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What's the Next Great Leap Forward in RPG Mechanics?

innerdude

Legend
So I've been thinking about this for some time, but the Unity RPG thread from today made me finally post this as a discussion topic.

As stated, what is the next leap forward in RPG mechanics that will change the way we play?

For example, the Advantage / Disadvantage mechanic has completely reshaped how we think about modifiers in D&D. Yet it took until D&D's 40th year of existence for it to become part of the game.

I haven't played Dungeon World yet, but the "diceless GM-ing" factor seems to be a big deal in DW, as well as from the design concept from Unity.

The WHFRP 3e / FF Star Wars dice mechanic is widely praised as being innovative.

I'm still of the opinion that a good "bell curve" dice system would be the standard for my "platonic ideal" of an RPG, yet very few systems seem to embrace the bell curve paradigm.

In any case, I'm just wondering what people think. Where can RPG mechanics go to better fulfill a particular need/playstyle that hasn't been explored yet?
 

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delericho

Legend
It's kind of hard to predict where the next great leap will come from: if we knew what it was, we'd be using it already!

That said, the "unity initiative" looks quite interesting. If it does indeed solve the issues of turn-based initiative systems, that could be a way forward.

Also, on the topic of diceless GMing and the WFRP3e/FF-SW dice pool system: I'm not a fan of either, to put it mildly.
 

Celebrim

Legend
In any case, I'm just wondering what people think. Where can RPG mechanics go to better fulfill a particular need/playstyle that hasn't been explored yet?

I think 5e is one of the most innovative systems I've seen in the last 15 years.

But I remember back to system design in the '80's and how almost everyone was pursuing the false goal of 'realism' based on a theory that if you had a system that was 'realistic' that a whole host of other goals would be simultaneously achieved. For example, it was I think widely assumed that the source of many table arguments was the feeling that the system had produced an illogical result, and so if you had a system that consistently produced more realistic results there would be more focus on play and less negotiation of play. It was assumed that realism equaled emersion, that realism equaled depth of characterization, that realism equaled greater excitement, and greater literary or cinematic value to the stories that were being produced at the table. In short, 'realism' was seen as a cure all for whatever ailed your table, and as such game designers seemed to pursue the idea that you couldn't have too much realism and that there job was to figure out mechanics that would handle issues realistically. I can remember evaluating mechanics on that basis, "Oh, that's more realistic. Yeah, that's good."

Looking back on it now it seems sort of silly.

I feel much the same way about some of the panaceas that I see being advanced in RPG design right now: 'rule light', 'one single mechanic for everything', 'player narrative agency', and so forth.

I'm sure I can't tell you what the next big thing is going to be. But I can tell you what it's not going to be: doubling down on something we've already got.

If I had to guess, I'd say the next big thing will be the recognition that different sorts of tasks benefit from different mental models of the task and so benefit from different mechanical models. As someone whose design interests spread across all sorts of games, I often look at new RPGs and imagine them translated to a cRPG. I then often think to myself, "Did the RPG designer really understand what they were building, or would they be surprised by what the visual model of their system would look like?"

If I had to guess, the next really BIG thing after that would be electronic tools that seamlessly integrate with traditional PnP play to automate aspects of PnP play that are otherwise tedious and repetitive, allowing you to have designs that meet the goals of both the 'rules light' and 'rules heavy' factions. So far, electronic tools have tended to increase GM prep rather than decrease it, but I can foresee a turning point in technology where that problem stops being true.
 
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Aldarc

Legend
I haven't played Dungeon World yet, but the "diceless GM-ing" factor seems to be a big deal in DW, as well as from the design concept from Unity.
Diceless GMing is also part of Monte Cook Games' Cypher System.

Also, on the topic of diceless GMing and the WFRP3e/FF-SW dice pool system: I'm not a fan of either, to put it mildly.
Interesting. Diceless GMing has been one of my favorite things about the Cypher System. It has been liberating as a GM, and my players have said that it makes them feel less antagonistic towards the GM than they have in other RPG rules systems in which the GM rolls.
 

I think the FATE system/Dresden Files RPG extension of player narrative input really opened my eyes to some new possibilities and play styles. I think that sort of collaborative approach will increase in RPG design.

As far as what comes next, I think Celebrim is right, it’ll be some sort of electronic integration. Not my thing, and many of the attempts have failed/been flawed, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t succeed in the future.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I don't think of them as leaps *forward* necessarily - that implies some form of destination or preferred direction. We don't all agree on much of anything, much less what direction a particular game, or games in general, should go.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I suspect that we may also see moves towards GM-less play, possibly through integrating player-collaborative storytelling and boardgame-esque mechanics. As [MENTION=177]Umbran[/MENTION] said, I doubt it will be the preferred method of roleplaying or even the predominate one, but I do suspect that we will see more of it, particularly if it is simple, casual friendly, and involves little prep-time.
 

innerdude

Legend
I think 5e is one of the most innovative systems I've seen in the last 15 years.

That's an interesting take. I've sort of mentally turned myself off to d20 / D&D as a whole for long enough now that it seems hard to rationalize how that would be the case. That and the fact that in retrospect, I was never truly getting the kind of game from D&D (at least the 3.x/PF variety) that I really wanted, at least as a player.

In fact, I might even ask those that actively play D&D 5e if there's been a real paradigm shift in play from the 3.x era. Is 5e demonstrably different in play?

But I remember back to system design in the '80's and how almost everyone was pursuing the false goal of 'realism' based on a theory that if you had a system that was 'realistic' that a whole host of other goals would be simultaneously achieved. For example, it was I think widely assumed that the source of many table arguments was the feeling that the system had produced an illogical result, and so if you had a system that consistently produced more realistic results there would be more focus on play and less negotiation of play. It was assumed that realism equaled emersion, that realism equaled depth of characterization, that realism equaled greater excitement, and greater literary or cinematic value to the stories that were being produced at the table. In short, 'realism' was seen as a cure all for whatever ailed your table, and as such game designers seemed to pursue the idea that you couldn't have too much realism and that there job was to figure out mechanics that would handle issues realistically. I can remember evaluating mechanics on that basis, "Oh, that's more realistic. Yeah, that's good."

Looking back on it now it seems sort of silly.

And GURPS is the poster child for this line of thinking, and having played it a bit now over the past 5 years, there's definitely a byproduct of that sort of thinking all throughout the system. The whole idea that if we could just stop rationalizing over what "hit points" mean, and have real "active" defenses like parry and dodge instead of static armor class, and if taking a sword blow actually meant something, etc. etc., that somehow the game would improve in leaps and bounds over what "D&D" was giving to the hobby.

In my experience, the end result was actually worse. At least, it was worse once you had to start engaging with the actual mechanics.

But see, this partly goes to my original point --- is there design space for more innovation in "core resolution" mechanics? For example, is it simply impossible to do a "bell curve" system that uses most, if not all the polyhedral dice? All of the popular "bell curve" systems that I know of historically (GURPS, HERO, Mechwarrior, Star Wars d6) all used d6's exclusively.

Is it just too hard to do a bell curve using stuff other than d6's? To me, "bell curve" distribution for mechanical resolution just "feels" right. Most of the known physical world operates within principles described by a statistical "bell curve," so it seems to me that a "bell curve" system should feel "most natural." The fact that I really dislike GURPS implementation of it doesn't mean the idea "clicks" in my mind.

But as you say, maybe "bell curve" resolution is a byproduct of the mindset that RPG "realism" is this sort of cure-all that makes play inherently better, when really that isn't the case.

I feel much the same way about some of the panaceas that I see being advanced in RPG design right now: 'rule light', 'one single mechanic for everything', 'player narrative agency', and so forth.

I can see that. I'd agree that that holding up "one way to play" as being "perfect" for everything is probably unhealthy. At the same time, I'm also much more aware these days of what rules are actually doing to a game. I don't really care about "rules lite" or "rules heavy" so much as I care about "rules necessary" and "rules effective." What rules are necessary to provide the type of playstyle you want?


I'm sure I can't tell you what the next big thing is going to be. But I can tell you what it's not going to be: doubling down on something we've already got.

That's an interesting take. I don't know that I totally agree with it. In one sense, I think "innovation" might come about if someone actually tried to double down on an existing concept, and then tried to work the rest of the system around it. If there's "just one thing" a designer thinks they absolutely MUST get right, and the mechanics look at building around that, it could lead to something interesting.


If I had to guess, I'd say the next big thing will be the recognition that different sorts of tasks benefit from different mental models of the task and so benefit from different mechanical models. As someone whose design interests spread across all sorts of games, I often look at new RPGs and imagine them translated to a cRPG. I then often think to myself, "Did the RPG designer really understand what they were building, or would they be surprised by what the visual model of their system would look like?"

If I had to guess, the next really BIG thing after that would be electronic tools that seamlessly integrate with traditional PnP play to automate aspects of PnP play that are otherwise tedious and repetitive, allowing you to have designs that meet the goals of both the 'rules light' and 'rules heavy' factions. So far, electronic tools have tended to increase GM prep rather than decrease it, but I can foresee a turning point in technology where that problem stops being true.

There's a whole layer of human-computer interactivity that doesn't exist yet that could really bring about changes in the way we play RPGs. For example, how soon in the future will this little thing we call a "mouse" be completely obsolete? Hand/motion/voice interaction at some point, I have to believe, will get rid of keyboards and mice, at least for the vast majority of computer technologies.
 

Rod Staffwand

aka Ermlaspur Flormbator
Innovation is usually born of need, rather than idle experimentation. So, the question becomes: What facets of RPGs need improvement?

Obviously, each game has its own priorities and design choices. Dungeon World, FATE, D&D 5E, Pathfinder and whatever else are all their own beasts and an innovation for one system wouldn't necessarily translate to others. I don't think we'll be seeing a completely revolutionary system or way of conceptualizing games (such as the story game movement) any time soon.

If I had to generalize about specific problems that haven't been adequately addressed, I'd say the following (the common theme being ways to reduce complexity with elegant solutions):
1. A simple combat system that is easy to learn and understand, but with built-in complexity that allows ongoing mastery and enough flexibility to cover a variety of tones, power-levels and gaming styles.
2. Seamless integration with understandable and balanced "campaign-level" resources, such as domain management, faction building, divine forces, mass combat etc.
3. Methods to parse and adjudicate open-ended actions and abilities such as combat stunts, gadgets/bags of tricks, magic-does-anything systems, etc. without bogging down into complex calculations or hand-waving it away.
4. Methods and tools to speed GM prep and aid with improvisation. Ways to conceptualize adventure content in an easy, understandable way.
5. Better terminology and communication of play styles and expectations to minimize strife and confusion between GMs and players. A lot of this has been done (here and elsewhere on the internet) but it hasn't been codified and popularized.

Some of these have been solved in part, with some games, and "sorta-good-enough" options are out there, but I'd say more work needs to be done.
 

Celebrim

Legend
That and the fact that in retrospect, I was never truly getting the kind of game from D&D (at least the 3.x/PF variety) that I really wanted, at least as a player.

A lot of people tend to blame experiences on system when they really should be looking harder at the table. I often don't get the king of game from D&D I want either, but it has nothing to do with the system. And changing to a system that slapped a sticker on itself proclaiming that experience was on the inside, wouldn't help any. Quite often the problem is that you are at a table where no one else has quite the same priorities and aesthetics of play as you have, or they aren't even aware a different aesthetic of play is available. Then you change to a different table with different players playing a different system with different goals and different social contracts, and you do get what you want.

It would be a mistake to think that's primarily about system.

And GURPS is the poster child for this line of thinking...

There was a point in my career as a GM when I thought GURPS terribly unrealistic, and was infatuated with the GULLIVER house rules.

But see, this partly goes to my original point --- is there design space for more innovation in "core resolution" mechanics?

Maybe, but I think we are reaching the end of that. Right now we are seeing a rather pointless proliferation in systems as solutions. It's not that you can't refine systems or that systems have no impact on play, but we are overestimating how important system is to play.

For example, is it simply impossible to do a "bell curve" system that uses most, if not all the polyhedral dice?

People don't naturally have built in probabilities and statistics algorithms. Their intuitions for things regarding probabilities are not to be trusted in the slightest. I wouldn't say "bell curve" systems are impossible, but they don't do what most people think that they do. One very classic problem you see in "bell curve" designs is that they undermine their own intentions by making the black swans even more important.

But as you say, maybe "bell curve" resolution is a byproduct of the mindset that RPG "realism" is this sort of cure-all that makes play inherently better, when really that isn't the case.

That would be my opinion. What are you trying to achieve with a "bell curve" distribution?

I can see that. I'd agree that that holding up "one way to play" as being "perfect" for everything is probably unhealthy.

I'm taking this a bit further than the usual claim here. I'm actually saying "one way to play isn't good for anything", much less right for something. I'm beginning to see the desire for unified systems - another facet of GURPS-like design - as being a part of the problem. People come up with this one elegant mechanic, and then they want to make everything work under it.

At the same time, I'm also much more aware these days of what rules are actually doing to a game.

I think we all are, and I think everyone has gotten better at analyzing what a rule actually does separate from what a rule is intended to do. Back in the day it was enough to say, "Well, this rule is intended to make X more realistic; therefore it is good." Now we are getting a bit better at figuring out what a rule does other than create a process. That being said, the tendency to proclaim how obviously superior your game is because everything in it uses the same process, shows we haven't come as far on that front as we could. We not only still see games that want to have the same mental model for travel, evasion, social interaction, combat, problem solving, and every and any other thing that can occur, but increasingly seeing that taken for granted as the right way to do things. And just as when I started questioning realism as a cure all only when I really tried hard to implement it in a system seemingly capable of it, so too exposure to unified mechanics make me wonder just how well that really works. I'm not only increasingly unconvinced one system is best for everyone, or for every genera. I'm wondering if one system is enough for any game.

What rules are necessary to provide the type of playstyle you want?

That's certainly the heart of it. But I'm not even sure I could put my finger down on the 'playstyle' I wanted. So often what I see systems saying that are proclaiming how enabling they are of a playstyle is, "You'll need to forgo everything else you've loved and enjoyed about RPGs." I can't even describe my playstyle. All I can say is, "All those times I've had the most fun. I want it to be like that all the time and not just some of the time."

That's an interesting take. I don't know that I totally agree with it. In one sense, I think "innovation" might come about if someone actually tried to double down on an existing concept, and then tried to work the rest of the system around it. If there's "just one thing" a designer thinks they absolutely MUST get right, and the mechanics look at building around that, it could lead to something interesting.

I think that works really well for a board game design. But it takes a good two hours to sit down to play an RPG before the game really gets going, by which time I'm already done with a board game (or usually, want to be done with it). The more I've thought about that lately and why that could be, the more I'm sure that it's an illusion or a misconception that when I play an RPG I'm playing the same game the whole time.

There's a whole layer of human-computer interactivity that doesn't exist yet that could really bring about changes in the way we play RPGs. For example, how soon in the future will this little thing we call a "mouse" be completely obsolete? Hand/motion/voice interaction at some point, I have to believe, will get rid of keyboards and mice, at least for the vast majority of computer technologies.

It's not that part of the interface that I think is the real limiting factor. We don't need to address the problem of how much effort it takes to use the play side of the interface. It's the creation side of the interface that is the real challenge. The problem is replacing the GMs and players imagination with something equally powerful and easy to operate.
 

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