“Role-playing games, however, aspire to an ideal where anything can be attempted, where the player can direct that a character attempt any action that one can plausibly contend a person in that situation might undertake – the referee...decides the results.”
– Jon Peterson, Playing at the World
as Jon Peterson noted in Playing at the World, in roleplaying games “anything can be attempted.” And therein lies the challenge.
Board and wargames follow fairly rigid structures, both in general game presentation and in actual gameplay processes. Some have elaborate rules and numerous player choices, but overall these strive to establish patterns of action and steer players away from the concept that “anything can be attempted.” For instance, a board game usually has an outline of the player turn, often summarized on a card or reference sheet. A wargame follows predictable steps of movement, combat, and resolution (including casualties, morale, and reinforcements). Players try to achieve their goals within the scope of the actions the game allows them to choose.
Certainly roleplaying games include rules for various actions players can attempt – combat, spells, class abilities – that’s part of their allure and the reason they broke off from other gaming and became so popular. But they don’t simply outline basic player choices like board and wargames, but revel in the vast approaches they can take in overcoming obstacles. Even within the structure of “exploration mode” and “combat” many choices exist that can blast through the challenges a gamemaster places in their path. Roleplaying game design – whether a full game or even a scenario – must take into account the numerous factors enabling players to attempt nearly anything. Right from character creation elements like race and class special abilities (especially spells) add yet more multipliers of possible actions in the game. The roleplaying game designer naturally wants to provide plenty of options for players, giving their characters a full and evolving array of choices for confronting in-game challenges. But these can often lead designers down a daunting path, tempting them to include even more options and hence deeper layers of complexity. “Power creep” can become a driving force in a roleplaying game with added mechanics enabling player choice. For instance, the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons added “feats,” special powers characters could acquire that gave them special abilities on top of the usual race/class bonuses. Scenario designers must consider these possibilities when formulating an adventure premise and creating elements for its resolution, whether through a plot-based path characters explore (some might call “railroading”) or a more freeform approach in which characters wander from one encounter to another, resolving the adventure hook in due time, if at all (“sandboxing”). I vaguely recall designing a short adventure back in the d20 Open Game License boom of the early 2000s; someone pointed out a particular high-level spell could negate the entire scenario premise.
Roleplaying games require a gamemaster to interpret and sometimes adjudicate character actions as they attempt to surmount challenges using a vast range of options. Some games give gamemasters total control on how rules affect specific circumstances within play; with or without such authority, the stereotype of gamemasters arguing with players over rules has become part of popular culture’s perception of roleplaying games. Board and wargames lack the necessity of a creative gamemaster. Board games present their own integrated “scenario” with players trying to reach their goal by making choices each turn sequence. Wargame scenarios – often based in historical conditions – present clear parameters and goals; sometimes a referee helps explain the rules to newcomers and adjudicate any battlefield disputes. The procedures the rules establish provide the framework for action and victory, limiting player choice yet still enabling an enjoyable play experience.
This structured format reminds me of something James Dunnigan of SPI wrote in his Complete Wargames Handbook. SPI maintained a “rules master” file on computer with the core text of rules one could easily customize and modify for the current game under development. He attributed the practice to Avalon Hill’s Tom Shaw whom he once asked how to start writing the rules to a game: “You simply take the last game we published and use it as a model.”
Some designers find it easier to work within the parameters of board and wargames than the often daunting task of covering the numerous possibilities expected out of fantasy roleplaying games. I feel these pressures, too. Wargame design has some technical and research demands, but overall I don’t have to account for wildly unexpected actions from players. In recent years I’ve wandered more toward miniature wargaming rules and learned to manage the nuances of their particular design challenges. Oddly enough – despite the daunting task of allowing that “anything can be attempted” – I’m looking forward to a return to roleplaying game writing; not the mechanics-heavy design of an original system (though I’ve dabbled with that in a back-burner project), but one of my strengths, developing an engaging roleplaying game setting.
Board and wargame developers remain tied to their genre, theme, and more regimented rules conventions, though those in themselves can offer satisfying design and play experiences. Yet roleplaying games offer designers, gamemasters, and players a far greater degree of creativity – and, difficulties, as discussed above – exactly because “anything can be attempted.” That’s both their challenge and allure.
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