Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Role-playing mechanics

A tabletop RPG, in the hands of a sufficiently dedicated gamemaster, can do a lot of things. It can allow for freedom of expression in terms of social interaction, character development, and improvisational decision-making. The adaptability of a human being creates avenues for dynamically generated content that computers cannot hope to match. Every "computer RPG" lacks the fundamental "role-playing" aspect, instead being forced into a combination of increasing statistics and canned responses.

However, tabletop does have its weaknesses (or potential weaknesses). A tabletop RPG is constrained to a turn-based system because of the limitations of pen, paper, and dice. In addition, what computers lack in creativity they make up for in calculation, as even a simple computer game contains computations that would take hours to accomplish if done by hand (imagine playing a game of Starcraft and having to roll for every shot). The nature of the game, as narrated by the GM, differs from the gameplay concept of modern games. These are the kinds of elements that can reduce player immersion, even if the story is well-executed and reacts to player influence.

The basic assumption here is this: for roleplay purposes, it helps if the gameplay supports what the characters are meant to be doing. This is a topic I have addressed before (in this post), but I did not analyze the direct issues of tabletop limitations. Therefore, the concepts I will be looking at all relate to that basic thesis.

Turn-Based Systems
"Taking turns" is a nigh-unavoidable part of a tabletop game. Naturally, it's also a part that doesn't make much sense with regards to visualization. Initiative works well as an immediate concept, but the longer the turn, the less sense it makes. For example, in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, each character's turn consists of one full action or two half actions. Some examples of half actions are swinging your weapon, moving your normal distance (8 yards for a human), or taking an item out of an accessible location like a pouch or scabbard. While this may not seem like a lot, the fact that you can do two of these things without interruption (for the most part) can complicate things, making it possible to run eight yards past a person and stab him in the side.

WFRP has some ways to try to deal with this. A character can delay their turn, reserving a half-action for later use at a time of their choosing. In addition, attacks can be parried either through taking a defensive stance or through the presence of a shield or parrying dagger. These are little touches, but they help establish the idea of "action-reaction" rather than each person taking their own individual turn with no potential actions taken. A similar concept was attempted with "attacks of opportunity" in 3rd Edition, but those were complex enough to be distracting for a lot of players.

Still, the idea of a "long turn" doesn't connect well to reality. Let's look at the most basic initiative concept in real life: a gunfight. Two gunmen are staring each other down, and each moves to draw his weapon. Whoever gets theirs out faster gets a shot off first. This is a basic concept that can be connected to initiative: both try to draw, one goes first (or they tie), they shoot. However, think about how small the time-frame involved is. Both men are moving at the same time - it's just that one gets their gun out first. The longer the turn is, the less realistic it is. In WFRP, for example, whoever won initiative would be able to move a full 8 yards and draw his gun, or draw and shoot, before the other person was even able to touch theirs.

Imagine we cut that down to one "half action" per turn. Now each person can draw their weapon, move, or shoot. Less will be accomplished per turn, but hopefully the increased speed of each turn will make up for it. Of course, there's still the meta-issue of thinking time - that is, the amount of time a player can spend determining what his or her move will be. The game "Paranoia" addresses this by giving the player only a few scant seconds to make a decision, leading to scenarios where a player's surprised reaction to an event essentially becomes the same as a character's surprised reaction to that event.

Armor and Damage
Properly representing damage is a questionable aspect of a game. On the one hand, people are relatively fragile - not as fragile as they might be made out to be, but not as tough as games make them, either. The problem with this is the issue of random chance: in pen-and-paper, "try not to roll low, and hope the other guy doesn't roll high" is the best you can do most of the time. The player can influence probability, but cannot directly ensure avoidance of damage. Therefore, "hit points" act as a sort of abstract buffer representing a combination of near-misses, minor scratches, and glancing blows.

Still, there's a divide between those "glancing blows" and a direct hit. Say, for example, you're sneaking up on a guard. You manage to get behind him and stab him in the throat. How do you justify that damage? Even if you're talking about normal, non-stealthy combat, there's always the chance someone's going to catch a spear in the throat. Guns have it even worse; a gun battle is entirely based on "probability", meaning that even if you're taking cover, with enough bullets someone's going to hit you. This is why it's okay for Demon's Souls to have low hit points, but why most single-player FPS games generally wouldn't have it. Even a skilled player can't really do anything about "getting shot", there's no hard counter to it.

Armor in games seems like it should have a pretty simple role. If you get hit in an area with armor on it, you take less damage depending on the type of armor and the type of weapon. D&D, on the other hand, popularized the bizarre "armor class" system - wearing armor makes you harder to hit. The end result of this decision was that armor became like dodging, and by 3rd Edition it turned out you could dodge more easily using dexterity bonuses instead of bothering to wear armor that slowed you down. Shields are treated even worse, providing a measly 1-or-2-point bonus despite their huge importance in real combat. The misrepresentation of these defensive items makes them seem worthless, and in game terms they are. The issue is that there's no believable reason for them to be so worthless, so it only works as a meta-concept.

Damage issues are excusable as a necessity of the genre, since it's hard to allow for survival/defensive tactics if you die in one hit (and that one hit is entirely based on luck). However, armor seems like it should be rendered more sensibly. As with any other gameplay mechanic, changing the role and purpose of armor changes the overall dynamic to the point that it can no longer be connected to real life. Providing reasons to wear armor that are similar to the actual reasons that people wear armor will solve this problem.

Calculation and Detail
Let's say we've got an interesting mechanic to put into a game: a stamina meter. Emulating games like Demon's Souls or Vindictus, we create a way for a character to be "tired out" by taking action, requiring some rest after strenuous activity. It wouldn't be too hard to implement it theoretically - different actions cause different amounts of fatigue, and your maximum stamina is determined by your toughness or constitution. However, there is one problem with this idea: it would be a major hassle for people to keep track of. Players would have to constantly adjust their stamina level every turn, and the value of representing reality would be overcome by the slowdown in the action.

This is a pervasive problem between tabletop and video games. Video games handle calculations automatically, so it's no problem to throw in more detail - the computer can deal with it. In contrast, the GM has to deal with everything. There's only so many elements that can be introduced at a time, and having too many is likely to not only slow down combat - not to mention the fact that the GM might overlook something and not include it in the calculation. The GM is only human, and cannot be expected to keep track of every single potential factor.

In essence, a balance must be struck between "how many things are influencing an event" and "how long it takes to calculate/deal with that event". It's important to include tactical bonuses for the environment, because that's a strategic decision on the player's part - failing to give bonuses for things like using concealment or cover would go against the whole point of thinking tactically. However, all the different factors are added up, and GMs should find some way of maintaining awareness of what factors apply to what people. Singling out the factors that matter in a strategic or tactical sense maintains some sense of connection while still allowing for human fallibility.

Here are some other situations where a potentially-immersive mechanic might end up overwhelming the GM and the players:
- Ammunition and food in a non-survival campaign.
- Money below a certain threshhold (such as copper pieces in most games).
- Spell components in a game that doesn't include them as part of the adventuring process.
- Wear and tear on equipment (weapons and armor).
- Traveling distance and minutiae.

All of these things, I suspect, would make a game more immersive, and be easily included in a computer game. However, in a game that forces you to manually keep track of them, any time spent on items like this is going to end up diverting from game time. Therefore, it is the GM's responsibility to decide what concepts are important enough to be worth it and what concepts would just slow the game down.

One thing I appreciated about AD&D versus a lot of newer games is the amount of stuff that's just there to be looked up if necessary. AD&D has fairly few mechanics, so the Dungeon Master's Guide is full of stuff like "how much it costs to build a castle" or "how to deal with hirelings" or "where to find certain kinds of herbs and what they do". It's reference material - stuff that won't be necessary for standard game, but provides an answer if a player tries to do something unorthodox, but logical.

This is a key element for fleshing out a setting. It doesn't burden the main game by adding additional mechanics for standard concepts, but it does provide a way for the GM to have an answer when it's necessary. Think about it: the GM is basically running the entire world. If something happens, the GM needs to know how it happened. If the game can't provide that information, where are they supposed to get it from? This article by S. John Ross (recommended reading) details all the demographics and scale of a medieval country - but how is a GM supposed to deal with that much information in the normal course of the game? Should a GM be knowledgeable about every conceivable subject in case it comes up?

By providing a suitably large reference area, these issues can be mediated in a simple, game-connected way. This connects to my article regarding tools and their usage: by having all this information at hand, the way that "tools" interact with "environment" can be logically understood. It helps the GM know what to expect and makes locations and places seem more plausible. The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, for example, is an entire book dedicated to caves and mining. It's not something that introduces new rules or classes or anything - it's just information about cave-related activities as expressed in game terms. It's an entire book of "things that might be helpful to consider and include in your game".

Here's the important thing about this: the core game is not made more complex. Instead, this information is highly situational, meaning that it's only necessary if it actually comes up. A lot of games, I think, introduce new content that gets used more often, which ends up being unwieldy and unbalanced as every new class is sort of awkwardly forced into the main game. "Reference information" exists when it needs to be relevant - no more, no less.

A good rule of thumb for reference material is "if a skill is available, it should have an associated list of tasks or uses". Lots of games allow character to take esoteric proficiencies like "mining" or "survival" or "trade" without really going into what those skills can do. If a character can smith, then they should know what they can smith, how much material is required, and what tools are needed to carry out the task. It's easy to just write down Trade (Blacksmith) and leave it at that - but what's the point if neither the GM nor the player reasonably know what to expect from it, or what it can do? What's the point of taking the "herbalism" skill if there's no list of herbs and where they would be found? What's the point of taking the "alchemy" skill if there's no list of potions and elixirs that can be brewed? Reference material exists to answer questions, and one frequent set of questions is "what am I supposed to do with this skill?"

The two main obstacles to a plausible tabletop RPG are the limitations of the medium and the idea that information is unwieldy. Dealing with the first is a manner of crafting a system that attempts to overcome these limitations by reducing the unrealistic or unbelievable aspects of the game. Dealing with the second is a question of doing so in an efficient, streamlined manner that operates under a consistent logical concept.

One of the thing that continually baffles me is that games continue to use "real-time combat" as the standard when it comes to cinema. The intros for many MMOs, from Final Fantasy 11 to Warhammer Online, are represented with dynamic, action-based combat. In practice, their combat is, well, MMO standard. What's funny to me is that "real-time action combat" is held up as the exciting standard that the game wants to live up to, but in practice it's still two guys swinging at each other's general directions even though we have games at this point that could easily replicate the kind of action found in those opening cutscenes.

This is largely what bothers me about "new editions" of D&D. What they focused on was the flawed parts - things like alignment and character class and armor class that served an iconic, but unrealistic, purpose. Then, in order to make room for more things like that, they got rid of a lot of the reference concepts and the few remaining bits of grounded combat systems. It's clear that what's being attempted is the kind of cinematic combat that those intros represent, but games seem almost afraid to address them directly, instead preferring to sink in a mire of self-referential mechanics. The game becomes more and more complex, but in a way that's opposed to believability, instead of supporting the developing story.

To sum up:
1) The shorter turns are, the more immediate and "real-time" the events will feel, and the more adaptability the player will have in response to new stimuli or threats.
2) Damage and health in games is connected to the randomness of combat. However, armor in games should logically serve the same function that it does in real life - absorbing damage, rather than aiding evasion.
3) Including more detail connects players to the results of their actions, but may overwhelm the GM. Deciding what information is important and what is not, or how to maximize the important information, is a major step in being a GM.
4) Having extra material "on-hand" is a good way to make sure that creativity and exploration are encouraged by establishing ground rules for carrying out unorthodox activities. Making sure that these extra rules only exist when needed is a way to keep the core game simple.


  1. Do you play GURPS? It sounds like it's everything you're looking for in a PnP system. One-second (in game) turns where you are generally allowed one action and have an opportunity to react defensively to an opponent's reaction. Armor absorbs damage based on hit location. Core gameplay is simple but there are piles of modular rules and reference for obscure things just for the sake of looking up if you want.

    It's certainly my system of choice for those reasons. Also: I hate class restrictions, and GURPS is classless.

  2. I've looked it up before and didn't like it, though at this point it was so long ago I don't recall why. I suppose it deserves another look.

  3. GURPS Lite is free on their website and has all the core rules.

    The real rulebook looks a lot more complicated than it is. Part of the issue is that, by design, the complexity is "front loaded" (their words). You do almost all of the calculations (with the exception of a few obscure advanced survival and firearm rules that I've never used.) during character creation. It leaves you with a single roll to resolve issues during play, but can be unnecessarily intimidating.

    Even if you still hate the system, you should check out the source books. They do a crapton of research and present it well from a gaming standpoint, so it's not hard to use that information in other game systems.

  4. The "lite" version looks pretty good, though I prefer WFRP's D100 concept (since it's a solid percentage instead of the bell curve present in multiple D6s). I think the lite thing helps a lot, because when I was doing WFRP I actually went out of my way to make a sheet with all the basic rules on it, since they can be obfuscated by poor writing or editing.

    Still, the tone of the writing is pretty funny (not really in a bad way) - shifting from "here's how many points an average person has, like a cop or a teacher" to "HERE'S HOW MANY POINTS IT TAKES TO BUY THE TIME-JUMPER ABILITY".

  5. Here's one thing I do like about GURPS conceptually, though: it ties together all the different eras of human existence. A lot of games have to balance and re-balance things because of unrealistic aspects like hit points and so on.

    GURPS works in such a way that it seems like you could easily bring a firearm into a medieval world and use it in a way that would make sense, instead of having to make it comply with existing unrealistic concepts. It's not like "medieval times" and "modern times" are sectioned off - the rules are the same, it's just newly introduced technology.

  6. I am currently undecided on the Bellcurve vs. Percentage issue. I haven't noticed a difference in my FUN between 3d6 and 1d100(or 2d10, whatever). They both give me a sufficient idea of how likely my success is and feel sufficiently "random".

    I've never played WFRP, but from what I've heard Dark Heresy is largely similar. The potential for anachronism was an aspect that initially drew me to the system. I recall a story of a campaign wherein the players were under the impression they were playing WFRP until the everything they had done turned out to be the trial to become a Space Marine, at which point the game continued using the same system with better equipment and some stat boosts.

  7. It's late (2013), but I find the thoroughness and thoughtfullness of this article to be super refreshing. The title of your blog caught my attention. Your points about turns, armor, damage and record-keeping are at the heart of much of my gripes about pen/paper RPGs. Well done!

    I have ideas about nearly everything you said, but I will just pick one small area: Shields. They were a big deal. They are really effective. Traditional armies invested in them normally for this reason. They are versatile. They also should have a passive 'cover' based on their size. Smaller ones (bucklers and smallish ones) would have less cover but could move that cover around more quickly-relying on movement/placement. I am testing a hit-location armor system and the size of the shield is very important for this. The larger the shield is, the less a defender could react with it, but the large coverage compensated for this. Other, more 'dextrous' defenders would favor a smaller shield and use 'parrying' actions to move the smaller coverage to compensate for the smaller size. It is a matter of preferences and maximizing what the 'hero' is capable of. It is about the game allowing the player-character to have interesting options to explore. Making interesting decisions justifies the 'crunch'. If the 'crunch' is just 'crunch' then it needs to be purged from the system.

  8. Hi, Is there any one who can help me with information , that what current research can be done , in area of game ai in "social believability in role playing games".. I will be highly thankfull .


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