Friday, January 10, 2014

Spontaneous RPG

This might seem like a topic that's been talked to death, but I find that there is relevance to comparisons in the Old School vs. Storytelling RPG debate that apply to my work as a game designer. A lot of the discussion concerning the OS revolves around the combat / wargame aspects of the hobby. Then there is discussion of the power level of characters in the OS and the threat of character fatality. All manner of things are brought to light as strengths and or weaknesses of the OS or of the more modern Storytelling approach to table-top role-playing. I am not interested in debating the merits or faults of either method. Instead I am merely interested in recognizing what they are, what they do for the players that enjoy them, and what that means for Five by Five.

First, I want to define: "Old School" as it relates to me as a designer. I see OS as a game that incorporates the strengths of the gameplay of the Original RPG: Dungeons and Dragons. Interestingly, I don't think that all versions of Dungeons and Dragons accomplish this. I think that knowing where Dungeons and Dragons itself varies from its own formula teaches us something about its successes and failures.

OS D&D as a game (emphasis on game here) is a game about treasure. You kill monsters to gain loot. Your loot is dangled from your character like the ornaments on a Christmas Tree and although, there might be three 5th level human fighters in the party, none of them are the same because they all have their own bit of stuff and a collection of memories that goes with the earning of that stuff. The "memory" aspect is an important thing to acknowledge, because it relates back to the importance of "treasure." D&D isn't about casting fireballs and lightning bolts or fighting dragons ... any old tactical wargame could do that ... it's the "history" the "memories" that make D&D different, that make it an RPG. Because you play the same character from game to game and from week to week ... and more than anything it's his "stuff" that helps prove his tangible connection to his history and the evolving game world.

D&D evolved to incorporate treasure as a reward and it's a defining aspect of OLD SCHOOL Role-Play. D&D players (and other OS RPG gamers) love treasure. When Blizzard Entertainment created the computer RPG, "Diablo" they recognized this and their ability to capitalize on this made the Diablo franchise one of the most popular electronic OS simulations ever. I believe that D&D 4E's efforts to "de-emphasize" the importance of treasures is one of the key factors that contributed to its poor reception among established D&D fans. And I think that any RPG that entertains a "fantasy" backdrop will find itself burdened by this same legacy.

For me it's also important to recognize that not all RPG's are either "Storytelling" or "OS" games ... there are many variations. I do think that many combat intensive RPG's are thrown into the OS soup for their focus on the wargamer roots of the hobby, but for my purposes, these don't belong there. I am going to borrow a term from the computer games arena: Strategy RPG. I want to lump a whole family of RPG games that have a combat emphasis into the SRPG category that are neither OS games or Storytelling games.

Storytelling games are a whole other animal ... or at least they pretend to be. At first I thought that Storytelling games should be defined as those games that put the power into the creative hands of the players and that emphasize and encourage social interaction between the players over the use of strategy and conflict mechanisms. The thing is, many Storytelling games have every bit as much strategy and conflict mechanisms built into them as an OS or SRPG game, it's simply that the focus of the game mechanic has shifted from resolving a physical battle to resolving a story goal.

Players who are deeply entrenched in the OS camp will argue that they never needed any rules to tell them how to tell a story, or how to play their character, that such things are more hindrance then help. Storytelling players will argue that if such tools had been available to them, that they would have been able to tell complex interactive tales that focused on the characters rather then the combat.

Five by Five isn't an OS game. It doesn't try to recreate game play reminiscent of D&D in any form. It isn't a Storytelling game either. It doesn't contain any mechanisms for crafting a story or resolving story goals. It could be considered a Strategy RPG, if you look at all the combat options ... there is something there. But, it's not really enough ... it's just a tease of an SRPG.

I think that Five by Five is a Spontaneous RPG. That being a game that wants to tell an exciting story, but do so in a natural and unencumbered way. It uses minimal rules so that form doesn't interfere with function. The simple resolution mechanic is meant to resolve all manner of conflict swiftly and without slowing the narrative. The narrative is not given specific structure within the rules, because I, like many who grew-up playing in the OS like for my Roleplay to happen naturally as a result of the social context around my game table ... Spontaneous Role-Playing.

The thing is ... if I want Five by Five to remain spontaneous at the table, then I need to stop trying to make it into something that it's not. I have posted about this before, but I think it's important enough to my creative effort and to Five by Five's future evolution to revisit again and again.

I'm not an OS game, play will never focus on treasure or trappings.
I'm not a Strategy RPG, play will never focus on strategies for combat effectiveness.
I'm not a Storytelling game, play will never focus on defining the flow or pace of a role-play or story.
I'm a Spotaneous RPG, play will focus on fast improvisational cooperative social interaction.

That's what I want.




  1. I greatly enjoyed this post. This is something that I think has a lot of layers. The history of RPGs you describe, going from a basic wargame to a combat centric reward driven format to a higher end strategy type game and from that the evolution of a strait storytelling format is interesting. It seems that as each genre was born they each evolved their own set of negative aspects as well.

    The limited scope of the original combat games must have quickly given way to more robust strategy games but the complications that come with those would have put some off. The Aliens board game I have seems a good example of a strategy type combat game that some find just too involved.

    Others would have taken a different approach by greatly reducing the combat aspects and focus on the storytelling aspects. Of course this can lead to railroading the players into a story line that does not allow for any freeform interactions with their environment and thus limits a naturally evolving story as a side aspect of their interactions with the world (the “history of conquests” you speak of).

    As far as the storytelling aspects I have thought about this a lot and think there are several formats this could take:

    A linear approach - PCs must achieve objectives one after the other to achieve an ultimate goal

    A non- linear approach - PCs achieve objectives in any order to achieve an ultimate goal

    A Branching approach – PCs achieve a subset of available objectives based on a forking set of paths before them to achieve an ultimate goal

    A Sandbox approach – PCs have a set of objectives before them that they can take in any order with no real goal in mind

    It seems to me that these storytelling formats are a “lower layer” of the general game formats you describe in your post. It seems to me that any of these can be mixed, matched and combined to customize a game session or campaign in anyway the players prefer. By doing this several formats emerge that are a hybrid of the basic pure formats you and I described here. For example we could create a Sandbox world with a branching storyline threaded through it that is also highly combat centric.

    Of course when you start to combine these things you need a GM that is willing to put in the time and effort to make these type games come alive or I think PCs will quickly loose interest in the world. That is the downside of these types of game designs.

    So when it comes 5x5, which you define as a “Spontaneous RPG” based on fast improvisational cooperative social interactions, what happens when that social interaction falters or you have a GM that is not good at maintaining that dynamic interaction? Can 5x5 evolve to cover some of these downfalls? Do you see 5x5, fitting into some of the other sub-layers discussed here or is it not designed to fill any of those roles at all?

  2. I believe that the struggle that I encountered when trying to make Five by Five behave in a manner similar to D&D (with salable weapons and armor) I began to complicate the system and this reduced some of it's strengths in favor of the new layers of complexity. The question is, does the loss of speed/simplicity/flexibility which are Five by Five's greatest assets get offset by the strengths of the more complex weapons and armor systems. I believe that ultimately I decided that they did NOT. Therefore, Five by Five doesn't benefit from these systems. It is diminished by them. There are other systems out there that do the weapons/armor thing very well by design. If that kind of game is what I want to play. I can choose one of those systems. Can Five by Five handle other sub-layers? I think it has proven to be very flexible and very "house-rule-able" so, I could see it managing all manner of sub-systems. I would encourage anyone who introduces new rules and ideas into the Five by Five core to keep those systems as simple as possible so that the core strengths of the system are properly served.


  3. The rules of an RPG are like the framework of an adventure or campign. And of course not all are alike. Like a car, some frameworks are designed for speed like a nascar, some for security like an armored car, some for off-roading like a jeep and some for hauling heavy loads like a truck.

    I see 5x5 as a streamlined, faced paced, seat of the pants kind of framework. Will it haul a heavy load... yes, but its not really designed to do that and may break under the strain without reinforcement ( equating to house rules). Would you agree?

    This is interesting because its caused me to take a closer look at some of the other game systems I've encountered and spend some time evaluating what their strengths and weaknesses are from a "framework" persepctive. I think this is why DnD4 was such a mess. Players were used to the "Tank" that DnD3 was but instead with DnD4 they got the "Limousine", where everything was done for them and all they had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride!