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?