Building an Adventure

[pt. 14]

I’ve been looking at RPG’s as a medium, analyzing what they do well and poorly and how they function. Now, I want to put some of that to practical use. I’ll begin with a simplified description of RPG’s, and some conclusions I drew from that.

The point of roleplaying: To have fun playing pretend with your friends. The primary fun of playing an RPG lies in encountering challenges and overcoming them.

Conclusion: For your adventures to be enjoyable, you should present problems the players want to solve, and give them the tools to solve them. You should also allow for failure.

What RPG’s do better than any other medium: Flexibility. Interactivity. The GM can run anything he wishes, players have a huge variety of options, and the GM can improvise responses to their choices. Other media are far more constrained.

Conclusion: RPG adventures (and campaigns) should exploit this capability. GM’s should be able to run them as they wish, and players should be free to approach challenges as they see fit.

That’s the basics. Next time, something more involved, again derived from some observations about how RPG’s function as a medium.

All About Rulebooks

[pt. 13]

Gaming rulebooks usually serve two needs: teaching players the rules of the game and informing them of the setting. Thus rulebooks combine the functions of an instruction manual and an encyclopedia.

The “instruction manual” portion doesn’t just describe the rules, it also has to teach them to players and gamemasters. This is much like a textbook.

The “encyclopedia” portion (if present) details the setting of the game. Take the Shadowrun core rulebook, for instance. It has a timeline of Shadowrun’s dark fantasy future, a description of what the fictional world is like in the “present” (a mini-travelogue), and a description of what shadowrunners are and what they do. (“You shoot people right in the face for money.”) All of these educate players and GM’s as to what the game world is, thus providing context for their characters and adventures.

Ideally, a rulebook should communicate not only what the bare mechanics are, but what options are available and typical for PC’s (including roles, races, and abilities). It should also detail the adventure template for the game: what is it PC’s are expected to do? This gives GM’s and players a baseline for the game, from which they can begin deviating or embellishing, making their own characters and devising their own adventures.

Rules and setting information are colloquially known as Crunch and Fluff. Crunch is all the fiddly game mechanical bits, fluff the setting details. (“The land of Adventuria is ruled by a King, whose theoretically-unrestrained power is subject to a Privy Council, elected by the Peers of the Realm…”)

The better crunch and fluff fit together, the more unified the setting and game. (And the more actual gameplay will match expected gameplay.) The more the crunch and fluff match the suggested PC’s (roles and/or races) and the default adventure template, the more approachable the game is. (Players and GM’s both know what they are expected to do.)

These are the two sub-mediums of RPG’s: rulebooks and gameplay. Rulebooks communicate rules and setting information, teaching them to a group. And the game mechanics structure improvisational game play, wherein people communicate what their characters will do and a GM communicates what happens as a result.

Characteristics of the RPG Medium

[pt. 12]

RPG’s are a medium, and mediums exist to deliver information. By understanding the characteristics of a medium, we can learn how to use it more effectively.

So what are the characteristics of the RPG medium? First, RPG’s are a twinned medium. The real heart of RPG’s exists in the game table, during play. When people are pretending to be soldiers, superheroes, or even elves, talking with each other or NPC’s, rolling dice and fighting for their lives… that’s when the game comes alive.

Play is structured improv. Light improv. This isn’t a theater production, and players don’t have to be in-character all the time, trying to wring every last bit of drama from a tortured soliloquy. They only people that need to be entertained are those at the table.

The structure comes from the rules of the game and (almost always) some kind of randomizer. Castle Falkenstein uses cards (because dice are ungentlemanly), but most games use a number of dice, rolled in a number of ways. (Dice design is an entire sub-field of game design.)

The rules of the game determine what dice you use, when you roll them, and what the results mean. People learn these rules from the other half (the lesser half) of the twinned medium of RPG’s: the rulebook.

RPG’s are Not Storytelling

[pt. 11]

When you play an RPG, you aren’t telling a story.

What are you doing? Eating pizza, rolling dice, talking to each other, and pretending to do other things. (Fight orcs, whatever.)

Roleplaying is all about pretending to do things.

It’s not about telling stories. It’s not about making stories.

After it’s over, you can tell a story about what you did at the table: “Then he spilled a Coke on the DM’s notes!”

After it’s over, you can tell a story about what you pretended to do: “Then we charged the bastards, yelling and screaming and waving our swords!”

But during the session, you aren’t telling a story. You’re playing the game.

# # #

Now, let’s talk about why. For me, it’s simple and clear: storytelling isn’t roleplaying. The two are separate mediums, they are not the same thing.

This is a functional description, based on what you actually do in each medium.

Telling a story is relating a series of events. Event A leads to Event B leads to Event C.

When relating a series of true events, this is done after the fact. “Telling a story” is an exercise in retrospective sensemaking. We make sense of our lives in retrospect, after the events occurred.

In the moment, we just live the events.

The same goes for the pretend lives that occur at the roleplaying table. In the moment, we just experience the events. Later we can tell stories about what occurred, but while it’s happening, we aren’t making a story.

Storygames are hybrids of cooperative story-telling/-making (an activity called simming) and RPG’s. A large part of the GNS/Forge movement was an attempt to blur the lines between simming and roleplaying.

They’re not the same. Their fundamental characteristics are very different.

Simming is an act of “authoring” the world, in concert with others. Roleplaying is taking on a role.

Simming is fine, in the abstract. Not my cup of tea, but not inherently wrong.

What was wrong, and foolish, was the blinkered demand that these two things were utterly identical, completely the same, and that anyone who thought differently was brain damaged. (A direct quote.)

From the point of view of media studies, this is patent nonsense. It cannot be true, and a basic, practical description of both mediums reveals why.

You don’t roleplay in a storygame. And you don’t “tell stories” by playing an RPG. It’s that simple.

“What Good is Understanding Role-playing Games?”

[pt. 10]

“What good is understanding role-playing games?”

This is one of those questions, the very existence of which stumps me. I take it as a given that it’s always good to better understand something you’re interested in.

It’s always good for a guitarist to better understand how to play the guitar. It’s always good for him to practice fingering, chords, strumming. It makes him a better guitar player.

It’s always good for an engineer to better understand mathematics, the characteristics of materials, the laws of physics, and how to model and test designs. It makes him a better engineer.

It’s always good for a game designer to better understand roleplaying games. It means he’s more versatile, better prepared to understand the trade-offs inherent in design, and can make better games.

More, it enables him to avoid some pretty ugly pitfalls.

Professionals, and would-be professionals, almost always want to understand their medium better. They are driven to practice their skills, apply their skills, and hone their skills. People not driven to improve, aren’t professionals. (Even if they’re getting paid.)

But how can you learn more about your medium, when there’s no body of work to call upon? Either you don’t even try or you accept the next best thing.

Ever wonder why so many people fell for the GNS? Use evinces utility. People used — and still use — the GNS, despite despite all the fallacies and neuroses embedded in it. But what use is a false theory?

It fills a void which could have been occupied by a body of knowledge, but wasn’t. Its promulgator and adherents gave people the impression that it was a body of work that accurately described the medium. Thus, it made people think they understood the medium better, even when they didn’t. It fulfilled their need to improve themselves (despite not actually doing that).

Without accurate information, people turned to the next best thing. The lack of a body of knowledge about the hobby enabled the success of the GNS.

There will be some successor to the GNS, sooner or later. But if there is a body of work that accurately describes the medium, in a specific, grounded, and technical way, it’s proponents will find it much harder to gain traction. The existence of such a body of knowledge will ward off the next GNS.

“What good is understanding role-playing games?”

Accurate information is never useless. Good knowledge chases out bad. (If disseminated.) That’s one reason why understanding RPG’s is useful.

GNS Killed the D&D Star

[pt. 9]

Dungeons & Dragons launched the RPG hobby, and the hobby is practically synonymous with the game. It was the first and best known RPG, and has always been the market leader.

D&D survived the satanic panic, the White Wolf Vampire craze, the bankruptcy of its parent company, and many other crises. Yet it almost didn’t survive the GNS.

Designers of the game’s 4th Edition decided to remake it along the lines suggested by the GNS, as a “coherent” game that focused on Gamist concepts (the “G” in GNS). To accomplish this they radically revised the game, eliminating several trademark features (like “Vancian” spell-casting).

The game failed. It failed so spectacularly, that new material stopped being published for it two years in advance of the next edition (still forthcoming). It failed so spectacularly, that it launched an entire movement dedicated to replicating the Old-School D&D aesthetic. It failed so spectacularly that the game which created and defined RPG’s lost its place at the forefont of the hobby, being replaced by a D&D 3e clone called Pathfinder.

GNS nearly killed D&D. That’s how disastrously wrong the theory is.

Several posts in this series directly refute portions of the GNS. Others discuss why GNS became so prevalent in the design community (despite its patent falsity). But the key things to remember are:

  1. The theory lacked clear definitions of G, N, or S.
  2. It demanded that game designers cater to only one of these three murky concepts.
  3. Edwards claimed that roleplaying games should never involve playing actual roles.
  4. And if it did, you were committing sexual abuse (or causing brain damage).

This is all nonsense, and this series illustrates why. It also illustrates what approach could have warded off GNS and could supplant GNS. Not with another all-encompassing theory, but with a grounded and practical approach to studying the hobby.

“All Roleplayers Have Brain Damage.”

[pt. 8]

Edwards, deviser of GNS, didn’t understand Immersion. That’s the phenomenon prevalent in roleplaying where you inhabit the role of your character, making decisions like they would. The mechanics melt away, leaving you in this fictional world.

I’ve experienced it. Probably you have, as well. It’s a lot like acting.

Edwards claimed it didn’t exist. He claimed you couldn’t have fun with traditional RPG’s (and that most people weren’t), and that people edited their memories to remember having fun, when they hadn’t. He claimed people playing in such campaigns had been brain damaged. He claimed that GM’s running traditional RPG campaigns engaged in something akin to child sexual abuse, because they caused this brain damage.

“Brain damage” wasn’t a euphemism, as Edwards repeatedly made clear. Your mind was literally warped by playing in a traditional RPG.

According to Edwards, all roleplayers had brain damage. And gamemasters who ran those campaigns were akin to pederasts.

And his theories were the most influential body of knowledge in the hobby during the ’00’s, and influences game design to this day.

With such hostile attitudes towards traditional roleplaying, it’s no surprise Edwards tried to define and revise it out of existence.

His primary push was in the area of Storygames (mentioned earlier in this series). Storygames tended to focus on “cooperative storytelling” (or simming), where each participant has the authority to edit the game world (to a greater or lesser extent), changing what exists.

Edwards claimed that this is what RPG’s were supposed to be. The problem is, RPG’s are not storytelling, and indeed cannot be storytelling. Yet the GNS claimed they were.

Edwards labored long and hard to spread his deeply flawed theories of RPG design, mainly operating from his own Internet forum, The Forge. As a result, many mainstream designers adopted his theory, in whole or in part, to disastrous results. This includes the landmark Dungeons & Dragons RPG.