Monday, July 05, 2010

Structure of an RPG

I've just been revisiting some old articles on RPGs, and it seems that a lot of people are of the opinion that an RPG contains two basic elements that you mix. A clear example of this thinking can be found here, but it boils down to the idea that an RPG is about leveling or progressing the story. Those are the two "modes" of play. All the other rules are to flesh out the modes.

I sort of agree, but it's missing something important. See, to me, the two modes should be called "exploring the options" and "adding new options".

The part of an RPG where you are leveling, buying gear, figuring out good tactics, and so on... that's you exploring the gameplay terrain. The part of the RPG where you go to the next town, fight the boss, and/or get captured is you adding new gameplay terrain.

Some players like to explore every nook before moving even one step down the story, while others like to play it faster and looser, only exploring enough to get secure footing before looking for the next horizon. A well-designed RPG allows both kinds of player to have fun, although most are tilted one way or another.

In case it's not absolutely clear what I'm talking about, think of any classic RPG. You can run around and level up, buy the cool gear, get the new spells, maybe do some side quests for some optional stuff. However, you will eventually run out of room. The enemies don't give you enough XP to keep leveling indefinitely, there's no better weapon than the one you have, and so on. So you fight the big monster, and a new city is unlocked. More powerful monsters, a new weapon, and so on.

Tactical RPGs generally have a much stronger bent towards letting you explore the rules without advancing the plot. In Final Fantasy Tactics and the like, you can level up basically indefinitely using random encounters. Still, you will find it's very hard if not impossible to get the high-level gear and/or spells without actually advancing the plot.

What this boils down to is that an RPG reveals some small part of its gameplay. It lets you explore that all you want, and then it lets you choose to staple on some more gameplay. Which it lets you explore.

This works best when the new gameplay is similar but distinct. If it's too similar, it doesn't feel different enough to bother exploring. If it's too distinct, it feels like you wasted all the time you spent on the earlier gameplay. Just this particular aspect could be a whole essay.

Anyway, that's how I think of it: letting you explore, then letting you open more stuff to explore.

It would be interesting to see if that could be done in a tabletop RPG. Hm.


Ian Schreiber said...

So basically, instead of "advance your characters" vs "advance the plot", you break down CRPGs into "advance your characters" vs "advance your characters"? Spoken like a true ludologist :)

Unfortunately, I think this ignores the story side a little too much. For example: my wife doesn't play Final Fantasy, but she does watch me play because she likes watching the cut scenes. She will even tell me to stop messing around in the subscreens optimizing my party and ADVANCE THE FREAKING PLOT already because she wants to see what happens next. Granted, she's not "playing" the game, but she is enjoying the experience nonetheless... and it has nothing to do with the combat capabilities of my characters (she finds the choices I make during combat terminally boring).

Tabletop RPGs are a different beast altogether, as they can be used to explore all kinds of emotional states. Some don't even bother with XP and levels and stats, some are entirely focused on storytelling and emotional exploration, and it's up to the designer to create a system that rewards and focuses on certain game behaviors to create a given experience.

This post brought to you by the captcha phrase 'surismse', which was probably the name of a spell in one of the old Infocom games.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I suppose it depends on how you define "advance". And "characters". And "your". I'm saying "explore the game" or "expand the game". Your characters aren't even part of the equation, unless you're playing a game in which they are. Like, I guess, just about every game.

I am concentrating overly much on the rules mostly because everyone else waves them off. I think story does matter, pacing and character development matters, and all that. But I think that's what everyone thinks, so I left it unsaid.

I think that view needs to be tempered by the knowledge that it doesn't mention gameplay. So a lot of people seem to think that the story side of the game serves no gameplay purpose. That's not a good thing to think: it serves an extremely important pacing and gating function. Not just narrative pacing and gating, but gameplay pacing and gating.

As for tabletop RPGs, I'm quite a lot more at home with them than with computer games. I've seen loads of narrative-based RPGs, and they usually build the complexity of their gameplay by tying the players up with their own choices.

That's pretty much the opposite of what I'm thinking, which is more like a stat-heavy dungeon crawl with weird, polymorphic rules or something. I haven't thought about it much.

Drew Hickcox said...

Are open-world games like the GTA or Assassin's Creed series RPGs by this definition? Applying the open-world game approach to tabletop RPGs might require some on-the-spot legwork from a GM, but could capture a critically more agency in the world than is currently demonstrated by open-world games...

One problem is having really good justification for opening new areas for players through plot progression. It's easy to get away with "Well the bridge is down so you can't leave this island" in a video game, but that's a whole lot less legitimate in a tabletop RPG.

Craig Perko said...

Well, tabletop RPGs have the advantage that they don't need to have the whole world defined ahead of time. So you could open new areas simply by drawing attention to them. For example, the first area is a small town, then the surrounding regions, then the nation, then the islands nearby, etc. Similarly, you can expand it deep: introduce the mage's guild, then the royal family, then the dimension-caller's guild, etc.

The players could theoretically interact with these things "oh, hey, let's go chit-chat with royalty, even though none have been introduced", but in practice this doesn't happen terribly often. Players tend to stay fairly focused on the details you have introduced. If you introduce a city, it's far more likely that the players will try to run for governor of that city than go look for another city.

However, in order to really fit the bill, introducing new things will also come with more gameplay, or slightly different gameplay. That's the hard part. Normally it's gated by level. The question is whether you can do it some other way.