Sunday, July 25, 2010

What RPGs are About

Noisms posted a while back that D&D is about Ambition. I thought that was interesting and have been turning it over in my mind since I read it.

First, ambition has negative connotations from my middle-class perspective (it's blind, it's selfish). I might say D&D is about Progress, or Mastery. You start out being crappy at everything and with luck, smart decisions, and perseverence you get better at things.

It seems analogous in many ways to the stages of life we all go through, or even the Heroes Journey. If you want an answer as to why D&D is the most predominate rpg and that mechanics of progress, either levels or skill levels, exist in 90% of rpgs, I think this is the reason.

It's hard wired into our brains isn't it? Why the hell do thousands and thousands of people spend hours of their life playing Farmville?

Noisms mentions some rpgs that are about other things than ambition. I'm unfamiliar with those he mentions. I was thinking about games a little more familiar to me. So what about these:
  • Traveller
  • Call of Cthulu
  • Boot Hill
  • Any Superhero Game
Is Traveller about ambition too? I don't have extensive experience with it, but from what I recall, getting better at abilities or learning new ones is much more time consuming. It certainly didn't seem like the point of the game was to become the best pilot in the galaxy. I'm sure you could play it that way, but it didn't seem like the system was crafted with that in mind.

I've never played CoC, but from what everyone says about it, it's just a matter of time before your character dies or goes mad. So, what is that about? Is there even such a thing as a CoC campaign or are they by nature necessarily one-offs? I'm not criticizing here, actually curious.

Boot Hill was my second attempt at being a DM, and way back then as a proto-gamer, I was puzzled by what we were supposed to do. Ok, yes, this may have been influenced by my having experienced D&D first. I knew there should be tension, a gun fight, but then what? I wanted the game to give me some kind of framework. I remember very clearly noticing in the rule book how the playtester campaign had set a time limit and a boundary distance: whoever crossed that boundary with the most money by the end of the time limit "won." I remember thinking that very odd at the time (I suppose all law men were run by the DM?) and also thought "Aha, I'm not weird, they had to impose a framework too." So, what's Boot Hill about? And again, does anyone play Western campaigns, or are these all one-offs, situations?

Superheroes! The games I played as a youth (Champions, Marvel, DC) made only the barest nod at character improvement. I mean, Batman did all that before he walked onto stage, right? He doesn't get any better, he's at the top of his form. He may craft individual gadgets to deal with threats but that's different. So, the hero you made, was pretty much always going to be the same hero. So what was that game about? Our games had a lot to do with balancing secret identities/normal lives with hero lives. Also a lot of personal interactions/rivalries within our hero groups.

It strikes me that people really unsatisfied with D&D because there isn't enough roleplaying should really be flocking to hero games. That doesn't seem to be the case though, is it because that genre is traditionally drenched in testosterone, and that there is always the violent confrontations spaced between all the drama?

My hypothesis is that as humans, we tend toward some idea of progress, even artificial, and that games that don't incorporate this (by design or because of genre constraints) end up being one-off games, played as a fun session in-between long stretches of games that do allow for progress.

But I freely admit I may be blinded by my own desires (I crave a sense of progress and accomplishment). In fact, I'm intrigued by the idea of an ongoing game that is about the characters interacting with each other, without worrying about ambition. But I'm having trouble envisioning what the characters would be interacting about, if not goals, and aren't goals the small steps of progress?

Thoughts? Comments?


  1. Learning and exploration for its own sake, without the need for reinforcement by power or glory?

    Defending the good against a tide of evil - a conservative, not progressive campaign?

    Those are two alternatives to ambition that come to mind.

  2. Hey, thanks for commenting. I guess to me, Learning at least is a kind of progress. I mean, what do Magic-users do, except learn? Unless you meant player learning. But even learning more about the sandbox of the world is a kind of progress too, no? But maybe I've watered down the definition of progress too much.

    Defending the Good, seems like a a candidate for what superhero games are about. The idea sounds infinite, though. Maybe another thing that pleases me about progress-oriented games is that they have an implied endpoint; you won't be doomed to putting the Joker back into Arkham forever.

  3. Traveller is a lot like real life in that ambition is rarely about "being the best". With any luck, you already are the best. What you want is big guns, a fast spaceship and piles of credits. Material progress, if you will. In many ways Traveller is more ambitious than D&D: characters often already had a successful career in the military, as opposed to being a wet-behind-the-ears magic-user with a single spell, but they still want more.

    You could remove levels from D&D and end up with exactly the same play experience as before: a band of misfits go into a dungeon, kill a few goblins and haul out gold and loot.

  4. i think you and noisms are both right. you just highlight different aspects of the hobby (and not d&d specifically).

    in my mind you are not very far apart (if at all). how could you ever reach a goal, any goal, without being ambitious, without striving to reach it?

  5. The subject of ambition and gaining experience with regard to Traveller and in comparison to D&D is very interesting.

    If I remember correctly (at least with the original Trav), in order to get better at something you'd either have to re-enlist or else the GM could come up with something similar like going to a special school. It's logically assumed that in order to get significantly better at anything, you're going to have to spend a seriously significant amount of time at it (years). The downside to this is that there are specific rules that state that your abilities will degrade with age at regular intervals.

    Basically, in Traveller the accrual of experience doesn't depend on role-playing. I think that this is one of the main reasons why as much as I like certain mechanics and the overall feel of Traveller, actually playing it has always felt a little lack-luster to me, at least in comparison to D&D.

    So ambition there would seem to be aimed at accumulation of credits, building a bigger and better spacecraft, starport, or (for example) running or owning your own planet and developing it. To me, it’s a less personal kind of reward, because it's not personal development that you've role played for - and so it doesn't feel as rewarding.

  6. @shlominus: I'm not disagreeing with him. I don't think. Unless I'm saying all rpgs are by definition about progress and so saying D&D is, isn't saying much. But I don't think I'd want to make that claim even if I had more than my limited experience with the spectrum of available rpgs.

    @Maroon, ze bulette: thanks for the insight. That would be an interesting experiment: play D&D (or LL, or S&W) where you start out about 5th level and experience points are removed entirely from the game. What would we do? I suppose the end game would be much more important-- we need to find cash to have our own castle/tower etc. but it would be much, much harder to achieve, wouldn't it because you would be limited to the places you could explore by your weakness.

    But I think it would amount to what you're saying Bulette, that in the end it wouldn't be as satisfying because my player would never get any better at anything. It would be about much more abstract things like "saving the world", "acquiring a domain" and not "Wow, these orcs used to be terrifying and now they run from me."

  7. Nice post, thanks. :)

    > Unless I'm saying all rpgs are by definition about progress and so saying D&D is, isn't saying much.

    Progression awards can be placed pretty much anywhere in the roleplaying contract; it's just that OD&D's approach (gold & killing things / ) was so powerful a gaming paradigm and ended up hijacking the term "RPG" when that eventually appeared in 1976 due to market dominance.

    D&D may be about "Ambition", but it /has/ to be Ambition through gold and killing things by definition.
    (Excepting that one /can/ be a pacifist along for the ride yet share in the spoils, that's not possible when adopting the "caller"/unit simulation method in OD&D as published!).

    > It strikes me that people really unsatisfied with D&D because there isn't enough roleplaying should really be flocking to hero games.

    Worked nicely here for a few years: slight marketing problem, though, in that a single-sided character sheet and one page of outline gaming and progression rules was sufficient to play the game.

    Try selling 20 volumes showing people how to "roleplay" better (in general, or in a given milieu) vs. selling them 20 volumes of additional "rollplaying" rules! :)
    People don't generally like being told how to roleplay, either. *g*