This article originally appeared in Pyramid #4
The roleplaying industry is going through yet another evolution, one that many veteran roleplayers (myself included) have awaited for years. Many of the newest games on the market are thoughtfully designed and do a good job of re-creating the kind of books and movies we enjoy. Vampire: The Masquerade's colossal success is in part explained by the pent-up frustration among people like me, who have waited (and waited, and waited) for a roleplaying system that was dramatically interesting, incorporated significant roleplaying elements into the game design, and dealt with mature themes. This is a good time to take stock of what makes a good roleplaying game -- in essence, what we've learned, now that we have 20 years of roleplaying history under our belts.
Renaissance of Roleplaying
By Tom Grant
We can measure how far we've come by where we started. In the Mesozoic era of roleplaying, Dungeons and Dragons was the only game in town, but it barely started down the path we all wanted to explore. The system didn't encourage very heroic behavior -- instead, it easily degenerated into a rather bizarre kind of privateering. Kill the monsters, take their treasure, get experience, gain a level, and do it all over again -- the vicious circle felt more like the exploits of Blackbeard than Lord of the Rings, the Elric books, the Arthurian legends, or any other familiar fantasy settings.
Those early D&D sessions were often fun, but the game mechanics were dramatically limiting and often somewhat absurd. For example, in several of my early D&D sessions, one of our regular Game Masters would roll for wandering monsters and frequently generate a deadly encounter with horses.
Horses? What could one do with horses? Well, you could have a stampede of horses trample the characters. Since this was supposed to be an exciting game, and the only exciting moments came during combat, we grew to live in fear of stampeding horses, driven on by the same lightning storm that always herded the frightened beasts in our characters' direction.
Why did he stick with the horses, no matter how stupid and unlikely an encounter they provided? Because they were on the wandering monster table. The D&D mechanics, no matter how unlikely their results, were the Holy Writ to mediocre Game Masters who lacked the creativity or courage to bend or ignore the rules when they didn't work -- and they often didn't.
Over time, the situation improved with the release of better games with more interesting settings and more intelligent rules. The company responsible for the first great evolution in the market, Chaosium, released two groundbreaking games, RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. The latter was a complete change of pace, pitting wretched humans against increasingly powerful, alien forces bent on the annihilation of the world as we know it -- not exactly the same empowering experience as playing a D&D cleric, magic-user, thief, or fighter, but it's often a lot more interesting.
More importantly, however, CoC recreated the mood of the Lovecraft horror stories, in large part because of the game design itself, independent of the wealth of source material. The rules covering sanity, magic and other key elements of the soul-blasting experiences faced by CoC investigators let the system take care of the immediate effects of horrible experiences on the characters, freeing the Game Master to concentrate on plot, description and character.
The willingness to pioneer terra incognita in the new roleplaying hobby made CoC a landmark game, and the skill-based system of CoC and RuneQuest have now become industry standards.
After many other improvements in the quality of RPGs (including D&D) following the success of these groundbreaking games, we now enjoy a wealth of roleplaying riches. If we were to isolate what makes the present generation of games work, what would we say are the crucial ingredients of a good RPG?
Keep the rules in the backgroundWith two decades of roleplaying under our belts, we've finally learned that rules should serve the players, and not the other way around.
Ideally, the rules should fade into the background, enabling or amplifying the roleplaying experience, not interfering with it.
The Vampire rules are a sterling example of the principle. The rules governing the vital aspects of a vampire's existence make it possible to put many roleplaying elements on autopilot. You don't need to think about how a vampire should react to being low on blood -- the rules already tell you how much this increases the risk of frenzy. Because these rules create inescapable constraints on the characters, it is easy for players to stay in character -- not an easy thing to do when trying to pretend you're one of the undead.
Amber is a further, even more daring step in this direction. If the purpose of the rules is to help tell an interesting story, is it necesary to use dice? There's much disagreement about Amber's diceless approach to roleplaying, but whether or not you admire Amber, you have to respect designer Erick Wujcik's boldness in questioning the basic purpose of the rules.
Make the system fit the genreFew game systems function effectively in several genres. GURPS works most of the time, but not always. Our gaming group feels that GURPS is poorly suited in some ways for four-color superhero settings, since a system designed for 100-point mortals gets really warped when applied to 500-point superheroes. However, for nearly everything else, from swashbuckling to high fantasy, from horror to cyberpunk, GURPS works great, especially for "realistic" settings.
But GURPS is the exception that defines the rule. In the same fashion that some fictional genres require different emphases or techniques -- in mysteries, for example, plotting and characterization are more important than in Westerns -- different roleplaying settings demand different kinds of rules. This requires a great deal of forethought about which rules to include and exclude. Space opera doesn't demand the same attention to character that horror does, but it may require more attention to combat, gadgets and other parts of the rules.
While some of the same basic ideas may work across settings, "genre customization" often requires the addition or modification of major parts of the rules. This either works very well or very badly.
A successful case in point is Torg. The world rules for each cosm do a credible job of simulating different genres, from the two-fisted pulp flavor of the Nile Empire to the intrigue and cynicism of the Cyberpapacy (Torg's unique and fascinating cyberpunk setting). An unsuccessful case is Buck Rogers in the XXVth Century -- the D&D system fares poorly when applied to space opera.
Give the players options that matterWhen designing characters, good players want the flexibility to create the kind of persona they imagine. Two obstacles might appear at this point: either their character concept is invalid under the rules, or it is inconsequential to the game system.
When designing characters, the differences among PCs should be evident in the character design process as something more than just variable attributes (strength, dexterity, IQ and so forth). If you're playing an alien PC in a science-fiction roleplaying game, that PC's alienness should be defined as more than just a higher or lower strength. There should be something different -- alien, in fact -- about the way that character is played.
In GURPS, for example, you can assign species-specific advantages, disadvantages and modifiers to shape the racial characteristics of aliens. Larry Niven's kzinti, for example, aren't just big, strong cat-people -- they're aliens with their own culture, worldview, values and habits. You can simulate this in GURPS terms by applaying advantages and disadvantages (Claws, Bad Temper, Code of Honor, etc.) that make sense for designing kzinti characters. These aren't just window-dressing: in game terms, these determine what the character can and cannot do. You can't conveniently forget the prejudice kzintis feel against sentient herbivores -- you have to roleplay it!
This is what I mean by "options that matter." Character design options that don't matter are those that don't have any game significance. Sure, you can play an ill-tempered kzinti, but without something like the GURPS disadvantage system, what incentives or disincentives are there? The roleplaying experience, to be sure, but it would be nice if that were supported by an intelligent game design that sustains these roleplaying efforts. At times (especially when the game has lasted late into the night), it's nice to have the game system itself provide roleplaying inspiration.
Tell a story, don't just simulate a battleMany game designs are based on a sophism that goes something like this: "Drama is based on conflict; conflict often leads to violence; therefore, drama should be full of violence." Following this logic, many game designs are really thinly-disguised wargames, detailed combat systems with roleplaying elements added.
Sure, it's important to have a good combat system. But is combat the most important part of the game? Some of the most nerve-wracking and exciting experiences in my career as a roleplayer have had nothing to do with gunplay or sword duels. A vampire eluding a police investigation... Call of Cthulhu investigators escaping from an underground warren of Sand People... trying to quickly download data from a computer while a time bomb inside it counted inexorably down... did we need the fine distinctions between a .38 and a .44 to enjoy these things?
A lot depends on the game, obviously. In some settings (Shadowrun, for example), the details of combat matter a great deal. But even in Shadowrun, an ultra-violent game, the time and place of gunplay isn't all the time in every place. The Shadowrun world requires finesse, subtlety, guile, street smarts, and a host of other advantages beyond your smartgun link. The second edition of the game, by making combat more deadly, has reinforced this, further compelling players to handle problems by thinking more often than shooting.
If your enjoyment of a roleplaying experience is limited to firefights, go buy a new Nintendo cartridge. And if violence serves a recurring purpose in your game (as it should in Shadowrun), encourage the players to plan their combats. Otherwise, they simply wade into battle, roll some dice, and await the outcome.
From years of experience as a GM, I've learned that players get a lot more out of combats when they have to strategize in order to survive.
Graphics helpBack when D&D came in a little white box, I approached Tim Kask at a game convention and said, "Gee, I like D&D, but I wish you guys would hire some better artists."
His reply was mild outrage: "People don't buy these games for the graphics."
Nowadays, TSR invests heavily in the graphical dimension of their products, to good effect. Face it: we're visual animals. As much as some of us like to believe that graphics are a tertiary concern in RPGs, in market terms they're an important feature, a big force-multiplier for both sales and enjoyment. Many lesser games have enjoyed longer shelf-lives because of their superior artwork, while better games have languished in despair in part because of an inferior visual presentation of the game.
Know your marketNot everyone likes Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, or any RPG I've mentioned here. Any game has its adherents and detractors, so a good game designer knows what his fans want and how to attract new ones.
Take Mechwarrior as an example. The market for this RPG is pretty clear -- Battletech fans who want to expand their enjoyment of mech combats from a boardgame to a roleplaying game. If the RPG version doesn't enhance the enjoyment of Battletech, then it's a losing proposition. It will have a short lifespan (exactly as long as it takes Battletech fans to discover that it's not for them), and it won't be worth the investment in time and money by the company.
Fortunately for FASA, Mechwarrior is exactly what Battletech fans want: more detailed rules for mech combats, campaign rules, and more to do with all those keen Ral Partha miniatures.
However, not every RPG does its marketing homework the way Mechwarrior's designers have. What on earth did GDW think Dangerous Journeys' market would be? There's little point in competing for the teenage D&D market, especially with a klunky game system like DJ's.
As a multi-genre roleplaying game pitched at older players, it's an even bigger bomb. Perhaps GDW thought the cachet of E. Gary Gygax's name was enough to sell DJ, but that was a clear (and perhaps fatal) miscalculation.
Compliment your player's intelligenceTSR may have captured the teenage audience with D&D and AD&D, but there's a vast audience of adult RPG players who want something different. Rather than competing with D&D -- a fun but ultimately simplistic game -- they want something to exercise their wits and imagination a little more. If anything, the success of Vampire has proven that there is a big audience for adult, intelligent roleplaying games -- big enough to make Vampire one of the top-selling games today.
It's also clear that roleplaying gamers are willing to take chances and play something out of the normal heroic mold. As the original cohort of RPG gamers has grown older, and as the hobby has attracted a growing audience of new adherents, roleplaying games have to grow up, too. Fortunately, they have.
Article publication date: December 1, 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.