Friday, April 7, 2017

How not to design a RPG

Since their successful Runequest Classic kickstarter, Chaosium has been working on a new edition of Runequest. This editions is built on Runequest and is designed to support the Glorantha setting the same way Runequest 2 did. Yesterday they formally announced the new name which will be Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

As part of this effort Chaosium has released a series of designers note.
Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Overall I applaud this project. It is a bit of downside that the folks at the The Design Mechanism are not involved due to creative differences but they are still in business and writing excellent material for the renamed Runequest 6, Mythras.

By now I am sure you are asking what this has to do with how not to design an RPG. While reading Part 2 I noticed this section

The RuneQuest percentage skills character sheet elegantly serves non-combat roleplaying through these two important design rules:
RPG Design Rule a: "If it's not in the rules, it's not in the gameplay." [ie, player knows it's not an important thing to think about]
RPG Design Rule b: "If, in a scenario crisis, a player can't find problem-solving tools on their character sheet, they won't look elsewhere for them." [ie, When players are flummoxed, they look to their character sheets for inspiration. And they won't be inspired to use any tool they don't find there.]
I strongly disagree that the above are two important design rules for a RPG. In fact they are bad design because theylimit the flexibility that is one of the primary strength of a given RPG.

Consider this what is the point of a RPG? Over the year I have come to the conclusion that is not to play a set of rules in the way that we play chess, backgammon, Risk, Panzerblitz, Axis & Allies, etc, etc. Rather the point of tabletop roleplaying to experience a campaign by playing a character interacting with a setting where the action is adjudicated by a human referee. The rule are an a tool to facilitate this.

And to be clear,  while I contend playing the rules may not be the point of tabletop roleplaying, which set of rules is an important personal preference, and referees find certain sets of rule work better with the way they run tabletop rpg campaign. Both directly impact the enjoyment of the campaign.

The first point made in Chaosium's post was that if it not in the rules it is not part of the gameplay. When it comes to tabletop roleplaying campaign, it is the setting that defines and limits what the character can and not to do. If the rules and the setting conflict it is the rules that need to bend. If the rules don't cover something that the character could reasonably do within the setting then it is the referee job to figure out how to adjudicate. Never say "Well it not the rules". This is especially pertinent to Glorantha which has DECADES of background details about how it does and does not work.

The second point is way off the mark. In my 30 years of tabletop roleplaying when I run into the situation where the players ONLY look to their character sheet for solution is because the referee is browbeat them into thinking that if it is not in the rules it can't be done. I always been a referee that said roleplay first, we will figure out what you need to roll second.*

I think the authors behind the new Runequest need to think long and hard about their approach if they believe the above two are true. My advice is to focus writing good tools to allow players to experience Stafford's Glorantha as various characters. To remember that anything they write will never cover everything that is possible in Glorantha.  Especially considering the mythic nature of the setting.

* Many will read this and think I do a lot of ad-hoc rulings. Ad-hoc rulings are larger part of my style now especially given I am using systems like Fantasy Age and ODnD in the form of Swords and Wizardry. Neither of which are as detailed as GURPS which used to be my main system.

However for the most part when the rule cover a situation I run it by the book. I do this for practical reason. I am 50% deaf and it is caused by nerve damage that also effected my ability to process language. Being a tabletop roleplaying referee with a room full of people is a challenge for me at times. One way I cope is sticking to the book when I can as it allows me to be more consistent.

However it always been secondary to allowing the players to whatever when they want to "trash" my setting. I will spend time (sometimes too long as Tim and Dwayne have often pointed out to me) figuring out the right combination of rules to allow the player to do a reasonable action.

Only big changes was after reading Matt Finch's Old School Primer when I realized that I can use my considerable experience to streamline this. That I don't need to have a actual printed rule to make good rulings. I just need to remember how the setting worked and if there one thing I am really good at is remembering the details of various settings.


JasperAK said...

I don't have the time anymore to troll all of the boards and blogs for info on new and interesting stuff, so thanks for posting this and the links to the design posts. When I'm in my FLGS looking through the bargain bin, my eyes will most assuredly spot this game by name recognition alone, and I will pick it up and leaf through it. I would probably be interested in it. And then I will remember your post and promptly put this game back. There is nothing here for what I find enjoyable in a game.

Porter Woodward said...

If it's not in the rules, it's not in the game play == Computer RPG.

This sort of thinking directly obviates and lessens the joy of playing a table top RPG. All the shortcomings of a computer based RPG with none of the advantages (e.g. no need for a GM, automation of rolls, and tactical maps, etc.)

I sort of get where they are coming from, but wow.

Eric Diaz said...

Good post. "RPG Design Rule b" is absurd, indeed: playing your character sheet instead of your character is possible, but definitely not standard, and frankly doesn't seem adequate for a game like Runequest. The fun of playing RPG, for me, is EXACTLY doing things that are not in my character sheet.
D&D 4e, for example, has colorful sheets full of little powers you can choose form. I am not a fan, but definitely is a game where "playing the character sheet" makes a bit more sense.
Here are some thought on the matter FWIW (inpired by Matt Finch's Primer, too):

Jeff Duncan said...

RPG Design Rule a: "If it's not in the rules, it's not in the gameplay." [ie, player knows it's not an important thing to think about]

RPG Design Rule b: "If, in a scenario crisis, a player can't find problem-solving tools on their character sheet, they won't look elsewhere for them." [ie, When players are flummoxed, they look to their character sheets for inspiration. And they won't be inspired to use any tool they don't find there.]

I haven't read the designers notes, and I'm not familier with the system. Is it possible this is being misinterpeted?

To me (under the context of design) when I read, "If it's not in the rules, it's not in gameplay." I take that as the framework of the rules should be robust.

And to the second point, if the rules are robust enough they won't look elsewhere for solutions to solve a problem.

Admittedly, I don't think the idea of playuers not looking beyond thier sheet is good in the context of running and/or playing game. In context of a design rule(s) ensuring that they look at thier sheet first isn't a bad thing in my mind. In fact as a design goal it's pretty ideal.

Mike Mearls said...

"When it comes to tabletop roleplaying campaign, it is the setting that defines and limits what the character can and not to do."

I think it would be easy to overlook how critical an insight this is. It might be the key difference between tabletop RPGs and other types of games.

Oakes Spalding said...

I love Call of Cthulhu (based on the Runequest system), not so much Runequest. But I HATE their mechanics, for various reasons including the philosophy behind them. In a sense, Rules a and b become self-fulfilling prophecies, as the more stuff there is on the character sheet, the more a player will assume that it matters and nothing else does. Call of Cthulhu/Runequest's ridiculous (in my opinion) list of percentage chances is a great example of that.

Here's a minor quibble about war games. Consider something really complicated, like the epic WWII game, World in Flames. When I'm playing it, I like to basically have the rules memorized (or as close to that as is physically possible) but when you're considering a strategy, say, for how best to invade Russia or whatever, the rules sort of fade into the background, at least at first. You're aware of them almost unconsciously, but on the surface, you're considering the "big picture" in I would assume a similar way to, say, how an actual German Commander would -who, of course, does not know the "rules" to World in Flames. I assume this is also how chess geniuses strategize in chess.

But I've never been able to do that in Call of Cthulhu/Runequest. Those percentages are always staring me in the face.

Mike Hill said...

Having read the 12 or 13 earlier "design posts" by the author(s) of the new RuneQuest, I'm preparing myself for a major disappointment.

Jeff said...

As the writer of the Design Notes, not surprisingly I stand behind those two principles (fwiw, they come from Ken Rolston, who has been heavily involved in developing the new edition). These principles were present in all of the classic Chaosium games (RQ, CoC, KAP, whatever) - as a player you run into a problem or an opportunity, and you look at your character sheet to come up with an idea as to how your character can interact with whatever it is. I can hit it with a stick, block it with a shield, search carefully, give a rousing speech, consult the lore I know, to try find something about it in a library, try to be inspired by my love for the lady, or whatever. All of that is shown on the character sheet, usually expressed as a percentage of likelihood. As a practical matter, this is what plenty of players do (which is why Ken emphasized it so strongly) - I know I get lost playing some games because I *can't* do that easily.

Additionally, in RuneQuest, everyone has magic. You want plenty of space on the character sheet to remind folk that they have spells that they can cast on themselves or on someone else. Maybe you are the sort of player who knows all of Orlanth's rune spells by heart, but most people aren't.

The flipside to this is that if something is not in the rules, plenty of players (and gamemasters) conclude that its not an important thing to think about in gameplay. You can say that mentality is wrong, misguided, or whatever - but for plenty of players it is true. So if there is something you want to encourage players to make significant in gameplay, by all means give it a rules context.

As an aside, a good percentage of rules in any Chaosium game are more of what you might call "guidelines" than actual rules.

Rob Conley said...

@Jeff Appreciate your comments. When I look at the classic editions of the various Chaosiums games that not what I see. All of the early Chaosium RPGS focused on bringing whatever it setting to life whether it is the world of the 1920 for Call of Cthulu or Glorantha for Runequest, or The Young Kingdoms for Stormbringer.

Because the BRP based games were skilled based they had detailed character sheets but I never got the sense that the character was solely defined by what is on his sheet. It was more that with Runequest and other BRP I could customized characters far more than D&D. I could have a character focused on spellcasting who was good at stealth, or had enough skill in a single weapon to hold their own in melee combat. Or a warrior type that knew a few useful spells.

I never knew anybody back in the day who thought that the only things that the character could do was found on the sheet.

As for something not for the rules, my experience that most players and referee expectations are based on the setting and/or genre not the rules. And if the rule they are using doesn't cover an important elements of the setting or genre then something will be created to covered the gap.

The next logical step is to say "Well the rules I am designing will cover all the important elements". The problem is that you can't. Glorantha can be imagined as an entire world with a life of its own. As their characters players can do whatever an inhabitant of that world can do. No set of rules can cover all the possibilities. The best that can be achieved is to focused a few elements in detail, provide some general purpose mechanics to handle the rest, and include advice to the referee about how to handle things when player try to do things not covered by the rules.

Matt Celis said...

Doesn't bode well for this rewrite of RQ