RPG Design – Designing for your Players

   To actually be a player in a game, your decisions have to have some impact on what happens in it. Otherwise, you’re just an audience.

   As a small child I encountered a basic magicians trick; a performer who glanced at a deck of cards, slipped it into his pocket, and claimed he could pull out a particular card of my choice. He asked me to choose between black or red. I picked red, and he promptly said “I’ll eliminate the red cards then, pick hearts or diamonds!” I picked Hearts, and he said “I’ll keep the hearts then, pick face cards or number cards!” – and I said “I want to keep the face cards”.

   He got rather cross. After all, his trick relied on pretending to allow me to make decisions without actually allowing them to mean anything.

   It didn’t fool me for more than a few such “choices” as a child, and it won’t fool your players for long either, no matter how well you disguise it. In most role-playing games a lack of meaningful choices is known as “railroading”, and it’s usually a death knell; the players will soon get annoyed and play something else.

   All games run by rules. They may be neatly written down, or they may be the rules in someone’s head – whether carefully examined and thought out or vague and inchoate – but they’re still rules. “Dramatic Necessity”, “Plot”, “Narrative”, “Physics”, “Common Sense”, “the way (whatever) works…” and a hundred other ideas on how things should work in a game are all just differing sets of rules.

   All rules sets are simulations. They may be simulations of a strange and limited reality, or even of some purely abstract set of interactions, but a rule describes the results of a particular situation or set of situations under that particular set of rules. Monopoly uses one set of rules. Physics uses another set. Chess, super hero comic books, road runner cartoons, and classic action movies all use their own sets.

   Everyone has their own taste there – but for a game, it’s best to have as many of the rules as you can out in the open. If the players don’t know what the rules are, their decisions mean less. You don’t think so? Pick a number from one to three. What does you choice mean in the game I just started? I know, do you? Was your decision essentially random and – to you – meaningless?

   That would be a “yes” pretty much by definition.

   That’s why hiding the rules is generally a poor idea. The characters may not know them beyond what they can observe and have heard about the world – but the players will need to have a pretty good idea as to the likely results of their choices to make them meaningful. A good storyteller or a colorful setting and system may be able to hold an appreciative set of gamers even if their decisions are fairly random and have very little impact on the plot – but it’s a lot harder than it needs to be.

   Problems appear when two or more different sets of rules are in play. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in our out of people’s heads, formal or informal, or whether the game has a game master. If there are multiple sets of rules in play, then there are multiple games – or possibly no game at all if no one agrees.

  • If two players are playing two different variants of chess, “the” game won’t work well.
  • If one player thinks Elves are “the fair folk” (so-called because if you called them the kind of names that the vicious, irrational, child-stealing, animal-tormenting, monsters who gave people epilepsy and strokes for “fun” really deserved they’d kill you) and another thinks of them as semi-divine “agents of the light” – and both accept their positions as being the rules of the game, rather than an opinion – then things will tend to fall apart when elves turn up.
  • If one player is playing by a mental set of rules that says that falling fifty stories onto a bed of close-set poisoned metal spikes should be fatal, and the other is playing by a set of game mechanics that says that it almost certainly isn’t, one of them is going to be severely upset whichever way that situation turns out.

   That is why the game rules should support the rules of the setting – and, ideally, should closely match the rules in the player’s heads.

   That’s where “Game Mechanics” come up. Good mechanics for a game setting provide results consistent with the implicit and explicit rules of that setting, are simple and easy to remember and use, suffice to support a wide enough variety of decisions and options to be interesting, and be sufficiently “balanced” for all the players to enjoy the game and find it challenging for a reasonably long time. There should be resources to manage and expend, trade-offs to agonize over, and goals to achieve.

   Ideally, the mechanics should support any option that a player can dream up, never require exceptions, be so quick and intuitive that the players can almost forget about them, and should reflect the rules of the world they’re supporting with absolute precision, so that no exceptions are ever needed.

   Sadly, several of those design goals are probably opposed to each other, making perfection quite impossible – but some mechanics do a better job of it than others.

   A major part of creating a good mechanic is to determine what you want to have them do in the first place. In the case of role-playing games…

   Is the game simply a social event? A reason for a group of friends to get together, reminiscence, and gossip? All games serve this purpose to some extent, but good games for this purpose tend to be light, simple, and relatively short. A consistent world or setting isn’t especially important, and humor is likely to be a primary value. There aren’t any rules recommendations to encourage this because – for these purposes – the fewer the rules, the better. Strip out any major complications so that people can get right to the playing.

   Do you want to create satisfying stories, filled with strong personalities, exciting genre-appropriate events, and unexpected plot twists? In this case the exact details of HOW things happen won’t be all that important – but you’ll want some story-based mechanics to allow the players to add their own materials, NPC’s, discriptions, and plot twists, otherwise they’ve gone from “players” to “audience”. Mechanisms like “whimsy cards”, “plot points”, “drama dice”, and “fate” all work well; it’s simply important to remember that this makes narrative an active principle of the setting, on a par with gravity. Expect the characters to notice it, to be aware of narrative conventions, and to be on the lookout for the times and places when they can twist the tale their way. Gaming is not about telling stories – but it can be about creating them.

  • Allow the players to take over or play NPC’s on occasion. You can even allow them to play out some of the prequel events for a situation that their characters will later become involved with.
  • Give them a limited supply of something – cards, points, or whatever – that they can expend on introducing plot twists and adding background elements. When they do it well, and add interest to the game, give them more. If they just use them to bypass problems, don’t give them more.
  • Give them a way – drama dice, action points, or whatever – that they can use to come out ahead in dramatic situations. Remember though, this will be taking some of the challenge out of the game; there’s far less risk of the players losing when they have points to spend. To handle this, make them reluctant to spend those points – for example, by making them the same points that they’d normally use to upgrade their characters.

   Do you want challenges? Complex puzzles, situations, and social difficulties which the players can try to resolve by using their wits to apply their characters abilities? In this case you’ll want “balance”; all the characters should have interesting things to do during most sessions, you’ll want to provide a great deal of information, there should be a serious chance of the characters losing – indeed, if they make poor decisions it should be virtually guaranteed – and you’ll want a very open system, capable of handling an immense variety of situations. Note that this doesn’t require “balanced encounters” unless the players are very inexperienced: deciding whether or not to get into a situation is also a chance to make a bad decision – and to suffer the consequences.

  • To be blunt, there are a tremendous number of games out there with perfectly good rules sets for this sort of thing – enough so that all you really need to do is pick one.

   Do you want drama, backstories, and intense character interactions? Rules to encourage this sort of thing usually pop up during character generation and as speciality rules to encourage dramatic situations, declarations of undying emotion, and personal motivations.

  • Call for detailed character backgrounds – ones with personal goals, likes and dislikes, reasons to be involved with the world and the other characters, and potential conflicts. Make sure that those elements come into play and that – at the least – they result in a little more “screen time” for the character. Provide some minor rewards for especially good bits and the players will soon be trying to come up with complications for themselves. Awarding some extra experience whenever a characters background complicates his or her life usually works pretty well.
  • Give characters bonuses when acting in accord with their motivations. Give them bigger bonuses if they swear mighty vows and/or come up with dramatic scenes, speeches, and descriptions of their environment and actions while pursuing those motivations.
  • If they play out some intensely emotional moment, or come up with some in-character “diary” entries or personal scene outside of the usual game sessions, give them credit for it: Some bit of fortune or good karma to hold in reserve for more trying times will encourage that sort of thing.

   Do you want to let the players explore and “experience” a fantasy world? Rules that encourage this sort of thing usually focus on consistency between the setting rules and the mechanics that model it and on “what would really happen if such a situation really occurred in such a setting”. This approach tends to abhor “Metagaming” – and take any form of interference based on “plot” or “narrative” or “drama” as Metagaming unless there’s some mechanism within the world being modeled that explains such interference.

   In this case, there aren’t many rules for encouraging this approach. The game master must simply make sure that there are a lot of situations – some important, some unimportant, some that the characters can do something about, some that they can’t, and some that they can with a lot of work and risk – available for the characters to become involved with. Similarly, there should be a lot of things that they don’t know about to start with. He or she had better be prepared to have them go off in odd directions.

   What is most vital, however, is to make sure that the consequences and implications of the world rules and the mechanics – if there’s a clear distinction in this style at all – are throughly considered.

   For example, in one Champions game, it was noted that normal people could learn modest magical powers (up to 10 active points in general, +5 if studying a specialized field, and +5 if they had a strong natural talent, which about 5% of the population did). That had LOT of implications. Notably, it meant that being “hospitalized for an injury” only took an hour or two to heal up any survivable physical wound and that diseases were easily cured. Any competent medical mage could heal up an accident victim before he or she woke up. Hospitals existed – to handle congenital problems, provide specialized care for premature births, and handle vicious curses – but there weren’t many long-term stays. One player had to have it explained to him (over and over again) that writing up a character history involving being hospitalized for months in New York City for broken bones and burns after an auto accident simply would not work without some really exotic explanation.

   There were lots of other effects as well – and keeping the game believable and consistent required a good deal of forethought. After all, when the players find an inconsistency in this sort of game, they’ll usually focus on it, under the assumption that it’s an indication of something going on.

   Finally, of course, there are the goals of the players.

   Some are more awkward than others.

  • Some players want to fantasize about doing impossible things, like their favorite action heroes, anime characters, or super beings. They want the game to let them be larger than life – but tend to become upset if they fail too often. Make sure that the system allows characters to be bigger, better, or at least more skilled than normal.
  • Some players just like to attack. They may be bored or frustrated in real life, feel put-upon by their boss at work, or just be looking to blow off steam – but they want to grind forward and crush their opposition in a spray of real or metaphorical blood. They’ll get upset if the game doesn’t allow this to work reasonably often or makes them do a lot of investigating or some such. Make sure that the system allows for combat without it being absurdly deadly or likely to result in long-term disabilities.
  • Some players like to tell other people what to do. For them, the game will be frustrating unless either some of the players are pliable enough to direct and manipulate or there are NPC’s they can manipulate and order about. They’ll get upset if there aren’t enough other characters who listen to them and accept their ideas and directives. To accommodate them, make sure that the system allows for leadership and influence.
  • Some players want to “win” – and in RPG’s this usually means accumulating personal power and wealth. They’ll get upset if the system doesn’t allow them to advance their character’s abilities readily, and if too much time is spent on activities which aren’t directly rewarding in terms of power and wealth. Make sure that the system allows for some form of character advancement, preferably on a regular basis.
  • Some players simply want everything to center on them. If the spotlight moves elsewhere, they’ll become impatient or cease to pay attention. This is one of the really awkward goals, and may be impossible to accommodate in a large game if taken to extremes – but it’s usually easy enough to handle. Simply make sure that the game features several different types of characters, each with their own role to play – and that all the roles come up regularly. Everyone will have a chance at the spotlight that way.
  • Some players want to have an impact on the setting, to change the world and leave a legacy. They’ll become very unhappy if their efforts never seem to have much of an impact. Make sure to keep track of large-scale events, note that the village they saved raises a memorial, and let the characters change the world a bit – whether for good or ill. If practical, add some quick and simple systems for reputation and large-scale influence. There may or may not be any karmic reward for good guys, but there should be plenty of social ones.
  • Some players want to plan, plot, investigate, and scheme – and don’t go forward unless the odds are in their favor. To accommodate them, make sure that a fair number of situations can be investigated in advance and that special preparations – such as proper clothing, special weapons designed to harm particular foes, and picking up specialized supplies – make a large difference once in a while. Make sure that the game includes a good variety of ways to allocate character resources before getting involved in something – and that those allocations really matter.
  • Some players want to focus on personal matters – making money through business, having their characters get married, and pursuing careers rather than being over-the-top rogues and heroes. They’re easy to accommodate: just make sure that such activities sometimes yield benefits for the other characters – information, goods and services, jobs, contacts that get them out of trouble, or some such – and everyone will usually be happy.
  • Some players want to get deeply “into character” – and usually take it to an extreme. If they’re being directly disruptive to the group they’ll need to be firmly discouraged – but if they’re just overacting a bit and hamming it up, the rules should give them some small bonuses for staying in character at the price of all the complications they’ll bring on themselves. They want to be Dark Lords? Chivalric Knights? Macho Men who impress everyone? Why not? Such roles aren’t subtle, but they’re certainly easy to play. Social mechanics for non-player character reactions and for reputations are probably in order. A bonus for dedication or service to a cause or philosophy of life also works well.
  • Some players simply want to do things that they’d never even consider doing in real life. This is easy to handle as long as they take that to mean taking large risks in pursuit of large rewards and exploiting their characters abilities. It even works when they want to do things like die heroically or dedicate large portions of their character’s life to working towards some mighty goal – or just want to experiment with out-of-the-box problem-solving. Simply make sure that failure, or even the loss of their character, doesn’t permanently cripple their ability to participate in the game – although it may well take several sessions for them to recoup their losses on real disaster.
    • Rule-based solutions fail to work when a player announces that their character is crazy, does absurdly silly things because the plot or the efforts of the other characters will insulate them from the obvious results, or when they say “I’ll just make up another character!”. One of the base assumptions of most games is that “you are playing a character who would plausibly exist and have survived to this point in the setting – and that the rest of the characters would be willing to associate with”. If they’re not doing that, they’re essentially announcing that “I refuse to abide by the rules of this game” – and no rule will fix that.
  • Some players like to contribute things – interesting items of equipment, odd NPC’s, new spells, descriptions of locations, in-character diaries, record keeping, or whatever. The rules should both allow and reward this. Inventions should be allowed – if difficult – and should bring the inventor some sort of reward in exchange for their efforts. If the player is contributing to the setting out of character, give the material your own twist and use it. You may provide another reward if you like – either in or out of character – but the principle reward for such players is seeing their material going into play.
  • Some players like to sneak around, get past obstacles by their wits and trickery, and put clues together to solve puzzles. To accommodate them you’ll want to make sure that your rule system has some fairly clearly-defined system for them to use for sneaking, trickery, and so on. Otherwise they won’t be able to estimate their odds – and their decisions as to what to try won’t mean much.

   It’s often been noted that not everyone wants the same thing out of a game, and thus you cannot make a game that pleases everyone.

   This is true.

   You can, however, make a game that can accommodate a wide variety of goals and playstyles – and which will work well enough for all of them to please most groups. That will leave out the people who become impatient or annoyed whenever a game veers into territory that they’re not interested in – but if they’re unwilling to accommodate the players who are interested in such things with good grace, they’re usually not contributing much to the game anyway. The other players are entitled to their own share of the playing time, and refusing to recognize that, or to pay attention when other people are taking their turns, isn’t a mark of dedication to a particular gaming philosophy. It’s a mark of immaturity – and the cure for that can’t be found in any playable set of rules.

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3 Responses

  1. Odd question: I assume the magician just had several pockets into which he had split a duplicate deck, with the cards ina certain order. Thus, he could slip the full deck into his coat, then easily pull out any card he wanted. So what was the problem with you calling for face cards?

  2. It was a much simpler routine than that: he just glanced at the card on the bottom and then swapped the “keep” and “throw away” as required with each choice to steer the choice to that card.

    Thus, he’s looking for the eight of hearts… Keep red cards, keep hearts, keep numerical cards, keep the ones higher than five, etc. If I’d “picked” the wrong thing, he’d just say he was throwing them out, when I picked what he wanted, he’d say he was keeping those. Thus no actual choice.

  3. […] RPG Design – Designing for your Players from Emergence Campaign Weblog (ruscumag.wordpress.com) […]

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