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,
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
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.