Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Three Pillars of Role-Playing Gaming

If you were to break down most RPGs or gaming sessions, the three most common activities you’d encounter would be combat, exploration, and (social) interaction. Cover these three with some kind of game mechanics (emphasis up to you, depending on your players or personal preferences) and you’re likely to end up with a playable RPG. The complexity of the mechanics can be up to you as well, and may depend on your preferred gaming style. To use some of the more-established gamer lingo for style preferences, you might choose simulationist — where your focus is on recreation of specific genres or modeling the minutiae of the setting; narrativist — where the story and character background are the foundation; or gamist — where the game mechanics themselves are the highlight.

In general, you can see how the pillar activities align with play styles: Combat with gamism; exploration with simulationism; and interaction with narrativism. Common sense says that creating a game that plays well all three ways is extremely difficult, highly unlikely, or a fool’s errand, at best. Is there a demand for such a game, and if so, wouldn’t it already have been created?

The gaming groups that I play in include a fairly wide cross-section of gaming styles and rules preferences. The games I run tend to include all three activity pillars, with a preference for combat. The games I aspire to run have some kind of mechanic that links the three pillars. A way for players to find their niche in the game, their moment in the spotlight, in an activity that interests them. 4e D&D did a nice job of setting up each type of character with an opportunity to contribute meaningfully in combat, but neglected the other two pillars of RPGs. 4e has a generally gamist sensibility that works well for players who learned the ropes of RPGs on computers or consoles, as opposed to basement tabletops littered with Mountain Dew cans and Cheetos. 4e is generally fun to play, and relatively easy to game master. I’d like to play something better.

Resource Management
One key aspect of RPGs is the idea of resource management. How much damage can your character take? How much do you want to invest in weapon-specific advantages? How much should you spend on a variety of gear in anticipation of particular obstacles? All of these questions involve consideration of risk versus reward. Whether you’re talking about combat, exploration, or interaction, what are the risks your character might face? And how do you want to allocate your resources in regard to those risks? Do the game mechanics you’re using allow for these considerations?

Most RPGs use hit points, or something similar, to denote how much physical damage your character can take before dying. The risk, if you allow your character’s hit points to get too low, is that your character will die. It’s a pretty simple system, and widely recognized and understood. 4e D&D used powers — of an at-will, encounter, and daily frequency — to model combat resources. The conceit of powers and their limited frequencies is that they are unique actions that come about as a weird amalgam of opportunity and chance. Your character is able to summon the extraordinary combination of will and coordination necessary to pull off the action a limited number of times, and must then rest and recuperate before being able to perform it again. For most players I have played with, this has had an artificial feel to it. Why is it that my barbarian can only Flatulently Surge once per encounter? The resources are managed as much by the game mechanics as the player. And the management is limited to the context of combat.

In my home rules I replaced the combat powers with a pool of points. Players could “buy” combat actions using the points, and build attacks that were tactically appropriate to the situation, and were repeatable as long as the player had the points in hand. This option has worked well for both my seasoned players, and casual players alike.

So, my next step is to expand the usage of these points, or some similar pool, to the activities of exploration and interaction. In theory, this gives players who are more interested in these activities an opportunity to be in the spotlight. All while actively managing their resources. However, to make it work in a meaningful way as part of the game, there need to be elements of risk and reward as there are in combat.

I’ll talk more about these ideas in future posts, but I’d like to hear your thoughts, or any experiences you may have had with systems that promote exploration and interaction. If you’re a player that prefers these aspects of RPGs, what skills or powers do you think a character needs to define them?


  1. I’m not sure I’m answering your question, but from CoC, I think the following skills are most useful for exploring unknown worlds. (You’d need a lot of identification skills as well as the ability to roam through dangerous ground. Of course, Lovecraftian worlds are different than D&D worlds.)

    Exploration: Biology, Conceal, Dodge, Art, Natural History, Languages, Photography, Track, Anthropology, Astronomy, Chemistry, First Aid, Hide, Locksmith, Mechanical Repair, navigate, Sneak, Physics, Archaeology, Cthulu Mythos, Electrical Repair, Geology, History, Library Use, Occult, Spot Hidden

    As for Interaction, again, it is in relatively modern times: Fast Talk, Listen, Psychology, Languages, Credit Rating, First Aid, Law, Persuade, Bargain, Psychoanalysis.

  2. By the way, I'd also like to hear more about simulationism as that is my interest right now, even above character development. In other words, world creation/development and genre.