Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Role Playing Games, part II


How We Fix the Problems, I Hope

So, many years ago my kids began to play games with me. They started with video games, and then began to include tabletop games, like Pokemon CCG, and Yu-Gi-Oh. That was about the same time that I was getting involved in Magic, the Gathering, too.

Soon after, they began asking if they could play Dungeons and Dragons. I was very nervous for all of the reasons that I spelled out in the last post. It really has the potential to teach impressionalble children the wrong concepts. On the other hand, it can also teach teamwork and goodness. It can enhance creative thinking and problem solving.

In that sense, role-playing games are very much like life. What you get out of it depends very much on what you put into it. I definitely didn't want them to be playing under a GM that didn't understand this, or the nature of consequences for acts and choices. But then, did I really want to be the GM for a system where I had so many fundamental problems?

Years went by, and every so often, my kids would remind me how much they wanted to try it out. Sometimes I'd flat out turn them down, other times I would put them off. I looked at the newer edition rule books, and found that, even though there had been some changes, most of my core issues with the game were still in place.

I had some stock responses, like how I didn't have time to make up an adventure, or how we didn't have enough money to buy the books, or any of a number of excuses.

Finally, this last year, I could see that they weren't going to give up, and I could see that, at age 16, I wasn't going to be able to deny my oldest for very much longer. I also had been more active in game design, having worked through some years on Seeker's Quest Scripture Card Game.

Finally, I decided that I would make an RPG system that would deal with my fears and issues, and allow us to have a great time bonding and playing. So, last July, I wrote out a few quick pages of rules and tables and got started.

The rules themselves have undergone significant revisions already, and the core keeps getting more and more balanced. The adventure we've been playing has continued to grow and develop. We've had times where we've had to stop and rework the characters to reset the game balance, and there have been times when we've suddenly thought of great new ideas of things to add. There is still much to do.

But it has been a wonderful bonding experience with me and my children, and we'll continue to work on it.

Here's how we've dealt with the four issues:

The Focus on Fighting over Story and Character

First, from the very beginning, we began creating the characters by inventing their back story. Who is this? Where is he/she from? Why is he/she adventuring? What motivates him/her? What does he/she want to be when "grown up"? Then, rather than randomly rolling numbers for attributes, the players used a point system to develop the attributes and skills that fleshed out that backstory.

Secondly, I approached the entire adventuring process from the perspective of a story line. As the Game Master, I used the backstories of the newly formed characters to create the world and the opening situation. Then, as the characters began exploring this world, they encountered adversaries and others that made sense within that world. I constantly asked myself, "Why?" Why would these monsters be there? What is this Non-Player Character trying to accomplish?

Story became a very integral part of the game from the first session, and it grew from there.

The System for Magic, Spells, and Dieties

In order to fix the fundamental difficulties I had with magic, I had to abstract the system. We came up with five different kinds of "Powers" (I didn't even want to call it "magic"), and some basic abilities within each one. Each player that had powers had a certain number of "Will Points" that he/she could use in a day. The player would then be faced with a situation, and would think of an action within that type of power that might solve it. He/she would describe the action, and I, as the GM, would tell the player how many WP it would cost to do that. The points would be subtracted, and the dice rolled.

This made it so that the source of the power was vague, even inconsequential. There was no detailed incantations or "eyes of newt" to be thrown into bubbling cauldrons. The character simply willed it to happen, and if the die roll was successful, it happened.

The Alignment System

It was my son that suggested something that would end up fixing the idea of good or evil characters. He didn't even know it at the time. As we were creating the first character sheets, he said, "You should have a 'luck' attribute." I thought about that, and decided on "Karma Points". As the players did good and helpful things for each other and the NPC's in the world, they would gain KP. If they did horrible things, not only would the NPC's get upset and possibly attack or capture the characters, but they could be docked KP. The KP's could be used to artificially alter a critical die roll that failed.

As a result, the players began to conciously do things that would gain them Karma and avoid being bad guys.

The Overall Complexity and Inflexibility

Games have a tendency, over time to become more and more complex. That's the nature of game design. It's kind of an "opposite entropy". You encounter a problematic situation in the game design, and you fix it by adding some rules. That's OK, that makes it so you can get back to playing. But then, those new rules bring up other situations that beg for more rules, and more rules, etc...

I'm working to keep this game simple with guidelines for Game Mastering. This does mean that the GM has to really take charge, but it also frees him/her up for making the story happen instead of twiddling about looking up and administering the rules. He/she simply decides what's reasonable within a framework and goes with it.

It has been challenging to find the internal balances in those guidelines. There have been a couple of times when the system has essentially broken down, and we've had to rework the characters to keep them from being too powerful. In those circumstances, we've had to struggle with being responsible game designers while we like playing powerful characters!

In the process, however, we've really bonded as a family, and I haven't had the problems come up like I had feared. It really has been great fun.


Mark has a lifelong testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church). Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his Dutch Oven blog.

Mark's Other Blog Posts: name post, name post,

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