Wrong About Role-Playing

Friday , 21, April 2017 18 Comments

There’s sort of an unwritten rule in rpg discussion. There’s several of them, really:

  • System doesn’t matter; it’s the GM that makes the game.
  • There’s no reason to really be doctrinaire about which edition of a game is best; whatever works!
  • The only wrong way to play rpgs is to tell people they’re doing it wrong.

I’m telling you, go anywhere on the internet with a correct and strongly stated opinion about gaming and some chuckle-head milquetoast always shows up with this sort of watered down pluralistic nonsense.

I think it’s the ultimate insult you could give to the designers. If you think about how much effort went into the Adventure Conqueror King design process… if you think of the kind of innovations that went into the development of RuneQuest… if you have any appreciation for that, I just don’t see how you can conceive of these people not having something really exciting they wanted to share with people. In that context, you can safely take everything Mr. Rpg Nice Guy has said and turn it inside out:

  • Designers genuinely believe they are creating the best game evar!
  • Every table is going to require somebody to be doctrinaire about system and edition just to have a game at all.
  • You can absolutely fail to capture the intent of the designers in your interpretation of the game, misinterpret or overlook rules that have drastic effects on gameplay, and make countless decisions the seem right but which cut you off from the best that gaming has to offer.

The fact is, we need more rpg zealots if we’re going to get anywhere on this. Sure, there is more than one way to do things. But discussion on this is not aided by this lame greek chorus of people coming in and telling everyone to dial it back just when they start to get excited about this stuff.

Now, I say all that because somebody over at Black Gate is playing Traveller wrong. I know. It’s sad, really. But check it out:

Seen from one angle, the Traveller RPG has always been a Science Fiction midlife crisis simulator, “40-somethings Innnnn Spaaaacccce.”
The character generation system is a mini-game that lets you play through your character’s career all the way into middle-age, a career that most of the time ends in disaster, and always ends with you mustering out to go “travelling.”


Talk about a train wreck!

Okay, look. If you make Traveller characters the correct way, with the original rule set… then you are looking at making survival rolls, reenlistment rolls, and (most importantly) absolutely punishing aging rolls when characters start to get up in their thirties.

Under this system, you get careers that you would never have chosen yourself thanks to the draft. You get one and two term characters that are in their twenties. If someone has a thirty year old character that is any good, they think long and hard about going in for another term. People start imagining stories about these guys and get attached to them. Even a small chance of failing a survival roll starts to look too risky. Because everyone remembers the most awesome Traveller character of all time that got taken out by snake-eyes in spite of everything.

And those aging rolls…? People tend not to take the risk of losing points from stats that have a direct impact on their hit points just for a chance to get one (maybe two on a good day) skill that might be something they really really want. It’s called diminishing returns. People take them into account when a failed survival roll means death and not just a little a smack on the wrist.

If you think Traveller is a “Midlife Crisis Simulator”, you are playing it wrong. If your edition is set up to consistently produce middle aged characters, you’re playing the wrong one!

  • Paul says:

    I think there are (at least) two types of role playing gamers: those who do it primarily for the camaraderie and those who are doing it to play the game. For those of the former persuasion, the system tends not to matter because “whatever, I’m having fun with my friends.” For those of the latter, the system defines the type of game they are playing and thus matters a great deal.

    Those of the former persuasion also tend to play games wrong — either missing the point of a system (as in the case of this article) or because they don’t care enough to play correctly (“Oh, let’s just change that rule so we all enjoy ourselves more. I’m getting more chips.”).

    The sweet spot for game designers is to appeal to both types of gamers so it’s fun for all (the rules don’t get in the way) and the rules matter (they define so well the game they are playing that all gamers will tend toward that ruleset in the future).

    • Jeffro says:

      There is very little “whatever, man” in Pathfinder gaming or 4th edition GURPS supplements.

      If “eh, whatever” is what you are doing, Tunnels & Trolls is designed from the ground up to support that style of play.

      But yeah, the most enduring and well-loved rpgs are the ones that were still fun even when played wrong. But the fun is an order of magnitude greater when you apply the insights garnered by the designer in countless hours of gameplay. And the fun is decreased when you accept design elements that are specifically engineered to move product and not address the demands of actual play.

    • Dan Wolfgang says:

      I think the former type of gamer would have a lot more fun messing around in an IRC roleplaying chatroom, than playing an actual game.

  • Ingot9455 says:

    I have always said that the holy trinity is 1. good gamemaster, 2. good system, 3. good player group.

    All three makes a game sublime. Two out of three can be good reaching to great, but never as great as all three. One out of three is usually unsatisfying.

    Within each of the three are techniques for heightening the others – a great gamemaster knows how to elicit good interactive play from players, and how to run an average system well. Good players know how to work lame systems to their benefit to make a better game, and how to come to agreements with their gamemaster to get their FAE (fun and enjoyment). And a great system contains methods for inspiring good gamemastering and eliciting good play.

  • Alfred Genesson says:

    If he wants a game about middle age, he should go for A Life More Ordinary, featuring the Middle Age Role Playing System. Each campaign, the Age Master rolls for events that may affect all players.

    Will you be in middle management? An underemployed grunt in a store or warehouse? A parent? Homeless? Millions of options for the drudgery of reality.

  • You yell at people who put cash under Free Parking when they play Monopoly, too, don’t you?

  • TFA303 says:

    Heck, I’ve rolled up a LOT of Traveller, Twilight 2000 and Dark Conspiracy characters just for fun; it’s one of the best things about GDW games!

  • Astrsorceror says:

    Good systems are great, and not using a detailed system or bakcground takes form the game. A great GM can make up for it, as well as fun-loving players, but systems and rules are tools that make it more fun.

  • instasetting says:

    1. A good GM is paramount. An OK GM and an OK set of players can substitute, but is still not as good. A system is a distant third.

    Being too obsessed about a system is a warning flag for a bad GM. Bad GMs are awful. A bad game cannot be awful because it is not significant enough to be so.

    2. While it is sad that a designer is sad, in the scheme of things, this is a trivial concern of almost no interest to anyone but the designer.

    3. Most designers seem to realize this, and rather explicitly state that their rules are guidelines in the ‘rulebook’.

    • Jeffro says:

      Thanks for reiterating the “chuckle-head milquetoast” position on rpgs. Much appreciated!

      • instasetting says:

        I thought my position was considerably stronger than milquetoast.

        A checklist of desired tropes could be useful for Asperger type GM’s who don’t have a clue. Its like how some of these guys supposedly do quite well with PUA by just following the checklist.

        It can also be useful for the more arty than thous on the opposite end of the Bell Curve.

        For the vast middle of the Curve, its an occasionally useful spice.

        One key limit for these is the Imagination Budget. Make your world too weird, or too detailed and you lose your players.

        You are basically arguing that people are dumb for not liking opera.

        • Rick Stump says:

          If you want to use that analogy, then *you* are arguing that people who insist that music that is in tune, well-performed, and timelessly ppopular are awful people with a mental disability.

  • Rick Stump says:

    Sorry: ‘music that is in tune’, etc.

  • Freddo says:

    Opinion: designers often fail to explain/show how the rule system supports the setting and the themes they are trying to hit.
    Not helped by the fact that most example adventures are the thinnest of gruel.

  • B&N says:

    You can absolutely fail to capture the intent of the framers in your interpretation of the constitution, misinterpret or overlook amendments that have drastic effects on liberty, and make countless regulations the seem right but which cut you off from the best that civilization has to offer.

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