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Where We've Been, Where We're Going

A preliminary taxonomy for role-playing games

Note: This article was originally published in issue #1 of Inter*Action.

by Greg Porter

Role-playing games as a formalized, written set of rules are a recent literary phenomenon, and have undergone a rapid series of changes since their inception, probably more so than most other fields of literature. This is probably due more to the technological infrastructure available at the time of its inception than anything else (fast, affordable, widespread communication), but still, anyone time-jumped from the "early days" to today would see little in common between the games they played and the current incarnations except the idea of using paper and dice to represent a character and random chance.

To quantify that difference, just to satisfy my own curiosity, I developed a personal scale of "generations" to distinguish between the mechanics and conceptual bases of different systems. We all know that D&D and Amber are two radically different game systems, but no one has really sat down and said exactly how. I originally thought of a tree structure, showing the derivation of each system from the ones before, an evolutionary tree of the gaming world. For instance, Empire of the Petal Throne is an obvious descendant of D&D, and you could also draw family lines down the Ghostbusters-Star Wars-Shadowrun-Vampire path, or the Ars Magica-Torg-Earthdawn or Fantasy Trip-GURPS paths. But there are just so many games out there, tracking down all the designers to ask their references and inspirations is an impossible task. Maybe someone who really has no other life can tackle that project, but not me. I decided to try to quantify things by a scale of pseudo-evolutionary advancement.

This generation system is also a sort of an evolutionary tree, to let people track and trace the changes and influences each previous game had on the next generation. Originally, the generations were based solely on game mechanics, but discussion with other people showed that this wasn't enough. For instance, Ars Magica is perhaps typical of an earlier generation for its mechanics, but is far ahead of most other games in that generation for its depth of background detail. Is it one generation, or the other? To differentiate, each "species" of game has two overriding characteristics:

Rules - The "realism" quotient, both in an absolute sense ("can you be decapitated by a single blow from a two-handed axe?"), and in a subjective context, i.e. do the rules encourage play that is true to the genre (silly cartoons, caped crusaders, grim mercenaries, etc.). In general, low generation rules have more loopholes, inconsistencies and dead-ends that interrupt the role-playing or detract from the enjoyment of play. Higher generation games may use the same basic concept, but in a more elegant way, or with more flexibility. For instance, a rigid character class in a low generation game might mutate into a flexible character template in a higher generation game.

Background - Does the world have a consistent rationale behind it? Do the societal, technological and paranormal (i.e. magic, etc.) underpinnings of the game world stand up to close scrutiny, or are they cardboard cutouts that only work if you are too busy killing things to notice their flimsiness? For instance, I have yet to understand why the technology behind Star Trek replicators hasn't caused a fundamental change in economics ("Captain, would you like your pay in replicated Hope Diamonds, or replicated gold ingots?"). Or for that matter, why isn't the normal phaser setting "wide beam vaporize" whenever you aren't worried about taking prisoners? In general, a low generation background makes it harder for the GM to build a workable "world".

These are the things under consideration. Things like ease of use, indexing and other traits may be more common in a particular game generation, but don't define it. Any game can be poorly indexed, have typos or other problems, regardless of when it was produced. Also note that "generation" is independent of publishing date in this case. An earlier game can be of advanced generation, while a later game can be an evolutionary throwback.

Now, I don't expect this taxonomy is going to be perfect. For instance, I can see the need for a sub-species to cover "beer & pretzels" role-playing games, but I am not sure if they should follow the normal sequence, but with a different audience, or be a non-consecutive generation all their own (Generation X?). But, this system is a start, and a way to provide an objective comparison of different games.

NOTE
Examples given of particular games are those the author is familiar or had experience with, and are not meant to imply that the system was the first to display a particular character, just that it is a representative sample of a particular generation, and why.

Generation 0

Free-form, rule-less roleplaying. There are no formalized systems, no good way to arbitrate disputes. It also includes any incidental role-playing that is used for strategic or entertainment value in other games, such as playing a general in H.G.Wells' Little Wars, etc. The latter end of this generation includes such proto-rpg campaigns that were going on in the late 60s in Britain and the US (for example, Tony Bath's Hyborean Campaign, as chronicled in the various issues of Slingshot from that time). It can also include structured events like historical re-enactment groups, or semi-structured events like tournaments, feasts and fairs held by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Game Mechanics - None, both objective and subjective realism are based on the knowledge and tastes of those playing the game.

Background - Varies from none to extraordinary, depending on the people involved in the game. Obviously a serious interactive fiction effort will have more detail than a group of children playing Cops & Robbers.

Examples - Cowboys & Indians, Cops & Robbers, Social Democrats vs. Tories, etc.

Generation 1

First formalized rule set, i.e. D&D (or the fantasy supplement to Chainmail). The concept of fixed characters, specific attributes and the use of dice to cover the aspect of random chance when attempting to perform a difficult action are introduced.

Game Mechanics - Character generation is characterized by rigid character classes, character levels, strict personality alignments. Objective realism factor is negligible, genre-based realism is drawn from a very limited fictional subset and is often lacking as well. Rules are entirely on a special case basis, with no intuitive or extrapolatable functions. Often uses a plethora of dice types (i.e. d3, d4, d6, d8, d12, d20, d100 and combinations or multiples of same).

Background - World background is nebulously defined, if at all.

Generation 1 game Concepts
Dungeons & Dragons Character races & classes, polyhedral dice, hit points, etc.

Generation 1a

D&D clones, any game which uses the same basic concepts with little or no modification. Genre may vary, but the game system itself draws very heavily from Generation 1 concepts.

Game Mechanics - As Generation 1. Some perceived flaws may be addressed.

Background - World background may be better defined, often with a history, timeline or societal structure notes. Empire of the Petal Throne is an example of Generation 1a game mechanics with a great deal of thought applied to the game background.

Generation 1a game Concepts
Empire of the Petal Throne Based wholly on a single literary world

Generation 2

Mutation of Generation 1 games. Other people have played enough that they have modified the Generation 1 game extensively, and incorporated these new ideas and concepts into their systems as a result of this experience. Generation 1 influence is still strong, either in what is included, or what is excluded from the rules.

Game Mechanics - Usually includes classes and levels, but not so strictly defined. Makes some attempts to be realistic, or fix perceived flaws in Generation 1 systems (including but not limited to: Level-based "hit points", armor that affects chance to hit rather than damage, alternate types of magic systems). May be extremely detailed, almost always in a "special case" sense, leading to thick, often poorly indexed volumes, or volumes with numerous supplements, each covering an uncommon rules situation. Subjective realism is usually much improved over Generation 1 games as well, either through closer attention to detail, or as a side effect of a better campaign reference frame (see Background).

Background - Generation 2 backgrounds always have some overall background, which is covered in detail either directly (overall history, maps, campaign reference notes) or indirectly (personal history, societal norms, legal systems). Generation 2 games evidence a shift from "dungeon crawls" to plot-based adventures and non-hostile interaction with non-player denizens of the game world.

Generation 2 game Concepts
Chivalry and Sorcery Time-based experience gains
Space Opera  
Palladium systems Psychological traits for characters
Warhammer  

Generation 2a

Refinement of the Generation 2 concept. Often includes elements transitory between Generation 2 and Generation 3.

Game Mechanics - More realism and internal consistency, some ability to extrapolate new rules from existing ones. May abandon the class or level concept entirely, or make it flexible enough that it approaches what might be expected in the "real world". For instance, Traveller character generation is based on professions which give certain skills and bonuses, but one can change careers, and the skills and bonuses are often available in more than one career path.

Background - Basic rules will include enough game world detail to allow the GM and players to understand society and the basic geo-political situation. For systems which become successful, this detail often improves markedly with introduction of new material in supplements.

Generation 2a game Concepts
Traveller Career path, extended game world timeline
GURPS Multi-genre, single dice type, point-based characters
Aftermath! Effort placed into realistic combat system
Runequest Location-based hit points, multi-genre system

Generation 3

Introduction of "meta-rules", a rule system that is designed to be used with more than one genre, and which has a solid, expandable base. Another Generation 3 idea is the game whose genre reality is an overriding concept. Such a game cannot be a meta-system, but can work much better for a narrowly defined genre than any meta-system can.

Game Mechanics - May not be perfectly objectively realistic, but is usually internally consistent, and with guidelines on how to expand the rules set to cover situations not explicitly mentioned. Subjective realism is often good,but is limited by the multi-genre nature of the meta-system. The level, class and alignment system is usually completely abandoned. The type of dice used to resolve skill use, attribute use or other rolls is often the same type (i.e. 3d6, 1d20, 1d100), with very little use of other types within the system. The cleanest break point between Generation 2 and Generation 3 games is that of point-based character generation. Most Generation 2 games use random dice rolls, while most Generation 3 games use a somewhat variable pool of points with which to purchase character abilities, or some other non-random means to let the player choose exactly what they want.

Background - A Generation 3 background usually covers almost every aspect of a genre that characters will need to interact with. Currency, language, legal systems, travel, history, important personages and behind-the-scenes intrigue are necessary elements for this generation. In addition character generation often contains elements of character personality that allow deliberate sculpting of a particular race, profession or attitude, which is then reinforced by the game-world response to those traits. Many of the meta-systems lack these elements in their basic rules, but incorporate them in supplements that cover a particular genre. GURPS is the best example of a background-less system, with excellent supplement material.

Generation 3 game Concepts
GURPS Multi-genre, single dice type, point-based characters
Runequest Multi-genre
Champions/Hero System Multi-genre
TimeLords Non-hit point damage system, proportional scaling of skill modifiers
To Challenge Tomorrow Non-hit point damage system
Traveller: New Era Multi-genre
Pendragon Character as a family rather than individual, excellent historical research
DC Heroes Single unit measurement system (same unit covers time, mass, distance)

(GURPS and Runequest are strictly Generation 2a systems, but were the first to do a good job covering multiple genres, while the Hero System is arguably the best example of meta-rules, but it's multi-genre use was I think serendipitous rather than deliberate).

Generation 3a

Generation 4 games go in radically different directions, and Generation 3a games begin this trend. They cling to the core of Generation 3 ideas, but often have some element that begins to question fundamental game and game-world design tenets.

Generation 3a game Concepts
Ars Magica Each player has multiple characters
Lace & Steel Use of cards instead of dice for combat resolution

Generation 4

Introduction of some entirely new game mechanic that alters the normal flow of play in an rpg. Examples include overt plot change in the middle of play, dice reduced or diceless resolution systems, abandonment of traditional attribute or skill systems, or overt emphasis on story and plot rather than tactics and combat resolution. While generations 1-3a are linear descendants of each other, Generation 4 games are like branches off the trunk of the same tree, spreading in different directions. Systems may or may not be "meta-rules", depending on their origins, but most Generation 4 systems are geared towards working extremely well in a particular genre.

Game Mechanics - Both objective and subjective realism are high when the two are compatible, otherwise subjective realism usually is better. Rule mechanics may be designed expressely to create a "feel" for the game setting, inherently rewarding or punishing certain types of character behavior.

Background - If a meta-system, this depends on the level of support given, but even if "genre-less", the game will still provide extensive notes on the various aspects of creating a game-world, running a campaign and other details required for good gamemastering. If a genre-specific game, it will provide all the level of detail of a Generation 3 game, but may have a twist, such as allowing buyers of the game input on the direction of future events published for the game world.

Generation 3a game Concepts
Amber Diceless role-playings
Over The Edge Freeform skill/attribute combinations
Torg Drama Deck
CORPS Automatic successes, compressed rule set
Vampire Story-driven rather than plot-driven
FUDGE Public domain, anyone can write anything for it

Generation 5+

There isn't any Generation 4a or 5 yet. Presumably, these will be variations of Generation 3-4 games, taken in some direction not possible for strictly pencil & paper roleplaying. One can imagine rule sets being computerized tothe extent that players and GM's no longer need to know them, but can simply describe their actions, and the computer figures out the rest based on character abilities and situational modifiers, whether it be a casual encounter on the street, or a complicated firefight. This lets the GM get on with being a referee, storyteller, or whatever, instead of being a human index to a set of arbitrary laws for an imaginary universe.

On the other hand, a character and set of rules could be placed on a personal digital assistant, which each player and the GM would have. Messages could be passed between units by infrared link, whether text, secret information, or alterations to character abilities due to game world effects (damage, drugs, etc.).

With information storage increasing by leaps and bounds, and multimedia PC's becoming more common, an entire adventure could be placed on CD-ROM, with a built-in "computer GM". The sophistication of this would vary based on the programming and computer (what is not possible today might be easy 5 years from now). The game would tread the thin line between interactive movie, role-playing, and video game, with elements of each.

If the information networks become more sophisticated, live role-playing by Net might become more common. Already, role-playing by e-mail or bulletin board system is common. Using a common network and a central computer, video conferenced games could take place between widely separate groups.

This could gradate into virtual reality role-playing, or with the proper combination of hardware and software, many groups could conceivably play a game in the same universe at the same time. Imagine playing a superhero in virtual reality city where anyone you meet could be another player, where several professional GM's manage the background details, but the plot moves itself through the actions of the players, rather than being driven by a pre-arranged plot.

Is this going to happen on a large scale anytime soon? Doubtful. But it is worth thinking about...

The following people contributed materially to electronic discussion of the game generation concept, and while they might not agree with the final results, their input was appreciated.

Steve Barr
Roger Burton-West
Marc Carlson
Robert Day
David Nalle
Ken Rolston
Jonathan Tweet
Ray Winninger
Loren Wiseman

Copyright ©1995 Greg Porter

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