RPG Design – What Rules Are For

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Role-playing games don’t actually need to have rules. “Lets Pretend!” has been around for a very long time indeed. All you need to do is to imagine that you’re a person different from yourself, occupying a different environment, and interacting with people who aren’t there – and then try to react as that person would. The more you get into that role – giving it depth, and motivations and concerns other than yours, and make it a person rather than a playing piece, the better your’re doing at role-playing.

Try not to lose track of reality while you’re at it though. We call that “going crazy” and you can have a lot of fun without immersing yourself that far.

In a role-playing game the characters may be, or try to do, anything whatsoever. A crippled, dying, old man who’s trying to make peace between his quarreling grandchildren while passing on some cultural traditions and life lessons can be a wonderful role to play. A giant computerized tank is likely to be a lousy one; it may have far more power than the old man, but it’s boring, emotionless, has no depth, and has very few options besides “Destroy!”.

As an example from play, an elderly fisherman – a throwaway role who got handed out when the players took on the roles of various normal people in a prequel to a session with their usual superhero characters – turned out to be more memorable, and in many ways more truly heroic in the face of disaster, than the players main characters – who reached the scene a few hours later. In fact, several players were rather reluctant to give up their normal-person roles, and expanded on their writeups for occasional use later on.

Sadly, the non-rules of “Lets Pretend” often run into the “I shot you!” “No you didn’t!” “Yes I did!” “No you didn’t!” problem. Resolving that calls for either a judge or some rules, or – if the setting and game is very complex – both.

What do those rules need to cover?

  • You don’t need rules telling you that people don’t generally phase through walls when they lean on them, or that water runs downhill, that dead animals don’t move around by themselves, that mashing your thumb with a hammer hurts, or that swallowing a porcupine whole is probably a bad idea. The judge and players don’t need rules to help them out anywhere that the outcome is obvious.
  • You need rules where the outcome of an occurrence in a setting is likely to be different from what the people running and playing the game would expect based on ther personal knowledge and experience – or where they’re not going to be pretty much sure of what the outcome of a given occurrence would be.

Thus a World War II game is likely to be filled with rules about the tanks of the period, and military weapon ranges, and the effects of grenades – topics that most of the players will have no firsthand experience with and have no way of judging. It will probably need a fairly detailed combat system, since those are hard to judge the outcome of without rules and some form of randomizer. It doesn’t really matter if those rules are at all accurate (and they usually aren’t), as long as they’re reasonably self-consistent, plausible, and provide outcomes which are consistent with the setting.

A game about spacefaring diplomats or merchants may get along without much information about weapons or serious combat – but it will probably have rules on freefall maneuvering, negotiation with aliens with very different instincts and motives, translation errors, currency exchanges, space travel, and translation.

You won’t see detailed rules about the short-range blast effects of nuclear weapons on unprotected characters in either game; the people playing won’t have personally experienced that, but they can almost certainly be counted on to have a fair idea of what the results will be.

Now, if it’s a superhero game, there may well be rules telling you how to build a character who can swallow porcupines whole without injury, and there may well be rules about close exposure to nuclear weapons, because superheroes can sometimes survive that sort of thing – an outcome which clearly goes against most of the players knowledge and experience.

What does that tell us?

It tells us that the only reason to have rules in a pure role-playing game is to establish where the setting differs from reality – and thus to help figure out the result of occurrences in that setting when the results are not already obvious. Naturally enough, that includes combat. Do you need extensive combat rules for the Terminator versus a Normal Human Child in a Playpen? (If you think that the answer is “Yes! With lots of gory description!” then I recommend seeing a psychiatrist). On the other hand, if it’s the Terminator versus a very young Hercules, that may be a different matter – because now the outcome is seriously in doubt.

That means that if the rules for a role-playing game…

  • Don’t support the world background and the fluff text – as in “but how could that happen when the local clerics/mages/gadgeteers/warriors/hackers/artists/spirits could just (whatever)? – they’re badly written.
  • Don’t describe how things actually work IN THE SETTING so as to help the game master figure out situations that they don’t cover (there are ALWAYS situations that they don’t cover, see Godel’s Theorem) – they’re badly written.
  • Provide out-of-setting or “metagame” mechanics, rather than figuring out how to make the rules support the desired setting, they’re badly written. Anything that’s out-of-character goes directly against the core of a role-playing game – playing a character. (And yes, Narrative Mechanics can be fitted into the way a setting works. For examples, look over HERE).
  • Rely on listing things you can or can’t do, as opposed to discussing the consequences and odds of success for any action a character could attempt, they’re badly written.
  • Require lots of errata, corrections, or editions, they were (self-evidently) badly written – at least to start with.

Now those guidelines only apply to role-playing games. Most wargames, tactical board games, card games, lawn games, and other games are NOT roleplaying games; they’re abstracted from the setting – and it’s only the mechanics and the challenge of winning under those rules that is important. They also don’t apply to setting-free systems, where you’re simply handed a game engine and use it to build the mechanics to represent a world and the characters in it. Those aren’t, and are not intended to be, complete games in themselves; they require a game master with a setting in mind to make them work.

Like it or not, out-of-character narrative mechanics, rules which provide tactical (or any other) mechanics without in-setting explanation, rules which don’t support the setting, “exception-based design” – in fact, anything but an unobtrusive simulationist system to help sort out “what happens if I do this” – undermines role-playing. Of course, it may, at the same time, enhance other aspects of the game as a whole. That’s why most “role playing games” are actually hybrid systems with role-playing aspects. They’re designed to present interesting gamist or narrative challenges, or to tell great stories, or to provide puzzles, or to do many other things, as well as to provide opprotunities for role-playing.

Now “realism” has nothing to do with “simulationist”. I can write simulationist rules for the world of Wily E. Coyote that will reproduce the cartoons nicely; I’ll just be simulating a world that has nothing much to do with the way that the “real” world works – which is fine. Similarly, “a good game” has nothing to do with “realism”, “simulationist”, “narrativist”, “gamist”, or “role-playing”. Chess is a good game too, so are many video games, and so is croquet.

But if I happen to be looking for a “role-playing game”, I may be looking for a pure roleplaying game – one where that dying old man talking to his grandchildren is a far more important and vital role than that combat tank – or I may actually be looking for one of the many hybrid systems, which supplement the role-playing with tactical, narrative, and out-of-character challenges. I may even just be looking for wonderful fluff, and mechanics be damned.

Knowing what you’re actually after makes it a LOT easier to find or design a game, and is always worth a little thought – if only because it helps avoid the perpetual internet quarrels between people who are actually looking for different sorts of hybrid games and yet believe – thanks to them all being called “role playing games” – that they’re all the same sort of game.

Eclipse – Magic and Metamagic Part II

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And here we have the last couple of Alzrius’s current questions.

How can I make a spell last a truly long time in a sort of “stasis” until I activate it? I know that Persistent metamagic will extend a spell’s duration for a varying length of time depending on the increase in spell level, but that’s for an active spell. I’m talking about a spell that, once cast, remains dormant until activated (e.g. a conscious contingency effect). This is the old “Remember back when I clasped your shoulder in a friendly way all those years ago? I cast a spell on you then, and now *snaps fingers* I’ve got you,” routine. Given how similar this is to Triggering metamagic, perhaps a better way to ask would be, can you somehow extend the duration of a Triggered spell after it’s been cast, since you can’t otherwise make a Triggered spell last more than a few days normally?

This one is tricky – and should be; after all, if you can set long-term triggered spells on people without some other special cost or limitation, what’s to stop you from – say – setting up all your friends with a dozen convenient preset spells each? Or even more if “Dispel Magic” isn’t a common threat or doesn’t work on spells that aren’t actually active yet?

  • You could buy it as an Immunity to the normal time limitations on the Triggering Metamagic. Now that’s an effect which could let a subtle mage have thousands of triggered spells waiting – perhaps a fireball on every everburning torch in the royal castle, with the magic of the torches themselves to cover up the magical traces of the waiting spell. A most unpleasant surprise there for anyone who happens to be in a room when twenty fireballs go off in it on a single command word. Why not use the same word throughout the building, then cast Ventriloquism and shout that word from afar? Destroy the entire government in a single moment!

Perhaps fortunately, this is a natural-law immunity, and probably an epic one – and thus is both very expensive and requires special permission from the game master. I wouldn’t be inclined to grant that permission personally. This is just too easy to abuse.

  • The most general way to do this is to learn Spell Storing for placing spells on living things with the “Simple Action” activation modifier (or learn Craft Wondrous Item with whatever modifier the GM demands to enchant living creatures) then use the Forge of Will spell (from The Practical Enchanter) to enchant people with one-shot command-word-triggered spells with a simple touch. That drastically ups your costs – but in Pathfinder that won’t cost you any XP (and not too many in standard games) and it’s still relatively cheap as long as you stick to just a few uses of low-level spells. It may lead to complex bookkeeping though, and probably won’t let you have spells ready to go that you cast on someone years ago until years have gone by in the campaign. This route is expensive unless you limit it, but item-crafting feats can be quite useful anyway.
  • If you want to manage without long-term costs, but with relatively few preset spells, you could use Power Words with the Spellform and Sendings modifiers, Specialized and Corrupted/the spell must be attached to someone else, the target cannot be changed, and the sendings must be triggered by verbal command from the caster rather than having limited autonomy. That would give you a modest pool of spells you could leave hanging around other people – although, since the pool is modest, you probably wouldn’t want to leave them committed all THAT long (especially since it would risk them becoming living spellforms). Still, it’s only 6 CP.
  • If you want to almost always have a hidden trick that “you set up long ago” available, take Mana with Reality Editing, Specialized in “having set up a contingent effect”. Throw in Rite of Chi with some Bonus Uses, and you’ll be able to afford to invoke a few such effects each day – more if you make it more plausible by sticking with spells you actually know, make it a point to touch people at random while muttering under your breath, and only pull it on creatures that you might reasonably have had prior contact with. In fact, if you apply all of those as limitations, you can cut down the cost of 3d6 Mana with Reality Editing and Rite of Chi with Bonus Uses down to a mere 12 CP or two Feats – and you’ll be able to start using “effects that you set up years ago” several times a day right now. While that makes no logical sense, and fails utterly to explain why the character hasn’t been using those options he supposedly set up long ago before now, it also gives the character the ability he or she apparently wants to have and makes it a significant part of his or her abilities right away. A more straightforward “set up abilities in advance on specific opponents” power, it may well never enter play; in most campaigns a lot of enemies are once-offs, never seen before their initial appearance and never seen again after it – and characters often don’t have time before the campaign ends to harvest the fruits of any long-term plans. I’d still really only recommend this method for a new character being brought into the game though, unless your game master has a very loose approach to casualty.
  • The simplest, and probably the most limited, approach is to go for a basic spell. In this case, use a variant on Mark of Justice; reduce the triggering option to your verbal command (for -1 spell level), give it a normal save (possibly made when it’s triggered) for -1 spell level, and take off the extended casting time for +1 spell level. That gives our “Delayed Bestow Curse” a net level of four. Given the immense variety of options for Bestow Curse – “you may also invent your own curse” – this provides plenty ways to have nasty things happen to people. Since a curse can effectively Slow an opponent forever, or reduce their constitution by six points, or drain their spellcasting attribute to the point where most of their spells become unusable, I’d say that having all their weapons vanish, or bursting into flames for a fair amount of damage (as a once-off), or finding that all their attacks do half damage, would all work too. Sadly, while this is simple, and very cheap (all you need is the ability to cast fourth level spells – which a spellcaster will almost certainly be developing anyway – and a single spell formula), it’s also unlikely to be all that useful. After all, it doesn’t offer any method of providing beneficial effects, it doesn’t have any secondary utility, and it only works if you actually get to meet opponents well before you’re going to be fighting them – and yet still know that they’re going to be opponents. After all, you can’t afford to be casting fourth level spells on everybody; they’re expensive!

Is there any iteration of the Temporal metamagic (part of the Easy theorem) that will let my character cast a given spell as an immediate action?

  • Yes there is; it’s simply a less common application, since it raises the base cost of Temporal from +1 to +3. After all, all the actions in a round are – in theory – actually happening at the same time, so an “immediate” action must actually be taking place in the middle of your usual actions. Evidently immediate actions work a bit like Time Stop; the user can interrupt his or her primary actions, use the immediate effect, and pick up his or her primary actions again without missing a step. I personally think that’s a good trick, and well worth +3 spell levels to make it possible.
  • Alternatively, and far less expensively for a lower-level caster, you can simply take Reflex Training (the three times per day variant) and specialize it in spellcasting. That will achieve much the same effect, if only a few times per day – which is probably more often than you’d want to stack that much metamagic onto a prepared spell anyway.