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Thinking Virtually

#69: Strategic Coda: The RPG Connection

by Shannon Appelcline
May 23,2003

 

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For much of this year I've been talking about strategy games. Board games and card games. Poker, bridge, and Rummy. Monopoly and Clue. The settlers of Catan and Res Publica. This week, however, I'd like to take a step back and ask, "How does this all relate to the roleplaying games that I've spent most of this column talking about?"

As I said back in the first column on this topic, I think strategy games and roleplaying games exist in a continuum. Strategy games tend to be "more strategic", "more competitive", "more goal-oriented", "less personal", and "more abstract", but none of those are hard and fast quantifications. Thus, perhaps the easiest way to apply strategic lessons to roleplaying games (and vice-versa) is simply to understand that's it's a process of building blocks, where you add one roleplaying (or strategic) element at a time.

Strategic Roleplaying Games

Traditionally, most roleplaying games have a heavy strategic element to them. This, perhaps, shouldn't be that much of a surprise, given that roleplaying games directly grew out of miniature games, by way of TSR's Chainmail rules--a game which I'd really define as a strategic game with minor roleplaying elements, a topic that I'll cover more fully in a bit.

Though modern roleplaying games have deemphasized strategy somewhat and have definitely dramatically increased the emphasis on roleplaying, for the most part they still show that strategic ancestry. Within a roleplay gaming almost any "game system" is actually strategic gameplay.

Combat is probably the most obvious example. Many systems, including the recent Dungeons & Dragons 3E suggest the use of miniatures, while others such as the late, lamented Dragonquest actually use hex maps. Whenever a roleplaying games steps up the combat scale a notch, to vehicles (or armies), it usually goes totally strategic. For example Traveller: The New Era pushed space combat off into a related game called Brilliant Lances, just as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons offered a mass combat game called Battle System.

Though combat is the most obvious example, other roleplaying game systems, if sufficiently complex, can become fully strategic as well. The original Traveller game had a sufficiently complex trading system, especially as outlined in Book 7: Merchant Prince, that it could meet this classification; likewise King Arthur Pendragon had a sufficiently complex manor system in its first edition Noble's Book that it too would qualify as strategy.

Moving into the world of online games, this tendency to produce highly strategic roleplaying games was the conceptual basis behind MUDs, as evidenced here at Skotos by The Eternal City and Grendel's Revenge, the first having a strategic combat system and the second a strategic lair-building system. Strategic RPG has proven the most popular type of roleplaying game, suggesting that most game players like some element of strategy, and thus it also became the basis of most MMORPGs, such as EverQuest and Asheron's Call (and our our Meridian 59).

This isn't to say that all RPGs are strategic. Some tabletop games, most of them designed by Johnathan Tweet or Robin Laws, have tried to offer more freeform and creative gameplay. Everway was one of the first, with its core game system revolving around interpreting pseudo-Tarot cards. Over the Edge offered another example, with its loosely defined areas of expertise. Hero Wars, I think, offers one of the few examples of successful low-strategy RPG play, and I'd attribute that first to the fact that there are still a fair number of skills and stats, offering some strategy, and second to the fact that it was based in Glorantha, a background with a pre-existing fan base. Over in online land, MUSHes have pushed the envelope of this sort of low-strategy gameplay, generally with more success than than their tabletop brethren, probably because the Internet offers a wider pool of potential players; our own prose game Castle Marrach and graphical game Underlight clearly fit in this category.

So, with all that said, how do you incorporate strategic thoughts into your roleplaying games?

To start with, I think that you need to recognize that your game systems are strategic. You're no longer trying just to please the players, but you're also trying to balance out systems and allow for tactical and/or strategic cognition. Some of my strategic topics will be of little relevence. For example components are mostly abstract in RPGs and hidden information is likely to be somewhat irrelevent because it mainly amounts to "things the gamemaster knows". Likewise, activity and victory are less relevant because RPGs don't tend to have such discrete beginnings, middles, and ends.

However, I'd suggest careful thought be given to decision sets, the random factor, and overall gameplay.

Let me offer a little more concrete discussions of each of these main topics:

Gameplay (TV #58) really addresses the question, "what game systems do you include in your RPG?" The answer has traditionally been "combat",or to use my strategic terms, "token descruction", and that's a bit of a shame because it's such a narrow subset of what you can do. Various RPGs have flirted with other major game systems, such as the Traveller trading system that I mentioned above, but they've generally not been that big a deal.

As a designer you should consider wild possibilities. Why not build a full system for trade into your own RPG? Or maybe an exploration system, which would be a very good single-player detour for a primarily multiplayer game. Just running through my gameplay possibilities, "racing" is another interesting system you could develop, whether it would be simple movement or speed in doing any number of tasks. Ultima Online should be lauded for its intricate crafting systems.

Don't get stuck into the traditional RPG/strategy rut, but rather see what else is out there.

Decision Sets (TV #60) control what choices players have within your strategic sub-games. The most common decision-set flaw in RPGs is to offer too few options, rather than too many. Traditional D&D (pre 3E) is a fairly good example of this failing. If you were a fighter your decision set was usually only 1-wide: hit-the-enemy/hit-the-enemy/hit-the-enemy. Many MMORPGs have fallen into this same failing, offering up what I call "click" sydrome, where you push your mouse button until the monster is dead.

Personally, I like the alternatives offered up via Dragonquest or Runequest where you can choose between many modes of attack (attack/parry/all-out-attack/all-out-defend/whatever) and/or maneuver around a concrete physical setting which can offer you advantages or disadvantages depending on the responses of your opponent. In Castle Marrach we likewise tried to create a combat/strategy sub-game with a wider decision set than what you can find in MMORPGs; players have the opportunity to choose between a number of different maneuvers (lunge/thrust/dodge/parry/etc), and then those maneuvers are interrelated on-the-fly in an n-dimensional matrix. It's the sort of thing you can do in a computer moderated game that wasn't necessarily viable back in the pure tabletop era.

As I mentioned in my decision sets article, you don't want to overwhelm your players with too many decisions, but given the history of RPG systems you probably need to start out by offering them some viable and different options.

The Random Factor (TV #61) is perhaps the most well-discussed strategic topic in RPGs; players and designers alike have a good understanding of randomness and of the different possible random distributions; if you don't, it's all covered in my original article.

As an RPG designer you simply need to be aware of what's out there. There are unweighted distributions in Chaosium's d100 and Hasbro's d20 system. There are curved distributions such as GURPs 3-18 bell curve. There are totally non-intuitive distributions such as White Wolf's system where you roll "n" dice and success is based upon how many dice in your pool exceed a target number (though, as a sidebar, I'll note that computerized mediums give you the opportunity to make this sort of non-intuive distribution intuitive by displaying clear, equivalent percentage chances to the player). Finally, there are weighted distributions, such as the chart-heavy Rolemaster game (and the late, lamented MERP).

I think a lot of the other advice in my random-factor article is still spot on for RPGs. You need to know your audience, moderate your chance elements, and clearly state that level of chance to your audience.

In an RPG game, you also need to think carefully about consequences. In a strategy game, it's somewhat OK if you wipe a player off the map, but in an RPG there may be some possibilities, such as character death, that you never leave up to chance.

And that's really most of what I wanted to say in this week's article--but it's not the end-all and be-all of how strategy and roleplaying games can interrelate, so with a bit more brevity, let me offer up a few of the other possibilities ...

Roleplaying Strategy Games

Clearly, you can also look at game design from the opposite direction, and consider how you can increase the roleplaying quotient of strategic games. This can sometimes be a tough task, because the levels of abstractions in some strategic games are so high that it's not obvious who a player should be. Take, for example, Sid Meier's Civilization. You're controlling a vast civilization over a period of thousands of years. So, who do you roleplay? A whole dynasty of rulers, perhaps, but that's not going to be very accessible to most players.

Fortunately most strategic games have a shorter timespan, and thus there are possibiltiies for roleplaying, if the designer wishes to include them. Generally, two main tactics can be used:

Defining the Role of the Player: In this situation the game designer simply clarifies "who" the player is within his strategic world. For example, in Galactic Emperor: Hegemony we clearly place the player in the role of an Overlord who is trying to take control of the galaxy. The old Avalon Hill Dune game places each player in the role of one of the main factions within the world: Atriedes, Fremen, etc.

A game designer can assist this tactic a lot by presenting cues to help inform each player's roleplaying. For example in some games of Hegemony I offer races for players to play, then present a little background on each race's characteristics.

Finally, as I've said before, The Game is What the Game is. The only way to truly "enforce" roleplaying in a strategic game is to offer rewards for it. If someone is playing a race of pillagers, given them points for pillaging, then give your healers points for healing. Etc.

Presenting Subsidiary Roles: Another, less frequently used tactic for introducing roleplaying into strategic games is to present subsidiary roles that a player can take on. Of all places, I've seen this best described in a book called Complicity by Iain Banks. In a computer game described in that book the players can either control their civilization overall or else incarnate themselves into the roles of various people within their civilization, from kings to peasants.

If you wanted to do a great job of presenting roles, you could allow a player to "incarnate" into every single person in his world/civilization/kingdom/whatever to various useful effect, but even just giving a player in a strategic game the ability to briefly consider the mindset of a minion while sending him off on a mission could be useful.

Overall, I think the question of whether to introduce roleplaying into a strategic game ultimately falls to the players: if they enjoy roleplaying, they'll do some, and if they don't, they'll stick with hardcore strategy. In some games of Hegemony at Skotos there's just a bit of good-natured ribbing, but in others there are in-character news-reports and other broadcasts being sent out on a daily basis. Ultimately, it's the players call.

Hybrid Games

Ever so briefly I'd like to mention the possibility of a game that falls midway between these two poles: a true hybrid games that is exactly equal parts roleplaying and strategy.

Here at Skotos we tried to do that with Galactic Emperor: Succession, and as you can read elsewhere, it didn't turn out so well. As I said in TT&T #62, "We'd hybridized so well that both types of game ended up pale reflections."

Despite that, I think there is a place for hybrid games; we just approached it wrong. In GE:S we forced each player to take on both RP and strategic roles. Imagine instead a world where each player can select what interests him most--roleplaying or strategy. The strategists could then engage in great battles (or exploration or trade), creating a vibrant and dynamic background for the RPers to act upon.

Every once in a while I look at an RP game and consider how a linked strategy game could be created that would help define the background of the RP world. I know it's been done before in the tabletop world, but I think it's still an exciting possibility for online play ... and the right way to hybridize these two types of gaming.

Games Within Games

Finally, there's one last way that you can introduce strategic lessons learned to your RP games--by offering games within games. If your characters can sit down and play a game of Chess or Poker ... or possibly something much more complex ... within your gameworld, then suddenly the lessons learned from strategy game design become much more relevant.

I should probably note that it was Sam Witt who got me thinking down this particular path long ago in his defunct Metastatic column, which is still worth reading because it constantly considered game design in very orthagonal directions.

Conclusion

That's it for me on the topic of the RPG-strategy connection. I've got one more strategy article planned, returning to the issue of developing web games, and after that Thinking Virtually will go on hiatus for a while ... until the next batch of articles is ready to go.

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