Game design =/= rpg design

8 April, 2008 at 6:37 pm (definition, game design) (, , , )

During brief discussion with Phil I verbalised the idea of good game design not being the same things as good rpg design. This is obvious when discussing, say, Chess. I argue that it is also true when discussing roleplaying games, given the way I define good game design.

The definitions have my bias clearly articulated; they are there for all to see. If you have different base assumptions or definitions, your conclusions may also be different.


Game design is building a (semi-formal) system where players can make mechanical choices that have mechanical consequences. Good game design makes this process of decision-making interesting: There are few null choices that have no effect and the best choice is often enough very hard or impossible to see, if it even exists and is unique.

Rpg design is building a fiction and a system that describes how the choices the players make affect the fiction. Good rpg design makes the process of play interesting: There are actual choices to be made, they are about something the player cares about, and there are several roughly as lucrative alternative ways of making many choices (in this paragraph several can be arbitrarily large, but not too small).

Good rpg/game design does not imply that the game itself is good, because there are numerous other factories related to that. As such, if one is only interested in how much enjoyment can be derived from a (roleplaying) game, fixating too much on the quality of the (rp)g is not advised. There is correlation: On average, well-designed stuff is more enjoyable.

Do note that the other kinds of design are immensely important (and not part of the above definitions): Designing the game so that it has a suitable social footprint (the time, effort and commitment gaming takes), building the game so that it encourages the creation of certain kinds of fiction, building functional character sheets, elegance and other usability issues, and doubtless other factors. I may someday extend this post to explicitly include some or all of those things. This is not that day.

The thesis

My thesis is that good game design and good rpg design, as defined above, are not very tightly linked. One can have an rpg that is well-designed game but not very interesting fiction-wise; likewise, a well-designed rpg need not have interesting mechanical elements.

What I am not saying is that the two design issues are orthogonal; they certainly affect each other. I am also not saying that they are independent; the quality of one factor tends to influence the other for the positive, because it is common to link certain fictional and system-level effects together.

Examples in the abstract

Assume a game with very complicated (and intense and fun) combat system. Assume the output of the system is the amount of hit points the participants have at the end of the combat. All other variables that change only affect the single combat encounter and any used resources are recovered with a moment of rest or such. This combat system is (one can assume) good an instance of game design, because it has many (mechanical) choices that are interesting. It is not good rpg design, because none of those juicy choices are persistent; all that remains is the number of hit points one is left with. To be honest, there are other potential choices one can make: Which opponent to kill, how much of one’s abilities to reveal, for example, but they are pretty minor and would work with almost all combat systems.

A game where each (player) character has a number of memories (some of which are utilitarian, some have emotional value, some both) and the character can sacrifice them to demons in order to get wishes or other benefits could be well-designed, rpg-design-wise; if the character sacrifices too much, that character can no longer enjoy from the achieved victories; if too little, something bad will happen. OTOH, sacrificing the utilitarian memories (where was the artifact hidden again?) can have much the same effect as sacrificing nothing: Failure at preventing the bad things. Game-design would only make this interesting if the memories with emotional value gave some sort of benefit; otherwise they are like spell points.

On D&D 4th

From what I have read, 4e is focused on encounters and the designer are doing game design. What about rpg design? No idea. Experience for achieving certain story points could do that, but I am more than slightly doubtful. This does not mean that “there will be no roleplay in D&D 4th”. The system just will probably not do all that much to promote the kind of roleplay I am looking for.

Bonus: Proof by antithesis

Assume that all good rpg design is always good game design. See the two example above. They are non-trivial counter-examples to the antithesis and hence the antithesis is wrong, from which it follows that the thesis is true. QED.



  1. Phased Weasel said,

    I’ve never been too worried about XP allocation in D&D because we’ve never followed XP for encounter guidelines anyway. In the campaigns both that I’ve run and played in, XP has been awarded at the end of each session by DM fiat. Generally, the DM choose an appropriate number based on how much ground was covered and how fast he wants the players to level throughout the game, and that was it.

    So really, we never play for XP. We just play, and XP simply determines the pacing of the campaign. Sometimes small rewards of XP are handed out as rewards for good RP, but not always.

  2. Tommi said,

    Hey Weasel. I believe that is fairly common; some notable d20 variant, probably True20, has it as a core rule.

    XP is a good pacing tool. If minor amounts are sometimes also used as rewards makes good use of the mechanic. EXP after every encounter is one way I have occasionally seen.

    I would say that encounter-based or fiat-based GM has exactly the same effect if it is given at the end of the session or adventure or other long period.

  3. Antistone said,

    You’ve identified two particular parts of the game that can each be designed well or poorly, but I don’t see how you’ve established that the design is fundamentally different in each case–only that there are separable cases.

    You could similarly point out that a RTS game can have interesting units without an interesting tech tree (or vice versa), or that a shooter could have good enemy design and poor weapon design (or vice versa). That doesn’t prove that you need different skills, insights, or processes for designing enemies and designing weapons–it just shows that it’s possible to do one without doing the other.

    Maybe that’s all you meant to show, but you give the impression that you’re trying to show they’re different in kind, not just in details, and I don’t think you’ve shown that.

  4. Tommi said,

    Hello Antistone.

    Given that I specifically defined the two kinds of design to be the same thing (creating interesting choices, basically) but on different domains (manipulation of the rules, manipulation of the fiction), yes, they are essentially the same.

    I found this worth writing about because I had not verbalised or explicitly thought about it before in these terms.

    I don’t think different skills are required beyond noticing that there indeed are different domains to affect and figuring out how they are manipulated. Personally I would call designing the mechanics that manipulate fiction and those that manipulate other mechanics very different skillsets; I find the former harder. Formal systems, like most mechanics that mostly or only affect other mechanics, are easy and fun.

  5. Trask said,

    Rather than seeing the rules and the story as separate, they should have a level of integration. The tighter the integration, the better the game. A favorite example is the “SAN” point system in “Call of Cthulu.” It is a “rules” item, but it has direct impact on the role-playing. Conversely, the role-playing adjusts the “SAN” score.

    To me, this is the optimal structure in an RPG. The rules and the story need to work together. Sacrificing one for the other either creates a “tactical” game with no RPG elements or in the other extreme, a LARP.


  6. Dagda said,

    While I share your concerns with regards to 4th Edition, my personal opinion is that your thesis. . .well, if I go with what you’ve actually stated then I think your thesis itself is very short-sighted. It’s true that gameplay and roleplaying tend to be loosely linked- but in my opinion, that separation can kill a player’s enjoyment of a game even if both aspects are excellent when considered separately.

    To give a concrete example: Let’s say we’ve got a gritty cyberpunk roleplaying setting with a compelling theme about the cheapness of human life and the opportunity for lots of great characters. Then lets say we’ve got this really cool character creation system and combat rules that make for some really engaging play. Sounds great, right?

    But what if the combat rules, while a blast, are more oriented towards cinematic action? Maybe this system deliberately downplays cover in favor of wild gambits and diving out windows to land in the middle of your enemies and blow them away at point-blank range. Suddenly your fluff, which strives to be unique through realism, is being undermined. A character who is theory should be trying to be smart and sensible can in reality jump off the top of a three-story building with no debilitating effects.

    When a game forces a player to choose between the smart choice and the option that *should* be the smart one from an in-character perspective- when it rewards the wrong style of play- then you’ve got an example of poor design in action.

  7. Tommi said,

    Hello Trask.

    What I named rpg design is exactly the rules (and the fiction) offering ways to shape the fiction. IIRC, CoC sanity worked so that when experiencing something scary or otherwordly the player rolled d100; if exceeded current sanity, lost a lot of sanity, and if rolled below, lost none or at least less sanity.

    This makes it a death spiral, which is appropriate, sort of. Also, the maximum for forbidden knowledge skill (however it was named) is 100 – sanity, again, IIRC.

    Analysis as game design: Sanity is a resource that is very likely to go down and quite hard to restore by a meaningful amount. When it goes sufficiently low, the character is insane and no longer playable. OTOH, high sanity prevents learning forbidden knowledge (or maybe learning the knowledge reduced sanity, if it was too high), meaning that there is a reason for reducing it. Depending on how important forbidden knowledge is and how easy it is to get, this may or may not be an interesting element from the game design POV.

    From rpg design point of view the situation looks pretty similar. The player and the character will have reasons to confront sanity-draining horrors. Losing sanity is generally undesirable, except insofar as the player or character wants to learn forbidden knowledge, or the player wants a tragic end for the character. Learning or using spells was something that, IIRC, drained sanity; hence, a player wanting to create a tragic tale can aim for the magic and try to work as a spell-wielding witchhunter (that’ll end well).

    Given these two facts, I’d say sanity is indeed pretty well designed in both respects. This does not mean that everyone will like it; there are players who will make their characters go insane without system prompting and a number of them do not appreciate the rules of CoC. The point being: Even though the rule is well-designed, not everyone will like it even in the intended context.

    BTW: Freeform is a good way to play, given the right people. Larps are distinguished more by the fact that not all people are even potentially present during all scenes.

  8. TCDM said,

    @Phased Weasel: Word. You nailed it on the head. This is how I like to roll (or role? ;-) ), and so does my group.

    @Tommi: Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I thought I’d do the same.

  9. Tommi said,

    Greetings, Dagda.

    You are, of course, very much correct. In this post I precisely dissected the design into two more-or-less distinct parts and mentioned there are many others. Melding the different kinds of designs together is important. Thanks for the input.

    I see you are doing some D&D-oriented design work. You might be interested in Martin’s blog:

  10. ksym said,

    D&D will be a tabletop board game afaik. Roleplaying might even be optional. I am not sure wether I like this change … we’ll see.

  11. ChattyDm said,

    Excellent post Tommi following our short discussion.

    I won’t discuss the analysis itself but touch a bit on ksym’s last comment.

    The versions of D&D I played (from AD&D, the red boxes and 3.0 onwards) had no clear cut RPG rules (3e might have been an exception but I skipped that part) but this has never stopped us from making stories and enjoying roleplaying without combat (it happened seldom because we all like combat but the point remains).

    While I know many may disagree with my position , I never thought that Role Playing mechanics were necessary for a Role Playing game to be good.

    However, I’ve started seeing integrated rules/setting mechanics that encourage players to embrace certain personalities and actually work on character development that may make me eat my hat… :)

    I will concede the point that D&D 3.0 made it possible to play a game without roleplaying elements by replacing actual role playing with social skill dice rolls and this, I agree, is bad design (even if the game encourages DMs to give bonus/ penalties for such rolls for good/bad role playing)…

    But if players want to roleplay and focus on story, I don’t think 4e will prevent that… A role-playing seeking DM will just need to pick players who have similar tastes…

  12. ChattyDm said,

    I meant to say : 2e might have been an exception… sorry

  13. Opusinsania said,

    I think you made an important and successful distinction. What makes this important is the fact that I think good (role-playing) game design finds ways in integrating these two, erasing the line as much as possible. There are games in which I enjoy purely the mechanical side or the role-play side of the game, but I think games which integrate these successfully are generally better.

    I think that one example of high-rpg-design, low-game-design (if these are meaningful terms at all) is Nobilis, where there is quite a low amount of mechanical “feedback” to your choices. I may be mistaken, but I think most of the feedback players receive from the game comes from the rpg-aspect, not the mechanics.

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