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GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory, Chapter 4
by Ron Edwards

Chapter Four: The Basics of Role-Playing Design

System, system, system. Or more appropriately, design, design, design. The listed elements in Chapter One (character, situation, color, setting, system, initial premise) may be organized to facilitate greater coherence in Chapters Two (GNS, developed Premise) and Chapter Three (Stance), and thus to facilitate more enjoyable play. This principle is often summarized in the catch-phrase, "System does matter."

By "coherence," I mean the degree to which a group of people can hit upon and sustain a shared Premise (or topic for Exploration, in Simulationist play) - and by definition, continue to enjoy the social role-playing activity consistently. The people do not need to agree in every detail or event of play, and they certainly do not have to conform to a single, immutable Stance or GNS profile. However, to role-play together most successfully, their shared agreements do need to go beyond simply sharing the initial Premise. To whatever extent they do this, they are cohering.

At the last check-in, our vampire-friends have turned out to be a coherent bunch. Now their attention turns to the actual, physical item called the role-playing game. What is in it?

This chapter is devoted to a lexicon for discussing the mechanical components of role-playing, in the service of eventually addressing how design affects coherence in the following chapter. I see two interrelated elements of design: Character and System.

This terminology is intended to dissect out the procedural components of the imaginary entity called "my character." The idea is to form a basis for character creation that is integrated with the game's general design goals, whatever they may be.

As I see it, there are three very large components to a character. I also think they always apply; in other words, role-playing necessarily demands all of the three to exist. Design, on the other hand, sometimes leaves one or more unstated, in which case the missing elements are overtly or covertly inserted during play.

Effectiveness includes any numbers which are used to determine success or extent of an action. In Fortune-based systems, these include the familiar to-hit, skill success, damage rolls, and anything like these. In Karma-based systems, it would be the basic values, e.g. Everway's Element scores or Amber's attribute scores; in Drama-based systems, Effectiveness is governed by rules of dialogue. (See below for discussions of Fortune, Karma, and Drama.)
In looking over a character's Effectiveness material, you get an idea of their "niche" or sphere of influence, what they're good at and what they aren't.

Effectiveness is often "layered." In discussing Effectiveness, one needs to be careful to distinguish between the actual value and the means by which it is derived, because often a step of the process is named instead of the Effective value itself. For instance, the points spent on basic attribute scores in Champions pass through an exchange rate, such that three points result in one more unit of Dexterity. Furthermore, the Dexterity score itself passes through a division by three or five, and in some cases an addition of 11 as well, in order to arrive at a value that is actually used in play (an Effective value).

In contrast, a non-layered Effectiveness value is determined, recorded, and used as such without derivation. The scores for Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in Everway are divided up from 20 points or less, and they are used at their respective values during play. The score for Focus is set from 1 to 10 when making up a character in Zero, and that value is used as such during play. Three descriptions of a puppet's abilities ("This puppet can shout really loud") in Puppetland are determined during character creation and are used without modification during play.

Resource includes any available usable pool upon which Effectiveness or Metagame mechanics may draw, or which are reduced to reflect harm to the character. The obvious ones are Endurance, Sanity, or Hit Points (or even "lives" in frequent-resurrection games), but this category also includes breadth and depth of spell knowledge, for instance, or even the character's cash resources. Experience points, in some system, act as a resource for certain mechanics.
In looking over a character's Resource material, you get an idea of how tough, (un)stoppable, and "fueled" they are.

Metagame includes all positioning and behavioral statements about the character, as well as player rights to over-ride the existing Effectiveness rules. Thus it includes stuff like relationships ("Hunteds" in Champions) and limitations on behavior (Psychological Disadvantages, alignment), as well as metagame mechanics, like Trouble or Luck Points or what-have-you, which permit re-rolls or other overrides of the baseline resolution system. Clearly, material within metagame may directly affect Effectiveness and Resource, as with Trouble giving bonus dice in Orkworld, or in other games it does not, as with a Code Vs. Killing in Champions being taken to limit a character's actions without a formal effect on any other mechanics of play.
Metagame issues are intimately related to Balance of Power, which is defined as the relative degrees to which players and GMs are privileged to have an impact on the events of play. In looking over a character's metagame material, you get an idea of the behavioral parameters within which the player is at least nominally committing to stay, and the rights to over-ride the system via metagame mechanics.

Regarding all three components, named features on character sheets may find themselves in one or another category from game to game. Money, for example, is a Resource in a game of GURPS, an Effective value in Call of Cthulhu, and Metagame in Champions 3rd edition.

Currency among the three character components
Currency represents the relationship among the three components, both during character creation and during play. Its name comes from the observations that (1) "amounts" may be shifted and exchanged within and across the three components during character creation, and (2) that features or use of one category may have an impact on the use of the others during play.
These exchange mechanisms among the three categories may or may not be overt (e.g. a system of points to spend). We can look at two different RPGs and compare how the three categories are distributed, and under whose control.

Character creation varies tremendously across role-playing games. We see tons of methods, distributed in tons of ways even within single games: random vs. point-allocation, layered vs. not-layered, explicit vs. implicit currency, fixed vs. flexible relationship among the three elements, and more. I do not claim that there is any one best way. I do think that most character-creation design has been imitative and tweak-oriented, rather than conceptually integrated with any general goal of the RPG's design. I also think that certain designs are fundamentally flawed, at least for specific modes of play; my attributes/skills argument is an example.

Some games are practically defined by the open spendability of an overt currency, e.g. GURPS. Others are fixed solid as rocks among and within the categories, e.g. D&D of whatever vintage. "Class," for instance, usually refers to a specific way to affix currency among the categories; having different classes means standardizing different "nodes" of currency combinations.

Looking across RPG designs, I see that many games permit "trading" both within and between the categories during character creation, often with a rate of exchange.
  • If you drop your Strength, you can buy up your Dexterity or if you drop your Strength, you have more points to buy skills. These examples remain within the general category of Effectiveness.
  • If you drop your Strength, you can buy up your Endurance or Hit Points or whatever. This would be crossing categories from Effectiveness to Resource, as would be increasing your Luck Points at the expense of points for abilities.
I suggest that such trading (with or without an overt, generalized Currency) is fraught with peril, for two reasons. The first is the existence of breakpoints of Effectiveness, and the second is that soybean trading is almost impossible to avoid. Both of these are greatly heightened when the mathematics of character creation include ratios.

Here's an example of breakpoints: effectiveness in Champions is largely based on division of scores, like 1/3 of your DEX or 11 + STR/5, or stuff like that. Therefore breakpoints are crucial - everyone ends up with DEX of 20, 23, or 26, for instance; any other score is only minimally useful and wastes points that could be spent better elsewhere.

Soybean trading occurs most often when "derived attributes" are involved. The famous Champions trick is certainly familiar to many of us: buy up your STR (1:1) and END (1:0.5), which automatically raises your REC 1 point. Now buy down your REC, which gives 2 points back. Net gain: 0.5 points. Do this 10 times, and your gross is 10 points of STR, 20 points of END, and 5 points of pure profit.

Currency applies during play as well as during character creation. At the most obvious, the expenditure or loss of Resources may affect Effectiveness, as when one runs out of spell points or when damage accumulates such that ability scores are reduced. Metagame may be similarly affected by Resources, as when one must draw upon a point pool in order to re-roll dice, and that pool is used up. More subtly, multiple other relationships occur in multiple RPGs, such as a Meditation ability that permits recharging a Resource more rapidly.

Currency is also related very intimately to Reward System and (for lack of a better term) Punishment System, because these feed back into the elements of Currency at every moment during play. Improvement processes are a common sort of Reward System, but not the only kind; damage and death for the character are a common sort of Punishment System, but not the only kind.

Reward systems have been very deeply researched by me, but they await a rigorous discussion, as the baseline concepts of GNS, Stance, and the components of Currency must all be integrated. Some of the issues include:
  • What is being rewarded? Attendance? Role-playing per se? Player actions? Outcomes of conflicts? In-game moments?
  • Who is being rewarded, the player or the character?
  • Are reward systems necessary? At what scopes or time-frames of play are they more or less important?
  • If we are talking about character improvement, how does it proceed? Linearly or exponentially? If exponentially, is the exponent positive or negative?
  • Do changes in the values and aspects of the character affect the exchange rate of Currency itself?
Given the astounding importance of Currency among the various components of Character, designers of role-playing games would do well to consider all of the following.
  • What the three categories are.
  • All of them do exist in the act of "playing" a character.
  • How, when, or if exchange is involved among the categories, which is to say, not just among the "named items" on the sheet.
  • Subdivisions, nuances, and layering within each one.
Unfortunately, I think that many RPG designers were and are flying entirely by the seat of their pants. Their attention was on in-game named elements like "strength" and "percent to hit" rather than Effectiveness. Such an approach to character design allows latitude for all sorts of emergent properties, such as the point-mongering in Champions or the mini-maxing in most late 80s games, or any number of other "take-over" elements of play that subvert the stated goals of the design.

I think that a more fundamentals-based approach to the design process would yield less problems of this kind. Without a vocabulary of the fundamentals, we'll end up with endless permutations of the same currency-mismatches and confusions with nearly every "new" game. In fact, that's exactly what we do have.

RPG resolution systems are a daunting topic, and the following is limited only to the broadest issue, Event Resolution.

For Event Resolution, the relevant terms are Drama, Fortune, and Karma (often called DFK). These terms describe the mechanical and social means, among the real people, by which an imaginary action or event is determined to occur.
  • Drama resolution relies on asserted statements without reference to listed attributes or quantitative elements.
  • Karma resolution relies on referring to listed attributes or quantitative elements without a random element.
  • Fortune resolution relies on utilizing a random device of some kind, usually delimited by quantitative scores of some kind.
Each one of Drama, Karma, and Fortune deserves massive dissection. My on-line discussion of Fortune-in-the-Middle as a facilitator of Narrativist play is a good example; so is my comparison of flat/linear curves with separate/incorporate effects.

These three types of resolution may be combined in a near-infinite variety across the various elements of RPG design; few or no RPGs fail to make use of at least two of them. I also claim that they may be combined in near-infinite variety across the various GNS goals. No particular one of them corresponds to any (entire) one of the GNS goals. Most importantly, I do not think that Drama methods necessarily facilitate Narrativist play. However, I do suggest that a game system may be organized such that a GNS subset and developed Premise are more understandable; this topic is developed further in the next chapter.

Resolution systems often include metagame mechanics, as mentioned above, which permit a player to over-ride the "usual" resolution system of the game. These are found in a wide variety of combinations in functional terms as well as DFK terms.
  • The over-ride may occur before, after, or in place of the regular system mechanic.
  • The over-ride may or may not rely on resources of some kind.
  • The over-ride's version of DFK may mirror the usual system's version of DFK, or it may differ dramatically.
Example #1: a certificate in Prince Valiant may be redeemed (lost) for a player to state that the character instantly subdues an opponent. The mechanic replaces the usual resolution system (comparing tossed coins), which is simply ignored. This illustrates a Drama metagame mechanic replacing a Fortune baseline mechanic and relying on an irreplaceable Resource.

Example #2: a bonus die in Over the Edge may be added to a player's roll, increasing the chance of success. The die is not permanently lost, but may not be used again during the same session. This illustrates a Fortune metagame mechanic added into a Fortune baseline mechanic, relying on a replaceable Resource.

By definition, the character's role in the "decision" side of the over-ride is retroactive, and therefore the very existence of metagame mechanics is linked to Author or Director stance.

Switches and dials
The organization of the components of resolution, considering both Character and System together, may be thought of as switches and dials. Switches are discrete elements (values or terms) of the character that are set in place; they may have different settings but once set they are fixed. Dials are continuous elements (values) that may vary from high to low along a range. Switches and dials may be completely separate, or they may contain one another as well.

Most character creation methods that include classes or clans, or that involve picking one item each from two lists, are utilizing large-scale switches, in which smaller dials are embedded. By contrast, most character creation systems that include a pool of points which may be freely distributed about options are utilizing a large-scale dial, in which smaller switches (e.g. behavioral limitations) are embedded. Plenty of other possibilities, as well as overlaps between these two, are in evidence as well. I am happy to provide examples as part of an ongoing discussion.

(In either case, the method of "setting" may be either through personal choice or through randomized methods; for purposes of the current discussion, it doesn't matter which.)

In looking at the diversity across RPGs, one may contrast what's held constant and what's permitted to vary, during character creation. What elements affect one another during play? What pieces may trade among one another during character creation? Even more fun is the hidden stuff, such as how Drama methods ("saved actions") are employed to change the order of action in the middle of combat resolution in an otherwise highly Fortune-driven system, or when Metagame (calling attention to another player's character's "alignment") is used to limit a competitor's options.

I think that we are nowhere near arriving at a meaningful taxonomy for understanding how these combinations are organized across existing and potential RPGs, and furthermore that the discussion is long overdue. The following chapter begins a discussion of how the combinations relate to Premise and GNS.

Even more stuff to discuss later
The following topics have all been researched by me across the vast majority of role-playing game designs since the invention of the hobby. Some of them have been broached in public forums, and others have not. I have avoided discussing them to any depth, given the general lack of understanding of the foundational principles of this essay, but I would very much like to develop them in the future.
  • The relationship among announcing an intended action, initiating but not completing an action, determining the completion of the action, and determining the effects of an action.
  • The order in which the above events are conducted by the real people, rather than by the in-game causality. This general principle is illustrated in a local way by the Fortune-in-the-middle concept.
  • Search time and handling time, as defined in my essay "System Does Matter."
  • Probabilities in general, including issues of flat vs. linear curves, separate vs. incorporated effects, replacement vs. non-replacement results, and more. This discussion would include the interesting sub-topic of the critical and fumble concepts.
  • Target number methods in contrast to opposed-resolution methods.
  • Task vs. conflict resolution; i.e, what precisely is being determined by a unit of effort (system) by the participants. This issue is central to the design of many Narrativist-facilitating games, but could well be developed, in distinct ways, across all three modes.
  • Scene resolution vs. action resolution, which is not the same as task vs. conflict resolution. Scene resolution first appeared as a Gamist device in Tunnels & Trolls, disappeared from design philosophy for over a decade, then was resurrected as a Narrativist device in Story Engine.
  • Distinctions among systems for symbolically-significant actions (e.g. magic), as well as between them and systems for mundane actions.
A popular misunderstanding
The term "diceless" entered the role-playing lexicon with the appearance of the revolutionary RPG Amber, but it almost instantly acquired nuances of meaning far beyond its literal content. Dicelessness has been associated with story-orientation (so-called), with creativity, with "mature" abnegation of "power-gaming," and generally with anything that the user of the term happens to like and in which dice are not involved. This use of the term is nothing more nor less than a value judgment and is properly ignored.

Even more confusingly, the term seems to be applied across extremely different things in the text of role-playing games. To call Amber or Puppetland diceless is literally correct, and it happens to correspond with their reliance on Karma and Drama methods; however, to call Castle Falkenstein diceless is literally correct but functionally meaningless, as its system is wholly Fortune-based. The text in the game undergoes many gyrations to extoll the nuances that cards bring to role-playing, but the fact remains that its card system is a Fortune system. The text of Everway, on the other hand, openly acknowledges that its optional card use is also the game's Fortune component.

And most importantly, I see no particular reason to associate "dicelessness" or even the lack of any Fortune methods with Narrativism. Again, and as discussed in more detail in the following chapter, the range of DFK variants and combinations within each of Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism is very broad. The otherwise excellent game Theatrix mistakenly identifies the lack of dice with a heightened focus on story creation, and this patently absurd identification spread rapidly through role-playing culture in the early 1990s.

Where's our vampires?
The example used so far has taken a brief rest for this chapter, because the players are making the horrendous mistake of buying, without consideration of any technical issues presented so far, the most widely advertised, best-illustrated RPG available - that is, strictly on the basis of Color. Their fate will be presented in the next chapter.

Chapter 3: Stance Chapter 5: Role-playing Design and Coherence

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