The first RPGs had unique game structures for just about everything. In the original edition of D&D, for example, evading monsters in the dungeon had one mechanical structure and the process for evading monsters in the wilderness had a completely different structure. The earliest designers, when confronted with the need to resolve the outcome of a new situation, would simply create entirely new mechanics and new paradigms to handle it.
This didn’t last long: Systems that had worked well in the past got repurposed. Similar systems had their redundancies conflated away. Even more importantly, GMs looking to adjudicate unanticipated actions were quick to develop consistent methodologies. (“When you wanted to do X, we did Y. Now you want to do something that’s kind of like X, so we’ll use Y again.”) And this very rapidly evolved into the first universal, generic mechanic: Rolling either 3d6 or 1d20 and comparing it to the character’s ability score.
Shortly thereafter, the idea of modifying these rolls using character skills appeared. These modifications mutated rapidly and then generally settled into the system of “ability score + skill modifier” that has basically dominated RPG mechanics for the past three decades.
The advantage of having a generic, universal mechanic is that it provides the GM with a robust tool for making rulings at the table. With a properly comprehensive skill list, for example, making a ruling for the resolution of any discrete action is simply a matter of selecting the appropriate skill.
(By contrast, the process of making a ruling in many early RPGs often involved first inventing the tools. It wasn’t unusual to literally invent entire dice mechanics from scratch. It’s unsurprising that GMs in these systems almost reflexively create universal mechanics as quickly as possible.)
This is obviously good for the GM (for the same reason that carpenters like to have a toolbox instead of needing to reinvent the hammer for every new project), but it’s also good for the players: It creates a flexible environment in which any discrete action can be attempted within the structure of the game mechanics. This means that any action can be proposed without bogging the session down; it also means that there is no structural bias for or against any type of action. (There may still be a mechanical bias, of course, if certain actions are easier than alternatives, but that’s a separate issue.)
(When I say “structural bias” I’m referring to the fact that gameplay generally gravitates towards existing game structures. I’ve talked about this a couple times previously: If there’s a system for prospecting gems, for example, players are more likely to go prospecting. If a game includes a robust system for resolving riddle contests but has no mechanics for resolving combat, it’s likely that the game will see a lot more riddling with words than it will riddling with bullets.)
GENERIC SCENARIO STRUCTURES
If a generic, universal action resolution mechanic is useful, it’s not hard to see how much more useful a generic, universal scenario structure would be. With a tool like that, GMs could seamlessly transition their campaigns to be virtually anything and it would all be as robust, entertaining, and rewarding as a dungeoncrawl or a combat encounter.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the history of the industry is studded with efforts to expand the generic, universal mechanic to include larger structures at both micro- and macro-levels. Many of these efforts have historically been little more than crude guidelines, often fumbling in the dark towards an objective that has been poorly understood. Others, however, have attempted to create more comprehensive and defined structures.
In recent years, the best-known example of this sort of thing has almost certainly been D&D 4th Edition’s skill challenges.
And, unfortunately, skill challenges show all the characteristic failures typical of these systems: Dissociated mechanics (including emergent dissociated properties). A systemic blandness that often results in fundamental gameplay which is “not fun”. A prevention of meaningful choices by the players (or an outright forbiddance of such choices). And so forth.
In Part 11 I listed six properties of effective game structures:
- They should be flexible (allowing players to make decisions not constrained by the structure).
- They should have a capacity for meaningful decisions.
- They should allow players to make decisions which are associated and in-character.
- The default actions of the structure should be tied to the reward structures of the game.
- They should be fun.
- They should be easy to prep.
And while skill challenges satisfy some of these criteria (more or less depending on exactly which version of the skill challenge rules you’re actually using), they obviously fail to fulfill most of them (and arguably the most important ones).
Most of these problems seem to crop up due to the lack of specificity inherent in a generic structure. For example, while it’s possible to break almost any activity down into an abstract “action” which can be resolved with a generic skill check, the procedural and structural differences between, for example, negotiating a peace treaty, safely traversing a haunted forest, or prospecting for gems seem to defy a generic approach. And when such a generic approach is attempted, the result usually dissociates itself as the mechanical decisions divorce themselves from the decisions being made by the characters in those unique situations.
On the other hand, while Eurogames prove that abstract mechanical representations can still provide fundamentally fun gameplay, efforts to solve the dissociative problems with generic scenario structures tend to emphasize flat, bland mechanics that strive to be as “vanilla” as possible. And that results in gameplay which is mechanically boring.
Historically, this appears to be an insoluble balancing act: The more “interest” you add to the mechanics, the more specific they become and the stronger they dissociate from the game world. The more generic you make the mechanics, the blander and more boring they become. (Nor does there seem much success in solving fully for one or the other: Making the mechanics less specific seems to solve some problems of dissociation, but simultaneously introduces others.)
THE HOLY GRAIL
This would be an appropriate time for me to announce a dramatic cutting of this Gordian knot, unveiling an incredible generic scenario structure that would revolutionize your gaming table.
Sadly, however, this is not to be.
A truly successful, fun, and effective generic scenario structure would be the holy grail of roleplaying games. But, much like the holy grail, it may also be an unattainable prize.
On the other hand, at this time last year, I would have said that even generic structures at a level of complexity comparable to combat (i.e., generic structures for resolving conflicts in multiple steps) had largely failed. But as I recently discussed, Technoir has achieved a remarkable success in accomplishing exactly that (albeut in a form which I haven’t figured out how to reverse engineer successfully into other RPGs yet).
So there may be some breakthroughs lurking out there; just waiting for the right time and the right circumstances to emerge. Unfortunately, I won’t be the one to bring them into the limelight. (At least not today.)
I suspect that at least part of the problem with achieving these breakthroughs, however, is that our current range of robust, fully-developed scenario structures is so dreadfully limited in its scope and variety: If all you’ve seen is an apple and a couple of pears, it would be difficult to reverse engineer what the generic definition of “fruit” should be.
Personally, I think it would be great if we started seeing more unique, fully-developed scenario structures in the hobby and industry. It’s something that’s been consuming more and more of my own time (as this series of essays might suggest), and I think that broad experimentation in this area will begin to open up possibilities for dynamic gameplay that we can’t even really begin to imagine today. (Particularly as these robust scenario structures are mastered and recombined.)