Wednesday, 18 June 2008

RPG Theory - Thanks, but No Thanks

So, as you'll be aware if you're a regular reader, I'm currently playing around with designing my own game. I've had quite a lot of fun so far, and I'm moving more and more towards a refined version of whist as my main mechanic.

As a corollary of this, I've started getting slightly more interested in RPG theory, something I've mainly brushed off as so much blather before but which I think I should spend a little more time on if I'm going to do this properly. Problem is, GNS Theory leaves me stone cold: I don't buy the terms Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist to describe players (I constantly flip between G, N and S, often within the same session), and I only think they work in the most banal sense as descriptors of styles of play. (Was there ever a time when it wasn't obvious that some people like RPGs purely as games, some like them as ways to tell stories, and some like them as simulations?) I much prefer Jeff Rients' Retro-Stupid-Pretentious threefold model - if only because that seems like the best way to sum up the hobby itself: it's retro, it's stupid, and it's pretentious.

I've also discovered that I don't really like the indie-rpg scene. There's nothing wrong with indie games per se, but I generally feel the same way about them as I do "indie music" and "independent cinema" - they are good, bad or indifferent in exactly the same proportions as are non-indie games (whatever they may be). So while I like Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard and Risus, for instance, I don't really enjoy or see the point of Sorcerer, Polaris: The Tragic Chivalric Thingummy Whatsit, or Carry. They're just games, for good or ill, and whether they're indie or not doesn't and shouldn't make a difference.

More than that, while I respect the urge to get to the bottom of how game design can improve, I don't accept a lot of the ideas which self-declared "indie designers" seem to have taken as axioms. There are too many of those to go into detail here (I recommend listening to the two recent recordings from the Game Design Round Table at Dreamation 2008, available on the Sons of Kryos podcast, to find out), but one example is the idea that it is intrinsically good for a game to have a very narrow scope which its mechanics are specifically designed to support. It is this kind of thinking which has led to the creation of games like The Mountain Witch. That game incorporates some fantastic, innovative ideas (dark fates and trust points), and yet, bizarrely, it restricts its purview to the tiny limits of a group of samurai climbing Mt. Fuji to kill a witch at the top. I just don't understand the point of artificially limiting yourself that way as a designer when you could create something so much bigger and broader: Why create a game which only allows players to do essentially one thing (climb a mountain, kill a witch), when you could create a huge canvas on which they can paint whatever they want (a la 2nd edition AD&D)? Yet the philosophy behind that thinking seems to have been accepted as The Way Forward for RPGs. (See Carry, and Polaris: The Thingummy Whatsit, as other products of it.)

So the conclusion to this unfocused rambling? I'm enjoying creating my own system, but if I can come up with a mechanic which I think is very elegant and powerful, I want to use it to facilitate something big, not something small. I want it to be a tool through which players and DMs can have vast, sweeping adventures - not just a way to do one thing very well. And I won't be paying much attention to what RPG theorists have to say.


  1. Hiya!

    I wasn't aware that I had some new readers...lately, I'd been blogging for basically myself and a few select friends. No worries, though! I like an audience...

    Even if you're not planning on going 4e, though, I'd recommend taking a look at the rules. The streamlining of the system is such a breath of fresh air, especially in comparison to the rules-bloat of 3e/3.5e.


  2. I love the Mountain Witch, and I thought it was pretty obvious that the game could be extended to encompass any sort of world that you might want to create. You could even use the 2d Ed. AD&D world if you really wanted.

    Instead of RPG theory, I would say that the principle guiding game design should be more reality based -- that is, we don't need a special theory for RPGs because we already have more general purpose theories. In the case of The Mountain Witch, the guiding principle is one of simplicity; taking out game mechanics that weren't necessary. I think game designers could look more at the principles of theatre improv more as well.

  3. I loved the transition from 2e to 3e/3.5e. I am not one of those resistant to change people but I don't feel that 4e is D&D- it is an okay system but it has prompted me to look into different systems and even making my own. My 8 y/o and I are playing a game of my own device and having lots of fun. He doesn't mind that the rules change frequently in the middle of the game and I like the level of customization I can put into the game. I can also now appreciated the amount of work it takes to design and balance an RPG.

  4. (good post) When are you going to post up our player's manual for the game you are working on?

    I was out of RPG for awhile (console games...) but 4e D&D brought me back to the table top. 4e feels more friendly to the narrative to me and the rule changes made the game feel easier to manage, in a simple elegant kind of way. I'm not an expert but I like playing and I am quick becoming a fan of 4e

  5. Stephen: My point re: The Mountain Witch was more to do with the style of game it allowed you to play. Of course, I know you could transplant it to just about any setting, but it essentially only deals with one issue: trust. Whatever setting it takes place in, the essential gist is always the same. I do like the game, but can't see myself playing it more than maybe two or three times, because it's so limited in scope.

    Derek: I would never say that 4e isn't D&D, because I suppose I've never been loyal to the brand name so much as to the style of play. 4e can take the brand name if it wants.

    Extra Gravy: It's on a back burner because I'm so busy at the moment. But I like the idea I have and will get around to putting it out there eventually.