Eroding Character Limitations for Collaborative Play

By | October 20, 2012

Hello!  Because I have been off this week at a conference for my glorious and exciting day-job, I have not had the opportunity to write for you a glorious and exciting column about my night-job.  So this week, like last week, Ray Watters steps to the fore.  This week, his topic of choice is how our design attempts to remove “barriers of entry” to characters wanting to do things they’re not the bestest best that ever bested a best at. . .after the break:

Just like 73,985 other people, I pledged money to the Project Eternity kickstarter this week to support the making of a new computer RPG by Obsidian Entertainment. I also watched a couple of TV shows and had a chance to glance longingly at some novels I hope to read soon. As we all know, there are an ever-increasing number of movies, books, TV shows and videogames that compete for our time. Does any of this mean I’m going to stop enjoying pen-and-paper roleplaying games? Not a chance.

The last pen-and-paper game I took part in was played earlier this year. It included someone I had just met, the other two founders of Room 209 Gaming and some young college students who recently joined the hobby. We all talked about movies and TV shows while arranging the drinks and snacks, but all those other entertainment options were set aside for a few hours every week so we could enjoy a story together. To me, the lure of a good roleplaying game is that almost anything the players think of can be turned into a session around a sturdy table. Conversely, a roleplaying game suffers when it loses that collaborative sense of building the story together.

In my experience, an engaging roleplaying game includes players who are interested not only in their own characters but also the NPCs. And the only way to keep players engaged in what’s going on is to give them a chance to take part however they see fit. A video game can get away with using a protagonist who is a blank slate because the player is meant to project himself onto that character. But for a roleplaying game to be truly engaging, everyone has to be involved.

So part of the challenge in designing the Infinite Earths Roleplaying Game has been to make a system that encourages that style of play without getting in the way of what people want to do. We decided early on that in order to achieve that goal, a character must be able to contribute whenever the player wants to influence the story, regardless of arbitrary mechanical limitations. This is a very different approach from many open-gaming license games, which tend to pigeonhole players into being competent at only one or two things and inept at everything else.

I have seen time and again how that sort of design nudges players to build characters that are more like a Swiss Army knife than a living, breathing person. Groups that lack a tool for every possible encounter are assumed to be at a great disadvantage, so new players are strongly encouraged to fill certain roles.

Then there are systems where the tools are spread unevenly between the players, allowing select characters the ability to do far more than everyone else. When one character can solve most of the problems, the other characters have little reason to engage in the story.

The other extreme can be just as bad since it limits the contributions of each individual player in a misguided attempt to encourage characters to work together. A player who cannot take part at all also has little ability to help shape the story.

We mention story quite a bit here at Room 209 Gaming because collaborative stories are what make pen-and-paper roleplaying games unique. There are many excellent computer and console RPGs on the market today; I’ve enjoyed many of them. But none of them can compete with pen-and-paper games when it comes to freedom of choice and the ability of players to work together. To make sure our rules don’t get in the way of what the players want to do, all characters in the Infinite Earths ruleset are at least as competent as a regular human being at the three major forms of interaction: combat, skills and social engagements. This doesn’t mean that all tasks are easy; far from it. But what it does mean is that no character is given a suboptimal amount of skill points or hit points or other system resources to make up for their prowess elsewhere.

So while each player still chooses what he wants to excel at, he does not give up the ability to contribute in other areas. This means, for example, that even the least-talented speechmaker in the group can still talk just as well as the average man on the street.

And as that character gains levels, his ability to influence others will improve. He probably will never be able to pull off the epic feats of a player character who focuses on social engagements. But he will be able to help that character out when the entire party tries to convince the local noble lord to lend his aid against a coming army.

In addition, any character can attempt to use any skill without penalty. And since skill checks in Infinite Earths are set by the difficulty of the task, not by the level of the player, many standard uses of skills are within reach of every character. More complex tasks, of course, require training to consistently achieve.

This foundation allows the players to interact with the setting and the NPCs in the way they choose instead of being forced to use the same options over and over again because of mathematical limitations imposed on them at the start of the game.

Our design philosophy makes things easier on the person plotting out the campaign, as well. The Guide doesn’t have to worry so much about putting players in an unfamiliar situation when she knows that each character can act competently outside of their main focus.

This has the added benefit of allowing a wider range of characters to take an active part in more types of plots. Variety is an important part of any form of entertainment.

But I believe – and I daresay that quite a few people would agree – that while the plot forms the bare skeleton of a good roleplaying session, that is not what makes a game memorable or engaging. People care about pen-and-paper games (and movies and novels) because they are invested in the characters. We hope that our approach allows each player to contribute in every kind of situation and challenge so the entire party can rise or fall as a team. That way, the collaborative story can continue to be remembered and enjoyed long after the dice have been put away.