Role-Playing Game Basics

This article is part 1 of 4 in the series Role-playing Game Rules
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Back around 1997, I was writing a set of rules for a paper & pen role-playing game. And when I say I was writing, I really mean that the group I was playing RPGs with was rewriting the rules we were playing to the point that they didn’t resemble the original any longer. At some point development of these rules split, and I worked on a set of rules on my own: there were substantial similarities to what we’ve come up with together, but there were also crucial differences.

Now this set of rules I’ve been working on have been sitting around on my shelf for a long time. I’ve dusted them off now and then, added or refined a few things, and then had to shelve them again. Like it or not, developing these things take time, and there’s only so much of that to go around.

It’s been a long time since I last looked at them. By now, my expectations for what I’ve wanted them to become have changed. My attitude towards role-playing games in general has changed. While this set of rules isn’t too far off being finished, I’m no longer convinced that they’ll be better than any other rules I’ve played by. That rather robs me of the motiviation to ever finish or publish them.

This new series, therefore, is an attempt — not a promise — to regain that motivation and finish them, albeit in piecemeal form.

And if that bores you already, don’t even bother continuing. It’ll get worse from now on.

One reason why I think this blog is a better medium for me to finish these rules is because of the way I write. It’s one thing to come up with rules for how to play a game, but quite another to come up with good prose for describing them to players. I find that astonishingly hard to do. What I end up doing instead, whether I want to or not, is describe the rationale why I think a particular rule should be one way rather than another.

That might make for interesting reading, but not for a good introduction to a game. On the other hand, this sort of building up of an argument for something is exactly what I do on this blog.

So I figure, if I just explain the why and wherefore of things here, and use the actual rules as examples, then maybe at the end of it all I’ll have tricked myself into having written down most of the rules in a way that I can later collect and rearrange into something that makes sense to players.

Maybe that’ll work, and maybe not. But it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?

First off, though, I’d like to draw you into some meta-discussion about RPG rules. The thing is, there are so many different sorts of RPGs out there that it becomes necessary to explain what these particular rules are intended to do.

For one thing, I’m not going to cover anything related to computer games here. While they’re dear to my heart, and a lot of these rules would probably transfer well to a computer game1. There, that’s one huge group of things people call RPGs moved out of the way.

For another, I’m not going to cover anything related to LARPs2 either. LARPs require fairly simple rules, and rules geared towards physical interaction. Your character typically has a low number of hit points, and each contact with a foam-padded weapon subtracts one. That’s to keep people from having to think too much while boffing each other3.

But even when it comes to plain old paper & pen RPGs, there can be huge differences between them. Some are just slightly embellished table-top war games4, while others concentrate a lot more on the storytelling aspects.

People have different expectations when it comes to their entertainment, and so these different types of RPGs exist for different target groups. As far as I am concerned, the storytelling part of an RPG comes naturally or not at all — there’s very little point in providing a hugely detailed backstory for the world the game is set in, for example. If you want to do that, write a novel. People will read it, and adapt your writings in a way that they can play an RPG in the same setting.

  1. I tend to think of RPG rules in a similar way I think about software algorithms. Oddly enough — or not, as it were — I did that well before I did any serious software development. []
  2. Live-Action Role-Playing []
  3. If you think that’s a euphemism, you’re probably on the wrong track. []
  4. Instead of armies, you move around individual heroes. That’s how RPGs started, essentially. []

  • Norman Liebold

    Da bin ich gespannt! Ich kann mich noch sehr gut an die unterschiedlichen Versionen und Visionen erinnern, die Du damit verbandest, auch an die druckfertig anmutenden, zum Teil illustrierten Fassungen, die vor 8 oder 9 Jahren in der BIB auf Deinem Rechner lagen…

    • unwesen

      Ohja, gespannt bin ich auch ;) Nach so vielen Jahren muss ja halbwegs was draus werden.

  • Mischa

    Da gab es illustrierte Fassungen? Kenne ich die gar nicht?
    Ich hab jedenfalls nichts gezeichnet, oder?

    • unwesen

      Fertige gab’s nie, aber Du hast durchaus dazu gezeichnet. Das hier ist doch darum enstanden, aber Du hast auch eine Troll dafuer produziert.

      • unwesen

        Hmm, sollte ich vielleicht etwas verbessern, mit “darum” meine ich “zu dem Zeitpunkt und grob mit dem Thema verwandt”, nicht so sehr “speziell dafuer”.

  • Mischa

    Ach stimmt…mann ist das lange her!

    Kommt mir vor, als wäre es letztes Jahrhundert gewesen…

    Apropos: Es gibt Final Fantasy VII im Playstation Store für PS3 und PSP

    • unwesen

      Was meinst Du, was ich grad spiele?