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 that 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 (the 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 of role-playing went down; and finally, the morality of the characters became fractured -- with two of the four characters fully succumbing to the evil parts of their nature. 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.

Epic level adventuring in D&D 3.5 is hard work for the DM, there's no doubt of it. Our own top tier of PCs are 24th, 2 x 22nd, 19th and 17th level. We tend to run only one high level adventure a year these days. There are a fair number of PCs knocking about the mid and lower levels so we chop and change to keep things fresh.

We have had only one serious bout of PC vs PC schism, someone basically sold the other PCs out to the main campaign villain of the time in exchange for the usual. They were planning a surprise raid that turned into them walking into a trap as a result. The offending PC then had to go on the run. Much later, some of the more forgiving party members took them back in and gave them a chance to redeem themselves.

One of our top-tier PCs is turning dark side, but they do not think of themselves as evil and their corruption is not turning them openly against the other characters. They are just making some ill-advised choices that are storing problems up for later, in the belief that the ends justify the means and things will ultimately work out for the best somehow. The other players know most of what is occurring even if their PCs do not, and so there is no sense of inter-player paranoia. Keeping things in the open so that everyone feels involved is important.

I don't know how much more longevity our campaign will enjoy. There still seems to be no shortage of player enthusiasm at present, though.

I have heard that 5e has been well-received and it seems to be popular with the younger generation of players. You will have to let us know how it goes.