The Battle Between Success, Improvement, and Options in ttRPGs

I could make a MUCH longer post about this… but it wouldn’t actually be much more informative. So here is the short version.

(Illustration by Наталья Новикова)

When playing ttRPGs, in general (and always within the context of preferred complexity, crunchiness, and theme):

*Players like being able to have meaningful choices in character design.
*Players like having meaningful choices in character actions.
*Players dislike a single tactic or build being sufficiently superior that other choices are perceived as sufficiently sub-optimal that it is dumb to use them.
*Players want to have a good idea of what their chances of success are.
*Players get bored if there is frequently no chance of failure.
*Players want their characters to be better at their core task than other player’s characters.
*Players want to be able to improve how good their characters are at core and non-core tasks.

When trying to design games that meet all of these goals, game designers run into issues. If a player has meaningful choices in character design, and has a good understanding of what their chances of success are, and has ways to specialize to be good at a core task AND has ways to improve, odds are there will be a single character build and/or tactic that is clearly superior to other choices. And, worse, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t REALLY an optimal choice, just if a group of players conclude there is one.

If you fix that by having elements of success be divided among enough variables that there are multiple ways to try to be good at something (for example, if in combat you can increase you chance to hit a foe but it reduces damage, or you can increase your attacks per round but it decreases your accuracy), many players end up not knowing what will actually increase their total effectiveness, and be dissatisfied if something they felt would be a big improvement doesn’t pan out in play. (And some players will apply excellent math skills to determine a given build or tactic is actually optimal, and that reduces fun even if they aren’t right).

If you fix that by reducing the number of ways you can improve a character’s success, OR by making multiple options be closely hard-coded to very similar levels of success, players often feel like they do not have meaningful choices in either design (since they can’t make choices to improve their chance of success) or tactics (since it doesn’t matter which tactic you use, as they are all equally successful).

If you fix THAT by allowing a character to constantly find ways to improve their odds of success in multiple tactic or builds, it can be possible for a player to have little to no chance of failure, and they grow bored. This is especially bad if those options are easier for some players to find than others, so one player almost never fails, and other players feel they are penalized for taking different choices.

Obviously this is a much more complex issue but the core set of opposed desires and solutions are extremely common, the battle between Success, Improvement, and Options in ttRPGs.

I Have a Patreon!
My writing is supported by my patrons.
Want to see more essays like this one? Want to see much less like this? Join for the cost of a cup of coffee each month, and let me know.

About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil 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. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on December 17, 2020, in Game Design, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Love this framing, it spells out the heart of the issue really well! I’m curious how you believe this problem set might be effected by greater team cohesion systems? In a tactical game like Valkyria Chronicles or Fire Emblem, each class has value for how they support the overall effort, if a tabletop reframed combat to better solidify the team concept, might it not be possible to have brighter lines between each class such that the symbiosis wasn’t optional and thus direct comparisons less applicable? Sometimes it feels like games make characters too independent and that facilitates the ability for everyone to be compared to everyone else easily.

  1. Pingback: Lore Collage: Will Rich Delia re-join Daley & Goldstein in the D&D movie, 25 other links to read-watch-listen | Full Moon Storytelling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: