Monday, August 08, 2011

Travel Guide RPGs

I was recently reading an indie RPG rulebook when I began to get bogged down in endless pages of lists and descriptions. It got me thinking.

In a paper book, those lists are not so bad, because a book is fundamentally arranged into chunks. You can flip through a book. However, this was in PDF form. The endless pages broke my immersion completely. In my own works, I am also aware of this restriction.

I was thinking about the fundamental nature of this kind of data. Charts and tables and level perks and item lists. Let's think about them.

First, let's talk about it from the most fundamental level. We use these long lists and charts to inform the player of something. That something is a stack of specific and unique things within a given category. So let's think about that very thing: lists of specific and unique things.

I have seen plenty of tabletop RPGs that don't list specific or unique things. They rely on the players and the GM to develop unique things over the course of play. So it's possible to do it without lists.

But lists of specific things do provide an advantage. They provide a terrain of play. A bundle of experiences-to-be. They are a method for the author to plan out a party's experiences, highlighting interesting confluences the rules create, pieces of world ready for adventure, and the like.

The rules and setting provided by the game are rich with possibility, but the players and GM probably can't see them as clearly as the author. The design of an RPG doesn't end with rules and loose setting, but begins there: lists of unique things are stepping stones and landmarks to draw the players towards the interesting features of your game.

So we have lists. Critical hit charts to put color in your fights. Item lists to allow the players to weigh the pros and cons of various equipment. Monster lists to provide instant, prepackaged tactical mayhem. Race lists to provide options for a new character when the monster list gets a bit too unforgiving.

If we accept that a list of unique things is a landmark rather than a straightjacket, wouldn't that completely change the way we approach things, even if we still insist on a paper book?

"Here is a list of equipment" becomes "Here, these are balanced weapons". "Here is a stack of monsters" becomes "These are ingredients for your fights!"

I'm going to try to think of the bulk of a rule book - everything but the most basic setting and rules - as a guidebook to the dynamics of the RPG. Like any good guidebook, it doesn't tell you where to go, exactly. It just says "this place over here is interesting, and you can get a killer view of the waterfall on the way!"

But that doesn't change the fact that lists are total shit in PDF form. So... let's not use PDF.

Wouldn't it make the most sense to release a tabletop RPG as a wiki? Fuck the paper book. Give me a wiki, each list its own entry. A travel guide to your universe, wiki form.

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