I mentioned to Josh that we could simultaneously do a Novel Writing Month challenge as a way for him to get back in to writing and for me to continue writing. He countered with a ludicrous (sorry dude) idea that we make a roleplaying game together. In the spirit of challenging myself I gave us thirty days to come up with a system. With that in mind, I've started considering the very essentials of roleplaying.
Most roleplayers have their own reasons for playing, but the reasons are common enough for most players. Many players crave virtualism; they want to act in a world where the normal restrictions don’t apply. Whether that restriction is their inability to shoot fire from their fingertips to burn down an orphanage or their inability to express how they feel or an inability to communicate to others their creativity. When players seek exploration, they want to learn about a setting, a place, or a person. Some players explore through the setting, some do it by advancing the story to see what comes next, while others create a character and explore their response to situations as that character encounters them. Much like virtualism, people who play to escape want to be in a fantastic setting, not so much for the setting or the people, but because it gives them an escape to focus on something else for a change, something straightforward that can usually be solved by punching instead of whatever their real life problems are. The fourth major reason people play roleplaying games is because it’s a social activity. Their friends are doing it, so they do it to interact with their friends. Taken to extremes, they don’t really care if the party lives or dies because, hey, at least they’re meeting people.
Of course, most people are a mix of these types. Wanting to forget about your job or family for a few hours doesn’t preclude you from wanting to pick a fight just to check out your character’s new lightning hands in combat.
Granted, no matter why people go to a roleplaying game or why they roleplay in general, they usually want a respectable list of returns on their time investment. Players want their time roleplaying to be engaging, exciting, and rewarding.
Engaging sessions get the player immersed in the setting and/or the story. Engaged characters are also free to make their own decisions. They aren’t railroaded into a single set of outcomes; even if they’re destined to throw a cursed antique into a geological phenomenon, the exact route they take to that destination can be their choice. Granted that that choice is an informed one with effects that reflect their desires when they choose it; there should be logical consequences for their actions. It’s more than just rolling some dice to get past an obstacle; it’s talking with a villager, considering a moral dilemma, or even pondering an NPCs motivations. These things should be believable parts of a greater whole, not jagged pieces driven into a story out of necessity. Without some level of believable connection between the parts of the setting, players just don’t feel immersed.
Roleplaying should also be exciting. Excitement requires tension and uncertainty. Important things should hang on circumstances beyond the players' control, but not within that of the storyteller. This is why randomization is so important to a game; if things occur according to the storyteller’s design, then it doesn’t feel random, however clever the plot twists. If everything is arbitrarily random, then there’s no point in playing. Players have to be invested in the outcome of random events to enjoy the game and feel responsible for the outcome (for better or for worse). That’s why most systems use skills to alter the effects of randomized results; it gives players influence without sacrificing tension. This all presumes that the randomization has an effect; struggling against something far out of your league, above or below it, isn’t exciting, it’s a waste of time.
Rewards are a funny thing. Some players just feel good that they hung out with friends and maybe advanced the storyline, but most want their investment to pay dividends for their character. Linear progression allows players to predict their character’s advancement and anticipate it, sculpting their character into what they want to play. Rewards for in-game behavior also manage to set clear expectations for players as to what is and is not within the theme of the game. Random advancement is also good because it’s something people like. It’s something either of use to the character or that can be exchange for an in-game currency.
Ideally, a roleplaying system will have skills which affect a randomized conflict resolution system, a linear advancement system for those skills, random ‘bonus’ rewards, roles for the players that are appealing, diverse, and unified, and a robust universe with a strong narrative pull.
Appealing roles for players are ones that allow them to do what they want to do. Players who lean towards virtualism get to act out and/or express themselves, explorers get to look at the facets of the settings they want, etc., etc.; each player does what they came to do. Diverse roles ensure that players’ actions don’t overlap. While teamwork is great, having two characters who fill the same niche will invariably leave one of them lagging behind. The team should be working together and the players should choose characters who will be working together.
Finally, the players should be unified because roleplaying is a social event that you do with other people, and no one should forget that.
Unless you're playing Vampire.