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A New Direction

by Sergio Mascarenhas
Feb 02,2005


A New Direction

Let's face it: GlovE is not working. When a column has no feedback from the readers it only means that it is not working. And when this happens, most likely the problem is with the column, not with the readers. So, what's the problem with GlovE?

For a start, there's the fact that I have a limited time to dedicate to the column and games that underlie it. Next, the column is just not that interesting. Getting together some notes on a game file attached to those notes is not the most attractive thing to read and think about.

What to do? It's time to rethink the column. The focus of the column has always been on rpg design, yet rpg design may mean two basic things: Setting design and system design. Needless to say, my focus was always on system design. Yet...

You see, we can consider that rpgs can be oriented in two directions: Role vs. setting. Let's see what I mean by this and how it may impact my column:

By role-oriented rpgs I mean games where the alternative roles characters can play come to the fore. D&D is, of course, the ultimate example but this category includes GURPS, HERO, HARP and many other games. These games focus on presenting the players with a detailed view of the roles available. These roles may be genre specific like in D&D or HARP, or "universal" like in GURPS and HERO. A feature of these games is that they are not setting-specific; they are designed to be played in any setting of the players' choice, provided it fits the genres covered by the game. Role-oriented rpgs focus on the functions and abilities of the characters, thus tend to have developed (I'm purposefully avoiding the word complex' here) rules for character description, action and evolution.

On the other hand, we have setting-oriented rpgs. These focus on a concrete setting, maybe one that was not developed with role-playing in mind for a start. That's the case with games like HeroQuest, The Dying Earth, Tribe 8, Prince Valiant, Call of Cthullu, Pendragon, etc. In this case the focus is on the interactions between characters, between actions and NPCs, and how these affect the setting as a whole. These games tend to favour developed setting descriptions. Because the game can rely a good deal on the setting data, there's not as much a need for developed rules for character description and for character development. Furthermore, these games may focus character rules development on aspects that are specific to the setting. Consider CoC and its Sanity stat, or Pendragon and its passions and personality traits.

Of course, we can look at the dichotomy between role-oriented vs. setting-oriented rpgs as extremes in a continuum. Many games fall in the middle (RuneQuest 2 or Skyrealms of Jorune come to mind among my favourites). Besides, game designers may attempt to have the best of both extremes but this may lead to problems, as happened in games such as Middle Earth Role Playing or some of the versions of Stormbringer (both with magic rules that really didn't fit their settings).

What I realized is that role-oriented rpgs tend to be better for rpg rules discussion than setting-oriented rpgs. After all, the focus for the latter is in the setting, the part of an rpg that usually is more descriptive and less mechanical. Yet, despite the fact that role-oriented rpgs fit better rpg rules discussion, my last two columns (The Travels of Mendes Pinto and the current GlovE) were mostly directed at setting oriented rpgs.

What to do, then? Change course, of course. If I want a column on rpg system design, I should focus on games that fit more naturally that intent. In other words, I should focus on a role-oriented rpg, instead of setting-oriented rpgs.

Furthermore, if time is a constrain, I must change my approach in order to reduce the workload with the column. I've been trying to do two things, writing the games and writing the column. I must drop one of them. If I want to keep the column, I must drop the games. From now on I'll just discuss rules design here. I'll not attempt to illustrate it with the correspondent rules as in a finished game. I may write the game book, but that will be done outside of RPGnet. (If and when I finalize the game book I may present it here, though.)

So, what comes next? One of my pet projects, actually. To re-engineer or reverse-engineer my collection of fantasy games and come out with my ultimate fantasy rpg (let me just insist on the "my ultimate": it's a completely subjective and personal "ultimate"). Aren't there enough fantasy rpgs, you may say? Maybe, but there's always scope for one more. And the point of the column is how to design the rules, so I think the ideas I'll present may be ported to other genres as well.

The game will be fantasy, but it will not be just any type of fantasy. It will be "gritty" fantasy. I'm not very fond of "high" fantasy, so I'll stick to what I like. It will not be about super-humans, it will focus on the common men of a fantasy multiverse where outstanding characters are remarkable for their actions, not for some genetic power.

I'll refer to this project as "Rough Quests". The name is a tribute to my first rpg (RuneQuest, still one of the best for me), to the grittiness of the genre I'm focusing in, and to the rough nature of the game design process.

So, what am I to do from now on? Column after column I'll de-construct characters and their roles as available in fantasy games. I'll look at how different rule sets handle these and re-construct it into my own rule set. Where to start? Following the standard practice, we will look first at characters (character creation), followed by what characters can do (fields of action and action resolution), and end with character advancement. On what concerns the first item, character creation, I'll start with what is inherited (in fantasy terms, races), next what is genetic (meaning attributes or characteristics and similar traits), to be followed by what is acquired (it may classes, skills, or other similar descriptors).

That's it. We'll start next month with races for Rough Quests.

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What do you think?

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