The cry has gone out across the land: “So, Daddy Warpig, is all you know how to do is aggravate other geeks over the fact that the Pulps were, hands down no questions asked or needed, The Golden Age of Fantasy & Science Fiction?” I wish to reassure my millions of screaming fans that that is NOT all that Daddy Warpig is about.
I can also aggravate people over tabletop roleplaying games.
Fact is, most fans of RPG’s are on the spectrum somewhere. The numbers, the mechanics, the dice—like videogames, they appeal to sufferers of the ‘tism. This means a large number of RPG fans tend to respond to mechanics they dislike by hollering, in effect, “THIS GAME IS GARBAGE AND SO IS THE WAY YOU PLAY AND I’M OFFENDED AND YOU SUCK AND THIS GAME SUCKS AND YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON AND YOUR FUN IS OBJECTIVELY WRONG.” Roleplayers are volatile like that.
This makes designing an RPG akin to skipping through a minefield. No matter how clever a mechanic one devises, there will always be one guy who loves it, two who think it’s okay, three who’d rather watch anime, and four who will declare a fatwa against you and your family line, even unto the seventh generation.
Because of this, I’m a big proponent of the “Game Designers should know what the hell they’re doing” school of game design—if you’re going to piss people off, you ought to at least know why you chose one mechanic over another—but even I can admit this is clearly not always absolutely necessary. Let’s take Dungeons & Dragons.
D&D wasn’t designed: it grew by accretion, decision by decision. Many mechanics of the game were ad hoc responses to situations that came up in play at Gary Gygax’s and Dave Arneson’s tables.
Clerics, for example, came about because a vampire PC was raising all kinds of a ruckus, so Gygax took inspiration from fighting priests of the crusades and Hammer Horror flicks and came up with the armored, healing, undead turning cleric D&D players know. (In so doing, he accidentally completed the holy quartet of fantasy roleplaying combat roles: shock infantry, infiltrator, heavy weapons, and combat medic.)
This was just one decision, but it revolutionized the game. It made D&D’s classic dungeoneering play style possible, and the game might never have become a hit without it. Design by accretion.
There’s also design by strange alchemy, like Rifts. Rifts is gonzo, bonkers, completely insane (but also over-the-top awesome). Growing out of what were obviously House Rules of D&D, Rifts added to these Mega-damage weapons and a bunch of batcrap crazy classes, monsters, weapons, and spells. Lots of people have identified flaws in the rules, but every single attempt to fix them has wrecked the game—“good” rules for Rifts are almost always worse than the existing “bad” rules. Rifts is designed badly, but correctly. Strange alchemy.
In contrast, I’m a proponent of deliberate design, an important principle of which is “Understand the mechanics you reject well enough to explain their utility and value.” In other words, understand a spurned mechanic better than most of its proponents do.
Lets take hit points, a classic mechanic. First used in naval warfare war games, they ably represented the degradation of the iron armor of warships. Gygax pretty much imported them into Chainmail unaltered, and thence into D&D.
I’m currently designing an RPG which doesn’t use D&D-style hit points, but not because they’re objectively bad. How do I know? The rule of thumb is “Use evinces utility.” We know they’re useful because people keep using them—they’re ubiquitous in tabletop games and computer RPG’s. Reasons include:
There are also good reasons NOT to use hit points in your game (just check any RPG message board, the rants are ALSO classics), but it’s not a clear cut decision. Design is about choices, and each choice has consequences, so designers should understand what they are.
There’s a reason certain mechanics have survived, and even thrived, and game designers who are ignorant of those considerations are basically developing in the dark. Sure, accidental accretion or strange alchemy might mean you end up producing the next D&D or Rifts, but more likely your game will be total garbage (as most are). It’s foolish to depend on luck.
Last, and most important, is playtesting. If you don’t test your designs in actual play, you have no idea if they’re any good at all. Rules are only valuable in so far as players and GM’s can use them at the game table. It’s play that reveals the flaws in a design, and all designs are flawed, so test the hell out of your games.
Now, lest my millions of screaming fans take that last statement amiss, let me assure you that MY work-in-progress is nearly perfect, barely flawed at all, and is, in fact, entirely awesome and amazingly cool, and anyone who dislikes my game is objectively wrong.
THAT you can take to the bank.