Sorting RPG Systems
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  1. #1
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    Sorting RPG Systems

    It occurred to me that it would be useful to have a list of popular or notable RPGs listed on a variety of scales regarding different aspects of a game for comparison's sake. I'd love to hear people's opinions on where the games* they are familiar with fit on each of these aspects.

    RPG SYSTEM ASPECTS

    Style
    Most RPGs gravitate towards supporting a particular gaming style, though most are also flexible enough to bend or vary. I'd like to try to hit the style(s) that any particular game seems most suited to.

    Narrativist: Focus is on telling a story. What makes sense to a story is more important than how likely something might be to happen. Players usually have a degree of control over elements beyond their own character, such as spending resources to alter the world around them beyond what their character's in-game abilities would allow. Balance between character power in a combat sense is downplayed in importance.
    Simulationist: Focus is on exploring a simulated world. The world tends to behave in a way that makes internal sense, and that indicates a living setting that exists outside and beyond the character's lives or storyline. Random encounters and events sometimes help provide this sort of verisimilitude. Players affect the world primarily (often exclusively) through the choices and abilities of their characters.
    Gamist: Focus is on challenge and balance. Whether the world is more of a story backdrop or a living world, the emphasis is on characters who are balanced against each other and against obstacles pitting their game stats against those obstacles in an attempt to overcome challenges and earn rewards.


    Complexity
    In this case, I'm speaking of how many rules and variations need to be mastered to get the most out of the game, and how frequently and extensively they are applied.

    Rules-Lite: Focus is on simplicity and speed of play. Generally you have one (or at most two) resolutions systems, and everything you do uses that system, with very few specific details. Lists of a variety of actions, equipment, etc, are almost never present. Flexibility is usually so prominent that the GM has broad leeway in how to interpret results and implement rules.
    Rules-Moderate: Rather than having a focus, rule-moderate games generally become so simply because they aren't focused on simplicity or comprehensiveness. Some are intentionally designed to have the right number of rules and systems for the desired goals, and other simply evolve into a moderately complex system naturally as they are designed. You tend to have some tables and lists, a few to several subsystems, and a good degree of flexibility in how to apply them.
    Rules-Heavy: Focus is on comprehensiveness. There are generally numerous systems in order to accommodate everything possible in the world. Long lists of equipment, combat actions numbering in the dozens, scales with numerous fine distinctions for levels of thing like intoxication, mutation, or sensory capability are common. Anything that can be better represented by its own subsystem is generally given one, and tables are liberally placed all over the books. Flexibility in applying rules in generally considered relatively unneeded, and ambiguity in rules is specifically disfavored, with GM judgement calls seen as something to be avoided.


    Realism
    Some games attempt to replicate our universe as closely as possible, while the other extreme is more like a high action anime.

    Gritty: Focus is on making the world feel real. Bullets kill. Starvation happens. Big bad monsters are to be feared and fled, accompanied by involuntary bowel movements.
    Adventurous: Emphasis is on being the best of the best. You don't have to worry about death by tripping over a manhole, but you still probably don't want to jump off a 3 story building. The game is designed to encourage taking risks, without trivializing dangers.
    Fantastic: Emphasis is on a larger than life heroic experience. Characters aren't concerned with the mundane inconveniences of things such as realistic injuries from falling or being thrown into walls by super villains or giant robots. The "Rule of Cool" is the first law of physics, and the book probably says so. Real-world concerns are pretty much ignored unless they are an important plot element.


    Character Mechanics
    Some games make characters based on a long list of skills, other let you make three choices and start playing.

    Trait-Based: Characters are a combination of ala carte traits. These traits may be skills, attributes, descriptive words, or any combination thereof. If these traits can be improved, they are often improved individually, rather than in concert. These traits are used in the major task resolution system(s) of the game, meaning that individual characters can often specialize however they want, having widely different skill-sets.
    Hybrid: Characters combine high-level defining categories, with significant trait customization not tied to class. Classes and traits may have joint advancement once chosen (build your own class), or they may remain separate, with advancement in class not connected to advancement in traits, and vice versa.
    Class-Based: Characters are defined by their aptitude in a high-level category, or character "class." Character advancement occurs through gaining different levels or degrees in this class. This class determines the most important features of the character, and sets major limitations on them in other areas.

    I'm sure there can be a lot of disagreement, but I'd love to see some opinions on which systems seem to best support which categories.

    * NOTE: D&D is a sprawling monster of a game, differing more between editions than many other games differ from completely separate games. I'd rather not bring D&D discussion into this, if possible, since it will likely degenerate into debate over which editions are designed to support which styles, etc.

  2. #2
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    I'd add genre into that systems, too.

  3. #3
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    This reminds me of an 'expert system' I programmed at the University. It was written in Prolog and could be used to decide which RPG system was best suited for your preferences in several categories. These look like good categories to me. More categories only make sense if you also add genre-specific or setting-specific criteria, e.g. high-fantasy, high-magic, etc.

  4. #4
    amerigoV
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    Savage Worlds.

  5. #5
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    I agree with Style, Complexity and Character Mechanics classifications. They are a little simplified, but each classification system is. Your categories here are clear and, I think, useful for people trying to choose a game.



    But the Realism axis is something that will only bring confusion. There are several completely different things mashed together here.
    1. Character power. There are games where you play ratcatchers and there are games where you play gods.
    2. How similar to the real world the setting is. A game where you play intelligent mice is definitely not realistic, although it may be gritty.
    3. What is the game's focus. A game may be very realistic, but describe no deadly dangers, because it's about politics, not combat. Or, it may feature deadly monsters and lethal combat, but no arrow counting and wound infections, because it's about heroism in face of true danger.



    I would also add one more point to the classification. It's something that people rarely mention when describing games, but in my experience it's an important trait of game systems and play styles.

    How vulnerable is a character to external influences? Is a character concept inviolable and nothing puts it in danger? Is it possible to introduce short-term or long-term changes through mechanical means? For example, can a character lose a hand as a result of other character's actions and/or dice rolls? Can a character be magically charmed? Non-magically seduced or manipulated in a mechanically binding way?
    For some people, not having a complete control over their characters is a dealbreaker. For others, having their concepts challenged is where the fun comes from. Because of that, I think this axis is worth adding to the classification.

  6. #6
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    @Morrus
    I didn't originally put in genre because so many games are multi-genre, and I'm looking for defined options in each category. But after putting some thought into it, I think including genre is probably a good idea to make the list as useful as possible.

    @Jhaelen
    I don't suppose you have an .exe or java version of that application available?

    @amerigoV
    How would you choose to classify Savage Worlds?

    @Steenen
    Good call. "Realism" is a bit messy. I'd be willing to split it up if I could come up with a couple of clear categories (and I'm not too keen on the name actually--I wrote the OP up on the fly without spending time on refinement). The main thing I'm trying to get at is a combination of how gritty the game is for "normal" inhabitants, and how well the physics model reality versus a more forgiving high action movie. Character power falls more into genre. For instance, Exalted is based around playing fantastically powerful beings, but the Storyteller system that it uses is probably the lower end of adventurous. I'd therefore categorize Exalted as adventurous. I could definitely use a better term than "realism," though.

    I tend to refer to the vulnerability to influences concept you are talking about as character identity, or player control over character identity. Hmmm. Not sure how I would represent it. Can you suggest some potential category names?

  7. #7
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    Also, I'm not trying to come up with a comprehensive categorization system, as much as I am a simple guide to help gamers find the sorts of games they would like to try. Too often, we recommend games by simply saying that it is good, with perhaps one descriptor, when it might be more useful to include more than one.

    I plan to compile a table and turn it into a pdf or post it.

    To get the ball rolling, here are a few ones that didn't take much thought to categorize:

    Storyteller system (White Wolf)

    Style: Simulationist
    Complexity: Rules-moderate
    "Realism": Adventurous
    Character Mechanics: Trait-based
    Genre: Varies. Modern fantasy, mythic fantasy, sci-fi, pulp, others

    d6 (West End Games)
    Style: Simulationist
    Complexity: Rules-moderate
    "Realism": Adventurous
    Character Mechanics: Trait-based
    Genre: Flexible/any

    GURPS
    Style: Simulationist
    Complexity: Rules-Heavy
    "Realism": Gritty
    Character Mechanics: Trait-based
    Genre: Any

    Dragonlance 5th Age

    Style: Narrativist
    Complexity: Rules-lite
    "Realism": Adventurous
    Character Mechanics: Trait-based
    Genre: Traditional fantasy

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
    @Jhaelen
    I don't suppose you have an .exe or java version of that application available?
    I'll have to check if I still have the source files somewhere. If I do, it might be possible to create a .exe file.
    Porting it to a different (traditional) language would be all but impossible, though, since Prolog being a logic language, the program consists almost exclusively of Rules and Facts that are evaluated by the Prolog engine.

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