My thoughts on “Chess is not an RPG”

Today I stumbled upon a blog post by John Wick about game balance, social skills, weapon lists etc. If you haven’t read it yet, please check it out and come back afterwards.

You’ve read it? Good. Welcome back! In his post Mr. Wick has tackled several issues. I already had some discussions about this post on Google+, but I thought writing a blog post would be a good idea. So, here it is. Smiley

Let’s first talk a bit about balance in games. I agree with his conclusion that balance between players is totally overrated. If you ever played a successful RIFTS campaign, you probably know that already. It’s not important that the player characters are on the same “power level” but everyone needs to get into the limelight from time to time. If someone is in the spotlight all the time, the game suffers.

He then somehow comes to the issue of weapon lists and brings the example of the famous “tea cup scene” in Chronicles of Riddick. His conclusion is that one should throw out weapon lists completely. I agree that weapons lists and other detailed stats don’t necessarily help to tell an exciting story, but they can help to set the mood of a game. A game like Shadowrun just doesn’t feel the same if you remove the incredibly long equipment lists. Part of the charm of the game is to go shopping and find the perfect gun for your character. Of course you can run a cyberpunk fantasy game without all this, but it’s just not Shadowrun anymore. In my opinion it’s a matter of taste and not a question of whether or not it makes sense from a design standpoint.

Last but not least let’s talk about the most controversial topic of the post: social skills. John Wick tells us that he usually throws out social skills and prefers if players act out their characters. You want to convince a NPC to do something? Let the player act it out. If the GM is convinced, no roll is needed. I somewhat agree with him that it’s better if you can solve social situations in roleplaying games by just acting them out. I even let players succeed if they convincingly played their character. This can of course lead to problems. What is if a player can’t or won’t act out the character? I don’t need to be able to fight with a sword as a player to play a master swordsman in a game, so why make a difference when it comes to social interactions?

I try to always encourage playing out social interactions in roleplaying games. I try to use first person speech and avoid situations like “my character says to your character”. So if a player acts out his or her character convincingly I might not ask for a roll. In a way it’s meant as an encouragement. In non-social situations, an interesting description of how a character tries to break a lock, attack an enemy etc. might also lead to at least a hefty bonus. Generally I try to favor a cool story over dice rolls anytime. BUT I try to never make things harder for the players who are not able to come up with colorful descriptions.

I’ve had a rather lengthy discussion with Chaotic/GM on that matter on Google+ and I have to admit his reasoning is very sound. Treating social interactions differently than non-social ones will give a certain type of player unfair advantages. So perhaps I should rethink my GMing style or at least modify it, so that everyone has a fair chance at the table. So what are your thoughts on the matter?

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “My thoughts on “Chess is not an RPG””

  1. The original article gets so much wrong it’s a little embarrassing how much he makes of his game design experience. Most of what he gets wrong stems from the fact that every point he makes is from the perspective of him as a GM imposing his view of what roleplaying is and what makes it fun. Also, game balance isn’t an altar on which fun has to be sacrificed. In moderation it’s just another way to create that feeling of verisimilitude that helps a world be that much more immersive. It’s also a necessary component of games where there is some amount of conflict between the player characters.

  2. Being good at chess gives some players an advantage at chess.

    Being able to convince a DM NPC of something with your real life social skills means you’re good at D&D and gives you an advantage at D&D. This is not the end of the world.

    I think the social skills push is being made by people who want game rules to cover absolutely every little thing and make the DM completely obsolete. It’s kind of the last frontier left completely up to the DM to adjudicate. It makes sense that they’d push against it.

  3. I agree with both comments. I think the original article that this one links to is written by someone who has let personal taste overwhelm objective reason.

    Early D&D was, by any reasonable account, a role playing game, even by his overly forced definition. In early D&D, there were no Charisma checks, spot check, or perception rolls. That was ALL role played. If you couldn’t convince the Duke to allow you to enter his court, you didn’t get in. That’s the way the game was written and played. That’s simply the fact.

    Now, I”ll admit, over time, players, DM’s and yes, designers, began to introduce more and more rules, slowly but surely crowding out the roleplay. I would say the transition from 2nd to 3rd edition is when D&D more or less “gave up the ghost” to use his term. It decided it was going to go full on board game design goals. (when class balance and unified mechanics are the buzz design words, you know you’ve left role playing games behind).

    You had skill lists, points to spend, checks to make, a million rules for every possible interaction. +1 for this, +2 for that. Very little room was left for RP. 4E attempted to do away with it entirely. Which, to my mind, was actually a better game than 3E which still clung to some older mechanics creating a kind of behemoth monster. 4E was a great tactical miniatures skirmish game and i you wanted to RP within that, you certainly could. But in early D&D, it was absolutely required. You simply couldn’t complete the adventures without it. If you did, you weren’t really playing D&D anymore.

  4. Regarding the social skills: today, i tend to play without social skills. simply by the fact that no rpg mechanism is able to handle social interaction.
    if you’re good in role playing, maybe you’re just a good role player. I dont see the necessity for everyone to be able to play role playing games.

  5. I just read the original article by JW and I have to say “couldn’t care less”. What a completely nonsensical discussion. Who needs a dogmatic approach to define what is an “actual” roleplaying game and what in his definition is just a wannabe RPG? So what? Does he want to imply that we did it all wrong over the past twenty years and actually had less fun than we could have had because we missed out on XX% of his oh so precious storytelling as we dared to enjoy weapon lists or challenging combat rules? In my eyes this is a pure reflection of his personal gaming style and system preferences masked behind a reputation in game design.

    I have played in several groups enjoying different game systems and styles and we dared to call it all roleplaying. Sometimes we spoke in first person sometimes in third. Sometimes all PCs were on eye level power-wise and sometimes not. But we always had fun! If he wants to sit at home penceling out paragraphs from his books I wish him all the best and satisfaction in doing so. Again, couldn’t care less…

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