Traditionally, tabletop roleplaying games have been exercises in resource management. Characters are defined by the sum of their powers, but these powers are defined in turn by the number of times they can be used, with number crunching and limitations serving to “balance” characters.

The problem with this approach is that it encourages specialization and unique characterization (both very good things) by enforcing loads of arbitrary mechanical limitations and distinctions. Resource management isn’t necessarily the enemy of narrative storytelling, but when the design for a game begins to focus more on balance and numbers than on the effect characters have in the story, it becomes problematic.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed in Open Legend as I’ve worked with it as a player and a content creator is that it strips resource management almost entirely out of the act of gameplay. It also removes powers from their narrative sources, which at first seems to be a little oxymoronic, but let us consider the simple case of a druid with the Untrackable feat, which makes it impossible for paths they have taken to be traced through natural means.

The reflex of a traditional game designer used to D&D or other mainstream games is to deny the druid this ability when they are out of nature, to force them to “play to their concept” by avoiding urban areas, and to add other arbitrary restrictions to increase the “natural” elements of the character: for instance, a proscription on metal armor.

As designers, we should ask: what is the actual mechanism for the druid becoming untraceable? Is there no nature in the city? Maybe the fact that it’s hard to find nature in the city simply means that he’d be even more effective at becoming untraceable, as people following him get lost while following familiar paths through the confusion of urban life.

As a player and a GM, I think that it’s important to remember that roleplaying is most often a path to fantasy, and whether we are looking at a cyborg hunting aliens or a druid acting to protect their grove, a character’s powers and abilities are a part of them. To really appreciate the worlds and concepts we are exploring, we need to consider the fact that spellcasting characters need – deserve – a life beyond preparing eight spells and casting two 1st-level spells and two 2nd-level spell per day. Part of the reason why our characters feel limited in diversity and development in many games stems from the fact that the majority of the game’s mechanics are shared equally between all characters, with each character getting occasional exceptions to the game’s basic rules.

The solution to this is to design with the common mechanics as a stepping off point for gameplay, building upon them with distinct elements that characters have enough access to for the game to remain interesting even after a heated combat or difficult adventure. Rather than benefiting from resource depletion, which maintains a carefully woven network of balance and narrative marked by conservative play, characters will be richest when they are free to use abilities with abandon, using the things that make them unique at every moment of play instead of in moments of desperation.

In Eclipse Phase, someone sleeved into a synthmorph feels the fact that they no longer breathe, eat, “sleep” in a traditional sense, and they are impacted by that. Someone in a body with a cannon built into their forearm is always living with the implications of the fact that they live in a body built for violence. This is a major point of the transhuman mindset in the game: a character’s body (and even, to an extent, their mind) are tools for them to manipulate and change. It would be absurd to limit their powers to a limited number of activations per day or an arbitrary daily resource pool. Yet these are the things we permit fantasy characters to deal with constantly.

One of the things I’ve been working with recently as I approach game design is the concept that characters that are fantastic or extraordinary need to go beyond archetypes and tropes. To link these concepts into the world of video games, I’ve been enjoying Overwatch recently, and one thing that I’ve noticed is very different between it and Team Fortress 2, from which it draws much inspiration, is the fact that each character has a different schema for approaching the world. A game with nine tightly controlled classes focused on independent archetypes has in many ways been transformed into a game with a couple dozen of unique characters, many of whom blend and share archetypes in a way that is satisfying and meaningful, none of whom have quite as much versatility of any of the nine characters the spiritual successor but all of whom feel incredibly powerful and unique.

In tabletop roleplaying games, it is time for each character to get their own schema–their own distinct worldviews and perceptions–and their own agency. As tabletop games have advanced, they have become more and more dependent on building rules into the core gameplay experience that serve as roadblocks and balancing acts. The role of the game master and players as storytellers has become supplanted by the inexorable advance of mechanics and balance.

There is no reason for this. The entire reason for the increased focus on mechanics and balance to ensure that each character can get a “fair share” of the spotlight is linked to the wargame-derived mechanics that have long populated tabletop roleplaying games. When a character is handled using rules that evolved from the same rulesets that attempted to govern dozens of characters at a time without giving narrative agency to any, should we be surprised?

A character who lives in their world works best when they, and their companions, have access to the things that make them unique at all times. Giving a character some resources to expend turns roleplaying into an exercise of mathematics and futile attempts to balance–there is a place for strong mechanics in games, but they should not come at the expense of characters having access to distinct abilities.

Featured Illustration by Holy Vorpal Pen of Drawing +5

About The Author

Kyle Willey
Contributor

Kyle is an educator by day and a game designer and writer by night. His interests include classical music, fantasy and science fiction, writing, and game mechanics.

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2 Responses

  1. Chris

    Requiring players to craft characters instead of a collection of stats would make role-playing seem more natural rather than having characters with back-stories chronicling enemies, allies, achievements, family, and morals and then having stats of something entirely different. All that is needed is to break the reliance on the experience mechanisms in games and accept characters, unless they are identical, will not be balanced in all situations and instead rate a character on how well they will do in a given situation.

    Reply
    • Kyle Willey
      Kyle Willey

      I don’t know how well that would work in the tabletop roleplaying scene. Part of the point of mechanics is that they fit a psychological need for certain players, that ability to create order from chaos.

      Having a game in which the mechanics come second fiddle to storytelling is really outside of the game designer’s wheelhouse; at that point collaborative storytelling is the main exercise, and ensuring any sort of narrative control passes fairly between collaborators becomes a matter of etiquette rather than gaming.

      The problem that really arises most when players craft characters without any concern to stats and game mechanics and removing experience is that these things serve to allow a meaningful limitation and progression.

      As weird as it sounds, people often forget the way that characters develop and advance as they move away from the game mechanics; not everyone is a skilled writer with backgrounds in characterization and narrative.

      If you want something like that, there are games like FATE and Cortex/Cortex Plus that have some more heavily narrative-focused development, but typically games with a very strong storytelling-over-gameplay focus defeat their own purposes, becoming little more than annoyances in the processes of storytelling, rather than mechanical tools to ensure that storytelling follows certain conventions and tropes.

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