Friday, February 10, 2006

What is a Traditional Game?

This is the second in a series of shorter articles that will hopefully bring newer designers up to speed on the kinds of expectations I have for this blog and those who help in the Design forum on the Forge have for new games.

For the purposes of this website (reread that) this is how I’ll define a “Traditional Game.”

First, a Traditional Game has a GM. The GM is imbued with the power to control everything but the PCs. He is also the one who will come up with the overall campaign (aka plot) for the game and the one who is the final arbiter of all disagreements. Players play one and only one character and maintain an Actor Stance as much as possible. Actor Stance is basically playing “in character” where the player cannot affect anything in the Setting except what his own character could normally affect. All of the character’s actions are done in accordance with character knowledge and ability. Player knowledge and player motivation are put aside and considered “out of the game.” Traditional Games employ a Task Resolution system where difficulties and opposition are set by GM fiat with minimal guidance from the game’s text.

They may or may not have such things as levels, classes, races, equipment lists, spell lists, combat subsystems, skills, stats, etc. These are not what make a game a Traditional Game. So don’t confuse them with what I wrote in the paragraph above. They are all elements of game design. Their presence or absence has nothing to do with a game’s traditional-ness or its cutting edge-ness.

These traditional games hale back all the way to basic DnD and progress right through World of Darkness today. The thing that traditional games tend to do is empower the GM and suppress the players. They encourage, sometimes implicitly sometimes explicitly, the idea that the GM is the one who creates the story, the characters just add their voice and color. They propagate the ideal that the GM is the guy who gets to finally decide when a campaign is “done” and who gets what rewards and how much (XP allotments is a fine example of a GM-only duty). Additionally, they engrain the idea that if some ability or action the player wants his character to do isn’t covered in the character sheet, the players must just narrate what happens or not even bother to attempt it. For instance, debating, romance, and negotiation are things that are commonly left up to “roleplaying” and rarely supported by mechanics. Lastly, these games give GMs next to nothing when it comes to tools for creating a Setting, addressing player motives, or altering the Situation to fit the individuality of all the characters. It’s supposed to be done “on the fly” or in some grandiose “world builders guide book” sort of way. Neither of which are consistently effective or useful. Sooner or later both methods will break down.

Obviously, not all games are Traditional Games. There are many good games that break this mold. Sorcerer, The Shadows of Yesterday, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, Polaris, Breaking the Ice, Dust Devils, Prime Time Adventures, Inspectres, Multiverser, My Life with Master, and Universalis are all excellent examples of such games. They are more on the cutting edge of things.

For the purpose of this post, I’m not going to make any value judgment on Traditional Games. Whether they are good or not, whether they are harmful or not to gamers is something for another discussion. The main thing I want to do with this post is establish what they are and invite feedback that will help me construct a more accurate definition.

[EDIT]: Big thanks to Bankuei, John Kim, and Fang for helping me refine my list of traits a 'Traditional Game' tends to have. That list follows here:

-GM imbued with ultimate authority
-GM charged with creating entire plot and setting for the game
-Players play one and only one character
-Players encouraged to stay in 'Actor Stance'
-Task Resolution System
-Difficulties set by GM fiat
-GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties
-Character Advancement tied to increasing statistical values
-Character Death
-Dice used as the sole randomizer for play
-Assumption of long term play
-Player/Character goals not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation
[END EDIT]

Peace,

-Troy

23 comments:

Elliot Wilen said...

Well, if you're looking for feedback...

I personally would like to see the abolishment of the term "GM fiat" and its replacement with "GM discretion".

Also, you are making a value judgment on Traditional Games when you define their features as you do in your third paragraph and then characterize them as you do in your fifth paragraph. You are saying that those characteristics are consequences of those features. I think this is debatable--certainly, the idea that "the GM is the one who creates the story" was far from accepted in the heyday of Traditional Games. As evidence, one could look at the origins of the Threefold Way, which came out of a very contentious debate over whether it was the GM's job to tell a story.

Now, it absolutely is true that some Traditional Games contain GMing advice along those lines. (E.g., much of the advice in GURPS Basic 3e was like that IIRC.) But not all of them. And somehow, even if that advice was common, people seem to have glommed onto the opposite idea, which tells me that the structure of traditional RPGs actually discouraged, to some extent, the idea that the GM is supposed "create the story".

I do agree with your "next to nothing" statement regarding tools for the GM, though. But I don't know about consistent breakdowns. That strikes me as another value judgment, not a concrete definition.

Frank said...

I like the term GM Fiat, I think it lays the issue bare. GM discretion tries to cloak it.

As to creating story - my feeling is that wasn't quite present at the start of gaming, though perhaps the groundwork was laid. The way people talk about "story arcs" and "campaign plot" and such was really alien to me (the first time I encountered this type of thing was in college - and I think I pretty quickly dismissed it as troublesome). But that doesn't mean that characteristic isn't a reasonable one for the definition of traditional game, but more to highlight that perhaps traditional game doesn't equate to "D&D as it was played in the 70s".

But maybe I was also touched by some of the proto-new style gaming (I'm still unclear if there's any relationship of Glen Blacow's fourfold way of player types to the threefold way and GNS - if there is, then Glen's mentorship likely set me on a different path).

Of course many of the aspects listed in the 5th paragraph were definitely a part of my play (just most exceptionally, not the bit about story creation).

Don't know if that helps. I'm also interested to see where this discussion leads since in one sense, I'm designign a somewhat traditional game, but I'm also trying to break at least some of the traditions (especially wrto the degree of GM fiat).

Frank

Bankuei said...

While I agree that the core feature of traditional design is the GM/player power divide, why do you figure none of the other design choices play into making a game traditional?

I mean, across the board you typically have character advancement, character death, assumption of long term play, and combat as the sole conflict resolution system as universal features amongst traditional design, why not include these as well?

(I'm not trying to be contentious, I'm really curious if there's something here I'm missing)

Elliot Wilen said...

One reason to leave character advancement out of the list is that the original Traveller had virtually no advancement, and it was one of the seminal RPGs.

Regarding "GM fiat" & "GM creates the story", I did a little research last night, glancing through RQ 2 & 3, Dragonquest, Universe, Elric!, Fantasy Hero 1e, Harnmaster 1e, and maybe one or two others. I didn't take notes but my overall impressions were (1) GMs are generally advised to rule and judge impartially and responsibly, which isn't something I would characterize by the term "fiat". If your own research (and your dictionary) don't change your mind, then I don't have anything else to say about that here. (2) To my surprise, GMing advice in those games did tend strongly toward "herding the players along the storyline" and following a traditional pattern of development/climax/resolution, even while waffling over the issue of PC free will. Sample adventures, though, were often open ended in the sense of providing situations to be resolved without an explicit sequence of scenes. For what it's worth, these 70's & 80's games generally contain text emphasizing their "toolkit" nature, and IMO the GMing advice/guidelines in them were presented in a far less authoritative manner than the actual rules on combat, task resolution, advancement, etc. Both this fact and the mixed message probably contributed to a culture of "finding your own way as a GM", and that in turn to the debates on Usenet (and elsewhere, I'm guessing)) in the 80's & 90's over world-based vs. plot-based, etc.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

Appreciate all your posts, guys. They're really good for this discussion.

Eliot,

Just because I’m not necessarily making any value judgments about traditional games, doesn’t mean I’m going to sugar coat them either. Fiat is a very accurate word to describe what goes on in these games.

As for the Threefold way, to my knowledge that was developed on internet newsgroups. That would place it in the mid to late 90’s. That was way after the “heyday” of RPGs. GURPS, DnD, Call of Cthullu, Star Wars d6, Rolemaster, Palladium, World of Darkness, and so on and so on, are examples of Traditional Games that do everything I listed. Those are all major games written in the traditional format from all eras. And new ones come out all the time. Just show up at GenCon this year and you’ll be able to pick up all kinds of fresh new small press games that fall right into this category.

Chris,

I mean, across the board you typically have character advancement, character death, assumption of long term play, and combat as the sole conflict resolution system as universal features amongst traditional design, why not include these as well?

You’re definitely right. I should have included all those things in my post as well. Especially combat as sole means of conflict resolution. Which is even evident in CoC and SWd6. Yeah, your list is very much a part of what a TradGame looks like.

Peace,

-Troy

John Kim said...

How do Sorcerer and The Shadow of Yesterday not fit this definition? They both have a GM, and the GM can set difficulties at his discretion. There are no rules for the players to control things other than their character. The same is true for Riddle of Steel -- and I suspect Burning Wheel though I'm not sure (since I don't have it).

I guess the room for wiggle room in the definition is the part that there is "minimal" guidance from the game's text on difficulties and opposition. For some minimalist rules (like Fudge), this is true. However, most games have many guidelines on how to create NPC stats and assess difficulty levels.

Jonas Barkå said...

"Just because I’m not necessarily making any value judgments about traditional games, doesn’t mean I’m going to sugar coat them either. Fiat is a very accurate word to describe what goes on in these games."

But you do make value judgements about them, or more specifically against them.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

How do Sorcerer and The Shadow of Yesterday not fit this definition?

Well John, without even thinking about it I can tell you that first those games have stories/campaigns/whatever you want to call them that are explcitly not about GM, they are about the players. Second, the players are definately, without a doubt, not in actor stance. (for those not familiar with that term it, I'm saying the player's motivations and goals take precidence over the character's).

Just because a game has a GM doesn't make it a traditional game. Don't get hung up on that. Also, check out Chris's (Bankuei's)list and consider it added to mine. You'll begin to see many, many differences right away.

Peace,

-Troy

Fang Langford said...

Hey Troy,

I'm right on board with 97% of your definition of traditional role-playing games, especially with the additions.

There's a distinct problem I have with two statements. I'd really like you reconsider them carefully and I'll try to make some suggestions in a sec.

"...Overall campaign (aka plot)..."

Unfortunately, you do a great disservice to all functional gaming outside of the Forge by implying that plot (or story) is in any way ordinary or necessary. I won't go into why here, but campaign traditionally means the milieu where the examined action of play takes place.

"Sooner or later both methods will break down."

First of all, this statement, as written, is meaningless. Sooner or later, everything will break down. Likewise, in keeping with common wisdom¹, for a 'good gamemaster' these rarely (and forgivably) break down.

A good introduction might be better if it didn't take some of the more radical concepts of Forge design-speak for granted. It should be explained that, as far as Forge theory goes, the purpose of gaming is generating story, plot, narrative, or whatever you can come up with that doesn't confuse the uninitiated; this isn't true for the bulk of role-playing games and makes the Forge forum very special. I think it is highly arguable to say that traditional gaming breaks down as a foregone conclusion; it might be better to suggest that when these games break down, it is for the listed reasons. After all, it's specious to assume that something that is prone to breakdown would ever stay or become traditional.²

You might also want to consider that your audience will be primarily made up of two kinds of people:

1. People looking for Forge prep.
2. People who don't know the Forge.

Thus this blog ought to take itself seriously as both an introduction to Forge design-speak and as a representative for the Forge itself.

I'd also like you to reconsider breaking down all gaming, especially traditional gaming, into setting, situation, character, system, color³, and especially actor stance (btw, actors on the stage do anything but play "in character"); these are Forge-specific terms that connote much more everywhere else (leading to confusion here) and that a good introduction to Forge theory shouldn't be written in Forge theory.

Hope that helps!

Fang Langford

¹ Contrary to Forge-inspired elitism, it wouldn't be common wisdom if it weren't in some way true.

² Saying it as above suggests that the writer is out of touch with the segment of functional traditional gaming, which is by far the larger segment.

³ Ron Edwards' "Five Components of Exploration" are not universally accepted outside the Forge forums. For example, I came up with personae, relationships, sequences, circumstances, backgrounds, props, and mechanics; these should be introduced separately or as an introduction.

John Kim said...

Troy_Costisick said...
As for the Threefold way, to my knowledge that was developed on internet newsgroups. That would place it in the mid to late 90’s. That was way after the “heyday” of RPGs. GURPS, DnD, Call of Cthullu, Star Wars d6, Rolemaster, Palladium, World of Darkness, and so on and so on, are examples of Traditional Games that do everything I listed.

First of all, while the Threefold Model was developed mid-nineties, the idea that there were different valid ways to play is much old. Glenn Blacow's "Aspects of Adventure Gaming" was published in Different Worlds magazine in 1980. It divided gamers into Power Gaming, Role-playing, Wargaming, and Story Telling. About Story Telling, Blacow said the following:
Now, the pure form of the story telling game is rare, and every campaign emphasizing it is unique. The details of what's going on depend entirely on what story the GM is telling. A role-player encountering such a game for the first time will usually find it a trifle odd, for unlike the heavily role-playing game, the player characters are not on the center of the stage, not the element about which events revolve. The player characters can only act within the tale, and their freedom is somewhat limited...
I think this seems to line up well with your idea of a traditional role-playing game, but Blacow identifies it as an unusual style in 1980. This sort of game become more common in the nineties, but it was never the whole of role-playing.

Troy_Costisick said (Re: Sorcerer & TSOY)...
Well John, without even thinking about it I can tell you that first those games have stories/campaigns/whatever you want to call them that are explcitly not about GM, they are about the players. Second, the players are definately, without a doubt, not in actor stance. (for those not familiar with that term it, I'm saying the player's motivations and goals take precidence over the character's).

I guess I was mistaking the full definition here. But if you're defining it restrictively like this, I don't think it fits most pre-nineties RPGs. Certainly my experience of many RPGs is that the players are perfectly willing and able to ignore the character's motivations and goals to do what they want. In particular, I'm thinking of games like Tunnels & Trolls, Rolemaster, Feng Shui, Paranoia, Toon, Torg, and many others. (This is explicit -- for example, in Toon you are rewarded for making other players laugh. In Torg, there is out-of-character card trading.) Purely in-character stance role-playing only became a common style in the late eighties.

As I demonstrated from Blacow's article, the idea of GM as the author of the plot was considered marginal and odd in 1980. It became more common during the nineties but was still a controversial point as demonstrated by the flamewars which arose around the Threefold Model.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

RE: Fang-

1. People looking for Forge prep.
2. People who don't know the Forge.


Yeah, this is what I’m trying to do. Thanks for pointing out that I’m taking a little too much for granted.

Unfortunately, you do a great disservice to all functional gaming outside of the Forge by implying that plot (or story) is in any way ordinary or necessary.

Okay, I should have been more careful about this. I’ll need to make a full article out of it. But anyway, when I say “story” or “plot” am just talking about the sequence of in-game events during a roleplaying session. I’m not talking about a Edgar Allen Poe style narrative. I’m not talking about a plot with a rising action, climax, and resolution. I’m not talking about theme or premise. I am just talking about the what goes on in the game minute by minute, hour by hour as people play. To me, doing a dungeon crawl is every bit a story as doing a town in Dogs in the Vineyard. That’s TO ME! Others may choose to define story or plot differently. That’s fine. They can do it on their site.

Saying it as above suggests that the writer is out of touch with the segment of functional traditional gaming, which is by far the larger segment.

Man, if I said that traditional games can’t be functional or fun somewhere in my post, then I apologize for it. I looked it over, and reflecting I can see where some of the language might be more harsh than it needs to be, but I don’t believe I ever said they weren’t functional or fun. My first RPG to play was Rolemaster. A traditional game IMO. I had a blast playing it. I’m in a DnD3.5 campaign right now and enjoying it immensely. I’ll state it right here and now, traditional games can be functional and can be fun. There’s nothing wrong with playing them.

Ron Edwards' "Five Components of Exploration" are not universally accepted outside the Forge forums.

I agree very, very much. But I’m not sure I’m ready to make that step on my own yet. I appreciate what you said, tho :)

-Troy

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

RE: John-

I read that article, and it’s really neat to see a viewpoint from 25 or so years ago. It’s not anything I have first hand experience with. When he talks about “hundreds of thousands” of people playing RPGs, that struck me. What a time it must have been.

Anyway, I examined the article very closely. And I’m going to have to ask for your help. The way I understood things, in every style and division, was the players still were playing one single character each, the GM had full power to create the dungeon crawl/campaign/story-arc/whatever you want to call it, combat was the only mechanical means of resolving a conflict, and the players were still caught up in Actor or Pawn stance (if anyone reading doesn’t understand those, I’ll be doing an article on stance at a later date).

In the example of Ben, player motivation and player goals entered very little into his line of thinking. And if I read the article correctly, it entered very little into the players’s minds as well. They were expecting the GM to create everything they would be doing in the game, they’d either just narrate what specific actions they’d take or roll the dice to see if they succeeded. Despite all that, the author states Ben is a good GM, he just needs players that fit his style of play. The impetus was put on him to find the right kind of players or the players to alter their style. I don’t see at any point where the author might suggest that anyone but the GM should decide what the campaign should encompass.

I do concede, John, that you are way, way more knowledgeable about the history of our hobby than I am. So I definitely defer to you when it comes to specifics in that area. So this is where I need your help. I don’t have a basic DnD DMG, but I have or have had a DMG from ADnD1 through DnD3.5. They’ve all basically told me the same thing. Make a dungeon (or world), fill it with monsters, traps, and loot then let the players try to get through it all. From my personal play experience, this was done often before the characters were ever generated. My experience with Rolemaster from the early 90’s where we were using used books printed several years earlier suggested the same thing. The GM made the world and the campaign with little player input and the players created characters and rolled dice.

This along with mechanics for character advancement, death, loose GM guidance, task resolution, general assumption of long term or tournament play and combat as the only explicit conflict resolution mechanic are what makes up a traditional game IMO.

I’m not saying this was universally done by all players and by all games. I’m not saying a game that has some of these traits is necessarily a traditional game. All I’m saying is that this is the traditional format that many games and many players followed.

-Troy

John Kim said...

Troy_Crostisick
I'm not saying this was universally done by all players and by all games. I'm not saying a game that has some of these traits is necessarily a traditional game. All I'm saying is that this is the traditional format that many games and many players followed.

Wait, I'm not following. There's a big difference between (1) a list of common traits among "traditional" games; and (2) a hard definition of "traditional" games. I've got no issue with a list of common traits, but it seemed like you were casting a hard definition. I don't want to seem nitpicky, so let me say where I'm going. I agree that there are differences between post-1998 Forge-inspired designs and traditional tabletop RPGs. I'm fine with the GM/player distinction as a traditional line for tabletop games, where players control their PCs and the GM controls the background. There are other differences, but they aren't along a single line. By casting a monolithic definition, you lose sight of all the distinctions in between. For example, many Forge games retain the ability of GMs to set difficulty at their discretion, like Sorcerer and TSOY. In contrast, Robin Laws' Rune doesn't.

Specifically, you stated with regards to Sorcerer and TSOY that anything which didn't promote Actor stance was not traditional -- i.e. if players choose actions based on what they want independent of character. But that's also true of a huge set of pre-1998 games, particularly in the seventies and eighties. Remember that Pawn stance is a subset of Author stance, in Forge terminology. Author stance doesn't mean Narrativist address of premise. It just means that you choose what you want your character to do, then possibly come up with a justification for why the character wants that. That was standard for a lot of old role-playing campaigns, in my experience.

Troy_Crostisick
My experience with Rolemaster from the early 90's where we were using used books printed several years earlier suggested the same thing. The GM made the world and the campaign with little player input and the players created characters and rolled dice.

You're saying that oddly, to me, because you're leaving out any mention of player input through character choices. I agree that the traditional divide is that the players control PCs and the GM controls everything else. There are a lot of functional games, including dungeon crawls, where what the PCs choices make a difference. Dungeons are almost always non-linear -- the players set the direction and the pace, can have a massive impact on the place through character action, choose which sections to explore, and so forth. For example, my Water-Uphill World campaign worked exactly like you described. I came up with the background, the players made their PCs without knowing the background, and then they went in and interacted.

There are also railroaded games which are traditional -- the GM predetermines a plot and invents pushes and pulls to keep the PCs on track, and prevent their choices from making a difference. But that's not required by the traditional GM/player divide. Also, player input on the world is not unknown pre-1998. In Champions and later GURPS, players could define their allies and enemies via disadvantages. In Ars Magica, the group would create the background as a whole.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya John,

1) a list of common traits among "traditional" games; and (2) a hard definition of "traditional" games.

Number 1 is what I’m trying to do. Number 2 is what I’m trying to avoid. If I said definition in there somewhere, I retract that. I’m just compiling a list of common characteristics of what I’m going to call “traditional games” for use later on down the road on this blog. I’m not making a hard and fast definition because in the case of RPGs and many creative endeavors, such a definition will never stick a 100% each time. The vast array of creativity would buck such a concrete definition, IMO.

By casting a monolithic definition, you lose sight of all the distinctions in between.

Yes, I agree. If I gave the impression that if a game had even one thing in my list in common with traditional games, it was therefore a traditional game- I retract it. It has never been my intent to suggest that.

There are also railroaded games which are traditional -- the GM predetermines a plot and invents pushes and pulls to keep the PCs on track, and prevent their choices from making a difference. But that's not required by the traditional GM/player divide.

Yeah, I agree with you 100% here. You are right. That’s not exactly where I want to go, however. I’m not ready to go in that direction yet. Railroading is a play technique, I’m doing my best to just describe design techniques and a few (not all) of their consequences.

In Ars Magica, the group would create the background as a whole.

I would not consider Ars Magica a Traditional Game. It does some very creative and innovative things that are not in the mould of many games that came before it (players play multiple characters, they design part of the setting- their covenant- etc). Same goes for Amber Diceless and I’d want to say Castle Faulkenstien but I’m not familiar enough with it.

Peace,

-Troy

Frank said...

Anyway, I examined the article very closely. And I’m going to have to ask for your help. The way I understood things, in every style and division, was the players still were playing one single character each, the GM had full power to create the dungeon crawl/campaign/story-arc/whatever you want to call it, combat was the only mechanical means of resolving a conflict, and the players were still caught up in Actor or Pawn stance (if anyone reading doesn’t understand those, I’ll be doing an article on stance at a later date).

Let me see if I can answer some of this since I played with Glen, and he was my biggest early RPG mentor. And I was around when this essay was first written (I need to see if I have the original as published in the Wild Hunt - I know it was edited for Different Worlds).

There were a series of D&D games (with varying house rules) that players transferred characters from one game to another. Many players had multiple characters (I know of at least 2 and maybe 3 characters Glen played). But people only played one character in any given session. I don't know if players ever played one of their characters in opposition to another. Characters were not shared. There was also relatively little running peoples PCs as NPCs when the player wasn't present.

Re-reading the essay, it's interesting to read about the Story Teller games. I can't think of any that I actually saw in this timeframe (1979-1981 or so). There perhaps were beginnings of such. Games had steadily been evolving out of pure gamist dungeon crawls towards games with more of a world, and stuff going on in the world whether the PCs were involved or not (I think this was heading towards simulationism).

I'll have to dig into my archives. I long ago cut up my Wild Hunt collection, but I think I have retained MOST of Glen's contributions (though I have looked for one that described one of my games that he played in and not found it). I know that Glen was expressing a lot of frustration about how one of his PCs fit into it's home campaign (many PCs, while used in other campaigns, did have home campaigns). Glen was also observing a variety of different play styles, especially since the MIT Stragegic Game Society was open to non-students, and had a significant high school population (including me, and most of my players) - thus the comments about younger players being more likely to be power gamers. Significantly, Glen was one of the few bridges between the various groups (there were the old timers, mostly out of college, then there were the college students [not all MIT], then there were the high school kids - the old timers rarely interracted with the rest of the gamers [in fact, they mostly got together on Sunday where everyone else got together on Saturday], there was a fair bit of mixing between the college and high school gamers).

Frank

Joshua Kronengold said...

Troy, you've missed the entire point of modern rpg theory.

The idea isn't that there were certain characteristics that gaming prior
to the late '90s had, and that people have been recently designing games
which break these characteristics.

Instead, it's that there were certain ideas -about- games, and that
modern design theory does not treat these ideas as immutable -- GMness,
PCness, and time divions among them. The Indie Revolution isn't
fundamentally about games -- it's about breaking games/goals down
theoretically, and then trying to design games based on those theories.

Pre-Forge thinking was far from monocultural -- it ranged from
D&D-inspired mechanistic games (including ones where players could
"topple" the GM) through freeform (GM Fiat-based or no), through troupe
style and beyond. What's new, if anything, is the openeness in
discussion and conciously designing games around theory -- not
variability in games themselves!

The format you describe is far from traditonal -- it gained promenence
with the WoD's ascendence, and has lost ground with the resurgence of
D&D and the pressure from the Indy world.

Before it were troupe games and full-sim games -- during the ascendency
were coherent GM-fiat games like OTE, Everway, and Amber competing with
WW and its immatators' incoherent designs, and games with a more or less
"traditional" division of power are still capable of being interesting
(as well as playable) designs today.

Troy_Costisick said...

Troy, you've missed the entire point of modern rpg theory.

-And you have missed the entire point of my article. I'm not talking about theory. I'd prefer you not bring it up again.

The idea isn't that there were certain characteristics that gaming prior to the late '90s had, and that people have been recently designing games which break these characteristics.

-Never said there weren't games that challenged tradition pre-1990's-2000's.

The format you describe is far from traditonal -- it gained promenence with the WoD's ascendence

-It was around way before WoD.

"traditional" division of power are still capable of being interesting (as well as playable) designs today.

-Have you even been reading the posts I've written here?

Peace,

-Troy

John Kim said...

Ah. So would you say your definition is fuzzy? In other words, what it says is: "Here's a list of common design traits. If it has all of them, it's definitely traditional. If it has none of them, it's definitely non-traditional. If it has some, then it's judged on a case-by-case basis?"

But how do you judge the in-betweens? So let's compare Champions, James Bond 007, and Sorcerer. Sorcerer is more ruled by GM fiat than the prior two, in my opinion, but it has other innovations. Champions lets the player pick Hunteds and DNPCs; while Sorcerer lets player pick a Kicker. Hunteds and DNPCs are more binding in the long term; but Kickers are more narrowly controlled from the outset. James Bond 007 has explicit rules for certain social conflicts, and has firm rules for NPC generation.

How do we weigh these by comparison? Which are traditional, and which are not? Without solid criteria, I feel there is a tendency to label games based on irrelevant factors -- like whether a game is "dark" or whether it has an essay about "storytelling" or "narrativism" in it.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya John,

How do we weigh these by comparison? Which are traditional, and which are not? Without solid criteria, I feel there is a tendency to label games...

You have a good point, but that's not the purpose of this article and probably something I'm really never going to get into. I just haven't played the massive ammount of games someone like you has. I'm not qualified for such a thing. The games I mentioned were just examples, not the beginings of some kind of Master List.

This article is solely intended to make a list of traits for others to use when considering the design aspects of their games. However, if you'd like to take up catagorizing games and further discussing on your blog the implications of this list on games already in print, then I'd be very happy to link it someplace here. But that's definately something I personally don't want to get into.

I very much appreciate all your insight on this topic. You do have a great wealth of historical knowledge on RPGs.

Peace,

-Troy

Joshua Kronengold said...

You're quite right -- my apologies.

I think the issue I (and others) ran into was primarily a word-choice one -- that you're trying to say "trad games tend to have these characteristics" but are actually saying "trad games have these characteristics" (implying that all trad games have all of them). Similarly, when you list traps that trad games can fall into, what it reads as to me is a claim that -all- trad games suffer from these traps/flaws (again due to stating the point too strongly).

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

(again due to stating the point too strongly).

-Yep, this Blog thing is still a learning process for me :) But that's cool. It's nice to be engaged in something new.

Peace,

-Troy

J said...

It seems odd to me that games like D&D or Empire of the Petal Throne have relatively few of the traits you list:

-GM imbued with ultimate authority

Check

-GM charged with creating entire
plot and setting for the game

Nope, a lot of games in those early days were set in modules, or in the case of EotPT an entire world created by the designer

-Players play one and only one character

Sometimes. It was pretty common to control more than one character when there weren't enough gamers to have a well-rounded party. It was also common to have more than one character and choose one to play for that session depending upon the group's make-up.

-Players encouraged to stay in 'Actor Stance'

Nope. As I understand the term, Token play was much more common. Actor Stance eventually emerged as a more sophisticated alternative.

-Task Resolution System

Check.

-Difficulties set by GM fiat

Nope. Everything you would do routinely had a mechanic, the rest was free-form.

-GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties

Nope. For the standard dungeon crawl, pretty much everything was laid out for the GM's duties. It's only when people started to want to use the town as more than just a place to restock that the GM was left to his own devices.

-Character Advancement tied to increasing statistical values

Check. Though not for Traveller.

-Character Death

Check.

-Dice used as the sole randomizer for play

Check.

-Assumption of long term play

Depends what you mean by long-term.

-Player/Character goals not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation.

Kill the monster, loot the room. What other goals are there?

Malcolm Sheppard said...

I helped design a big-ass traditional RPG when I wrote/tested parts of Mage: The Awakening. It ain't like that. Your definition points to assumptions in design aims that aren't universal, or you are applying reductio ad absurdum to some of the elements that are there. The GM's authority is not the GM"s default dictatorship.

Let's look at this in terms of your bullet points:

-GM imbued with ultimate authority

No, final authority. This is different from ultimate authority. The process of playing an RPG is not so brutally Manichean. It's a process of negotiation within an existing set of social dynamics.

-GM charged with creating entire plot and setting for the game

Not true for multiple games. For example, the World of Darkness provides a setting. Scenarios provide the plot. In the WoD in particular, the social network in the setting creates story opportunities.

-Players play one and only one character

D&D started with multiple characters as a discussed option. Ars Magica assumes it, and other games have discussed it for a long time. Even Palladium's Beyond the Supernatural (and other games/supplements) suggests you play disposible guys to get killed by the supernatural threat.

-Players encouraged to stay in 'Actor Stance'

No.

-Task Resolution System
-Difficulties set by GM fiat

Several systems contradict this in whole or part.

-GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties

This is really, "I crap on GM's advice in other games." In many ways, I agree, because GM's advice is usually geared to intermediate play. This is by design (as in, when I've written the stuff, these have been actual instructions). On the other hand, games could use more support at the beginning level aside from fundamental systems.

-Character Advancement tied to increasing statistical values

This is pretty much true. Then again, one might argue that advancement not related to a game trait is not really advancement a game can claim as its own. Plus, you have cases of tension between types of traits and their improvement (Humanity versus Generation/Blood Potency in Vampire).

-Character Death

Mummy. Your character cannot die. They can merely be delayed for a time.

-Dice used as the sole randomizer for play

Deadlands, other games.

-Assumption of long term play

Maybe.

-Player/Character goals not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation

This is too abstract an assertion to comment on.