Wednesday, November 24, 2021

For Different Folks

JB over at B/X BLACKRAZOR made a post entitled Different Strokes that actually talks about a number of things but the part that really caught my attention was when he noted that different RPG groups have different Priorities of Play; similar to the idea of 'Creative Agendas' coined by Ron Edwards of The Forge way back when. 

He then goes on to note the Priorities of Play that Dungeons and Dragons incorporates and which are an integral part of it's design and play philosophy. I would say he sums them up rather well (though I will paraphrase slightly):

Shared Joint Objective (Everyone wants treasure)

Players/PCs are Being Challenged - Deadly Challenges force engagement (Pay attention or die)

Asymmetry of Classes - PCs Must Cooperate to Succeed (Different classes bring different skills)

Simple Mechanics Increase Accessibility (Roll dice, look at chart, etc.)

Kitchen Sink Setting Provides Many Possibilities for Exploration

Personally I don't feel D&D actually succeeds at achieving all of these goals but I understand people do and that's great. 

The more interesting bit to me is that JB also points out a particular Priority that is very important to my own style of gaming, 'Exploration of a particular genre and/or setting'. Obviously this is a priority element for the games I run and like to play. He seems to say this specific agenda replaces Being Challenged. I don't quite understand that, seeing the two things as compatible and capable of co-existing in a single campaign. 

Reading his post and this section in particular got me to thinking about my own Priorities of Play, both in general and for the specific games I enjoy most such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes, and Ghostbusters just to name a few. While each of the these likely has it's own list of game specific Priorities, there are some ideas that I like to see regardless of the campaign in question. In fact, I likely gravitate towards the game settings mentioned above partly because they are well suited towards my preferences. 

What I am looking for is:

Shared Thematic Objective (The setting informs what everyone wants)

All Starfleet Officers want to seek out new life and new civilizations. All Rebels want to over through the Empire. All Superheroes want to protect the innocent from criminals and other evil-doers. All Ghostbusters want to bust ghosts and pay their bills. 

Individual Compatible Objectives (PCs each want something that doesn't conflict with theme)

The Starfleet Medical Officer wants to find a cure for a specific disease. The Chief Engineer is trying to design a new class of Shuttlecraft. The Chief Navigator wants to find a famous lost Starship from the Four Years War. The Chief Scientist is in love with the Chief of Security but doesn't know how to express their feelings. 

Personal goals that do not prevent them from collectively going 'Where No One Has Gone Before'. 

Players/PCs are Being Challenged - Interesting Challenges keep Players Interested

Death is not the only way to engage players in a game. Engage them with what interests them and then add in obstacles that make the players think in order to overcome them. Situations may be deadly and failure has consequences but PCs can also suffer personal loss, emotional pain, and other 'fates worse than death'. 

Everyone Can Do What Needs Doing - All are good. Some are better. 

If the game takes place in the Star Wars universe, every character in it unless there is a character or story driven reason should be competent at everyday things in that universe. Most everybody can fire a blaster. Most everyone can drive a Landspeeder. Most people can fly some kind of Starship. Some people are better at a specific thing than others. Some people have a skill in a less common area that their companions don't have or lack a skill because they grew up on a backwater world with a lower tech civilization. That said, the majority of PCs can do what needs doing in the game. 

Droids are a good example. They are everywhere in the Star Wars universe and they do a wide variety of things. Everybody or nearly everybody should know how to operate a Droid. A lot of people should be able to program one and/or enact general repairs. Some people are really good at fixing them and can even modify one. A smaller group can build one from scratch. 

Mini-rant/Opinion Piece: This is something that really annoys me about most Fantasy games. D&D for example is about killing monsters and stealing their stuff. That's what its about. So in my opinion every character, All PCs, should have killing monsters and stealing things skills. Everyone should start out as a combo Fighter/Thief (or Rogue if you prefer) with some being more Fighter-y and others more Thief-y if they wish. Baseline though, everybody is a mix of these two Classes. We'll call it 'Adventurer'. Every D&D PC starts as an Adventurer.

Then you add Wizard, Cleric, More Fighter, More Thief, or whathaveyou to make your character stand out. In Ars Magica everyone plays a Mage as well one or more companions who may be of any number of non-Magical professions. Why? Sometimes you need to be a Mage. Sometimes you need to be a skilled denizen of Mythic Europe. That's what the game is about. Whoah! Mind blown!

This is very clearly seen in Star Trek RPGs. Everyone can technically fill any given position on the bridge but each excels in their area of expertise. None of the Ghostbusters are unable to fire a Neutrona Wand or use a PKE Meter. 

Simple Mechanics That Fit On A Character Sheet

If at all possible, you should be able to roll the dice, look at the result, and immediately know if you are looking at a Success, Failure, Partial, or whether it has special meaning. If you need to reference a chart, the game has one strike against it immediately IMHO. Roll a thing to check a thing to find a thing is two things too many. 

The exception is if the chart being referenced results in something interesting; it must be more engaging then 'You hit and do +1 Damage'. You wasted my valuable time on that? Chart, you're fired. At the very least, the bare minimum, give me some color to explain it and make it worth my while. Charts like the Stress/Panic Chart or Serious Wound Chart from Free League's ALIEN RPG are great. Colorful, interesting effects, and they can change the conditions of the PCs and/or their environment. 

Specific Settings with Internal Consistency - It all makes sense within its own context. 

I always say, "It doesn't have to make Real World sense but it must make sense in the game you're playing". This is probably the greatest element of my older games that is lost in my games over the last ten to fifteen years, all the way up to the present. Players are so proud of being 'clever' and 'realistic' that they suck all the excitement and atmosphere out of a game. Instead of forcing the genre to adhere to real life, immerse yourself in the genre. Tropes are not just cliches of a storytelling approach, they are the laws of physics in the setting you are playing in. 

I don't care how it works in reality. If we are doing a game based on a TV show, things work the way they work on the show. Four Color Superheroes have Secret Identities and no one figures it out easily because that's how Four Color Superhero Comic Books work. All the Aliens and all the Starfleet Officers understand each other because that's how it is on Star Trek - unless the plot requires the Universal Translators to have difficulty with a given language. Embrace this. Run with it.

As I've said before, I don't really like Kitchen Sink settings where anything and everything can and does happen unless there is some unifying theme or reason behind why it's like that. I have always found that if you mix every flavor you can find together in one pot, the end result has no taste at all or it's really bad.

Well, that should be enough for now. Let me know what your Priorities of Play are in the comments! 

Happy Holiday!

Barking Alien



  1. I'd say my priorities of play are somewhere between JB's and yours. I'm usually down with D&D, but do like to modify or twist things in various campaigns to make them suit certain tropes or genres. Also like you, I prefer fewer chart lookups (say what you will about WotC, ascending AC is so much easier than TSR's descending AC). But like JB, I'm also good with asymmetry of characters. And while all D&D characters are competent at a lot of dungeon delving stuff, the fact that there are specialized classes is something I enjoy.

    I'll have to give a bit more thought to my specific list of priorities, though. It's been a long day. :D

    1. If my post made you think about it I feel like it's a win. Thanks for checking in Dennis!