Thursday, March 17, 2011

Set the Way Back Machine for 1985, Sherman!

I am a Neophile. I like new things, new approaches, new concepts, new methods.

I am a Traditional RPG designer. I prefer working within the traditional paradigms of RPG design.

How do I reconcile this?

There is a definite tendancy for folks to equate Traditional design with "more of the same" - using only what has been done before, going back to the way it has always been done, looking only to the past for inspiration. Set the Way Back Machine for 1985, Sherman! This is a wrong way of looking at it. Setting the Way Back Machine to pre-2000 will always return a Traditional RPG, but not all Traditional RPGs are a result of Sherman's and Peabody's forays. It's like saying all members of the Cosa Nostra are Italian, so all Italians are members of the Cosa Nostra. There is a confusion of cause and effect at work which is insidious.

Traditional design is based upon several core concepts. If these concepts are held to, the result will be a Traditional design, no matter whether the means by which they are accomplished have been done before. Think about it - there would be no innovation, ever, otherwise! Some RPGs are extremely innovative - The original D&D of course, but also Traveller, Ars Magica, and Pendragon. They all worked within the Trad envelope, and stretched that envelope greatly with their innovations. Traditional Core Concepts are:

  • The players act upon the setting only through the medium of their characters. Characters are the player interface to work in the setting.

  • There is a Game Master who controls all non-player characters and the inanimate aspects of the setting through some combination of Fiat, Random Chance, and/or straight Comparison.

  • The characters can affect the setting - it is not static, but responds to the player characters' efforts once play begins.

  • The Game Master may modify the rules for various reasons - to better reflect the setting, to better reflect the particular gaming desires of the group, to cover cases where the rules are unclear or lacking, and the like.
If the game works within the parameters of these Core Concepts, it's a Traditional design. Anything else may be changed.

This leaves a huge amount of room for a designer to tinker, and that area has not nearly been exploited to the maximum.

Now there are roleplaying games which are not Traditional designs, and that's cool. I have no problem with that - in fact I regularly read non-Traditional games for inspiration on different ways to approach my own Traditional goals. And though I don't personally have "story" as a goal, one can certainly have story as a goal with a completely Traditional design. That has been done since the beginning of RPGs, whether or not the game is designed with that as a goal, because that's what some groups want.

As a designer of Traditional RPGs, I want to push that envelope. I want to trample the notion that one cannot innovate within the Traditional paradigm into the dust. I want to challenge and overthrow the notion that traditional means hopping into the Way Back Machine with Peabody and Sherman.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Love the reference to Peabody and Sherman.

    I think a lot of functionality comes from traditional aspects--I don't think that one loses anything by building on those frames at all. Nor does do you gain anything by ignoring them, always. It is a balancing act, between more than one possible set of options.

    I prefer that the players help set the tone, and elements of play before hand. Then in play shape the world by in character actions. The more I can put the power in the character's hands, the happier I am with play. Sometimes though that power leaks a little, into the player realm.

    Edit: I should never type this early in the morning

  3. I agree entirely, Tim. I love for the group to get imvolved in the design process, but I try to take great care that once play starts it is the characters, not the players, who can change the world. That's why I love your games so much. :D