The Alexandrian

If you look at the history of mechanical design for roleplaying games, I think there’s a very clear arc:

(1) You start with games that have very specific game structure that has been placed into a wider “world simulation”. (The influence from wargames is clear here.)

(2) The level of detail in the world simulation begins to grow, but is still largely contained to clear game structures. (Basically, the desire to simulate reality found within the existing wargames community began to expand as the focus of the games expanded beyond the battlefield.)

(3) Generic games appear. In seeking to provide universal rules, however, these games actually end up stripping out the vestigial game structures that still existed in RPGs. (Reading contemporary documents, it seems pretty clear that people at the time weren’t really conscious of the game structures in RPGs. In fact, most gamers still aren’t.)

(4) Between the universal focus and the removal of game structures, the desire for simulation metastasizes. Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, every game that came out tried to graft on more and more detail, accuracy, and specificity. (For example, look at the first edition of Paranoia: Hilarious, evocative game universe. But the rule system is completely obsessed with detailed simulation.)

(5) Around the mid-’80s, however, you start to see the backlash. A growing body of games are being designed with deliberately simpler rules because other games have gotten too complex (this is even talked about in the rulebooks themselves). (I generally point to West End Games as an early instigator for this with Ghostbusters and Star Wars, but that may just be a perspective bias on my part.)

(6) The first wave of these “rules lighter” games generally just scaled back the rules while maintaining the same focus on world simulation, but by the early ’90s you start seeing some designers really embrace the rules-light movement by looking at radically alternative approaches. (Amber Diceless Roleplaying and other diceless games are a really noticeable part of this.)

The fallout from this, IMO and IME, was that the entire spectrum of RPG system design was basically open for business: We’d explored rules heavy, bounced back to rules light (now featuring unified mechanics), and now people were basically experimenting all over the place.

If there was a major trendline in the ’90s it was the boom of splatbook-universes (Torg, World of Darkness, Legend of the 5 Rings, Deadlands, Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles, Fading Suns, AD&D’s campaign worlds, and a ton of wannabes). As you hit the late ’90s, these product lines all burn out their supplement treadmills. Shortly thereafter you get the D20 boom and the STG revolution.

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6 Responses to “Thought of the Day: History of RPG Mechanical Design”

  1. Cole says:

    “In seeking to provide universal rules, however, these games actually end up stripping out the vestigial game structures that still existed in RPGs. (Reading contemporary documents, it seems pretty clear that people at the time weren’t really conscious of the game structures in RPGs. In fact, most gamers still aren’t.)”

    This is important. This is a lot of how you get, in the absence of “what exactly do we do in this game” the answer “whatever the GM says the plot is.” Or to look at a specific answer, in the absence, of say, good structures for overland travel, how you get the “montage effect” in place of something the players can get into in an interactive way.

    Now clearly from very early on, many players wanted to use RPGs, even xeroxes and typewriter bootlegs of OD&D for story saga campaigns, but I think the very unappealing “fight, cutscene, fight, cutscene, fight” model that a lot of modern RPG play seems to assume is later, and related to games no longer teaching methods to manage common player activities. An aside:although Dragonlance was the founding example of the predetermined play-this-novel campaign, it still used a lot of standard D&D travel-on-the-map, etc. elements.

  2. Paul says:

    I think it’s crazy that you have a “history of RPG Mechanical design” with no mention of White Wolf.

    Also, no mention of The Forge, and the various Indie games that spun out of there in the 2000’s?

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Er… I actually mention both of them. (The Forge is, obviously, the root the STG revolution.)

    Although, with that being said, I can’t think of anything in the White Wolf games of any significance to the history of mechanical design. What were you thinking of here, exactly? (Note: Dice pools had been around for at least 4 years before Vampire showed up.)

  4. Hautamaki says:

    Interesting post. I wonder if you plan to expand on this any more; you refer to a vocabulary that I’m not 100% familiar with and yet I do enjoy discussions of game design and history so this is right up my alley. I’d love if you could follow up with more specific examples/detail in the future.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    Expect a lengthy series on game structures in the near-ish future, which might make some of what I’m saying here a little clearer.

  6. Paul says:

    I missed the WoD reference, and the STG thing seemed tacked on as an afterthought – as though RPG history ended in the late ’90s. Also, I don’t immediately connect STG with Indie games, although many of the indie games are STG, not all of them are, and some really great mechanical systems have arisen in that area.

    “I can’t think of anything in the White Wolf games of any significance to the history of mechanical design. What were you thinking of here, exactly?”
    I was thinking that White Wolf popularized a certain style of gaming that was extremely popular in the ’90s. The setup archetypes, the splatbooks, the built-in campaign setting. I’m not sure they were entirely innovative, but it was the first time I remember seeing them in a successful roleplaying game.

    By contrast, Heavy Gear & Jovian Chronicles (both games which I love) had almost no novel ideas. Take a fairly basic resolutions system, drop them into a lush anime-inspired setting, and go from there. Those games worked because their setting was so evocative, not because of any mechanical breakthroughs.

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