02 October 2014

Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance? Or, you know, Stop Playing Games Wrong: the RPG

This is a long winded rant/rebuttal/piss-taking about John Wick's screed against people liking heavy combat rules or "game balance" in their games. Also I seem to remember reading something about D&D and chess years ago.

Hi there. My name is John and I design games. Lots of them. Over twenty years, I’ve designed over twenty roleplaying games. I’ve had a hand in card games and board games, too, but the thing I’m best known for is roleplaying game design.

Hi John. My name is Ian and I don’t design games. But I do play them. And I do run them. And I do on occasion change the rules.

Now, this isn’t an article about game design, but rather, an article about being a game master. But, in order to get to that advice, I need to spend a little bit of time talking about game design. Trust me, it matters.

This is exactly about game design by way of you pontificating from the soap box you own from being such a prodigious game designer.

So, I’d like to begin by asking you a question. You’re playing a science fiction roleplaying game and your character is about to face Vin Diesel’s character, Riddick, in a fight and you get to choose which weapon he uses.

Do you pick sword, gun, hammer…

How about “tea cup?”

You are only giving out part of the situation as well as prejudicing the reader to both pick the tea cup and to side on the part of Riddick, who is of course the protagonist of his story.  You aren’t defining the distance of the fight, the condition of either character, nor of the area they are fighting in. Is my character a space wizard? A space marine? Is my character smaller, bigger, stronger, weaker, more or less skilled than Riddick? Does my character posses more or less body armor than Riddick does in this moment?

Therefore your question is lacking in meaning, especially since by the 2nd movie we know he is not just physically powerful and skilled, but is cunning enough to lower the guard’s guard to make that much easier to shove the jagged edges of the metal cup into that guy’s chest.

So, let’s expand on this. I chose for Riddick to have the teacup, and I am the guard, only I have a healthy respect for Riddick. I shoot him in the knees and elbows, since we are obviously playing a CINEMATIC science-fiction game. Or since I am playing a prison guard, I unload an entire magazine of stun rounds into him while backing away.

Riddick won because he is the protagonist, and because he has been built up to be cunning and deadly person, with and without weapons. The guard dies because he is supposed to, and because he underestimated Riddick. In terms of playing a game, Riddick is the PC and the guard an NPC, possibly a mook NPC. But when the tables are flipped, Riddick is now the NPC, and I am the playing the PC, as I am genre savvy, and evidently playing with a GM who thinks that running a game in which we are prison wardens that torment our prisoners on some rock is a good time, I am invariably going to win this fight, or die a semi-heroic death keeping the dangerous criminal at bay long enough for my compatriots to appear to subdue him.

A follow up question. Same situation. Except this time, you’re facing Sean Connery’s character from The Presidio, Lieutenant Colonel Alan Caldwell. You get to choose which weapon he uses, but he says, “I don’t need a weapon, I’m only going to use my thumb…”

How much damage does Sean Connery’s thumb do? What’s the save vs. Sean Connery’s thumb? Does it have an initiative bonus? Can it block or parry? Does it do Megadamage?

I don’t even care, because why am I picking fights with some old Infantry cat in a dinner? Are we playing Dumbasses picking fights they can’t win against GMPCs: the RPG?

When I first started designing roleplaying games, they appealed to me because they were kind of like writing a philosophy: “this is how I think the world works.” Games like Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon were great examples of this. The systems were tailored for the setting. And in the world of Riddick and Lieutenant Colonel Alan Caldwell, a tea cup and a thumb can do a whole helluva lot of damage.

Against low level mooks sure.

One of the most common features of roleplaying games are weapon lists. Especially guns. You could tell a gun porn enthusiast just by looking at his stats for guns. Different damages for different calibers, range variants, range modifiers, rate of fire, burst fire, on and on and on.


Same thing with sword porn. Reach modifiers and different die types based on the target’s size and bashing or slashing or piercing and… gulp… speed factor.


And yet, here’s Riddick killing guys with a tea cup.

Gotcha. People shouldn’t want more details for their games than you think are appropriate.

And so, again, I ask you, what weapon do you choose for Riddick?

It’s a trick question, of course. It doesn’t matter what weapon you give Riddick, he’s going to kick your ass with it.

Says who? Are you the GM? Is he your special GMPC that we are supposed to support in his grand quest and be impressed by his mightiness?

Does the tea cup have a speed factor? How about Sean Connery’s thumb?

More important question. In fact, perhaps the most important question: how do any of those things–range modifiers, rate of fire, rburst fire, slashing, piercing, etc.–help you tell stories?

Yes, but….

Just a moment ago, I called weapon lists one of the most common features in roleplaying games. These things are not features. They’re bugs. And it’s time to get rid of them.

I’ll get to it….

Why? Because they’re screwing up your game. They’re distracting you from the focus of the game.

But first this asinine statement.. They might be screwing up your games.

Because the focus of an RPG is to tell stories. Let me explain.

No. But I’ll let you continue.

Chess is not a roleplaying game. Yes, you can turn it into a roleplaying game, but it was not designed to be a roleplaying game. If you give your King, Queen, Rooks, Knights and even your pawns names and make decisions based on their motivations–instead of the best strategic move possible–you’ve turned chess into a roleplaying game.

Strange point that really….

You can successfully play chess without roleplaying. In fact, roleplaying can sabotage the game. Now, the definition of a roleplaying game is fuzzy at best, but I think you can I can at least agree that if you can successfully play a game without roleplaying, it can’t be a roleplaying game.

But is it more or less fun?

Video games like World of Warcraft call themselves roleplaying games, but are they? Can you successfully play WoW without roleplaying? In fact, you can. Can roleplaying sabotage your enjoyment of the game? In fact, it can. My friend Jessie tells the story of being kicked off a roleplaying server because he was talking in character. Another friend of mine tells the story of how she was wearing “substandard” armor and equipment because “my character liked it.”

Choices such as “How do I level up my fighter?” do not make a game a roleplaying game. In that case, games such as Dungeon and Descent are roleplaying games, and even their designers would probably tell you, these are board games.

World of Warcraft is a very sophisticated board game. The goal of WoW is not to tell stories but to level up your character.

Have you actually played WoW?

Remember the Three Questions:

    What is your game about? Leveling up your character.
    How does your game do that? Loot drops for killing monsters and completing quests.
    What behaviors does my game reward? Bigger loot to kill bigger monsters and complete more difficult quests.

Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro asked their community, “If you’ve stopped playing D&D and switched to WoW, why?” Their answer? “Because I get the same experience from WoW I got from D&D.”

Listen to that answer again. “I get the same experience from WoW I get from D&D.”

You know why they get the same experience? Because World of Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragons have the same design goals.

Well sure they do. Start from a point. Low level with shit gear doing shit quests and exploring shit dungeons. Eventually you get to explore cool shit, that has more cool shit because cool shit is cool. All while doing a large portion of this game play with a social group. Sure you can play WoW like a solo game, but even then you are probably on one or more of the chat channels also socializing. WoW and D&D, and a lot of a games, are about doing the thing with some people. WoW can very easily be played while drunk, even to a high level of play. Shit are you going to say the Kobolds Ate My Baby is also a board game?

When 4th Edition came out, there was an almost universal negative reaction. Why? Because the designers had given up the ghost. D&D was not a roleplaying game. It was a very sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game.

A very sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game. Just like giving your rook a motive, players used a board game to play a roleplaying game.

Can you successfully play D&D 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th edition without roleplaying? Yes, you can. Notice I didn’t mention 5th edition. That’s a different kettle of fish that I’ll have to talk about at another time.

The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, is a game you cannot successfully play without roleplaying. If you try it, you get… well, you actually violate the basic tenant of the game: to make yourself scared through your character’s choices.

Explain to me how you must absolutely role play in CoC. Because I could easily make the same statement regarding D&D. You aren’t terrified or at least wary of the shit in the dark beyond your torch, or at the very least looking at the game world as if you are actually your character you are missing out on just as much as if you neglect “to make yourself scare through your character’s choices.” Which by the way is a really shitty thing to say. I might play CoC. I might roleplay my character getting pants shittingly terrified by horrors from beyond, but I sure as hell am not going to making myself scared doing this. I’ll probably laughing, or cracking jokes at the stupid shit the other characters are doing, or even mine. It’s kind of like there are multiple ways to play the same game, and you could even do them at the same time.

You can play board games such as Rex and Battlestar Galactica and even Settlers of Catan without roleplaying… but roleplaying seems to make them more enjoyable. Talking in character, making (apparent) choices based on character motives… but if you go too far in that direction, you’ll lose. And the goal of those games is to win. Roleplaying, in the end, sabotages the goal of the game.

I thought the goal of all games was to have fun? I mean I generally play board games to win. I generally play a lot of games to win. But how exactly do you win at D&D since it such a board game?

But if you try playing games such as Vampire or Pendragon or Our Last Best Hope or World of Dew or Deadlands without roleplaying, you’re missing the entire point of the game. In fact, I can’t even imagine what those games would look like without roleplaying.

Well I know what V:tM and KAP look like without roleplaying, but fuck if I actually care because either the people not roleplaying don’t want to be playing that game in the first place, or they are magically having fun without roleplaying.

I’ve been trying for many years to come up with a satisfactory definition for “roleplaying game” and while I’m not entirely happy with it, this is what I’ve got so far:


roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices
that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

How about a game that you play a role in? Shit that is just too damn obvious. Next you are going to expect my real life motivations to be as internally consistent you expect the fictional game entities that a group of people gathered together to collaboratively play are supposed to be.

Like I said, I’m not entirely happy with it. It’s a working definition and far from complete, but I think it’s a good working definition.

I would say don’t quit your day job…

Now, with all of that said, you’re probably wondering, “John, what does this have to do with game mastering?”


My friend, it has everything to do with game mastering.

No. really nothing.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

Because having those things what? If you got a stupidly detailed game system, and seriously is this the 80s, then obviously your group of players must want to play the kinds of games in which differences in rof, armor penetration, ablative vs deflective armor, are all meaningful choices. These are choices that matter to them. You are telling these people that they are wrong and stupid because they don’t know they are wrong. And that is just plain fucked up.

And you need to stop it. Because all that crap is getting in the way of telling a good story.

How do all these details get in the way of telling a good story? Because your street sam’s roomsweeper ran out of ammo because it ran out of ammo not because it was dramatically appropriate as far as you the all wise and knowing demagogue of storytelling are concerned? I mean to me, that shit sounds kind of cool in the “oh fuck I am out of ammo. Fucking cover me chummer so I can close with my combat knife and gut their machine gunner” way.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters. “Game balance” has nothing at all to do with telling good stories. It’s an archaic hold over from a time when RPGs were little more than just really sophisticated board games. Or, as someone once told me, “An RPG is a strategy game in which you play one hero rather than a unit of heroes.”

You started off yammering about “game balance.” I don’t think it means what you think it means.

If that’s the case, HeroClix is a roleplaying game. And I think that all of us can agree that HeroClix is not a roleplaying game. Why?
Because I can play it successfully without roleplaying.
“Game balance” is important in board games. It means one player does not have an advantage over another.
In a roleplaying game, game balance does not matter.
Let me say that again:
In a roleplaying game,
game balance does not matter.

Ok. I’ll bite. Because I don’t give a fig about “game balance” either, but think you are yammering about player group parity or something. See, that’s something I don’t much care for. The discounting of “game balance” when it means that any group of players of roughly same experience can end up playing characters that wildly differing in power or utility or usefulness to any given in game situation, unless everyone at the table doesn’t care about that. Then fuck everything.

What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

I just said that.

Whether the fighter is balanced with the wizard is balanced with the thief is balanced with the cleric demonstrates a mentality that still thinks roleplaying games are tactical combat simulators with Monty Python jokes thrown in for fun.

Um. No dude. Dude, no. If the wizard can do everything the fighter can do as well as or better than the fighter while doing what wizards do, the wizard will steal or hog the spot light. And fuck the idea that combat utility doesn’t matter. If someone plays a fighter, they probably want to FIGHT and be good at FIGHTING, and if they can’t FIGHT better than the Wizard can then why even bother.

The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where we walk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

Wait, this is a literary genre? I thought this was about games that people play roles in.

I think it’s even more than that. In his classic game, Runequest, Greg Stafford created a world where mortals go on vision quests into the spirit realm where heroes and gods live, become one with the hero, and live out one of that hero’s stories. He comes back to the mortal realm transformed by the experience.
That’s the genius of Greg Stafford. He made the very act of playing a roleplaying game a mechanic in his roleplaying game. You step into the hero realm as your character who then steps into the hero realm to become transformed by the experience of becoming a hero and by doing so, you are transformed by the experience of becoming a hero.

Um. Because Pendragon has mechanics that to some extent will remove control of the character from the player due their traits and passions. Because he is a directly emulating Arthurian romances where this a thing. And even then, it really isn’t hard to keep your traits and passions from controlling your character. There is the pull between mechanical benefits, Religious bonuses, Armor of Chivalry, and bonus Glory earned, and the downside of having your characters vices and virtues work against their best interests. Also, everyone is a knight, and the old KAP magic system is terrible.

And what exactly does speed factor have to do with this? Or ablative armor? Or rate of fire? None of it.

A lot, if you are playing a game in which these things matter to the player.

These days, as a GM, as I’m reading through a game or as a game designer, making my own games, whenever I encounter a new mechanic, I ask myself, “How does this help me tell stories?”
If it doesn’t, I throw it out.
When I run Vampire, I keep the Humanity rules and throw out the initiative rules.

Well, that is certainly something.

When I run Call of Cthulhu, I keep the Sanity rules and throw out the gun chart.

Do you at least have GUN as an option?

I don’t want you to think I just get rid of combat mechanics. On the contrary, for Vampire, I usually get rid of that whole Social trait thing entirely. Why? Because this is a roleplaying game, and that means you roleplay. You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

My response to that is, “Then, you should get better at it. And you won’t get any better by just rolling dice. You’ll only get better by roleplaying.”

So fuck that player who sucks at roleplaying as a charismatic or manipulative person who is skilled in seduction, fast talk, or whatever the social attributes and skills are called?

If you want to get good at playing chess, you play chess.
If you want to get good at first-person-shooters, you play first-person-shooters.
If you want to get good at roleplaying, guess what?, you roleplay.
And if that’s too much of me to ask, you can go right across the room to the RPGA where they let you make as many charisma rolls as you want because the game they’re playing is not a roleplaying game.

No, fuck you. That kind of thinking is the same kind of thinking that removes the penalty of using social characteristics as dump stats. Why bother having any social skills on your character when you fast talk your way using your personal social skills? I mean it leaves more dots or numbers or skill ranks for TEACUP skill so you can shank random people with your jagged metal teacup.

So, GM’s… I now ask you… I urge you… I beg you… go through your favorite game. Right now. Get it off your shelf, pull it out of your back pack, and open it up. Get yourself a big, fat sharpie. And go through each page and ask yourself this question.
“How does this rule help me tell stories?”
If you can’t get an answer in ten seconds or less, get rid of it. Because all it’s doing is getting in your way. It’s another hurdle you have to overcome. It’s another minute of wasted time while you or another player look it up to make sure you got the rule right because that’s what’s important… getting the rules right. Game balance. We must make sure our game is balanced.
No. You are not playing a board game. You’re playing a roleplaying game.
Start acting like it.

So, the funny thing is you say a lot of things that I agree with, on a personal this is how I like to run and play basis. However, I think your attitude is shitty. It reeks of One True Wayism. I don’t think any of the gun or sword details are important. I even think they are a hinderance to playing the game. I think that because I think trying to get really nitty gritty with combat mechanics is pointless. If I want that I’ll play a computer game, or volunteer to be deployed, or pick bar fights with infantry LTCs, or travel to Russia and engage in super underground cage battles with swords, or whatever. All I know is that for me, I hate extra details because real life is much more complex and detailed, and that is why there are dice, and I would rather combats be resolved quickly so we as a group can get to the next exciting fight, or get paid, or start a bar fight with the captain of the guard after saying his thumbs are weak.

The difference is, I am perfectly content with people playing games I don’t particularly care for, or playing games I like in ways I don’t much like.

But then again, I’m not trying to sell you a product.

But then again, I won’t be buying any of yours after your storygames and “game balance” doesn’t matter so play games my way blog post. Pity that. I had been eyeballing some of your work for a few months.