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mAc Chaos

Different kinds of RPGs

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I wrote something about RPG systems, so I figured I might as well post it here too.

There are three broad categories of RPGs. I'm not talking about genres, like horror or fantasy, but of the mechanics at play in the game. There's traditional games like Dungeons and Dragons, Storygames like FATE, and Forge games like Dogs in the Vineyard.

Traditional: this is the most well known kind of RPG, and what most people think of when you talk about RPGs. It's simulationist, in that the rules are designed to model a realistic world as a kind of physics to determine whether a particular action attempted by a player is successful or not. How many feet can a character with 10 Strenth reasonably jump, and what kind of roll would they have to make to achieve it? That's the kind of question the rules answer. Any concern about story or the actual events of the game is left to develop organically from the actions of the Dungeon Master and players. It uses task resolution, which is to say that the rolls are to decide if a particular action was successful and that's it.

An example:

Siriel: I want to crack this safe.
mAc: OK, it'll take a 15 on your roll to do it.
Siriel: 13! Damn.
mAc: You don't open it.
Siriel: I want to try again using my special lockpick.
mAc: That should give you a +2 bonus to the roll, so try again.
Siriel: 19. Got it!
mAc: The safe unlocks.

As you can see, the only result of the roll is whether he was able to open the safe: a straight yes/no question, and it has no effect on anything else. All of the rules here were about the probability of achieving a certain task and how different elements combine together to make that more or less likely, which the player can interact with to affect their goal.

Partisans of the next two systems like to insist that these kinds of games are filled with pointless nitpicking over details that ultimately don't matter. (To a certain extent this is true, but all of those tiny details are what build up to make the actual meat of the game.)

Storygames: a major divergence from RPG tradition. This kind of system grew out of players of traditional RPGs like D&D, who tired of endless rule lawyering and dungeon crawling. They wanted less rules and more roleplaying; less random murder and more PLOT. The thinking went that, rather than the players trying to wrestle what they wanted out of a value neutral game system, instead the concepts they want should be baked into the game itself, and the rules should actively focus on creating that specific experience.

Instead of the rules being modeled on resolving actions, they are geared towards steering the direction of the plot. Fine Day Blue draws its inspiration from this category, mainly because dealing with the tactical and heavily involved process of traditional games like D&D never works out well online. Instead, Storygame RPGs try to produce games that emulate the rhythm and pace of fiction. Think about a movie, and how things rarely go off without a hitch for the characters. Indiana Jones is in the Temple of Doom, and he snags the treasure, but of course it triggers traps and an entire chase scene.

As such, the rules are less about whether a particular specific action succeeds, and more about the direction of the story. In Fine Day Blue, a failure does not just mean "you failed at the action you attempted," like it would in D&D, but instead it means "the story is about to take a bad turn." That could mean any number of things, and is divorced from the actual specific action being attempted. The mechanics tend to favor escalation and the up-and-down, boom-and-bust format of fiction. "Forget all the boring book keeping, and let's get to the exciting stuff," a fan of this will often say about having to roll for every little action. The same "how far can I jump" question would just get handwaved in this kind of game as a pointless detail that doesn't matter unless there's something exciting at stake. Traditional RPGs like D&D, on the other hand, don't care about story and just leave it up to chance.

These rules can be looked at as "metagame" rules. They are not rules meant to deal with the in-game world, but rules that dictate how the players can act outside of the game. This is where mechanics like Luck Points or Fate Points come into play: something that lets the player do something out-of-character, to influence in-game events. The same logic is at play with rules that let the players choose drawbacks from roll results, like whether or not their spells run out, or if they have to use multiple arrows to get the job done. They are gaining control over something other than their own character's actions.

These ideas have grown popular with time, to the point that concept of "Inspiration Points" have been included in the latest version of D&D (5th Edition). They are just like Luck Points. (As for me, I don't actually use those in D&D, because it doesn't fit a game like D&D, in my opinion.)

For this reason detractors say that this is not a real RPG system, because metagaming is built into the rules. A real role playing game, by their lights, is one where the player immerses himself in a consistent and solid world that gives them the tools to act out what they want in-game by modeling how to accomplish tasks. In contrast, Storygames tend to feature fluid worlds that are in flux and constantly improvised upon, where the rules are a weathervane to direct the story. Directing the story as a concept is itself a metagame element, because the story traditionally evolves out of the actions the players take while playing, rather than being something engineered by the rules. On the other hand, people also like this kind of system because it frees them from having to worry about 5000 rules to see if they can try something in-game, and they can just focus on the roleplaying flavorful aspect.


mAc: All right, you're in the temple. What do you want to do?
Buster: I'm going to leap over this pit and grab that ancient treasure off the pedestal.
mAc: Sounds fair; roll the bones.
Buster: 7...
mAc: A success, but barely... you leap over the pit and grab the relic, but as you do so, the temple begins to fall apart. It set off a self destruct trigger!

Here, the rules did not particularly care about the specific goal Buster had of leaping over the pit, but just that something was going to happen to cause some tension. This is why you don't see the rolls ever dealing with different probabilities for specific actions.

Forge: the most indie of them all, and the most controversial. Forge games are arguably not even RPGs. They are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from traditional game systems like D&D. The rules don't care about the in-game universe at all, and only care about the story. Instead of rolling to determine if you succeed at an action, or if the story takes a perilous turn, the players roll to literally dictate what happens next, like a revolving seat of Game Masters. For instance, there might be a scene where character A and character B are fighting over an artifact. Bridge and Christemo roll, and set the stakes before hand. "If I win the roll, then character A gets the artifact, and it turns out to be a relic from a demon. Then an army bursts into the room, trying to steal it from them, and it turns out the temple is self destructing," Bridge would say. Then Christemo would say, "If I win the roll, then the relic triggers a trap that sends character A and character B into a dungeon beneath the temple, where they have to fight their way past the Nazis trying to awaken the ancient primordial God sealed at the heart of the temple."

As you can see, this is completely different from a traditional game, where the player would only have control of his own character, and would never have any say over what the rest of the world was doing. They're just outright saying what's going to happen, and the dice are used to determine who gets control of the game world for this scene. It's more like a bunch of authors writing a fanfic together than a game.

Aside from that, the main source of controversy is that there's an ideological struggle between Forge fans and traditional RPG fans as to what defines an "RPG." In a Forge game, the idea of a "Game Master," someone who holds more power than others, is done away with. "Power to the people!" It's like if Communists decide to make a game system, and wanted to get rid of the abusive power structure that a Game Master represents, to replace it with a stateless utopia. And just like Communism, there are those that insist that this method does not get rid of the dictator, but replaces it with five other petty dictators instead who do not labor under the noblesse oblige of looking out for everybody like the Game Master traditionally does.

The amount of people that actually play Forge games can probably be counted on one hand, but they sure are loud on the internet.

Now, people mix together elements from these kinds of systems all the time on their own, but that's different than what the rules themselves say.

Updated January 31st, 2015 at 05:40 PM by mAc Chaos

Tags: D&D, RPGs


  1. Nihilm's Avatar
    Interesting, I have actually never heard about forge games, they sound more like party games than PnP RPGs tho.
  2. mAc Chaos's Avatar
    It's not an explicit brand or anything. Just an approach to game design. The Forge was a community of game designers founded about 15 years ago to generate theory about how to make new kinds of RPGs that have mechanics which focus on pushing a specific kind of game experience. Nowadays their separation from traditional RPGs is mostly complete, and they managed to popularize their ideas to the extent that a lot of newer indie games from that point on were influenced by that ideas. Though you still get problems when they try to come back and make traditional games like D&D more Forge-y.

    A good example of a game where the mechanics themselves help create the kind of experience the game is focused on is Dread. It's a game version of a slasher film, where your characters try to escape their grisly demise. Whenever your character wants to do something, you pull a block out from a Jenga tower. If it falls, your character gets horribly murdered. So you feel the anxiety the game is trying to make you feel just from having to pull the block out.
  3. aldeayeah's Avatar
    I'm all for story steering rules over probability simulation rules. In my opinion, the latter foster a very specific and unhealthy kind of metagaming - the number-crunching, min-maxing kind. Also, simulation rules are usually harder to handle by casuals*, which I consider a bad thing (although some elitists/basement dwellers think the opposite).

    *It's not that casuals don't understand the rules. It's more like, they often have no idea of the chance of success of any particular course of action. That hinders their participation.

    As for the GM versus collab approaches, both are fine (just make sure the biggest jerk doesn't end up as GM). Having played both kinds of games, I've made this observation: Collab games can get inconsistent when players want to steer the story in opposite directions (the dreaded tug-of-war). We ended up house ruling to avoid that. On the other hand, GM games with a competent GM always ended up being the kind of games the GM wanted them to be. Which is good, except when that's not what a player wants it to be. So the tug-of-war is still there, only that the GM side always wins.

    More generally: if your group all play nice, any system will work, or no system at all. If they don't, you're pretty much fucked no matter what you go with. It's all damage control. In traditional games, keeping shit under control is the GM's job (but god help you if he's one of the jerks). In collaborative games, it's everyone's job. My advice: Don't play with jerks. Also, don't be a jerk.
  4. mAc Chaos's Avatar
    For casuals a narrative system, or at least a more freeform system is good because that's how you initially imagine roleplaying games. "You can try anything; just do what you'd do if it was real life," and then they try to do somethng and get entangled by 500 rules. But once you learn the ropes it helps give definition and consistency to the game. I like both.

    GMs /should/ run what they like, since if they don't like the game then it's going to suck for everybody anyway. The trick is just having players who also like the same stuff.

    But yeah, no amount of rules will save you from bad players/GMs. The most important part of the game is having the right people.
  5. black1blade's Avatar
    Yesterday while playing D&D I realised, I just wanted to play those fantasy flight adventure books but more interesting. The most exciting part of the session was sliding into a muddy whole and a bunch of pale skinned humans spring out of a pool. We paused at the encounter but it was still awesome. I am looking forward to killing them and stealing all their treasure. As far a rules go, I play a rules light retro clone. Some of my players don't like it simply because you can't build a character but actually playing the game is far more fun for me.