RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 1 (part 3)
Posted by Nathan P. on September 23, 2006
A Brief History Of Design Trends
[BIG NOTE: I’m going to need some help here. I’m too young to have experienced the early stuff, and I haven’t played enough non-Indie stuff to know how accurate I’m being. This is very much a skeleton – comments to fill it out are totally permissible and appreciated. Or if someone wants to tackle a more complete reckoning on their own, just let me know! I’m using John Kim’s RPG Encyclopedia for my date referances.]
Knowledge is power. Like every other creative endeavor, RPG design both builds upon and reacts against what has come before. Your personal gaming history and experiences inform your design, and not just in how they’ve shaped your preferances. I cannot imagine any circumstance under which having a broader experience of published games can be detrimental to one’s design efforts.
I am not saying that you must have logged many hours with every system out there. Nor am I saying that you should try to read every single game text ever published. But you should be aware of how much of the gaming world you know about, and know where to go for more exposure to a given genre, style or method of play.
Many first-time designers are nervous about “stealing” or “plaigarizing” from published games. To this, I can only say that your fear is unfounded. Obviously, lifting an entire system from a well-known published game is probably not the best idea, for a number of reasons. But I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this book, that wasn’t your plan in the first place.
Non-Lawyer Approved Legal aside: Remember, only the expressions of an idea can be copyrighted, not the ideas themselves. This means that you can take clever mechanics or impressive skill lists that you admire from a published game and mold them to fit yours. They are ideas, and as long as you are not copying the original text (the expression of those ideas), you are legally fine. However, if you everhave a legal question, talk to a lawyer!
Anyway. As long as the peices of your game make sense in the context of the whole and work towards acheiving your goals, there is no problem with being inspired by or trying to imitate the work of a designer that you admire. It is good form to include the games that you looked to the most in your bibliography; many designers include two lists, one of genre or flavor inspiration, and one of mechanical or system inspiration. But your implementation of those ideas will be your own, and thus unique.
So. Now that your fears have been assuaged, here is a very breif rundown of the general design trends since the inception of the role-playing hobby, with some commentary and example games. This is not a definitive list by any means, and many details are probably arguable. But it should at least give you an idea of where to look for certain things.
Wargaming Roots (pre 1975 – 1980)
My understanding is that the games of this time are coming straight out of Chainmail and original D&D. The Dungeon Crawl is the basic adventure arc; the adventuring party is the basic unit of character organization. I think that maps and miniatures were de facto, but I don’t actually know. Design was heavy on dice randomization and in-character effectiveness manifested through skill at arms and fighting.
“Traditional” RPGs Take Shape (1980-1990)
All of the roots and hallmarks of what we now call “traditional” RPGs take shape, though many bits and pieces that are later re-imagined by indie games are present. Most of the big names are released (and re-released in various Editions) during this time, including the founders of almost every big genre of roleplaying, most of which went through many editions during this time. Dungeons and Dragons goes through various incarnations; Rolemaster is released, Tunnels & Trolls gets its 4th edition (among a number of games in the Alliteration & Alliteration model (Villians & Vigiliantes, Pirates & Plunder, etc); Call of Cthulhu is released, Champions is released; James Bond 007 is released; Palladium Roleplaying System is debuted; Elfquest (the first big license, yes?); RuneQuest; Ghostbusters; Traveller; GURPS; Ars Magica; Cyberpunk; the list goes on and on.
This was a big time for the hobby, and saw the development of the three-tier distribution system (manufacturer -> distributor -> retailer -> customer) that dominated the industry through the 1990s. Most of the well-known companies that are still with us were created during this time as well (Steve Jackson Games, Palladium, R. Talsorian).
While there was a wide array of systems being created for all of these games, the general trends continued in the wargaming tradition. Being able to fight, shoot or take damage received more attention in rulebooks then being able to convince someone of an argument or change a belief system. Many elaborate rules systems were being conceived in order to simulate reality, or at least create a versimilitude of various physics in the real world. Randomizers were still primarily dice, though new innovations in character creation and character effectiveness (point-buy systems and life paths) became well known. “Generic” or “Universal” systems were being designed in order to be adapted to any kind of game that an individual group wanted to play. Finally, most if not all of these games set up the “players play their characters, while the GM plays everything else in the world” dynamic (aka “The GM is God” paradigm).
The Rise of “Storytelling” RPGs (1991-2000)
Two games were released in 1991 that symbolized the coming shift in design trends: Amber Diceless Roleplaying and Vampire: the Masquerade. Amber was a system designed entirely without randomizers, with an elaborate bidding/point-buy system for character creation that basically set the characters effectiveness for the rest of the game. Vampire broke with the wargame tradition of RPG design (and marketing), with a self-avowed focus on dramatic storytelling and flawed (anti)heroes, hearkening to the realms of theatre and dramatic performance rather than hex maps and fantasy literature.
While just as many, if not more, RPGs were written and released during this time, fewer of them are still with us today in the way that, for example, Traveller is. White Wolf Game Studios followed up on the success of Vampire with its entire series of related story-telling games, each focused on a different supernatural creature. Many existing games continued to get new editions. Some other notable games (in terms of breaking from earlier design trends) published: Over The Edge; Theatrix; The Whispering Vault; Everway; and FUDGE, among others. Other new games that are closer to “traditional” design include Earthdawn; CORPS; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; Fading Suns; Deadlands, and so on.
Some of these games were true breaks with “traditional” design, not only looking elsewhere for methods and techniques to resolve disputes in-game, but also arising from design paradigms and philosophies that were different from traditional roleplaying. Some games were created with mechanics that expressed those philosophies; many made great efforts, but continued to fall into similar patterns as “traditional” games. Combat as the main emphasis for problem-solving and the adventuring party were strong paradigms that dominated even Vampire and its successors. Also, most games continued the “GM is God” tradition.
Focused Design (2000-Present)
Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition was published in 2000, and it represents the beginning of the third “movement” in RPG Design – Focused Design. While closely identified with the “indie movement” (Ron Edward’s Sorcerer was available online since 1998, but it didn’t see a print edition until 2001), by this I mean design that takes into account its designers goals for the game and aims directely towards acheiving its goals. Since 2000, focused design has began to be expressed across the industry.
Focused design can be seen in D&D 3.5 and some of the Open Game Licensed derivatives, particularly Iron Heroes; the New World of Darkness revamp of White Wolf’d Storyteller system; and the vast majority of independently published games that have been developed by designers that have been involved with the Forge, a forum focused on independent design and publication. Some of the more well-known titles from Forge participants include the above-mentioned Sorcerer (and it’s supplements); Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday; Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Burning Empires; Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, and Fred Hicks Don’t Rest Your Head (among many others). Some other focused-design small-press games include Atomic Sock Monkey’s Truth & Justice and Atarashi Game’s Panty Explosion (again, among many others).
As you can see, the basic focus of this book is on preference and context. Identifing the set of preferences that you want to design for, and the context which your design will inhabit, is the crucial groundwork for your design efforts.