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Mankcam

The Illusion Of Game Balance

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I stumbled across an interesting rpg article on the importance of narrative elements over simulationist elements 

Personally I like a healthy mix of both

Article is by John Wick, rpg author of 7th Sea and Legend Of The Five Rings amongst others. In one part he speaks highly of the influence of many Chaosium related rpgs and in particular of Greg Stafford as well.

I just thought the article may be relevant to this community and would be of interest:

http://johnwickpresents.com/games/game-designs/chess-is-not-an-rpg-the-illusion-of-game-balance/

cheers

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Interesting. I like his game designs, but I think he doesn't understand that the reason we look for game balance is that storytelling and narrative play can be out of balance as much as guns and super powers.  He obviously is fond of CoC and Pendragon.

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Interesting read, thanks for the post! Much appreciated.

As someone new to roleplaying games (I purchased Third Edition Shadowrun years back, but never grokked the system or attempted to play it and instead just enjoyed reading it), having recently dove headfirst into all things Glorantha, I found a lot of the advice quite helpful. I'm also a big wargamer, so rules at the outset appear quite friendly to me though I've had some initial success dabbling in HQG. Going to give it another shot, but this time truly set in Glorantha with the wife. As the article mentions, it helps to remember to make the roleplaying the central goal -- what makes your character tick? What drives them? 

Thanks!

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I don't mind using a simulationist set of rules, although primarily for dramatic combat.

At other times, especially non-combat, I use a heavy narrative focus, even if there are occasionally skill rolls required. I agree that narrative focus is the whole point of roleplaying otherwise we might as well be playing an MMO, but combat can be the part of the game that allow simulationists rules to shine. But only for importanty combat scenes, otherwise I tend to use Mook rules to gloss over general action scenes.

So I think the key is in shifting focus between both narrative and simulationist elements at times

 

Edited by Mankcam
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Very interesting! Though I always get a bit wary when people demand "purity". I think many enjoy a roleplaying experience because it contain bits of boardgaming, or the other way around. The mashups are often good fun : )

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3 hours ago, Mankcam said:

At other times, especially non-combat, I use a heavy narrative focus, even if there are occasionally skill rolls required. I agree that narrative focus is the whole point of roleplaying otherwise we might as well be playing an MMO, but combat can be the part of the game that allow simulationists rules to shine. But only for importanty combat scenes, otherwise I tend to use Mook rules to gloss over general action scenes.

Going way back to my early gaming and D&D, as a player it was a goal of mine to keep the GM in the narrative frame of mind.  Experience taught me that when the dice came out characters started dying. :D

Pertinent to the thread, my more recent thoughts about GMing involve the connection between improvisation and how an arch of a story can come from it.  This includes minimizing things that work against these goals.  Like you, I use look rules to avoid bogging down play in unimportant combat.  If the PCs are trying to accomplish something using a skill roll and it's not in the heat of danger and they have a skill that shows they are at least familiar with how to do it I just give them a skill check and say they succeeded, no roll involved.

Regarding the last section of Wick's article, that's partly where I went astray while trying to merge the madness meter with Ravenloft.  It was there because I wanted it to be there but wasn't optimized to be important in play and to help tell the story.

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I know that the gang I played RQ with enjoyed their gritty combat since it gave them tactical options (and spotlight) even while I tried to play through stories.

About killing someone with a tea cup - that's not weapon use, that's death magic, range touch. Can be done in any simulationist game.

Weapon porn or skill porn is part of the "roleplaying" experience for a considerable subset of the gamers, even outside of munchkinism.

For many players, roleplaying is about the personal experience, about shared memories in overcoming obstacles or achieving goals. These get embedded similar to personal memories if the gaming experience was good, regardless whether it was a narrativist game or a game of crunchy simulationism.

So: the initiative to identify the enjoyable parts of the rules you are using is fine. The selections may be subject to personal bias, though, and only the compromise as per gaming group will result in increased enjoyability. My bogeyman could be my fellow gamer's holy grail.

 

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16 hours ago, ReignDragonSMH said:

Interesting. I like his game designs, but I think he doesn't understand that the reason we look for game balance is that storytelling and narrative play can be out of balance as much as guns and super powers.  He obviously is fond of CoC and Pendragon.

Honestly, I am not sure balance is what he means.  I think his argument is the following:

Roleplaying games are about telling stories.  You should only have rules that help you tell stories.  Weapon damage for different items does not help you tell stories, therefore, you do not need weapon damage tables.  (He then offers a few other rule examples that don't help you tell stories.)

I do not see what any of this has to do with balance.  Balance of what?  Balance between whom?  At most it seems that he is taking about balance between weapons, but that still does not make sense.  Sticking with weapons I would say that his complain is that some people are fixated on making sure that differences between weapon abilities reflect differences and those differences play out in the game mechanics.  For example, a large caliber weapon might do more damage but have a recoil that reduces accuracy and that guns do more damage than a tea cup. 

If RPGs are only about telling stories, do you need rules at all?  Seems people can tell stories without them just fine.  So, the rules are important,  That leads to the question of what are the purpose of rules? 

I have a different take as both a game designer and a GM.  I think my role is to create, insofar as it is possible, a coherent set of rules to create a internally coherent world to play in.  Part of getting people to buy into the game is that the internal reasoning of the game/setting make sense to the players.  It doesn't matter that in the real world magic does not exist.  However, if you have magic in your game world, it needs to make sense both in terms of the setting and in terms of mechanics.  You don't want to have inconsistencies that break the world and through your players out of the immersion.  When your players think, 'wait, why does it work like X and this works like Y' then you have pulled them out of the game.  So, if a tea cup does the same amount of damage as a gun, you could have problems with your players buying into that. 

 

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A lot of times as a game designer I notice that I am trying to not only design a game, but also tell my players how to play. Telling them how to play is different than creating rules and internal consistency, because it imparts an expectation from me onto the player to do it my way or else suffer the "you're doing it wrong" finger wagging from me. Authors and movie makers often do the same thing. IMO White Wolf's designs, as much as I enjoyed them, always made me feel this way as a player. To some degree this is in Mr. Wick's message. There is a lot of "you're doing it wrong" and in one simple sentence he dismisses and disenfranchise a set of games and players because he does not want to play that way or cater to an audience that wants to play that way. Which is his right. Niche indie narrative games are beautiful works of art that win awards. 

But in fact, D&D IS a role playing game. It has elements of a board game, more so now than in the past I would argue, which makes sense since it is derived from kriegsspiel played by people for years. I do not want people to think I am schilling for D&D (especially on a d100 board) I am just saying that Mr. Wick's sweeping generalizations are a pretty common tactic of disenfranchisement and undercuts his message, whatever that message is.  It is similar to one person telling another person their fast food join of choice is not really "fast food" or food at all; you avoid all competition if the potential competitor is denied legitimacy. 

1 hour ago, steamcraft said:

If RPGs are only about telling stories, do you need rules at all?  Seems people can tell stories without them just fine.  So, the rules are important,  That leads to the question of what are the purpose of rules? 

I think rules give an internal coherence (as you say) and also agency to the players and GM by adding suspense and a layer of physics that helps them define the BOX. It does not keep them captive inside of the box, but let's them know which things are in or out and how they can play with those. If there is no BOX, there is no story IMO because no one has the ability to say "no"; there is no consent. Unless it's gaming Improv, which still has rules one of which is "always say yes". That actually works well and is surprisingly fun.

Edited by ReignDragonSMH
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I've always had problems with players (and myself ) getting a character concept from a movie or book and wanting to incorporate it as best as possible. In his examples Riddick can do some great damage with non-weapons making use of the Inpromtu Weapons skill. Then Captain Thumb has obvious training in unarmed combat with probably a complimentary skill in pressure points. These aren't as hard to work out with a little thought. I'm sure there are some much tougher...like Superman zipping around the planet to reverse time. :)

Mechanics are great for adding randomness to the story. Adding suspense. No one wants to succeed everytime. 

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27 minutes ago, tooley1chris said:

I'm sure there are some much tougher...like Superman zipping around the planet to reverse time.

Well MSH has a rule for it: use your Karma.  It might require a TON of Karma to do that though lol but some games, many of them with legs, do have rules built in for dramatic action.

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59 minutes ago, ReignDragonSMH said:

I think rules give an internal coherence (as you say) and also agency to the players and GM by adding suspense and a layer of physics that helps them define the BOX. It does not keep them captive inside of the box, but let's them know which things are in or out and how they can play with those. If there is no BOX, there is no story IMO because no one has the ability to say "no"; there is no consent. Unless it's gaming Improv, which still has rules one of which is "always say yes". That actually works well and is surprisingly fun.

I don't think we are saying anything different.  By building the rules, you are building the way the world works for that game.  Those need to be consistent and create immersion for the players.  Humans could not live and function in a universe that had no rules that govern how the universe operates (gravity, friction, genetics, etc).  In the same way PCs need a world built for them and that includes rules for how things work, whether it is the physical world, magic, damage, initiative, etc.    There needs to be a regular order of cause and effect at the physical and societal level to be believable and make for a good story.  

Rules are needed to help you tell the story.  Players need to know what the PCs can do.  They need this information to make a decision.  Do you live in a universe where your PC can do massive damage with a tea cup or not?  Having rules and limitations are important for constructing a story.  The randomness of probability helps create drama.  It helps alter the story in ways that are not expected. 

Some types of rules are needed more than others depending on the type of setting and game feel you want.  I believe in many cases weapons matter and in a few cases it does not matter that much. 

Since I see rules are part of the world design, I probably would not like to play in a game where Which is a GM, and probably why I am not a fan of purely narrative games. 

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3 hours ago, Simlasa said:

Isn't Wick the guy who declared that D&D isn't an RPG?
 

Yeah, he tends to say things like that when he needs attention. There are some interesting points in that confused article, but nothing that hadn't been said better by Robin Laws in Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering 15 years earlier. Robin Laws also managed to make his points without being a jerk. 

The key problem with Wick as a GM lies in his question: "How does the story help me tell stories" (Emphasis added). You only need to hear a few of his favorite GMing stories before you see that Wick comes up with a story, then bludgeons his players into playing out the story he wants. The only rules he likes are ones that help him do that.

Having rules for things like armor, range and so on allow for emergent things to happen in combat that can effect. Maybe your armor gets damaged during a fight. Do you carry on with your quest or divert to a town to get it repaired or replaced? As a GM, I like stories that arise unexpectedly. To Wick, this is a diversion from the story he is telling. They idea of an RPG setting with moving parts that aren't under his control is an anathema to him. 

Having equipment with mechanical traits can also help tell stories. Just take a look at the weapon table in RQ6. All the weapons have stat for the era of history they are used in. The setting for my game might be the Ancient World, however there may be one smith capable of making Medieval long swords. That simple fact can spin off a number of stories. Maybe the PCs want to kill him to stop him making swords for their enemies. Maybe the PCs want to recruit him to their side. Maybe he is on their side and they need to protect him. Maybe they want to learn from him, but he insists they reach a level within his crafting cult before he can pass his secrets to them. All that from looking at a table that Wick would smugly cross out with his sharpie for not helping him tell the story railroad he built. 

Now, having defended traditional games, I thoroughly enjoy HeroQuest and Hillfolk. They scratch an entirely different itch. The fact that I like a wide spectrum of games means I have no patience for people that want to turn my hobby into a smug ideological battleground. 

I need to add, I get why Mankcam linked to it. It is valuable to look at your rules and ask how they support your game. It's a good message. It's just that Wick takes a basically good message and twists it around to attack D&D, which while not my favorite, is a perfectly good RPG. 

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13 hours ago, ReignDragonSMH said:

A lot of times as a game designer I notice that I am trying to not only design a game, but also tell my players how to play. Telling them how to play is different than creating rules and internal consistency...

Not necessarily. This separation between "rules mechanics" and "play style suggestion" is there only if you put it there - or let it happen because of a traditional separation of the two aspects in some iconic games. Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon are good examples of "promoting a playstyle through game mechanics". Another good example is Marvel FASERIP: it does not just tell you "Man, you are a hero, you are supposed not to kill people", it completely depletes your essential Karma resource if you kill anyone - for any reason. And that is a rule, not a piece of GM advice.

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16 hours ago, Simlasa said:

Isn't Wick the guy who declared that D&D isn't an RPG?

Indeed.  In fact, he says so in this very article:  "The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying."  Which I rather strenuously object to because, by that standard, RPGs do not exist.  There is no extant game which cannot be played "successfully" without roleplaying, unless you impose a definition of "successful" play which itself requires roleplaying, thus making the definition tautological.  ("You cannot roleplay without roleplaying.")

I can accept that his central premise is that you should look for rules which help you play the game you want to play and discard rules which don't.  I agree with that premise.  Aside from that, though, there is nothing of substance in the article that I agree with:

  • I do not play RPGs to tell stories.
  • Chess isn't inherently an RPG, but it can be an RPG, if both players choose to play it that way.  His example of "trying to play chess as an RPG breaks the game" doesn't really prove that chess isn't an RPG, it proves that mismatched expectations break games.  If both players want a tactical board game, everything is fine.  If both want an RPG, everything is fine.  It's only a problem when one wants a tactical board game and the other wants an RPG... which is a phenomenon I'm sure we've all observed many times over in games which are designed and sold as RPGs.
  • Gun porn can contribute positively to some kinds of roleplaying experiences.  For example, if the PCs are an elite counter-terrorism strike team, the differences between different submachineguns and ammunition calibers are things which some or all of the characters are likely to be quite concerned with, thus it can be useful to use rules which reflect those differences.

(Note:  I actually read the article some months ago and these are the specific things that stand out in my memory of it.  I did not reread it today, beyond a quick scan to locate the "D&D is not an RPG" quote.)

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I think in a very real way that story is something that comes after a roleplaying session.  Anything in the GM's head does't exist until it hits the table, then there are going to be as many different versions of it as people at the table.

The point that mechanics play a role in how the story develops is valid.  If you've got three games set in Arthur's court and one is Pendragon, one is Wushu and one Savage Worlds these stories are going to look different.

As for D&D being a boardgame, early D&D at least encourages PCs to role-play and think.  If you don't approach a problem sideways you'll end up with a TPK.

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43 minutes ago, Chaot said:

As for D&D being a boardgame, early D&D at least encourages PCs to role-play and think.  If you don't approach a problem sideways you'll end up with a TPK.

I am very much a problem solver type of player.  I look at this as how to accomplish the goal and there are various approaches.  I learned how to do this from 1E AD&D. 

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The difference between chess, or other boardgames, and RPGs is that in boardgames roleplaying a character, creating fiction and a story doesn't change the outcome of the game, while in RPGs the created fiction and roleplaying does determine the outcome of the game.

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Great article, thanks for posting! I find that I agree with and use quite a bit of what John talks about especially when I GM. My players on the other hand don't always want to forget about the dice mechanics, so I sometimes have to remind them. To me, the most important part of my games is the story my players and I are trying to tell, and I always modify the story that I had originally planned because of the actions of the players, because to me, that's what we're there for!

Edited by Skunkape

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On 1/14/2016 at 8:23 PM, RosenMcStern said:

Not necessarily. This separation between "rules mechanics" and "play style suggestion" is there only if you put it there - or let it happen because of a traditional separation of the two aspects in some iconic games. Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon are good examples of "promoting a playstyle through game mechanics". Another good example is Marvel FASERIP: it does not just tell you "Man, you are a hero, you are supposed not to kill people", it completely depletes your essential Karma resource if you kill anyone - for any reason. And that is a rule, not a piece of GM advice.

Rule mechanics definitely affect play style. Look at 'you gain experience points for killing things and getting gold' in D&D. Players absolutely get that message, and it defines the way D&D modules are written. And in BRP style games another is 'the skills you use improve', which also changes play style. Call of Cthulhu has Sanity. The list goes on.

I haven't played narrativist-style games so I won't judge them. But at least with rules systems such as the above, the players know something about how the game world works, and can react accordingly.

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