In December I wrote about my foray into Tabletop (Pen & Paper) RPGs. Since then I’ve continued to explore the genre and learn quite a bit.

Playing at the World & GNS Theory

I recently read the fascinating book Playing at the World. It focuses mostly on the creation and rise of Dungeons and Dragons but includes a extremely well-sourced look at the history of simulation games and the influences that led to RPGs. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re curious about the origin of the hobby.

Through the book, I learned about GNS Theory which analyzes game systems along the dimensions of Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism.

  • Gamism - a focus on competition, strategy and tactics, mastery

  • Narrativism - a focus on storytelling and drama

  • Simulationism - a focus on creating a consistent reality that has high fidelity / verisimilitude

Everyone has their own preferences for which style they enjoy and game designers must think hard about the tradeoffs between them. It’s impossible for a game to rate highly on all three dimensions and it’s difficult to do more than one dimension well. The above Wikipedia page does a good job of describing the tensions between the dimensions.

One of my big struggles with the NationBuilding game I was working on was the tradeoff between Gamism and Simulationism. My game Plotypus is heavily Narrativist and I think adding Gamist emphasis could easily diminish the overall experience.

I can be a big fan of all three dimensions but I generally like games that are high in just one of them. Lately I’ve been on a Narrativism kick as I love the creativity it offers and the opportunity for improvisation.

So Many Systems

Since my last post on the topic, I’ve discovered even more interesting RPG systems. The one I’m most curious about is Dungeon World / Powered By the Apocalypse (PbtA). PbtA is a game system created for Apocalypse World but repurposed for many other themes; Dungeon World seems to be the most successful of the variants.

PbtA is pretty rules-light - mostly Narrativist but with a nice dose of Gamism. There are a few interesting mechanisms that force the players to make tough decisions. The first relates to players’ dice rolls - on mediocre rolls, the GM presents them with dilemmas such as ‘you can only learn one bit of information, what do you ask?’ or ‘Your attack succeeds but at a cost, do you get hit in return or lose an item?’ and the players are the only ones to ever roll - the GM doesn’t touch the dice. The other mechanic relates to action between game sessions. A campaign has multiple fronts (as in ‘war on two fronts’) and the players are likely only focusing on one front in a given session. The rules allow for the GM to advance the other fronts in secret, giving real weight to player prioritization. For example, in one session the players might focus on the hoard of enemies gathering outside the city but while they’re gone, the anarchist movement might assassinate a political leader. Great games are all about tough decisions and PbtA seems to optimize around it - I haven’t played it yet but I’m very excited to check it out.

A system I did get to play is Pathfinder - one of the most popular systems on the market. Pathfinder is heavily modeled after D&D 3rd Edition and released as a reaction to the controversial D&D 4th Edition. It is fairly rules heavy - I’d say high on Gamism and Simulationism; there are lookup tables for any action or activity and rules to govern anything a player might try. I felt this approach to be a bit stifling.  An example: during our play session we were trying to create a diversion so that some NPCs (non-player characters) could escape. We had a decent plan but our GM wouldn’t let us execute on it because none of our characters had a ‘bluff’ skill; it felt frustrating an discouraged further creativity. The Pathfinder rules did seem optimized for miniatures combat, however, and much of the session was focused on combat situated on a gridded map. This felt like a more balanced version of Descent and was sometimes enjoyable but occasionally a grind as rounds of rolling continued without interesting decisions to be made. I’m glad I checked Pathfinder out but I’ll probably stick to more Narrativist fare.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

In the previous post I mentioned I bought the D&D 5e Starter Set. Over the past few weeks I’ve been GMing a campaign it has been phenomenal! I recruited five friends to be the heroes and we’re about to have our third session. Each session lasts 2-4 hours and we’ve been playing every week and a half.

The Starter Set box is very well put together - it has a clear explanation of the key rules, pre-generated characters, and an introductory campaign that will grow the characters from level one to five. It’s not quite as slick as the Star Wars Beginner Box I mentioned but it’s still pretty great.

The campaign, Lost Mines of Phandelver is well written and there lots of advice for the novice GM. There’s a decent mix of combat and roleplaying / storytelling and plenty of side-quests to draw the players’ attentions.

The rules for D&D 5e are more complex than PbtA or Blackbird but way more streamlined than Pathfinder. This leads to fast paced play avoiding drawn out combat or grind. Moreover, the system consistently encourages the GM to adapt the rules to enhance the fun / story and to improvise the rules to the benefit of all - this is a clear counterpoint to Pathfinder’s philosophy of a rule for everything. I vastly prefer this approach as I can quickly improvise a response to any player action without getting lost in the rulebook.

The players have definitely been pushing my improv skills - they invariably reach a creative solution to everything I throw at them, driving me to develop equally creative responses and consequences. It’s a joy and a thrill to GM with them and I’m always thinking on my feet. I’m excited to continue the campaign and see what crazy turns lie ahead.

If you’re even a little curious, check it out! It’s only $12 on Amazon. I’ll write another update here once we finish the campaign; then I’ll likely be torn between another 5e campaign or exploration of PbtA.