Dry, Boring, Designer Musings

brilliant_mind_cs2I’m settling into my new role at Chronicle City and wrapping up old projects which means I’m in a bit of a lull before the Chronicle City work really kicks in and I have to adjust to a whole new set of management and interpersonal skills. This has given me downtime (welcome, due to a terrible bout of depression) and the opportunity to think, ponder and ruminate on game design. Being at Chronicle City is going to give me a lot of opportunities and as a chap who is somewhere halfway between the Traditional Gaming camp and the Story Games camp (and thus loathed by both) I’ll be in a relatively good position to smuggle some new concepts and ideas into games as we develop licences and new IP. Provided of course, that these ideas actually work.

I rarely ‘talk shop’ – per se – from a design point of view, so hopefully you’ll forgive this indulgence. I am painfully aware that I will sound super, super cereal and more than a little pretentious.

The Nostalgia Train (a lot of it in the form of the Old School Renaissance) is in full swing as it rarely has been since the heady days of D&D3 brought a bunch of old gamers out of retirement. Some of these games are shamelessly just trying to recreate the old experiences while others are using it as a ‘back to basics’ approach that allows them to reinvent the wheel from first principles without the baggage of thirty years of development. This mirrors some of what we’ve seen in computer games with a division between sprawling A-list titles and casual, simple games with great hooks and addictive play that draw something from that simplicity and the constrictions it puts upon what you can do. Something you also get with the limitations of tablets and mobiles as compared to desktop machines or consoles.

Part of the problem with RPG design is that we don’t have a common set of terminology, despite best efforts on the part of Dr Bat-Dong and his nefarious allies. Rather we each develop our own thoughts and ideas and express them in our own ways and then stare at each other cross-eyed as we try to understand it. I’ve developed my own inner lexicon and set of thoughts on gaming innovation and progress and while I can’t talk about specifics or predict which – if any – of these ideas will see fruit in any games I’m prepared to share them in hopes of starting a conversation with other ‘makers and doers’.

Defining Roleplaying Games

Within the context of what would traditionally be called a ‘tabletop roleplaying game’ (more on this later) I would currently define a roleplaying game as:

A mediated conversation that results in a narrative.

That is an extremely broad definition and it encompasses everything from kids playing soldiers in the woods, through games like Once Upon a Time through to D&D. It includes traditional RPGs, murder mystery games, LARP, story games and even GMless games like Fiasco which some people seem to find it difficult to accept as an RPG.

Let’s examine this definition a little more closely.

Mediated: What I mean by mediated is that there is a filter of some kind that the conversation passes through. This might be a Games Master, referee, the consensus decision of the other players, who can shout the loudest, mum or dad, or ‘the rules’. It can also be some combination of all of these.

Conversation: Our games take place through the transfer of information from one party to another (or several others) and back again. One participant describes an action, another reacts to it, that is – in turn – reacted to and so we continue.

Narrative: I’d say ‘story’ but when role-playing you’re not ‘telling’ a story, rather a story is emergent from the conversation and the interactions involved in play. An RPG – of whatever kind – is not like a novel or even a computer game. It is not (necessarily) set or bounded and many gaming narratives that are engaging and wonderful in play would make terribly boring books, films or other media narratives.

I regard this as the quintessential core of what a roleplaying game is and while these elements may be found in or emerge from other games that are not explicitly RPGs they’re key to roleplaying as a conceptual design framework. You may disagree, please do! Poke holes in my thesis and shake it around to find the weak parts!

Anything else? That’s up for grabs.

Playing around a table? Playing in the same room? Playing face to face? Playing at the same time? Rules? A Games Master? Everything else is free to be examined, eliminated, confirmed, toyed with, messed with, spun about and shot out of a cannon at The Moon. With that in mind, here are some design concepts that are currently bobbing around in the soupy mass of oatmeal that passes for my brain.

Alternative Platform Design: Gaming takes place in a lot of different venues now. With VOIP, Google Hangouts and services such as Infrno, combined with scheduling issues, an aging gamer population, families, travel costs and so many other things a lot of gaming is taking place away from the table. This isn’t a new phenomenon, gaming has taken place on forums, IRC, chatrooms and elsewhere since the internet became a ‘thing’ but the relative convenience and accessibility of these mods of play is now at a tipping point of convenience and no longer requires ‘leet skillz’. While this kind of stuff has gone on for a long time we haven’t really had any games properly try to address and tailor themselves to playing via conference call, chatroom, email, forum or other means that aren’t face to face. Yes there’s a couple of well known exceptions, but not really at the mid or upper tier publisher level.

Asynchronous Gaming: Which is a posh, long-winded way of saying ‘playing at different times’. Again, we have been at this a long time with forum and email play (and play by post if you want to get really stone-age) but again there’s almost no games that cater to this form of play. Which is odd, given that its probably one of the most convenient and low-impact ways to play.

Experience Commonality: This is something gaming used to have but which has slipped away. People have it in MMORPGs and other computer games, ironically as a result of the limitations of those games. Story, adventure, dungeons, locations, all have to get reused in these games and the experiences of them are not individual. They’re a point of contact for people because they share the experience of fighting that boss or overcoming that obstacle. They build a community around sharing solutions, clues, tips and optimisations. We did have that in tabletop RPGs once upon a time (everyone failed to rescue Alt Cunningham or explored Keep on the Borderlands) but that has gone away. I don’t know how to reintroduce this aspect without lots of problems, but it’s on my mind.

Generational Gaming: The best and most successful way to hook new gamers is by example. Unlike many things that parents do, which become automatically ‘lame’, roleplaying does seem to manage to transfer from parents to children (and grandchildren!) with relative success. When I say generational gaming I mean that both literally and figuratively. I want (and we need as a community) to provide tools to make gaming accessible to children, easy to pick up for ‘noobs’ and exciting and demonstrative to a new generation of gamers who don’t have parents or peers to induct them. We also need to understand that our passion is not for everyone and its OK for people to like other things. As part of this I also think we need to concentrate on the strengths that roleplaying has, the things that differentiate it and set it apart, rather than trying to chase the same itches that MMOs etc scratch. This was, I think, the failing of 4e.

Non-Statistical Gaming: Are there other ways to describe characters, capabilities, worlds? Can we move outside of the dice to using cards, pictures, colours, music, words? There are means other than numbers – I think – to describe the world and I’ve explored this some in Neverwhere and ImagiNation, I think there’s further to go though and experiments to test. This is probably one of the more challenging ideas rolling around in my noggin and everything I have thought of so far still includes some numerical aspect, but its an avenue worth exploring.

Numerical-Spread: With computers, smartphones, even calculators all capable of generating random numbers between ANY values, why are we still stuck on polyhedrals? That’s inherently limiting isn’t it? True, there’s something visceral and delightful about handling dice and they become near-spiritual fetish objects for a lot of gamers but they can produce some odd statistical anomalies. Why should an Ubersword of Ming do 4d6 (4-24) damage when it could be doing a 1-25, allowing for everything from a tiny graze to a full on hit?

One-Play Sagas: What if we didn’t play our own characters and what if the adventures we played in were more… set? There’s been some tinkering along this line with the new Marvel game and with examples like Lady Blackbird but what if we told a story through group play in a way more similar to, say, Final Fantasy, J Random Fantasy Epic or the old Choose Your Own Adventure books like Lone Wolf.

Pick-Up-And-Play: ‘That looks cool!’ ‘Lets play it!’ ‘OK’ – and they gamed happily ever after. It will never be QUITE that simple, but we can TRY damn it.

Player Products: From a purely economic point of view games companies are selling books and materials to, perhaps, 1/6th to 1/4 of their potential audience. The person who – normally – buys all the books is the Games Master for that particular game. There must be a way to create materials that players would want and would use that aren’t ‘splatbooks’ which, again, fragment the audience for them. I don’t know what – yet – character journals have been tried a few times and never really taken off that well but there must be things to try.

Parachute Gaming: Dropping in on one game or another without it being a huge hassle, without characters being too far apart in capability and without it ruining anyone’s campaign. Flailsnails baked in to the game at the concept stage.

Transferable Game Engines: Deleria tried to do this. We often found ourselves playing Vampire using the old MET rules (because while you may not have dice, you always have hands). A game engine that can be used in tabletop, LARP, online and any which way (but loose) has some advantages. The compatibility between the new Iron Kingdoms RPG and the skirmish games of the same world (Warmachine/Hordes) is a good example of this working really well.