The Travels of Mendes Pinto: Team Game
Don't Forget the Damn Index!Sergio Mascarenhas
August 30, 2001
The Travels of Mendes Pinto: Team Game
Don't Forget the Damn Index!Sergio Mascarenhas
August 30, 2001
Last month I explained what's the whole purpose of this ongoing column: to design the Core Rule Book in The Travels of Mendes Pinto game line which name is The Annotated Book of Mendes Pinto vol. 1, or AB01. In the previous column I mentioned what will be left out of the book: the Game Master toolkit (advice on running the game, and setting development material), special rules for specific situations, detailed setting sources, fully fledged fiction, each allowing for the design of one or more independent books. This month we will shift our attention to another issue: the overall content of the book, its general outline, and breakup into sections.
You see, it may be a personal thing but I think that it's always useful to start with a good plan. After all RPGs have been in development for almost thirty years. Today one can sort out what works and what doesn't (1). The plan laid down below will help insuring the coherence of the design process. It will allow us to see what's been finished and what's missing. And it will provide a direction to future developments of this column.
One thing is sure: We must not forget about indexes. One at least.
BUILDING LITTLE BLACK BOXES
The problem is that there are many different ways to structure a rule book. Which one to chose? I'll consider the next ones before attempting to define the plan for AB01:
SETTING VERSUS RULES
Some games separate setting information from rules into two big sections. Should I follow this approach? Yes or not? Umm, we must never forget the Cardinal Principle: Rules follow Setting, isn't it?
Yes it is. And because it is, we cannot separate rules from setting. If rules follow setting, there's no presentation of the rules that does not incorporate setting into it. Why do we have rules for melee combat? Because the setting requires it. Why are there no rules for starship traveling? Because there is no such thing in the setting (I'm speaking about TToMP here). Where there are rules, there is setting.
Conversely, where there is setting there are rules. Remember this is a game. This is not a simple description of a setting. Setting material is not produced for the sake of providing a good narrative. It's produced to be the basis of a game. It is evaluated not on itself, but on its ability to lead us to a great gaming experience. So, where there's setting there are (at least, implicit) rules (2).
The bottom line is that it makes no sense to attempt to separate setting from rules. On the contrary, they should be integrated into a perfect blend. Let's see whether this is feasible.
CONTENT DRIVES STRUCTURE
It was mentioned before. AB01 will contain the next things: Basic setting information; character definition rules; situation resolution rules; character evolution rules; reference data. How do we articulate all of this?
One way would be to just follow that order and divide the book into four chapters: 1- The world of Mendes Pinto; 2 - The Character; 3 - The Character in action; 4 - The Character in time. We will come back at this outline in a moment. Before let's look at some other alternatives.
Another approach to game book structuring is based on the functionality of the book. How is it intended to be used? From my point of view RPG books can be used in 5 ways: as entertainment books; as teaching manuals; as reference books; as toolkits; as any combination of the previous usages.
RPG books as entertainment
It's like sports, really. Most people buy sports-related products (equipment, magazines, books) but don't actually play sports. They buy those things because it's entertaining, and it fosters their imaginations. It works like fiction.
The same can be said about a lot of people that buy RPG books. They can't, or don't intend to play (either because they don't have playing mates, because they don't like the ones they can get, or because they can't find the time to play). They just like to read the books.
If one is writing an RPG book to this people, one only needs to ensure that the book is consistent and makes a good reading. One needs not to worry about how the book is going to be used, because there will be no usage other than being read. In this case one basically writes the book like a piece of fiction. The only specific thing is that this fiction is complex, since it requires several levels: the setting description level; the character-in-setting level; the rules meta-setting level; and so on.
RPG books as teaching manuals
How does one learn how to play an RPG? There are two basic ways (that can be combined): either one learns by doing, usually because we are introduced into a gaming party and start playing right away; or one learns by the book. People designing RPG books must assume that the prospective players may not have a party, so that they'll have to learn the game by the book. In other words, RPG books are also teaching manuals. They work like distance learning tools. Now, designing distance learning books is a craft in itself. There are endless resources on how to do it. I'm sure that RPG designers would be well advised to learn the basics of this trade (they can check the net as a starting point). Some of the things to consider when designing a teaching manual are (3):
How does this translate into RPGs? If an RPG book is to help the players in learning the game, it should:
The first aspect is particularly important. The player should not be required to start playing when he reaches the end of the 200th and last page of the game book. He should be able to play after each section, that way consolidating what he has just learned about the game. This is a feature that is very common in tabletop games: you often have the rules divided into, say, basic, intermediate, and advanced. You have the possibility to game at each level. After you feel confident at a certain level - and the fact that you have playtested that level contributes to that confidence - you move to the next level.
Is this feasible in RPGs? Or are RPGs "holistic", meaning that the parts are only understandable within the whole, so we need to get acquainted with the whole at the outset? Personally, I think RPGs are holistic, but that the "whole" can be looked at at different levels of granularity (do you still remember that Bachelard Concept I wrote about two columns ago?). For instance, one can have a broad, but superficial view of a character, before one moves to deeper levels of character definition. That means that we can design RPG rules by levels of complexity where each level adds to the previous ones by building on these previous levels.
If we take this two ideas - organization based on increased level of complexity, and the holistic nature of RPGs - we get a structure where each structural level covers the different aspects of an RPG, going from simple/more immediate to complex/harder to grasp. Each next structural level will cover the same issues than the previous levels, but adding something not previously covered (or at least not covered in depth).
RPG books as reference books
RPG books are to be used and reused. They are not just simply read and put aside. While playing, players will come back to their trusted game books whenever a doubt arises, or when they need to refresh their ideas. In this sense RPG books are reference books.
To fulfill this role information must be organized in a logical way, keeping together related aspects of the game so that players can easily locate what they are looking for. Detailed tables of contents, indexes, visual reference aids, all become a must.
The criteria to judge on the quality of an RPG book as reference book is how easy information is to find, and whether there are no logical inconsistencies within the book's content. Information does not even need to be organized in a linear pattern. For instance, it can be organized alphabetically, like in a dictionary.
RPG books as toolkits
RPGs are basically tools to foster imagination. Different people vary widely in their imaginative behavior. What's more, each RPG models a certain reality (more or less realistic, more or less fictional), but different people have different modeling requirements. A good rule system should allow for those variances in imagination and modeling requirements. It should allow the player to chose how he wants to model his game's reality, according to his imagination (4).
To do this, an RPG has to be designed as a toolkit where the player can pick what works best according to his tastes. Does he want a detailed combat system, covering all conceivable possibility? He gets it. Does he prefer a simple and straightforward approach to combat? He just needs to drop all the developed rules, and get back to the basics.
Such a game system would be perfect if it ensured consistency among the different levels of play: the player that wants only the basics, and the player that wants to go down the full path of increased complexity can play together and still achieve a consistent game, both in terms of in-setting consequences of the character's actions, meta-setting rules consistency, and game flow.
This is one of the hardest things to achieve. Often it's much easier to identify a given target level of complexity, and to design rules for that level. Rules for specific situations may be added in an ad hoc basis, or left for players' development as house rules. Even when a game has varying levels of rules complexity, it's easier to design it on the pre-supposition that everybody will be playing at the same level.
While structuring a game book as a toolkit the designer must understand that a player that picks the rules he wants to use doesn't want to be burdened with the ones he dropped. For instance, if he doesn't want to use body locations for combat, it should be easy to keep out those rules when the player is using the book, either physically (by putting aside the pages where these rules are presented) , or functionally (by a clear graphical discrimination of the different rules).
An RPG designer is not bound to follow only one of the approaches to game design presented above. He may attempt to reconcile several of them. Actually, most designers - or at least the best - attempt to make their books as readable as possible as stand alone products (stand alone in the sense that reading them is an end in itself, not dependent on their usage for a game); easy to learn for new players; and easy to reference.
An example: D&D3ed's Players Handbook (5)
If you open D&D's PHB in page 3 you get a global view of the book encapsulated in the table of contents. The first half of the TOC concerns the presentation of the rules, while the second half is a list of tables. You will also notice from the TOC that the book is organized into chapters (11 to be precise plus an introduction and an appendix), and the chapters into sections (varying from 3 in chapter 1 to 16 in chapter 3). Each chapter deals with a domain of the game presenting all the rules pertaining to that specific domain. There's an index, an appendix with a comprehensive glossary of terms used in the book, and a resumé of character creation.
Content-wise, the game follows a mixed approach, with the primary emphasis in character creation which drives the presentation of the different aspects of the game. The general rules for action are incorporated into character creation. After this come chapters to deal with special cases of action: combat, adventuring, and magic. Character advancement is only briefly touched, since this is left to another book (the Dungeon Master's Guide).
What does this tell us? That the PHB is mainly organized with two purposes in mind: as a reference book, and as a learning book. It's not supposed to work as a toolkit. The players are not encouraged to adapt the rules they see fit their playing styles. They are not presented with alternatives, told what to drop according to their tastes, or presented with blank areas where they will have to introduce their own rules. The book tells us what a D&D character is and how to play it, and what a D&D character is and how it should be played is what's in the book. By reading it you learn how to create and play a D&D character. By going back to it you make sure that you keep creating and playing D&D characters. At least the way D&D characters were conceived by the designers of this game.
The main concern is to explain to players what is a character and how a character is developed. Also how to play a character. This is done in a way that attempts to be comprehensive so that the player will get the whole picture as he reads the book. Of course, unless he is a genius in grasping new information, he will not be able to catch it all at the first read. So he may have to come back and forth before he understands and consolidates what he is reading. There are almost no examples nor exercises (apart from the "pick a character sheet and design a character as you read" proposal). We must conclude that, while the notion that the book would serve as a tool for the players to learn the game was not forgotten by the designers, it was not their main focus.
The main driver for the structuring of the PHB was to allow players to find information when they need it. It is supposed to work as a good reference book. I must say that it delivers in this field. The book is structured in a logical way that's easy to grasp. It has many referencing aids (the tables mentioned above). I suppose that the game designers realized that D&D is a complex game. The player needs to learn many concepts, so being able to find information in the book may be a recurrent need, even for experienced gamers. That's probably why reference reigns in the PHB.
Could it be otherwise? Yes, it could. This gamebook could be based on a "teaching first" approach. How to? Maybe this way:
For instance, the rules could be divided into two levels, basic rules and advanced rules. The basic rules could include:
I guess that these basic rules could fit in no more than 60 pages. If we add examples and a couple of playtesting modules (maybe playable solo), it could go up to 80 or 90 pages. It would allow players to create simplified characters to learn the basics of the game. Everything else would come latter, when they moved to the advanced rules.
Actually, the game could retain its current structure, but separate in each chapter the basic rules from the advanced ones, so that the player could jump to the basic first, and explore the advanced latter.
I guess you understand where I'm going: there are different ways to organize a gamebook. Each will correspond to the things the game designer thinks need more emphasis. I presented this example only to demonstrate precisely this point.
AB01 - THE ANNOTATED BOOK OF MENDES PINTO VOL. 1 BREAKDOWN
I have a problem. You see, I just cannot make my mind on which is the criteria that I would put forward in terms of organizing AB01. On one hand, I just keep telling me that it must be directed at the new player, someone that wants that book to learn the game. In other words, that the main criteria should be to organize the book according to its self-teaching function. On the other hand, there's something that always reminds me that you only learn a game once, but you keep coming back to the game book afterwards. From this point of view, referencing rules. Yet, there's a third voice that whispers that it's the player that does the game, the book must allow him to adapt it to his own approach. Toolkit it the word this voice keeps whispering.
What to do? Well, I think the ideal would be to satisfy all those voices. But how? Maybe by going down the mixed approach way? Umm, trying to do all at once usually means one ends doing nothing.
In my dreams of grandeur I see a special type of gaming book, a polymorphing book. This polymorphic thing starts as a learning manual; once the player understands the game, the book turns into a toolkit where the player can select what suits his tastes, so that he can use it the way he likes; yet, all of the material is still there, ready to work as a referencing resource when need comes.
In those moments I see a book where information is organized by order of complexity, so that the player learns from the simpler to the harder, building on his gaming experience to move from level to level of complexity. Yet, I see a double system of pagination so that the player may separate the pages and reorganize them according to his will: for instance, he may put together all the rules on combat; select the rules on trade he wants to use, and discard those he does not intend to employ; separate in a binder the often used rules and sections, and put in another binder those he only seldom uses; put examples and practice stuff to one side, fiction to another, and rules to yet another.
This can be done, and I suppose it has been done. The only problem is that it's hard to do it the right way. Really hard. I'll have to stick to something simpler.
Well, I suppose you guessed where I (and many, many RPGs) am going. Back to content breakdown, of course. After all, if setting drives structure, I mean, rules... The organization of AB01 will be done according to these guidelines: