Monday, June 29, 2009

Things that can sensibly be said about roleplaying system design and theory - or: why Ron Edwards, and his enemies were *all nearly* right.

I've been reading a bit about roleplaying theory, and its history lately. It's pretty depressing stuff on many counts - lots of tiny minds fuelled by monstrous egos wrecking themselves on the rocks of public opinion while people stand by and laugh on the sidelines. The major difficulty seems to be that each person who gets an idea seems convinced that This is the Way that It Is, and ends up unable to shake that idea. The reason that it's a big problem is that I'm less and less convinced that there can ever be a unified theory of roleplaying game design, and any attempt to build a game according to flawed design principles is totally doomed to failure.

There are two main reasons that roleplaying theory is an inherently flawed field (that is to say, there actually isn't much sensible you can say on the topic):
  1. Most attempts at a universal theory tying together all strands of the roleplaying hobby tend to be geared toward justifying the author's personal biases in terms of play style. This is certainly true of GNS theory, as can be seen by Ron Edwards management of The Forge, if not his writing on the theory itself.
    Even if theory authors avoid this trap, they still need to be aware that their own biases in terms of play style will have a bearing on what they consider to be a "good" roleplaying game - which is what roleplaying theory is all about. It does make sense to talk about "good" and "bad" roleplaying systems, but those labels are fairly subjective - even F.A.T.A.L. has defenders.
  2. A huge portion of the roleplaying experience is made up by elements out of the direct control of the game designer. Designers can specify which behaviours players should be rewarded for and which should be punished, and they can define a whole host of other contributing factors (setting, mechanical structure, prose tone, etc.) which colour the gaming experience but at the end of the day it's down to the people sitting round the table to control how it all play out.
    System matters - it colours the players experience, and it defines the framework they're going to operate in - but if people want to play as cocks in jets, they will do so regardless of systemic or setting considerations.
The one thing Ron Edwards got unequivocally right was his criticism of White Wolf based on the disconnect between their mechanical system and the promise that the World of Darkness line held out. They offered "story gaming" (which at least looked new and exciting) and instead delivered a set of games which had a broken mechanic and more complex morality systems than usual.

The lesson to be learned from this? There is one thing, and one thing only you can sensibly say in terms of roleplaying theory: make your game as much like it is as you possibly can. That is to say, if you want crazy martial-arts combat, focus on that. If you want complicated personal plots relating to characters' painful backgrounds, focus on that. Every bit of the setting, and every die-roll, card-draw, match of paper-rock-scissors or protracted argument of the system should be dedicated to supporting your core idea.

Do not, under ANY circumstances, try to do everything all at once.

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