Tuesday, November 02, 2010


I've been randomly puttering around with tabletop RPG ideas (as usual), and I've run into an interesting problem.

When you're making computer games, the game can be pretty much about anything. Many famous games don't focus on any kind of human life. Even games like Sim City (which is theoretically about humans) don't actually have any humans shown up close and personal. These games work fine: a game can be about a machine, a yellow dot, space ship fleets, microbes... they may or may not have a human element to them.

However, I've yet to see a tabletop RPG that was fun to play and not focused on the human element.

I'm trying to write this short, so forgive me for skipping a bit. Basically, tabletop RPGs and LARPs are "low structure" games. Computer games and board games have a very rigid structure, and the player is only allowed to express themselves within that structure. Move to A or B, buy A or B, roll for A or B.

Low-structure games may have very intricate rules, but there are large amounts of "free time" between them. Times when the rules are very relaxed, and the players are left to express themselves in any sort of reasonable way. This is the "role play" part of the game.

Most players are human, and so most players will naturally think of their avatar in human terms. Their avatar expresses themselves in human terms, has human goals, develops human relationships. Even non-human avatars still act like humans, just some particular personality type.

The rules generally tie very strongly to this avatar and the personality it bears. Most RPGs are about fighting because that's the most direct route to being directly about the avatar. If you do badly in a fight, your avatar directly suffers. If you do well, your avatar directly benefits. It's a very tight symbiosis with the player's emotional investment in their avatar, especially since you can express your noncombat personality very clearly through your combat actions.

This also explains why "once removed" RPGs are so rare. It's very rare for an RPG's main mechanic to be starship combat, for example. Even if each avatar has a clear role to play (and dice to roll), there's no tight connection between them and the space combat. Oh, there's a connection, but it's loose. This is why most RPGs with space ships focus almost entirely on personal combat instead of vehicular combat, using the latter only for major plot points and breathers.

Similarly, hacking RPGs are rare, because there is a similarly loose connection. What is arguably the most successful hacking system is the Shadowrun system. You'll notice that it includes direct feedback: if you do badly, your avatar can take physical damage. Also, the environment of the hack is strong VR, usually featuring humanoid avatars (or, at least, things-with-human-elements). Even with this, Shadowrun games rarely have much hacking in them.

So I've been thinking about how to create games which give the human players their self-expression and knot avatars tightly with the primary play rules, but aren't actually about humans/metahumans/near-humans.

Depending on your school of game design, you may end up throwing off some ideas right away and considering it solved, but I find those ideas are generally surface solutions that don't end up being very fun.

The issue for me is that I love elegant rule sets. But the challenge here is the opposite: I need elegant lack of rule sets. I need the part of the game where the players are freestyling to be great. I need it to guide the players into expressing themselves without limiting their expression... but I also need it to remind the players that they are not necessarily human.

It's a tough problem. I tend to fall back on my Bastard Jedi scaffold, but I don't think that's elegant enough. What are your ideas?


Ellipsis said...

So one issue that immediately comes to mind is how central talking is in table top RPGs. If the players are not humans, there should still be some justification for the players talking or communicating in-game, or else, in my mind, it ceases to be an RPG and becomes a board game.

However, it might be possible for this kind of communication to be something other than the typical manner of speaking for your character. It really depends on exactly what kind of non-human characters you have in mind.

Craig Perko said...

You've cut to a core problem, yes.

For now, I've been focusing on non-human entities that still talk and think. For example, AI, or gods, space ships, or such. Different thought patterns, but still the same kinds of expressions.

I just can't come up with a good way to let the players communicate when their avatars are things like countries, concepts, or eons-old magic spells. Human players still have to express themselves in human ways, even if their avatars aren't.

Keto said...

I feel that you can get up to about a nation-scale while still having the players express themselves well.

Even then you are still talking about groups of humans. Talking to other players is central, but you can just hand-wave it with entities that are capable of communication.

Diplomats can send messages and armies can communicate. I feel that we as players just cannot appreciate a change in situation when we are something inhuman. When another country is defeated, you cannot go somewhere else and you cannot dramatically change your situation. You are still a country, a piece of land, and that restriction can get very dull.

There just aren't enough 'new' modes of existence that players will appreciate when you play something non-human. I feel you can get by with a LARP, because of the intense focus on social competition, but when you try to make it a tabletop it will be hard to maintain interest.

Craig Perko said...

I agree, of course, but the question remains: how can you do it?