RPGaDay2021 #6: Flavor

2021/08/06 21:30 – Fub has responded to this blog post on his own blog. You can find his reply here.

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Flavor”. Oof, that’s a tough one! A recent RPGaDay2021 post prompted my thoughts in this direction, fortunately. Fub made a post that stimulated me, and we had a brief talk in his comments about it. I realized that what I wanted to voice seemed to go beyond a set of comments, so this is a good a time as any to post about it.

The Post That Started It Off

For RPGaDay 4 2021, Fub wrote a post on his blog about the theme “Weapon”. It’s an interesting post for me, because he starts off from an idea that I share, namely that RPGs are fundementally about something. However, he ends up with a question that I disagree with quite strongly, being the question of whether you can emulate any genre within the D&D game.

You can find Fub’s whole post here

He made a specific argument that triggered my thoughts:

Could you indeed emulate any genre in D&D by going back to the idea of those first games and let the GM decide what happens?

Fub-log, August 4th 2021

We had a brief discussion about it in the comments, where he expanded on his thought as follows:

I mean, you could emulate pretty much anything in D&D by rolling on a stat against a difficulty number. That’s actually in the rules! So you want to convince the baroness to give you the key to the crypt? Roll Charisma against a DC of 17. Want to know what trade goods will be in demand in the next city over? Roll Intelligence against a DC 15.

In that way, you can pretty much play any game within the D&D rule framework, and that is how it was played originally, I think.

Fub-log, August 5th 2021

It’s an interesting question when it comes to tabletop role-playing: in how far does system determine your options? Could you do anything with D&D? For that matter, if you could do anything in D&D, is that just uniquely for D&D or could you do anything with anything else? Are there specific systems that allow for universal play? Specific requirements to such systems? Once again we approach the type of topics that could be fuel for a PhD project, but I’ll give it my best shot in a short blog post.

A question of definitions

Due to my educational background in English and Cultural Philosophy, and my current professional field being quite legalistic in nature, my natural tendency is to first ensure that we’re clear on terms. Fub used the term “emulate” to indicate one game system to sit in place of another. It would fit given the term. Checking my Concise Oxford English dictionary (OED), “emulate” is defined as “attempt to match or surpass, typically by imitation.” Wiktionary.org defines it as “to copy or imitate, especially a person”. With this, I think, we can swiftly dismiss the possibility of most RPGs to emulate what it is they are representing. Not to be facetious, but a tabletop RPG session involves individuals sitting together and talking about things. Hence, little emulation of physical action is happening, for example. A Penny For My Thoughts is one of the few RPGs I’m familiar with that emulates the situation it attempts to represent: a group-therapy like scientific experiment to recover memories. Sadly, it appears that the RPG is no longer available online. Little actual imitation is happening

Rather, I would argue, we should be speaking of “representation”; RPGs simulate the thing they mean to represent. the OED defines “simulate” as “imitate or reproduce the appearance, character, or conditions of”. Similarly, wiktionary.org defines it as “to model, replicate, duplicate the behavior, appearance or properties of”. This is where we should look to see what RPGs dosemiotically speaking, they are a sign where the rules are a signifier to a signified that may either be real or fantastical. RPGs models diegetic worlds regardless of their ontological origins. Or, simply said: RPGs are about stories, real or imaged, fiction or non-fiction, fantastical or realistic. An example of an RPG that takes this to an extreme is Aces & Eights, which seeks to mechanically represent quite accurately what the Wild West was like, to the degree of having to model exactly each buckshot from a shotgun during combat. Theoretically, your character could just randomly get smallpox and die, because that’s a thing that could happen. It should be noted that Aces & Eights does fail in the way most representations of the Wild West fails, in that most cowboys were persons of color, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Applications in System (and secretly one more definition)

To say that RPGs simulate reality is a rather macro-level view of system, however. It’s a question of what an RPG does rather than how an RPG does that. That’s where, to my mind, flavor comes in (see, I did have a reason to type all this for the RPGaDay prompt). To give an example, I’ll take the game Vampire the Requiem (for clarity, I mean the book with ISBN 9-781588-462473; the history of Vampire and World of Darkness franchises include mergers, splits, re-issues of editions, split timeslines, and much to confuse a new reader). Vampire the Requiem is ostensibly a game about characters who are turned into vampires, gaining various supernatural powers. That is, at least, what the system models. In its introduction, the RPG claims the following, however:

This is the purposes of Vampire: The Requiem. What you hold in your hands is a Modern Gothic Storytelling game, a roleplaying game that allows you to build chronicles that explore morality through the metaphor of vampirism. In Vampire, you “play the monster” and what you do as that monster both makes for an interesting story and might even teach you a little about your own values and those of your fellows.

Vampire The Requiem, p. 14

None of the above is within the system, though. The game does include a “Humanity” statistic for a character: a number from 10 to 1 that indicates how in touch they are with their humanity. Every immoral act a character performs within the fiction runs the risk of lowering that number, with each such lowering being accompanied by the character gaining a psychiatric issue. Yes, that’s right, in this system, being inhuman is equated with having a psychiatric issuea “derangement”, as it’s called. When the Humanity number hits “0”, a character becomes unplayable. These derangements are mostly left for players to act out. Mechanically speaking, Humanity becomes similar to hitpoints: a number that you endeavor to keep above 0, or otherwise it’s game over. So, ironically, while the flavor of the game is intended to be “Modern Gothic Storytelling”, the reality of Vampire games that I’ve played in or run is that Vampire is a game of superpowered bad people doing whatever they want, popping a six-can of blood, before wreaking more havoc.

I’d argue that flavor is something that must be continually put into the narrative, if that is something that the group aspires to. In the Vampire example, the game does nothing to prompt you to making it a Modern Gothic Story, so the players and Storyteller have to ensure that they themselves keep the Modern Gothic genre. This would certainly seem to fit Fub’s argument: if Vampire can be a game of superpowered bad people, and we layer it with a flavor of Modern Gothic, then couldn’t we just layer it with a nice sauce of slapstick comedy, for instance? At the same time, there’s an argument there for why system matters in terms of flavor as well. Since Vampire models an immense power distance between the vampire characters and regular mortals, it nudges the players towards a dismissal of their worth or importance. Some vampire characters could literally be shot at by multiple people and walk away with hardly a scratch. That implies a flavor. It’s difficult to narratively represent the melancholy of losing humanity when the alternative is so powerful and relatively problem-free. Sure, the characters lose touch with mortal society but they integrate just fine with vampire society. And losing the game by reaching Humanity 0 is quite unrealisticthe characters would have to be indiscriminately serial-killing in the most public and violent ways to even come close.

For another example, we can compare the combat mechanics of D&D or Pathfinder-type systems and Burning Wheel. In D&D systems, characters have hit points in the range of 0 and anywhere between roughly 100 and 200 points. Characters with hit points above 0 are alive and can do whatever they want; once they hit 0, they’re unconscious or dead, depending on the edition of D&D. However, dead characters can often easily be brought back to life at relatively early stages in the game already, and at later stages the cost becomes quite trivial. As a result, physical violence often does not feel risky: characters can be slashed by swords over and over, and are still as fit as they were before all that happened. This encourages a numbers-based risk-assessment strategy. Your character can jump into dangerous situations regardless of their health status, because they can themselves dish out damage as well as easily recover from harm. I would be hard-pressed to make D&D into a game where a single person with a crossbow is a threat.

Burning Wheel, on the other hand, does not have a hit points-based system, but uses a Physical Tolerances Grey Scale (PTGS) system unique to BW. It models on a scale the wounds that a character has received, and attaches penalties to each such wound. Most weapons have the ability to cause serious wounds, and there are several that are lethal enough to heavily injure or kill a character with one hit. That one character with a crossbow that is relatively trivial in a D&D game could be deadly in BW. I find it much easier to create a tense situation in BW where somebody pulls a gun on a character than I would in D&D. Conversely, I would have great problems to model the adventurous feel of high fantasy in BW that is so easy to model in D&D. Now, in both I could try and flavor narrative descriptions to match the mood, but the system itself certainly pushes in certain directions. As much as I’d like it to be, that one person with a crossbow will get beat down easily in D&D. As much as I’d like to have pirates having swordfights while swinging from ropes and doing acrobatic flips in BW, it falls somewhat flat when a character has to go “OW! Okay, stop stop stop, I have a cut.”

What About Single Rolls and Resolution?

To circle back to Fub’s original question, why not just resolve everything with a single dieroll? Have a skill with a number that modifies the roll, have a game host setting an arbitrary number to beat with that dieroll, and make that the whole of the system. Here too, of course, you’re running into system determining flavor. Fub references the D&D framework and refers to the early editions of D&D as a model here. In those systems, there are still separate mechanics for some actions over others (depending on what you take as the first D&D system). Combat had a separate system, with the early HP meaning “hit points” which were points representing fatigue more than health (your character’s ability to hit others rather than to take damage). There were armor classes, to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and so on. So, the system still puts a primacy on combat as a unique skill over others. However, what if we reduce combat to a similar single roll? Your character has a “combat” skill with a modifier, there’s a challenge rating, roll and have the game host decide what happens. Clear, simple, and easy, right? At that point, though, are you still playing D&D?

It’s a tough discussion, of course, to decide when you are using a system and when you are not. How different, really, are Pathfinder and D&D 3.5e? Their game mechanics are incredibly similar, so why are they different games other than setting? Additionally, what if a game of D&D had a house rule that their fictional world did not include Druids? Does removing that small subset of rules no longer make it D&D? Naively speaking, I would say removing or outlawing a class of characters would not change the system significantly, though removing a combat resolution system would. However, I have no easy argument to make that defines where this essential diference lies. There may be something in the argument that the latter forms an essential resolution mechanic whereas the former is a subset of rules to use with the resolution mechanics. Then again, BW works exactly with this in mind, as it’s set up to be a modular system. If something doesn’t matter much to the story, the GM should just agree with the player’s suggestion and move on. If there’s some interesting conflict, the GM can ask for a skill roll. If there’s more narrative consequence, there’s an even more complex system where the skill roll will have more mechanical consequence. Finally, if the conflict is about a significant Belief that a character has, there’s an extensive conflict resolution system to put that conflict center-stage. So, does not using the more extensive modular rules suddenly make BW no longer BW? Clearly not, by the very design of the game.

As an interesting perspective, I would suggest Universalis, which is a storytelling game in the true sense of the word. No player owns a single character, and there is no separate person in charge of the game itself. Players sit together to tell the story, sharing characters, plots, developments, genres, and everything. Every single narrative concept is paid for in coins (the game suggests using pokerchips for this). In fact, the start of the game involves setting the rules for the game, once again paid for in coins. The number of coins for a thing sets up how important it is. To remove a concept or character from a game costs an amount of coins equal to how much was put in it. So, the core of the game itself is more the framework of how the narrative is established. The individual expressions of that is modular. I’d argue if you change the way the game works (which is to say paying in coins to give diegetic weight to things), then you’re changing what the game is. However, paying in coins to say that the story is not only a western but also a sci-fi still fits within the framework of Universalis itself. Incidentally, you may notice I glossed over the conflict resolution system there: everything is paid for in coins, including conflicts. If somebody wants to kill of [Luke], the [Jedi] [Padawan], they’d have to pay three coins; however, if they want to give Luke a [Facial Scar], that’s just one more coin. No dice rolling there at all!

However, let’s say we have a D&D that really is just a list of skills, with every action just being a single die roll against an obstacle to let the DM decide what happens. Then still I would argue that you have a system that determines flavor of the game. What is on that list of skills? Do you have a “social” skill that determines everything when two characters interact? Have you split up “social” into “body language” and “speech”? Did you split up “speech” into “negotiate” and “etiquette”? Each still indicates a focus and flavor of your game and indicates what is important in the game and what isn’t. The more individual skill you’d made, the more simulationist the system becomes. On the other hand, the more broad scope your skill list is, the more you handwave actions. This is quite crucial, because the more rolls are made, the more chances there are for things to fail. It’s much easier to be an acrobatic pirate if you just have to pass one role than if your pirate can fail one of five individual “swing from rope,” “swing sword”, “hit enemy”, “land safely”, and “mock mercilessly” rolls. It may seem a ludicrous example on its face, but this is essentially what happens in most RPG systems. For D&D, a single “combat” skill roll is replaced by a “to hit” and “damage” rolls. These may be subsystems, but mechanically speaking, how different are they from rolling two skills with numbers instead of one skill with a number?

System Matters and Flavor Is Subject to System

Based on the Fub’s post I referenced before, we both certainly agree on the idea that system matters. In Fub’s words: “I am a firm believer that RPGs are about something”, and I whole-heartedly agree. I think his question of whether you could simulate (and now I am replacing his word here) any genre in D&D focuses on which system we’re talking about. In those earliest proto-D&D games, like the famous example of spies in Cuba, the game being played was a storytelling game. How different was what they were doing back then from a Universalis or Amber Diceless Roleplaying is today? However, the D&D of today has very little in common with the D&D played back then. The system in its core is quite different. Though Dave Arneson is central to the development of D&D, it’s Gary Gygax that usually gets the credit for creating it. Gygax, famously, was an antagonistic style of DM. He created the Tomb of Horrors adventure to challenge the skills of players. Under his vision, D&D became a more action-orientated antagonistic game. That’s not to say that the was unlikeable or aggressive, but that he saw the DM and the game world as opponents of the players. Over time, the antagonistic view was reduced but the core was still there in the game mechanics.

As I’ve argued, you can try and flavor a game in some directions, but that is certainly subject to the direction the game itself moves towards. If you’re needing to remove or ignore sets of the core game system to make your flavor work, then you’re not really playing the game itself. I dare any DM to turn D&D into a story about a couple in 1985 going through divorce proceedings in court without using any of the combat mechanics or spellcasting and tell me that that game is still fundamentally a D&D game.

To return to my own question, expanding on Fub’s: could you have a game where you could play anything? I don’t think it’s mechanically feasible. Universalis is certainly one example where you could tell a story in any genre you wish. However, the system would still determine quite a lot; in the case of Universalis, you’re still playing a storytelling game. There’s little chance of having some simulation in there. GURPS is an example that more mechanically tries to handle multiple genres; however, there’s the base rules, and then every setting will have its own separate rule book again, so we’re back to the question of whether GURPS is really a single system or a collection of systems. Whatever it is you’re doing, you’re doing it through a medium and media come with limitations. By the time you’ve create a simulation that’s so specific and inclusive that anything is possible, well, then you must be a deity that’s created a separate universe.

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