Games Every Game Designer Should Play

Inspired by Antti Lax’s post at LOKI (which in turn was inspired by Ryan Macklin’s post at his own blog), Sami Koponen from Efemeros challenged the rest of the Finnish gaming blogosphere to list the three games that we think every role-playing game designer should be familiar with.

Of course, in any such listing, the real challenge is condensation. I mean, I can easily rattle off a dozen games that are or were, in their own ways, innovative. There are innovations in rules, setting, even presentation, that are worthy of emulation and imitation and challenge traditional notions of how roleplaying games should be done. Note that I am not claiming that these are the only true way to do these things, or even necessarily the best ways. They are, however, pretty good ways of doing it, and should provoke thought, perhaps even inspiration. Being well-read is also valuable so you do not end up reinventing the wheel by accident. Most of the time, when someone is touting their new RPG with words like “revolutionary” or “unbeforeseen”, in practice they end up producing something straight out of 1988…

Note that I am leaving D&D off the list, firstly because it’s obvious and secondly, when you run into a role-playing game whose designer clearly was not too well-read, it’s generally pretty obvious that the gap in their education was not D&D. (If, on the other hand, you see yourself as a game designer and are not familiar with D&D, I recommend familiarizing yourself with at least the Mentzer red box Dungeons & Dragons [1983], Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 [2003] or Pathfinder RPG [2009] and Dungeons & Dragons 4E [2008] to familiarize yourself with the three major strains.)

The list will also reflect my own background. I’m from the traditionalist school of big, heavy rulebooks, GM authority and lots of dice. Though I am acquainted, and have occasionally even worked on or played things like Forge-style indie games or the school of Nordic roleplaying that sometimes eradicates the line between larp and tabletop games, I started with Middle-Earth Role-Play, continued with Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and my present go-to game is Pathfinder RPG, after playing its two direct forebears for the previous decade. That’s my background, deep in the dungeon.

So, in no particular order…

Pendragon

Any edition, pretty much. The thing that makes Pendragon special is how its ruleset and specifically the Traits and Passions can efficiently and non-intrusively direct the game to genre emulation. The knights of Le Morte d’Arthur frequently acted obviously against their own interest because of a rigid honour code that is alien to modern thought. Not only is their behaviour rather unlike the heroics of your average D&D campaign or modern fantasy film, it is also sufficiently removed from our way of thinking that its role-playing doesn’t come naturally unless you are very familiar with the source material. Pendragon, then, has Traits that operate on a sliding scale between two extremes, such as Chaste/Lustful or Pious/Worldly. The characters have a number value in each Trait, and the total of every Trait’s two extremes must equal 20. Whenever a situation arises where one of these Traits would come into play (in a dramatically appropriate fashion, of course), you roll against the Trait and successes or failures can limit your actions in the situation. In action, it leads to the player characters falling passionately in love with the damsel they’ve rescued, finding the inner reserves of strength to vanquish the dragon, and killing their fellow knights because of honour. A system like this could be adapted, I think, to any game where the player characters are expected to act according to a rigid code, cultural values or morality that goes against their self-interest. The obvious example is a samurai game.

The second thing that Pendragon does well is the generation game. The game is designed explicitly for a campaign encompassing the entire rise and fall of the Round Table. The Great Pendragon campaign takes 81 years from start to finish. That means you need more than one player character, and more often than not, it’s your player character’s job to make more wee potential PCs. Your character, like in most RPGs, will steadily get better as they adventure. Then, inevitably, they will die. Hopefully, they will do this in a heroic and/or tragic fashion that minstrels will sing of for ages to come and you get to bore your friends with over a pint. Their offspring, then, will not be quite as good as daddy was in his best days, but they will get an inheritance of Glory, titles, land, and generally better gear than papa had (weapons tech develops at a pretty respectable clip during the Enchantment of Britain). The foundation for this is laid out in character creation (at least in the 5th edition), where you start by rolling up the lifepaths of your first knight’s father and grandfather (both inevitably dead).

All in all, I think Pendragon is an excellent example of how to model a very specific genre in a traditional tabletop role-playing game.

Stalker

As the translator, I am probably biased, but then, this entire post is about my opinion on something, so hear me out. Stalker does a clever thing (actually, it does quite a few clever things) in how it handles combat. There is no separate combat mechanic or subsystem. Kicking someone’s, or even several someones’, ass is the same mechanical process as is used to see if the characters manage to fix a car engine or browbeat their dealer into giving them a better price. If you have more than one adversary, the extras are defeated in the margins of success. If any are still left after the first bout is resolved, then you look at how the scene has changed and see how the numbers stack this time around. Stalker is not interested in the process of combat, the blow-by-blow take that many (I’m tempted to say “most”) RPGs go for. Stalker is interested in the end result. How, precisely, that is reached is the players’ and the GM’s job to figure out. The rules are just there to help. The system encourages – nay, enforces – roleplaying and tactics beyond “I shoot him with my gun”, and rewards both. It is also impossible to break, save by bribing the GM. (Just so you know, I’m partial to Johnnie Walker Black.) This is relevant because, well, for one thing, it shows you that even a traditional game (and despite being diceless, I think Stalker is pretty traditional, with its long equipment lists, full-page character sheet and whatnot) can be designed without separate combat rules.

There’s a load of other things that make it worthwhile to have a look at Stalker. Player characters have no Intelligence attribute; the character’s wits are those of the player’s. This removes the issue of a player squirming because he figured out the puzzle immediately but his character, IQ turnip, never could. The Flow system is diceless, yet doesn’t include the usual pack of narrative rules elements like shared narration or negotiating outcomes. It is elegant yet robust, which is pretty much everything I can ask for in a roleplaying game system. It is also sufficiently lightweight that if one so wishes, they can easily adapt it to run whatever game or genre they want by merely rewriting one or two skill lists. Indeed, if our hypothetical designer padawan is more interested in writing the setting and the meat of the game (much like I) instead of designing a ruleset, Flow can be licenced under terms that are not only generous but also rather entertaining.

Finally, the rulebook also contains some damn fine GM advice, but that should not be limited to the perusal of putative designers.

Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play

The first two editions, at least. I am not familiar with the third edition and do not know if it retains the features I speak of. In any case, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play strikes an elegant balance between the classless and the class-based with its career system. Characters can start off as rat catchers and camp followers and over time, having fulfilled the requirements of their career, move on to other careers, accumulating experience and skills (possibly also gear, though that tends to be transitory) along the way, from rat catcher to cat burglar to vagabond to thief to rogue to demagogue to politician to crime lord to outlaw chief, or perhaps along some entirely different path. This allows the character a natural, organic development while retaining game effectiveness (both breaking the game and creating a completely useless character are rather tricky, especially in the second edition where they fixed the Naked Dwarf loophole). The characters are not nailed down to specific advancement paths, even if their starting careers were randomly determined.

The careers also tell you something important about the characters and the world; this is low fantasy, and the characters are not great heroes from the get-go. They’re not just rootless adventurers who roam the land performing feats of derring-do. They’re just people, who need to work to put food on the table, except half of them are too poor to own a table. It roots them into the setting. Switching careers is also a strong narrative element, such as when the peasant decides he has had enough of toil and sweat under a weary life and becomes an outlaw, or the outlaw figures that the injustices that led him to a life of crime are because of inequality in the deep structures of the society and becomes a demagogue to speak against those who misuse power. The career mechanic is flavourful enough to act as story seeds in and of themselves, but sufficiently flexible to serve the needs of the campaign.

Additionally, WFRP is not afraid to rain shit upon the characters. It’s not overly lethal, and player characters stand a good chance of seeing ripe old age, but getting there will hurt. There’s madness. There’s mutation. Using magic causes both. Critical hits can and will cause limb loss. The PC is not sacrosanct and both violence and meddling with things man was not meant to know will have consequences. The webzine Critical Miss did a series of three articles on the theme and style, a long time ago. They are here: How James Wallis Ruined My Character’s Life, Yes I Sank Your Barge, and Wolfgang’s Guide to Screwing Your Fellow Players. Read them in order.

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News, Updates, Self-Aggrandizement

There are many things afoot right now in the local gaming scene.

For one thing, Ropecon is approaching, and the Game Master signup is open.

New Releases

Also, there are intriguing new game releases on the way. The Society for Nordic Roleplaying finally announced that book of theirs, Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta ja muita tanskalaisia roolipelejä (“Dream of the King in Yellow and Other Danish Roleplaying Games”). The link is in Finnish, but even if you don’t understand the lingo, the cover image is worth the click. It’s a collection of 12 one-shot roleplaying games from the Danish convention of Fastaval, translated into Finnish. There’s high fantasy, there’s drama, there’s Lovecraftian horror, a few things that are apparently inspired by Warhammer, and two of those weird games with a designed goal of making everyone involved feel terrible, The Journey and Fat Man Down.

I proofread The Journey’s translation. Even that was an experience I could’ve done without. I discussed the game and its ilk back when the first issue of Playground came out, and, well, damn.

But it’s far too easy to focus on the negative or the weird. Most of the modules in the book are (probably) excellent and suitable even for people whose tastes run to the more traditional. There’s Guernica, a romantic action game about the Spanish Civil War. There’s The Ark, an epic fantasy scenario, and there’s a Warhammer murder mystery set in a community of halflings.

Okay, there’s also a Warhammer thing called Slaaraphenland, where there’s apparently some sort of cake-eating mechanic to simulate the corruption of Chaos. As in, the players eat cake. I have not read the scenario myself, but I am very curious about this one.

While we’re on the subject of weird things, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition came out. I have not yet studied it in depth, but the art… man, the art! It is a beautiful game in its own quirky, off-putting, face-eating way. I understand the production values are also higher than last year’s Deluxe Edition, but I cannot comment yet as I only have the PDF. There’s also a minor contribution from me in this work, a short essay on H.P. Lovecraft and his works in the Tutorial booklet.

Also, according to Burger Games, the English version of Stalker is on the way. Has been on the way for a while now. Might even be out at Ropecon. Who knows? Some other Finnish games that may or may not come out during 2011 are the fantasy RPG Bliaron – Kalthanien perintö (“Bliaron – The Legacy of the Kalthans”), a sci-fi horror game from Myrrysmiehet called Vihan lapset (“Children of Hate”), something really strange-sounding from The Society of Nordic Roleplaying named Tsernobyl, rakastettuni (“Chernobyl, My Beloved”), another fantasy game called Noitahovi (“The Witch Court”), a third fantasy game called Generian legendat (“The Legends of Generia”) from Ironspine, and finally, Punaiset hiekat (“Red Sands”), a sourcebook for gaming in Somalia. There’s also a rumour from last year that an English-language version of the Finnish penguin roleplaying game Ikuisuuden laakso (“Vale of Eternity”) is in the works somewhere. I reviewed it for Roolipelaaja back when it came out in Finnish and quite liked the game. Four stars out of five, that one. If they ever get it out in English, I’ll translate the review and post it here.

Of course, this is the RPG industry and a handful of the above have already missed one release date. I’ll believe it when I own it. As a consolation to any dejected game designer, if you publish a Finnish RPG, the only ways I won’t buy it is if I get a complimentary copy or they sell out before I can get my hands on it. And I’ve got one of the 18 extant copies of L.G.D.S. I’m good at getting my hands on games.

Me Looking Foolish on Camera

The worst has happened. Turns out that Tracon last year filmed their presentations and panels, including that one about horror in RPGs that I was involved in and posted about. The videos are now in YouTube. There also appears to be another presentation about interactive programs at conventions from Concon a couple of weeks ago that I am also involved with. It is a small blessing that they are in Finnish and none outside our borders may comprehend my shame. However, there’s also good stuff for those who grok the lingo – a presentation on managing con workers, another on managing con security and a one from Tracon about politics in RPGs. The practice of recording convention program is a good one, I think, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any English-language con programs on YouTube. Does anyone know better?

Planescape

Also, it was my birthday recently. I got Planescape. I mean all of it. There’s a largish cardboard box in my game room at the moment, which contains six different boxed sets and roughly 30 sourcebooks and adventures (everything released under the setting’s label plus a few extra, like Warriors of Heaven and Die, Vecna, Die!). Mint condition. some of the modules are still shrinkwrapped. Only things missing are the Blood War trilogy of novels and Pages of Pain, which I figure I can survive without. There’s also a first-release copy of Planescape: Torment, which makes it my third or fourth copy of that game.

I’m mostly telling this to brag, but will likely discuss some of the material in the coming months. It remains one of my favourite settings, even if my feelings towards the system of AD&D 2E itself are rather cool.

Pathfinder Updates, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 3E

Well, the game is now really out, and sometime last night a lot of cool goodies hit the internet.

First of all, the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook’s PDF is now available. It’s not free, but at $10, it just as well might be. Add to that my subscriber discount, and my copy cost me less than the pint of cider I drank last night.

And really, the only thing cheaper than that is free, and it’s the Pathfinder RPF Reference Document. Less spiffy Wayne Reynolds art, but it’s the entire game. Including the XP charts, this time.

Since it’s a 576-page book, we can excuse a few errors sneaking in. Paizo is good at fixing them, though, and an errata document is downloadable from the My Downloads page at Paizo. You’ll need to log in to get it, though.

While you’re there, pick up the 3.5-to-PFRPG conversion guide and the Pathfinder Bestiary preview document. There’s also a free player’s guide for the Council of Thieves campaign.

Unfortunately, it seems their website is under heavy traffic at the moment and the download personaliser is down for the count. You can still get the errata and the updated traits document, though. The forums are also out of order at the moment to reduce the server’s workload. It’s not great, but it is preferable to the entire site going down, like WotC’s when 4E was announced…

Additionally, Adamant Entertainment released their PFRPG-compatible Tome of Secrets. That one went on my wishlist.

With all the brouhaha about Pathfinder RPG, I nearly missed another interesting announcement: Fantasy Flight Games is producing a third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. It seems like Arkham Horror and WFRP 2E had a child. Apparently it comes in a box, has four rulebooks, 30 custom dice and around 300 cards. And it costs $100.

While Fantasy Flight Games makes quality games (both my favourite board games, Arkham Horror and the twelve-hour galaxy conquest extravaganza Twilight Imperium, are theirs), I must confess that I am suspicious. This might be the awesomest thing ever, or it might be total crap and a blatant cash grab. I have no hope for backwards compatibility.

Whichever it is, I’m waiting for the reviews, because my wallet doesn’t stretch that far just out of curiosity.

Actually, it might be a good move for FFG to put the rulebooks up online as free downloads. You’ll still need to buy the whole set for the dice and the cards, so there’s no loss, and customers don’t need to buy a pig in a poke. They’ve done this with their board games, to good effect.

Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play Scenario Contest at FFG

I’m not sure how old this is – probably not very – but the guys at Fantasy Flight Games are hosting a scenario contest for Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, everyone’s favourite knee-deep-in-shit gritty fantasy game, where James Wallis sinks your fucking barge.

10,000 words, deadline December 1st. I’ve never actually written for WFRP, but I think I might give this a shot, if I can find the time in November. Of course, November is also the month of NaNoWriMo, a notorious devourer of free time and breaker of self esteems.

There are still a few days left to work on the 750-word draft for Paizo’s open call, too.