Sunday, May 18, 2014

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part II: What Does a System Do Well?

 I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the first part I pointed out what it was that I didn't like about the D&D/Pathfinder systems and wondered if they really could give me the experience that I want in a game. In this part I look at the different systems that I've played and how they structure themselves to give systems to roleplaying and story.

So the question becomes, if D&D/Pathfinder doesn't give any structure of systems for roleplaying, what does it do well? And what are the other options? What do the other systems do that D&D/Pathfinder does not?

As I said in the last part, D&D/Pathfinder does tactical combat. It does it well. In fact, 90% of all of the many, many books are dedicated to giving more and more options and rules to manage that tactical combat piece. There are tactical combat systems, however, that are a lot cleaner and streamlined than D&D/Pathfinder. So if you are really into tactical combat, then there are other options out there that are better. However, D&D/Pathfinder does do one other thing really well. I'll get into that a little later.

But what about other systems then? If D&D/Pathfinder is designed to resolve tactical combat on a grid, what do other systems offer as an alternative?

That is what I've been doing since I last played my D&D 3.5 campaign. I've been exploring other systems. It started with some of the more mainstream systems, but I eventually started to explore smaller independent games. It was the indie games that really opened up my eyes to the potential that a system could have. There were games that included systems for roleplaying. There were systems that were fantastic as certain things.

Beyond all the iterations of D&D and Pathfinder, the system I've played the most are White Wolf's World of Darkness games: Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith and Changeling. I've run campaigns for each of them. I like a lot about the systems and the character building.

What do the World of Darkness games do well? The systems are designed to present a rounded character very well. You spend points on your background, giving you systems for how wealthy you are, how many contacts you are. You buy merits and flaws to give you more distinction. Your social abilities are not just bunched into a single Charisma trait, but rather spread between three attributes: Charisma, Manipulation and Appearance. Further, when you create your character, it is not random. You don't end up with someone rolling nothing higher than a 10, while the person next to them doesn't roll anything lower than a 15. The character choices in the World of Darkness games are also very thematic, helping to bring out more of a direction of what your character might be like.

The problem with the systems of the World of Darkness games, however, is that they are still all combat games. Not tactical combat, but rather narrative combat. Now, you could have Vampire players argue that they've never been in a fight in their game, that the game system isn't about combat.

But it is. It is still about rolling tons of dice to exert your will against someone else. To illustrate the point, let's take the previous example of a man with a key that you want. You could use combat to get the key, of course.

But if you decide to talk to him, you have a lot more options in the World of Darkness games. If I just want to convince him to give me the key, I roll Charisma + Persuasion. Maybe I want to trick him into giving me the key. Then roll Manipulation + Subterfuge. Maybe I want to seduce him. In that case, roll Appearance + Expression.

So the World of Darkness games run into the same trap. Sure, I have more than just Diplomacy to roll and there are systems for different options. But they are still dice rolls. If we instead decide to just "roleplay" and act it out, then we are ignoring these systems. And, like D&D/Pathfinder, why use these systems if we are ignoring them?

But to the point about combat. World of Darkness games are still very much about combat. Instead of attacking you with a gun, I am attacking you with words. It is the same thing. It is combat and that is the core concept of the game systems. I roll to attack you with my argument and you roll your Wits to defend against it. So, that Vampire campaign that you snottily said didn't have combat in it is full of it.

I will touch on one more aspect of the World of Darkness systems briefly to point out that Mage: the Ascension does one other thing well: It has the best magic system in any game I have ever played. While the system itself has the same combat bias as the other games, I would still eagerly play Mage to explore the depths of the magic system any day.

The other mainstream game that I've played a lot of is Call of Cthulhu. What Call of Cthulhu does well is instilling a sense of knowing loss into the players by adding the attribute of Sanity. Health recovers, but Sanity is very slow to ever get back. Players realize this by their third or fourth session as their 65 Sanity is now 48 and they cannot just use a Sanity first aid kit.

However, the rest of the systems are shit. The game's theme is investigation. Players are called investigators. You have skills like Library Use. However, for an investigation based game, it never resolves this core concept well. As the Storyteller, I have an important handout that the players need to find and read to figure out where to go next. The characters failed their Library Use rolls to uncover the document. They literally cannot deduce things any further until they get this clue. So now I need to come up with some other way for them to come across it. Maybe I can have someone mention it in passing, prompting them to go back to the library and roll again to find it.

The problem with this is that you have terrible systems to propel the clues and therefore the story forward. If they fail their roll, I have to find ways of making them roll for it again. So, logically, it makes sense that if they need this clue to forward the story, why don't I just hand it to them when they research in the library without making them roll? But then, if I am not using the systems of game, why I am playing this game?

That isn't to say that I haven't have tons of fun experiences in either the World of Darkness games or Call of Cthulhu. But those memories aren't from anything that the systems produced. They are from the characters and from the story. And that is where most mainstream roleplaying games fail. They don't give you any systems for roleplaying or storytelling, just die rolling for conflict resolution.

Fantasy Flight's Star Wars: Edge of Empire roleplaying system is a mainstream system where everything is still resolved through dice like all of the others and there aren't any real systems for roleplaying. However, it takes an interesting innovation in making conflict resolution add to the story.

Conflicts are resolved with rolling dice in dice pools. The dice have symbols with successes and failures on them and each failure rolls cancels a success rolled. However, the dice also give results for advantage, triumph, despair and threat. This means that you could fail a die roll, but still have rolled advantages for something good to come from it. It also means that I could succeed, but bad things happen from it. And if rolls are really difficult, the GM could also assign setback dice to your pool, which have a much more likely chance of rolling failures, despair and threat.

So I could try to hack into a computer terminal and succeed, but I rolled enough threat that the GM decides that just as I downloaded the files, a Stormtrooper came through the door and fired his blaster at me and missed, hitting the computer instead and destroying it so nothing more can be obtained from it. Plus, now there is a Stormtrooper to fight.

Alternatively, I could fail at the attempt to hack the computer for the files, but rolled enough advantage that maybe I couldn't get to the files, but I found the security systems and I was able to turn off all of the alarm systems near the detention center.

Now the problem that I foresee with this is that, while it makes rolling the dice exciting and fun, it also slows down the pace as you have to stop and read them like tea leaves to figure out what happened.

The system also has points that the players can use to change the story. They can be used in minor ways, such as suddenly having a piece of equipment you needed. But they can be used in other ways to further alter aspects of the story.

And while the system is still based in combat and doesn't have the framework for roleplaying as part of its systems, the game is at least looking at adding story to every roll of the die. Focus on story is one thing and it is an amazing step, but systems for roleplaying are still absent.

Story and roleplaying systems are where the independent roleplaying games have really shined. This isn't to say that they are without their flaws. However, I learned a lot from their merits, especially in player trust.

Most independent roleplaying games are really great at telling one kind of story and nothing else, however. Most also are meant for smaller stories and not extended campaigns.

Fiasco is amazing at telling a story of something gone horribly wrong. There is no GM. Characters are not defined by any stats, but rather their relationships to the players on their right and left. That is the only thing defined by your character: your relationship to your neighbors at the table. Everyone has equal chance to propel a scene forward, becoming the director of the movie for a moment. There is no die-rolling for resolution. Everything is resolved in the narrative. If I suddenly pull a gun from my pants, I do it because it propels the story forward. It isn't written on a character sheet. And if I fire it at your character, you die if it makes story sense.

You see, the players all have the same goal: to tell an interesting story. It isn't about getting the most XP or loot. Because of this, you learn to trust the other players at the table. They have equal power in this story as you do. In fact, the direction I thought I and my character would go in often ended up radically different because of how other players involved me in the game.

However, Fiasco cannot tell anything other than a story gone horribly wrong. It is utterly fantastic at recreating a Fargo-like story, but it utterly fails at everything else.

Dread tells a horror/suspense story and it manufactures tension like no other game I've played. Characters  are not defined by attributes and stats, but instead are created by answering a series of questions given by the storyteller. Questions may be leading, such as, "You have always been the strongest of any of your peers. What happened in your past that makes you hold back your strength?" So, you end up defining your character by creating his background. This helps to personalize the suspense.

Dread's core mechanism is a Jenga tower. Whenever you need to succeed at something you cannot automatically succeed at, you pull a Jenga block and put it on the top. Over the course of the game, the tower gets more and more unstable. If the tower falls when you try to make a pull, your character is removed from the story, most likely in a grisly, horrible death. So, when you hear noises outside of your tent at night, you may hesitate to investigate as you see the wobbling, unstable tower before you.

However, Dread's systems fail to tell any other kind of story than those in the horror/suspense genre.

Shooting the Moon tells a story about a romance and two suitors courting the same person. It is absolutely amazing that there is a game that systems romance and Shooting the Moon does it so very well. Characters are created with pairs of contrary adjectives or descriptors, for example, if I take Strong, then you have to take the opposite. It could be Puny, Small, Weak-willed, or Vulnerable. But then these descriptors get exceptions added by the players. You took Strong, but I could add "...but cowardly." I took Small, but I could add "...but scrappy".

The actual mechanisms of the romance are primarily narrative and acted out. However, if you are narrating your scene with the person of our affection, I can interject with "As luck would have it..." and then barge into your story and have some kind of bad or mood-breaking event change the course of your romantic setting. Dice are used to resolve the situation and the current suitor wins, he narrates how he turns the bad event around and still continues on with their evening. If the rival wins, he gets to narrate how the date was ruined or how that special moment was lost.

Shooting the Moon is fantastic in idea and design, but it cannot tell anything other than a romance story.

Lady Blackbird tells a single story. There are five pregenerated characters, each with their backgrounds and abilities set in stone. Every game starts the same way, with the party's ship captured and the party in the brig of the Imperial ship. Even though every single story of Lady Blackbird starts with the exact same characters in the exact same situation things will unfold differently. Each game is played on its own, but collectively, when you look back at the games being played and see how things branched out differently, it turns into something more akin to Groundhog Day or Run, Lola, Run.

The GM is supposed to come into this game with nothing planned. Instead, the GM listens to the players and both the players and the GM are encouraged to ask questions. Players are rewarded by taking the opportunity to ask questions when the action die down. Asking Lady Blackbird (played by another player) what it is about the man she loves that drove her to flee her home refreshes the player's pool. The GM also plays the NPCs and introduces conflict, but the game will unfold differently every time.

Obviously Lady Blackbird tells the story of Lady Blackbird amazingly well, but it cannot tell anything else at all.

There are literally hundreds of independent roleplaying games out there that do this kind of thing and give you systems for actual roleplaying. They are fantastic and what they have done for me is to reinforce that these storytelling games should be a collaboration between the players and to trust them more and more.

The problem with D&D/Pathfinder and most mainstream RPGs is that they are built with a lack of trust. There are concrete rules and systems in place to make certain that the players cannot cheat and that they DM cannot unfairly interpret situations and rules.

But this focuses you on the rules. You will have players who will try to manipulate every rule and most D&D/Pathfinder games will have those moments where the play suddenly stops because either the DM or players need to look up some rule, or an argument and debate breaks out over determining if someone in a certain square technically threatens another square. All of this intrudes and breaks the narrative.

The thing is, in almost every indie RPG I've played, we've never had those moments where things stop suddenly because of this. And that is because the focus is on the story and not on the rules and using the mechanisms and systems to your best advantage.

When I sit down at the table, I'm there for the story, not the tactical combat. That's why when a character said he jumped down a well that I never said was there, there was suddenly a well. It was a great escape moment and wild and fun.

But the more modern iterations of D&D/Pathfinder have moved into the realm of systems before story. In fact, there are no systems for story at all.

So, why is our group still attracted to playing Pathfinder when there are so very, very many other systems out there that tell stories so very, very much better?

And that is because of the other thing that D&D/Pathfinder does incredibly well: Investing the players in their characters and in their world.

In Part III I talk about how Pathfinder invests players in their character, bringing up the many false investments that are also there.

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