Over twitter, Quinn Murphy posted a pool of questions he plans to send to some game designers he admires for small interviews, to inform his own views on game design. His questions are pretty interesting, so I thought I would answer them. Perhaps on your own blogs, or if you have none then in the comments of this one, you can try to answer the questions as well. We all have different ideas about game design, so please note, these are only my own.
When is a roleplaying game successful, from a perspective of play?
I think it is successful when you make use of the majority its rules to play to its expectations and enjoy yourself while doing so. When the rules of the game actively shape how you play the game, and you return to the game precisely for this experience, then it is successful. Of course different people will have different wants from a game and that is fine.
What should an RPG do & how do you know you’ve done it?
The game should package those expectations I talked to above, and deliver them. It should set a target, find an audience, and deliver to them the play experience that they want using its rules. I don’t really enjoy FORGE-style storytelling games. But they package a certain experience for their audience, of being a game where you use minimalistic rules to primarily create stories, rather than face “challenges” or overcome obstacles in a mathematical and logical framework. I enjoy games which have rules governing various granular aspects of a character’s creation, strengths, weaknesses, advantages, resources. I enjoy not only telling a story within these constraints, but also overcoming obstacles and challenges in them. I like games like Rogue Trader, where I create a character within a setting whose creation and play is granular, composed of rules elements which “map” to both the story and the gameplay. The rules inform the stories, and provide drama I can overcome by knowing those rules, and employing them to the best of the character’s ability, in the correct circumstances.
I suppose you know you’ve done it if you playtest a lot, and your groups enjoy it, and you release your game and people enjoy it. There will always be minor houserules here and there I think, but if people are enjoying your game for the experience it brings, it’s working. I reach for Rogue Trader to play Rogue Trader, to explore the universe of warhammer 40,000 as an incredibly rich and powerful space merchant on the edges of the known universe. It delivers that experience, it has a certain texture, and I go to it for that, and I enjoy it for that. I don’t need to radically alter that game.
This extends even to games like GURPS, that make it their goal that you return to them for ideas that other games just can’t capture, and that you build your own package with them. That being said, I prefer games with more focused experiences than entirely catch-all modular systems. I wouldn’t use GURPS to play Rogue Trader. I think right now to be really successful you have to produce a game that lavishes attention upon one setting and limited assumptions.
When does an RPG fail (if ever) as a system? What are common problems as you see them?
Personally I think an RPG fails as a system when the rules begin with the assumption that players will not naturally want to engage the concepts and must be forced to. For example, I think for a “storytelling game,” White Wolf games probably have too many rules and moving parts. Some rules engage the story in really weird ways: Vampire The Masquerade 20th Anniversary has a dice pool system where rolling too low will take successes from your pool, so acquiring more dice in your pool isn’t an actual straight growth in your character’s talents or magic – in fact it can be argued that as you gain more dice, and consequently tackle more difficult challenges, your chance of success decreases. Their games want you to think about the story, but it uses very constricting methods to enforce it – Promethean is a game about vulnerability and isolation that enforces both themes with rules that make you vulnerable and despised by other people. Your powers are circumstantial and weak, and your very presence can generate roaring mobs that will kill you. Personally, I consider that a failed design.
Sometimes games’ rules are also far out of the scope it’s trying to present. Reviled examples include FATAL, which is far too complicated for a game that is essentially just a really misogynistic and puerile fantasy game (more than usual). More complicated elements don’t directly lead to increased simulationism. Nobody should have to do trigonometry and solve fractional equations to create or play a character in a game. I consider that a failure too.
Some people might also suggest that an RPG system that failed to reach or keep its audience engaged would be a failure. Economically speaking there’s too many factors to really say “the system killed it” but you could probably make this argument, especially if the game had a lot of commercial muscle behind it.
What is your favorite game you’ve designed? What lessons did you learn building it?
Some fans will be disappointed to hear it is not Incongruent Future. Rather, I think the game that was most fun for me to design was High Score because it had a weird mechanic, and it was very different from anything I tried to do before. It taught me that just having a mechanic that was kinda clever and represents some kind of challenge isn’t enough to have a game. In High Score you essentially “did things” to rack up points. This mechanic however felt divorced from anything that was happening in the game, and while there was a goal, it wasn’t a very driving one, and was not really that conducive to creativity. It was essentially a race, and it didn’t matter much what anyone chose to do, just how high they rolled.
What is your favorite game that someone else designed? What do you like most about it? What 1 thing would you change (if any)?
I really like the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs by Fantasy Flight Games. I admire them for the way that they managed to convey the game setting in the mechanics. Warhammer 40,000 is grim, brutal and oppressive, while also being patently ridiculous. The game mechanics really capture how each of the setting focuses (Inquisitorial agents in Dark Heresy, the eponymous Rogue Traders, and the Space Marines of the Deathwatch) works, both mechanically and in the narrative. Warhammer 40,000′s rpgs convey the setting, and even the minis wargame, in such a fascinating way.
Inquisitorial Agents are socially powerful when lording over the citizenry, but they are just as physically vulnerable, and they must win by careful planning (racking up circumstantial bonuses) and wise use of their abilities, because a single bolter round to the center of mass will kill them. The Rogue Trader is so grand that wealth (currency in “throne gelt” being an actual penny-pinching system in Dark Heresy) means nothing to them. They have so much money that it is abstracted into a Profit Factor that can make up billions of thrones. Rogue Traders engage in ship combat, command vast crews, and are almost completely above the law. They are stronger, more influential and exist in an entirely different place than the Dark Heresy characters, and everything about their part of the game reflects this. Meanwhile the Space Marines are nigh-invulnerable warriors who genetically descend from even more nigh-invulnerable warriors, and possess certain traits and demeanor that comes from this. They’re not really human, and the way their personalities and origins stack up is different, and expressed in the rules. The Chapter-creation mechanics for Deathwatch are amazing. Each game manages to wind its flavor and mechanics impressively tight, while still giving players and their characters tons of freedom to play in a lot of different ways.
If I could change anything, it’d likely be a few niggling rules issues. Some of the mechanics are a little convoluted (how does Medicae work again?) and could be simplified – medicine really doesn’t matter that much as per-combat healing because one or two good shots will probably kill you. So if you don’t die during a combat, you might as well regain your Health after it, because any kind of attrition is really out of scale to the danger of the game.
When is an idea/concept good enough to turn into an RPG? What makes something “gameable”?
That’s tricky. Personally when I think of games, I think of frameworks and resources. If an idea can at least become a win or lose resource based game, then, well, it’s a game. Round up some players and play. If an idea can be expressed in a more complicated system framework, incorporating multiple strategies and factors expressed as granular units of rules, then all the better. I think there’s a lot of ways to make the concept into an RPG, some of which will evoke certain concepts better than others. Unless the concept is really esoteric, probably anything can become some kind of RPG, as long as there is some kind of conflict to resolve, resources to manage, strategy to employ, or preferably, all of them.
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Well, all of that sounded a bit more pretentious than I wanted it to be, honestly. But those are my answers.