There are a lot of people out there discussing roleplaying game design, or offering their particular advice on such matters. Some of that information I find useful and thought-provoking, some of it not so much, but overall I think it’s a great thing that these discussions are occurring. The Internet has made it possible to talk about these subjects (and so many others) in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the early years of the RPG hobby.
One of my favorite bits of RPG design advice is the Interactive Toolkit, four essays by Christopher Kubasik that first appeared in 1995 as a column in issues 50-53 of White Wolf Inphobia magazine. Many of the concepts they discuss are now regarded as sort of “common sense knowledge” among game designers and gamers who like to read about game design. But I believe that when they were published, Kubasik was among the first to write about them. I think if his articles had become better known among RPGers in general Kubasik would today be regarded as one of the forerunners or trailblazers of today’s “indie” or “story” games “movement,” and deservedly so.
I know the Interactive Toolkit was the first place I encountered many of the ideas Kubasik wrote about. It was very eye-opening for me in many ways, and to one degree or another it’s influenced many of my approaches to game design ever since. Before I start working on a new RPG design I often sit down and read the four articles again, just to refresh my recollection and get the ol’ mental gears working in the proper alignment.
So herewith, by way of praise, is a brief summary of each of them. You can find a link to the full articles online down at the bottom of this blog if you’d like to read them for yourself.
Part One, Simulation Or Story? discusses the basic nature of roleplaying games. It argues that RPGs as of that time were still far more like wargames than storytelling, and suggests that game designers might be better served to look more at how stories work in novels and movies when designing RPGs. It raises the intriguing point that events in stories are uncertain, not random, and thus that wholly random mechanics like rolling dice may not work well for RPGing.
While I’ve written elsewhere that I think the failed roll could be considered one of the central concepts of roleplaying games, I also think Kubasik has a valid point — we all hate to see what’s shaping up to be a good story derailed by a bad roll at the wrong time. The article suggests the possibility of using something else, such as cards, to create a set of resolution mechanics that are more “uncertain, but not random.” Ever since reading that I’ve tried on numerous occasions to devise just such a mechanic. I’ve never been 100% satisfied with the results, but my gaming group has enjoyed the fruits of my experiments from time to time, and I have no doubt one of these days I’ll get it “right.” ;)
Part Two, Why Do Modules Suck?, looks at the concept of published RPG adventures. Its central point is that when gaming was just D&D, and D&D was so simple and straightforward that everything a character wanted could be obtained by killing monsters and going up in levels, it was easy to design adventures that many different gaming groups could use. Once the idea of achieving goals in other ways — diplomacy, trickery, finance, whatever — was introduced, designing a published adventure became increasingly difficult (and resulted in products of less usefulness to many gamers) because there’s no possible way to account for any of the infinite number of ways Player Characters might try to achieve their goals.
Speaking as someone who’s written more than a few “modules,” I see wisdom here. I vividly recall that whenever I wrote an adventure for one of the Star Trek RPGs I worked on, the key thing, after settling on the basic concept, was answering the question, “OK, how can I prevent the PCs from f**king this up with the transporter?”. Paramount didn’t care enough about continuity to monitor what Trek’s writers did in episodes and address the long-term consequences/implications of each episode’s events. But viewers paid attention to those things, and at any given Trek RPG session there was gonna be at least one guy who knew all the things that could be done with a transporter... many of which could ruin most “standard” sort of Trek stories. Similarly, adventures for superhero RPGs such as Champions, when properly written, are often extremely long because a responsible author will try to help the GM prepare for any of the possible superpowers characters can use in crucial situations — and that list of powers and what happens when you use ’em is long indeed.
This part of the Interactive Toolkit also introduces the intriguing concept of the Fifth Business, borrowed from Robertson Davies’s novel of the same name. That novel, which is about opera companies, describes the Fifth Business thus: “You cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business. You must have a Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death, if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without the Fifth Business!”
Kubasik suggests using this term/concept in place of “Gamemaster” (or Storyteller, Narrator, Referee, or whatever other term you prefer). It’s not a bad idea, really (though it doesn’t adapt perfectly to RPGing, either). One sad note, though: according to Wikipedia, there is no such thing as the “Fifth Business.” Davies confessed in 1979 that he simply made it up. But I don’t think that diminishes its value as an idea in Kubasik’s overall discussion.
Part Three, Character, Character, Character, discusses the setting of goals and objectives for Player Characters. The former are long-term things a PC wants to achieve — essential elements of his background whose resolution may bring his story to an end. The latter are shorter-term things that are stepping stones toward his goals. “Become rich” and “win the hand of the Princess” are goals; “kill the dragon and take its treasure” or “convince the King that Lord Braxton is a traitor” are objectives that may lead toward those goals. I think Kubasik’s analysis of how most players set themselves up to avoid traditional dramatic problems rather than embracing them and thus creating a compelling story is a good one. I’d love to see more players adopt his perspective — and more GMs run games in such a way that they can do so without feeling victimized.
Part Four, Running Story Entertainments, wraps up Kubasik’s discussion (or so I think; I’m not sure if he intended to write more of these essays). It uses examples from one of his Pendragon campaigns to illustrate the points he’s made in the other essays. It also discusses rules — or the relative lack of them, in the “story entertainments” Kubasik envisions. It’s a great conclusion to the series.
Now obviously, it goes without saying that I don’t agree with everything Kubasik says. Game design is a rather personal and idiosyncratic thing in many ways — an “art,” if you will, rather than a science — so it’s unlikely any two people who think deeply about it and try to practice it will agree on every single aspect of the process. In particular I don’t agree with his jibes at the HERO System/Champions, but that’s natural enough — no one likes to see his baby poked with a stick, even a metaphorical one. ;) Nevertheless I think there’s a great deal of value in Kubasik’s Interactive Toolkit essays, even today nearly twenty years after they were published and after the “indie” “revolution,” and I recommend them to your attention.