“Yes, but what does it do?”
It’s an annoying question, but one that probably doesn’t get asked enough, especially in the realm of Tabletop Role-Playing Games. As gamers, we have a tendency to look at a set of rules and presume that we can use them to simulate most anything. In fact, for a lot of gamers, the failure to accurately (or interestingly) simulate an action is a feature, not a bug, since said failure often allows exploitation to a player’s benefit. Understanding what a set of rules can do, can’t do, and can’t do well is a critical skill for game players, game masters, and game writers.
I read a lot of John Wick, both because he’s written some of my favorite games, and just because he’s a fun writer. John introduced me to Jared Sorensen’s three questions about game design. They are:
- What is the game about?
- How does your game do that?
- What behaviors does your game reward?
Looking through the lens of these three questions, it becomes easier to grok why some games are really good at some things and really bad at others. Pathfinder, like its ancestral line of Dungeons and Dragons, is fantastic at tactical combat. Pathfinder, thanks to its modifications of the archery rules, has actually improved the tactical play by making ranged combat viable, unlike D&D. On the other hand, Pathfinder is not that great at running interpersonal drama. As John mentions in his blog post on his new interstellar sex game, Pathfinder is a game in which a 10-second fight (more likely a 1 minute fight) takes 3 hours, but a seduction takes one die roll. In looking at question #3, Pathfinder rewards killing monsters more than it rewards any other behavior. That encourages a certain play style and explains, at least in part, where the hack-and-slash mentality comes from. One of the reasons Munchkin is such an outstanding parody of D&D is that it does, in fact, distill the system down to its most basic components.
I know this sounds judgmental, mostly because I sound judgmental when I write and speak, but I really enjoy playing Pathfinder – I’m playing in two campaigns right now. But understanding that Pathfinder encourages violent stories about a group of heroes (as opposed to a heroic saga, but the cognitive collisions between Pathfinder and its literary inspirations is another blog post), and doesn’t encourage, for example, romantic comedy is critical to telling the best stories and writing the best products we can.
So let me propose three new questions. These are for game writers and game masters primarily, as opposed to Jared’s questions for game designers.
What genre of stories does this game tell well? A little nomenclature goes a long way here. In literary terms, a genre is a classification system based on stylistic criteria. In sociolinguistics terms, it’s also a classification system, but one that is more socially defined – looking at things like textual function and how its internal organization relates to the communications it enables. In RPGs, genre picks up elements of both of these definitions, because certain games follow certain stylistic tropes, but also enable certain modes of communication. Identifying genre means identifying the social conventions and agree-upon tropes that make up the system as we understand it. Pathfinder tells violent adventure stories well. 7th Sea tells swashbuckling adventure stories well. A key difference in those two genres is how often people die – in Pathfinder, people die practically all the time and killing is, in fact, the primary reward-earning mechanism. In 7th Sea, no one dies unless the GM says they do: if you lose all of your health stat, you are “knocked out.” Moreover, there’s no immediate reward for killing bad guys, while there are immediate rewards for undertaking outrageous swashbuckling stunts (swinging on chandeliers, leaping off of balconies to race the rescue, etc.). All of these things encourage particular play styles and tell a would-be writer what the game is designed to do.
How can I tell a new story in that genre? It’s important to remember that genres are relatively broad. Violent adventure can incorporate King Arthur, Conan, and James Bond (he’s not the protagonist of an espionage story, really – contrast it with John Le Carre). For the game writer, that means reading broadly in both adventures that have been written and in genre literature. As any good economist will tell you, the successful entrepreneur is looking for the underserved market. Within every genre of games, there is an underserved market and there the filthy lucre lies. There are plenty of stories Paizo isn’t interested in telling in their Adventure Paths or their game world, and that’s fine – that’s what the third party market is there for.
Caveat Scriptor – Sometimes a market is underserved because it’s too small to make any money.
For game masters, some of the question has been answered, but GMs also have a whole different set of variables to consider: the players. Every adventure is a new story, because the players are going to weave their own plots and subplots into the pre-written setting (Another future blog post: how writing fiction and writing adventures is wildly different). GMs need to understand the genre’s conventions and how the players understand those conventions, in order to help build the story that everyone wants to tell. Conversely, players need to understand the GM’s perspective on the conventions, so that no one is trying to impose a vision of the genre that isn’t shared by everyone.
When can I break the rules? The answer is sparingly, and always deliberately. Just because Pathfinder doesn’t mechanically support intricate human interaction doesn’t mean you can’t tell stories that involve it (I think The Walking Dead would make a great d20 story). It does mean that when you want to break out of the genre’s conventions, you’ll probably need additional rules (see pretty much the entire Ultimate Campaign book), and you’ll need to bring the players along in developing understanding of those rules in order to get them to invest in that part of the story.
For me, as a writer and line developer, that is part of what I see my line of books for Fat Goblin Games, Knowledge Check, as doing. In Pathfinder, the skill system feels a bit tacked on, and it runs under distinct mechanical conventions to such a degree that it’s really its own mechanic, tied to the rest of the game engine by little more than the choice in random number generator. Within that mechanic, however, is the entire panoply of human behavior that doesn’t involve hacking the person next to you into bloody chunks. I’m all about bloody chunk-making (I’m playing a barbarian in my local Iron Gods campaign), but if I can help GMs and players break the genre rules just a little bit and find an exciting flash of intrigue, drama, or even romance, that’s a balm to my little black heart.