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TIME FOR SOME ROLES

by Sergio Mascarenhas
May 13,2005

 

TIME FOR SOME ROLES

As I mentionned when I started the Rough Quests project, it centers on role-oriented rpg design. But how do we define roles? As fits the design philosophy I adopted, it makes sense to start by looking at other games before I decide on what to pick for RoughQ. And if we are talking about roles for rpgs, we have to start with Basic D&D, right?

Right. It's the thing I like about D&D, I mean, its focus on roles. Basically, D&D looks at the group of players as inter-dependent specialists. This is a great gaming device. Yet, how does D&D handle roles? According to four basic variables (in my interpretation of the game, of course; it is not to say that this is how the original game designers looked at things): Context; alignment; function (classes); species (races). Let's look at each one at a time.

GROUP ROLES

By group roles I'm referring to the role assigned to the party of PCs as a whole. This is defined according to context, social role and alignment.

Context is, of course, dungeon bashing. Yes, players may move out of the dungeon but BD&D was designed for dungeon bashing -- which is perfectly understandable when we consider the wargaming origins of D&D. Accordingly, the context of the game provided for two types of characters: Playable characters -- those usefull for dungeon bashing -- and non-playable characters -- everyone else like the conspicuous inn-keeper and barmaid. (Notice that the difference between playable characters and non-playable characters is not to be confused with the difference between player characters and non-player characters since a non-player character may be a playable character. Think about a thief NPC, for instance.) Since the game only focuzed on a given context (dungeon bashing), it only provided rules for characters playable in that context. Everyone else could be there, but there were no rules to play their roles. This is important to keep in mind.

In D&D a character's social role is to be an adventurer. This basically means that characters are individuals without strong attachments to people other than their group, or to places other than where they are. They keep moving around, meeting different people and trying to survive on their own. At its core D&D has no place for complex social relationships and interactions. Yes, eventually these were incorporated into the game but that happened as an afterthought.

Alignment provided for another break-up of roles. Basically it identified the "good or positive" roles and the "bad or negative" roles in the game. The players were expected to play the "good or positive" roles. Everyone else was a "monster". This fitted the context well, of course. And it is very gamable: All you need to know is that the players play the good guys and the GM handles the bad guys. (Theoretically even PCs could be bad guys, but if taken literaly this could have a disruptive impact in the game; on the other hand, the GM also handled good guys, but these would not be the focus of the game due to its adversarial nature.)

Couple a positive aligment with adventuring plus the dungeon bashing context and you have a game concept that's very easy to explain and to grasp: The players play the role of the good guys fighting evil the hard way. In D&D these two core ideas provide the overall role, a role that is shared by all characters in the party.

What about Rough Quests? No, it will not be only about dungeon bashing, and it will not concern the good guys vs. the evildoers. Everything will be possible, including the things D&D left out of its scope. Yet, before concentrating on Rough Quests tere are still other issues about the way D&D handles roles.

INDIVIDUAL ROLES

D&D handles the individual roles available for player characters by recourse to two basic categories: functional roles and racial roles.

Functional roles

The basic break-up of roles is done by recourse to the idea of functional specialization. Characters have different roles so that they can take care of different activities, thus contributing to the overall success of the party. In D&D terms, they belong to different classes. Needless to say, the basic functional roles are the fighter, the magic user and the thief. The first uses blunt force and weapons to confront danger face-to-face. The second uses magic while the latter uses cunning and stealth for the same purpose. The beauty of the system is that each one is better suited to handle some types of situations and thus they are interdependent. This provides both in-character variety and out-of-character fostering of a collaborative behavior on the part of the players, both aspects contributing to a better gaming experience.

Didn't I forget something, say, the cleric? Well, I didn't. You see, the cleric is less of a fourth function than a hybrid that combines features of the fighter and the magic user. Yes, the details may be different but the broad role he plays in the party could be covered by one of the two other classes, depending on the situation. Thus fighter, magic user and thief are the three basic functional roles in D&D, they are like the basic colours of a D&D world. The game expanded the variants within those three basic colours by introducing different shades (for instance, by specifying the fighter into paladin, barbarian, etc.) or by combining them into a wider range of hybrids (monks, rangers, bards and whatelse), but it never really attempted to introduce new basic colours to its palette.

That's unfortunate. Fantasy -- and the real world -- provides several other alternative basic functions that could easily fit into the D&D set. I would consider at least two more (notice that both may have been somehow handled in latter iterations of the D&D line but in a more or less indirect way):

Remember the donkey in Shriek? What about the courtesans of legend, fantasy and reality that seduce with a gesture and kill with a look? How to handle the Richelieus and the Black Adders? Where is the itinerant merchant of history and story? How do you fit all of these characters into the D&D basic roles? Forget about it, you can't. You can't because they don't "fight" with sword, spell or stealth. They "fight" with their tongue and manners, they "battle" with persuasion and wordy deception. Characters like these are a constant even in the literature that inspired D&D. Fantasy has plenty of scope for the verbose merchant, priest or social parasite that beats you with a boring discourse or a well placed sarcasm. Once more, recall how in Shriek I the donkey (I just keep forgetting his name) saved his ass from being roasted by the lady dragon. Personaly I consider that it would have been a lot more interesting to have a cleric focuzed on persuasion instead of the hybrid we find in D&D. (There are even great real world examples like S. Francis trying to broker a peace between Saladin and - who was he -- Richard the Lion Hearth?)

Another great role -- and another one that D&D would eventually attempt to cover but without giving it its due position among the core roles -- is the role of the scholar. In fantasy terms this means a mix of library rat, alchemist and a Da Vincian inventor of improbable machines. Similar in outlook to the magic user, he is different from the latter because the scholar focuses on the material and mundane, not on the magical and super-natural. This is where we can fit McGyver with his Swiss Army knife or the weird science of Hawkmoon. The scholar creates machines that can do wonders when they work. He knows arcane knowledge about rarely seens monsters, thus being able to shout to the fighter where's the soft spot leading a good blade thrust directly to the hearth. He can point to the trap, not because he used magic like the magic user, neither because he sensed its presence like the thief, but because he studied the Encyclopedia of Traps and Tricks, master book where any conceivable trap is neatly detailed, and he knows that this room in the dungeon has to have a Slide to Death XVI on it.

Yes, D&D provides a very strong foundation, but we can expand on it, there is scope to two functions other than its core trio of fighter, magic user and thief: The golden tongued expert on persuasion and communication, and the scholar (technician, crafter) that excels at the knowledge of the natural and artificial world.

ROLES IN GAMES OTHER THAT D&D

So far we have seen how D&D handles character roles. But what about other games?

Let's start with RuneQuest, my main source of inspiration for Rough Quests. Roles are not at the core of RQ but they are there as specializations available for the characters. The specializations are handled through cults if one is to play in Glorantha, or through the culture of origing in the case of RQ3. In both cases the pallette of roles is much widder than what we can find in D&D. For instance, in RQ2 one can play a merchant of the Issaries god, or a Lankhor Mhy scholar.

One of my fantasy games of choice, Skyrealms of Jorune, went into the extent of having a race -- the Thriddle -- that was basically a scholar, and a fine one at it. The ultimate game for characters that do it with talk (no doubts about it) has to be The Dying Earth, while by definition Hawkmoon needed to incorporate the scholar into the fold of fantasy roles. There are more games that provide coverage to a larger set of functional roles than the basic D&D trio. This is the case of Dominion, RuneQuest Slayers, Land Without a King, the old classic , Runebearer, Tribe 8 or Agone. On the other hand HARP, a recent addition to the generic fantasy rpg market, kept working under the ages-old conventions of D&D due to its timid implementation of the scholar, the crafter and the communicator as non-adventuring professions.

Some games specialize on particular roles. That's the case of Cuthroat, the Shadow Wars with it's orientation to criminal activities, Ars Magica 4th ed. that is focused on magic users (with some leanings into scholars as well), or the fighter-centred Pendragon, Prince Valiant and Rune.

Other games work without considering functional roles while allowing the player to work out the role he wants for his character. It's the case of games like The Shadow of Yesterday or HeroQuest, a game that goes exactly in the opposite direction of D&D: Instead of defining clear cut roles, it handles all types of action with the same rules, so that the break-up between talking your way out of a situation or spelling it out becomes mute (needless to say, this was already there to a great extent and long ago in Tunnels & Trolls).

On what concerns Rough Quests, it must provide a varied set of functional roles. These will be based in the five basic colours of figher, magic user, deceiver, scholar and communicator. How this will be done is something that I'll keep for a latter stage of the game design process.

OTHER TAKES ON ROLES IN RPGS PICKED FROM RPGnet

There are some columns by other RPGnet columnists you may consider reading in this context. For instance, Sandy Antunes has a set of very interesting columns worth remembering:

http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/soap09jan04.html

http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/soap06feb04.html

http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/soap05mar04.html

I also suggest a recently published column by Mendel (http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/physics18feb05.html) that actually appeared in RPGnet after I had written most of my present column.

Next month we will look at the last key break-up of roles: Races.

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