System Review: Introduction and Biases

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This is the new Wednesday content for as long as I can keep up steam on writing it.

These posts are not about a game in general. You can find many fine reviews of any game of your choice at RPGnet. Instead, these reviews are focused on two questions: what are the core game mechanics, and do they accomplish their intended design goals? I’m not really concerned with layout or presentation (though I may complain if this makes it hard to learn the system), or any kind of prose elements. Instead, I’m simply looking at the system and whether it’s interesting, appropriate, elegant, and functional.

My belief is that, while a game in a pretty, well-written book is a clearly better read and will sell better, the longevity of a game primarily depends on the quality of its systems. Eventually, your game book will only be opened when the players can’t remember a rule, and your system will be used every time the dice come out. (Unless your primary focus was a really cool setting, of course, but, even then, it mostly takes one read to internalize that.)

I’ll try to focus these posts only on games I’ve had the opportunity to play, as, sometimes, the utility of a system isn’t obvious until it happens to come up in a game. However, sometimes I’ll feel confident enough in my ability to intuit how a system will work out in play to visit an untested system. I’ll call those out specifically to give people an opportunity to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Speaking of which…


As I’ve mentioned before, when I run games, I tend to prefer toolkit systems over designer systems. Specifically, I’m a simulationist at heart, despite my situational enjoyment of gamism and narrativism, and prefer game systems that I can internalize as a GM. Ultimately, when running a game, I want to describe the world, have the PCs roleplay with each other and my NPCs with minimal need for systems, and be able to quickly resolve any other scenario that comes up by a small number of core systems. The system should clearly guide the kind of actions that are appropriate to the setting and genre, but the actual mechanics should be non-intrusive.

However, as a purely abstract concept, I enjoy a well-designed system, even if I wouldn’t want to run it. I can visualize other play styles than my own, and many of the games I review without playing may simply be based on whether I imagine the system working for a group that is not mine. In particular, I intuit that a lot of indie systems actually expect the players to be at arm’s length from their characters, describing what goes on within their sphere of control in much the way the GM describes the rest of the game. I don’t really enjoy that mode of play, but I can wrap my head around it, and don’t intend to unfairly dock systems that support it.

For purely mechanical biases, my main tick is that I despise “swinginess.” Any system that uses one die (or two big dice) to generate a result can fall into the trap of mistaking probability for actuality. In play, I’ve seen too many experts fail when the chips are down and beginners get lucky time and time again. Many gamers enjoy this fickleness of the dice, but I don’t consider it a virtue. I will probably be extra hard on systems that I don’t feel adequately compensate for their swinginess (one way is to make certain GMs are encouraged to make vital tasks rely on a series of rolls rather than a single one).

And that’s all I can think of that’s important for now. Next week, we start with a system that certainly can’t be accused of being overly swingy, as it’s the great gothic-punk granddad of fistfuls of dice.

The Transliteration Problem

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MMORPGs are in a weird position: halfway between multiplayer video game and virtual world.

A virtual world’s central tenet is immersion, in that it is trying, ultimately, to create something that feels like a real place, even if not a real world, to its participants. The goal is to get users to create a shared space that at least has verisimilitude, even if it doesn’t have realism. A successful virtual world is one where users log in consistently because it feels like a vacation spot where all their friends are.

Multiplayer video games have a different agenda, frequently: fun. The trappings of the system aren’t as important as providing an enjoyable game experience for the people that log in: either cooperatively or competitively. It’s a rare multiplayer game that actually achieves anything like immersion, as the kind of play that stands up to multiple players is hard to blend with true immersive touches: the chance that someone is going to do something out of character goes up exponentially for each added user.

Virtual worlds can sometimes bypass this problem by virtue that so many people will be there for the shared illusion, rather than any other motives: if the world doesn’t even have much gameplay, those there are the ones that want to treat it like a world.

MMOs try to straddle this line, and, going beyond, differentiate themselves on the third tier: entertainment (e.g., story). There are very few major MMOs on the market right now that aren’t based on recreating an existing IP (or, at least, an easily definable story genre). So MMOs are almost all trying to be a triple threat: an immersive virtual world where users will come just to hang out while creating an atmosphere of fun that has people exploring the game mechanics of the system together, all the while providing enough veneer of entertaining story to draw in those who don’t just want to escape, but to escape into their favorite story.

It’s next to impossible to do all three things right, because they’re all in some ways competing styles. The interesting thing is seeing what each MMO achieves, and thinking about why they did it that way (and whether it was a good idea).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this due to the free City of Heroes weekend after several months of playing Champions Online.

City of Heroes is decently immersive: it works very hard to explain away as many gameplay conceits as possible within the setting, and create lots of opportunities for people to mingle. It has fun multiplayer gameplay: there’s good synergy between the character types without precluding having success with any random group, and everyone has something to do. But it’s a terrible transliteration of comics: no matter how much work goes into the mission descriptions, they’re still all about entering random buildings and obliterating foes in a craze of particle effects. It’s no more representative of comics than dressing up as your favorite hero to go bowling: fun if everyone is doing it, but not really the same as being a superhero.

Champions Online seems to have tried to do the opposite. The world looks, feels, and plays like an (admittedly farcically campy at times) four-color superhero story. Missions exist to do a variety of comic style things, combats are often clear and varied in ways similar to comics, and the art and VO are designed specifically to feel very similar to a superhero theme park, if not to a comic exactly. This is the problem, though: the game can’t be immersive because it’s not much deeper than the Marvel Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios. Comics can get away with only focusing on the fun parts, and skipping boring travel with, at most, a few scenes on the team’s jet. Champions tries to do this by squishing every significant area into a couple of square miles of each zone. Unlike CoH, there’s very little dead space on any of the maps: story content fills almost every place you can visit. Paradoxically, though, the dead space is precisely what makes the game feel like an actual world (which is full of space where nothing exciting really happens).

In the end, players are choosing between the two games based on graphics and loyalty and gameplay, but the real differentiating factor is immersion vs. story: one game made a somewhat functional world designed with superheroes in mind, while the other actually tried to tell superhero stories, no matter the consequences on the space.

Maybe when DC Online comes out it will do an exceptional job of feeling like both an exceptional comic story and a living, breathing world, but sacrifice gameplay to do it. Then players will really have an excellent trio of choices to meet their exact MMO needs.

GNS in Video RPGs

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One of the core ideas of indie tabletop game design is the GNS principle/Threefold Model: as I understand it (probably not completely accurate), games can target three modes of play/preferred player styles. The styles are typically understood to be:

  • Gamist: The rules and systems are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from using the game engine. Games that emphasize cool powers, complicated rules-based play, and tactics that are to some degree metagame are often considered gamist.
  • Narrativist: The story is emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from making your game feel like a book or movie. Games that subordinate actions or tactics that don’t support the story to those that do are often considered narrativist.
  • Simulationist: The physics and verisimilitude of the world are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from treating the setting like a real world with real consequences. Games that have extensive rules designed to model reality that then ignore them if a result seems unrealistic are often considered simulationist.

These elements are often represented as a triangle, such that the more focus that is put on one element, the less that can be put on the others. A single game can rarely do all three elements well, as compromises to make an interesting game system work with a full-on realism simulator that still produces a satisfying traditional narrative tend to weaken all aspects.

I hadn’t really considered in great detail whether these elements applied to video RPGs, as most such games are forced by the limits of programming to favor certain elements over others, particularly as far as being unable to have true simulationism in the way a human-moderated game can have. However, after beginning to play Mass Effect 2 and see how different it is than its predecessor, I’ve begun to believe that there is a threefold model that can apply to video games that might be just as valid as the one for tabletop games, drawing on slightly modified principles:

  • Fun (Gamist): A game that focuses on fun is concerned with carefully balancing the game engine, skill systems, and challenges to ensure that the player is constantly having a fun and engaging play experience that is not too difficult or too easy. Most video games fall fully into this mode, but RPGs and some other genres may break away due to the other modes.
  • Entertainment (Narrativist): A game that focuses on entertainment is concerned with telling an engaging story that is almost as fun to watch as to play, and leaves players discussing its ramifications later. Many modern action, adventure, and roleplaying games focus on this mode to some extent, with varying degrees of compelling story.
  • Immersion (Simulationist): A game that focuses on immersion is concerned with creating a world that feels like a place people could actually live; barriers to travel are disguised and game elements are placed in logical rather than practical locations. RPGs, mysteries, and some adventure games strive for immersion.

Ultimately, like the tabletop model, strengthening one element weakens the others. A well-balanced and enjoyable gameplay experience often makes it hard to hide the game elements enough to create immersion. A fully-realized and entertaining story may make demands on game setup that reduces the fun of actual play. An immersive play experience often rejects the taking away of control from the player required to tell a good story.

Like tabletop GMs and designers, video game designers should be cognizant of what mode of play they want to support and support it consistently. A game will likely be far more memorable if it does one mode and does it well than if it is ambivalent about what style of play it wants to produce.