Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

What an RPG Needs

Before I get into the various aspects of role-playing systems, it is best to start by talking about what a system is for.

My baseline assumption for this discussion is that role-playing is a social activity and that, at the end of the day, all "rules" used by a particular group are defined (usually implicitly) by the group as a whole. What I mean is that role-playing is done in the context of a social arrangement that may not be explicitly defined, but that can be described by all participants even if each description is different.

That sounds confusing, so lets have an example. Fred, Bob, Jim, and Julie agree to get together and play some D&D. All of the players have experience with role-playing, though not with each other. If you asked each player, "How does one participate in a role-playing game?", each has a different answer, but does have an answer (and most likely thinks that his/her version is the definitive one). Fred thinks that being creative and coming up with compelling drama is what the game is about and that you do that best by having a GM who creates vivid plotlines with lots of interpersonal tension. To Bob, role-playing is lighthearted social time where players crack jokes both in and out of character and generally have fun. Jim sees the game as a collaborative effort where each player contributes not only to his own character's story, but to the game in general. To Jim, the GM is there to keep things fair and to play the adversaries, but not to push a set plot or agenda--the GM should be reactive and in tune with the players' creativity. Julie has found that the best games involve serious mechanical challenges that the player overcome by using the abilities of their characters in the most clever ways possible--she wants to be challenged. [For those of you familiar with the Big Model of the Forge, take note that these example opinions are not meant to have any direct relationship to the creative agendas.]

The point is that everyone comes to the game with their own preconceived notions about what a game is supposed to be like. And, odds are, they wouldn't agree about these notions if they were to actually talk about them, which they won't because each one assumes that everybody knows how you do it. If you are keeping score, what I'm talking about is what Ron Edwards at al at the Forge calls Social Contract, but in the example I'm using it's a broken social contract. Within the social structure of the gaming group is set of things that are The Official Rules of the game. Some will argue that you don't need any rules to role-play, you just trust each other and come up with collaborative fiction. This discussion isn't for those folks. If you can make the idealistic, no rules required RPG work, more power to you. The rest of us need rules.

So bearing in mind that the rules live inside an existing dynamic social arrangement, what purpose do they serve? What do they need in order to work? The answers to these two questions (from my point of view) make up the rest of this article.

The rules guide play. That is over simple, but it's the root answer. The baseline purpose of rule is to tell the players (including the GM) how the game is played: When this thing happens, this player gets to describe this other thing. When this thing happens, roll dice and engage the mechanics to determine the resolution. The GM describes everything that isn't a player action. All the prescriptive rules in a role-playing book tell the players how the game works. The problem is that many games start by assuming that you know how an RPG works, so they don't tell you. Worse yet are the games that assume that you will be able to figure out how the game was designed to be played without it being clearly and explicitly described.

Rules also provide context. There is context between the character and the setting, between the player and the system, between the character and color, and more--all in the rules of the game. This is a subtle variation on prescribing how you play the game. The rules give guidance, often implicitly, about how to role-play a character, or how to describe an even in the game.

So what do RPG rules need to be complete and useful? This question can't be objectively answered, but I'll put out my take on it. Rules must:

  • Provide a method for defining characters that the players use
  • Provide a method for adjudicating actions and interactions in the imaginary continuity of the game (i.e. I want to accomplish this thing, so I need engage these rules in this way)
  • Define which player has authority in given situations (e.g. the GM has complete authority over in-game events that do not directly relate to any PCs)
  • Have clear goals for play and follow through on them

Rules might (and in some cases should):

  • Define rewards for play in keeping with the goals of the game (e.g. Experience points for overcoming challenges in game)
  • Establish color and tone for the stories told using them

There are probably more, but this is enough to be getting on with. Next up: some thoughts about common system approaches that are flawed (IMHO).

2 Comments:

Blogger BLANCHE said...

Nice blog. Have you seen your google rating? BlogFlux It's Free and you can add a Little Script to your site that will tell everyone your ranking. I think yours was a 3. I guess you'll have to check it out.

Computer News
Microsoft lawsuit is called a 'charade'

In a simmering legal tussle, Google, the Internet search company, is asking a judge to reject Microsoft's bid to keep a prized research engineer from taking a job at Google, saying that Microsoft filed a lawsuit to frighten other workers from defecting.

Microsoft sued the research engineer, Kai-Fu Lee, and Google last week, asserting that by taking the Google job, Lee was violating an agreement that he signed in 2000 barring him from working for a direct competitor in an area that overlapped with his role at Microsoft.

"This lawsuit is a charade," Google said in court documents filed before a hearing on Wednesday in Seattle. "Indeed, Microsoft executives admitted to Lee that their real intent was to scare other Microsoft employees into remaining at the company."


Google countersued last week, seeking to override Microsoft's noncompete provision so that it can retain Lee.

"In truth, Kai-Fu Lee's work for Microsoft had only the most tangential connection to search and no connection whatsoever to Google's work in this space," Google said in court documents.

The judge in the case, Steven Gonzalez of Superior Court, who heard arguments in the case on Wednesday, said he expected to issue a ruling on Thursday.

Google's filings include details about a conversation Lee had with Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates, suggesting that his company was becoming increasingly concerned about Google's siphoning of talent, and perhaps intellectual property.

Lee said Gates told him in a meeting on July 15, referring to Microsoft's chief executive, Steven Ballmer: "Kai-Fu, Steve is definitely going to sue you and Google over this. He has been looking for something like this, someone at a VP level to go to Google. We need to do this to stop Google."

A Microsoft spokeswoman, Stacy Drake, declined to comment on Gates's statement directly.

"Our concern here is the fact that Dr. Lee has knowledge of highly sensitive information both of our search business and our strategy in China," she said.

Lee said Google did not recruit him and had not encouraged him to violate any agreement he had with Microsoft.

Microsoft countered that Lee's job with Google gave him ample opportunity to leak sensitive technical and strategic business secrets. Microsoft noted that Lee attended a confidential, executive-only briefing in March, which was labeled "The Google Challenge."

"In short, Dr. Lee was recently handed Microsoft's entire Google competition 'playbook,"' Microsoft said.

Lee joined Microsoft in August 2000 after he helped to establish its research center in China. At one point, Microsoft said, he was in charge of the company's work on MSN Search.

Microsoft and Google, along with Yahoo, are locked in a fierce battle to dominate search, both online and through desktop search programs. Google has begun offering new services, including e-mail, that compete with Microsoft offerings.


Microsoft said it had paid Lee well in exchange for his promises to honor confidentiality and noncompete agreements.

The company said that Lee made more than $3 million during nearly five years at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and that he earned more than $1 million last year.

Microsoft asserts that there is "an extremely close between the work Lee did at Microsoft and what he will be doing at Google.

Google argued otherwise, insisting that Lee is not a search expert and noting that his most recent work at Microsoft was in speech recognition.


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Friday, October 14, 2005 4:54:00 AM  
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Phil Coel

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