The Interactive Toolkit: Part One: Simulation or Story?

The tactical elements of roleplaying games bore me. I want stories driven by character, not die rolls.

Oh, no! Not the “roleplaying” vs. roll-playing” debate!

No. Most roleplaying games involve both dice and characters, so it’s not really a useful debate. The real question is what kind of story do roleplaying games tell? Because of their emphasis on tactics and the baggage left over from wargames, roleplaying games lean toward a certain type of fiction. It’s the fiction of Mack Bolan, Soldier of Fortune field reports and William Gibson’s novels (with the irony ripped out). These aren’t the kinds of stories I want to tell. I want to tell stories in which character and story take precedence over plot and weapon caliber.

And I’m not alone. Game designers often try to disguise the origins of their games, replacing the word “roleplaying” with “storytelling,” for example, or “gamemaster” with storyteller.” Moreover, increasing numbers of people are introduced to the hobby through games like Vampire: The Masquerade and other recent story-based games. Newcomers are bypassing the once standard apprenticeship with D&D, advancing to more “-sophisticated” games. Obviously, these new players don’t want the D&D stuff. They want the story and character stuff of more recent games.

But – and this is the whole point, so pay attention – even new games that proclaim that story and character are their purpose are bogged down by 20-year-old ideas and concepts, concepts that get in the way of character-driven stories. New games’ rules, adventure designs and the way characters are created and interact with stories are all tied to D&D and 64 old-style” games. We think we’ve dumped a lot of baggage; we take pride in not having Levels and Classes anymore. Folks, we’ve barely begun to dump the excess baggage. If you really want to improvise games that are like the stories you read rather than sessions of Zelda you play, it’s time to lose more baggage.

In this, the first part of this series, I’m going to examine assumptions in game design that get in the way of the kind of stories we want to tell. In future articles, I’ll discuss what to replace these assumptions with once they’ve been ripped out. It’s not a matter of being more advanced than current roleplaying games, nor better. As I said before, tactics bore me. Three hour fights are dull. I want character. I want story. I want to play something like current roleplaying games, but different. And popular trends in gaming seem to suggest that you do too.

But first we have to examine how today’s rules work.

The Fiction of Combat

You might think that you can tell any kind of story with any kind of game system. Wrong! You can put any chrome on a roleplaying game – space opera, high fantasy, court politics but at the core of every game and its rules is a common logic and set of beliefs.

Flip open your rulebook. Any rulebook. See that big chapter on combat? And the equally large chapters on technology and magic, both of which are used primarily for combat? Stories don’t need all that stuff.

White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade is a game about the brooding affairs of immortal vampires and their clan disputes. It’s moody. It’s horror. It’s about personality and character. For some bizarro reason, there’s space in the rules devoted to distinguishing between the damage done by shotguns and that of Uzis.

If Tom Clancy hunkered down to grind out a vampire story, gun damage distinctions would make sense. That would be Clancy’s kind of a vampire story. Now imagine Anne Rice distinguishing between shotgun gauge in the middle of combat (or listing any of the other infinite variables that roleplaying games assign to combat). In a Rice story, a gun is a gun. If it hits, you die or you don’t or you’re mortally wounded. If the gauge is mentioned, it’s only to add authenticity to the story, not to provide armchair mercenaries with debate-grist: “Well, if I were Lestat I’d have loaded up with incendiary shells.”

The narrative of most roleplaying games is tactical simulation fiction. This style of story revolves around weapons and split second decisions made during combat. Such stories discourage flamboyant behavior though flamboyant behavior is often a vital part of the fiction that the games try to model – because better combat modifiers are gained with conservative tactics. Characters in these simulation stories are clever, resilient and skilled. They’re ready for combat and often not much else. Their goals usually boil down to the acquisition of power of one kind or another. Indeed, their goals, desires and even identities seldom have much to do with the story struggling to be told. Typically, characters of modern roleplaying stories are indifferent mercenaries hired in a bar or heroes who run to the rescue only after a threat arises.

It’s assumed that roleplaying games need these tactics, morale modifiers and tables of weapons. After all, that’s the way it’s always been.

But why?

A Heritage of Simulation

Roleplaying games are an out growth of wargames, a form of entertainment that’s existed in one form or another for centuries. In wargames, players assume the roles of commanders of armies in conflict. The armies are represented with lead miniatures or cardboard counters that are spread out across modeled terrain or illustrated map boards. The simulations depict anything from Roman legions fighting barbarian hordes to tank corps in conflict in WWII Northern Africa to starships duking it out above a valuable planet.

The point is to create a “realistic” model of the battle at hand. In the search for the perfect simulation, loads of variables are considered – details about supplies, information, morale, flanking attacks, weapons breaking down, fatigue and disease. The desire for complexity or simplicity has swung back and forth over the centuries. Back in 1876, Colonel von Verdy du Vernois complained that wargames were so complex that he couldn’t play them. His solution was to give more freedom and responsibility to an “umpire” who was knowledgeable in warfare and who could run things realistically without having to resort to so many tables, charts and die rolls. (Hmmm.)

Roleplaying games as we understand them originated 30 years ago – a decade before Dungeons & Dragons saw the light of day – when wargamers in Minneapolis each controlled one soldier instead of whole armies. Then a new twist was added: a fantasy setting. You could be a wizard and face the challenges before you with magic.

Eventually this fantasy game, Blackmoor, was subsumed back into wargaming when magic was added to medieval tabletop battles.

After that a lot of ideas melded and shifted, and Dungeons & Dragons was born. Experience points, the acquisition of spells and seizing treasure became the staple of a new kind of social entertainment.

It’s no surprise that Gary Gygax and others carried a lot of wargaming over into Dungeon & Dragons. What is surprising is how much of the wargaming hobby is still with us. If we want a social pastime based on stories, why are we using rules and concepts borrowed from tabletop wars? And what if we examined this heritage and pried out what we assume we require but don’t really need at all? What would we be left with? What could we keep by choice rather than habit?

A graphic example of habit is miniatures. The fact that miniature lines are produced for games that don’t need miniatures, that in fact don’t have rules for miniatures, shows that our hobby often works from habit rather than logic. Miniatures for Champions? A game in which characters move faster than the speed of light? What scale, exactly, are you going to map a fight on? Miniatures for Vampire – a game that revolves around brooding over a horrible fate, clan politics and getting some? What use can miniatures possibly serve? Vampire isn’t a tactical setting. If not for the stick-in-the-mud mentality that ties us to wargaming, no one would think of putting Vampire miniatures on the shelf.

Here are some of the habits left over from wargames that many of us don’t really need or want.

    Emphasis on tactics:

Wargames are entertainments designed around letting you become, for a day at least, a military genius. The fun of the game lies not only in defeating your opponent, but mastering the countless variables that military commanders have to deal with and then carrying the day to victory.

All right. Now let’s think about the combat you read about in fiction stories. I’m not talking about a simulation of combat that’s shoved into the middle of a story, but the combat you actually find in a novel.

Here’s an example from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo, wearing his magic ring and thus invisible, fights off the spiders of Mirkwood so his dwarven companions can escape:

He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spiders-threads, hacking at their legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and sputtered and frothed, and hissed out horrible curses; but they had become mortally afraid of Sting and dared not come very near. So curse as they would, their prey moved slowly but steadily away. It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their dark colony.

That’s it. No choices about attacking from the rear, with a berserker double stroke or whatever. The choices Bilbo makes are character choices, not tactical ones. First, whether to fight at all, and second, whether to reveal the powers of his magic ring to the dwarves.

Such choices are available in roleplaying games. But once you’ve made them you’re trapped in a nightmare of endless combat decisions, sword strokes and squeezing of triggers. Combat in roleplaying is comparable to John Woo shooting an entire fight sequence in slow motion. The reason his brief slow motion moments work is because they’re in contrast to the rest of his footage – a single highlight of a moment to make it stand out. An entire fight in slow motion, as staged with the Hero System or GURPS, for example, could easily be the most boring way to spend a Friday night.

The outcome of a decision in a piece of fiction is uncertain. That’s why you keep turning pages to find out what happens. A story-based game of any type should make you want to know what the results of your actions are. Obviously, some sort of resolution system is required. The trick is to retain everything that’s needed to depict a game s fight, focusing on the key moments, and cutting out the nonsense. That way you can move on to find out what the results of the fight are – you can keep “turning the pages.”

Here’s a description of a swashbuckling duel from the pages of Mike Pondsmith’s wonderful Castle Falkenstein. Pondsmith explains why the game’s dueling system is more abstract than the combat systems of most roleplaying games; that is, why the duel is not a series of attack and damage rolls. If one were to sum up a duel in the world of Castle Falkenstein, it would go something like this:

Hero duels Villain. Battle goes back and forth along the parapet, with each side momentarily forcing the other back into a perilous retreat (to the edge of a yawning chasm). Occasionally someone is slashed or cut, but not in any meaningful way. Then, suddenly, the Hero (or the Villain) gets the upper hand, and drives a mighty thrust into his opponent, who slumps lifeless (but not always dead) on the ground.

In a piece of fiction the wound is either critical or not; either the fight continues or it doesn’t. That’s very different than having a character whittled down slowly by losing hit point after hit point. When you’re whittled down slowly by hit points, every attack is crucial. You’re character comes that much closer to death. In the description above, the duel is simply prolonged until it’s won.

I’m sure the cries are already rising: “That’s not realistic!”

    Fake realism:

I’ve been in the hobby since the late ’70s, first as player, then as an infrequent visitor to game stores, then as a writer in the industry and now as a gamer again. During all these years, nothing has confused me so much as fellow gamers who argue over whether or not a particular system is “realistic.”

Drawing on the wargaming tradition, roleplaying game designers and consumers often rate a game according to it’s obsession with finer and finer detail of “reality.” But detail, if it’s dumb detail, doesn’t make something “realistic.”

Let’s get this out of the way now. Roleplaying games model violence as realistically as Monopoly realistically models the business of real estate. For example, hit points. Whether you call them Health Points, Body Points, or just plain old fashioned Hit Points, the idea that people are whittled people down during combat is perversely stupid. It just doesn’t work that way. A 1962 Surgeon General’s study of gunshot wounds during WWII and the Korean War found that there are three effects of being shot: Death, Shock or Nothing. That’s it. You simply die from the first bullet, go into shock and are out of combat, or nothing happens to you at all.

The Nothing category involves the bullet passing through the body without effect; the bullet striking the body and simply bouncing off (yeah, even large caliber bullets); or wounds that don’t immediately have an effect in the middle of combat but lead to complications later – bleeding and infections, for example. What do hit points have to do with such effects?

What about sword fights? Although melee weapons offer a greater chance to wear an opponent down in the style of hit points, you’re still looking for that one blow that overcomes your opponent’s body she goes into shock or dies. It isn’t that “cumulative” damage isn’t sustained; a man might leave a sword fight with a broken arm and a punctured lung. But it’s much closer to Pondsmith’s quote above: until that one blow strikes home and takes a combatant out, no blow matters.

So why do roleplaying games have hit points? They’re a rule carryover from wargames. Players used to command units of soldiers. As the units took damage, soldiers were removed from play. Continuous damage whittled down a unit’s strength. But a unit of soldiers slowly losing strength is completely different from an individual slowly dying. Especially since, as noted above, individuals rarely die slowly from the effects of weapons.

The effect of hit points in a roleplaying context is part of the telescoped, tactical decision-making process of roleplaying game combat. But it’s so blatantly artificial that we can now dismiss it. We can replace hit points with a new set of artificial and nonsensical conventions based on stories rather than tactical simulations.

The obsession with one caliber or weapon type over another: Although there are gross differences that can be taken into account between weapons, in a piece of fiction all that matters is whether you or your opponent goes down. Weapons are currently focused on so that a certain kind of player can think himself wise and clever in matters paramilitary. Character-based games don’t need this baggage. It shifts focus from character and character goals to thoughts about how to get an extra two points of damage in the next fight.

Called shots and other moment-to-moment tactical decisions in the middle of combat: As if anyone in the middle of a gunfight really takes the time to plan a head shot. (For you “realism” fanatics out there, most soldiers in a fire fight don’t even shoot. They’re too busy trying to stay alive, let alone trying to aim properly.) Sure, snipers plan shots, but that’s a specific part of the story. What matters to a story is whether the desired result occurs, not the infinitesimal collection of actions that lead to that result.

    Random results:

The use of dice is left over from wargames. Players were in charge of armies. Die results were needed to simulate all the random details that commanders deal with in battle. Dice are great for creating the sense of utter confusion and randomness of battle. They’re not helpful in stories because the outcome of an event in a story should be uncertain, not random.

The gamemaster as a superior participant to the storytelling session: In wargames, the ref portrays all the forces of nature and logic working across the battlefield. In a tactical game this is fine – the players want someone to handle all the unknowns, to create part of the challenge of being a commander. But in a story game?

Whether the gamemaster takes on the unfortunate adversarial role ‘ common to many early D&D games or the Storyteller role of White Wolf’s games, the implication is that the players are ticket holders to a roller coaster, strapping themselves in for a ride. If the gamemaster builds a good roller coaster ride, the players have a good time. If not, they have to work hard to stay on the tracks and entertain themselves.

Let me suggest that the gamemaster and players arc put on equal footing. The purpose of the gamemaster still exists – she fills in all the blanks of the world, wears the hats and costumes of a cast of millions and creates conflicts for the characters – but she makes up the story along with the players. She doesn’t know how the story will turn out, just as the players don’t. The evening’s challenge is not in making the correct tactical decisions to beat up Nephandi or Nazis. The game is about creating a story.

Next issue I want to look at how the conventions of wargaming shape adventure modules and the stories and plots we develop for roleplaying sessions.



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