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Artistry vs. Playability in Game and Setting Design

Mercurius

Legend
An inquiry that has been percolating in the back of my mind for years is around the nature of artistry and the way it interacts with playability, in the context of RPGs. What I mean by "artistry" is somewhat open-ended, but it can be everything that the word implies: aesthetic values, evocativeness, atmosphere, etc. Playability has to do with how it actually works at the game table, and the degree to which one uses it.

I'll use myself as an example, to illustrate what I'm trying to get at. I've played RPGs since the early 80s, starting--like many--with AD&D. Over the years I've purchased many different RPGs in a variety of genres (although mostly fantasy). I'm particularly interested in setting books and RPGs with strong setting themes. Some of my favorite games/settings include: Talislanta, Ars Magica, Aria, Everway, Earthdawn, Shadow World, Symbaroum, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Forbidden Lands, and Coriolis.

Despite my relatively omnivorous tastes (although somewhat along certain themes), about 98% of my actual playing experience has been D&D. I've dabbled with this or that game, played a bit of Talislanta here, a bit of Mage: the Ascension there. But I always come back to D&D. Part of this is the ubiquity of D&D, and certainly if a friend was running Talislanta or Symbaroum, I'd jump on it. But not only do I almost always run D&D, but I just feel at home in the D&D universe.

On the other hand, as a "setting junky," find that my very favorite settings--from an artistic pespective--are not D&D worlds (see the list above). I enjoy them artistically, for reading and browsing pleasure, and for inspiration for my own games. But I rarely, if ever, play them.

Maybe it is simply a matter of feeling comfortable with the D&D rules. Maybe it is nostalgia. Perhaps those two factors are the only answers I need to explain my gaming history. But there is an interesting question here, I think, in this relationship between artistry and playability.

Another example is the difference I find in my world-building for my D&D world(s) and the world of my fiction writing. The latter is distinctly non-D&D, with only vague qualities of Tolkien and Howard, and countless other influences, all within a soup that is (hopefully) unique and distinctly my own. My campaign settings for D&D, however, are far closer to established fantasy canon. The current setting I'm developing is strongly influenced by Hyboria, Points of Light, and other sword & sorcery, post-apocalyptic settings. Certainly there are unique elements, or elements that aren't clearly discernible in terms of influence, but for the most part it has very little that would be unrecognizable to those on this forum. And more to the point: it is designed with playing D&D in mind.

I think we can see this issue with various Middle-earth RPGs. People have often complained that the mighty Gandalf is, at most, a 5th level wizard in terms of spell-casting, and maybe not even that (or maybe a wizard 5/fighter 15...he did kill a Balrog/Balor, after all!). Obviously Middle-earth wasn't designed with gaming in mind, but I have found that as game designers have tried to create an authentic Middle-earth experience, it loses some of that D&D charm. There is no "monster zoo," more of a "monster farm." And who doesn't like the occasional otyugh or ixitxachitl? And it is not that I don't think a Middle-earth campaign couldn't be fun--I've never played, although would be happy to--but that eventually I might find myself missing those weird and wild D&D anachronisms.

Middle-earth, as a setting, is a work of art in a class above and beyond any D&D setting (IMO!). It is a finely wrought Alan Lee or John Howe watercolor, while most D&D worlds are collages of often clashing colors and shapes. But when it comes down to playing time, I kind of want the collage, the playability over artistry.

The same basic principle applies to game mechanics. I have always thought that dice pools and any system that only uses d6, or even non-dice mechanics, has a certain aesthetic quality to it. But I'll be damned if I don't like rolling d20s, and any time I have tried my hand at game design, one of the underlying design goals was "make sure it includes the whole polyhedral family!"

Anyhow, what do you think? What is your experience?
 

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This has been my general problem with the Dragonlance setting, as well as many other novel based settings (LotR, WoT, etc.). They make for interesting novels, but they can be difficult to translate into an interesting game experience.

In Dragonlance, pre-War of the Lance lacks magical healing and non-arcane magic, which removes cleric, druid, paladin, ranger, plus potentially bard depending on DM interpretation, greatly limiting class selection. War of the Lance is an interesting campaign, but is really only usable once. Post-war seems lackluster by comparison, making it hard to keep it as a consistent setting.
 

practicalm

Explorer
I always prefer to pick a setting that fits into the style of the campaign I want to run and general avoid playing in games that shoehorn a system into a setting.
I don't really have a system preference other than I have a fondness for GURPS but will admit GURPS doesn't handle high power levels well
I love trying out new systems and it's fun to understand where the limitations of a system are to better match the system to the kind of setting I want to run.

There are probably entire libraries about what the nature of magic is in Middle Earth and what the powers of Gandalf had and why he was limited in using them. It's just not something that D&D models well without serious tinkering.

If you are telling a story and dealing with a power Maiar you put limits on them to allow you to explore other aspects of the story.
Dungeons and Dragons tends to focus on power growth and the story from zero to hero.
The characters in Lord of the Rings grow but do they level up? It's not clear they do.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I have a lot of non-D&D experience. You could say the first decade of serious play D&D was at most 40% and more likely 30%. And I played a lot of D&D. Just I also played a lot of different genres and back then there wasn't "D&D space opera", "D&D hard SF", "D&D urban fantasy" and especially "D&D supers" as some of my more prolific genres as there is now. As such, I've come to see the gaming subdivisions even within a genre depending on what type of story and feel that we're going for. So for me reaching for a system that matches that is second nature. My biggest problem is convincing others to learn a new system.

So I don't think these various other systems automatically give up playability for aesthetic. Now, some do - that's a trap to avoid in game design. But byt he same I think there are some that give up playability for ... well, nothing leaps out at me. I was just reading the 7e Call of Cthulhu rules, and it really feels like they were written in the late 90s instead of 2015 in terms of maturity of game mechanics vs. modern sensibilities. So giving up playability I don't link strongly for going for an aesthetic. Some systems, like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark are dripping aesthetic, yet have good rules support. The structure around BitD for telling the type of story it is trying to evoke is great. Marvel Heroic Roleplay was the same thing, the best comic book (vs. superheor) RPG I've seen, and it mechanically supported it's feel very well.

Actually, that last is why I kickstarted Cortex Prime, and the shiny (well, shiny & matte) book just arrived last week. It's more like a toolbox to make the RPG you want for the feel you are going for. It doesn't even have set ability scores - a level of flexibility that even generic systems haven't gone for. Because it's the engine that can do Thor and Hawkeye without making either feel overpowered or weak, and similar in other versions like Leverage or Smallville. How do you make Jimmy Olsen as valid a PC as Clark Kent? It manages by taking a page from how the show does it.

To change to a different topic, I think there are wonderful settings for a story that I wouldn't want to play in a game. Often because the setting is really focused around a chosen one/few that are the movers and shakers. For all the RPG inspiration, LotR is probably one of them unless you change the age so it has nothing to do with the Fellowship or the One Ring. Star Wars was another at one point, but now they've established enough jedi, force sensitives,a nd such that's it's not all about Luke as their only hope. ("No, there is another.")

And that leads that who cares if Gandalf would be 5th level in D&D, because the assumptions and context of D&D don't hold true in Middle Earth. Gandalf is damn powerful, even if Darth Vader could beat him. See, context matters.

To circle back around, I think there's a lot of good systems out there that give different play feels than D&D. Some also hit a particular aesthetic hard, some don't. If you want a D&D feel, play D&D and import the aesthetic - because another system will feel like a failure if you want D&D and are only playing it for it's aesthetic. That's not really a failure of the system, it's a failure of aligning expectations, an issue of perception. A system can succeed or fail on it's own right, but delivering the play style it pushes for when that doesn't match what the players want is a different issue.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Actually, that last is why I kickstarted Cortex Prime, and the shiny (well, shiny & matte) book just arrived last week.

Complete aside - I am so cheesed that that kickstarter open and closed before I even learned it existed. grumble
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Making a game requires pulling back the curtain*, so an RPG isn't likely to have the "artistry" or mystique that a book or movie does. I suppose D&D attempts/attempted to maintain some surprise (i.e. what can Gandalf actually do?) by splitting the PC and DM books, but that approach is only so effective when offering the DMG to the public, instead of it being invitation-only.

Middle-earth, as a setting, is a work of art in a class above and beyond any D&D setting (IMO!). It is a finely wrought Alan Lee or John Howe watercolor, while most D&D worlds are collages of often clashing colors and shapes. But when it comes down to playing time, I kind of want the collage, the playability over artistry. . .

Anyhow, what do you think? What is your experience?
A LotR setting is just as playable to me as a D&D setting. Actually, it's more so, because LotR makes more sense than the D&D settings I've seen. I can make better decisions (playability) when the game/setting makes better sense.

*But not always!
 


Mercurius

Legend
This has been my general problem with the Dragonlance setting, as well as many other novel based settings (LotR, WoT, etc.). They make for interesting novels, but they can be difficult to translate into an interesting game experience.

In Dragonlance, pre-War of the Lance lacks magical healing and non-arcane magic, which removes cleric, druid, paladin, ranger, plus potentially bard depending on DM interpretation, greatly limiting class selection. War of the Lance is an interesting campaign, but is really only usable once. Post-war seems lackluster by comparison, making it hard to keep it as a consistent setting.
Yeah, I tend to agree regarding Dragonlance. I actually really like Krynn as a world, both Ansalon and Taladas. I think the worldbuilding--including the gods--are more cohesive than a lot of other D&D settings, while still staying within the basic assumptions of D&D. Where Greyhawk, Mystara and the Forgotten Realms all basically said, "everything in D&D is here, just find a place on the map and have at it," Dragonlance took a more thematic approach, taking elements of D&D and creating a world and story with those elements, while ignoring the vast majority of D&D lore. It would seem strange to encounter an otyugh or Baba Yaga's Hut in Krynn. It just doesn't fit.

I always prefer to pick a setting that fits into the style of the campaign I want to run and general avoid playing in games that shoehorn a system into a setting.
I don't really have a system preference other than I have a fondness for GURPS but will admit GURPS doesn't handle high power levels well
I love trying out new systems and it's fun to understand where the limitations of a system are to better match the system to the kind of setting I want to run.

There are probably entire libraries about what the nature of magic is in Middle Earth and what the powers of Gandalf had and why he was limited in using them. It's just not something that D&D models well without serious tinkering.

If you are telling a story and dealing with a power Maiar you put limits on them to allow you to explore other aspects of the story.
Dungeons and Dragons tends to focus on power growth and the story from zero to hero.
The characters in Lord of the Rings grow but do they level up? It's not clear they do.
Yes, good points. I re-read LotR a couple years ago and I was so immersed in the world and story that I can't recall whether it seemed like the characters leveled up, but certain in the films, they all seem to stay at roughly whatever level they started. Legolas was a bad-ass, from start to finish. I suppose he could have advanced from 12th to 15th level and we wouldn't notice, but it may also be that we're acclimated to the rather unrealistic level progression of D&D. The real world, and more realistic fantasy settings, don't have anything equivalent to the range from a 1st to 20th level character. Literature is filled with stories of young, newbie heroes slaying the dragon, through some combination of natural talent, luck, and destiny. 5E reduced the range somewhat, but it is still quite immense.

Making a game requires pulling back the curtain*, so an RPG isn't likely to have the "artistry" or mystique that a book or movie does. I suppose D&D attempts/attempted to maintain some surprise (i.e. what can Gandalf actually do?) by splitting the PC and DM books, but that approach is only so effective when offering the DMG to the public, instead of it being invitation-only.


A LotR setting is just as playable to me as a D&D setting. Actually, it's more so, because LotR makes more sense than the D&D settings I've seen. I can make better decisions (playability) when the game/setting makes better sense.

*But not always!
As I said, I would love playing in a LotR game, but it would have to be just that: LotR, not D&D in Middle-earth. If the latter, it would likely grow rather boring. Not enough monsters, treasure, powers through leveling, etc. An authentic Middle-earth campaign would have very different tropes and assumptions.

I think the art, writing and content of an RPG can all speak to artistry, and that has nothing necessarily to do with playability.
True. When I wrote the OP I had in mind "boutique RPGs" that seem to be the purview of well-regarded game designers that seem to have a rather specific theme or play experience in mind, or a particular story in mind. Some such RPGs seem focused on creating a game experience that has limited long-term playability. Something about D&D, as the prime example, is conducive to long-term play.

I'm absolutely in love with Symbaroum, but have wondered how conducive it is to a long-term campaign. They're currently in the middle of a seven-part campaign. I think it started in 2017, with one new book per year, so presumably the final part will come out in 2023. And what then? I'm sure the imaginative people at Free League will find new stories to tell, but Symbaroum is an example of a game that has a very specific setting and story in mind.
 

aco175

Legend
When I was reading the OP, I found myself thinking about Planescape and how the art draws feelings about the setting as a whole. Same thing with Dark Sun and Eberon. The artistry can influence the playability.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I agree that narrowly focused RPGs can lack long term playability, or perhaps replayability, for some people. That comes as part of the exchange for tightly focused mechanics that are designed to enhance some of the genre indexing aspects of play. I'm usually quite happy with that exchange. Its far easier to write great mechanics for a narrow genre focus than it is to accomplish the same thing for game that aspires to be kitchen sink.

Im not even sure you can do both. I would descibe it as a sliding scale with narrow genre specifcs at one end and universal rules at the other. For my part, I find that crunch and detail past a certain point loses its ability to enhance my game experience in directed ways. That's probably why I've never been a huge fan of universal rules systems and have become even less so as I get older.
 



Scott Christian

Adventurer
Middle-earth, as a setting, is a work of art in a class above and beyond any D&D setting (IMO!). It is a finely wrought Alan Lee or John Howe watercolor, while most D&D worlds are collages of often clashing colors and shapes. But when it comes down to playing time, I kind of want the collage, the playability over artistry.
I think this is an insightful statement that I've never heard expressed as succinctly as this. I also ten to agree. I do wonder if it is because it allows us, as GM's, more freedom of expression, than using just a watercolor style.
The same basic principle applies to game mechanics. I have always thought that dice pools and any system that only uses d6, or even non-dice mechanics, has a certain aesthetic quality to it. But I'll be damned if I don't like rolling d20s, and any time I have tried my hand at game design, one of the underlying design goals was "make sure it includes the whole polyhedral family!"
The camp that I am overbearingly stubborn on is - the setting creates the mechanics. When it doesn't it just feels so wrong (IMO).

Rolemaster's old Middle Earth was a dangerous world. Crit tables represented that danger. Sam being able to seriously injure Shelob is a great example of this. Killing orcs with one blow. Another great example. And it's ability to use luck points or defense or whatever it was called seemed logical.

D&D is mildly dangerous. Hence, death saves, HP bloat, etc. And it makes sense from what I see of the settings they create. (I mean, how many times should Drizzt or Bruenor have died? I think PF's Golarion falls into this category as well. (I would throw in VtM also.) So these mechanics seem to match their settings.

Conan and Dangerous Journeys does an ok job, but not great. I feel the same with Numenera.

The Witcher RPG does not match the setting. It is mildly frustrating, and made me stop playing after one session.

I don't know, maybe that is just my pet-peeve. But, a game's mechanics should be built around its setting. When it isn't it is blindingly obvious. Half the rules seem like wooden square pegs smashed through round holes, leaving splinters everywhere.
 

When we were younger and had more time, we played all sorts of RPGs. Now, it's mostly D&D. We have less time to play and the time and effort to get people up-to-speed on the rules and setting isn't something everyone wants to commit to.

Having a baseline set of rules and world assumptions is pretty handy. I don't need to explain what Schlorbs and Blonkenmorgs are, or that all magic requires a person to roll a d6+d4 and subtract their Arcane Stench statistic.

Buuuut...I think that there's something enjoyable about systems that are purpose-built for a setting. Think about The Spire, or Warhammer Fantasy, and how those rules and worlds flow together to shape the game. On the converse, I tend to not like one-size-fits-all systems like GURPS, FATE, Powered by the Apocalypse, Palladium's in-house system, and so on.
 

zarionofarabel

Explorer
System Matters (TM)

At least I have believed that for a long time. I lived through the "everything D20!" era and it was awful.

IMHO there is nothing worse than a system that doesn't fit the setting. DnD is super duper great for playing D&D. It's absolute shite for anything else. Then again, I wouldn't want to use Pendragon for FR or Greyhawk.
 


There are probably entire libraries about what the nature of magic is in Middle Earth and what the powers of Gandalf had and why he was limited in using them. It's just not something that D&D models well without serious tinkering.
The only tinkering needed really is limiting wizards (and everyone else) to 5th level, and having to spend all those nasty hours of prep per spell a la AD&D 1E, and opening up the weapon proficiencies to wizards.
The hard part of that is getting the fighter to agree to a level 5 cap...

THere's an old Dragon article that points out D&D magic for all that we see Gandalf pull off, except for the resurrection after the Balrog, is 3rd level spells and under.

To be honest, that's what makes it so unsuitable - the mods are easy, but limit character growth severely.

Aside, of course, from the halflings all multi-classing into fighter.
 

pemerton

Legend
Most of my RPGing has been with non-D&D systems.

By hours, the system I've played the most is Rolemaster. Next would be 4e D&D, and after that probably AD&D.

Over the past five years I've played a mix of non-D&D systems: Burning Wheel, Classic Traveller, Prince Valiant, and MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic have been the main ones. This has included my own fantasy variant of Cortex+ Heroic Fantasy for MERP/LotR.

I've never felt any particular tension between "artistry" and playability. In the context of D&D, 4e is - to my mind - clearly the version of the game with the most deliberate aesthetic of world and characters, and also the most playable version in the sense of reliably delivering great RPG experiences.

In a different sense of artistry, Classic Traveller has one of the strongest design aesthetics of the early RPGs - striking trade dress (the "little black books"); a uniform approach to PC build that is famous as one of the first "lifepath" PC gen systems; 2D6 for almost all rolls that the game calls for. And it's also a highly playable RPG, in my view much moreso than most of its contemporaries.

Luke Crane's Burning Wheel books are full of authorial voice - maybe not as much as Baker's Apocalypse World, but heading in that direction - and BW is a great game that I love to play and GM.

Trying to think of a RPG that felt evocative but I suspect is not all that playable, the first that came to mind is Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed/Evolved. But I don't think its the evocative material that is the obstacle to playability - it's the baroque 3E-derived system.

Conversely, a good, playable system is often itself the manifestation of artistry. Vincent Baker's games are probably the best examples of this. Poison'd is a game I may never play, but not because the artistry of it's design gets in the way - more for reasons of theme and content.
 

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