CHESS CAN BE A ROLE-PLAYING GAME: THE MANY FACETS OF GAME BALANCE AND ITS PLACE IN RPG GAME PLAY

By Benoist Poiré

DISCLAIMER 1: This post will focus on some claims and ideas pertaining to role-playing game design and game play. If you are the kind of person who does not care for game design discussion, it's perfectly fine, and you shouldn't feel like you should care what I or anyone else thinks about the games you play, if any. So if such topics bore you, just keep on walking, nothing to see here.

DISCLAIMER 2: I have nothing against John Wick personally, nor the way he chooses to play games, nor the way he chooses to design them. He is a friend here on facebook. I am one to believe that disagreement does not make enemies. As a matter of fact, I hope he gets to read this and realizes that this is written with a clear intent to be constructive and inclusive, for I think the gaming tent is large enough to host quite a number of ways to play and enjoy games, including both of our ways. So here's to John, and thank you for providing the starting point for this post. Keep on gaming, and keep on having fun. That's what matters in the end.

ADDENDUM: A good conversation and respectful back and forth was started in the comments. Feel free to chime in, but Wheaton's Law applies. Be excellent to one another, whatever point you try to bring to the table. Thanks! [Referring to the FB conversation below where this article was originally posted]

LINK TO THE BLOG POST IN QUESTION: Chess is not an RPG

I have come across an internet blog post authored by John Wick and entitled “Chess is not an RPG: The illusion of Game Balance”. In this blog post John goes about giving specific examples to build up to his ultimate point that game balance doesn't matter in tabletop role-playing game design, which is a point I will address later on. This is because in developing his thoughts on the topic he made several claims that I found quite interesting, not because they might sound offensive or outlandish, depending on point of view, but because over the course of some fifteen years posting on gaming message boards I've seen them pop up regularly in one form or another and derail many conversations. So I'd like to write a formal rebuttal to the whole thing and post it as a note on my facebook profile I will then be able to refer to when the occasion arises, questions are asked, or my input is sought one way or another.

First, John establishes his credentials. He authored quite a few games and has been around in the industry for some time. I certainly do not have the same publishing story he does, and have been myself around for some time. My posts are all over the internet, I authored a series of advice to build a mega dungeon, was a collaborator on Rob Kuntz's blog, Lord of the Green Dragons, at some point, I published some modules that would be deemed old school in venues like AFS Magazine and Gygax Magazine, and I'm the co-founder with Ernest Gary Gygax Jr. of GP Adventures LLC, which aims to publish his original dungeon setting, The Hobby Shop Dungeon, along with modules, game aids, and the world around it.

Most importantly, and this seems particularly relevant because John specifies his blog isn't so much about game design as it is about being a game master. I am a gamer. I like games, I play them, run them, I love tabletop role-playing games, and actually have quite eclectic tastes in matter, playing anything from WEG Star Wars to Role Master, from Traveller to Cyberpunk 2020 to Eclipse Phase, from RuneQuest to Warhammer Fantasy to Role Master. I have personal favourites, of course, and these include the Original D&D game of 1974 (the little brown booklets), the first edition of the Advanced D&D game, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire the Masquerade, among others.

This ought to bring my remarks into focus, as I go about addressing John's points, one after the other.

I will begin by answering John's question, which turns around two characters in movies, one being Riddick from the Chronicles of the same name, and the other the Lieutenant Colonel Alan Caldwell from Paradisio. In both movies, the protagonists fight adversaries using unusual weapons, the former with a tea cup, and the other with his mere thumb. The question being asked is what type of damage these weapons would do, whether there'd be a saving throw, an initiative bonus, or whatever else.

The answer to this question is: It depends on the game being considered, its setting or campaign milieu, and the participants playing the game. Like John, when I started playing role-playing games, I became enthralled by the different possibilities different universes and rules systems presented. Different rules and universes led to different experiences and feels at the game table, and I think this is where, very early on, I started to consider different games as the different blades of a Swiss Army knife, a comparison I've occasionally made as well when considering different editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game, and an idea which would ultimately lead to my current campaign setting, the Enrill, which involves all sorts of games and milieus in an over-arching cosmology that binds them all together, so that what you could be playing in a Call of Cthulhu game might have echoes in a Cyberpunk or D&D game later on, different factions might have mirrors in different universes, and so on.

Each world uses a different set of rules because the setting reflects the rules, and vice versa. A good friend of mine, Norm Morrison IV, calls this Vreeg's First Rule of Setting Design. It goes something like “Make sure the rules set you use matches the setting and game you want to play, because the setting and game WILL eventually match the system.” He's right. It's not an opposition of one against the other, or one aspect of the game in play being more important than the other: it's a synergy to be sought and grasped, because what the game system does, and what the universe is, will both mingle together and end up affecting how the world is actually experienced and the way it feels at the game table. If you want variety, diversity, and truly different ways to approach different worlds in your cosmology, then it makes sense to vary game systems also, so that the universes feel vastly different in play.

Ultimately, this is relevant to me and the way I like to experience games, because these elements are part of the alchemy taking place at an actual game table when you play a particular game and setting. These elements all mix together in the big pot that is the game in play, along with other critical elements such as the game master and his or her own take on the game, as referee and medium through which the world can be seen, touched, smelled, heard and generally speaking perceived, the participants around the game table (including the GM) and the way their imaginations come into contact with one another and interact to create the shared imaginary space that is the game world as it is experience, the social interactions, the jokes, the eating and drinking and whatever else is going on around the table, including the implicit or explicit social contract that allows people to enjoy the same game and play together on the same page.

All these things, and more, such as the game's default game play structure(s), or lack thereof, participate to the equation that is the role playing game in play. Which also explains why these games, on the page, are by their very nature unfinished products, because the actual product here is what ends up being played around the game table, and that includes elements which are not included in the book right out the gate.

So. Ultimately, the answer to the question of how much damage a thumb or a tea cup would do in a role playing game matters, albeit for a tiny little bit of the overall equation of the role playing game, because it will affect a tiny part of what the world feels like, and how the world is perceived, along with the particular GM's take on all these different components and the way they come into play.

Depending on the type of game you are playing and the world that is portrayed, your character might, or might not kick ass with his thumb, and that tells you something about the universe you are trying to immerse yourself in as you play the game. In some cases the differences between a thumb and a tea cup will matter, and in others, not so much. There's no objectively wrong or right answer to this, only what fits the world best, and how to best evoke it in the shared imaginary space around the game table.

And here we come to a pretty important distinction between what John wants out of his game and what I want out of mine. He basically considers tables of weapons and statistics as elements that detract from the point of the game, which to him means “telling stories.” So he wants his games to focus on this like a laser beam, so that he gets his storytelling out of his game play with the least resistance possible.

This is a valid take on role playing, and the way you'd go about designing a game. But that isn't the only way, and that certainly isn't the sole function any particular role playing game could fulfill, especially when the participants around the game table vary in terms of psychological and intellectual make ups, in terms of tastes and personalities, which means that different people might want to experience slightly different things around the same game table, with the idea that the shared imaginary space tries to fulfill these desires and has to be tailored to these people in order to satisfy them in the act of play.

There is obvious room in our hobby for this type of focused game design, where a game has a very specific scenario in mind, with very specific aims and ways to go about its game play. But there is also room for broader game design approaches which aren't necessarily “wrong” or “faulty” because they happen to fulfill different tastes and approaches around a game table.

For some people, the point of a role-playing game is to tell stories. That is fine, in and of itself. People should play the way they want to play, and if you are having fun with your game, you are by all means doing it right. Where the argument becomes fallacious is when it is elevated to the rank of generality or common wisdom, to say “well, yes, of course, ALL role-playing games' point is to tell stories and if your game doesn't focus on that then it's bad!”

Well. No. That is not necessarily the case. Different people play tabletop role-playing games for different reasons. Personally, I love to have vivid worlds and backgrounds and characters in my games, I love role-playing and interactions, but I don't construe the game's activity as a form of story-telling. Sure, the game in play will ultimately result in the creation of a story, after the fact, when the game is over, but when I am playing the game this is not what I actually want to focus on. I don't want to ask myself what is “dramatically” more convenient, or to weave plot lines into something that will make for a great novel. I want to experience the world as though I was there, I want to put my character's life on the line and see what happens, I want to run the game and not know what the players are going to do, or how the adventure will shape up.

To quote Gary Gygax on this, he said one day, talking about a guy who had been playing at his game table in a convention and came out thoroughly unsatisfied by the way the game turned out, calling the game “aimless” and “without the shred of a story line” if memory serves: “The adventure is the thing, not ‘a story.’ If you want stories, go read a book, if you want derring-do, play a real RPG and then tell the story of the adventure you barely survived afterwards. The tale is one determined by the players’ characters’ actions, surely!”

Now, especially in the light of the new developments that became popular in tabletop role-playing games these last few years, I would say that seeking to build stories and construing the activity around a game table as collaborative story-telling is fine. If you're doing that in your games, you are playing as much of a real RPG as I am. Let's remember the context of this quote here. But my way to play my games, to seek to immerse myself in a game world and experience it live from a role-playing standpoint, is in no way any lesser or impure or faulty than John's way of playing games would be. That's my point here.

What I really mean here is that Chess can absolutely become a tabletop role-playing game. Things like design and intent are one tiny part of what ultimately will build this mix of elements that make a role-playing game happen at a game table. What this means is that it doesn't matter what your intent as a game designer is, as much as what the thing does at a game table, and the many different ways its users like to play. The way the users end up using your game isn't wrong or bad, provided they are having fun in the process.

An obvious example of this concerns the original Vampire the Masquerade game. It was construed as a story-telling exercise. The text, the different scenarios published for the game, strongly emphasized that aspect of the game as a thing that differentiated it from other tabletop role-playing games. Heck, the game system itself bore that name. What the game actually did at many people's game tables (including mine) was a different matter. It was actually used as a sandbox game at the scale of the “City by Night” with lots of PVP backstabbing and politicking and games of influence, night after night. The source books of the game emphasized this aspect of the game, as opposed to the rigid structure of scenes and acts that was used in the creation of its scenarios. Was that a wrong way to play the game? Some would say it was. Maybe even some of the designers of the game itself would say as much. I personally think that's a boneheaded way to look at it. It is trying to make the game's designer more important than he or she actually is in the grand equation that makes a role-playing game in practice, as it is played.

So it doesn't matter what Chess was originally built for. If someone has the idea to add house rules or even none at all, gives motives to the game pieces, and plays out scenarios based on that idea, we have the essence of a role-playing game. It is, as far as the participants themselves are concerned, a role-playing game, and you game designer can't do a damn thing about it.

Yes, this means World of Warcraft can be a role-playing game too.

The idea that a role-playing game has to be focused on one single activity and gear everything, every fine bit of setting and rules and structure towards that single thing, be it story-telling or whatever else, is a relatively recent idea. It comes from the theory of other folks, such as Ron Edwards and the Forge. It is the idea of “coherence in game design”, which is an okay idea by itself, if you don't start pointing your finger at other games and gamers to sneer at them and try to tell them how “incoherent” they, their own games or campaigns, really are.

Likewise, the idea that role-playing games do this one thing right and that these other things for which people played, and that they found later in games like World of Warcraft, are worth giving up because “these don't make up role-playing games after all.” That's a derivative idea from a separation of types of gamers Robin Laws came up with some years and years ago, a categorization of player types I have strong issues with, which then led people like Ryan Dancey to believe that certain types of players went away from role-playing games (like the 'puzzle solvers') because they found what they wanted more readily out of computer games than tabletop role-playing games. Up until now I might have agreed with the concept. But then comes this idea that “since these people have left tabletop RPGs, then we might as well refocus the entire RPG hobby on that one thing we think computer games don't do that well, and that's collaborative story-telling,” and that is the kind of idea I vehemently disagree with.

Solving a puzzle in World of Warcraft could work the same way in a tabletop game of D&D. But then again, it might not. In a tabletop game,you have the enormous advantage to deal with other human beings in the process of playing the game, rather than a set of algorithms and AI parameters behind the screen. A solution to the riddle might be correct, when the notes of the GM didn't bring it up. A lateral solution might be brought up that wasn't considered when putting together the original scenario of the game. And there, I believe, lies one of the fundamental differences between a tabletop game and a computer game, a difference that “puzzle solvers” might still find relevant to their gaming today, despite playing World of Warcraft as well, when they are not sitting at your tabletop game table.

I have no particular data on the overlap between players of WoW and MMOs in general and the tabletop D&D game, but I'm guessing there is at least SOME amount of overlap going on. I don't think of computer games as enemies or competitors to tabletop games. They are different types of games, and at best, allies, by providing different approaches to different types of game settings we might explore one way, or the other, or both ways if we are so inclined. I think that's what games like Numenera and Torment: Tides of Numenera will ultimately prove.

The 4th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game (Yes, 4th is a role-playing game too, see above) didn't “fail” because “the designer had given up the ghost [and] D&D wasn't a role-playing game” all along, to paraphrase John. It “failed” (and I put the term between quotation marks because the reaction was not universally negative, contrarily to John's claim) because it became a focused game in the Forge style, because it deliberately decided to compete with a game like World of Warcraft by trying to become it on the tabletop, which previous editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game did not seek to accomplish. It was directly inspired by MMOs, card games, and eurogames, a fact documented in interviews of the game designers themselves.

What 4th edition proved beyond the shadow of a doubt is that Dungeons & Dragons, in order to be successful and appeal to the wide audience that makes up its player base, cannot be a “coherent”, “focused” game of the likes John talks about. Different people want to do vastly different things with this game, and yet, at the same time, they want something that “feels” like Dungeons & Dragons, which in my mind is an idea that generally revolves around the game's default structures of exploration of the unknown, of going down a dungeon, of mapping your world ripe for adventure, of interacting with it and immersing yourself in the shared fantasy to role-play your heart out in any given situation. What the 5th edition designers call the “three pillars” of the D&D game: exploration, interaction and combat, which isn't far off the mark but might suffer from the same Robin Laws type of forcing square pegs into round holes that ends up deforming what these concepts entail in the first place.

Yes, the definitions of these concepts are unclear and hard to put neatly into categories with hard edges and obvious limits. The same goes for the definition of a “role playing game”. It's a bit like hit points in the D&D game: They work great as an abstraction, and if you start thinking about the abstraction too much, you risk to break it entirely. Well that's the same thing here. The more one tries to force the concept of a role-playing game into a neat, clearly delineated category of “this is this, but not that”, the more one risks to break the concept altogether and change it into a lesser thing than it originally was.

The richness of role-playing games comes from the fact that the concept is hard to pin down. The success of Dungeons & Dragons comes in part from the fact it appeals to different tastes and play styles, that it can be a different thing to different people around a game table. It isn't a “board game” or a “storytelling game” or any of those things. It's a role-playing game, which implies all these different bits and pieces of game design inherited from different types of games, war games, board games, many different games, all mashed together to create a set of tools that inspires people and helps them come up with the worlds of their own imagination.

One could make the argument that the original Dungeons & Dragons game of 1974 was a “focused” game in the Forge sense. I've actually seen the claim being made here and there over the web. I would disagree with that, and argue on the contrary that its original game structure, the way it put the user in charge of the creation of the game's universe through simple means such as drawing your own dungeon map, the way it obviously borrowed tactical elements from war games, and so on, contributed to the mix that kickstarted this whole hobby in the first place.

So. What does this have to do with game mastering, and game balance in particular? It's got everything to do with it, and in that I agree with John.

If exploring the worlds of your own imagination means you care about different types of modifiers, what this weapon's damage is as opposed to that one, if these aspects of the rules help you imagine what's going on in the game, and help you get sucked into the game's world as you play it, you should TOTALLY continue to do this, because it could be a great way for you to have some fun.

If you care about other aspects of role-playing games, and the different damage of a thumb versus a tea cup isn't relevant to what you want to experience around a game table, by all means, do not care about such pesky details at all!

What really matters here is to find your own game's balance. To not consider the rules of the game in a vacuum, but as part of a greater game activity: the game itself in process around the game table, and what the rules mean to you in that particular, practical picture.

If game balance from a mechanical point of view matters to you and/or your game's participants, then it's something worth thinking about. If it is not something you nor your players particularly care for, you're golden, and you can keep on doing what it is you are doing. There's room for both, and all sorts of approaches besides, in this hobby of ours. Role-playing games aren't “this thing” as opposed to “that other one”. I like to play and think about and design games a certain way. John likes to play and think about and design games another way. That's all cool. Vive la différence!

We're playing role-playing games, and that means we are put in charge of our own entertainment and imaginations. It's time to stop pretending that role-playing games would be better off being “this thing” or “that other thing” all the time because “that's not what happens in movies” or “I don't want to write novels that way” or whatever else. It's time to embrace the diversity of our games' medium, and to each go about playing, running, and designing the games we actually want to play.

It's time to stop pretending and talk about role-playing games like they are some sort of high abstract pursuit that needs to be all geared this or that way to be focused or coherent for everyone. It's time to play games, embrace their diversity, and revel in the joyous mish mash incoherence of it all.

It's time to roll some dice.

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Benoist Poiré is co-founder of GP Adventures along with Ernest G. Gygax Jr. http://www.gp-adventures.com/

Check out his amazing work on the Hobby Shop Dungeon: https://www.facebook.com/hobbyshopdungeon

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