A mindset in the roleplaying community that has always created an uneasy tension in me is what seems like a rift between two types of players. On one hand, some players prefer story (known as “fluff”) and on the other hand, some players prefer strategy (sometimes called “crunch”). The problem I’ve always had with both camps is that I’ve never fit comfortably into either.
As something of a nomad, belonging to neither tribe, I’ve found that that I usually feel some dissatisfaction with campaigns that I’ve played in, particularly when a GM says “I know that Minor Blizzard spell does 1d8 cold damage, but you can’t change it to fire damage – that would change the balance of the game and make fire mages more powerful”. I think the knee-jerk reaction from most people in Tribe Fluff would be “Ha! See, there it is, those rules are in the way of our story!”
But I say wait a moment, time out. It may look like the rules are to blame, and I’m not saying the rules are innocent, but I think it’s more complex than that. Here’s the thing, maybe you’re playing an RPG that doesn’t use dice or have any kind of randomization in action resolution, but odds are you’re not. If your game is using dice and limiting the number of actions a character can take each turn, then your game is using strategy. Sometimes Tabletop RPG gamers have a perspective where they think that loving strategy and rules put you in Tribe Crunch with the wargamers and the first-person shooters. That might be true. But I think we all belong to the same tribe, and most of us like strategy on some level. Maybe it’s dice, maybe it’s combat strategy, maybe it’s video games.
If we set aside the great war between Tribe Crunch and Tribe Fluff and call parley for a moment, I’d like to propose a third option. Maybe the problem is not that strategy and story don’t go together. What if the imperative question is which one leads and which one follows?
With our Minor Blizzard example above, what if we challenged that the spell description should be defining the rules? The amount of damage, the area of effect, and the cold energy type are all inherently linked to one spell. That spell, along with a hundred others (of which you can only select a few) end up telling the story about what your character can do.
What if we reversed this?
What if players could choose to pay a cost for more damage, larger area of effect, and extra conditions like “you’re frozen and slowed” or “you’re on fire and taking ongoing damage”? Then we could roll the dice and make those decisions first, but the final roll would tell us how effective the result is. Sometimes my fire mage might unleash a mighty inferno. Other times, things don’t work out. The spell still affects a large area but it’s not particularly deadly.
When I created Open Legend, before embarking I forced myself to answer a question to determine if it was worthwhile: “Why am I doing this? How will it be different?”
I knew that many people would laugh and think it frivolous to create a new tabletop RPG game when there is already a superabundance of options available. The answer I came up with was: “I want a system that would allow you to tell any story from a book or movie without the rules getting in the way.“
How this ended up playing out in practice, and something I’ve not seen very much in other RPGs, is that rules only step in to arbitrate when there’s a particular desired effect with a specific strategic value. In Metal Gear Solid, when you approach an enemy from behind and knock them unconscious, there is a certain value on knocking them out from a tactical perspective. In Open Legend, we apply a value to that effect, call it the Incapacitated bane, and we make it available via a few different methods: Enchantment magic that puts an enemy to sleep, a choke hold using the Agility attribute, or the supernatural force of Entropy, similar to Darth Vader’s force choke.
For anyone who’s interested in more detail about how this all plays out, I’d love for you to check out the core rules. Love it or hate it, it would be great to hear your thoughts, questions, and feedback in the comments section below.