February 13, 2012

Why A Core Activity Is Not a Straightjacket

How To Design Games the Robin Laws Way

(Part Four of Several; see part one for introduction and disclaimer)

In the last installment of How To Design Games the Robin Laws way, I mentioned off-handedly that D&D is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff, and that this determines the way it approaches certain sub-systems, like Perception. Another game, which has a different core activity or design throughline, might do these things differently—as GUMSHOE does.

The idea that D&D is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff provoked some consternation. Gamers who are used to having their tastes slagged because they like D&D may be used to thinking of this as a slam*. Perish the thought! Without this clear, simple, escapist core activity, and D&D’s focus on it, we wouldn’t have a roleplaying hobby today. Nor would we have a huge swath of the video games that exist now. The phenomenal success of Warcraft, Skyrim and the like testify to the ongoing popularity of this core activity.

Nor does this mean that D&D can only be played as a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff. Because it is a roleplaying game—in some sectors, still the default roleplaying game—you can completely set aside that core activity, so that your D&D becomes a game about meeting people and learning their secrets. Or building your own power bloc as you whittle down those of your adversaries. Or of mapping dungeons and running away from monsters.

But it’s much easier to establish your alternate core activity if the one provided as a baseline is readily apparent and strongly realized. If told that they can do anything in a game, players get stumped. If told they can do X, they may do X, or they may decide to do Y instead. The presentation of a choice, even if that choice is rejected, orients players and allows them to test their desires against the expectations the game presents.

Because so many people know it and are comfortable with its assumptions, D&D is more likely than later games to be used in service of an alternate core activity. One of 4e’s strengths, its coherence and focus, became a stumbling block when some player constituencies found it hard to reconfigure to an alternate core activity. From this you might conclude that the platonic ideal D&D gets people playing with its entertaining and straightforward hook, but also remains elastic enough so that groups can decide to abandon that hook in favor of something else.

Newer games don’t face the burden of having to serve as default RPG and can afford to err in the direction of too much focus on the core activity. But, like D&D, they can’t do without one.


*Others raised semantic objections to the term killing. Because we all know there are tons of games out there in which the hardbitten adventurers mostly tickle the monsters and take their stuff.