Taking turns: Don't step on my cool!

Started by John Adams, March 03, 2008, 05:33:23 PM

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John Adams

My group has an old, cherished assumption and maybe you have or have seen something similar to this: "don't step on my cool!" is the way we'd put it. Each PC is assumed to have some functional niche which is vital to the party's success and other PCs cannot be allowed to overlap or invalidate that niche. The most obvious example of this tension was between fighters and mages, since mages can theoretically do anything with the right spell, what good were fighters? I worked hard to ensure that mages would 'need' fighters to protect them, but I was never totally successful.

So I got to wondering about where this idea originally came from and why we were so adamant about it, and I think I have the answer. It's all about taking turns.

As social arrangements, games require a certain amount of fairness to avoid social friction and one of the ways that manifests is a presumed equality of participation. If I show up to play your game, I assume I will actually be playing, not sitting on the sidelines. There are many cases where this is not true and social friction and lack of fun are the result. I remember playing right field in little league, spending hours watching the daisies and hoping a ball would come my way, which it seldom did. Not fun, especially compared to the privileged position the pitcher was in, he participated in a critical way on every play.

Now the traditional role-playing games I played made no provision whatsoever for taking turns, but we had this underlying assumption of fairness and that no one should be left standing out in right field. So how did we ensure that everyone got a chance to contribute? We gave each PC a functional role. There's a lock to pick? I'm the 'official lock-picker' so it's my turn, my chance to contribute and maybe be a hero. Eventually we rolled this into "what makes my character cool' and to 'step on my cool' meant to infringe my right to participate. Naturally players got pissed whenever that happened.

Now that I see it that way it's obvious this is a lousy solution. I've played Capes and DitV where players simply take turns as you would in any other game. The 'problem' was created by one of the oldest lies in role-playing: that RPGs were not at all like other games. It comes from the same mental space as "there is no winning in this game" and "a role-playing game never ends." Nonsense!

So my design idea for the day: if your design doesn't already have an explicit turn structure, you need to think about fair participation for all players. Taking turns is the oldest, simplest and most effective way to do this.


Coming from someone who puts strict taking turn style play rotation into even the most traditional games I play, but I think "niche protection" has more applications than just ensuring "shine time." If you think about it, in a lot of systems (most, I would say) its hard for players be certain that they're good at anything. Take, for instance, D&D 3.X, even if my BAB is higher than the next guys, or my hit points, or my weapon damage... the guy next to me with the better Feat suite or better class features may still be better in most fights. This can be devastating to my character's concept if I envision him as being effective in combat. The classes in D&D mitigate, but do not fix this. Point buy systems are even more dangerous with this "concept loss" because there's normally multiple indirect ways to increase the same basic abilities.

Anyway, just wanted to say that niche protection is sometimes concept protection and is more and more necessary the more "layered" character's abilities are in system X.

Adam Dray

An alternative to taking turns is to make sure that all players at the table are invested in the outcomes of everyone else's stuff. Allowing and encouraging "table talk" serves to strengthen investment.

For example, in a game of Dogs in the Vineyard I ran a while ago, the players had their characters split up. Yes, we took turns but everyone took part, even if it wasn't their group's turn. There was kibitzing about what people should do. People paid attention because they wanted to see what the other players would do.
Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at foundry.legendary.org 7777

Kevin Smit

I've never been thrilled with the "party role" system of arranging RPG groups.  I think that at some basic level it reflects a Gamist outlook that's a relic of the old dnd 4-man group set-up.  It's probably just a matter of play style.  I much prefer systems that equalize the lethality factor of the characters so that damage is more a matter of "how so" and "why" rather than "how much."

That said, I still get annoyed when someone chooses a character class that cannibalizes my own in a system that relies on party roles.  I just think it's a system feature that's best left behind, or at the very least it should come about because the players voluntarily choose diverging character concepts. 

John Adams

Nolan, what do you mean by "character concept"? My group uses that term too, defined as (a) the PCs functional role (b) the PCs backstory, personality etc and especially (c) how (a) is justified by (b). If you take out the functional role, what you have left is a character sketch suitable for a story outline.

I think you're talking about effectiveness relative to the other players, so "build" in the MMO sense of the word works as well as "character concept." You might be competing over who can come up with the most effective build but if not, there shouldn't be a problem having two or three PCs with exactly the same build. Just pick one that is very effective and run with it.

But in my experience there still is a problem, because you have these functional roles which are tied to the players' expectations of taking turns.



I mean, how I conceptualize my character, how I see them in my head. I can give plenty of examples (from either side of the table (either as GM or player)) of games that got seriously derailed because player's weren't playing the characters that they thought they made, because the system wasn't clear on how to make that character. A good example is something that happened a lot with the older White Wolf system. One player would make a martial artist, and, wanting to stay in realistic levels, only raise their Martial Arts (or Brawl/Melee) to 3-4, while another player, whose concept had nothing or little to do with Martial Arts, would put 4-5 dots in Martial Arts (or Brawl/Melee) just because they had the left over points. Now, all of the sudden the jock knows more karate than the karate master because two different people have different expectations out of the dots.

Also, I think my D&D example still holds true. The last time I played a fighter in that game, my expectations of my characters effectiveness in game (which for me is part of how I imagine/conceptualize my character) was seriously undermined by the rogue in the party, or, in previous games, by some other fighter who knew the feat system better. This is effectively bogus. D&D tells me that two characters of the same level should be within the same power level but that each has trade-offs on their effectiveness from area to area, so I should be able to expect to get a certain mileage out of my character, but I can't because of these layers... being a fighter at least gives me some ground for asking others to stand down and let me handle situations that are more core to how I see my character functioning, and, if the system wasn't so bloated, it'd probably actually help ensure that my fighting ability was as functional as I expected it to be.

John Adams

OK Nolan, I see your point now. You have a clear image of your character "in the world", what he should be able to do and where he should fit relative to everyone, PC and NPC alike. It's all too easy for the GM or another player to blow that out of the water in most Sytems. Heck, that describes a huge chunk of my role-playing experience, usually followed closely by mean accusations of "you min-maxing bastard!" and such. In hindsight it looks like straight up Sim/Gam agenda clash but there might be more than that. I'm no expert in any flavor of D20, but D&D 3.x strikes me as a very Gamist friendly system, so you can hardly blame people for leaning that way when they play it. That also implies you have a lot of extra work to do to make it support Sim. Large grain of salt there, I'm not very familiar with 3.x.

So in a nutshell all I can do is shrug and say "yeah, been there done that too." But I will assert that carving out ad hoc functional roles is a lousy solution to the problem. System should support your CA better than that, you would do well to find a ruleset better suited to your group's needs. Kudos for anyone who provides recommendations, my luck finding a good system to support Sim has been awful. Maybe that's because I'm a closeted Nar GM or I just don't really know what I'm looking for yet. =)


Hey, your right, D&D sucks for a lot of things, including most of the things that we've (my playing group) tried to do with it, but its really not a D&D-exclusive or gamist exclusive problem. "Realism Sims" like GURPs tend to be so layered that its hard to guage actual effectiveness without a lot of experience with the system (sort of, the attribute-skill system is pretty straight forward, but with Advantages and all the added combat complications... things can get pretty unclear). As far as classes/roles/whatever go, I feel there a pretty shoddy fix at times. My only point in posting was that:
1) If your used to playing with classes, there's more that needs to be done to replace them than just adding set turns, and
2) I think a lot of SIM games in the past try to have the rules be as "hidden" as possible, which is a good thing sometimes, but rules transparency (where you can see that something is a game mechanic and that's that) might really improve a lot of SIM play. This is all part of my personal campaign (I guess) to challenge what I see as preconceived notions about SIM play and technique. Turn based play is just one technique normally associated with other CA's that I feel can support strong, unabashed SIM.
3) In some games, niche protection has deeper implications than people realize. in AD&D I always felt that it was there for archetype protection, so that it forced players to "act" like traditional (at the time) fantasy troups.

John Adams

Quote from: masqueradeball on March 05, 2008, 05:30:10 PM
... rules transparency (where you can see that something is a game mechanic and that's that) might really improve a lot of SIM play.

I totally agree with this. My gut feeling is that the most basic challenge in Sim design is deciding "what are we going to simulate?" and focusing only on that. Trying to simulate every damn thing is a recipe for madness, better to take a core concept and give that over to the 'game engine' and 'say yes' to everything else.