Monday, April 27, 2015

Game Stories: Why RPGs Need Game Designers

I love boardgames. Interestingly, my involvement in boardgames increased dramatically shortly after my involvement in the tabletop roleplaying hobby; this was around 2011, as the second wave of new and popular boardgames started sweeping over America and Wil Wheaton's Tabletop had its genesis. Because I got into boardgaming and RPGs at around the same time, I start thinking about how they relate to one another, and what benefits tabletop RPGs can reap from studying other tabletop gaming...

If you're not really familiar with the current state of boardgaming, check out BoardGameGeek's ranked list, which speaks to the games that a lot of the gaming community is keen on. You could also check out the YouTube series Tabletop to get an idea for what sorts of things are going on in gaming. Don't worry, I'll still be here when you get back.

Narrative and Games: the Common Ground
You might have noticed that I've written a few posts about narrative in board games. I really care about this, because I've seen some brilliant stuff advanced by boardgaming, and yet it seldom seems to trickle back into the RPG sphere. This is doubly unfortunate because whatever boardgaming's doing, it seems to be working well. I want to see some of that magic take a more central role in the RPG world. It's not for every game, but I think there's some lessons to be learned.

So what is the common ground here? Well, in RPGs and in (most) board games, there's a desire to wed an interesting narrative with some sort of engaging gameplay. Boardgaming tends to err on the side of the engaging gameplay, while RPGs tend to err on the side of narrative, and both sometimes err so far that they largely exclude the other aspect. I think that this is often a mistake, however. Narrative and mechanics can work together in harmony, and they can often reinforce one another and bring out bits of the other that wouldn't normally arise. I've got a whole bunch of blog posts discussing how that works.

The State of the RPGs
I'll be upfront: I think there's a massive lack of innovation on the mechanical side of RPGs. Even in the indie RPG crowd, the innovation has focused more on the social dynamics of storytelling, introducing structures for roleplaying and analyzing the sort of group dynamics that form around collaborative storytelling. While structures are a sort of mechanic, I find them to be rather simple and fundamental sorts of mechanics. They're Layer 0. We've spent a long time on Layer 0, and I think more and more games need to build on that. Most RPGs now try to create narrative by explicitly tying narrative to very simplistic mechanics, things like Fate's compels or the milestone XP of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. And that's great, but I think we can do better.

See, boardgames have been approaching this same problem, but from the other end: they have great mechanics, but don't always know how to successfully tie them to a narrative. Still, I feel as though boardgaming as an industry is far bigger, far more profitable, and therefore farther along when it comes to solving these problems. Some people in the RPG hobby think that RPGs should stick to "what they do best", but I feel that roleplaying games stand to learn a lot of lessons from observing how boardgaming does things. In board games, there's mechanics which subtly mold your behavior in ways you don't heavily think about. There's elegant decisions that wrap up a bunch of narrative dimensions because of how the mechanics interact. There's straightforward structures that interact in complex ways; lots to wrap your head around.

RPGs To Look To
I've been couching some of my terms here, and that's because I do think there's some roleplaying games that explore really interesting mechanical design space, the sorts of things I'd expect to see in board games. I'll call a few of them out, because I believe in highlighting things that do good.

  • Dog Eat Dog uses a token economy that would be right at home in a euro-style boardgame. Players trade tokens as they do things, and when you run out of tokens, the game drastically changes. The tokens are a flexible mechanical element that winds up carrying a lot of narrative weight, because it's a system that tracks the influence of a colonizing outside force.
  • Marvel Heroic Roleplaying introduces a really interesting concept: a "Doom Pool" which fuels the GM's actions. Otherwise, the GM is limited. This pool gets manipulated through in-game actions, and can be spent in various ways, so it actually becomes a living tactical element of the game.
  • Mythender is a crunchy combat-heavy game that uses a ton of interlocking mechanical structures to impress some very heavy themes on the game. It shows instead of telling you that your character is becoming corrupted by mythic power. It puts choices in your hands and makes you party to their consequences. It's exactly the sort of game that I'd love to see more of.

Looking Forward
Not every RPG should take heavy cues from boardgaming. There's a lot of space to be explored when it comes to the dynamics between characters. Still, I would encourage every aspiring game designer to make a habit of studying non-roleplaying games. Understand how they bring narrative into the mechanics, and observe how the choices you make in the game are created by the rules. See how the limitations of a boardgame shape the story that emerges from it, and how these types of games still allow players to express themselves. Broaden your experiences, and your designs will be richer for it.

And so will the experiences of the people who play your games.