Under the Hood – A Guiding Hand

RPC-Under-the-Hood


A Guiding Hand
By The Warden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t know about you, but I’ve never actually crawled through a dungeon, piloted a space shuttle, fired a pulse rifle, or wrestled with a dinosaur. And I’m pretty sure you haven’t either. Actually, there’s quite a few common activities I’ve never done before. Fired a regular gun, been in a high speed chase, or even swam with a full set of clothes on, let alone armour and gear. It may be safe to say I’m not hero quality and I’m fine with that.

This lack of qualities doesn’t stop me from playing and enjoying a good RPG (or even a bad one), because it’s not about sharing qualities with your character. Al Pacino doesn’t strike me as the type to originate from Cuba or have experience as a crazed Miami drug dealer, but I buy his performance as Tony Montana without question on screen. That’s the whole point to playing a game: you get to be someone else for a change doing things you’d never attempt in real life. Experience not required, just a healthy imagination, an ability to count small numbers, and a willingness to work as part of a group.

In creating a game-friendly adaptation to real world or fantastic realities, roleplaying games are designed with two intentions in mind: create a believable world where the mechanics support and accentuate the story, and don’t let the players look like idiots. If you’re playing a game where your character is a half-gorilla ranger carrying a broadsword, the last thing you’re going to expect is your GM calling you out on one minor flaw of your description and screwing your character over.

“Wait, you didn’t clarify how you were going to deflect that last blow. Because you didn’t tell me you were going to use the flat of your sword to deflect another blade, your damage dice for the broadsword is now reduced by one die type.”

“Huh?”

“Ah, see, now that you’ve paused in confusion, your opponent takes advantage of that and attacks. He treats you as if you were dazed and scores a critical hit. You’re dead. Next!”

Clearly, that’s an over-exaggeration, but we only have 1500 words to get the point across, people. Games assume many factors are automatically enacted during the course of the game, such as how a character uses their sword. Having taken a few sword-handling classes, I can tell you blocking another sword with the edge of your blade is a major no-no and we are taught to use the flat end. Would I enforce that concept in a game? Nope, even if the other players were from that class (and most of those guys are roleplayers). Why? Because that’s not the point of the game.

FILLING IN THE BLANKS

These kinds of assumptions go far beyond the scope of minor issues, such as how to hold a sword. They reach as far as how your character lives their everyday lives (i.e. does your game require your character to go to the bathroom?) and restrict their influence on the story, setting, and interacting characters to a base minimum. What directly affects the true purpose of the game? That’s what gets your attention.

I should clarify this does not refer to individual sessions, groups, and Gamemasters, but the games themselves. Your individual One Ring campaign may take the time to spend an entire night roleplaying a scene at the Prancing Pony or the long road through the Shire, but it’s not universal. Content is like house rules – everyone has their own way of doing things and the only wrong way is when no one’s having any fun.

Mechanically speaking, this is something I refer to as “filling in the blanks.” When you stop and think about it, life is a series of complex variables best simulated by vast calculations using symbols known only to trained mathematicians; it’s nowhere close to being as simple as rolling a d20 or gaining a certain number of successes with a dice pool. If you fire a bullet, there are numerous obstacles and factors to alter the outcome of that bullet’s path, but accounting for those in a roleplaying game would bog it down to ridiculous levels. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in playing a game where five hours of play results in only three seconds of action. Ugh.

As universal as filling in the blanks may be, there’s always room for individual expression. Some games embrace complexity through the use of charts and variables with massive lists of weaponry expressed with different values and dice types, while others simply state that weapons can kill people when used successfully. Filling in the blanks universally affects two factors: game speed and character knowledge.

GAME SPEED

Do you want your game to run at a rapid-fire chaotic pace or in a calm, orderly fashion? How long should it take for a single player to complete an average turn? Does it use a single-roll engine, multiple dice rolled over the course of a turn, or a dice pool? Static target numbers or opposed rolls? All these considerations and more go into affecting game speed and require a certain amount of blank filling, because the faster you want your game play, the more details you’ll have to gloss over.

The funny thing about mechanics and game speed is that it can go either way and normally in the opposite spectrum from what you’d expect. Running combat scenes can require 30 minutes at the table to designate an outcome that may only use up a minute or two in the game world, yet characters can cross vast landscapes within a couple of minutes. It’s not restricted to game mechanics either. Fiction handles the same issues all the time, though each author has their own desires when it comes to fight scenes and exploration scenes. For example, Tolkien’s battles are somewhat vague and straight to the point, while walking through the woods takes up pages of context, but a fight scene in one of R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels is amazingly detailed. Our games are no different.

CHARACTER KNOWLEDGE

Whenever a character increases their strength, gains a level, or learns a new spell, the player does not need to go through a huge endeavour to pull it off. While some games do provide optional rules for enhancing this learning process, whenever a character gains a new trait, they simply have it from that point on. Even the character’s history and how it relates to their starting abilities is typically glossed over and you can simply pick and choose what you want him or her to know and do by working with the pre-determined number of points or dice rolls set down by the rules.

Compared to reality, this is an incredibly simplified system of gaining and maintaining abilities. Want your character to learn a new language? Done. It’s far easier than learning a new language in reality, a process requiring years of dedicated time and energy to develop the basics, let alone master a tongue. To my knowledge, there isn’t a game out there where you have to designate your next language, skill, or spell five levels in advance. When the time comes, it simply happens and the story progresses.

Perhaps the biggest example of this function is world knowledge. Unless you have the benefit of playing in a group where everyone has the entire Forgotten Realms catalogue, there’s only one individual with all the geography, history, and cultural knowledge found within a setting: the Gamemaster. The rest of the time, players learn as they play and only learn what they need to learn to keep pace with the story. When your characters need to travel the road from Waterdeep to Baldur’s Gate, do you have to roll to avoid getting lost? I hope not, so it’s safe to assume the GM defaults to setting your characters on the right path and setting down random or pre-determined encounters along the way. At the most, everyone can look at the map and choose a course best applied to the situation at hand (such as trying to avoid detection by roaming patrols or taking the most direct route to get to your destination as quickly as possible) and that’s provided with player handouts. Basically, players are never expected to research the world they’re engaging; they’re expected to play their characters.

THE CORE OF THE REASON

Filling in the blanks serves one purpose and one purpose alone: to avoid the hiccups that would detract from the core purpose of the game. Whether it’s a non-stop cavalcade of combat, social interactions, or problem solving, every game has a purpose to its design. If these blanks are left unfilled, the game can veer off the tracks and derail, thereby breaking the game entirely. Going back to the travelling example, if you’re playing a game that promises non-stop action and danger only to find yourself stuck in the middle of the woods because you failed a Nature check, that non-stop action has come to a complete and total halt. The game has failed.

The ironic thing about these blanks is that they’re rarely a conscious decision, regardless of where you sit in the gaming spectrum. Game designers simply ignore those obstacles and focus on the parts that matter – how characters progress, combat mechanics, etc. – and players think nothing of those details because no one wants to get bogged down by remembering when their character went to the bathroom during last week’s game or consulting a chart to find out if their waterskin will fit comfortably inside a backpack.

So why bring it up? Because knowing what you don’t want in your game can be as important as knowing what you do want. If you don’t want your game to focus on equipment, then simply don’t bother with it. Sure, they can still carry gear and apply them during play, but you don’t need to grant benefits by doing so. Knowing what your game is and what it isn’t are two equally important matters during the initial concept phase of game design. What it isn’t shapes what it will become.

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