Steve D (d_fuses) wrote,
Steve D

[rpg design] Style and Structure

The more I look at 40KRP, the more I'm astounded by how perfect WFRP is.  Which is not to say 40KRP is in any way weak, it's just the struggle to get things that right again show how perfect WFRP was.  And one of the main reasons for that is style.  The saying goes that most RPGs really are just D&D with different hats on, both in system and what you do in them.  But for me, as an immersionist, what matters greatly is that the games feel different.  Feel comes from every aspect of the game, and impacts on every aspect.  It stems from such things as atmosphere, physical set up of the room, composition of the group, and many other things that RPGs tend to be weak on providing.  Character sheets are one of the few things an RPG can actually provide that impacts on feel, which is why their design is so important.  Where information is and how it is communicated tells you how to feel about the game. 

WFRP is more than just that, of course.  What marks WFRP apart from the herd is that you can tell you're playing Warhammer within five minutes of any game, because the game has distinctive STYLE.  And this style drips off its stories.  Which, I hazard is why it is a game so easy to write adventures for.

Other games have distinctive styles.  Traveller wasn't just the first big SF game, it struck a chord because of its hard-science, militaristic stylings, right down to characteristics being detailed in a kind of hexadecimal code.  Call of Cthulhu stood out because its stories were so different, and that was encoded in its mechanics so sharply.  Buffy has unique style as well, which is why it succeeded so strongly as a show and an RPG.  And you can always tell you're in a Vampire game because everybody is talking about angst and wearing ankhs.

But style doesn't just make a game apart from the crowd, it defines and shapes a game.  RPGs are a collaborative creative experience, at the core of any of that is having some kind of 'writer's bible' as they say in TV land.  The stronger that bible is defined, the stronger the game.  Sometimes, that bible comes from years of playing with people and knowing them well.  Sometimes, however, you can strengthen that bible by having a stylistic distinction to it, so that everyone knows HOW to play, even if they've never played before.  And that information can't just come from system.  Most of it, perhaps, comes from STYLE. 

But there's a big part of style that tends to get ignored, and that's structure.  D&D has core structure, and everyone knows it down pat.  You Meet A Guy In A Tavern, You Go Into The Dungeon, You Level Up.  Levelling up is a huge structural component; games without it ALWAYS feel distinctively not-D&D-ish.  This is one reason why XP systems can have so much impact on a game. 

Very few games however care enough about structure to even make it an issue.  They don't necessarily follow a set structure, but they don't explicitly reject the D&D one or any other.  But some do.  Vampire spent most of its time talking about themes and techniques, but those suggested structure, as did running prologues.  Paranoia is probably the most important example of structure, with its multi-stage adventure design concept, and it stands alone because of this. 

The beauty of structural design concepts, however, is they make adventure design instinctual - and easy.  Too often, adventures are designed from a content POV, if you will.  This is what is going on, this is what happens when, this is what is where, and this is how the protagonists act.  Very, very few adventures approach things from a narrative structural POV, which is things such as this is the purpose of this character, this is how to sculpt the first act so the players end here, it doesn't matter WHAT happens here as long as the players get this emotional reaction.  But if you look at any kind of book on how to write scripts, or TV shows or novels, narrative structure is ALL they focus on.

We're missing something, you see.  And there's a whole other post on THAT.

What sparked my thoughts on structure though was looking through the gorgeously brilliant James Bond RPG from Victory Games.  Screw the multiplier system, it was pants; this game had style, and it had structure.  Most genre games do.  But because it had structure, it had what the Ghostbuster RPG (the only other game I've seen do this) also had which is random procedurals.  In a Ghostbuster adventure, you can guarantee some things will happen - cops will show up, people will need to be questioned, random occult manifestations will happen, and people will be taken to court.  Ghostbusters had random tables and flow charts to generate the story-telling elements of these narratives.  The James Bond rpg has tables for much the same thing.    It's like a wandering monster, but at a much, much higher level.

Another game whose style and structure were clear enough to allow a wonderful 'randomised narrative construct mechanic' was Men In Black.  Therein, players got cards with instructions on them, such as "Spit out your gum and say 'let's go bag us some bug!" and rewards like "heal all damage taken this session".  Mechanical rewards were provided for acting in SETTING, rather than in character.  You could also use these to seed in things which would help move the story along, such as (knowing the players will likely go to a hospital) you could include the "steal an ambulance" card.

What's striking about these cards is that again they tap into how people WRITE.  Which is to say, create set pieces first, then try to work them in.  Now, the free-formers out there say this is roleplaying, but not if the players do it, surely?  I suppose they are demanding the GM and other players work themselves towards the scene they wish to have, which to some takes out spontonaiety or simulationism.  But that's not the be-all and end-all of the game, and very often, people have pre-conceived ideas about what they want to do anyway, and they just sit around hoping the GM, the dungeon or the dice will let them do that scene.  Of course, giving over the whole game to scene direction mechanics like in Capes or My Life WIth Master doesn't have to be the only solution either; there are plenty of techniques to blend a simulation and a game with these ideas.

The authorial stance is a huge part of RPGs, but we all too often don't think like authors.  Or we expect only the GM to do so.  Time to fix that.  And this leads to something else, which needs another post perhaps.  Tomorrow.

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