Reason and Words are Always an Option

By | September 15, 2012

Good morning!

As we head off to the second day of the Escapist Expo (if you see the people in the blue shirts with the Room 209 Gaming logo, say hi!), we have a guest column from our largely-silent third partner, Ray Watters.  Ray is the lead designer of our social interaction subsystem, so todays column about when you can talk and when you can’t is near and dear to his heart.  And so, without further ado:
Hello, there!

We’ve talked about roleplaying and storytelling being just as much a part of the Infinite Earths ruleset as combat and skills.  That means talking is just as important as fighting, which in turn are just as important as skills and knowledge.  So just what should players expect from roleplaying in our system?

To put it simply, players should expect the chance to talk and reason with the individuals they meet.  They should be able to influence others through words alone.  That might sound obvious, but many published adventures tend to segment the ability to sway NPCs into something that can only be done at specific times.

As a result, players tend to only reason with other characters when in town or when the adventure forces them to appease an NPC through social means alone in order to advance the plot.

“But,” you might say to yourself, “this isn’t much of a problem since most GMs adapt adventures or rules to fit their own players better.”  You would be correct, of course.  But restricting meaningful interactions with NPCs usually reflects a design philosophy within the product itself.

For example, many d20 games expect players to fight a certain number of combats per day before running out of resources.  This is an effort to make the final fight of a dungeon resemble the “boss” in a video game:  the NPC has more staying power than the goons that came before and the players are left with a diminished pool of health and abilities.

A tense encounter, along with an increased sense of danger, can deliver a satisfying conclusion to a story.  That’s why we still see this formula in movies, video games and many roleplaying products.

But planning an adventure around a set number of combats to achieve this dramatic tension can limit options for players who like to talk to their enemies instead of killing them.  Avoiding an entire combat through roleplaying means that players have more resources for later fights they cannot avoid.

There are a number of ways that rules systems can handle this.  Some games give the players tools to influence others, but limit their use to a certain number of times per day.  Others rely on language barriers to prevent players and their opponents from being able to communicate.  Or the adventure only uses enemies that literally cannot talk, such as rodents, automatons, and other cannon fodder.

There’s nothing wrong with different sentient species having their own languages, or with using golems and mindless undead in an adventure.  The problem comes when a product repeatedly makes these decisions to limit players’ options.

Players quickly learn to avoid options that the rules rarely allow to work.  That’s how some rulesets nudge players away from trying to use reason and words to deal with their problems.  Rules that require certain things to happen in order to work properly tend to constrain player actions to make sure things happen in just that way.

That’s the type of design we want to avoid here at Room 209 Gaming.  Players should be able to decide for themselves if their strength of arms, well-chosen words, or skills are the best way to handle any given situation.  We want the Infinite Earths roleplaying game to give players the chance to overcome adversity and influence their own stories with the tools they decide to use, not the ones they are forced to use.

For us, that’s a goal worth talking about.