Anatomy of a roleplaying game (LONG)

Georges Cuvier, totally relevant to gaming.

Georges Cuvier, the legendary father of palaeontology, boasted that he could deduce the class and even genus of an animal based on a single bone, because the “correlation of parts” ensures that every component of the animal’s body are related. In other words, every animal is specialised for a particular way of functioning, and therefore every part of the animal reflects that way of functioning.

You can say the same of roleplaying games. There are plenty of games which boast of being completely generic, or of being able to handle just about any situation. But upon close inspection of even individual parts of a game, it is possible to discern a great deal about that game’s way of functioning. Just as an animal has a specialised “design”, games have a literal specialised design that can be observed in individual components of the game.

Before I go on, let’s pause to consider the difference between the design of a game – its procedures, guidance and fictional material – and the way it’s actually played. A game is, after all, not really an organism but a tool. We can learn a great deal from studying a tool, but its full functioning only emerges when we see how it is used. Even so, if a tool is well-designed, its designer will have envisaged a particular way of using it which the design will then promote and support. You can use a kitchen knife to cut paper, and you may even get quite good at using it that way, but it is designed to cut food and that is where it comes into its own.

Let’s take as a simple case study the so-called “traditional” game. This is a class of beasts rather than a single animal, but its members have components in common from which we can deduce a common function. I’m going to look at three such components: the GM; difficulty checks; and ratings for weapons and armour.

First and most fundamental, the GM. Games vary wildly in how they implement this component, but the “traditional” approach is for one person to exercise their judgement and creativity to plan a fictional setting and events, which form the context for a situation that same person creates, populated by people,

Your guide in the realm of…

creatures and phenomena that person describes and controls, regulated by rules that person adjudicates up to and including ignoring the rules in favour of their own rules or ad-hoc decisions. Everyone else describes and controls one character within that setting and situation.

Given that description of a GM, a game design Cuvier would conclude that this was an incredibly important role. The backbone of the game in which it featured. It is possible for a GM to take a highly collaborative, discursive approach, but the role’s natural oeuvre is autocratic – there’s nothing in that description I just gave about collaboration except at the interface between the player characters’ actions and the rest of the world. And because they control so much, they dictate the terms by which the other players must engage with the game.

Returning briefly to what I said earlier about the way a game is actually played, it’s really important to acknowledge that a lot of groups, whether their particular game tells them to or not, do in fact adopt this more collaborative approach. GMs may look to their players for subtle cues to help them craft an experience that will be satisfying for their players, or they may be much more explicit, discussing what the players want from the game and giving them creative input on setting and even situation. But that is not what the game component known as the GM is designed for.

No, the GM as a design component is clearly aimed at producing a specific experience: highly guided play, where one person decides broadly what the game is going to be about and then prepares and moderates the game accordingly. As an experience it’s close to a choose-your-own-adventure story, but with the vastly expanded flexibility for action implied by decisions being run through a human brain instead of a branching flowchart. I’m not going to go into a discussion of other approaches but it should be obvious that there are many other possible experiences a game could promote.

Moving on: difficulty checks. These

Polyhedral dice, how I love thee.

are a ubiquitous mechanic across a range of games, and in most games that have difficulty check mechanic, that is the single core mechanic for handling conflict (outside of combat which sometimes has its own dedicated mechanic). Characters have some numerical stat (attribute, skill, talent, whatever) and via some kind of randomisation they either succeed at a task (if they beat a difficulty number) or fail (if they don’t). Maybe there will be degrees of failure, yes-and, no-but, etc, but fundamentally the mechanic is about: can this character overcome this obstacle, avoid this risk, complete this task.

The fact that so many games make this sort of mechanic the core of their ruleset tells you one simple thing: they want you to tell stories that are about trying to do stuff and succeeding or failing. In other words, what Robin Laws would call “procedural beats”. There are lots of great stories you can tell that revolve around success and failure: action movies and police procedurals, for instance[*]. But, once again, there are many other possible experiences a game could provide.

Let’s also pause to note the link between these first two components: the GM typically decides when a difficulty check is needed, what the difficulty level should be and what the consequences of success of failure are. So in games with a GM, difficulty checks are a key tool that can and often are used to help the GM control pacing and dictate the terms of the story; they help to make the game even more of a guided experience. Once again, we observe Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts.

Finally, ratings for weapons and armour. A lot of games, and virtually all games that have both a GM and difficulty checks, include rules for inflicting damage on characters. This very often means a set of numbers telling you how much damage weapons do, and how good armour is at blocking that damage. (Sometimes the “weapon” is a spell, or the “armour” might be a mutation or something, but it’s the same principle.) In most such games, no other sphere of activity is delved into in that level of detail: we don’t (usually) have ratings for various investigative tools, or for how different types of terrain interact with stealth, or anything like that.

What this tells us should be obvious: the game is about fighting. We need all that detail about weapons and armour because we’re going to be doing a lot of fighting and we care about giving it a level of granularity (perhaps “realism”) that we don’t need for other areas.

Now this last one is so ubiquitous that many games that really are not supposed to be about fighting nevertheless include it. Call of Cthulhu is about investigation and being traumatised by gribblies. Fighting is mostly futile, and not a central part of the Lovecraftian genre at all. Yet it includes special skills for different kinds of weapon, and ratings for their damage levels (pre-7th edition, at least – I haven’t seen it). This is arguably bad design: it doesn’t seem necessary or particularly useful as a component of that type of game. Such games typically fall back on guidance to let you know what the game is “really” about, or a well-understood culture amongst the fan-base.

The point is, these are not “generic” rules or vanilla design choices, they support a specific type of play. Each of these rules reinforces that type of play, promoting a very specific experience. A single person plans and guides the experience, which is mostly about struggling with obstacles and fighting threats. Individual groups may graft on other aspects of the experience or house-rule or ignore the rules to get the experience they want: but a study of the anatomy of those games provides a clear view of what they’re designed to do.

[*] Aside: I’m not actually sure there are that many great stories about success and failure. When I think about stories I’ve enjoyed even within the broad category of “mostly procedural”, the heroes largely succeed unless they’re overmatched. When they’re overmatched it usually marks out the key obstacle of the story, which the heroes must then struggle to somehow overcome through cleverness, a macguffin, some kind of montage, whatever. It’s pretty rare for random success or failure to generate interest. But whatever, it’s a popular model.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

9 thoughts to “Anatomy of a roleplaying game (LONG)”

  1. “It’s pretty rare for random success or failure to generate interest. But whatever, it’s a popular model.”

    This is a bit more subtle, I think. Games of this type give the _impression_ that the fate of the story is determined by random success or failure. But the vital subtext is that the players’ skill in choosing which actions to attempt, and which tools to use, is instrumental in ensuring that the outcome is success. So the possibility of failure is there to keep them honest — to ensure that they can’t just drowse their way through the session — and to introduce temporary setbacks of the kinds that heroes must overcome to show that they’re real heroes. But the near-certainty of eventual success is pretty much baked into the model.

  2. When I’ve talked to people about difficulty level, they often say that they like it because the possibility of failure adds a tension to what they’re attempting, which can be fun. It’s not just about creating a good story: it’s about enjoying the immersion of being in it, and an edge of uncertainty can add to that. Often people don’t want to just succeed at everything, and difficulty levels can give some idea as to whether they’re attempting something ludicrously unlikely or dramatically appropriately in the context of the gameworld. Of course this also ties in with the existence of a GM: if you like to include the possibility of failing, you don’t always want that to be up to the GM, and it’s a mechanism that takes it out of everyone’s hands.

  3. These are totally fair comments, which I agree with. I think it still underlines the point that the interest created by randomness is to do with “will I succeed or fail”, creating a particular focus for play.

    1. Yes, I think that’s true in the small-scale. But also, in the large-scale, it creates interest along the lines of “how will the GM’s design skills, and understanding of / feel for the probabilities involved in the succession of random trials that will be involved, send us on an exciting journey where at the end we will feel it is our skill that has preserved us from failure, without there actually having been any real risk of that”.
      I’m labouring this because I think it is actually quite important — that quality of giving satisfaction via ‘macro-safety / micro-uncertainty’ is a major part of players’ enjoyment of this kind of game, I think. It allows narratives that feel authentically heroic, in the sense of triumphing over non-trivial challenges.

  4. I think maybe I sort of know what you mean. Last time I ran a serious amount of traditional-style gaming, I designed in a fair amount of redundancy to each individual challenge (not counting combat, which wasn’t the main focus), and to the scenario as a whole. So there were multiple paths to victory, and failure meant you had to think of another approach, not that it was all over.

    That said there were often consequences to failure: you solved the problem slower, and in the mean-time something bad was happening elsewhere in the forest that you might have been in a position to stop.

    So here the question was not just “will you succeed or fail” but “how will you succeed and what will it cost you”. Even so, the focus remained on overcoming obstacles – procedural play.

    1. Mm, I suppose this points up how even in the traddest of rpg there’s still a wide range of choices as to where on the SCENG diagram you want to pitch it. My own trad GMing was pretty much always focused on achieving satisfying story-elements, with the obstacles and their overcoming (or not) just seen as the mechanism by which overall narrative excitement is ramped up. They were of some procedural interest in their own right, stretching players’ familiarity with the system and their ability to use their assets effectively and so on, but tbh they could all have been evaluated by handwave and it wouldn’t have made much difference.
      (What I think of as a ‘cinematic’ style.)

  5. mmm…
    First of all I agree with the article.
    It says things that, at least to me, seem sensible.
    Even obvious, considering a certain rpg-culture background.
    This makes the article feel to me like it could/should be just a preparation step to drive a deeper, less obvious, point. Is this the case?
    What prompted you to write this article? 🙂

    1. Hi Hasimir, thanks for your comment. I agree this will be reasonably obvious to some – it is tagged as a 101 post so not necessarily expected to be cutting edge! (That said I think there are plenty of people out there touting “generic” systems which can “do anything”, a claim I’m seeking to rebut here.)

      I have a vague plan to explore this theme of “what do individual components of a game tell you about that game”, by looking at other games. As much as anything, this is helping me to articulate my own philosophy of game design which is, roughly, that the game should be a specialised tool, each component fully contributing to the overall shape of the game.

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