Beyond Labels: How Each RPG Serves and Rewards Specific Needs

The Uselessness of Labels

A few weeks ago, game designer and online buddy Robert Bohl messaged me on Gtalk asking me to translate what a French GM was saying about a mash-up of his game of teenage rebellion, Misspent Youth, and the setting of White Wolf’s Changeling.  The GM’s experiment wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped but instead of analyzing how the experiment could be turned in a success, he threw some tired labels around (i.e. Ron Edward’s Narrativist, Gamist, and Simulationist) to explain why Rob’s game couldn’t mesh with his setting of choice.

I don’t like labels much.  I know they make things easier to categorize. We like to categorize things in tidy boxes and geeks have the brainpower and handy obsessiveness to create lots of them. The thing is, when labels become obstacles in exploring a given game’s potential for fun, we’ve left the realm of theory and entered the world of geek-snobbery and pointless quibbling.

Now I’m as guilty as many, playing with labels that I happen to find convenient. For instance, I’ve covered Robin Laws’ player type and motivations extensively and team management concepts applied to RPG groups.  I try not to let the use of such labels occlude or block frank analysis of a given game’s relative merits vis à vis my preferences, that of my gaming crew or those of my readers.

I do believe that exploring the basis of the elements of the GNS model (along with its clever parodies) and the categories developed by Robin Laws are useful to awaken one’s awareness to the Meta of RPGs. When you start thinking about RPGs beyond the act of GMing and playing them, you pave the way to an awesome journey.

It can open your eyes to things like realizing that everybody sitting around your table may be seeking  different things than you are. It may even help understand why that game you have been playing for so long isn’t as fun as it used to. Studying the kind of experience a given game tries to deliver and what motivates you as a player/GM will likely make you understand what you seek in RPGs

Thus, while good to identify the basic needs/preferences gamers have for game systems and play styles, I believe that continued used of RPG labels, especially those sprung from GNS discussions, fuel discord rather than the evolution of new ideas and self-actualizations of our gaming experiences.

Modern Game Design and Needs

Like design in general, games follow trends set by designers who break the mold of what was done before them.  Sometimes, like D&D’s creation, it could be a seemingly subtle shift from existing paradigms (Gary’s focus on fantasy wargame heroes) mixed with a new outlook (Arneson’s characterization).  Other times it’s may be more fundamental, like White Wolf taking cyclical literary fads (Urban Fantasy) and creating game systems bound to quasi-symbiotic, heavily supported settings.

In the last 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of people working on “Fantasy Heartbreakers”, games that “are going to be better than D&D”. Yet, such experiments often end up being unplayable messes. I’m willing to bet that most games who managed to become mold breakers, especially since the late 90s, didn’t set out to actively replace the previous generation of games, least of all the Big One.

Instead, they were likely created by designers that wanted to create a specific playing experience (regardless of how people end up playing it).  I think that, in their own way, these designers knew what needs and motivations their games catered to (at the very least, their own).

I’ll go as far as saying that the best “modern” RPGs were designed to answer the designers’ (and their tribes’) needs which, by ricochet, ended up meeting the needs of the subset of gamers who share that set of preferences.

No Game Does it All, Do They Need To?

But out of those mold breakers, has one published system done it all?  One that answers the needs of all gamers and rewards the whole range of player motivations without requiring extensive tinkering from the GM? I’m sceptical. After my pilgrimage through smaller press games these last few months, I found myself more prone to ask : Do we need such a game?

When you look at what composes the “mind” of a  gaming group you find that it’s an often subconscious compromise made between all its members’ motivators and needs.  Gaming groups that “work” are those whose individuals are comfortable (or can easily adjust) with that compromise and play a game that caters to it.

Groups that fail are either unaware of the existence of their own needs (or those of their playmates) or play a game that doesn’t address them sufficiently. Yet, in the cases where I’ve lived through such failures or heard/read about them, too often were individuals blamed rather than the experience the game could conceivably and consistently provide.

The Case of D&D: Needs vs. Rewards

The thing is, we’re talking of a hobby field that’s (relatively) small and young enough that any objective analysis is greatly biased by its ever-renewed progenitor.  D&D is the go-to game of so many thousand gamers because it is the oldest, most notorious, widest taught, best supported, highest advertised and best positioned game out there.

However, what it no longer is, especially in its latest incarnations, is a generalist RPG.  D&D 4e is a very specialized game whose design make it do a limited number of things exceedingly well and others adequately at best.  It is, bar none, the best heroic fantasy action roleplaying game out there.

In fact, in the circles I’ve been travelling these past few months, I’d say D&D 4e shares more with indie designs than all previous editions of the game where one defines this as “a game designed to do something very specific very well.” Yet, I still read in its rulebook and on the web that this game can cater to all types of players and their needs.

I respectfully beg to differ.

A well designed game, and 4e most definitively is one,  has mechanics to rewards players so they keep wanting more from it. In this day and age of high-value free time and easily accessible competing entertainment media, it no longer is sufficient to consider playing around a table with friends and sharing a common story a reward in and of itself. While playing a RPG remains a pleasurable pass time, players are very likely to seek the  most rewarding experience among their choices of entertainment.

D&D 4e’s system rewards combat extensively as a vast majority of its mechanics support fights (or derived activities that use such mechanics). That’s fine. For many, myself included, D&D has often been a lot about kicking the crap out of things while becoming  more powerful doing it.

However, rewarding players who have needs not covered by combat is no easy task unless you are a DM that follows the paths taken by the likes of Dave, Mike Shea, Quinn or myself. Rewarding such behaviour has not been as cleverly hard-coded in the game as combat has. Skill challenges, the game’s closest rewards contender, are hard to grasp and the tools provided in books, while better now than before, are still a challenge to master. As for the impact of Quest XP rewards, they are arguable at best to reward things like exploration and spending efforts as a PC to build a compelling story.

As for roleplaying… I’ll concede to the “you don’t need rules to roleplay” argument, I used it extensively in the past, but I’ve tried plenty of simple to use, dreadfully effective mechanics that reward role playing in smaller press games. Rules that make even the shyest of introverted players become heavily invested in their stories and get significantly rewarded to do so.

So while D&D remains the default game for many gamers, be it for historical reasons or because “that’s the only game my players will play,” chances are it may not meet their needs because the play style they’d like (whether they know about it or not) is not adequately supported or rewarded by the game they play.

Maybe that’s why so many people, instead of branching out, are trying to hack D&D and Pathfinder to find that ‘something missing’ they can’t quite identify.

And this is where you see the smaller press guys sigh noisily.  They’d love to show you what they’ve been working on ever since the d20 market collapsed into the dual singularities known as Pathfinder and Mutants and Masterminds.  Maybe you should.

So What Do We Do From Here?

Chances are you are perfectly fine playing D&D 4e (and Pathfinder or Savage Worlds…) I’m way cool with that!

If you aren’t, why don’t you, as a group, ask yourselves what you seek  in your sessions. Do you feel the need for a game that simulates realism? Do you long for the simplicity and creative liberty of the Old School? Do you want to catch the verisimilitude of movies and fictions?  Do you wish you could play a game that rewards coherent story-telling?

Do you want the game to focus on the characters abilities or a  sub-set of them (combat, social)? Do you want a game that focuses on the story it builds? Do you want a director-world-building GM or do you want to share world building as you go along?

More importantly, where are you willing to compromise and what game is most likely to meet that compromise? If none do so perfectly, can one, like D&D, fit the bill with minor tweeks?  Are there others like these, discussed here or on online forums likely to catch your curiosity?

I’m willing to bet that most of you have friends who have shelves full of unread RPGs… heck, I bet that you do too.

While you ponder this, why not reach over and open one of them?



  1. Very awesome post today Chatty! This is something that a few RPG buddies and I have been discussing. Many of us cannibalize DnD 3.5/Pathfinder or 4e to try and meet our needs. We will go through huge amounts of effort in doing this instead of simply attempting to learn and run another system that may honestly be more of what we are looking for.

    The other thing I’ve noticed, and I include myself in this, is that many people will try a new system, love it, snuggle with it, propose, and eventually elope and run off to have kids together, yet they will cheat on our new love with that tempting old mistress DnD (of your flavor). Why is this?

    I agree with you that it has to do with our “history” with role-playing. For many of us, DnD is what got us into the hobby and I think letting go of that is hard. Many of us WANT DnD to be THE GAME because it holds a special snuggly place in our cold demon worshiping dice rolling hearts ~.<

  2. Wow. So many things so simply and subtly summarized in a clever and great text.
    I do completely agree with your statement about RPGs and their status and the verbalisation (is that an english word ?) of the quest of all the gaming tables of today’s players, whether they’re old timers or young newcomers.

    I, after experiences much different from yours, have arrived to the same statement. And so have my friends.

    Next to the Great Old Ones we still enjoy to play, there is now some space for different roleplaying games and experiences which, altogether manage to make our sessions great moments for everybody.

    Wonderful text, once again. Crystal clear statement and awesome ending suggestion 😉

    Happy year’s ending to you ChattyDM, your journey for the year 2010 as reached an awesome place, hope you’ll find many others for your personal and gamer life in the months to come.

  3. TheMainEvent says:

    This is a subject that the Game and I have been talking a lot about as he heads into epic. I had gone so far to just throw out the D&D skill system outside of combats and graft in Leverage or something. A lot of the Epic stuff seems to lend itself to a bunch of plot building to one big fight each adventure (IMHO) and 4e doesn’t really scratch my social/RP itch very well.

  4. @wrath: Thanks man! Bear in mind though that a groups needs evolves and changes and you may very well feel the pull of the Great Old Ones as Mask calls them It’s totally okay to indulge yourselves. I mean, I saw lots of 4e stuff at Luke Crane’s and I know he enjoys playing a Dwarf Fighter once in a while between sessions of Burning Wheel, Freemarket and whatever secret project he may be working on now

    @Mask: I’m humbled by such a flowery shower of praise. Thanks for the good wishes and I too wish you a happy year’s end. Here’s to epic campaigns, heroic deeds, awesome critical hits and the discovery of the next Mold Breaker.

  5. @ TheMainEvent- Ich.. I hate the itch.. I hear through wonderful modern medicine there is a great cream for that. Best of luck 😉

  6. @TME: I’m convinced that the advent of more and more 4e gaming groups into Epic tier is causing need issues like those you allude to bubble up. The compromise of many groups may start unraveling like the one in my group did. (Although I’m the one who pulled a lot of threads from it).

    I think it’s a good time to ask thebig questions and plan accordingly.

  7. TheMainEvent says:

    @Chatty: I don’t want to put words into The Game’s mouth, but he basically said at epic we’re on par with huge extra planar threats, it seems sorta cheap to run 2-4 combats an adventure against “Epic Mooks.” And, I tend to agree with him. So, now the 4E adventure needs to have a much more robust non-combat framework to contextualize the 1/fight a session that seems appropriate.

    In conclusion, I agree with you!

  8. You have a slight misunderstanding of how “labels” are used in the academic/technical world (its actualy more properly termed jargon and the explanation is a dense linguistic treatise that we can skip).

    There is a famous painting that I belive is called “ceci n’est pas une pipe” and if it isn’t that is what is written on the painting. Google that phrase to see a picture of it. Anyway, the painting is a painting of a pipe, and calls attention to the fact that it is not a pipe, but rather a picture of a pipe. But it can represent a pipe. To take it further, if I say “pipe” it means something.

    This is where it gets complicated. Pipe means a thing you smoke, but it could be corncob or it could be meersham or etc. Pipe means something, but not the totality of a thing.

    Does that make sense?

    Ps- it is worth noting this about labels. I have trained many people for whom english was a second language and French Canadians and Germans have trouble with this concept where english speakers from anywhere or soutthest asians, chinese, indians, portugese and spanish do not. I suspect a linguistic cause.

    Labels(jargon) help not just to catagorize, but to explain. And indeed people use jargon all the time. If I say a game is a a “first person shooter” I have explained something about the game to you.

  9. @josh: I know Magrite’s work really well.

    I’ll condede the difference of meanings as they don’t detract from the message. Sometimes Jargon becomes so overly used that they take for all intents and purposes the same function as what I was taught, in academia to be “une étiquette”.

    When they become elements of a debate and are used as arguments “à l’emporte pièce” then what we often have is obfuscation rather than rational discourse.

  10. Game mechanics seem to exist to legitimize things players want to accomplish. Early versions of DnD left many things unsaid, and the game evolved mechanics to adjudicate player actions as new editions were released. 4e seems like a backlash (or a sidelash), in that it is very combat focused. It takes its inspiration from modern video games.

    What I’m trying to figure out for my players that hate 4e is, do they yearn for mechanics to adjudicate non-combat actions, or can I go old-school, and just wing it?

    I’m not an engineer, or a programmer, or mathematician. I’m an artist by trade, so my instinct is just to play. To say “yes” to what players propose, and to encourage their storytelling. But still I have players who grumble that 4e is not for them. They don’t seem comfortable playing in the spaces between the rules.

  11. Philo Pharynx says:

    This is a great post. I’m going to refer to it in a thread where someone was proposing a game based on the Percy Jackson books (to the uninformed, it’s about modern day children of the Greek gods). The three games mentioned were Scion, M&M and the Window. All of those are great games, but for different groups with different needs.
    As for jargon, it’s useful most of the time. Otherwise we’d never use it. But I think we need to step back every once in a while and talk about all of the extra meanings that each term has picked up along the way. Since each person’s use of the term has been colored in a different way we end up with big differences in the same word.

  12. @chattydm

    The issue then is “you are not using your jargon correctly” or “you don’t know what you are talking about” or “you have the facts wrong” or etc. Rather than “some people missuse jargon therefore all jargon is bad.”


    I think you are being dismissive of your own value. To engineer is human. Engineering and math are just the things we humans do to make sense of and manipulate the world around us. So all humans are mathamathamatcians and engineers.

  13. mistrlittlejeans says:

    This is an excellent post, and as other posters have already said, it summarizes a lot of (my personal) feelings out there today. I do have one point of contention regarding “It (4e) is, bar none, the best heroic fantasy action roleplaying game out there.” I respectfully disagree with you here, but then again you’ve played a lot more RPGs than I good sir, hence the “respectfully” 🙂 My only point is that I think ACTION is a big part of that statement, and that is one thing I’ve never been comfortable with regarding 4e. I think ACTION depends on the perspective of the players. 4e definitely wins out in my experience insofar as it gives the players the most options during their turn which equates to taking several actions (standard, move, minor, action point, powers that grant extra “actions” like a basic attack, etc.). However, I think that is distinct from a higher ACTION – the context in which the players are fighting, running, chasing, etc. In this regard, I think 4e performs poorly compared to other games.

    Then again, I’m just one of those guys that has realized his dissatisfaction with 4e and is looking for other RPGs to fill his shelf.

  14. YES! You might say that these are the very thoughts I’ve been having for a good while, tumbling around in my brain. It’s probably the reason that I’ve delved into so many different RPGs. Seriously, I have a folder FILLED with free indie RPGs of all stripes, and I’ve bought a few different systems. I think the reason why I’ve done so much research into different systems is that I’m fascinated by all the unique approaches that games take when it comes to the interactions of rules and story.

    I for sure think that it’s essential for a would-be game designer to know oodles of systems, and it’s also very helpful for players to be familiar with them. Not only are you better aware of the limitations of your own system, but you can also cross-apply lessons learned from each system. Plus, the better you understand all systems, the better you can understand RPGs in general.

    Zen RPGing?

  15. I find it interesting to talk about game mechanics, but I feel it misses another big part of what RPGs are. Namely their settings. I’ll wager that gamers gravitate to a game as much for the rules as for the setting.

    I think that you ask a good question about figuring out what kind of rules better suit the players, I hadn’t really thought of it in that light.

  16. Without meaning to sound like a jackass, I honestly think a lot of people still play D&D because they have no idea there’s an entire other universe of games out there that can offer them the gaming experience they actually want. That’s how it was for me and the world of small-press games just blew me away and dashed all my expectations of what non-mainstream games could do for me and my players. Without being cliché, it’s truly a paradigm shift.

    At this point in my gaming life, I honestly can’t go back. I find that realization both fantastic and really sad. It was a rough break-up. 🙂

  17. Great post, but you left me hanging here:

    “As for roleplaying… I’ll concede to the “you don’t need rules to roleplay” argument, I used it extensively in the past, but I’ve tried plenty of simple to use, dreadfully effective mechanics that reward role playing in smaller press games. Rules that make even the shyest of introverted players become heavily invested in their stories and get significantly rewarded to do so.”

    Which ones, and how, and why? What did they offer, what did they do, that pulled the introvert out and invested them. You’re right on the cusp, you open the door and then leave the light off, so that all we have is darkness. Come, now, luminary. 😉 Illuminate me.


  18. @Anarkeith: Seeking that balance between vague and permissive and precise and all-encompassing is exactly what my reference to “the compromise” was referring to. What I didn’t say but bears mentioning is that if no system can meet the compromise and the majority of the group still wants to play RPGs, they the solution often lies in letting some less flexible members leave so a compromise is easier to be reached.

    @mistrlittlejeans: That particular statement was definitively one that wasn’t backed by science, but based on my personal experience. I won’t argue our different definition of Action and I’ll encourage you in your quest of finding the game that meets your needs.

    @Andy: I wanna be the Zendaddy of RPGs!

    @uhf: You are entirely right in that player that need fleshed-out settings would gravitate toward them. I’m much more interested in games where the setting starts vague and becomes defined through extended play (like Apocalypse World, Burning Wheel and Freemarket) but re correct that I didn’t cover that aspect.

    @Rafe: I hope that one day we’ll stop talking about mainstream and small press and just call them RPGs and leave it at that. Playing what we want and buying new games (revisiting old ones) whenever our needs shift..

    @Ben: The easiest one is Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard’s BIT’s (Belief’s Instincts and Traits) where players get rewarded with 2 types of action points by having their PCs act and make choices aligned with carefully phrased beliefs, fundamental instincts and character traits. This is simple yet powerful.

  19. @bg josh: You’re condescending.

    @ Chatty: I’m not familiar with much in the RPG world outside of D&D. It’s an expensive hobby to branch out in, especially when you don’t have friends who can lend you rulebooks and the like. What are a couple roleplay-heavy RPGs that you would recommend checking out?

  20. @DarkplaneDM: If by Roleplay-heavy you mean Story/narrative-driven (i.e. players are rewarded when they spend efforts to build stories) I’d suggest the following

    Savage Worlds : Simplest game to learn, basic Benny-driven effort system encourages roleplay but no actual Roleplaying mechanics.

    Mouse Guard: More complex, requires a thorough read-through. Elegant simili-medieval heroic game with solid RP mechanics (Beliefs/Insticts/Traits mechanics, Social conflict resolutions, etc). Based on Burning wheel’s engine.

    Apocalypse World: Deceptively simple, amazingly far-ranged Sci-Fi RPG with amazing players choice-driven gameplay. The GM.never.plays.dice. Best GMing tools I’ve seen.

    Burning Wheel: D&D-level complexity, but in completely different areas. Fantasy RPG designed for sweeping, long range campaign play. Has a ground breaking “social” conflict mechanisms.

    Others I haven’t played but have been told would likely meet your needs:

    Dresden Files/Spirits of the Century

    Any of those should be a good starting point, they are the games I explored these past 8 months or so.

  21. @Chatty: I hope one day we will, too!

    @DarkPlaneDM: You might also like Dogs In the Vineyard (same author as Apocalypse World), Sorcerer and Riddle of Steel. I’ve personally never played those latter two, but they’re some of the oldest of the narrative-heavy games, I think, and they always seem to come up in conversations I have with other gamers. Also, if you’re looking to just dip your toes in and try something as a one-shot, John Harper has a bunch of single-shot free RPGs in PDF format that are all between 2 and 7 pages long. You might enjoy one of those, like Lady Blackbird or Wildlings.

  22. @Dark – see CDM’s previous columns on Mouseguard and Apocalypse World. I can vouch for both systems and AW only costs $15 as a PDF.

    Setting does matter a lot to new players: they have no notion of rules except as a potential learning curve obstacle. I steal from Mouseguard, Dread and AW in my D&D 4E games and shall run my teen 4e group through some bowdlerized AW beginning of next year, maybe with a “Gone” (teen book by Michael Grant) setting.

  23. Interesting watching Chatty’s ‘big-picture’ view move and grow with experience. In and of itself, a retrospective of these viewpoints is interesting.

    As for Bg Josh, he is right to bring up the way Jargon and labels cause some of the issues. There are Older gamers who remember that the term ‘RolePlay’ had thereputic roots previous to our current use of the game, and it is a good example of a very central term that is nuanced differently based partially on generation.

    I like this whole post because of it’s meta-nature; an appeal for vision and tolerance. I have always used this as a postulate of game and setting design.

    Vreeg’s first Rule of Setting Design,
    “Make sure the ruleset you are using matches the setting and game you want to play, because the setting and game WILL eventually match the system.”

    A corrollary of this is that based on how extensive the rules are in different dimensions, how complex they are, where the reinforcements are, each ruleset is better and worse at different types of games, better and worse for different groups or players, better or worse and differernt length games, and will be better or worse at representing a setting (as the Physics engine of that setting). I think that relates to your statements well, that different games do different things well…and that’s OK. What is not ok is dooming a game to failure by choosing the wrong ruleset for the game you want to play by mistake.

    I think many people on the outside have been saying, some respectfully, some not, the same thing you write above about the currently best supported and most played RPG. It supports certain games, settings, and play styles very well…but not others. And in particular, one of the generational changes has been away from the toolkit approach and into the game-specific. This is not good or bad, merely use of the

    I find of particular interest your nearly unspoken, softly pedaled subtext. The Hobby will grow with acceptance and enthusiasm for different types of games and rules. Choking the hobby with screed and scathing attitude turns away new players, reduces the research and growth, and is counter-productive to the hobby in general.
    Or so I read it.

  24. Agreed, LordVreeg, and your last paragraph was especially well written. I’ll be the first to admit that my post came out way too strong and was very poorly worded. My intentions were good… which just means I ended up doing a Roman legion’s worth of road-building for Hell’s Construction Projects Inc. (i.e., the post was just ugly and reflected very poorly on gamers in general and the road to Hell saw a bit of progress).

    It’s just nice to see folks spread out a bit and push their comfort zones. Like most things in life, expanded horizons and experiences make for better games, regardless of style, system, group size, etc. Even (maybe especially?) poor experiences have something to teach and make us appreciate all the more the things we love!

  25. @DarkplaneDM

    When I see such a clear teaching opportunity, I take it. I am sorry if that offends you.

  26. @DarmplaneDM: Like Tim mentions, Dread is a good choice.

    Lord Vreeg: Thanks for the ever flattering kudos. And you did read that subtext exactly right. 🙂

    @Rafe: Don’t sweat it, I know you meant well and that for many groups the journey towards understanding their needs and settling for games often IS a painful process that often ends up with an emotionally charged rejection of the previously played games. That’s what being human is all about 🙂

    BG Josh: I got your initial point fine. Now, unless you have something to actually contribute to the discussion this article originally pertained to, I will respectfully ask you to refrain from further comments. You’re skating dangerously close to my definition of pedantry and passive aggressiveness and I’ve no intention to tolerate this further. Thanks.

  27. The way I look at it is that lables can be great, but nothing can be impossible “by definition”, because definitions come from experience. Only in computers can you define something and have your definition have the same force as the laws of physics, (or whatever you want to call “however it is things really work”). In the real world, experience can come around and trash your definition.

    So what would have been helpful would have been if the label guy had said “This situation seems to confirm the idea that these things are incompatible, here’s how that incompatibility played out” rather than something like “this theory says they are incompatible, so that’s why it didn’t work, full stop”.

    In the first situation, you get to look at the way that the theory played out, and maybe find an alternative explanation that bridges that and your experience of times when that stuff was compatible. Or maybe show you when that kind of label has value, and compare it to other situations where the same labelling system works. Then you have a series of different problems linked by common definitions, allowing you to share solutions between them.

    To me thing that is beautiful about GNS stuff is when it focuses on the substance of different ways of roleplaying, saying “this way of playing is cool and fun” and “this way of playing is cool and fun”, but pointing out differences between them, so you can zoom in on stuff that really supports them. It’s good because it allows you to direct people to games they might like (like your doing by saying “Story/Narrative Driven”), and help game designers/players who like the same stuff recognise they are going in similar directions and look for each other. In some ways we’ve gone beyond that now because we have so many games that implement that principle, with designers that, like you say, just go for the game they want without trying to be all mass market about it. We can look at those games and sort of use them as guiding posts rather than the terms. Still doesn’t help when you’re making some hack in uncharted game-design waters though.

    One thing to consider is that different players get rewarded by different things; I once wanted a D&D character not to level up for weeks, to keep him in a certain level of power that I enjoyed. “Rewarding me” with quest xp for the various story stuff I got up to would not have helped! It only worked because my DM forgot to do xp for anything but killing monsters, but rewarded me by going with my random diversions. That’s why I feel that it’s better to look at what the game wants you to fiddle with; the stuff you’ll come back to week after week and make small changes. Or do a different but similar thing in a different way. That seems to me to be the stuff your actually playing with, the stuff your actually exploring, and if a game helps you do that; inspires you to come up with new stuff in it, steers you away from classic pitfalls and resolves that areas common disputes, redirects you to try new things, reinforces stuff you came up with and helps you remember it etc etc, then it’s a game that leans towards that stuff.

    In that sense burning wheel is about beliefs and stuff because it keeps pushing you back to looking at your characters instincts and quirks and passions. But it’s also about raging arguments that get resolved satisfactorily, and chaotic fights. (Disclaimer; I’ve only talked to friends who’ve played it, not played it myself) And 4e is about making guys who form an awesome team, solving problems together where you have a shared definition of success, and blasting impressively through small armies of interesting foes.

    Spirit of the century is all about getting yourself and your old friends into trouble by being flawed characters, then pulling out of it in impressive (and in many cases amusing) ways.

    I’d also add rustbelt, which is about a harsh world trying to grind down and corrupt these passionate characters who won’t take no for an answer. Sort of like if John Mclane lived in Sin City. Good for a certain type of Call of Cthullu GM, but with a chance for players to actually succeed, even if they never get out unscarred.

    LordVreeg, that setting rule is so true, there’s a mathsy way of saying it I like, which is that the setting you want should lie within the eigenvectors of the game rules, so that it could plausibly stay that way for years of games, and not just break itself over time. On the other hand some games like Dogs in the Vineyard or 3:16 are actually designed to subvert themselves over a few months of play, as a sort of built in narrative arc. I reckon it would be awesome to build a conan type game that way, so that you eventually start being drawn into being a leader even though you’d rather just fight stuff (although you’d have to do it in a way that players don’t feel as dissatisfied as their character).

  28. Yeah… designing a game where you fight the inevitable… but the inevitable being something that most players would consider awesome in every other game except this one.

    Like maybe a game where all players are destined to become gods, but they have a long list of things they really are attached too make them violently opposed to fight their destinies.

    Hmmm… that’s a very inspiring idea as I’d want to tackle how I’d make that fun according to my own needs and that of my likely players.

  29. I read this last night along with the comments but I was having some issues organizing my thoughts. The post does bring up some other things I’ve responded to before and also brought up some new thoughts.

    For one, the commentary about labels was interesting. My personal view on them is that they’re an unavoidable logical progression given two basic traits of human intelligence: speech and pattern recognition. Of course, that’s only the start of the discussion. We use labels because they’re easier to manipulate. For example, imagine how much more difficult it would be to describe the colors someone was wearing if you couldn’t use color names but had to point out things in the environment and say it was similar. Of course that very trait of easy manipulation means that if you don’t care to spend much thought on something you shuffle it off to a mental bin with a label on it and negligently toss unfavorable adjectives at it like so many rocks to justify/reinforce your lack of interest.

    I’ve been a fan of different systems since I was first introduced to them and had the potential for playing something outside of the warrior/mage/thief/cleric paradigm really come home for me. I suspect part of the reason it was such a hit for me was the new systems came at me in a convention setting where sampling games like finger food is just part of the experience. Later on when I tried getting others to try new games I’d often run into either the brick wall of “I don’t want to learn a new system” or if you present it as a one-shot where they don’t need to know the rules, “I don’t want to play/create a throw-away character.” I’m not certain quite why it always turned out that way. I think the main reason for that was a disconnect between what I wanted and what the group was after in a game (I didn’t really fit in with that group at all well).

    On another note, I don’t think one game can do everything. Chatty has an advantage in realizing that since he’s played GURPS and, I assume, tried to use it to model stories in vastly different settings. It’s more obvious with “generic” systems that are on the crunchy side like GURPS but even less crunchy things like the Fate system or BESM have their drawbacks if you really want to use them as generic “do anything” systems. You can attach any setting to them easier but some settings require some rules support to function as they should. So without significant modding work, you end up able to run it but it’s kind of like you’re manipulating your story with big stuffed mittens when what you really wanted was form fitting gloves.

    To use some labels again, I think there are basically three different styles of game these days. The first is the oldest, the setting specific game. Rules are mated to the setting. White Wolf’s Vampire and other games and D&D up to 2nd edition fit here because while you can do Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft with it, there’s no way in hell you’re getting Shadowrun or Traveller from it without serious work. The second kind to pop up is the generic game. I’ll just stick to GURPS as the poster child for this one, although it isn’t really the one size fits all that it really wants to be (try running a high tech game with combat that isn’t a meat grinder). The third kind I think of as being skinnable games. They tend to fit the setting better but it’s not necessarily trivial to get them to that point. A good example is the D20 system or Fate. They don’t fit in with the older generic systems because they don’t pretend to give you a toolset to model any sort of story with. They tend to be packaged and presented as one thing and to get them to do something else you’re inventing some of the tools to get them there.

    Since I’m more of a world builder style of storyteller, I’ve been getting more interested in that last type of game. I began kicking around settings and game ideas over a decade ago but I always thought I’d have to make up my own system from scratch to go anywhere with it. All of my attempts at systems from scratch turned out rather badly since I was focusing more on reinventing the wheel than finding a neat new idea and figuring out how to make the system for it. One of these days I’ll dig up the motivation to finish some of those projects. Mainly I think I just need some outside input and interest.

    It sounds like D&D 4e is being marketed as the skinnable kind of game but that’s extremely unrealistic. I’m not an expert but from what I’ve picked up about it you’d have to make the setting, make new classes, make all new lists of abilities each class can use (and unless you alter basic traits of the game you need a lot of them), and then you still have to figure out how to handle the opposition because it has it’s own sub-system that isn’t based on character creation. My biggest concern with it lately has nothing to do with it being so specific though. I’m much more concerned that it doesn’t sound to me like it makes for a good intro to gaming anymore. It has the classic traits that made a lot of older indy games not so good as intro games. I realize they’ve thought of that over at Wizards and have made some moves to address it. I’m just not sure how well those measure up.

    @Rafe: I’ve been frustrated plenty myself in gaming. As ChattyDM touched on in the article, when your goals for a game and the average of the collective goals the rest of the group has for a game don’t match up sufficiently, things get less fun. What I think pushes that over into outright antagonism is the usual thought that there’s only one way to play, so if people aren’t doing it your way, they have to be doing it the wrong way. That thought can originate in either or both sides of the issue and have the same devastating effect. In my case it happened to some extent on both sides, which made our efforts to find and fix the problem wander off course. We all knew I liked stories more than combat but rather than understanding that and adjusting, we kept looking thinking there was more to it.

  30. @TME/ChattyDM: If I wanted to mod Epic D&D adventures to write out the Epic mooks I’d probably look at stories for inspiration. Basically, give them some responsibility. Remember that if they don’t have any responsibility but they can go 2 out of 3 rounds with minor godlings, they’re effectively loose cannons that can alter the world map and anyone who knows of them is going to wonder what they’re really after. Looked at that way, becoming a “knight of the realm” or somesuch is actually a protection. Other nations will know what to expect from you. If you want to go back to being an apprentice pig keeper after slaying dragons, they’re going to start wondering and getting nervous.

    Assuming the characters accept some kind of responsibility, you have some options. You can actually keep the epic mooks popping up on occasion. They aren’t there for you, they’re actually other people’s major villains but you have to bail your less powerful friends out. The mook-less life can be like a lot of stories where people achieve this level of power: a lot of your time is spent figuring out what’s going on because your enemies are tricky people who know their best chance to defeat you is to pull a Superman and sucker you into a warehouse full of kryptonite. Other ideas might be a campaign to publicly discredit the characters.

    This is obviously NOT for everyone. But if you’re wanting to focus less on fights you need to focus more on character development or intrigue or both. Might be some other options I’m not thinking of at the moment too. My recommendation with this is to start slow. Introduce themes like this alongside the regular fights, designed so the hook is there but without requiring an immediate response. If the players want to follow up on the lead, you’re in business. If they don’t, you may want to talk to them afterwards and see if that’s the wrong direction to take your game in.

  31. @ChattyDM

    I apoligize. I just needed to poke you to see what you were thinking.

  32. Chatty: Have you checked out Aria: Canticle Of The Monomyth? Its a game based on the players collectively designing, creating, and growing a world history. The players then come together and role play through important moments in history.

  33. I may be taking a different viewpoint and route on what I’m getting out of this conversation than the rest of you, but I’m looking at some things that DND did well with older versions, but does not do so well in newer versions (or vice-versa).

    One thing that has stood out to me while reading these comments has been how DND has handled experience and leveling over the different versions.

    Starting with 3e, there was just one XP chart for all classes. This would be a good thing because it kept everyone pretty well at the same level advancement. The downside to this is that a high level martial character is in no way a match for a spell caster of the same level (or, I should say, that it is even more of a mismatch than it was previously). It actually increases the problems of a higher level campaign. Yes, the XP and leveling are fair across the classes, from a player standpoint alone… but it really does not seem that the class powers were adequately adjusted to compensate for it. After all, spell progression by level is exactly the same in 3e as it is in 2e (for wizards and clerics anyhow).

    Previously (which was when I did the majority of my gaming), almost every class had its own XP/leveling chart. Fighters and Rogues advanced quickly, while Clerics and Wizards advanced at a much slower pace. As time progresses, the more martial characters are going to advance quite a few levels ahead of the spell casting characters. It just doesn’t seem fair to some players, I’m sure… to have to sit back and earn twice as much (or more, so it seems) XP to reach a level that another class character could reach with so little XP.

    I guess my point is that in the past, players probably looked at the 2e leveling as being unfair, but in reality, it was taking the system into account and adjusting for it. It was actually very fair! While on the other hand, players have looked at the 3e (and on) leveling as being very fair, but have seen their games fall apart from too much bloat upon reaching higher levels.

    What it did well? It accounted for the progression of class abilities/powers by adjusting the XP needed per level.
    What it didn’t do well? It had different level advancement charts for each class, some of which seemed unfair.

    What it did well? It put all of the classes on the same common advancement chart. One chart to rule them all.
    What it didn’t do well? It didn’t account for class abilities/powers over time, thereby creating (or adding to) a big problem at upper level play.

    Sorry if my little rant seems like its off topic from where many of you were going with the discussion. I’m not against other games at all. In fact, I’ve played plenty of other games in the past. Its just that this is the chord that was struck with me with the discussion and it definitely does seem to be related, as far as I’m concerned. Take it for what its worth.

  34. It can open your eyes to things like realizing that everybody sitting around your table may be seeking different things than you are. It may even help understand why that game you have been playing for so long isn’t as fun as it used to. Studying the kind of experience a given game tries to deliver and what motivates you as a player/GM will likely make you understand what you seek in RPGs.

    Oh I’m gonna come right out and say it because I’ve had some wine:

    You’re describing an analytical response to massive personal social deficiency and limiting its context to the gaming table. Which is to say: many geeks, with their feet planted firmly at the rugged end of the autism spectrum, end up doing exactly what you’re describing just to get through the day. And that’s worth writing about (in more general terms) someday…

  35. @Tiorn: You raise a pretty solid point. It’s very difficult to progress a system without trimming something and whatever anyone may say about D&D, one thing that’s pretty obvious is they were willing to take risks every time they released a new major version. I had a long run of gaming with someone who loved to tinker with rules so I had a front row seat for how difficult it could be to juggle different ideas to make the game you want. And the goal there was only one game with one group. Making sure not just the options you like but other common styles are available, competitive and fun… Well, it becomes a lot less of a mystery why some classes with a less direct path to power don’t seem to match up quite right in 3e. If you really run a well rounded game where their less directly combat related strengths come into play as well, they’re just as strong as a brute fighter or clever wizard. I just never really saw a game run that way and while I’m not an expert on the DM side of things, I suspect the write-ups in the book don’t cover how to branch out beyond straight up direct combat well enough. Either that or I’ve only played D&D with a bunch of dense thugs for DMs. ^.~

  36. @Lanir: What made me think of that was the differences on how the encouragement of roleplaying was handled between 2e and 3e.

    In 2e, the DMG had a few charts for different classes (maybe all classes) that rewarded bonus XP for characters doing certain things that fit the mold of that class. Fighters received a bonus XP award for defeating x amount HD of creatures in one-on-one combat. Thieves received such bonuses for using their skills, such as Pick Pockets or picking locks. Spell casters received bonuses per spell level for each spell that they cast. This was a weak way to encourage roleplaying, but it still was exactly that… a mechanic to reward it. The casters still couldn’t make up ground to catch up in leveling with the fighters and rogues because the fighters and rogues were getting their fair share of bonuses too. But what is clear to me is that these bonuses not only encouraged a bit of roleplaying (weakly), but that they definitely encouraged the players to think individually about their characters, instead of in the team concept. This, more than anything, would encourage individualism and deeper roleplaying.

    In 3e, all of that was done away with. Replaced only with the vague allowance that the DM could reward players for good ideas, etc. No real examples. No real guidelines. Nothing consistent. Just whatever hits the DM’s mood. Coupled with the fact that all classes were on the same leveling chart, the design is clearly intended to keep all of the party around the same level. Encouraging teamwork is the obvious goal here, instead of encouraging individualism.

    The presence or lack of class-based XP bonuses, in my mind, sheds some light on the game system’s approach to encouraging roleplay (which is way more on topic with the overall discussion here). In 2e, it was a good thing. In 3e, its a bit of a failure. But I realize all to well that the bigger problem is the leveling charts used between the systems. Both have their positives. Both have their negatives. But the key difference between them is that 2e, in no way, encourages teamwork within a party (individualism is more important)… while teamwork is a clear objective in how things are done in 3e.

    Again, this is just my take on the subject at hand. What rung a bell with me as I read Chatty’s post and the ongoing discussion. If something from another game moved me to comment on, I certainly would. But this thought trumped all in my mind and I believe its something to think about. Not for all, but for some, of course.

  37. @Tiorn,
    The misuse of EXP reinforcement in most games, D&D especially, has always boggled my mind. It is the coinage for growth and the strongest GM reward, so for 99% of players, it is the best reinforcer.

    Even back in 1e days, I was fanatical about using the chart for how long it took to train for the next level based on how they played their character. No player ever got the minimum training time. I also dumped the rules for equal EXP shares very early to encourage healthy competition.

    My first major homebrew system was just 1e, but with characters keeping seperate experience in fighting, magic use/lore, healing/priest, and thief/engineer. Characters only got experience in what they did. Team work only came from the very real need to work together.

    But then again, I have always viewed ‘encounter level’ as degrading the immersion capability of a game. So I’m a little weird.

  38. @Wax: I long to one day write about Autism Spectrum Disorder and gaming but for that I’d need to spend a lot more time with gamers who are (not-self) diagnosed with high-functioning autism and parents of such kids (of which many bloggers and RPG writers I know are).

    But now that you sobered up, can you explain in more detail what your idea/expectation in that area is. Because that “process” is exactly the what I apply in all the aspects of my life I want to push further through understanding and mastery of new skills… and while I believe all geeks have at least one toe somewhere in the autism spectrum, you’re making me doubt a few things. 🙂

  39. Great post and discussion!
    After many years of dnd / adnd / 3.0-3.5 et al… The group and I bought 4e and were all taken aback at just how much it felt like a very tightly written table top skirmish game. Admittedly 4e reads like a really good table top skirmish game with super high production values and a lot under the hood. It did not however strike our group as a Role playing game in any fashion.
    @Anarkeith I was convinced as you touched on, that a MMOG was right around the corner. The rules scream for it.
    The game utterly failed to meet what we needed as a group. In a very direct reaction to 4ed we wrote our own game, based on our needs, and have never looked back..
    Meeting the social needs of the group is the most important part of gaming; it pays to find the system that will do it. You will be happier the group will be happier, and more importantly you will be having a social experience everyone enjoys, without so much resistance.


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