This may be a bit of an odd confession for a game designer, but I’ve always found that having a great set of mechanics is not enough to keep your players happy.
You also need a great setting and you need a great story, or it’s just not worth it. Players will forgive you for bad mechanics much faster than they forgive a boring plot or a dumb setting.
Let me speak in defense of rules first. The rules of a game exist to provide [More…]a sense of fairness to play. If baseball or chess rules were arbitrary or favored the home team, no one would play. Both sides in a competitive game must feel they have an fair chance of winning.
That’s not actually an argument in favor of strong rules in RPGs, of course. There’s no fairness between the DM and the players; the DM does control the environment, the monsters, and the NPCs. He could wipe the party out with a TPK rather easily and at any time. Despite many efforts to teach DMs to “play fair” with the players at the table… Well, killer DMs still exist, and even good DMs fudge die rolls both in player’s favor and against it (I am certainly guilty as charged, especially at conventions).
Necessary, but Not Sufficient
So, why don’t great rules make for great entertainment in RPGs? Why aren’t great rules enough?
The White Wolf folks had it right when they called their games the Storyteller system. All games are entertainment, and RPGs more than most depend just as much on story as they do on competition. “Competitive RPG” is right up there with “jumbo shrimp” and “friendly fire” in the Oxymoron Hall of Fame. Rules foster competition, but there’s no real competition in RPGs.
Now, RPGs do provide a shared sense of heroism and achievement. Who hasn’t been thrilled to slay a dragon or an arch-devil? But it’s not as if the DM is secretly hoping for a TPK every week. The DM is entertained when his adventure makes the players sweat it out, but they find a way to overcome everything he throws at them.
And in that sense, every DM is a game designer. His role is to keep others entertained on game night; buildingthe world, spinning up a plot, and hatching some monsters for new and deadly challenges is the DM’s joy, and hearing cries of dismay is sweet music. But really, he wants the heroes to triumph and their story to grow his shared world.
Now it’s possible for a bad set of rules to get in the way of having a good time on game night. Good mechanics are like good editing, or good layout: you don’t notice them, they have done their job.
When rules and mechanics hog the spotlight, they have failed. They are no longer enabling roleplayers to get on with having a good time. instead, those rules become the entertainment for rules hounds and power gamers to bend and twist to suit themselves. And everyone else wonders why they bother with RPGs when they could be playing board games or reading a decent book.
What’s my point here?
Just as Kobold Quarterly strives to entertain with articles that inspire players and DMs alike, we hope you take a step back to appreciate the part of the game that isn’t about the dice so much. (I know, I know, but the dice are so shiny!). It’s about having a good time as much as it is about mastering the rules and finding the loopholes. The rule that should be engraved on every DM screen is ‘If you’re the only one having fun, you’re doing it wrong”. The equivalent for players is simple: “If you are more worried about your stats than your character’s goals, you’re doing it wrong.”
I just know I’m going to get mail telling me I’ve got it wrong. But tell me what you think! Are rules really the most important element of a game session? Would sword & sorcery without the world’s most popular set of mechanics still be great?
Want to learn more about Kobold Quarterly Issue 7? Read on…
– Dungeon Mastering.com: What everybody ought to know about rogues
– Jonathan Drain’s d20 Source: Powder Burn: Firearms in Dungeons & Dragons
– Gnome Stew: Troy’s Crock Pot: At Full Gallop at the KQ Carnival
– Ogre Cave: Interview: Stan!
– Musings of the Chatty DM: Adventure Prep: Of Airships, Feys and Player Input
– Atomic Array: Episode 009: Kobold Quarterly 007
– Discuss at the KQ Forum.
– Subscribe to Kobold Quarterly.
Or pick up your copy of issue #7 now.