More RPG Ramblings

Ed Heil “picks up”: his ongoing discussion of RPGs and semiotics with a simple but important distinction:

The thing that distinguishes roleplaying games from, say, chess, wargaming, or Monopoly, is that in chess, wargaming, or Monopoly, you can imagine that what’s going on is really events in an imaginary world, you can talk about it that way, but those talked-about events in an imaginary world can’t reach out and mess with the game rules — the game proceeds according to the rules quite independently of those discussions about what’s happening in the imaginary world. In a role-playing game, the rule-bound game-play accepts input from the purely verbal world description. It’s designed to.

I love this distinction because it gets, in a nutshell, what makes story in RPGs so different from other types of games. Even in a computer RPG, you may experience the narrative, and even shape it to the extent that the game allows for multiple paths and endings, but your experience and perception of the narrative will never ever reflect back onto the game itself. A roleplaying game is the only type of game where story is more than frosting.

Ed ends with a couple of questions that I’ll pick up on here. An apology and a warning in advance: all of what follows is in Rambling Mode.

1) How do different RPGs differ in the way entities that have been posited verbally are clothed with game statistics? Is there any kind of typology of games according to how this is accomplished?

I’ll address only a subset of this question: how RPGs differ in handling ad-hoc modifications of rules. The first big distinction that leaps to mind is the extent to which player verbal input can _modify_ the game world or actively _shape_ it. In just about every RPG, there’s some sort of mechanism for modifying dice rolls based on lively description. If you roleplay your passionate speech beautifully, the GM gives you a +2 on your Diplomacy check. A colorful description of _how_ you attack the goblin gives you +1 on attack. The extent to which these thing can affect the game varies — in D&D it’s never more than a +2 bonus on a 20-sided die, so it’s pretty minor. _Sorcerer_ makes such modifiers so important that it’s hard to succeed in the game, mechanics-wise, without them.

In most games, player input is limited to modifying the world. Players have complete autonomy over the behavior of their characters, but none over anything else, except in minor situations. (Player: “Is the innkeeper there? I want to ask him something.” GM: “Sure, he’s there.”)

Then you have games where the players’ verbal input can actually create objects, situations, and even characters in the game world. The earliest example I can think of is the old James Bond RPG by Victory Games. In that game you had Hero Points, which you could spend to increase success or reduce failure in dice rolls. But you could also spend them to create situations beneficial for your character, like making sure there’s a convenient baseball bat in the trunk of the car, or that the storefront has a cloth awning to break your fall. The extreme of this type would be a game like _Donjon_, where player input is integral to the mechanics, not just a rule added to the side for rare situations. Even further along you have storytelling games like _Universalis_ or Ed’s own _Topos_, but at that point I’d say we’ve moved from RPGs to Something Else.

So I guess we could categorize player input in terms of Extent (modify vs. actively create) and Potency (side rule with minor effect on mechanics vs. happens all the time and integral to the game rules).

2) Does it always have to be the GM who is responsible for this, or can/should the players share in this power?

I assume Ed means the power to _adjudicate_ rules changes arising from verbal description, since obviously both the GM and the players can describe situations that require adjudication. To the extent that players share in this power, the distinction between them and the GM blurs; at the far end of that spectrum you have storytelling games like those mentioned above. Is there a point to a distinction between RPGs and STGs? I think so — they are, ultimately, very different experiences. In an RPG you, as a player, have a single role to focus on, and a sense of the rest of the game world being outside of your control. Sure, the guy who controls it may just be Bob who inhabits the next cubicle at work, but still, in a traditional RPG there’s a tension created from a dual sense of power and helplessness: I’m completely in control of my character, but _anything_ could happen. This tension is a valuable part of the roleplaying experience, and it is lost in a game like _Universalis_ where all the players have equal stake in adjudicating the game world. It is replaced by other tensions and advantages, to be sure, not least of which is a greater likelihood that the output of a game session will form a coherent, pleasing narrative.

There are lots of fruitful grey areas along the spectrum of player control. There’s “troupe-style” play — that’s the _Ars Magica_ term for it — where all players are co-GMs when it comes to establishing the basic setting, but in any given session only one person will be creating and running the adventure. (This is how the superhero game I’m currently involved with is run. Even my D&D game has two DMs trading off responsibilities.) There’s tools like “Storypath Cards”: And in a lot of gaming groups there’s an informal, unquantified dynamic whereby player suggestions can shape the game world, like when a player may briefly take the role of an NPC to lighten the burden on the GM and provide a bit of variety.

Intuitively, I prefer roleplaying games to storytelling games. I think it’s because the traditional players-and-GM framework creates clear expectations on both sides of the equation. In a storytelling game, where everyone’s on equal footing, the process is less like a game and more like co-writing, which, absent just the right mix of creative personalities, can be downright grueling. I also suspect that your average mix of players includes some people who crave storytelling power (the GM-types) and others who have less interest in worrying about the Big Story, and appreciate the narrow focus (and close identification) that comes of having to only worry about their character. Being co-responsible for the totality of a story seems to me to be much more difficult than either playing a single character or being a neutral arbiter for non-player characters and the rest of the setting.

So, getting back to the question — the players _can_ share in the GM’s power, but the more they do this, the more gameplay changes in significant ways, and it might not be everybody’s cup of tea. That level of input from players certainly should not be considered obligatory or integral to a traditional RPG.

Looking back over all this, I think I may have tangented off of Ed’s original points more than I intended. C’est la vie.

UPDATE: The previous sentence has proved entirely correct — I had a feeling I was tangenting, and I was. Ed comments down in the comments to this entry, and “here”: I’ll pick up discussion down in the comments as well.