RPG Design: First Principles

In the last few years of playing roleplaying games – D&D, Pathfinder and a few others – I’ve had various thoughts about the design of such games. I’m going to start writing a column here discussing trends and possible improvements. Pathfinder is our game of choice, and I do love it. Paizo have taken the richness of third edition D&D and straightened out enough of the shaky corners to make the game more fun. But there are still quite few places where I feel it’s missing the mark, by being overly complicated, duplicating effort, or missing out on a trick. I’m not actually going to design a game. I’m just using this as a space to think about the sort of direction I might take and the changes I might make if I were.

d20 from first principles

Tabletop roleplaying games use dice to bring chance into the game, and this uncertainty is an essential part of their appeal. You can’t just make stuff up and do whatever you feel like, you have to actually succeed against the odds – and when you do, you feel like you’ve achieved something. The dice might represent money, distance, damage or any other value. But the simple genius of dice is the opposed check:

  • Character A wishes to do something, but character B disagrees. They might be attacking and defending, running away and catching, hiding and being spotted, deceiving and seeing through the deception, or any other opposed action.
  • A rolls a die and adds their bonus to produce a number representing their success.
  • B does the same, producing an opposed number.
  • Whoever’s number is higher succeeds.

Though it took a while to emerge in its current form, this very simple mechanism has followed the d20 system wherever it goes. Often only one side actually rolls a dice, while the other uses a fixed number such as Armour Class, but the idea is the same: each of them is responsible for their part, and neither has access to privileged information about the other player’s skills, only to how successful the action was. Opposed checks are a useful mechanism because of the balance between the three elements that go into it: your own ability, the luck of the draw, and your opponent. Working on your skills can increase your chances of success, but there are always both an element of chance and an unknown factor. One of the big improvements that Paizo made over 3.5 was the combat manoeuvres. No longer are grappling, tripping or bull rushing someone such complicated procedures that people are afraid to try doing something more interesting in a fight. It’s now an opposed check: did you roll high enough to out-manoeuvre your opponent?

Are you gamist or are you simulationist?

It could be argued that reducing combat rules like that is an oversimplification. One of the ways in which different games can be compared is in much detail of the real world they attempt to mimic: a gamist game simplifies details for the sake of fun, while a simulationist game attempts to replicate more of the details. A simple example: suppose you’re hitting somebody with your sword three times in quick succession. In third edition D&D, you roll three separate attacks, each can succeed or fail separately, and each has separate damage. In fourth edition, you roll a single attack with a single set of damage, and that represents the three attacks you say you took – or anything else you claim to be doing. Third edition is therefore seen as more simulationist, and correspondingly slower and more awkward with all that micromanaging; while fouth edition is seen as more gamist, and therefore dumbed down. Idiots. As is so often the case, reality is somewhere in between. Both dangers are real: a game that’s too simple will lead to players always doing the same thing, while a game that’s too long-winded can get dull. But a game can be dumbed down at the same time as micromanaging; or it can be fast-paced which still encouraging intelligent gameplay and creative solutions. D&D’s combat system has picked up a lot of curious details over the years. For example, if you try something complicated like casting a spell while standing next to an enemy, they quite reasonably get the chance to punish you for it (anattack of opportunity) and you’ll have to work harder to pull it off (a concentration check). Though often called simulationist, most of these were added simply to make the system a bit less stupid – and less open to abuse by people know the game’s weaknesses too well. These complications are there for a reason.

He’d be a pretty good warrior if he had a better head for numbers

One thing that slows a game down is having too many options. A six-second round of combat can take longer and longer as the choices get more complicated. In the case of magician types, the options for what sort of magic they can do proliferate. If they’re a vancian spellcaster, they have to decide each day what they’re going to need; if they’re a spontaneous caster they get to pick on the spot, but from fewer choices. Some classes have fixed lists of spells, others have potential access to almost anything. Either way, the choices expand each time they level up. In the case of fighting types, their actions still consist of “hit thing with pointy stick” but they get upgraded with various abilities, depending on circumstances. This can make it quite complicated and long-winded to actually do a full round of combat: three or four attacks, each with attack and damage taking a while to add up; flanking bonus, sneak attack, morale bonus, magic weapons and certain . In theory your attack bonus is a single number that you add to a d20; in practice a high-level character can end up adding getting more from the circumstantial bonus than from their own abilities.

The gravy train

As characters level up they gain abilities, and this is seen as a reward by the players, but it also introduces more options at every level. Resolving this dilemma means letting players get goodies without each one of them contributing too much to the explosion of possibilities. Class levels in a role-playing game are supposed to represent a character’s progression: the training they’ve undergone, the real experience they’ve accumulated, the books they’ve read, the songs and stories they’ve learned, the tricks they’ve picked up. But in most campaigns, characters aren’t required to take any down time to train, study or practice what they’ve seen. They just get the benefit of having cleared enough hurdles to qualify for the next set of upgrades. And the upgrades they get are largely determined by the class you choose to take, not by the experiences you’ve actually had.

In conclusion…

This ramble was just an introduction. In the next few posts I’ll explore a few more specific areas and what might be done to improve them.

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