February 7, 2011

RPGs and Innovation

Mobunited had a nice, thought-provoking post titled, 'Why do RPGs Suck". It asked the question of why there is no new innovation or ground-breaking new games coming out. It talks about how designers are failing the RPG community by just churning out the same-old. While I do not agree with all the points given, a number of thoughts have run through my head since then.

First among those thoughts is that it has become more difficult to come out with something new. Second is that innovation is out there if we can just look past biases.

It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun and I think this applies to RPGs also.

Genres have been done to death. Fantasy, sci-fi, modern day, super-hero, western, talking animals, etc. If there is a genre you want, it is already out there. From the initial set of genres designers began to explore sub-genres; samurai (fantasy), horror (modern), etc. For awhile the "new" hot thing was genre mash-ups, but at its core it is still nothing but the same genre done again.

The same applies to game systems. Roll a die and beat a number, roll a bunch of dice and beat a number, pick a card and beat a number, compare your stat to the target and beat a number. The ability to accomplish things is based on your character’s statistics (Con, Str, Int, etc), on the skills based off your statistics, on your powers based off your statistics, etc. Use a Break-the-System Point to raise a statistic, to reroll a die, use a power again, take less damage, etc. Again, there are only so many variations and if you like a particular one there is system out there for you already.

Part of the problem here is not a lack of desire to create something new, but with such a crowded field there is not a lot of room left for truly new innovation. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it is hard to do so and then stand out from the crowd.

I know this is not a popular sentiment amongst the grognards, but 4E has introduced some truly innovative stuff---wait, hear me out before you bash. I am not talking about their power systems or their system for making the job of the DM easier. Those are nothing but dressed up versions of things that have come before.

The clearly innovative thing they have brought to the RPG table is the ability for a player to be engaged in the ongoing combat even when it is not their turn. If there is one thing RPG designers take away from 4E it should be that; find a way to keep everyone active and a part of the combat at all times-heck, extend this into non-combat as well if you can find a way to do it. I have never seen an RPG do this as well before and I believe this concept can move RPGs forward.

A second innovation is the ability to dynamically change the playing field during combat. In the past everything was about new and exciting ways to lower the hit points (and the variations on the hit point concept, which in the end are all the same thing) of your obstacle. “I move to the left to get a bonus to the damage I do”, “I swing from the chandelier to get a bonus to the damage I do”, “I use power X instead of power Y to get a bonus to the damage I do” are the old ways of altering the field, which in the end did not change the field; nothing changed except for the amount of damage done. With 4E the players have to react to the changes as they occur; it forces them to alter their reactions to the combat keeping the combat dynamic and engaging. This is a two-way street as the players also alter the GMs reactions in ways never done before.

You’ll notice both of these innovations are based around the combat. 4E has brought nothing new to the other aspects of RPGs (and some would say have diminished already established well-done innovations to role-play), but I would say they have indeed brought new exciting innovation to RPGs. A smart designer would use these concepts in his next game, only better.

There are of course other new concepts being pushed to the fore. The concept of players having an active and large voice in what happens during a plot/campaign/adventure is relatively new. Never before has the lines between player and GM become so blurred. Personally, I do not proscribe to this method of play (‘I’m the DM you will all fear my wrath’, is my way of running things) but it is out there and being used by some of the better games running. There are other new and exciting things hitting the RPG market.

I think part of the problem is that there is no clear game at the forefront of our little niche market. There is nothing that has swept up the imagination and passion of role-players like in the past. Shadowrun and Vampire grabbed people by the throat and shook them. While there is still innovation it is spread out amongst a large number of games, some with high profiles and some without. There is not a distillation of new concepts into one game to lead us all forward.

Part of this is the nature of the world at large. It is sooo easy to put up a game for people to view that the really good get lost in the masses. It also means you do not have to release a game that fires on all cylinders; it only has to get one thing right to reach people. In the past, a new game came out and by just being released it got attention. In our new modern internet world this is no longer the case.

Innovation and forward thinking is still out there, you just have to look for it a bit harder.
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