Monday, April 14, 2014

PAX East 2014: Modernizing Fantasy RPGs Panel Recap

One of the panels I went to at PAX East was one dubbed, “Modernizing Fantasy [Pen and Paper] RPGs.” It was an interesting look at some of the history behind Pen and Paper RPGs, what concepts we think we should keep, and the way forward. It was run by industry veterans Luke Crane (Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, Torchbearer), Thor Olavsrud (Torchbearer) and Adam Koebel (Dungeon World).

When people look at modern Fantasy RPGs these days, you think dark, gritty settings and expansive rulesets, but it clearly wasn’t always the case. In the early days, the sophistication of current role playing games just wasn’t there. After Gary Gygax released D&D to the masses, the first immediate result was revulsion from some sectors of nerdy fandoms. Turns out the whole idea of hating on D&D and what it stood for isn’t remotely new. So out came Chivalry & Sorcery in 1977, a game aimed at realism but ended up with a horrible ruleset.

Most early RPGs had cover art like this. The industry was not precisely in a place to afford high-quality art.
Shortly after (1978) came Runequest, a game which was level-less, class-less, but entirely skill-based (oh, and it had spell points). Another shining example of those crazy ideas that you might have, and oh, someone already thought of it in the first 5 years of the entire genre. However, what was really important about Runequest was it was the first example of a game that tied rules and setting together. Rather than trying to be just a generic dungeon crawl (D&D), Runequest took the setting and translated it to rules that made sense to convey that setting.

Move forward to 1985, and we have a game called Pendragon. The designers behind this game went the opposite direction of Chivalry & Sorcery. “Fuck realism,” was the precise term used, I believe. You’re a Knight in King Arthur’s court, where does realism come into play? The game featured personality traits, passions, historical and mythological sources, and a deep metagame. But the game was laser-focused: you could be a Knight, or another kind of Knight. The game promised a very specific game, and delivered by not trying to be everything to anyone.

Compare that to Vampire: The Masquerade, released in 1991. The game setting proposes a game where you could expect brooding political drama and high urban fantasy intrigue between vampire clans, but in actuality delivered a superhero game, where you walk into a room and gun down or fist fight all the baddies. Basically, the setting and the rules delivered discordant games.

Then in 1999 Sorcerer was released—a game which reached back to source material of the past, and directly addressed emotional content. The game was all about atmosphere: what makes people do bad things? And so the rules provided a structure and impetus for the players do bad things and experience the fallout from that.

Of course, any panel wouldn’t be complete without the panelists plugging their own products. Burning Wheel was brought up as a game that emphasized player priorities and dramatic play over exploration, loot, and murder. Dungeon World was the exact opposite, being all about said exploration, loot, and murder, trying to bring back that feeling you had playing D&D when you were 12.

So what, in our panelists’ opinions, were the hallmarks of great modern fantasy RPGSs?

First is Task vs. Conflict Resolution. The ability to address success, but also “fail forward,” that is, failure doesn’t necessary mean your game stops. A trivial example of a task would be to pick a lock. Clear skill roll, but failure means you’re stuck. However, conflict resolution might be to gain entry to the chest before the guards appear. Maybe you get into the chest, maybe you don’t. Maybe you do it before the guards appear, or maybe you get in just as they’re rounding the corner. Conflict resolution gives you options as a party and DM to move the game and story forward. The rules should encourage and enforce this.

Second, a comprehensive system that is focused. You want more than just magic and combat to allow for situations outside the generic dungeon crawl (assuming you want that), but the rules should be laser-tight and not trying to be everything (i.e.: GURPS), as trying to be everything to everyone inevitably fails, and ends up with far more complexity than is useful.

Third, a clear and present procedure; rules text that contains the entire game rather than just giving the class descriptions and combat tables and hoping you have a friend who can teach you. Many games are much better about this these days, and rules text that also teaches you how to play is the ultimate goal here.

Fourth, player agency. If your GM is being a shit, players can go to the Player Agency to file a complaint. No, actually, this is talking about persistence of character, player priorities, focus of action on the character story rather than just the GM binging his module and driving everything. An interesting aside to this is what the panelists referred to as the “Nuremburg Defense of Gaming,” an essay found in the Vampire source book. Player agency is well and great, but being a dick to your fellow players just because, “that’s what my character would do,” is a terrible way to play what amounts to a cooperative game. That’s not to say there are not ways to play evil characters and parties, but it’s a tricky balance that most players are incapable of maintaining without the game devolving into useless party self-immolation.

Fifth, narrative. Formally acknowledging “story” and drama, and producing the capability to either deliver a complete story or episode in a single session, or a complex interwoven plot over many sessions. An interesting point brought up was that there’s a myth in gaming that the only game worth playing is the two year campaign with all the same players in the same game and the same story and everything is ruined if someone leaves. One-shots and other formats can be equally as fun and valid.
Early fantasy women were there to be enslaved or ensorcelled. Nowadays? I wouldn't want to tangle with this Pathfinder Paladin. She's pretty badass. The boob armour is still a bit odd (studies show that's just going to get a sword through her sternum), but companies are getting better.
Once we covered all of the above, the panelists covered some odds and ends and went into some miscellaneous points as well as answering questions.
  • Fantasy has a bad rap. It’s seen as puerile, and with good reason given some of the awful cover art (especially from the 90s). But it is pretty cool that we’re airing our dirty laundry and getting better at representation of anyone who isn’t just the straight male.
  • The RPG industry is going through a bit of an old school Renaissance, where games with really small but focused rulesets to convey a specific setting/feeling are coming back into vogue.
  • Roleplaying has exploded over the past decade. All sorts of ages and people playing these days.
  • Video games and RPGs have a bit of a cyclical relationship, where each borrows from the other. Board games were a good impetus for creating procedural rules in games.
  • A game’s rules can set the tone for interpersonal dynamics, but cannot fix someone acting in bad faith. Your only recourse is to get them to change their behavior or kick them from your group.
  • A game should have enough rules to be a good game. If you’re trying to experiment with the smallest number of rules, you probably won’t end up with a good game.
  • The rules are the setting. The intent of the mechanics should absolutely change with the setting. A sword fight in a medieval game can be quite in-depth about scoring hits, but in science fiction you’ll just cut them in half because SPACE SWORD. As such, mechanics can imply things about the setting.
  • Game rules are modifying the behavior of the people at the table. If the players are constantly making poor decisions, you need to change the rules to incentivize the right decisions.
  • Things like ability scores are not necessarily obsolete. They create a boundary and comparison for characters. If you need to know if you’re stronger than the orc you are fighting, it’s an important statistic. If you’re making a dating game, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re stronger than your date.
  • When a player is at a loss as to what to do, the first thing they do is look at their character sheet to determine what options they have, making the character sheet an extremely important way to convey information and options.

Overall, it was a pretty interesting panel. Definitely lots of good information that can apply outside the Pen and Paper RPG genre, as well.

#PAX, #GameDesign, #GoodDesign, #BadDesign


  1. Thanks for the writeup. Very interesting perspectives. I follow a lot of tabletop gamers and game writers on Google+, and I'm a big fan of tabletop gaming personally. Tabletop has been seeing a small renaissance, and not just in the "old school" areas.

    However, I disagree about VtM's setting and rules being discordant. Vampires were supposed to be the apex predator, which meant that they were supposed to be much stronger than humans. And, as with any predator, you vampires fight for rights: to feed, to procreate, etc. So, the vampires needed to have a lot of combat prowess for the game to make sense. Yes, the game did have a lot of combat rules, but there were also plenty of non-combat rules and elements on the character sheet.

    The real story of VtM was about your character, a former human who is now a beast that drinks blood. The game was a look at how you would act if you were one of these predators who had to prey on your former species. Would you give into the beast, or would you fight to retain your humanity? The fact that some people would use the power of the transformation to vampire to become physically powerful is actually a fairly interesting story point in itself.

    So, I think the "problem" is that for your typical D&D gamer, it was easy to play the game as "superheroes with fangs", and *that* style of play was at odds with the setting.. And, I don't say that to be derogatory as some people do; my D&D group in university played a lot of VtM, and it was often as "superheroes with fangs". I actually quite preferred Werewolf because the combat was supposed to be a bigger part of the game.

    But, I know people who played highly political games of VtM where combat rarely happened. I think VtM was actually one of the earliest games to give players a lot of agency, and some players used that agency to simply tell stories about how badass their character was in combat.

    1. It was a pretty good panel overall.

      I agree in that yes, you should be able to have highly political games of VtM where combat rarely happens. In fact, you should be able to have that with *any* system. Anybody who complains that 4th Edition D&D is nothing but combat has a combat-happy DM/party. There's nothing truly preventing people from RPing in any of those systems.

      I think I really misrepresented the panelists by summarizing their point. They were focused more on the rules around explosives, uzis, tanks, etc. along with the super-power vampires themselves. If I recall correctly, their point was (paraphrased), if the first thing your players seem to always do is rob a military compound for their stuff, you have a bit of a problem. Basically, the rules are suggestions to the players on what they can and should focus on, and by including very explicit rules about all of the above in the player guide, that's precisely what the players are wont to do.

    2. The great thing about tabletop games is that they do use a lot of imagination in general. The rules are there mostly as a guide, and some people need more guides than others. Some people are happy to do diceless games based in a set universe and just spinning shared stores. Other people want to dig into crunchy game mechanics that try to simulate a world. Because RPGers are creative, rules are added, modified and subtracted on a regular basis. You can have a political-filled 4th edition D&D game just as easily as you can have a combat-focused game of VtM.

      I think that there's some feeling that there's a "right" way to play, though. Not necessarily from you, or from the panelists, but in general. I saw this a lot when I read a lot of tabletop RPG newsgroups back in the day. "Munchkins" in D&D were always slammed, people hated VtM players who wanted "superheroes with fangs", etc. I think the important part is to find people who want to play the same type of game you do, or are at least game to try. :)

      I think the strength of a lot of the World of Darkness games was that they were flexible. Want to play a heavily political arc? Totally possible. Want to throw down and beat some faces in? Also very possible with the rules they give. I think perhaps Werewolf was better for this than VtM, personally. So, I don't see the combat rules for the WoD games as being discordant at all. I think that's part of the strength of the system.

      Anyway, as I said, I love tabletop games. :) Thanks again for posting this summary, and do post more about tabletop games if you want!