KingSpoom's RPG Design & Theory Junkyard

The Six Successful Game Elements: Part 2

The first element most successful video games have is preparation. The second element is a sense of space.

Identifying and establishing a sense of space can be a difficult task. Essentially, all a sense of space really is is the confines in which gameplay takes place. For a game like chess, the sense of space is the 8x8 board. A game of monopoly, however, includes both the board, and the social relationship between the players. When you try to identify the simple concept of a sense of space to RPGs, you see that it is a large aspect of the game.

Although many roleplaying games don't have rules for it, there is a large social aspect to the game. The sense of space can be hard to gauge without rules. Does giving the GM's car a jump affect what happens in the game? Does buying snacks for everyone affect the game? Does being a jerk affect the game? All of these things affect the atmosphere of the game and how much fun you get out of the evening, but they can also affect the actual happenings of the game depending upon your group. Ever have a player try to open up a business or gather an army in a dungeon crawler-style game? That's probably because he didn't understand the sense of space.

Without a sense of space, players can really misread things. Rules help a great deal with this, by laying the groundwork for resolving the types of things characters will be doing, but they can only do so much. The setting can also help (and sometimes hurt) the sense of space a player has about the game. Experience playing the game, as a group, is very valuable as well.

The Six Successful Game Elements: Part 1

There are six elements that most successful video games have. I intend on breaking them down, applying them to roleplaying games, and seeing what still fits. The first element is preparation.

Preparation is something the player does before a challenge that has an affect on their odds of success. Interestingly enough, right away there is a difference between video games and tabletop rpgs: Preparation can apply to both your character interacting with the system and you interacting with the GM. The scale of preparation can change depending upon the game. Some preparation is set in stone, usually during character creation, but a lot of it can persist during actual play.

I feel preparation is an important aspect of roleplaying games. Some playstyles have preparation accounting for a majority of their playtime. In fact, it is hard to imagine an rpg without preparation. There can be gaps due to scope, however. For example: When looking at the long-term goal of Rescuing a kidnapped princess, there is usually a lot you can do to prepare. You could ask around for information on your enemy, buy new or specific equipment, or any number of things. A short-term goal of winning the combat you are in can still give you many chances to prepare. Each individual move you make still voices your opinion. Throwing sand in the enemies eye, destroying his potions before he uses them, or deciding who to take out first. Preparation usually breaks down, to a point, on each individual roll (or resolution). Although there are things you can do before you attempt an action, not many rpgs offer you a chance to do specific actions (read: skills) a different way, unless you count GM interaction (usually coupled with a situational modifier for a good or bad idea).

In this element, RPGs are solid. The interaction between the player and GM usually guarantees the ability to prepare, and many if not most systems allow great amounts of preparation (down to the resolution level). I feel as if roleplaying games could benefit from allowing preparation even during resolution, such as offering give and take options, but it is not necessary.

Combat and non-combat skills

Combat and non-combat are generally seen as two different areas of gameplay in a roleplaying game. A lot of the time, the two areas have different paces and different methods of resolution. Even under some universal mechanic, they can still end up feeling very different. Under these circumstances, however, you'll still find them lumped together when it comes to certain aspects of the game. Namely: leveling up.

I've never really understood the reasoning behind the lumping of these two things together. Take D&D for example: You can use a feat and get a +1 to attack or you can spend a feat and gain +3 to the "search" skill. It is your choice to spend your feat in any of many areas, but in the end this ends up making the GMs job harder. Not only does he have to handle the guy who chooses all combat feats, but he also has to deal with the other guys (in the same group) who have chosen half or no combat feats. I've played in games where the disparity between two characters of the same class has been such that one character would clearly die in a given situation and the other would have no trouble overcoming it.

So I come back to the question: Why lump together combat and non-combat gains, leaving the GM to keep track, sort through, and balance each encounter in such a difficult way? I imagine it was done to keep the game simpler. 1 less term to make for nifty little power gains (although they did end up with feats and fighter-feat feats) and a little less work distributing abilities to classes. In the end, it did allow you to take a class that was combat focused to begin with and slowly alter it for a more skill-focused game, but I don't believe that it's worth it.

This brings up something else: How I believe it should work. I think that systems should be designed in such a way that there is a divide between combat and non-combat abilities. This divide ensures that characters are balanced according to their combat abilities and their non-combat abilities, instead of the sum of all of their abilities. This makes all characters relevant both inside and outside of combat. It also makes it a lot easier to have group-based challenges or group-level challenges because everyone is on common ground.

I do think there is an initial opposition to this idea, however. Some people will think that a player who would create "Fred the Fighter" in 3.x, put all of his choices into combat and generally like participating only when something is being hacked up, will be put off by or discouraged in such a system. I, however, believe that his participation will thrive in such an environment. He probably likes to kill things, and would be happy to kill things in most systems, or he likes the challenge of being the best thing killer, in which case he'll still try to "game the system" within the combat choices that he does have. It's a win/win design choice.