Monday, August 12, 2013

Roleplaying Systems & Storytelling

I'm going to start off this post by making some broad generalizations about people in the roleplaying game community.

1) We like telling collaborative stories with our friends.
2) We like playing boardgames with our friends.
3) We often want to do both 1) and 2) at the same time with the same people.

Fortunately, roleplaying game systems allow us to do just that. But not every story is equally well told by every RPG system. If your group is anything like ours you've run into what we've come to call the "limits of a system." As Jeremy mentions in his last post, it can be difficult to play Captain Malcolm Reynolds in a team of specialists using a game system like Pathfinder. The d20 System and its descendants all have a "roll-high" mechanic that determine outcomes based on whether or not a player can surpass a target number (Difficulty Class or DC). This encourages players to build specialized characters with a high single stat in order to bypass that DC so that they can feel like they're more successful.

The concept of a generalist character is limited by the fact that the d20 system, mechanically, heavily favors specialists builds. But my argument is that this is not a inherent flaw with the game system itself. I think that this is a problem that results from the dissonance created when a game system doesn't align with the type of story trying to be told. For example, if I want to tell a gritty, super lethal, cyberpunk intrigue set in a dystopian future I wouldn't use the Pathfinder or d20 Systems. HP and AC are great abstractions but don't perfectly capture the feeling of intense laser gun shoot outs or seat-of-the-pants hover car chases. I'd probably use Shadowrun or Paranoia (depending on how much hilarious backstabbing I wanted) because those game systems were designed with that setting and story structure in mind.

A roleplaying game system really shines when it is used to tell the stories that it was originally designed for. Dread is a great example. It's an incredibly effective storytelling system for how simple the rules are. 95% of the mechanics revolve around a Jenga tower. In order for your character to accomplish difficult tasks, your player pulls a block out of the tower. If the tower falls down, your character dies (or is otherwise removed from the game). You can also elect to intentionally knock down the tower which represents your character going out in a blaze of glory. That's pretty much it. Dread is a great system to tell a horror and suspense themed story because the mechanics support the slow building of tension that is so critical to the telling of a compelling suspense thriller. With each successful act there is an increasingly likelihood that the next act will result in both failure and lethality because the tower becomes more and more unstable. When the tower falls and someone dies, tension is released and the tower is rebuilt, only to come crashing down again at another dramatic peak.

As great as Dread is for horror, it's terrible for a pulpy, sword-and-sorcery type game. Dread assumes that most of the protagonists die by the end of the story. There's very little chance for epic greatness when your character is literally one action away from death at all times. If I want to tell a story about Conan the Barbarian, I want a system that assumes that the players win, forgives mistakes, and allows recovery from streaks of bad luck. I also don't want a system that has too many rules for elements outside the scope of the story I want to tell. I don't need to know how to handle acceleration and vector based turns or how much damage my character would take from orbital bombardment. What I do need is a system that allows me to tell a story where my character cuts the head off of a dragon and wears its skin for a cloak.

Now there are exceptions to this, of course. James Jacobs' Unspeakable Futures and  F. Wesley Schneider's Mass Effect/Pathfinder mashup are a couple of examples of how the Pathfinder/d20 system can be adapted to genres beyond Sword and Sorcery. The key word there is adapt. Game rules will never perfectly capture what it's actually like to do the things we talk about in stories. It's all about verisimilitude. And ultimately it's a matter of group consensus that will determine which RPG system you end up using. Whatever is the most fun.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stat numbers and the nature of a hero, or, Do You Really Need That 18?

Most of the gamers I've ever met have tried, at some point, to stat up their favorite heroes and villains from books, tv, or other games. The problem with this is that heroes, in fiction, are generally pretty good at everything. Protagonists tend to be strong, fast, healthy, smart, perceptive, and charismatic. That's why reading about their adventures makes for good escapist fantasy. But it's easy to throw up your hands and say “you can't make [that hero] in D&D, the point buy numbers are too low.”

But are we setting the bar too high?

I'm going out on a limb and guessing that anyone reading a blog called “Kill it with Dice” is probably fairly familiar with the Firefly universe.

On the Serenity, it's easy to pick out who has the highest intelligence (Simon), charisma (Inara), dexterity (River), wisdom (Shepard Book) or strength (Jayne) but it's not so easy to stat up Malcolm Reynolds or Zoe Washburn, the leaders. They're good at everything. But the important thing to recognize is that they are not as good at anything as the crew's resident specialists (that's why the specialists are hired in the first place).

Mal and Zoe are the kind of people who, in an rpg, have a 13 or 14 in most of their stats. They won't hit with every bullet or succeed on every check, but that's part of what makes watching them so much fun.

Now consider the kind of people who have 18s. Since we're already discussing the Firefly universe, consider Mr. Universe (maxed int), or River (maxed dex). Or how about this guy? Who's more interesting to watch in that clip? The guy with 18 str and 16 con, or the guy with a 14 in both of those, but with some int to boot?

People with 18s are some dysfunctional, odd people. When I see a character with an 18 in a stat, I wonder what other stats and personality factors they're giving up for that level of specialization. I'm always interested to see whether the player will use the idea that their character is better in their chosen field than 99% of the human population in their role-playing.

It's generally accepted in tabletop rpgs that the PCs are heroic specialists, people who are amazingly good at what they do. Most parties are built with an eye toward “balance” and an assumption that each character will be remarkable at what they do and pretty terrible at everything else. When someone brings a charismatic fighter or a strong sorcerer to the table, eyebrows are raised. Mechanically, there's no reason to put any points into those stats.

But I'd like to throw this out there: maybe characters don't need to be specialists, and maybe specialists don't need to be the pinnacle of human possibility. Unless your game is the kind of party vs GM stat-fest where you really do need to squeeze every last +1 out of every line on your character sheet, it's probably worth it to build the character that you want to play. I've often found myself making a character and thinking “it's too bad the build doesn't have room for a positive int modifier... it would be fun if this guy was kind of smart.”

It's interesting to remember that a lot of the heroes that we love to watch or read about aren't the smartest, fastest, or strongest out there.

What do you think? Is it viable to play Malcolm Reynolds in your game? Is there room is modern fantasy role-playing for a generalist with a primary stat less than 16?