Roleplaying Games and the artificially unique


Most role-playing rule-sets confuse narrative and strategic differences. In an attempt to make the experience of playing a different "type" of character feel different they introduce a multitude of rules to govern the same actions.

Players and game designers imagine differences that do not exist. Most role-playing games use character build options that "break" existing rules, or add special circumstances to specific actions for characters of a selected background. Unfortunately, this is nothing like how a real world works. Suppose that my character spent twenty years training to the top-level in a specific martial art, should I expect that my character gets some special abilities or rules? If I do I am an idiot. Training in the martial arts will make me better a few things that all other people can already do: punch, kick, control distance, strike with elbows and knees, evade attacks, throw and push, hold people down, and apply chokes and locks. People who come from a different martial arts tradition don't get a different list. They get better at different items on the same list.

In D&D you give a thief a backstab where they do oodles of extra damage in the right circumstance. You bolt on a rule that makes your character "feel" different, even if the rule is stupid. Even if it can't make up its mind as to whether it is a targeting bonus or a surprise bonus. You see if it were a surprise bonus ... shouldn't everyone benefit from it against an unaware opponent? If it were a targeting bonus, should it not get mitigated by armour? On the one hand, you could give a "Thief" a backstab bonus that allows for prodigious damage; or, on the other you could make them good at sneaking.

Doesn't it make more sense for a stealthy character to be better at being stealthy at the sacrifice of their martial skills? They may not be as good with a sword, but they are more likely to sneak up on someone and stab them? It doesn't matter if you are a little less proficient with your attack if it is unopposed. Game designers tend to ignore these issues as "too complicated" when in fact they are quite simple. Complications arise when you try to build on top of an already flawed framework. Getting a rule to fit into D&D requires knowing the peculiar interactions with a whole series of artificially constructed mechanics that have no relation to a real experience. If you are a nincompoop who wants to take umbrage with my use of the word "real" in relation to fantasy gaming, please substitute the words "visceral" or "genuine" or "internally consistent" or "immersive" or even "unjarring."

Really there is a universal set of skills. Everyone can juggle. Some of us just happen to have trouble when you introduce the third ball. Most of the popular RPG's out there like to sell you on complications as to why things are different and don't clear through the rubbish and help you see what is the same. They make two characters who are stylistically different mechanically different. The problem is that the interaction of all the different mechanisms makes the game less focused on the narrative and more focused on deciphering the strategic mechanisms -- mechanisms that are flawed and less sensible.

There is much truth in what you say, and I agree that all skillful actions a character may take in an RPG should surely be a continuum rather than binary add-ons that characters simply can or cannot do. This was my initial objection to the mechanic of feats in d20 D&D (the game we now play, for better or worse). It makes for lazy design because you can, as a designer, concentrate on a combat-oriented core mechanic and hand-wave away everything else in the game with 'we'll invent a feat / class ability for that'. The universal set of skills need not be designed for in advance. One danger in this approach is that it makes the players more obsessed with mechanical strategies and shifts their attention away from roleplay. Another unfortunate issue is that by treating every kind of 'unusual' player character capability as an independent patch added to the core rules, often written by different designers who aren't mindful of each others' work, it enables players to hunt for game-breaking synergies that weren't considered by the designers. The GM has to step in and apply house fixes to combat these problems which can lead to player/GM arguments of the 'it's what the rules say so it must be right - you're vexatiously nerfing my character and infringing my player rights' variety. You might detect a trace of personal weariness in that description! Partly that is group dynamics, and the particular philosophies that individual players subscribe to, but I think it's also a systems issue. I'd say that converting to d20 extended the longevity of our campaign but there was a price to be paid in terms of people being seduced away from roleplay by the lure of mechanical tinkering with 'builds' and obsession with efficiency of choices between character options.

I agree, game design by accretion is an awful mechanism. d20 has vexed me as well. Having a "better" set of rules didn't make the game better. Mechanical strategies, as you put it, become the method by which they interact with the game.

We finally decided to put a nail in the coffin of a game that we had been playing for thirty years. We are going to start a new campaign with new characters in 5e sometime in May (same world, just roll things ahead fifty years). The switch to 3rd Edition gave us some initial energy and interest, but ultimately contributed more to the end of it than I had expected. The demise of the game comes from several factors ... first, the complexity of running the game at Epic levels (they got to 29th level) was tiresome; second, the level or role-play went down; and finally, the morality of the characters became fractured -- with two of the four characters becoming evil. So, I don't know in what part the added power of the characters contributed to the fall to evil; or if the rule-set made it easier to divorce morality. It fractured the group. There is no fun in having two players fight two other players to stop them raising an army to destroy their homeland and gain vengeance on the campaign's long-term villain.