John Wick wrote a great blog recently on roleplaying vs. wargaming, or as he phrased it, story-telling vs. gun porn. His primary argument is that, “In a roleplaying game, game balance does not matter.” What he seems to mean by this is that character types should not be balanced so that a warrior, mage, cleric, and thief all have the same opportunity to “win,” but rather that each player character should have time in the “spotlight,” his or her time to shine. I fully agree with that idea and support freedom in character development rather than balance, but certainly there is a place for combat mechanics in rpgs. The rules keep the Referee honest and impose structures within which the players can create. If there is no structure, there is no way to resolve conflicts generated by conflicting player goals and fantasies. John’s working definition of a role-playing game is, “a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.” He’s trying too hard to make an all-encompassing definition. My definition might be, “a game in which players play roles.” That way one is left with the opportunity to interpret “game” and “roles” however one likes, rather than emphasize the story (as John does) or some sort of victory condition (as wargamers might).
When thinking about game mechanics, John lists the three big questions as:
- What is your game about?
- How does your game do that?
- What behaviors does my game reward?
John believes that one can play D&D 1e through 4e without role-playing, and leaves 5e for what I suspect will be a longer harangue. I think he’s missing an important element in this, the Referee (or DM, Gamemaster, etc.). Game mechanics set the stage and create rules for collaborative play between referee and players. John advises setting game mechanics aside when advantageous to tell the story, but that is actually much trickier than he describes. Only a ref can change the rules, and when he does that, he often indulges his own beliefs about how play should take place and therefore disempowers or infantilizes players to some degree. The player response may be to do their own modification of the rules, by lying to the DM or cheating. It is easier for referees to change or ignore rules. That is what the DM’s screen is for, right? But the referee should make such changes rarely and if it is an obvious modification, seek player support for the decision. Say something like, “That’s a great idea Bob. Agnak the Barbarian probably should have a chance to do that, even if it isn’t in the rules. How about we say he can try, but you have to roll 18 or over on d20?” That sort of thing happened all the time with D&D 1e, because the game mechanics were not terribly robust back then. And John might supplement his big three questions with these:
- What is your game about?
- How does you as a referee facilitate that?
- What behaviors do you encourage in your players?
There is, by the way, a much more extensive list of game design questions available in RPG Design Handbook. It’s worth a look, although questions 19 & 18 should be the first you ask, not the last.