What Truly Defines a Good RPG?

Despite the constant effort to turn out good RPGs, rarely is the question asked, “What is a good RPG?”. You would think this would be a central concern, since nothing can be more important in making a good RPG than knowing exactly what you are trying to accomplish. This article will *attempt* to answer that all-important question.

Ultimately, everyone expects something slightly different from an RPG. This may be why there are so many RPGs out there. Everyone who is competent enough to do so makes an RPG which will fit their preferences.

From this, we can deduce that it is impossible to create an RPG which will be good in everyone’s eyes. It is safe to say that it is impossible to please everyone, and therefore impossible to make an RPG everyone will enjoy, especially with many people having mutually exclusive desires in an RPG.

Despite this, I believe it is possible to make an RPG that will please most people. How, you ask? It takes some cleverness, to be sure. Despite everyone having different specifications, there are a number of points which most people can agree on (should be simple, should be realistic, should be balanced, etc). Therefore, make an RPG with all of these traits, and you have made a pretty awesome RPG. Of course, anyone who has ever made an RPG before will know how hard it is to make these traits coincide. I will now go on a brief tangent to elucidate on this point.

Fabien Ni?oles’ System Color: A typology of RPG mechanics states that all RPGs can be measured on the basis of Fluidity, Consistency and Immersivity. Fluidity is the speed of resolution, angle of the learning curve, adaptability, and general unobtrusiveness of the mechanics. Consistency is the game balance, realism, and general solidity of the mechanics. Immersiveness is an abstract concept not related to mechanics, so we will leave it out of the discussion. Anyway, so we have the criteria of solidity and unobtrusiveness. Making the rules lightweight and fewer adds to unobtrusiveness, but detracts from solidity. Making the rules more precise and comprehensive adds to solidity, but detracts from unobtrusivness. Thus, we are still stuck with mutually exclusive goals! Countermanding this rule is the challenge of the RPG designer; cramming in as much solidity as possible without pushing out unobtrusiveness, and vice versa. This requires clever and innovative mechanics. Thus, originality is a virtue in RPG design, not just because of copyright issues, but because creativity in mechanics design truly makes the RPG better.

Our tangent has wandered back towards a solution! But the question remains unanswered: what makes an RPG good? The answer is pretty obvious; see if you can figure it out.

The more people an RPG pleases, the better it is. There. We have a general, neutral, blanket statement defining a good RPG.

Now let’s take it one step further and figure out what will make the most people happy. In order to do this, we will refer to the GNS player model. For the benefit of those who have never heard of it, let me go on another tangent to summarize it. The GNS model described three types of players; Gamists, Narrativists and Simulationists. Gamists play the RPG like any other game; their sole goal is to gain wealth, power and fame. They see their character as a collection of powers optimized for the acquisition of more powers. They will take advantage of loopholes in the rules for power. Gamists are usually not picky about mechanics, but, as with everyone else, solidity and unobtrusiveness are virtues. Narrativists focus on the storytelling and roleplaying aspect of the game more so than others. They are the type who is least concerned with the mechanics. Ironically, they also tend to be the pickiest about their systems. Unobtrusiveness is an enormous concern for Narrativists, but solidity is also important, though never at the expense of unobtrusiveness. Narrativists also tend to be very picky about any rules which limit their actions (such as the combat system in D&D). Simulationist is a much more abstract and complex category. Simulationists essentially want to do something in the RPG that they can’t do in real life, such as have a gunfight with aliens and robots in a dark alleyway on a space station. This is a huge and diverse category, so it is impossible to generalize as to their rules preferences.

Okay, now we have the GNS model defined, we can continue with our discussion. In order to please as many people as possible, you have to make rules which will accommodate each of these three styles. You have to have mechanics which have enough solidity to them to put focus on to please Gamists. These rules also have to be unobtrusive and open-ended to please Gamists. Finally, the rules have to be able to handle extremely unusual situations and be unobtrusive and solid to please Simulationists. Not possible? In the immortal words of Johnny Depp, “Not impossible- just not *probable*”. Still, it’s quite a challenge. So how do we do it? A recipe for a really good RPG:
# Start by identifying your goals. If you can specify exactly what you want, it will be that much easier to achieve.
# “Borrow” things that worked in other RPGs. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
# Where nothing works as well as you want it to, make up your own rules that other RPGs will want to borrow.
# Once you have perfected all of the things other RPGs do, add more features!
# Having achieved your objectives, make some harder ones and redesign the RPG to achieve them; an RPG is never completed; only abandoned.

Remember, we don’t truly need an RPG that works for everybody. It’s worked fine so far having an RPG for every group of roleplayers. But it would be nice to have a banner which everyone across the GNs model could unite under, wouldn’t it?

This article by Nick, who thinks he may have made an RPG for everyone: http://wtism27.tripod.com/carps/ Don’t be afraid to tell him if he’s wrong. You can contact him at nw.thomas@att.net.


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