Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Elements of an RPG

I asked James Maliszewski to define the central difference between the level/class games of the "old school" and the point-build systems of today. I asked James this question because he blogs about retro-gaming on his most excellent site, Grognardia. He's engaged in a bit of archeology by attempting to rediscover the roots of the hobby by playing old school RPGs. So he's perfectly placed to answer this question.

James' answer was "...old school games have simple designs that use multiple sub-systems that work in unison (rather than a single unified system)..." An interesting answer.

Nowadays, when we design a game system, we use a "single, unified system." It makes sense that once you separate skills from character class, then task resolution should use the same mechanic. Rolling dice to determine your character's success in shooting or punching an antagonist is really no different from doing the same to sneak down an alley. Once you establish that, all other mechanics can follow suit; if you're going to use a "saving throw" mechanic, then it, too, should logically follow the same system.

Having participated in the design of two rules systems (Icon and Coda), I understand how we (as a profession) got here. Yet in the early days of the hobby, designers used a different methodology. I'm not sure if it's because Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson came out of table-top wargaming, or if it's that they were inventing a hobby and didn't think to use a single, unified system. There is a certain elegance to a unified system, but as I stated in my last post, level/class systems make it easier for players to play; that's elegant, too.

What are those multiple sub-systems that work in concert? What are the elements of a role-playing game? In no particular order:

Attributes: The way to measure a character in a game, his strength, his speed, his brains. Every game uses this methodology to represent a persona (whether level/class or point-build). I find it odd that someone hasn't come up with a different method, or expanded the medium beyond numerical representation. Universally, the higher the attribute, the better the character in that given area.

Hit Points: This system measures how much damage a character can withstand. It typically plugs into the attribute system and class system through a modifier. Once you lose all your hit points, your character is dead.

Saving Throws: D&D used this mechanic to cover other kinds of threats besides swords and arrows. Disease, poison, electrocution... anything that needed to be resisted or avoided was covered by the saving throw mechanic. James Maliszewski suggests on Grognardia that this sub-system was basically an "oh, shit!" mechanic to cover those instances where the player has gotten his character into trouble and needs a way out. But there's really no reason to use a separate sub-system; disease could be handled by a constitution attribute test, for example. (Oddly, in the original D&D, you wanted to roll under your save number, but over your "to hit" number.)

"To Hit" mechanic: The basic system for bashing opponents. It's really the central sub-system, since the whole point of most RPGs is whacking someone with a weapon. This is a function of character class (fighters are better at combat than thieves, who are better at it than wizards), modified by attribute. You want to roll over this value.

Levelling/Experience: This is the sub-system governing your character's improvement over time. We all accept and agree with the idea that a person gets better at his job the more he does it. This is measured with points awarded for specific tasks, and once a certain threshold is met the character "levels up." With this comes an improvement to class-based elements.

Class skills/abilities: The central feature of a class-system, these various sub-systems define what your character can accomplish in the game. Wizards get additional, and more potent, spells, for example. Their ability to hit goes up, and their saving throws improve. I believe character class is the central sub-system off of which all the others feed. Once you determine what elements make up a character class, you can plug in all those other sub-systems.

Race: If the game includes other races, such as elves or Klingons, then it requires sub-systems to handle them. Typically, this is a modifier to attributes, as well as certain special abilities.

"Other" mechanic: If the game includes psionics, there needs to be a psionic system. Games with magic need a magic system. Giant robot games need a sub-system(s) to handle them.

I'm certain I'm missing additional sub-systems, as well as the myriad ways these sub-systems plug into each other. I've been thinking about how to advance this, to push them edge of the envelope, as it were, with a level/class system.

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