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Santa Vaca: Game Balance

(Opened to the general public at jediwiker's request)

Listening to people talk about the fourthcoming (intentional) edition of D&D, I hear a lot of the same thing: balancing out the classes. 

I hear the fighter will deal out the most amount of damage up close while the thief (I will not say "rogue") deals the most amount of damage from behind while the magic-user deals out the most amount of damage from a distance and yadda yadda yadda.

I console myself with the knowledge that the new D&D design team is finally giving up the ghost. D&D isn't a roleplaying game; it's a very sophisticated board game. This is a bit of a paradox because D&D is the first roleplaying game. Yet, it isn't a roleplaying game. Like being your own grandfather, this takes some explaining.

I've been thinking a lot about the "What is a roleplaying game?" question. Thinking in the same way Scott McCloud thought about "What is Comics?" in his absolutely brilliant Understanding Comics graphic novel. I've been thinking about it because something about the new D&D struck me sideways strange.

I think it's important to note that any game can be turned into a roleplaying game. You can turn chess into a roleplaying game by naming your King and giving him an internal dialogue. You can turn Life into a roleplaying game the same way. In fact, you can turn any board game into a roleplaying game that way. But you have to add something to do it. You have add the character and his motivations.

I'd also argue you have to add another element. The "character" must make choices based on personal motivations rather than strategic or tactical advantage. This is the "My Character Wouldn't Do That" factor. The correct move in chess may be Queen's Pawn to Pawn 4, but if the King decides, "I want to protect my Queen more than I want to protect my Bishop, even though the smart move is to protect my Bishop," then we have a roleplaying game.

It isn't that you play dumb. You could make every smart move put before you. But if you actively consider your character's desires and motivations first, then I think you've got what we're talking about.

But a game like chess doesn't reward you for making choices that don't directly or indirectly lead to victory. In fact, no board game does. That's what differentiates a board game from a roleplaying game, I think. A board game rewards players for making choices that lead to victory. A roleplaying game rewards the player for making choices that are consistent with his character.

Likewise, most board games don't have a sense of narrative: a building story. Now, please note that I said "most." Some board games certainly do. And I don't mean a story in an abstract way that's up to interpretation. I mean a real story complete with everything we expect from stories. Plot, narrative, exposition, the third act betrayal. The whole kit and caboodle.

Now, some board games have a sense of narrative, but players are not rewarded for moving the narrative forward. On the other hand, the whole point of a roleplaying game is to do just that: move the narrative forward. It has mechanics that assist the players in doing just that.

Therefore... "A roleplaying game is a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character's motivations or further the plot of the story."

(At this point, I predict Faithful Readers to point out that this is not the definition most people understand as a roleplaying game. I will pre-empt this retort by asking them how the majority of Americans misuse "I could(n't) care less," misunderstand evolution, and mispronounce the word "nuclear." Including the man sitting in the White House who fucks up all three.)

This is a working definition. It is far from complete and I'm not entirely happy with it, but it's a good starting point. Notice the distinct lack of miniatures or dice as necessary to playing a roleplaying game. Some roleplaying games use miniatures and some roleplaying games use dice. Not all. The chief question is: "Can you play a roleplaying game without dice and/or miniatures?" My answer is, "Yes. I have. And I've been doing it for at least twenty years."

(It is at this point I reminded how a certain individual very important to the origin of the RPG told me--to my face--that I wasn't playing a roleplaying game at all, but I was just a "wanna be community theater actor." But we shall not speak ill of the dead.)

Dice and maps and miniatures are not neccessary to play roleplaying games. (Yes, Matt. I'm using the word in that sense.) Some players prefer them, but others do not. It is also not neccessary to play a game without them. Do they add to the experience? Yes, they can. They can also detract from the experience, inhibit the experience or limit the experience. But they are not necessary.

What I feel is essential for a roleplaying game--what defines a roleplaying game--is that players take the roles of characters in a game that has mechanics that enable and reward story and character choices. That is a roleplaying game.

And with that definition in mind, I look at what D&D 4 is going to look like and I've come to a conclusion: it will not be a roleplaying game.

You can make it a roleplaying game, but in order to do so, you'll have to add elements that do not exist in the rules. If you play the game by the rules, it is not a roleplaying game.

D&D has mechanics for rewarding you for making the best strategic and tactical choices, but it does not have mechanics that help the players move the plot forward. It has mechanics for movement and damage and healing and everything else Talisman does, but it does not reward a character for making decisions that aren't focused on winning the game.

At the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy gives up "treasure and glory" to heal the village. He surrenders the magic stone to the old man, completing that transformation from greedy, selfish bastard into the hero we knew from the first film. 

In D&D4, there is no advantage in the choice to give up that treasure. Hell, in D&D3 there's no mechanical reason for him to do it, either. No strategic or tactical reason. He should take the magic stone, add it to his current stash of magical treasures, and go on to the next adventure. Likewise, he shouldn't have turned over the Arc of the Covenant to the US Government and he shouldn't have stopped to heal his dad. He should have run out of that temple as fast as his little feet could carry him and cash in on finding the cup of Christ. That's the only way to get experience points. That's the only way to "win."

That's how you win D&D. More treasure to kill bigger monsters to get bigger treasure.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post in the first place. Game balance.

D&D3 was obsessed with obtaining game balance. The fact that stats are randomly generated demonstrates what a Great and Massive Failure this is. (If we add up our stats and you have even one point more than me, our characters are unbalanced.) What kind of damage can a fighter do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a wizard do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a thief do before he falls down... all of these questions are missing the point. Especially in a roleplaying game. Addressing the symptoms, but not the disease. Hacking at the limbs rather than the roots.

"Game balance" in a roleplaying game doesn't come down to hit points or armor class or damage or levels or feats or skills or any of that. Game balance in a roleplaying game comes down to a simple question: "Is each character fulfilling his role in the story?"

D&D addresses this issue in a small tactics mindset. The fighter fights, the theif steals, the cleric heals and the wizard is the artillery. Make sure each character's role--as D&D sees it--is filled.

But what about motivation? What about personal stakes? Let me show you what I mean.

One of my adventures in the RPGA involved a first level thief. He was the son of a tavern keeper who had gambled himself into deep debt. My character learned how to be a theif because he was the bruiser at the tavern. He knew how to pick pockets because he had to look out for it. He knew how to hide in shadows to keep himself out of sight. And he knew how to backstab because he needed to move quietly up to a troublemaker and hit him hard enough to knock him out without starting a fight. That's my thief.

(I should note that the game itself demands I do none of this. There is no rule or mechanic that requires it and there is no rule nor mechanic that rewards me for it.)

I went on the adventure with my little thief. As we walked, I chatted with the other characters. I was chatty. They chastised me for slowing down the adventure. Not my character, but me. They chastised me for roleplaying. Obviously, I was playing the wrong game.

We killed some kobold bandits, gathered some treasure. The other players were not playing as a group well (despite my suggestions) and argued and bickered the whole time.

Meanwhile, I stole as much of it as I could. When I found something in private, I kept it. I was going to save my father's tavern and it didn't matter who stood in my way. Again, acting in character but against the group goal of sharing the treasure. As far as Tav saw it (his name was Tav), these people hired him to do a job. They were rude to him and did not go out of their way to protect him.

At the end of the adventure, I had a large chunk of silver, gold and treasure. I even got a +1 short sword. The fighter didn't want it. And when the adventure was done, I said, "I retire!"

They all looked at me with disbelief. I reminded them that the only reason I did this was to save my father's tavern. I got a bunch of gold and a magic sword worth thousands of gold pieces. I was set for life. A peasant sees 1 gold piece per year and I got a few thousand. I was done. I filled my role.

Now, my story about Tav helps me illustrate a lot of things. Almost every choice I made with him was based on his backstory--right up to his retirement. All the choices were based on things that weren't on my character sheet. The things that, as far as I can tell, are the most important things about a character.

Game balance isn't about hit points or armor class or spells per day or any of that. Game balance is about helping the player tell his character's story in such a way that he doesn't eclipse the other characters. Mechanics that reward and assist players in doing just that.

At least, that's how I see it.

And I'm still not entirely happy with the definition.



( 118 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 10th, 2008 03:00 am (UTC)
I had a similar conversation yesterday re: 4th Edition. However, I never considered 3rd a roleplaying game either. And while adding rules MAY help make it so a bit, REMOVING rules helps it greatly. So whenever I would play any D&D (even back to 2nd edition) - I would strike out whole chapters of rules. I think 4th can likely be a fun system with the same mindset.

However, 4th edition by itself is offline World of Warcraft. And that's ok.

I have found that I organize the many RPG rule systems by one primary metric: How good does the GM need to be. Typically how 'good' of roleplayer the players need to be is also a factor here, but I think with a proper guiding hand this factor can be mitigated.

On one end of the spectrum you have statless, ruleless, diceless interactive storytelling. On the other you have Hero Clix, Warhammer, Mage Knight, D&D, etc. In order to run a diceless game, the GM needs to know how to garner trust and how to balance fun factors (not easy skills). In order to run a generator system (Hero, BESM, etc - players build their own skills/classes), you need a GM that understands mechanics balance and can foresee exploits. In order to run a non-combat game, you need a storyteller and players capable of actually roleplaying using motivations, communication, etc or a really good puzzle and players who enjoy puzzles.

I doubt these qualities exist in most players or GMs who fit under the 'roleplaying' umbrella - not to the extent that they need to. So in come the rules.

I am of the personal opinion that rules and mechanics are largely opposites - in order to contemplate mechanics, you must think as a player, not a character - forcefully pulled back across the 4th wall. If the mechanics make something impossible or not advantageous, the rules twist the personality of the character as if by some unseen motivational force. I see rules as a sort of 'artificial intelligence' that you can apply to players and GMs to give them motivators if their characters are lacking in them. When applied judiciously, rules add cohesion to the motivations of the characters making it more like a shared game and less like an ant simulation. But when applied heavily, rules replace the players, turning their characters into automatons with levels of 'AI difficulty' based on the players' personal understanding of strategy and mechanics.

This is Warcraft and most computer games, and this is D&D.

I'd love to see some hard statistics about how many people in which rulesets play using premade adventures versus custom games, and how many people play with rule modifications. I have a feeling that D&D is the most rigid in terms of adventures (there appears no shortage of them) and by-the-book play. For the type of game that it is (a gateway drug rpg system? where many of its players are far less experienced or younger), I think this is an fine thing. Instead of playing a game with a bad GM who leads the party without direction, the adventures remove the storytelling skill need of the GM, turning them instead into a rules arbiter. Instead of conflict resolution skills and 'what-would-my-character-do' thinking, rigid and thorough rules help resolve conflicts between players, allowing the game to progress. It also is an easier type of game for near or complete strangers (see also RPGA) due to the lack of need for trust or conflict arbitration.

I'd personally rather play a computer game on a table with paper and dice than play a true roleplaying game that's fraught with conflict and miserable direction.

That being said, I'm looking forward to 4th edition. I'm looking forward to digging in and ripping out half of it (or just not bothering to follow), and bringing in players easily without having to write up every rule, system and ability that's in my head. I'm looking forward to working the mechanics out, min-maxing everything, and then patching those issues should they arise.

I agree with your take on game balance and feel the same argument is happening violently in the MMORPG world - balancing classes versus balancing fun - guess which side I'm on.
Mar. 10th, 2008 05:56 am (UTC)
what he said!
(no subject) - mysticalforest - Mar. 10th, 2008 07:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dracowayfarer - Mar. 10th, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - oizys - Mar. 11th, 2008 08:53 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 10th, 2008 03:02 am (UTC)

BTW, the current lead designer of 4e is fond of saying that "roleplaying is making subobtimal choices."

That says a lot in my book.

(Great title BTW.)
Mar. 10th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Can you cite? I've heard that attributed to a variety of people.

Aside from that, that statement is entirely true within its context, that context being min/maxing which is, to me, a horrifically myopic view of any RPG.

If I have a 3e character who favors archery as a schtick and he takes a feat that focuses on skills, that's suboptimal—for a combat-intensive archer.

But it's not suboptimal as a well-rounded character. If my archer's background involves having a father who's a professor then the feat supports his background.

As well, the feat choice includes strengthening the character even mechanically. Higher skills helps a character out almost no matter what.

That's part of the reason why I'm largely confused by the POV that D&D doesn't reward a character or a player for roleplaying. I roleplay, I adjust mechanics to reflect that roleplay, my character is stronger mechanically as a result. So ... D&D is neither an RPG nor has any mechanism for concretely rewarding players who roleplay?
(no subject) - savageplanet - Mar. 10th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mysticalforest - Mar. 10th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 10th, 2008 12:13 pm (UTC)
This is what has kept me from D&D for so many years. yeah, at a convention, where everyone just wants to kill stuff, it works great. If used as is, it gets seriously in the way of roleplaying and always has for me.

I like combat. I like it alot. I like to play fighting characters. Not because I like to mindlessly kill things, but because I like martial arts, swords, and the like. I like my character to follow a code and have that code make combat difficult, or sometimes even impossible without violating it. Sometimes I like to play that cinematic martial artist or the swashbuckling cassanova. I like epiccombat, that can be told as a story of itself over beers at the tavern.

What I don't like is number mashing. I like descriptive, exciting combat. I have had some very exciting combat scenes in my day and NONE of them happened playing D&D, except when the GM abandoned the rules. They happened playing Runequest, GURPS, Rolemaster, and Traveller (it was modified heavily). These systems were deadly in combat terms and the players knew it.

Everytime a player got involved in combat, they knew that one hit could kill them. That was exciting. When it got real exciting was when I started playing Traveller, as the GM's created the Transformer universe with a more compelling back story. The technology was fabulous, and the combats were epic. My favorite was one where my transformer had to sacrifice his life to save the party by leading a homing missile away from them. It slammed into me and I was blown to bits. They managed to repair me, but it was a tense situation and the players nearly couldn't do it.

But I saved their lives by sacrificing myself for them. It was epic it was trmendous. And why? Because the GM put me in a situation where my code would come into play.

You see, my transformer had been saved by the party when my home planet was attacked. They saved my home, took me in, rebuilt my body better and stronger and gave me a chance to help them save others. It was a simple choice when they were in danger to sacrifice my life for those that had spared it. It was the reason I existed. I remember this story as though I was there.

I have tried to have these epic combats in D&D, but the rules get in the way. In GURPS, for example, I could easily make a paladin that refused to kill, but was still effectively able to down foes in combat quickly and easily. In D&D, that was impossible once the HP got higher.

We had some great stories, as we had great GMs, but they had nothing to do with the rules. It was my character motivations -- that were given barely a 2 x 3 inch area to write down on a standard character sheet -- that guided all my actions and made the story.

So to me, a roleplaying game is simply one where the main objective is to adopt a new persona for the purpose of telling a story from that perspective. I do not look for rewards in XP, but in a great story, so mechanics like Style points work well as rewards. I work hard for those things because they give me control of the story.

Is Life about winning? Doesn't matter, we aren't getting out of it alive anyway. No, it's about feeling important while we are here. Being a good father, a renowned game desinger, amassing great wealth to gain great power over others. These things make one happy, so they are sought after. They all are things that we feel will last beyond our death. In truth, we should want these things for our characters as well, and they will be fun to play.

I will stop now. It felt important as I wrote this after being up all night unable to sleep. I hope it had value to someone else as well.

On a more personal note. John, I have changed my way of thinking since I met you. I know now what you meant when you signed my copy of "Play Dirty" with the words:

"I am sorry for your players."

I nearly made my daughter cry in a scene in a most recent game. It was fabulous. She actually hit me for it. I will tell you about it sometime, but this is not it. :)

Thanks again for insights.
Mar. 10th, 2008 03:45 pm (UTC)
John, it always amuses me to read about your D&D issues.

People complain that there are no rules for roleplaying in the DMG. That's because you don't need rules for roleplaying in order to make things fair for all players. You DO need rules for combat and magic so things are fair between all players, otherwise one player may be at a serious disadvantage to another. And yes, there are players who enjoy being at a disadvantage, that is atypical.

As you said, you can make chess an RPG, even though the mechanics of chess are a board game. Likewise, most of the mechanics of D&D are a board game (and 4e even more so, it appears), though D&D has many more built-in roleplaying elements than chess. Chess has no rules for a pawn negotiating with an incoming bishop so as to not be killed, D&D does. Chess has no way for a five-battles-victorious knight to convince opposing units to flee, D&D does. And so on.

I don't disagree with your assessment of D&D fourth edition, but I think you are off-target painting all of D&D with such a broad brush. And you're really off using a single RPGA scenario as a baseline example of D&D behavior or D&D player behavior; RPGA players are NOT the typical player, and playing in an RPGA game is all about completing the scenario so you can advance to the next round, excess chatter detracts from that, and there are many many people who avoid the RPGA like the plague because of these elements. RPGA games take a casual, cooperative, roleplaying environment and turn it into a hardcore, competitive, statistical environment.

Again, I don't disagree that D&D 4e is pushing farther from the roleplaying elements and more into the TCG- or MMO-like tactical game. I, and a lot of other people, would argue that this means D&D 4e isn't really D&D anymore. Just don't paint your accusations with too broad a brush (I remember lunch at the Greek place with you where you used your old group's flaws as evidence against D&D/d20, when really it was just your old group being stubborn).
Mar. 10th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
That's because you don't need rules for roleplaying in order to make things fair for all players.

That's not what I'm saying at all. Houses has mechanics that reward roleplaying. Your charater is "more powerful" because of your in-character choices rather than your level.

That's what I'm talking about. It's really something you should see for yourself. It's easier to explain that way.
(no subject) - seankreynolds - Mar. 10th, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 10th, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC)
John, I've posted a link to this post on my blog entry for the day--but your blog is friends-only. Any way you can open up this post--or, if not, would you mind me reprinting it on my blog?

Mar. 10th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
At your request, sir.
(no subject) - jediwiker - Mar. 10th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 10th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
And with that definition in mind, I look at what D&D 4 is going to look like and I've come to a conclusion: it will not be a roleplaying game.

I thought I'd heard that there were at least some mechanics to grant XP awards for, say, talking your way out of a conflict rather than fighting. But maybe I'm misremembering...
Mar. 10th, 2008 05:50 pm (UTC)
Rewards for talking your way out of a fight is not what I'm talking about. That's still taking the most advantageous course.

What I'm talking about are actions that fulfil the character's motivations or move the plot forward rather than "overcoming the encounter."

And many times in stories, the characters' failures are more important than their successes.
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Mar. 10th, 2008 06:24 pm (UTC)
This is distilled brilliance. Thank you. You articulate what I've been feeling in my gut.
Mar. 10th, 2008 07:14 pm (UTC)
In D&D4, there is advantage in the choice to give up that treasure.

I'm reasonably sure the word "no" should appear in this sentence somewhere.

That said, you know I agree with you on this. :)
Mar. 10th, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)

Have you read Ron Edwards's article on Gamism?


I know you're not a fan of the Big Model but it seems to me that you're doing a great disservice to those who want to use role-playing as a venue for competition whether tactical, or political or what have you.

I mean in a rules non-existent Vampire LARP there can be a heavy emphasis on "winning" by playing the socio-political game better than anyone else. Hell, from certain points of view this is what Houses of the Blooded seems to be about. One of my personal "worries" about whether the game is for me or not is that from everything I hear (and I admit I haven't played it yet) it's entirely too competitive for my play preferences. That despite the colorful emphasis on character passions what we're talking about is arena for fulling those passions better than any other player. I may be entirely wrong about that.

But even if Houses isn't about that I could easily imagine a game that is and I think a lot of Vampire games do become this.
Mar. 10th, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
Don't think inside the box...
I have read Ron's essay on gamism. And a box is a box, no matter how many sides it has.

You can qualify anything in the world into three groups. Four groups. Five groups. Only seven stories in the world--only ten stories in the world--only 47 plots--whatever.

People have been using definitions to think inside the box since the beginning of thinking. I don't find it useful: I find it incredibly limiting to the kinds of games I design and enjoy.
Re: Don't think inside the box... - misuba - Mar. 11th, 2008 12:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mariocerame - Mar. 10th, 2008 11:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 10th, 2008 10:21 pm (UTC)
I'm not interested in debating The Big Model so I don't quite understand your answer. What I asked was, does your definition of role-playing totally preclude the notion that, "I want to be better than my fellow players." to any degree? In other words, if I want to garner more favors from the prince than you am I no longer role-playing in your mind?

Mar. 10th, 2008 11:58 pm (UTC)
Houses does not preclude that notion--it specifically addresses and includes that idea as a style of playing the game. Personally, however, I favor the "all guns on the table" style of cooperative competition, where we are playful and open about betrayals or power plays.

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Mar. 10th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)
I'd be inclined to stretch the boundaries and say that good stories rely on making suboptimal choices. My drama professors were fond of opining that Greek tragedies relied on the audience sympathizing with the protagonist, because they could see themselves making the same decisions and coming to the same inevitable tragic end. If every person in a story made optimal choices, the conflicts would be quite rigid. We'd lose soap operas, among other things, since people wouldn't keep secrets from their valued relationships due to neurotic hang-ups over their pasts; the "optimal" solution would be to get your baggage out in the air and resolved. Similarly, I think one of the big failures of the new Star Wars movies in telling stories is that Anakin Skywalker is an unsympathetic character, hampered by wooden acting, bad lines, and bad motivations that mean that the audience doesn't buy into the events that lead the character to the inevitable end of Darth Vader.
As wickedthought has pointed out, what the characters do is usually less important than how they do it, which in turn is less important than why they do it. To continue the Star Wars analysis, Luke Skywalker makes a deliberately suboptimal choice in The Empire Strikes Back:
GM: Yoda says, "Complete your training you must. Only a fully-trained Jedi, with the force as his ally, will defeat Vader."
LS: Hmm. But if I stay to finish getting my Jedi Knight prestige class, my friends could all wind up dead on Cloud City. I really need to rejoin the party.
GM: I'm telling you flat out, via my oracular training character, that if you don't spend another month finishing your training, you won't have the prestige class benefits. That's all I'm saying.
LS: Yeah, but if I do stay for a month, everyone could be dead by the time I get to Cloud City. What, Han's going to fight Darth Vader? Please. Vader cut down Obi-Wan, and HE was a Jedi Knight, too! The group doesn't have a chance unless I can counter Vader's Force powers.
GM: That may be true. You probably won't know until you're throwing down with Vader. I'm not gonna tell you his CR.
LS: . . . so what you're saying is I'm screwed either way.
GM: Pretty much. Life's full of tough choices.

In this instance, LS (Luke Skywalker's player) has a choice: Finish training and gain the prestige class, or rush off to help the party while still a multiclassed scout/Jedi and risk not having the neat powers that he needs for victory. Either choice is suboptimal, in a sense; either he can lack mechanical benefits, or he can risk losing the rest of the party.

In a strictly mechanical game like D&D4, there is no choice. Luke stays and finishes his training. HS and LO and C can all generate new characters, after all. Maybe HS will take over playing Wedge Antilles and LO can play a bounty-hunter-turned-Rebel. Then C would have to make another Force Sensitive to fill LO's old spot in the party, though. (That's Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Chewbacca, for those at home.) The droids are just droids, so they can be rebuilt after they're retrieved from the trash dump.

More coming . . . post too long.
Mar. 10th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC)

I suspect that the issue is twofold. Making choices requires people to evaluate both rewards and punishments. In D&D, the rewards for role-playing have traditionally been fuzzily defined. They're usually present, but they generally summarize to "You get some bonus XP if you play a role." You might gain a circumstance bonus to a social skill roll, if the DM feels generous. So there's a reward. It is not as concrete as the reward for combat: Victorious combat in D&D not only gives you XP (most of the time - you can have fights that are worth no XP, by the core rules!), but it also affords the opportunity to garner treasure. The punishments are where D&D has a real issue. The punishment for being bad at combat is straightforward: You lose your character. You start over. Maybe your entire group wipes out and you try a different dungeon next time. The punishment for a suboptimal social choice is less well-defined. Maybe the DM gives you a long-term enemy - maybe not. Maybe your character has some story development - maybe not. Rewards being equal, in D&D's core rules it is always advantageous to choose combat over role-play, because the punishment for failing combat is mechanically defined to be severe.

Vampire tries a little to get through this with the Humanity mechanic. If you just kill people willy-nilly, your Humanity degrades. The problem is that Humanity doesn't have enough of an impact on game play. The punishments for low Humanity are usually much less severe than the benefits of just killing anyone you don't like. So, if you are not looking to tell a story, if you are not interested in role-playing, it is always mechanically advantageous to you to kill your enemies as opposed to maintaining a Humanity score. The only time you have to really worry is Humanity 1, which not coincidentally has the same consequence for failure as combat: You lose the character.

So there's my two and a half cents.
Mar. 10th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)
Working on the definition
I made a quick subtle remark to Josh Roby about something regarding this about a month back.

Gods, if I wasn't getting married at the end of this month, didn't have to worry about my daughter's custody for the past six months, and moving at the end of May I'd probably already have something for you and Roby to take a look at.

Since the late 90's when Josh and I were MUSHing White Wolf games on-line, while we were in college, the problem that the STORYTELLER system didn't reward anything but combat and didn't really support any abilities but combat abilities bothered me to the very core.

I think I've finally found a direct answer to all of it, and when I get it written out in something more readable than scribbled notes I'm going to have you guys tell me what you think.
Mar. 10th, 2008 11:40 pm (UTC)
I think what you're getting at, John, is that any RPG, or any game that aspires to be an RPG, is categorized by what it rewards you for and with. DnD rewards you for defeating challenging encounters (in its current incarnation, anyway), and rewards you with more power. I think you're arguing that a true RPG should reward you for telling a good story through your PC, and it should reward you with more control over the story.

At least, I think that's what you're saying. And if it is, that's a tough thing to write; I haven't played a game that does it, at least.
Mar. 10th, 2008 11:51 pm (UTC)
No, that's not actually what I was saying at all.
(no subject) - trekhead - Mar. 11th, 2008 12:44 am (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2008 02:26 am (UTC)
One more try
Okay, so I think I get it. Or, at least I get it well enough to feel like I've learned something. It's not that DnD doesn't reward you for accomplishing your PCs goals, because it does. It just assumes that every PC's primary goal is to win fights, or at least overcome difficult challenges (you get xp from non-combat encounters, but less loot).

To be a real RPG, the game needs to let you determine what your character's goals are, and then reward you for accomplishing those. I think the tricky part, as some other poster has already mentioned (I think) is to keep the game a game. If the players themselves aren't facing challenges put to them by the GM, then it's not a game as much as it's communal storytelling. That's not a bad thing, but it's not an RPG IMHO.

Everything else I can think of comes out as rambling. Damn daylight savings and a teething son.
Mar. 11th, 2008 06:50 am (UTC)
"In D&D4, there is no advantage in the choice to give up that treasure. Hell, in D&D3 there's no mechanical reason for him to do it, either. No strategic or tactical reason. He should take the magic stone, add it to his current stash of magical treasures, and go on to the next adventure. Likewise, he shouldn't have turned over the Arc of the Covenant to the US Government and he shouldn't have stopped to heal his dad. He should have run out of that temple as fast as his little feet could carry him and cash in on finding the cup of Christ. That's the only way to get experience points. That's the only way to "win.""

Uh, bzzzt, wrong. Indy's DM, or the guy playing him, gave him a quest "Recover the Arc of the Covenant" or "Find the Holy Grail" or "Rescue Dad" or "Never let a historical artifact fall into the hands of those who would exploit it solely for monetary gain."

So, is 4e therefore an RPG? 'Cause those rules are built into the core 4e game.
Mar. 11th, 2008 09:03 am (UTC)
That's trading one victory condition for another victory condition. In such a scenario, there's no moment where Indy looks longingly at the Grail and makes the hard choice to leave it behind. His victory condition of "keep it out of the wrong hands" is fulfilled. His story of "spend my life searching for legendary artifacts" is not addressed.
(no subject) - brahman_atman - Mar. 11th, 2008 02:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
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