this “dust heap of history” for narrative heavy RPGs?

      Fate Core, Dungeon World, Fiasco, Microscope and others let you play a RP-heavy system and I didn’t see them getting thrown into the “dust heap.”

      So please, back up point 1 with some evidence or just realize you want a war game, not a RPG necessarily. At least then you can do the RP part of a silly side bit and get to have your minis game.

      1. Just because people have different styles doesn’t mean that they want a war game. I’ve played war games, RP-heavy games and things in between. I like a balance of both parts. That doesn’t mean that RP is a side bit to me. It’s how I play, and I’m having a great time.

        You have different goals. If you’re happy with your style, I think that’s great. Why do you have to confront people who like a different style to you?

  • I understand both sides of the argument. It’s my belief that balance between the two should be strived for. I’ve been playing with a group of friends for a long enough time to understand the value of role-playing and I can honestly say that the people in my group, for the most part, are very good about it. Most of us have clear character goals and ideals. We uses those as the basis for a lot of out decisions in character. We have a character in the Pathfinder game right now who has forsaken upgrading her weapons and armor at all because she wants to build a temple to her god and has devoted all of her money towards that end. Another one of our characters literally left the group for a time to go train elsewhere. My own character actually keeps an old helmet on with his new armor because it has a lot of meaning to him. The fact that I have people in my group that dedicated to their character is actually a thing of pride for me. Anyway, I’ve ranted enough. My point is that while I understand the need for balance between characters, I feel as though it should be more about the characters themselves rather than the balance between them.

  • Interesting and terrible article all at once. It models role playing games in a very exclusive context, which many prefer to use the “storytelling game” monicker for, and then proceeds to exclude the majority of RPG styles and themes out there.

    Why does Riddick kill with a tea cup? Because he’s Riddick, and somewhere in his universe there’s a class or profession that includes proficiency in killing with improvised weapons. In a movie the surprise comes from the audience wondering how Riddick escapes; no one doubts he will, however. In an RPG the surprise comes from seeing if someone actually does get their character out of a hot fix….but the reason it is more satisfying is because the rules provide a framework for adjudicating success. Without those rules, you have precisely as much “surprise” as the screen writer for Riddick did: hint, it’s ZERO.

    Look, I’m not criticizing your style and how you do things, but I am criticizing whether it’s “right.” I’ve tried this path and it ended up feeling very hollow; when the RPG loses the “G” it might as well descend into improv, and let me tell you, I hate improv, even though I do it constantly as a GM. The reason it works for me as an RPGer but not a ordinary person is precisely because of the rules structures in place; without them, you’re just making stuff up for the hell of it, and that gets old fast….at least for me and “my kind of RPGer.”

    1. Story games like Fiasco seem to do fine without precise combat mechanics… And they still feel like a “game.”

      Look, this article uses a metric to determine whether or not he feels a mechanic should get dropped for the sake of story over game. Its possible to have mechanics in your game that advance story that also serve the game in some way- there is a place where the venn diagram of story and game crossover, and it seems like he got to that point.

      But hey, to each their own.

  • Essentially, I agree that RP definitely doesn’t equate balancing the game. In fact, I felt that the designers need to balance the game stems from the need to play the game as a…game (computer, console, MMO, board gaming, etc other than pen-and-paper RP) without the RP.

    That’s why I’m sad that 4e when into that direction. When I was blasting 4e five years ago, I took a lot (and I meant a lot) of heat and hate…guess what happened five years later? Yet, it is happening again in 5e (to a lesser degree). Again, the designers try to balance, try to give better resources (healing system like Diablo?!) and better hits (even a goblin has a +4 hit?!) and limitless cantrip spells at-will that increases in power with levels?! Sad…they never learn and again, I’m taking heat and hate from my honest viewpoints again. Folks are saying there aren’t that much noise in 5e as before but guess what? It’s because most who left during 4e episode haven’t return or didn’t bother to venture into D&D again.

    However, to Mr Wicks, game rules are there for a reason too. A rule that doesn’t contribute to RP doesn’t mean that it is not required. It’s not about balancing or nitpicking on details but it is to create a structure.

    Take a classic example of weapon speed.

    Riddick takes a cup to attack an opponent wielding a massive axe. Well, firstly he doesn’t have a weapon on hand. Secondly, he is a very skilled warrior (assume he has a +10 to hit with a strength bonus of +3) but he doesn’t have a proper weapon on hand. Thirdly, he knows that he will not survive one hit from that axe and he needs speed to critically take down his opponent.

    The player turns to his DM and said, “Ok, what’s the weapon speed of the cup?”

    DM replied, “Well, I’ll give it a one.”

    Both DM and player rolls initiative and gets the same result after Dexterity modifiers.

    Player smiled happily. “Great! Good choice that Riddick uses the cup and the weapon speed makes the difference. Riddick has two attacks per round. I’m going to smash the cup on his face, targeting his eye so that I partially blind him. What’s my to-hit?”

    DM thought for a moment before replying. “Ok, interesting situation. Since Riddick is trying to target a specific part of the body and a small target at that, I’ll take the rules penalty to attack a tiny creature. Riddick will suffer a -4 to hit.” — I cannot remember what’s the penalty but let’s assume it.

    Player is excited and replied, “Cool. I’ll roll with a +8 bonus after taking into consideration the penalty.”

    Player rolls and scores a hit.

    “Aha!” The player proclaims excitedly. “What’s the expected damage from the cup? Did the cup cuts his eye? Is he blinded in one eye?”

    The DM holds up his hand to stall the onslaught of questions.

    “Hold, wait a minute. Ok, cup will deal 1d2 damage with strength bonus. Yes, the giant’s eye is cut but he is not blinded but since blood is oozing from his wound, he is partially impaired in his vision till he clears it.”

    Player takes a D4 and rolls and gets a 2. Adding his strength, he deals 5 damage to the giant.

    “Ok, for the second attack, Riddick will hold on to one of the piece and attempt to slash the shrapnel across the giant’s throat, hopefully killing it.”

    DM mused and replied. “Ok, that sharp piece from the ceramic cup will be like a dagger. It will deal 1D4 damage. Apply the same penalty since Riddick is targeting a specific area of the giant’s body. I’ll add an additional +3 damage if Riddick hits.”

    The player rolls and scores a hit. He rolls on the D4 and scores a 4 for a total of 10 damage, slaying the giant even before the giant can react.

  • This is what we call “horseshit”. Purpose of the _game_ is to play a _game_. That may involve storytelling elements, and/or story may emerge from it. But the purpose it to play a game. Your entire rollplay v roleplay crap is built on a broken foundation.

  • We’ve discussed such idea earlier.
    Everything is fine, but the only thing we noticed:
    the case, when “you” play something different than “you”.
    I’m big and slow, but i can roleplay rogue halfling. That’s not a big difference.
    My friend is an engineer, but he plays mage: he can’t make fire from his hands, but the mage can: this ability was given him by the rules of AD&D (yes, we play 2).
    My other friend is very shy and closed person. He plays elf bard as hard as he can, but he can’t roleplay CHA17, because he just can’t.
    What is expected? We expect the game to give him the talent he lacks (charisma), so he can play the role as good as my first friend plays mage.
    What do we get? We see, that we accept non-magic players to be mages, but we do not accept non-charismatic players to be bards. This sounds wrong.

    1. I don’t let certain people play high int/Wis/Chr characters – Otherwise I describe the room they enter complete with a puzzle of some sort – and the high int character’s player says “Tell me the answer” (cos the player isn’t high int).

      If I can trust them to “roleplay” high int/wis/chr – I’m happy if they “Solve” the problem (even if they get it totally wrong) – I will adjust the world so that their solution makes sense (cos otherwise the high int character wouldn’t be proposing it)

      But that trust – my trust that they will “play” the character they have – and their trust – that the world will act as if they are that character – is something that you can;t just step into. It takes time – and doesn;t work for everyone.

      1. I take a middle approach. I have them roleplay it out and then roll. I then balance both aspects – I look at what they roleplayed through the lens of the roll. This pushes people to play their best and push themselves to new levels. Choosing a bad tactic is still bad with a high roll. And sometimes a bad roll will offset good roleplaying. Perhaps the eloquent speech used a turn of phrase that the king associated with his traitorous half-brother. Despite the words, that one phrase has changed how the King views him.

        In games with pure roleplaying I’ve seen that glib players sometimes tend to outshine their less social counterparts. The dice help to fix this on both ends and fits my style better.

  • Many thanks for the article – it helped me to articulate my own thoughts.

    I love the crunchey “Wargames” that go by the title RPGs – and sometimes I ref those – we have a great time – but after a couple of months, I bring it to a conclusions – without heavy RPG we get bored.

    I love diceless Roleplay heavy stories – and sometimes I ref those – we have a great time – but after a couple of months I bring it to a conclusion – the energy and focus required gets draining and we get tired.

    We also have breaks where I don;t ref and we watch movies/ play boardgames etc – I do love my group.

    I would rather we spent more time diceless – but we all have to be “unstressed” in the rest of our life to keep the world/Character in “Brain swap space”

  • Mr. Wicks has game design cred and has thought a lot about this. As someone opting 30 years into the hobby for more rules-light systems, I understand where he’s going.

    BUT I don’t think his position is either charitable to varying styles of gamer (he basically tells a goodly number to hit the highway if they don’t play his way) nor is it accurate insofar as he tries to appropriate the term RPG for his own use!

    The G in RPG is ‘game’. They were always envisioned to be games. What is the definition of ‘a game’? I’m going to say it involves players participating in a contest of some sort with an end goal in mind and in accordance with some set or rules.

    Mr. Wicks has tried to sever the G and claim that the only part that matters is the RP. That’s okay, but he should recognize he is bastardizing the term and clearly establishing his position as divergent from a more normative understanding of the term. Combine that with his ‘my way or the highway’ perspective and one might almost feel his perspective was a bit cultic.

    The arguments advanced by commenters about the value or rules miss the point.

    Mr. Wicks had it right: Spotlight is what the players want. They want to feel involved, like they are contributing, and like their choices matter to the game as much as their peers.

    THIS is why we have these brobindingian librams of rules for every situation known, unknown and ever to be conceived…. as an aid to managing spotlight.

    Game balance wasn’t sought, I suspect, as an end unto itself but rather as a tool to help ensure balanced Spotlight.

    If a character has rules-supported disproportionate power, then he will tend to monopolize spotlight or at least do so much with his bit of spotlight as to leave the other players feeling impotent and of little use or impact.

    These rules for all seasons are an attempt to help balancing spotlight by balancing player character power.

    Of course, their are other methods (and they may be better) of balancing spotlight and contribution than massive models (which is what the rules embody). THIS I think is where Mr. Wicks was going.

    The problem with models, as any modelling specialist will tell you, is:
    a) They are always imperfect descriptions of reality (and sometimes very far from it)
    b) They take on a life of their own at some point and people become so enamoured of their model that they treat it as if it was reality even to the point of ignoring how unreal results can be

    Big thick rules codexes can:
    a) slow play
    b) provide a false sense of game balance (hence all the complaints about particular D&D classes, prestige classes, paragon paths, weapons tables, feats,spells, etc) that doesn’t work out in play (too much complexity to ever actually balance piece-wise)
    c) spend a lot of the DM’s brain power on trying to grasp and implement the model and much of that on systems that will never be used in practice (when that brainpower could be used in a more free-form way to focus on the story, the player experience and so on)

    I also note that neither of the black and white categorizations Wicks came up with seem to include me….

    He has ‘boardgamers/tactical gamers’ who don’t want to RP and RPers who want the story but mechanics are mostly an obstacle.

    I fit elsewhere. I think of myself as a simulationist. Given a description of a setting (races, societal values, practical physical realities like what magic can or can’t do, how cinematic the world’s physics are, etc), I like to imagine and role play the decisions of my character within that setting. I want to see how those decisions work out. I want to be presented with situations, be allowed to react to them in-character, and have outcomes identified that are in line with the setting’s nature an character.

    Where does that leave me? I call it role-playing because I want to make the decision I think someone of a particular race and social context might make in the particular situation. I call it gaming because where action scenes occur, I expect to make my choices based on my understanding of the physical setting and to then have the results adjudicated consistently with that setting, rather than driven by a story plot.

    My interactions with the NPCs and setting and my choices and their outcomes will produce the story, rather than having either myself of the GM serve it up directly.

    Where is there room for me in your little world Mr. Wicks?

  • I believe Mr. Wick to be wrong. His definition of Roleplaying Game presupposes his choice of how he wants the game to be played. I would proffer the following:

    Roleplaying Game: A game in which players assume the role of a hero and resolve problems through a combination of tactical and social interactions.

    This would allow games, such as Call of Cthulhu, which are highly dependent upon social interactions, and D&D/Pathfinder, which, at times, can be strictly tactical combats tied together with plot.

    The player, by assuming the role of a hero, should be given the spotlight — all the players should. And here, it seems, I agree with Mr. Wick — In a Roleplaying Game, game balance shouldn’t matter. If a player’s character (PC) doesn’t get the spotlight at all, but merely acts as a motivator or a helper (such as a healer who keeps the rest of the PCs alive long enough to win the encounter), the GM should make an effort to reward that. But, all heroes (that is PCs) should be unbalanced. Otherwise, they would not be heroes.

  • Mr. Wicks, I clocked my 20th year as a Dungeon Master a few years ago, and I agree with everything you’ve said and experienced a lot of it without thinking. I DID throw away initiative for Vampire and started doing things that had the rules-lawyers screaming at me – but it was to advance the story. We had 30 minutes left in a game and I didn’t want to spend it doing a fight, so I talked through the end of the fight and finished the story I wanted to tell.

    I have two problems.

    First, everyone even the 2nd Edition DMG, talks about Roleplaying being the most important thing but only devotes a SINGLE PAGE for guidelines for roleplaying. You have a fantastic article and list many problems with the mechanics, but have only touched on how to use roleplaying a couple of times. I think there is a tremendous fear that if we put down information (notice I didn’t say rules) about how to roleplay, that will somehow destroy it. I hunted for YEARS to find information on how to roleplay. I’m still looking. But hey, if you can recommend anything. And don’t say Play Vampire. Yes they have a wonderful roleplay system but it’s only because they have left so many blanks in the rules you MUST figure them out yourself, which makes you tailor everything and accidentally forces you to roleplay. It’s not a bad idea, but they could have explained what they were doing.

    Two, you sir are bragging. We all do, it’s one of the core tenants of roleplaying; bragging rights and, as you wonderfully explained, being the hero. I love your article. However, you did just tell everyone that you are playing the game right, and everyone else is playing the game wrong. You might not have even meant to. There is a really great message in your blog here, but it’ll get a chunk of resistance because you told everyone that their beloved games aren’t roleplaying games.

    And they are.

    The rules are a tool that helps create the setting that tells the story. The rules get people into the mood, gives them training wheels, something safe and logical as a spring board into roleplaying.

    “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.”

    “Chess is not a roleplaying game.”

    But you just made it a roleplaying game. You told us how. You give the pieces names and personalities and allow them to make choices that aren’t the best for winning the game. How many people have done this as children wanting to be the Chess Pieces. I remember a children’s book where this happened and it was repeated again in Harry Potter. People want this. You just forgot one detail – the Dungeon Master. The fellow who bends the rules so that you do get a reward for making choices consistent with the character’s motivation or furthering the plot of the story. Harry Potter’s Dungeon Master is J.K. Rowling.

    You brought up something else which I think should be added to your definition of a Roleplaying Game – because I’ve never heard it before and it was genius.

    “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.” – Robin Laws

    This article will change how I write RPGs in the future. I’ve always wanted to lean more into Roleplaying with the game text and I think I’ve seen a little more here that I can work with.

    Finally, I saw your plug for 5th Edition being a true roleplaying game. I think I’ve seen that for every edition of every RPG ever released. It doesn’t mean you are wrong but it does mean 5th has a lot to live up to, to verify that claim. I would love to see it come true. – Off to Greyhaven Hobbies then!

    Thanks for the article.

    1. John already pointed out Houses of the Blooded, but I’d also like to suggest Play Dirty. A collection of articles John wrote some time ago that I keep on my phone to read whenever I need inspiration. You can find it on rpgnow here: http://www.rpgnow.com/product/85816/Play-Dirty.

      My players like game mechanics, but they also like to play with roleplaying elements. Even within those constraints the tips John presents in this book really help to drive a compelling story. If you dug this article, then you’ll really enjoy this book.

  • Let’s take an MMO. For example, SW:TOR.

    What is your game about?
    Experiencing a story, told through the game platform.

    How does your game do that?
    By allowing me to choose actions within the designed framework of the story.

    What behaviors does my game reward?
    Actions which move the story forward.

    Seems that by simply choosing to look at another aspect of the MMO than the author chose, I can fill his (limited) definition of what a role playing game is.

    So, an MMO is a role playing game.

  • It was a nice article for a while, then it was ruined by the appearance of “tenant” when “tenet” was meant.

  • In one place, you say:
    “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.”

    where you establish that a roleplaying game is about making decisions around the character’s motivations (and not about voice acting) … and then in a different place you contradict this by saying:

    ‘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.”’

    Implying that RPG gamers must be voice actors, or they’re not really role playing (because they have to act out their charismatic qualities instead of relying upon things that they themselves don’t posses).

    You were correct, in the first case … and incorrect in the second.

    Role playing is about thinking your actions in terms of the character’s motivations and “what would this character do in this situation”. Role playing might be enhanced with voice acting skills, but voice acting is not a requirement of role playing.

    Further, we don’t limit fighters to being played by people with actual fighting skill. We don’t limit wizards to being played by people who have actual magic-missile casting ability. Part of the purpose is playing out roles that we ourselves cannot fill. Not just roles we can’t fill due to physics and fantasy, but roles we can’t fill because we’re computer professionals (or seamstresses or veterinarians or … etc) instead of being an actual gumshoe detective. The game mechanics help us bridge that gap, whether its a Charisma Roll being made by a mousey player, or a Melee Attack role being made by a pencil-necked-geek.

    Voice acting is icing on the cake for role playing, but it should never be mistaken as being the cake itself. The cake is a game where you plan your actions according to the motivations of the character, using the character’s information … and not the player’s information and the player’s motivations. Just like you said for “turning chess into a role playing game”.

    I put forward that if you’re going to get rid of a Charisma stat and/or skill, you should get rid of all of the stats and skills. If you (the player) can’t knowledgeably talk your way through forensic analysis of a crime scene, your character is a failure at it as well. If you can’t talk your way through realistically choreographing your character’s part of a melee combat, then your character loses the melee combat. If you can’t actually noticeably and measurably cast the spell in question, neither can your character. Because all of those absurd suggestions make just as much sense as basing the outcome of a charm/dupe/convince situation upon the oratory skills of the player.

  • Most people have the mistaken idea that the “role-playing” in “role-playing game” comes from the act of affecting the speech and mannerisms of a character. Its real origin is in the notion of making the decisions of a character. YOU’RE the one in charge, not the character. If the character were in charge, you’d be nothing more than an engine for the character to express itself.

    GM: You have initiative.
    Player: I attack the dragon.
    GM: You hit!

    As dull as that may be, it’s pure role-playing. You’re putting yourself in the place of a character and taking actions, whether those actions are hacking and slashing or hemming and hawing.

    Wick is obviously operating under the mistaken definition.

  • Different persons, diferent tastes. That is a general rule. I’ll write down my own experience and feelings.

    I’ve played The Call of Cthulhu with 4 different GMs. I only enjoyed the first one. He was somewhat lax about few rules, not many. If you have ever played that game, you’ll know that there is only one end for any of your characters. Ruination, either in the form of a violent death or in the form of becoming so deeply crazy that there is not turning back. Both ends result in the same action: start a new life.

    The main difference between the first GM and the rest was that he was not trying to kill my characters or turn them crazy. There are plenty of rules and monsters that produce that, but he was not actively forcing me into the violent retirement of my characters. He would not save any either. It was not a competition of which character was higher level or had better equipment, it was about uncover a mystery on a horror atmosphere. And session after session the character was slowly growing, in memories, in experience, in lived horrors. We all know there would be a time that that shoggoth will crush us, but we were free to stand and fight it or run in awe. I did feel fear playing with that first GM. The obscure corridors and old mansions meant something.

    On the other hand, the other 3 GMs only had one purpose. Ruin my character. It did not matter what decisions I took, or how much luck I had on my rollings -which is quite absurd by the way- end of the session is end of the character. Either dead, either lunatic.

    The hero might know the end of the path. But when the GM has written the paces of the character, playing is meaningless. Even though those GMs followed the rules strictly. But I was not having fun (actually one killed one of my characters on the prologue of the story because the meeting point was a high mountain and my character did not know how to climb, seriously? Any problem with the rules? Nop. Any problem with the story? Ehm…

    Rules are important? Yes, nobody said the contrary. In which degree? The article answers these questions: 1) they must serve to keep the players on their characters. 2) they must serve to turn the players into the heroes and the true narrators of the story.
    Do they need to be fair? Or balanced? Try to say that to someone who is facing the Great Cthulhu with a shotgun and has just shit himself up because the time has come.

    The rest of the considerations are secondary, not negligible, but secondary. And this is just an opinion.

    P.S. I brought to mind the Cthulhu game because I still remember being so in character that I was feeling fear, not that my character was afraid or that I was afraid of the outcome for my character. *Me* was the one feeling fear.

  • “Because the focus of an RPG is to tell stories”

    Wrong. You don’t know what you are talking about. The focus of a role playing game is to play a role. The story comes out of what results from the choices players make

  • I’ll just have to respectfully disagree with several things you say. You say the following about what a role playing game is.

    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.

    Yet when the role a player wants to assume is that of gun porn addict, they are playing the game wrong?

    Look, I am all about getting deep into a character’s motivation and assuming that role myself, so I am more likely to play a monk who has no desire for worldly possessions and wants to find enlightement. But if my buddy wants to play a treasure hunting bad ass tank who loves to use the best weapon possible, that’s fine. We can co-exist in the same world. It’s not what I would play, but whatever. If we beat the lich, he can have all the loot, while I can have enlightement. Both of us are happy.

    It’s not the GM’s job to tell players they should “role play more” and “stop min-maxing”. If that is what they want out of their character, then that is fine. At most, he can ask them to at least come up with a serious name for their character and suggest other moves when they want to do something wildly out of place. Fine, I am that GM too. But I never say they can’t min-max and treat the game like it is chess.

    Some of my friends really, REALLY like the strategic combat side of the game. That is who they are, and that is who their characters are. And whatever if it gets a little meta. Most of the roleplaying is done post-game and retro-actively. They’ll be all about what powers and moves to use to most effectively kill that dragon in game, and then when asked about last weeks game, they’ll just say “Man, did we beat that dragon! That final slash that decapitated him was epic!” – The exact same response a serious role player would give. They don’t say “Well, the way I used all of the rules to most effectively dispatch of his 300 hp was awesome!!”

    It’s the GM’s job to make sure all the players, from the min-maxing treasure hunting tank, to the max-minning half-blind, arachnaphobic priest, gets out of the game what they want out of the game, and that everyone has a good time. It’s all about having a good time. And it’s different strokes for different folks. If they want to play a gun porn addict, I am fine with that… If there are guns in the setting we are playing. That’s the only pre-requisite.

  • Are there shades of grey in your world, John Wick? It appears that you are stuck in black and white. I saw your post as saying, “If one person plays a game in a way you don’t like, that whole game is therefore contaminated by that.”

    In my world, I can enjoy roleplaying and tactical combat at the same time. I’ve played both 7th sea and 4e and I’ve enjoyed the roleplaying and the mechanics of each. On one hand, Keylia is a grieving widow who joined the Royal Constables to help protect her brash half-elven son from himself. On the other, she’s a badass seeker who rolls twice for perception checks. Look at me, I’m multitasking.

    I evaluate social situations based partly on the word the player says and partly on the dice. That makes people roleplay to the best of their ability, without limiting them to the subset of characters within their talents. It lets them stretch a little beyond their grasp and develop as a player as well as a character. It also means that the glib players occasionally have difficulties. After all, the character may not know that he’s just reminded the King of his annoying little brother and come off bad through no fault of his own.

    Roleplaying is a diverse hobby. While some people play in ways that aren’t my taste, I celebrate that they can do this and are having fun. Who knows, they may run a game that’s my style in the future. Their existence strngthens the hobby, which helps my niches too.

  • If the definition of role playing games discussed in this post is correct, then I don’t like role playing games. I like a different thing, which does not fit the definition of role playing games.

    However, everyone calls the thing I like a roleplaying game. I have no other word for the thing I like. In all likelihood, I will go on calling it a role playing game, and so will everyone else.

  • Game mechanics allow players to understand thecworld and this allow their characters to make meaningful decisions. Therefore weapons lists are necessary for good role playing.

    Killingvwith a teacup or thumb is silly bravado and nonsense writing.

  • 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.”

    Thing is, I’m also not good at swinging a sword and decapitating someone. Why should one of these be something I get to pass off on the dice, and the other be something I have to do to the satisfaction of the GM before my character, who is not me, can succeed at it?

    Consider one of the most basic social actions out there–the lie. This is something some people are very, very good at, and some people are horrible at. Furthermore, it’s something that different people vary wildly in their ability to perceive. And to top it all off, random chance does play a role–your attempt to claim to be a guard might fail against the one courtier who routinely plays poker with the guards and knows them all by name, no matter how solid your general ability to pretend to be a guard is.

    Under your system, my ability to lie isn’t even being compared to the NPC’s ability to perceive the lie; it’s going to fall entirely to GM fiat. After all, in ninety percent of the cases, the GM is going to be fully aware of the truth of the situation, so it’s not even like I can fool him. Instead, I have to persuade him that letting the lie work enhances his idea of the story.

    Which is fine, if you’re playing a pass-the-stick game. But once you introduce resolution mechanics, I see no reason to give one type of action a dice set, and the other one be left up to GM fiat.

    1. I do it by looking at the character each player makes, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they try to play them. Then I provide events either tweaked or injected which allow them to do what they like their character to do.

      Which sounds a lot more vague and handwavy than it ends up being in play. But then, I’ve GM’d for some 30 years, so I’m starting to figure out how to do it smoothly.

      And many players like being able to do some optimizing for certain situations, and like to shine in those, and for that tables and lists are required. They simply won’t come play if there are no tables and lists suiting their style.

  • I had a profound experience several years ago, surrounding weapons in 3.5 Ed. I had created a character, and as the man said, “The tale grew in the telling”. So, I wanted this character to have a saber, such as was commonly used by cavalry. But, no such animal existed in the otherwise extensive lists in the rules. But, undaunted, I thought of re-branding the rapier, given that they are both fencing swords. Just change the piercing to slashing, and bang.

    I thought I would see what others thought, and went on the Wizards.com message boards. I posted to see how others would react to this little change. The only reaction I got, was to find myself in an argument. Not that I was arguing, but the other guy was. Apparently, I had some how insulted his favorite sword in this suggested re-branding. I almost started quoting reference books, as to what sword was what, but stopped my self. I posted that I wasn’t looking for a fight over this, and the other person just seemed to get madder over this supposed insult to his sword.

    I had never considered that someone might be so attached to an entry on a list like that. Sure, the rapier has a special mechanic involved with in in 3.5, an all. But, this seemed not to really be about that. This, apparently was about fencing, and this other person was all about the epee, a type of fencing sword. That his beautiful sword might be mechanically the same as a filthy saber in D&D was a horrid thing.

    This is what I am seeing in the reactions here. The idea that “my special, favorite weapon” does not really matter seems to horrify people as much as it did to that person I encountered almost 10 years ago. The idea that we could do without all the fiddly bits is just destroying their fun. It’s not the kind of game they want to play, if they cannot have the most powerful character on the table, and the only way to make sure of that, is to “balance” everyone else’s characters.

    This is why there is so much angst over which edition of D&D you should play. And why I have lost interest in any edition. It’s all about gaming the game, and not playing a role playing game. I have moved on to other games, such as Fate. I also like the World’s Second Oldest RPG, Tunnels & Trolls, which was created because of many of the complaints listed in this article.

    In my youth, 20 or 30 years ago, I liked having huge lists of monsters, weapons, spells, races, etc. Rules on this, on that, because, if there was no rule on it, you couldn’t do it. Because that was the rule. Everybody knew that. Yes, there was a blurb somewhere at the front of the book that said something about making things up, but there were no rules explaining how to do that, mechanically. But, over the last decade or so, i have found that I care less and less about such things. I like more rules lite games, without all the fiddly bits. The bits that are there to “balance” other peoples characters down, and “mine” up.

    I would like to think that this is a sign of maturity in gaming. But, then, many of the worst rule nitpickers are old farts.

    1. Maturity in gaming is knowing (and not being ashamed of) what works for you while at the same time not living under the delusion that this means it works for everyone.

    2. You seem to be suggesting that calls for balance are mostly a veiled attempt to increase the power of one’s own character and/or decrease the power of the others’ characters, and that’s simply not true.

  • John, A great article however your definition may require some work:

    “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.”

    Unfortunately the end result of this is that:

    Fiasco isn’t a roleplaying game – since there is no overt reward mechanism. If there is a reward its in the form of social contract, however optimal play (if such a thing exists) must be dependent on picking the right option that gives you the most dice of a particular colour – so choices entirely inconsistent with the character’s motivations since they don’t take it into account

    Microscope isn’t be a roleplaying game. Again there is no obvious reward system and no victory condition, but players take on the role of characters.

    Once Upon a Time – the card game, clearly is a roleplaying game. Players make choices in order to further their personal plot.

    A Penny for My Thoughts – might be a roleplaying game, but because characters start with amnesia the character motives come to light after the early decisions. It fits your description “choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations” but the sequence of cause and effect is reversed. Also this game is odd because the player rewards the GM for presenting interesting conflicts/decisions/bangs – not the other way around.

    I know these are all odd edge cases, but they are all valid game designs, and I’m not sure the results match with your intent. I suspect the issue here is around the reward part of the definition.

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