Chess was never meant to be a RPG: In defense of Game Balance

Recently, game designer and friend John Wick wrote an article titled Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance in which he discussed what role-playing games are, what rules help enforce that idea, and ranted about weapon lists for a bit. This is my rebuttal.

Hi there. My name is Rob and I play games. Lots of them. Over fifteen years, I’ve played hundreds of games. I’ve played card games, board games, and video games but the games I love most are role-playing games. While this doesn’t make me an expert on the matter, I have a website where I can say whatever I want.

Boob. Farts. Penis.

What is a Role-Playing Game?

There is a lot in John’s article that I agree with. Riddick should totally be able to kill you with a tea-cup. I’m not terribly interested in overly detailed weapon charts… Unless I’m playing a RPG based on Borderlands. The story and your characters are very  important to the game. However, there are parts of John’s article that I  disagree with. Starting with his idea of what a role-playing game is and isn’t. John states that “[sic] if you can successfully play a game without role-playing, it can’t be a role-playing game.”

I think that any game that functions as a stand-alone game can still be a role-playing games if it is more fulfilling when adding role-playing to the equation. If introducing role-playing into the game detracts from its enjoyment then it’s no longer in consideration as a role-playing game.

Damnation CityTo help exemplify this I want to talk about something from the Vampire: The Requiem supplement Damnation City. Damnation City is a wonderful guide to city building that has become a staple in my gaming collection for more games than just Requiem.  The book introduces a new set of mechanics called the “Primacy Rules” and it’s one of my favorite ways to run a Vampire game. The rules introduce a new advantage called Influence, which could very easily be a mini-game. However, the book points out the following:

Influence is not a mini-game. Given nothing but dice and non-dramatized actions, Influence is extremely easy to gain. Primacy play assumes that the Danse Macabre provides an endless cast of antagonists to oppose and challenge the characters on their way to the top and to provoke the conflicts and setbacks that drama requires. If all the characters do is roll dice to gain Influence points and win Assets, they can make it to the heights of power in a few weeks. But that’s not dramatic. It’s not horrific. It’s not a story.

The Influence Advantage is a tool for managing great power and intrigue. Rather than presume that the players of cunning undead masterminds must be political geniuses themselves, Influence assumes a level of capability on the part of the characters and spares the players too much detail.

Influence is a common language that makes it easy for casual players to interact in a complex game world. It reveals the stakes of actions, the wages of success, and the costs of failure. It just makes things easier.

To me this is what defines the game side of a role-playing game; a game in which the rules help the players interact with a complex world without getting bogged down in the minutia. This is where massive equipment lists fail game design. Not that they don’t help tell stories but because they add minutia to the game. Except that very minutia is what defines the term when we begin talking about video games.

So… What is a Role-Playing Game?

All of this brings us back to a core problem with this kind of conversation. The term “role-playing game” has been co-opted to mean multiple things. The elements that make up a role-playing are radically different if we’re talking about a video game as opposed to a table-top game. This leads to further confusion because role-playing video games grew out of role-playing table-top games and use enough common terminology to look the same on the surface. What makes a video game a role-playing game isn’t the same as what make a table-top game a role-playing game. We need to stop acting like the term only applies to one hobby.

Luckily, in his article John proposes a definition for table-top role-playing games. He admits that it’s not a complete definition, but it’s what he’s working with. I agree that it’s not perfect, but to keep the waters from getting overly muddied we’ll stick with it for the discussion in this article.

roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

These are intangible elements that computers, at the time I’m writing this article, are incapable of detecting.  Video games can’t reward me for playing my character. They can’t reward me for having my own motivations. They can’t reward me for driving the story. They can mimic these actions in some ways, but never truly capture the essence that we can in a table-top game. Of course, neither can war games, board games, card games, or any other game designed to not feature these elements. After all, Chess doesn’t have a plot. Which makes John’s definition a serviceable for the table-top games we’re discussing.

The Experience of Jumping Ship

Dungeons and DragonsJohn goes on to point out how he saw people responding to a question about the reason for switching from Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft. The answer he saw was “Because I get the same experience from WoW I got from D&D.” As if it’s some sort of Coke vs. Pepsi switch. If I told you that I got the same experience from Warhammer that I get from D&D you might understand that the experience I received, and am now looking for, is not the same experience that D&D can offer. Clearly, this experience is that of a war game. So, why do we even have these discussions when someone switched from Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft? 

I can play a table-top game like a video game but that isn’t only experience it is capable of providing. When I read that someone would rather play a video game to table-top game I don’t see the mechanics of a game as the reason, I see their experience. They aren’t looking for the same experience I am. For me, the difference between video games and table-top games isn’t in what I can do in both games but where I’m limited. In video games there is only so much world to explore, only so many items, so many monsters, and so many quests. Table-top games remove those limits. I can get a similar experience but without invisible walls and artificial limits. This alone isn’t enough for me to switch but table-top games also give me an opportunity that I’ll never have on a computer. An opportunity that is often overlooked. The opportunity to change everything.

Often times the goal of video game players is to reach the end game. In MMOs this is to go raids with their friends and guilds. It’s to take on the hardest challenge for the game and come back victorious. To see the resolution for the script they have played through. You can simulate this experience at the table but just because you can doesn’t mean it’s the only way to play. Sure, if we’re talking about organized play that’s often the case, but for most long running home games the goal of the players is to help shape the world or determine the plot. In fact, if the rules are really good at simulating the kill-loot-level-grind style of play it’s easy to lose track of the other experiences the game can offer. Just because a game can give a specific type of play, doesn’t mean that it’s limited to only that experience. Just because you can play the game this way, doesn’t mean it’s not a role-playing game.

What is Game Balance?

The next problem I ran into in John’s article is when he starts to discuss “game balance.” While he defined “role-playing game” earlier he doesn’t define “game balance” later. Instead he equates the term “game balance” to how it works in a board game or video game sense. I find this problematic because our definition of what a role-playing game is no longer allows for the same definition of game balance. In a video game, balance makes sure that one gun is never wholly better than another gun at the same level. If this happens the inferior gun will never be used and is just wasting space. Videos games have answered this balance issue in some interesting ways. Earlier I mentioned Borderlands, which I feel does an amazing job at this dilemma in the scope of a video game. With so many options and traits a gun can have it’s really hard to tell what’s better or worse. While this approach works for video games offering a glut of choices really bogs down a table-top game.

Instead of redefining “game balance” when John redefines “role-playing game” he instead discusses character spotlight. Often times when a player complains that “the fighter is better than my rogue” in games covered in John’s RPG definition, it’s because the fighter is picking locks more successfully than the rogue. He’s stealing the rogue’s spotlight. There is an imbalance in this  design that has allowed the fighter to overshadow the rogue. This is what game balance becomes in table-top role-playing games under John’s definition. I think this message gets confused in John’s article because in this instance game balance is of the utmost important. Game balance totally matters, as it pertains to ensuring the player’s each have equal say and input into the story. Game balance ensures that no one is “stepping on toes.”

Know your Role

Moving along to my next point of contention. There is a quote that comes up in John’s article from Robin Laws. I’ve heard it before and I don’t like it. Laws once said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.” It’s full of good intention, but it is a horrible way to play games. This kind of mentality enforces the idea that the individual is the only one that matters. In a role-playing game the author and audience are not the same person. Every single person involved in the game is an author, but their audience is everyone else in the game. The only genre where the audience and author are the same person is the anything you write but never publish.

Dungeon WorldThere is a Principle in Dungeon World that I like a lot more than this Robin Laws quote. It’s simple, “Be a fan of the characters.” Here’s what Dungeon World has to say about it:

Be a fan of the characters
Think of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.

I think that this Principle goes a lot farther towards ensuring a strong narrative game balance than Law’s statement. In my mind f you are the audience then you want to make sure you have enough “screen time” but if you’re a fan of what everyone else is doing at the table you’re going to want to stand aside is see what they do next. The author and audience shouldn’t ever be the same person. Your fellow players are your audience. Engage with them, not yourself.

Telling Stories

Further along John asks himself “How does this help me tell stories?” but forgets to ask himself “How does this help me play a game?” I think that sacrificing rules for storytelling is sacrificing the Game for the Role-Playing. If I wanted to portray a character I’d become an actor. If I wanted to tell a story, I’d become a writer. If I want to tell a story with my friends, I’d become a collaborative writer. If I wanted to make sure my character is the important character, I’d become a writer/director/actor/producer. But I don’t, I want to play a game where I get to play a role. I want to play a Role. Playing. Game.

Rules aren’t your enemy. Just like the Game Master isn’t your enemy. The rules can even help you become a better role-player. You just need to think about them in a different way. When John says he throws out the social mechanics in Vampire I just hear that he throws away opportunity. You’re throwing away the challenge of portraying a character in a way you didn’t originally intend. The idea of “failing forward” is one that I learned from John and one I’m saddened to see him dismissing.

What happens when a Player gives a rousing speech but the Character fails the roll? In John’s game the rousing speech goes off without a hitch because there was no roll to say otherwise. The player portrayed a convincing argument and wins the day. In my game, now you have to explain what goes wrong in your speech. Why does the crowd turn on you? On paper that sounds great, but what happened during the delivery that turned the crowd south?

What happens when a Player gives a horrible speech but the Character wins the roll? In John’s game the speech bombs horribly and everyone hates you, again there is no roll to say otherwise. The player failed to give a convincing argument and so the character fails the day. In my game, now you have to explain how that horrible speech got over with the crowd. What did they latch on to and rally behind? On paper the speech was awful, but what happened during the delivery that earned their approval?

In both examples, without rules to throw a wrench in the mix the player is left to stagnate. There are not dice to push you into coming up with a different approach than you expected. You live or die on the role-playing without the game to force you into a place you can grow from.

Rules in role-playing are often used as a crutch to bypass parts of the game we don’t want to deal with. That’s awesome and at times is one of the best parts of the game. I’d rather make a roll to haggle with a merchant and move on with the story than spend ten minutes talking back and forth in character wasting time. But rules can also be used to expand the story in directions it wouldn’t normally have taken. Next time instead of throwing out a rule, stop and think about how you can use it to enforce the experience you want from the game.

In Closing

If you use the game to bypass the role-playing then you’re doing a disservice to the genre.

If you use role-playing to bypass the game you’re still doing a disservice to the genre.

If all  you care about is playing a game, grab a controller.

If all you care about is portraying a character, get into acting.

If all you care about is telling a story, write a book.

I’m here to play a role-playing game and I want you to have the full experience with me.


 

You can find out more about John Wick and buy his games at johnwickpresents.com. Also, be sure to check out is upcoming biopic staring Keanu Reeves; John Wick.

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6 Comments

  1. Rob, this is well thought out and provides some great points. I do agree that both your article and John’s have several valid points. Ultimately, it all boils down to what all the people involved want to experience when they play.

  2. Awesome, constructive answer, especially the closing makes it easy to grasp.

    I’d like to add some opinion about words: I prefer to keep the meaning of Game Balance as in games. You already used the word spotlight for the topic you described as spotlight. Perfect fit.

    I’d also like some subcategories to the whole label (pen&paper) roleplay, so nobody feels pissed whenever a gamer states how he wants to be a better roleplayer but means how he wants to progress in the subcategory he prefers moving in. Though I think it’s more like spectrums, as explained in the Casting Shadows blog: http://runeslinger.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/spectrum-shifts/ , but I also learned humans need labels to avoid going crazy. I’d prefer at least better labels then the single one we currently use (roleplaying).

  3. Are your comments about “what happens in John’s game” from personal experience of having played in John’s game? Because in Houses of the Blooded (which John wrote) the mechanics are if you succeed at the roll, you get to describe what happens (and you could choose to have a failure happen of you wish) and if the fail at the roll the GM gets to describe what happens (probably to complicate the scene). Which doesn’t quite fit you description of John’s game, and seems actually not too far off of yours.

    • First, neither John or I were discussing Houses, we were discussing Vampire. More importantly, my examples are based on what John cites as how he runs games in his article (ie: Throws out Social mechanics.) If we carry John’s argument about not using social mechanics forward to Houses, my example still applies because John wouldn’t have had you roll dice to deliver your speech.

      The issue I’m addressing isn’t with task resolution, but with the use of mechanics in the first place.

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