It may or may not come as a surprise that I spend fair amounts of time thinking about game design and development. In that vein, today I rediscovered an article by Mark Rosewater* entitled Ten Things Every Game Needs
and got to thinking about how its contents apply, specifically, to roleplaying games. The rest of this post will largely be me thinking out loud in terms of general deliberations and specific examples, but I believe that both this and, hopefully, discussion on the subject should prove instructive. I don't think you have
to read the article I linked to understand this post, but I recommend it anyway.
*Mark Rosewater is the current Head Designer for Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering
. He writes a weekly column on Daily MTG about the design processes of MtG and game design in general. Rosewater is probably the best game designer in tabletop gaming around nowadays, and has been a designer for not quite as long as I've been alive, so his general design articles are recommended reads for anyone remotely interested in game design. Even those specific to Magic
can hold useful advice, if you take the time to think on them and generalize their applicability. EDIT: If you're into podcasts, his Drive To Work podcast is similarly recommendable.
(As an aside, despite MtG being the game used as an example in the linked article, this is not an MtG thread. If you want to complain about MtG, don't do it here.)#1: A Goal or Goals
Simply put, the game needs to have a point, a way to win. In Carcasonne
, the goal is to build a territory worth more points than anyone else's. In a puzzle, you win by completing the image. In Magic
, the goal is to reduce your opponent(s) to 0 life.
So how do you win a roleplaying game? Most often, nowadays, an RPG takes the format of the GM (usually) devising a plot that is resolved through the playing of the game. In that case, the goal of the game, the win condition, would be "resolving the plot", or more ideally "resolving the plot to everyone's satisfaction".
There's other formats, as well. The iconic image of traditional D&D is that of dungeon delving, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. In this setup, the goal could be stated as "carrying the [dragon/lich/other]'s loot out of the dungeon", and an adversarial relationship between GM and players is more common (and possibly more justified, see later).
In the end, though, it seems to me that "resolving the plot (to satisfaction)" is a generally applicable goal for a roleplaying game in which a plot is indeed present. Note that this does not necessarily mean resolving the plot to the characters'
satisfaction (i.e. a happy end), only the players' and GM's.#2: Rules
Rules are restrictions that keep you from achieving your goal. They tell you what you can't do in order to achieve your goal (you can't, say, wave your hands and proclaim that you win) and by the same token indirectly let you know what you can
do. In other words, they are to provide challenge. If it's too easy, victory seems cheap. Conversely, if it's so hard you can't win (or rather, so hard the player doesn't believe they can't win), there's no point in playing.
Often, rules also add a random or uncertain element to gameplay, such as with dice or a shuffled face-down deck of cards, both as part of making the game challenging and for its own sake (see later). RPGs, of course, almost always do this, though there's exceptions (Amber Diceless Roleplaying
is, naturally, diceless, as is Golden Sky Stories
In RPGs specifically, the GM fulfills a part of this role as well, setting the basic premise (which sets its own restrictions, e.g. "a pirate game") and plot (which will place obstacles before the players). They also have the power to add or remove rules as they see fit (a power best used in moderation, but available).#3: Interaction
A game needs some aspect that encourages the participants to interact with each other. Many games in which players do not have the same goal do this by allowing you to interfere with other players in some way. In many RPGs, the players do have the same goal, and indeed stereotypically work as a party (they also can interfere with each other just fine, though groups sometimes frown on this). The GM, by definition, interacts with the players by having the world react to their characters. Finally, roleplaying itself is a sort of social interaction, as is the ever-present table chatter.#4: A Catch-Up Feature
As soon as you stop believing you can achieve the game's goal, there ceases to be a point in playing the game. A catch-up feature is some means by which you could still theoretically pull through even if you're behind. In other words, a light at the end of the tunnel.
The most common form of this in RPGs is luck of the dice. The swingier the random mechanic, the more possible it is for an outmatched player or one who started off with an unlucky streak to still manage (of course, too much swing means that all outcomes are essentially governed solely by the dice, which isn't desirable either). Conversely, if the random mechanic isn't very swingy at all (say, a very steep bell curve), then the same is that much less likely.
The GM has the ability to act as this too, after a fashion, for example by introducing an unexpected source of help (or, more controversially, fudging the dice or adjusting tactics and difficulties).#5: Inertia
The idea behind this is that a game's default state should be moving towards completion. This might, for example, be accomplished with a time limit, after which the player with the most points wins. That way, even if nobody does anything, the game will be resolved when the time is up. MtG accomplishes it by upping the stakes with time as players become able to cast more expensive and powerful spells.
In RPGs, this rests on the head of the GM. The game itself doesn't force you towards completion, but the GM can have the plot advance and involve the players.#6: Surprise
An element of surprise adds the thrill of the unknown as well as depth of play. This can be accomplished through random events and hiding information. When playing Monopoly, you don't know what tile you're going to end up on next. When you play chess, you don't know your opponent's game plan.
The most obvious way RPGs add surprise is, again, luck of the dice. You don't know beforehand whether your attack is going to hit (though you might have an idea of the probabilities). Just as important is the players' lack of knowledge of what the GM plans - broadly speaking, plot twists and other information hidden from the PCs.#7: Strategy
The complexity of decision-making that can go into the game. This goes into depth of play, but it also adds to replayability, since you can get better at the game.
Like trading card games, RPGs have multiple layers of strategy. There's strategy in building your characters (i.e. character optimization), and strategy in play. In ongoing game lines, you also have new content added every now and then to both layers.
Incidentally, while rules-heavy games certainly have more complexity, it's not necessarily true that they also have more strategy. If a rules-heavy game were to allow one obvious build that is clearly superior to all others (sometimes called "One True Build"), there would end up being little strategy in character building. When in D&D 3.5 you play a Fighter whose only option in combat is to make a full attack, charge, or move and make a regular attack, there's very little strategy in play.
has a surprising amount of strategy in character building and gameplay despite being effectively freeform with dice, thanks to aspects. Burn Legend
is less than 40 pages long (owing to its very tight focus on one specific kind of game), yet it has a high amount of emergent complexity.#8: Fun
This most likely seems obvious, but it's not as simple or easy as you might think. For one, what's fun to one person might or might not be fun to another. More importantly, whether a game is fun isn't something you can predict on paper. It's something you have to playtest.
Interestingly, in RPGs, a bad group can make playing the world's best game hell, while a good group can make a horrible game highly enjoyable. It's an old and highly true adage that the players can make or break the game. I've had a few of my better gaming experiences while playing systems I hated with the fury of a thousand blazing suns, because the GM and players were fun to game with. This is also, unfortunately, something a designer can't control in any way.
So how does a designer make a game fun? Hell if I know. Playtest, playtest, playtest. Over and over.#9: Flavor
Another highly interesting aspect. Flavor is an incredibly powerful and versatile tool: It helps you explain your game, it creates attachment, it adds appeal. In the RPG industry, it can even sometimes make up for a game's lacks in other departments, if the players like it enough (a phenomenon that confounds me to this day). The World of Darkness
gamelines and Exalted
's first and second editions catch staggering amounts of flak for their mechanics, even from their own fans, yet they still retain a sizable fanbase. D&D's third edition portrays the same phenomenon.
Conversely, a game with a perfectly good system will fall flat if its flavor does. This was the doom of D&D 4e, and generic systems usually risk the same. Mutants & Masterminds
dodges this by supplying a default flavor (superheroes) in addition to its customizability.#10: A Hook
You could also call this "the sell" or "the pitch". Literally, it's like a movie or book pitch. The concept that's supposed to sell your game. In Monopoly, you're an investor trying to make it rich. In Magic: the Gathering
, you're a wizard (planeswalker) fighting other wizards (planeswalkers). This is different from flavor in that it's not an explanation, but a teaser. What is, when you get down to it, the core essence of the game, the reason people are supposed to look at it?
In RPGs, this usually boils down to either what you play as, or the premise of the setting or default game. By necessity, this isn't going to be accurate or complete, and games can obviously deviate, but it's the selling point of the game. In Spycraft
, you're secret agents in the style of James Bond. In Dungeons & Dragons
, you're wandering adventurers who save the day. CthulhuTech
is about "giant robots punching Lovecraftian monsters". Legend of the Five Rings
is about "adventures in Fantasy Japan".
The hook is still important if you aren't actually looking to sell anything for money. After all, if you're writing a game at all, chances are you want it to be looked at. If you're writing homebrew on this board, you want it to be seen, read, and commented. The hook is the reason people should read what you wrote.
And these are my... significantly more than two cents. There's likely tons more that could be said on the matter, so discuss. Or don't, I'm not a cop. How does your favorite game fit in? In what ways are these ten traits accomplished in games you know that I didn't mention? What other things did I fail to mention or take into account?