So far, there have been many reactions to my “Chess is Not an RPG” article. Some of them have been thoughtful and for those, I’m very appreciative.

Others have amounted to little more than “UR WRONG!” with some very colorful language here and there. When I join these conversations and inquire about their claims, they quickly back off. Even internet anonymity can’t give them enough courage to stand up.

One reader criticized me for not allowing comments. I have to show a little bit of embarrassed honesty here: I did not know I needed to turn the feature on. I’ve only just started using WordPress and I had no idea that feature wasn’t automatic. Thus, I’ve turned comments on. Despite the fact that he said so rather rudely, I thank him for pointing that out.

Of course, I really shouldn’t expect anything else from Teh Intarwebs, and I didn’t. Honestly, I expected a few friends to read the article. As it turns out, a few thousand people read it. That surprised me. It was something I spent about an hour writing, edited quickly, then put it up for public consumption, disagreement and discussion. It was intended to be a first draft for Rincon’s GM conference, coming up in a week. It was little more than a freestyle writing exercise. I intended on shaping it up better, but now it’s out there in it’s base, rough form.

So far, it’s gotten over 4,000 “likes” and over 10,000 views. That’s a lot for my little website.

After the talk, I’ll put up a more thorough and well-thought out version. Or, maybe I’ll just let this one stand the way it is. If not crude and a bit of a ramble at times, at least it was honest.

Again, to those who made thoughtful responses, my gratitude. I stand behind the philosophy that honest and respectful disagreement is the best path to progress.

If only we could get the folks in Washington to hear that…

Chess is Not an RPG: A Quick Follow Up

14 thoughts on “Chess is Not an RPG: A Quick Follow Up

  • I can take responsibility for comments being turned off. When I stepped in to help John with his site the previous admin had them disabled and I had foolishly assumed this was an actual decision that was made at some point.

    I’ve went through and enabled comments on John’s most recent articles as well as enabling them by default for anything John posts in the future.

    Sorry about that.

  • Sean K. Reynolds and I had a really good discussion about your article on his 5 Moons RPG page on facebook (which I am excited about, but maybe it is too rules heavy for your purposes?).

    If you wanted to spark conversation and disagreement, you can look there to see that you pretty much succeeded.

    Here is something that I came up with, though: how do you reward and enforce roleplaying without some kind of success arbitration mechanic?

    And if you need a success arbitration mechanic, shouldn’t that be fun in and of itself (even if you think that an extensive mechanical system makes things more like a board game)?

  • It certainly gave me something to think about; but I’ve always felt like I was hacking games to get more story out of them anyway. Your article sort of just went out and described what I was doing in a concrete way.

    1. @Joh Dodd

      Game balance seems a vague term because I’ll bet any two of us have a different idea of it.

      What we really need (for these games to be a success and continue) is to have engaging, fun games that groups of players can enjoy and where unpleasant game collapses and spotlight-related issues don’t taint everyone’s experience of a game.

      I have seen rules-light and rules-heavy games deliver on that and I have also seen rules-light and rules-heavy games totally fail in many different ways.

      Balancing a given class against another or a given weapon against another gives us an illusion of overall game balance. The range of mechanics and choices and outcomes in most of these games is far too diverse (too many variables, too many inputs and outputs) to every yield a meaningful and generic analysis that leads to a single, relatively simple way to balance a game on the whole.

      So, if we acknowledge that basic complexity, we have two choices: Use more and more complex and heavy attempts to address balance in the mechanics (bigger, heavier, more badass models) or we acknowledge that game balance may not be easy to mathematically arrive at but (like art) ‘we know it when we see it’.

      The former choice leads to heavier and heavier rule sets until they collapse on themselves forming a rules singularity that sucks in a campaign or even an entire game system.

      The latter bears thinking about. Most of us can identify when things at a table feel unfair for one player or another. In complex games (and RPG rules tend to be and the range of choices certainly is), we can get a feel for this intuitively even when all the efforts to balance a massive ruleset have failed.

      This is where rules-light systems and the game master come into play. They can adjust on the fly to control spotlight and they can help limit mechanistic failures of rules systems without feeling they are somehow overriding the ‘carefully balanced rules’.

      We all need a framework to communicate in RPGs – to try to put everyone on the same page as far as what is happening, what is possible, and what characters are able to accomplish. The rules mechanisms in these bloated gargantuans are attempting to help with this but in an unhelpful way often.

      This could just as well be accomplished in a strictly textual format. Numbers add specificity and precision but not necessarily accuracy or utility.

      I have seen people argue for incredibly unreasonable things based on the fact the game’s mathematical model (the rules) permitted or defined the incredible thing they wanted to do (unbalanced usually) as possible and ‘the rules are inviolate!’.

      Had they been outside the mathematical framework and not become ensorcelled by its siren’s lure, they would simply have recognized what they were asking for was unreasonable and unbalanced. But the rules told them this was okay….

      This is where the problem lies when we try time and again to ‘get the rules right’. Basic, Advanced, 2.0, Player’s Option, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0 and now 5.0….. how many flavours of D&D do you need to attempt to ‘get it right?’. I’d say they’ve tried to many because their strategy inherently is flawed. More rules and more balance per feature or by math won’t get you to better games.

      Beyond that, nobody mentions it, but there is NO incentive for any publisher of rules sets to get it right. Why? If they did, they’d never need to sell the new version. As long as each version is different enough to feel like it might be righter than the last, they’ll sell it. Then eventually people will see the flaws in this one and go looking for the next… which will be different but still broken. This sells books.

      So, between the ‘can’t make a better game with more focus on game balance as an end’ and ‘want to sell more books’, no game will ever ‘get it right’ (as if there was one perspective on what that is anyway).

      Good discussion.

      Me, I realized even old rule sets can tell good stories. So I’m focusing on interesting settings, fun encounters, and letting the players have spotlight and choices. The rules will be, at best, a guideline and as light as I can make them.

      1. And I have absolutely no problem with rules light, I just believe that the absolute absence of them can only be a bad thing for people who haven’t made it through the initial stages of playing. As for publishers having no incentive to get the rules right, I agree on that score, which is why it’s down to all of us to find ways to make things work. It would be good to find a way to make a rules system that didn’t have immediate minmax possibilities and then concentrate on getting more source material out there rather than working on changing things.

        And yes, good discussion, thanks for taking the time to put a response together.

  • Some people play RPG’s for different reasons than to tell stories.

    I’ve been in RPG groups which use them to develop skills at handling certain situations, for examining possible outcomes to current events, to form a basis for discussing historical events and to examine the feasibility of studies and statements.

    Are those goals wrong? Are these groups not actually playing RPG’s, even though they use RPG’s as they are intended, to resolve conflict and provide a framework for how to act out the character?

    In some cases game balance (meaning that the result of using equipment and abilities conforms to expected outcomes) is not only important, but the sole reason for an RPG session to exist. Are those sessions “unworthy” because they are not story centered?

    And even when telling stories, some of the best stories told around my table when I have been the GM have come about when using the Phoenix Command Small Arms Combat System. A system which laughs at the simplicity of DnD and other such light weight rules systems with puny equipment tables. The very reason the stories became so compelling was the detail oriented and brutally realistic way the system treated character actions.

    1. I think this comment nails it. I wound up writing an article after reading the original post, but quickly diverged into discussion of board games – but essentially it game down to “People play different games for different reasons and the designer needs to work out who you’re trying to support and then to support them.”

      There are people who have loads of fun playing D&D as a skirmish wargame and competing to generate the most broken characters, I’m not going to tell them to stop having fun just because I want to go and tell a story in some other system.

      Nobody who’s in a group that is collectively enjoying a game is “doing it wrong” even if they’re doing everything wrong.

  • The only comment I have is more of a question: how do you help players who are inexperienced or uncomfortable role playing be successful without a social stat?

    I have used those to allow my players some option to be successful when they only want or are able to provide a framework for their interaction with others. As they get more experience, these “training wheels” become less necessary and eventually are just a cosmetic feature.

  • Hello everyone, and hello to you John 🙂
    Loved your article and some people commented with reason and some just tried to use some reason to defend what they like and love which is all in all a childish act indeed. But from my experience as a gamemaster, a role-player and a video game geek I can surely say that a role-playing game is a game in which you role play. And no, as much as you want your wow “characters” to be roles, they are simply not. They are highly complicated pawns which deal certain numbers or restore some back to green.
    You are a role. You are getting through the day, with all your ups and downs and wanted and unwanted choices. You have your personal history and family and origin and tragedies (hopefully not) and your days are filled with other living roles who you like and dislike.
    Look at it this way. A general pure role playing is theater. A general pure role playing GAME is mystery house where people are given roles to verbally find out who is the killer. At one point people decided to mix that concept with stats and chances (dice rolling). And they just casually labeled it an RPG because you still played a role. But the more you tinker with stats and numbers in any game the less you play a role. The time doesn’t allow it, especially when you play a tabletop game. I have played simple RPG games with tons of colorful and memories both beautiful and thrilling, and i have suffered painstaking rules of complicated game systems. Guess which I liked more 🙂
    But that’s ok! Not everyone likes noodles.
    Some like to act it out and some to math it out and both are fine as long as you have fun.
    But in the end some are more role-playing and some are more rule-playing.

    I bid you all good night!

  • Interesting discussion. I’ve played RPGs for many years (and yeah, I mainly mean tabletop when I say that), and that includes many custom-made systems, some of which were games I ran on systems I created. I think this “game balance” issue might be one of those unresolvable questions – systems versus story is itself a balance, and cannot be all of one and none of the other.
    At some level I agree with John Wick – an RPG is a collaborative story, not usually a competition between players (and also the GM ?) with some sort of mathematical rules of engagement. I like Story, and I consider the power-gaming, the min-maxing, the rules-lawyering to be a terrible drag on the actual Roleplaying.
    That being said, I think there do need to be some rules at work too – to separate the plausible from the implausible, success from failure, and yes even throw some element of random chance in there that even the GM is not going to direct. The GM’s authority has to be there to run a game effectively and the “GM is god rule” may need to be thrown in there to smooth over a snag, but if the basic environment the player-characters are in is inscrutable, how can the players even guess what can or cannot be done?
    I’ve played in *a lot* of different RPG’s, and in just about any genre – some very unusual or obscure (or homemade). Some game systems were something of an encyclopedia of rules and effects, while others were so fast & loose your character sheet might as well be a business card. I can’t say which approach I have had more actual fun with. I know I’ve played games which fell apart fell apart either for having too many rules or else too few.
    It’s a bit unusual that D&D was not one of them for a very long time, so maybe there was a sort of “culture” of rules fetishism that I missed out on being part of. When I later did play D&D I found that while the various worlds were very well fleshed-out, there seemed to be a sort of built-in assumption that min-maxing was the key to success. Or rather, not min-maxing your character was the key to failure – trying to create a character with more rounded and (hate to use this in a fantasy context) realistic was something of a detriment. I have rarely ever played a character designed with stats in mind, though I did gradually learn which things worked and which did not. As GM or storyteller or whatever, I have made a point of insisting people put some non-stats reason into what their characters are, what they can do, and how they act. However, I think in the end that was somewhat self-enforcing: players inclined towards “personality” characters playing them that way (sometimes even different characters the same way every time – *sigh*); power-gamer characters playing their varied characters always as min-maxed stats-hammers. Perhaps it is the mentality people take into playing a roleplaying game at all?
    I think in overall terms, to me it is obvious that advancing the story is the objective, but the bigger challenge is in making it interactive and unpredictable, without it simply falling into “you are in Story X, so do Y”.
    Remember that old trope about the 3 types of conflict in a story: “man vs. man, man vs. his environment, and man vs. himself”? Think of it in RPG terms as character vs. character, or character vs. environment, or character [player actions] vs. himself [character sheet]. To me game balance is not so much about contest or conflict expressed in those terms, but more an issue opening up options for action without things turning into something that is either restricted and rote, or inconsistent and ridiculous.

    I hope this comment makes sense, coming from someone who has played many games, run some, and made a few. I do not think John Wick or Jon Dodd’s positions are wrong, but perhaps neither can be entirely right. Some of the best games I have played in have been in game systems where the rules were realistic and razor-sharp, but some have been great fun where the game system was made to be extremely simple and even vague. There is no “magic formula”, but I suspect regardless of complexity a good system and good players makes for a good game.

    PS: Props to Jesper ninja-ing me about Phoenix Command – first thing I thought of as a *ahem* rules-abundant game !

    On a tangent:
    Computer RPG’s are very much an arms-race – create a character, and increase their capabilities with planned mathematical progression. The tabletop gamer in me sought to give them some more personality than was required, some background for what they are.
    Strictly speaking, having a deeper character history or personality had zero effect compared to playing characters as just a collection of stats. So why do that? Basically, I did it for my own amusement, nobody else’s.
    Mind you, I wasn’t playing WoW, but gravitated to Neverwinter Nights, because that was not a pay-to-play business model and when I played online it was on a custom made world / community that I enjoyed being a member of (part of that being no player-versus player). More like tabletop, less like an online first-person-shooter.

  • I think your piece was very thoughtful and well-written, even though I disagree with it’s analysis. There are a couple of things you discount. Firstly, when you say RPGs are the only medium in which the protagonist and the audience are sharing the same brain, you are discounting video games. While few video games offer the same degree of freedom as RPGs due to technical limitations, within their own scope, many do strive to achieve the same ends as RPGs. That is, they invite the player to participate in the game.

    The reason I bring them up is because video game design (rather unfairly) has gained a lot of academic legitimacy in the same 40 year span that RPGs have been around and it has become a much, much bigger industry in which a great deal of academic research has been conducted. Some of it has been highly technical stuff, like how to produce better graphics, but there has also been a great deal done on the psychology of players and on how to tell interactive stories which have very different demands from passive stories like movies and books.

    I bring all of this up because of a piece I wrote for my own blog some time ago which took the formal video game design practice called MDA and applied the same logic to video games to figure out WHY people play RPGs. And while it is certainly true that some people do play to participate in a story, this is just one of at least eight different motivations for gamers according to the MDA framework and I think it applies strongly to RPGs as well. I’d encourage you to check out my article which links back to the original academic research that inspired it:

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