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Rough Quests


by Sergio Mascarenhas
Apr 29,2005



So far I worked Rough Quests by trying to create a ruleset that can be qualified as realist. No, I'll not go back to the endless discussion about realism in rpgs. Instead, the concept of realism that I'm using is simply the next: My design approach is realist because it attempts to model real world situations by explicitly referring to those situations. In other words, my take on realism is pragmatic instead of theoretical. I don't discuss the nature of reality, the existance of the real world, or the ability of man to encompass it (and write rpgs based on it). I just assume that there's something we call the real world, if for nothing else at least for practical reasons, and that it is my reference for game design.

Now, Rough Quests is a role playing game, and a fantasy rpg at that. This begs two issues that somehow limit the usability of the realist approach just proposed, the issues of gamism and cinematism.


Since Rough Quests is to be a game we should take into account that its rules are not guidelines for people to live better their lives in the real world. Instead they exist to ensure that a group of people, the players, enjoy gaming together. Once more, my perspective is pragmatic more than theoretical. I just acknowledge that the players are there to play a game, and that they do it for fun. I don't plan to delve into the nature of gaming, how it relates to real life, and how it may drive us to the deepest philosophical issues about existance that should be our enduring concern. Thus I can't forget that the context of gaming may determine design decisions that go against the realist mindset proposed before. Why? For the simple reason that modeling the real world may lead to in-game situations that are not enjoyable to the players.

It's useful to look at a couple of examples at this point. The most obvious one is the absence in most rpgs of a way to model the psychology of persons or creatures in a realistic way (remember that realistic is to be taken in the sense presented above). Just look at combat: Most often than not PCs and NPCs fight to the death. Now, this is completely irrealistic when we consider the patterns of behavior of real people and real creatures. Yet, it makes sense from a gamist point of view because it simplifies the game: A killed NPC is an entity that one does not need to account for afterwards. In a game death is a way of simplifying things and making the game manageable. After all, most games have only one GM that has to handle most game entities, mostly by memory. If he has to follow-up the action of a stack of NPCs and creatures, their interactions among themselves and with PCs, the game may soon become unmanageable.

Another great example is the way Jonathan Tweet designed D&D by specifically looking at his main inspiration, RuneQuest (you can find his essay at http://www.jonathantweet.com/). Here is an example where a game designer intentionally allowed gamism to take it over realism.

What about Rough Quests? I cannot antecipate the decisions I'll take in this context but there are some things I can advance: I'll keep realism as the primary target, and only will allow gamism to overtake it when absolutely necessary to make an enjoyable game; and I'll try as much as possible to find solutions with both realist and gamist value -- for instance, I'll try to find a way to turn something that's realistic (like, say, psychological rules) into a fun gaming experience, thus making it a positive gamist device.


A game set in a fantasy setting has to have as references many things that can't be found in the real world. But from where do we derive these? Mostly from fiction which in the modern world means books, cinema and tv. These different forms of expression developped their own conventions and these may work counter to standard behavior in the real world. Needless to say, we should look at these conventions because they shape our understanding of fantasy. They should also contribute to the design of Rough Quests. But which are these conventions?

Talk, talk and talk. Remember Errol Flinn as Robin Hood? Zorro in its many celuloid incarnations? The donkey in Shrek? There's almost no action movie where action is just that, a stream of top class fighting moves. Most often than not, it is broken up by bold speaches, psychological attacks, memorable sentences, significant looks, etc. Cinema and other forms of fiction would not be half as fun without those displays of bravado. I will have to find a way to make psychological combat and action as important as physical confrontation, and to make both work together.

Move, move and move. Action in fiction is exactly that, action. A good deal of it is moving around, jumping, rolling, running, crawling. Like for talking and psychology, movement should not be an after-thought. The game should consider clear and central rules for movement on what concerns physical action.

Boldness (and cowardice) behind expectation. Often we see the heroes of fiction doing things that no normal person would do. And from time to time we also see secondary characters giving up long before they should. Certainly, the psychology of a fictional character is not necessarily realistic. Needless to say, and as was pointed above, this is also a stapple of rpgs, even if mostly for gamist reasons. I have mixed feelings about this convention. I tend to prefer realistic psychology and rules that enforce it.

Selective stupidity. How often do you see the hero putting off an enemy and leave him laying on the ground without veryfing if he is really off (meaning dead), without tying him to prevent the case where he would recover his senses and without covering him for the case where someone would come and find him there? And where the enemy recovers his senses or is found with the direst consequences for the heroes? Fiction is plagued by situations like that, situations where the heroes act in a ratter unintelligent way because it is needed for the purposes of the story, so that the enemy they left behind, the obvious clue about their actions, etc. can trigger another dangerous situation. Here I am all for realism but in the end it is up to the players to play their characters well. There's no need to devise rules to moderate selective stupidity in an rpg.

I guess you got what I'm looking at by now. A good deal of rpg game rules handle action more like a boxing match than like what we see or read in fiction. Yes, both boxing and fiction have their public but rpgs tend to center more on fiction than on boxing. So why handle the former like the latter?

Notice that in one sense cinematicism is just another way to takle realism with the difference that while realism has the real world as the reference, cinematicism has fiction as its reference. Both can thus be agregated under a single concept, the idea of consistency to the sources that inspire the game.


Some of you may think that there's an equivalence between my concepts of realism, gamism and cinematism and the famous GNS model due to Ron Edwards (realism <=> simulationist, gamism <=> gamist, cinematism <=> narrativist). If that's the case you may even be right in thinking it, but I have to say that if it happens, it's not intended. I mean, I read Ron's essays on GNS and some of the discussions about it at the Forge and at RPGnet, but I never delved deeply into it. I didn't go back to it when I wrote the present column and don't plan to discuss the merits and demerits of GNS as compared to the concepts presented here. As I kept saying, my approach is pragmatic, thus I'm not particularly interested in putting down the ultimate philosophy of rpg design.

(In any case, other than the possible similarities between the concepts used by me and those advanced in the GNS model there's a major difference between them. The GNS model poses that one cannot optimize the three approaches to game design advanced in it, so much so that one has to choose to optimize one of them, and that such a decision forces the designer to sub-optimize the other two. I think that the game designer should try to optimize his game in all accounts - realism, gamism and cinematism - and that the most interesting games are those that are consistent with reality, those that provide a good gaming experience, and those that are more "colourful".)

Next column we will start messing things around by looking at roles.

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