RPGs: The Map is Not the Territory

RPGs are not, in general, trying to create a pure simulation of reality in the form of entirely consistent and all-encompassing rules (and acting as if they are, or even should, leads to unhappiness, silliness, or both). The rules of the Game part of an RPG can be distinctly different from a description of the objective rules that define a universe. People who want to take things ‘allowed” by RPG rules and dive down to what a world is “really” like if those rules are equally and evenly available to even citizen of the world are not playing the game as intended.

(And if they have fun doing that, that’s fine. But if they don’t, the flaw isn’t necessarily with the game rules.)

For example, it’s perfect acceptable to say “This ability can be selected by any player for their character. There are no limitations or restriction on a player doing so.” and a GM or campaign setting saying (or even being built so it is true without saying it) “This ability represents a very rare ability, and only a very few people in the universe have it.”

One early step in beginning a new RPG campaign or adventure that almost no RPGs ever mention is, everyone involved should be interested in engaging in that activity in a way that causes everyone to have fun. If someone actively doesn’t want to play, or their motivating for playing is to make other people unhappy and sadly yes, this happens), most RPGs are going to collapse under the weight of neutral or bad intentions. (This is, by the way, one reason why formal organized play groups often have some significant additional rules about player and character behavior, or collapse under their own weight. I remain in awe of people able not only to run such organizations, but write for them, build them,\and create environments where clearly most participants are having fun.)

If everyone wants to play the game for mutual fun, the fact the rules are often focused on what player characters can do (rather than what is unavailable to the majority of the population because not everyone is a Caped Knight Wizard of Justice) is rarely an issue.

Some people claim such a focus on PC abilities automatically mans the player characters are somehow “chosen ones” because they have access to options common NPCs don’t. Now, sometimes that’s the case, and that’s fine. I have often run games where player characters were, explicitly, somehow gifted in ways the vast majority of the population was not. Sometimes that’s a built-in rarity explained by the game. (“Only 1 in 10,000 people can learn the Rite of Heroism… and in this rare case, all four of you have that ability despite being from a village of 700.”)

But in other cases, the PCs have no special fate or inherent superior power. They are just the people who, at the start of the game, have ended up somewhere interesting. Maybe they have options other people can’t take due to genetics, but that doesn’t make them “chosen” despite the rarity, any more than having one blue and one green eye does. Or maybe they have just had unusual circumstances since birth—a lot of people feel anyone CAN become a professional artist if they spend the time and have the drive to do so, but not everyone does.

Put another way, if you were reading a piece of fiction about an interesting time and place where 25% of children die at birth, you wouldn’t want to focus on the people who died at birth at point of view characters. There’s nothing that “protected” the other 75% of the people born, they’re just the characters who are still alive to do things, so of course the story follows them instead.

So just because a game says “A character may select ‘Ouch’ as a power, which removes 1% of a foe’s health once per day with no chance of failure” doesn’t automatically mean the world is ruled by roving gangs of 100 11-year-old commoners who all have Ouch and thus can, as a group, kill absolutely anyone they want to. It just means some people have this and, if the campaign setting, GM, or adventure doesn’t call out Ouch Battallions, chances are they don’t exist.

Now it IS useful for an RPG to give a GM and players some idea of what NPCs and common folk in the game are likely to be like. This might be as complex as the kind of distinction between PC and NPC character classes in d20 games—no player character is going to select the strictly-inferior “warrior” if “fighter” is an option, but tons of NPCs do, and at the same time some important NPCs instead tale PC classes which lets you know (generally without explicitly saying so) that those NPCs are more important to the adventure or campaign.

Or it might be much more simple and subtle, like providing lists of NPCs game rules, or even just lists of inspirational media. If an RPG tells you it takes inspiration from the X-Men comics, Gifted television show, and movies Carrier, Firestarter, and Push, and the game gives you options to take extraordinary superhuman powers, it doesn’t also have to explicitly tell you that not every person in the world has those powers. That’s clear, in the types of stories it outlines as inspiration. You can BUILD a campaign world with that paradigm if you want to, but you should already know you are system-hacking.

I love system hacks, as Really Wild West might make clear. But once you go that route, it’s unfair to expect the rules to not force you to make some decisions to make the hack logical.

No RPG can fully, accurately, and deeply represent all the factors that determine who ends up with what abilities in a realistic world setting. We can’t even do that in the real world, even if we just limit ourselves to who will be successful out of a single class of kids. We can make educated guesses, based on experience and statistics, but some kid will buck those trends.

That kid, by the way, is the one many people want as their player character.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on January 7, 2018, in Adventure Design, Business of Games, Game Design, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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