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Subject: RPG mechanics rss

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Tim C
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Recently, Eric Jome posted in [geekurl=https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1835033/4d6-instead-d20]this thread.[/geekurl]

cosine wrote:
More games need gaming things like an economy of bonuses or pre-programming moves. RPGs generally are pretty terrible games mechanically.


Firstly a little background.

I'm a long time RPer, mostly SF, got back into it in 2012 after a lengthy break. I've struggled to find a ruleset and setting I really like so thought I'd give a try at my own. I don't know if it will ever see the light of day but I'm enjoying the process.

I'm "researching" at the moment. 2d6 has been my go to but a lot has changed in the gaming world and I am curious to see how different mechanics play out and affect the game. I lean towards simulation but want light weight and speed of play, yeah, I know, it's like the old engineer's joke: light, strong, cheap, pick any two...

Coming back to the quote, I'd like to discuss people's thoughts on RPG mechanics.

Is it true that they are "pretty terrible, mechanically"?

Why so?

Does it matter? After all, we're not trying to win and the mechanics should serve the plot and having fun.

The way I see mechanics are that they serve to keep the players and GM honest, that they allow consistent interaction between PCs, NPCs and the setting.

What else should they do?




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Eric Jome
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RPG players are, in general, not interested in playing mechanical games. They are looking for narrative, either direct or emergent.

Take D&D as an example. The game mechanics of D&D (rolling a die to determine if an action is successful or not) are little different from Monopoly. This system is meant to put creation and discovery of an ongoing story first while being open to speedy resolution and simple rulings by an impartial referee.

Would you play a board game with this as it's only real mechanic? Probably not. But then you don't really expect or want the complexity of a board game, with the accompanying limitations on or structured nature of choices.

RPGs could learn a lot from board games. Resource management, simultaneous action selection, deck building, and many others could play a greater role in RPGs. But should they? Do people want that?

Apparently little or not at all.
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cosine wrote:
RPGs could learn a lot from board games. Resource management, simultaneous action selection, deck building, and many others could play a greater role in RPGs. But should they? Do people want that?
I do! All of those things.

I disagree with the statement "most rpgs are pretty terrible games, mechanically". Or maybe I don't? If by that statement one means "most rpgs have a terrible match between mechanics and the fun the game is allegedly trying to provide", then I agree with it, at least from historical perspective. Historically very little thought has gone into what sort of mechanics would best serve a particular combination of genre, setting, playstyle, etc.

But many recent games have excellent mechanics for the game's theme and purpose. Those mechanics would be DREADFUL for an actual board/card game. But that is not their purpose, that is not the fun they are intended to deliver.

A few recent games with an excellent match between mechanics and purpose, in my opinion:

Night Witches
Mutant Crawl Classics Role Playing Game
Masks: A New Generation

A couple of recent games that make use of board-gamey mechanics...

Torchbearer (2013) - strong focus on resource management. Conflict resolution functionally simultaneous action selection.
Project: Dark - deck building is a major component.

I do agree that most players are generally happy with the basic framework of traditional RPGs and do not want a high level of complication.
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cosine wrote:
RPG players are, in general, not interested in playing mechanical games. They are looking for narrative, either direct or emergent.


This is patently false. If RPG players weren't interested at all in mechanics, we wouldn't have RPG systems. You can roleplay just fine with no rules or resolution mechanics. In fact, that was my first experience roleplaying! In middle school, we basically played D&D but just made everything up entirely.

Now, I'd certainly believe that many players would say they don't care about the mechanics, but ask any UX designer: users have no clue what they actually want.

The mechanical design of many RPGs is different in that the mechanics are there to serve the goal of telling a story, whereas in board games the mechanics are an end unto themselves. Thus, I'd say that one of the primary design goals for most RPGs would be that the mechanics should fade into the background. They should influence behavior to create the desired outcome, but the players ideally shouldn't even be aware that they're being manipulated by the mechanics.

In pretty much any game, players will want to behave in what they believe is the most optimal fashion; in every game, it's the designers goal to make sure that the optimal strategy is also the most fun strategy. In a board game, that means e.g. making it so that a boring, repetitive strategy isn't a winning strategy.

In Dominion, for example, you could use the strategy "buy Estate if possible; else buy Gold if possible; else by Silver if possible; else nothing." This is a simple, boring strategy that can actually be fairly effective, but it's definitely not optimal.

In RPGs, this means making it so that the optimal strategy serves the story. For example, in Fate Accelerated Edition, players are encouraged to strategize to their characters' strengths, because that's how they get the best bonus for their rolls. A cunning character always does best when they behave in a cunning manner.
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Eric Jome
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Asmor wrote:
This is patently false.


It can't be false. It's my opinion. You don't have to like it or agree, but I still get to have it.
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Eric Jome
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Asmor wrote:
The mechanical design of many RPGs is different in that the mechanics are there to serve the goal of telling a story...


This is literally exactly what I said.
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Clark Timmins
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There's no easy answer; probably there is no correct answer. Games run the whole range, from mechanically complex and cohesive (Phoenix Command) to none (Among Humans). While I consider both of these extremes unplayable, there are those who play, support, and promote each of them.

Most RPGs fall somewhere along an average line that is closer to "none" than "comprehensive", because most gamers favor narrative over mechanics. Note "closer to", not "really close to".

Gamers who like the more mechanical aspects tend toward miniatures games or video games. Especially in video games, a gigantic amount of "realism" based on ridiculously complicated mechanics can be used without the pain of doing the interminable math. That's draw off much (most?) of the "wargamer" gamers from roleplaying.

The assumption is that some mathematical formula that incorporates fifty different inputs with nonparametric statistical analysis must necessarily be more "realistic" than 1d20 + 2. Well... maybe. When it comes to predicting the weather where I live a coin flip does as well as the professionals. We like to think we can model reality. We like to think we can understand reality.

Gamers who like no mechanics tend toward playing a large number of thematic games because they're simple to learn, quick to learn, and can be picked up and put down without significant investment in money or time. Huge numbers of these types of games are provided for free. Usually, these titles come and go pretty rapidly. Not because they are worthless, but because "the play" focuses on a type of narrative that isn't interesting once it's been explored one, two, five, ten times. The progression goes to another game with a different narrative.

RPGs often suffer from poor mechanics because the (invalid) assumption is that more design means more realism. Especially in "old school" games there tends to be a "rule for everything" and the rules rarely are alike. Newer games have fewer rules - "a rule to rule everything". Gamers accept this because it's fast to play and thus doesn't hinder the narrative. Gamers don't mistake this for "realism". There will always be a thin line between "too much" and "too few" mechanics. The current trend is to move toward fewer. This, eventually, will swing the other way.
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Ian Toltz
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cosine wrote:
Asmor wrote:
This is patently false.


It can't be false. It's my opinion. You don't have to like it or agree, but I still get to have it.


You said:

Quote:
RPG players are, in general, not interested in playing mechanical games


That's a statement of fact, not of opinion.
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Hans Messersmith
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Asmor wrote:
cosine wrote:
RPG players are, in general, not interested in playing mechanical games. They are looking for narrative, either direct or emergent.


This is patently false. If RPG players weren't interested at all in mechanics, we wouldn't have RPG systems. You can roleplay just fine with no rules or resolution mechanics. In fact, that was my first experience roleplaying! In middle school, we basically played D&D but just made everything up entirely.
Ian, Eric didn't say players were not interested in "mechanics". He said they were "in general" not interested in "mechanical games".

Now, depending on your definitions of "in general" and "mechanical games", this statement can be evaluated by evidence. Specifically, the evidence of the massive volume of play and sales (RPG-wise) of D&D 5E and Pathfinder. I think we all agree that these two games so dominate the marketplace that anything "in general" to RPG players has to refer to them at minimum, right?

So are these games "mechanical games" or not? I personally find both games to be mechanically rich, in character creation, in combat mechanics, etc. I would call them "mechanical games". Therefore, Eric, I think your assertion is wrong on the evidence and according to my definitions. But I accept your definition of "mechanical games" is different from mine, because you said:

Quote:
Take D&D as an example. The game mechanics of D&D (rolling a die to determine if an action is successful or not) are little different from Monopoly. This system is meant to put creation and discovery of an ongoing story first while being open to speedy resolution and simple rulings by an impartial referee.


I think there are a LOT more mechanics in D&D 5E/Pathfinder than just "rolling a die to determine if an action is successful". But if that is all that you think is important, fair enough.
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Steven Mitchell
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I think the tensions (note plural) between:

- mechanics that are interesting (enough breadth and depth)
- mechanics that are elegant (but not more breadth and depth than that)
- mechanics that are easy to use and have lightweight handling time
- mechanics that are "realistic enough" (whatever that is)
- mechanics that emulate a desired genre "enough" (whatever that is)
- mechanics that serve narrative preferences (whatever those are)

... are unresolvable in the general case.

They are darn tough to resolve at a particular table, even with a group that is happy customizing their own rules, and savvy enough to recognize all the tensions and make effective compromises. Essentially, we only make it work by having players that "get into the game" and don't peek too much behind the curtain, along with the GM adjudicating and otherwise managing rough edges. And of course, that isn't even addressing peoples' preferences and dislikes on things like types of dice used or character sheet layout or the like.

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Eric Jome
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Asmor wrote:
That's a statement of fact, not of opinion.


What good fortune I would have if everything I said was a fact!
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Clark Timmins
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cosine wrote:
What good fortune I would have if everything I said was a fact!

That's a fact!
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h1ro wrote:
Is it true that they are "pretty terrible, mechanically"?

Why so?


I do not think they are terrible. I also think people care very much about mechanics. I think there is perhaps different concepts of rules that operate in board games versus RPGs.

Board games require a strict set of rules. The rules are necessary for all aspects of game play. For example, chess requires rules for how every piece can move, how you capture a piece, and how the game is won. If these rules are changed, you may be playing a game, but you will not be playing chess.

On the other hand, the rules for an RPG function to simulate the functioning of a fictional world. There is no way to 'win.' It still has rules about how the pieces (players, NPC, etc.) can move (take actions, accomplish things, etc.).

Additionally, RPGs, while often trying to be comprehensive cannot have a rule for everything (although some have tried.) Players and the GM will have to come up with ways to handle actions that are not governed by the rules. Or, there are rules that can be used generically in a situation.

This isn't to say that RPG mechanics cannot learn from other mediums. I do not think board games are the best games to learn from. I think video games provide a better opportunity for RPG game design, but I am likely in the minority on this one.
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cosine wrote:
RPG players are, in general, not interested in playing mechanical games. They are looking for narrative, either direct or emergent.
Don't know who you've been playing with, but that is utterly totally inconsistent with the people I've met, that I've talked with, and 90% ofwhat I've seen on the boards...

I also disagree with the assertion

cosine wrote:
RPGs generally are pretty terrible games mechanically.


Bull.

A large portion, perhaps. But not "Generally"...

Pathfinder scratches an itch... One that Erik seems to lack, but a lot of players have, with extensive mechanics that can be engaged with, and reasonably clear writing. (Pathfinder rules arguments are, from what I've seen and read, less, "This rule means X" and more "Where is that rule?")

D&D scratches a slightly different one, but players actively engage with the mechanics often.

WEG D6, likewise - People still argue which edition/subedition is best. (3 editions, but effectively 5 rules versions amongst them: 1E, 1E+RU, 1E+RC, 2E, 2ER&E.) All 5 have the same setting. But each of the 5 does mechanics slightly differently... Mechanics matter.

Mechanics are a matter of taste, however.

What I read of Erik's assertions of lack of quality is that he's not found one that does what he wants it to do in a way that he can cope with, and ignores that every successful game is so because the mechanics were doing something right for the majority of the players buying in...

Even D&D in older editions is mechanically interesting: It's a game of resource management coupled to press-your luck, and ongoing characters, at least in the presented-in-rules dungeon crawling.

That people don't want certain mechanics is sign that mechanics do matter... Deckbuilding, for example, has been used in an RPG - BTRC (Blacksburg Tactical Research Center)'s Epiphany. As the magic system.


Every new RPG of the 70's was "Changing things to do different things"...

Even now, many are trying... but unlike the 70's, it takes a lot more than "just a bit better" to wedge into the marketspace in any meaningful way.

Resource management has been used in most traditional RPGs.

Simultaneous Action Selection was part of D6 Star Wars 1E. Due to player complaints, it went away - but that was just as online contact between players and designers was becoming possible, so only the gripers generally got heard, and only a subset there, because they were bothered enough to write in...

Simultaneous Action Selection is part of several other games, too... like everything by Burning Wheel... Also, plotted actions.
these games have rabid fans, so, yes,some people want this.
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Tim C
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Thanks for the replies.

Where would I find more information on mechanics and game design?

I know wikipedia has info and I can enroll in courses tho these seem aimed at video games.

Is there a book or website that anyone can recommend?

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There are several books I'm aware of that deal specifically with adventure design. Many others that deal with how to role play, GM, etc.

Matthew J. Finch: Tome of Adventure Design (uses Swords & Wizardry)
Michael E. Shea: The Lazy Dungeon Master
Jeff Howard: Game Magic - A Designer's Guide to Magic Systems in Theory & Practice
Jonathan Nelson: Adventure Composition Tutorial
Sean Patrick Fannon: The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible
John Kim: Breaking Out of Scientific Magic Systems (a short essay)

There is also a really good thesis that discusses the various types of dice strategies out there, but... I am drawing a complete blank. Somebody help?

Both of Gygax's books are (IMHO) excellent overviews of the theory of gaming practice (not design) - Master of the Game and Role-Playing Mastery.
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Clark Timmins
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There's a periodical called Casual Game Insider that runs a column on game design. It's not real hard-core (it's, ahem, casual), but I've always found it very interesting. Although I haven't read that magazine for a year or two. Don't know that I could say it was worth the cost of subscription, however.
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Clark Timmins
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http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/theory/


This one is good but oh so boring:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132457/game_design_ess...


And here's that thesis I was trying to remember - note, takes you directly to a PDF file:

http://legendaryquest.netfirms.com/books/RPG_Design_Patterns...
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Clark

Thanks for the info and links.

Most of these reference fantasy gaming, the crossover to SF is simple enough. Are there any references specifically aimed at SF?

I'm guessing that fantasy is way more popular than SF but short of setting specific rules, what differences are there in game mechanics or theory?
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Fantasy is the 800-lb gorilla, for sure.

Sci fi games usually grapple with these additional situations:

- Huge campaign regions (universe, galaxy, planets, etc.)
- Ship movement/combat/operations (crew collective actions)
- Massive damage that makes individual durability meaningless

While all of these can be found in Fantasy, they traditionally are not much addressed as major issues.

However, I don't know of any "sci fi" specific design resources.
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The foundational basic mechanic in most games is the A versus B mechanic; the opposed action resolution method. If we assume A is a player character, then B can be an opponent or a situation (it doesn't matter).

In Fantasy, the stereotypical A vs. B situation is person-on-thing combat. Because of our cultural package we like to think that the dominant factor mitigating success of this type of A vs. B is personal skill. The lone samurai. The dangerous sniper. The heroic kung fu master. In fantasy, we traditionally have modifiers derived from personal skill applied to a random roll to indicate outcome. In most games, the modifiers are a significant component. What I mean is, in typical d20 games the modifiers are whole numbers and they are often high numbers. At 5% increments, they are a notable input. In D&D it's not uncommon for your cumulative modifiers to be +10 to +12 - a huge influence on the outcome.

In Sci Fi, the stereotypical A vs. B situation usually is crew-on-thing action (combat). Because of our cultural package we usually believe that the dominant factor here is equipment. The US Marines. Star Fleet. The Death Star. In these situations the "personal skill" of the operator doesn't seem too significant. Once you have the Death Star you only need (apparently) about six anonymous flunkies in black plastic helmets to push buttons and twiddle levers. Their personal skill is... meaningless. When the US Marines hit a target, the issue is not in doubt. In these situations the random element seems to be approximately zero and the modifiers derive almost entirely from material equipment bonuses.

Because roleplaying is individual focused, the fantasy method is "more fun" than the sci fi method. This explains why most popular sci fi games are space opera style (think Star Wars) where we collectively ignore the absurdity of individuals having significance in favor of a "six shootin' hero" making all the difference.

Galen Erso by himself can purposefully design a fatal flaw, install it at the heart of a planetary-sized system, and somehow the combined human and artificial intelligences of the Federation fail to grok it.

Captain Kirk is the only lifeform in the galaxy the monolithic Klingon Empire will allow to resolve their internal issues along a pre-determined path.

Inara Serra alone is beautiful enough to... well... that actually might be true.
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I've considered taking a board game and inserting RPG into it. Something like Descent or Gloomhaven would be obvious and easy. Something like Twilight Imperium or Shogun could make for a very interesting roleplaying experience
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You may want to read up on GNS theory and game design in general.

In short there are three competing qualities to an RPG, and different people want different amounts of these qualities out of an RPG. The qualities are:
GAME - How mechanically interesting and fair is the underlying system?
NARRATIVE - How well does the system create a narrative, and how much can I influence this narrative?
SIMULATION - Hew well do the results of the system reflect the expected reality of the setting?

Because these qualities are in opposition, you can never really please everyone's wants with just one system.

People will sometimes say that the rules don't matter, since rule 0 is GM fiat. This is patently untrue, as what the rules cover is indicative of what the players are expected to do, and the adventures produced are more likely to hinge on those actions which are covered by the rules. Or, just as accurately, bad rules will discourage actions that are covered by those rules. The prime example is DnD 3e grappling.

RPGs in general are poor GAMEs. RPG players in general favor rules which fall somewhere around simulationist or narrative, and the only situations that are easily adapted to game-ification are combat scenarios. As a result, RPGs with good GAME rules are generally combat-focused such as DnD.

At an extreme is DnD 4e, which many of the fanbase disliked. In my opinion, the reason was that they moved away from 2e with and 3e's skill use emphasis (NARRATIVE), linear warrior / quadratic wizard strength, and general favoring of SIMULATI0N style combat. I'm not saying the combat was realistic, but that it resulted in combat that matched narrative expectations. 4e was all about combat where everyone was on equal footing. It was pure GAME, and gamists loved it, but it put off the primary DnD fanbase.

TL;DR: Yes, RPGs have generally poor rules for a game. The more one tries to make an RPG with good game mechanics, generally the worse it will be for roleplaying.
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I'm not sure about "in general", but there are tons of terrible games in the sense of not doing what they claim to do. And I'm put a lot of the blame on cargo cult design.

Check out any forum for aspiring game designers and you'll regularly find newbies (and some supposed old hands) assuming RPGs need 6 stats, or to quantify character strength , or hit points, or encumbrance rules.

charek wrote:
You may want to read up on GNS theory and game design in general.


Don't bother with GNS. It's an outdated model, and most of the people that write about it didn't understand it

Game design in general is worth studying though
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