Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Game Theory: What's on the menu?

Say what you like, Pathfinder's got Class

It's 1985, and my friend Brian (a huge fan of the newly published Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight) convinces me to purchase the D&D Red Box at the local Toys "R" Us so we can play a game with a similar cast of characters that he had come to love in that series.

Getting back to his house with our newly obtained loot, we open up the box and start reading (after marveling after the odd dice and little crayon included, along with the map). 

We start with the one marked Player's Manual, as it is inscribed with bold yellow letters saying: READ THIS BOOK FIRST! The color, the fact that it's in all caps and with the added '!' indicates that this is an important prerogative, so we dutifully comply. 
Immediately we find that the book gives us a series of options to play characters; this is not some free-form improv-theater piece where you just make up a guy and bluff your way through. It's hard-coded with options that reinforce what sort of characters are expected to appear as protagonists are expected to appear in this world. These options were:

Humans (Yay! We are human, and we get to pretend that we are other humans!)

  • Cleric
  • Fighter
  • Magic-user
  • Thief
Demi-humans (Yay! We are human, and we get to play things that are almost, but not-quite human!)

  • Dwarf
  • Elf
  • Halfling
Now, I had bought this game to play a Magic-user - since magic is cool - so I knew immediately what 'Class' of character I wanted to play already (although I looked REALLY hard at the Elf as a option. He gets to do magic AND he's good at fighting? Money.)

So I rolled up my character as per the book, didn't get a high Intelligence (which the book said I HAD to have to even play a Magic-user), so Brian and I agreed that it would be OK to switch some numbers around to facilitate that. 

Time from reading my first RPG to hacking my first RPG? About 1 hour.

From there I picked out a few weak first-level spells, choose some languages I knew, a bought some gear with what little money I had from the gear list, and went into my first dungeon (and somehow survived it, which is a wonder to this day).

Looking at the most recent version of D&D today, although a lot has changed (Elves and Dwarves and Halflings are still there, for example, but they are no longer 'Classes') the fact remains that the system is still very much menu-driven: rather than being given limitless options to make the character you envision, instead you are given a 'menu' of options to choose from, and build around that. 

You choose:
  • Your Race
  • Your Ability Scores
  • Your Class
  • Your Skills, Feats, Powers, and Equipment (as appropriate for your Class)
  • Your Alignment
Once this is resolved, voila! You are ready to do some D&D. 
Make sure to fill in all the circles, please.
As per the original D&D, the 'menu' concept continues from there as you play; as you gain Experience Points (the meta-resource for the game that enables you to gain new abilities), you are given new options to build upon your abilities. But as offered in character creation, the decision-tree presented for advancement is determined by the original choices you made for your character when you started. The choices you make simply offer new sub-menus with limited numbers of new options you can add to your character.

Every RPG system to date has some form of menu available to choose what sort of character you are playing, and what they can do well or not-so-well. Some of the lists can be bigger and offer more choices than others (GURPS, for example, has a mind-boggling number of options right out of the box), and some smaller (indie-darling Dungeon World has a relatively small menu to choose from vs 4e), but there is still a menu regardless.

Why is this? Why do we want or need a menu at all? Why can't we just say: 'Here's my character, this is what motivates him, and this what he is good and bad at', and hit the gaming table with that?

Well, menus do a few key things for RPG's:
  • Menus reinforce genre. Having a game where the options include Cleric, Wizard and Fighter but does not include something like 'Cyborg' tells us a lot about the world the characters are expected to appear in.
  • They also help define Party Roles, which is important for team-based play; a state assumed by 99% of the RPG's on the market.
  • Menus (in theory..) promote game-balance. By clearly defining what sort of abilities can appear on the table in any combination, you can limit Mary Sue-ism and reinforce party roles, as above.
  • Having a menu also helps players to decide what sort of character they will play by defining what sort of character is allowed in the game. If you have no clear idea of what sort character you want or what traits they should have, having a limited list to choose from is of help.
But it's not all gravy. Menus also limit you in some key ways as well:
  • They limit your options. Want to play a Fomorian princess-in-exile who can cross between the Otherworld and our own? Too bad; that's not in the book. 
  • They limit imagination. You want your wizard to cast a huge spell that impresses the frost giants into aiding your cause? Too bad; you have nothing that allows that on your character sheet. Think of something else.
  • They can also create the bizarre netherworld of 'Character Optimization'; a term that comes up often in reference to D&D 4e and her prettier and more popular sister, Pathfinder. Just because you have more than one option to choose from when creating and advancing your character doesn't mean that they are all equally useful. Which segueways us well to the next issue...
  • Menus promote samey-ness. If my optimized fighter with optimized gear looks just like your optimized fighter with optimized gear at Gen-Con, it's like two girls in the same dress at the prom. Neither one of us looks very unique or interesting next to the other. 
My current interest in more 'rules-light' systems like Fate or Heroquest is not because I hate all-the-damned-rules; I've happily played and run games with all-the-damned-rules just fine, thank you very much.

The main appeal for me is that these sort of systems allow me to play what my imagination summons up without having to either hack the system, make my own playbook from scratch, or ignore some rule to make it work. In other words; I have the freedom to order something not on a menu.
Dagger-wielding cultists, evil robots, and a zeppelin? Huh, guess it's Wednesday already.
As a GM, I have always had the freedom to make my NPC's as I like with just about any RPG on offer. But as a player I want to have that same freedom when making and advancing my character, and as GM I would like my players to have that same freedom as well.

Note that this sort of freedom is not by necessity limited to 'rules light' systems either; Mutants & Masterminds grants a massive number of options for character creation, and allows the player to pre-flavor them as desired, as does the ever-popular Savage Worlds (although Savage Worlds could be described more as 'rule-medium' at worst).

It's no secret that my current RPG drug-of-choice is Fate. I've been tinkering with it since I first discovered it as FUDGE-hack, and for the same reasons noted above; because it allows me to make the character I want to play at the gaming table straight-out, and not some compromise that some distant game-designer thought I might like to play; nor do I have to wait until I've reached some arbitrary 'level' to play them.

In Fate, for example, if I want to play a wizard with Hands burned by the cold fire of the underworld, who has Shadow-demons that respond to my whispered commands, I can. No hacking required; just add those Aspects, some Skills or approaches to reinforce this, and maybe some Stunts and/or an Extra to back it up, and 'boom!': I'm ready to do some Fate.

For me, this is all-kinds of awesome. I'm now given permission to play what I want at the gaming table, and my friends are as well. 

As noted above, however, there is a trade-off here; by abandoning a menu-based system we have opened the possibility for confusion. With no road-map, with no clear path to create characters, we are now largely left our understanding of the system to create characters; and this is often a scary path for new players and even new game-masters.

In many ways this is the main failure of Fate Core in particular; by not providing a good number of examples for creation of characters (something I think Savage Worlds and Mutants & Masterminds in particular does well), new players are largely left adrift at sea when making sense of what the system can do. That's unfortunate, and I hope that some of my posts here might assist in that regard.

That being said; despite the difficulties involved, for me the effort is worth it to make the characters we want to play appear at the gaming table.

It may be the chef's (game-designers) pots, pans and range we are using, but we get to pick the ingredients now. And we have free-run of the kitchen:

So let's get cooking.

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