When a child learns how to play, that child is taking the first steps to using its imagination. As we grow older, that imagination takes us to many different games and many different forms of play. From playing make-believe in the back yard, to playing on the tabletop and to consoles and computers, many of us have been role-playing throughout our lives. Role-playing games (RPG’s) are unequivocally my personal favorite type of game, particularly when it comes to video games. So it’s obvious that I should talk about RPG’s, what makes them tick, and answer the question “why is it that this form of play has intrigued our imagination so fiercely that we seek out these games even as we continue to grow?”
Whitson John Kirk III, author of the Legendary Quest role-playing game, wrote a thesis called Design Patterns of Successful Role-Playing Games. If you’d like to read his thesis or investigate his RPG, both are free online. Some of my writing will be about his ideas however I won’t go into as much detail as his work. His paper is very good for someone looking to make their own tabletop RPG but, as a warning, it’s over 250 pages long. Kirk’s writing talks about his observations and experiences with designing successful tabletop role-playing games.
Some of Kirk’s writing is explaining aspects of RPG’s in a highly detailed and complex manner. For example he first describes the use of gauges in RPG’s. Gauges are a graduated value within a game, which just means they are the resource numbers that change throughout play, such as skill points, experience points, or even a dice roll. While though they are simple, it is important to understand topics like this because they are used so frequently in games.
Branching off of gauges brings us to contests which are typically comparing two gauges against one another to determine the result of a conflict. This can determine a clear winner or it can determine a degree of success. For example, using a dice roll added to a skill—such as swimming—compared to a difficulty rating would determine how successful a player is at swimming across a river; that is a contest. Another form a contest takes would be a player executing an attack and comparing a hit chance to the enemy’s evasion. This means that combat in almost any game can be boiled down to a series of contests.
The first design pattern Kirk writes about is actually a series of conflict patterns and the first of this is the Contest Tree. The Contest Tree, or Escalating Conflict, is used to create rising tension in games. (To understand why Kirk calls it a “tree” would require understanding his diagrams which I am not explaining.) Using contests as described before, a Contest Tree is the use of adequately increasing difficulty to evenly match the players as they progress. Again, this is simple and very universal. It is as simple as a party of level 1 players fighting level 1 enemies and growing from there. Even though the concept is simple, it’s actually quite difficult to implement. Often time’s players will either easily overcome a conflict, or scrape-by by the skin of their teeth. Finding the proper balance is the key.
The second conflict pattern is the Generalized Contest pattern. This is where the possible outcomes are already known before the conflict is introduced. This is typically used when the difficulty rating of an action is open knowledge, such as a rule book providing a predetermined difficulty rating of 10 to open a lock. A player will know that when encountering a standard locked door, rolling a twenty-sided dice (d20) plus their “open lock” skill will be successful if the result is 10 or more. In Fallout: New Vegas, the speech skill unlocks new and helpful skill trees, but only if the player’s speech skill is at or above a certain threshold.
Next is the Last Man Standing type of conflict which is described as the most traditional form of a Generalized Contest Tree. Any conflict that has two or more sides and involved defeating all other sides is a Last Man Standing conflict. This can be your party defeating a flock of imps or a game where the players lead a conquest to defeat all neighboring countries. This is another topic that is quite universal. If a game involves defeating enemies, it follows the Last Man Standing pattern.
After Last Man Standing is the Negotiated Contest. This contest is one of the harder ones to program as it is when the player suggests an outcome and the Game Master (GM) determines if it is possible and what would be required to succeed. This contest has a typical flow to it, for starters a player enters a situation and proclaims their intent. “I approach the boisterous braggart and smack his drink from his pursed lips!” After this, the GM should provide important information the player may have overlooked. “As you approach the man, you notice he is well armed and entertaining a half-dozen other well-armed men.” Now the player should be allowed to rethink their action if they see fit. After the intent, and if the player continues with the stated course of action, the execution of the action begins. The GM may require a dice roll to see if the drink is struck true. Lastly is the effect, where we see the results of the roll. “You smack at the drink and send its liquid sprawling across the patrons. The man rises and readies his weapon…”
The last conflict pattern is the Safety Valve. This is usually a highly limited resource that allows the player to manipulate dice rolls or other gauges in their favor. This can be done by using a sort of Luck Point system where a player can reroll or add to results at the cost of these points. In the tabletop RPG Mouse Guard, created by Luke Crane and based off David Petersen’s graphic novels, the players can use Persona points and Fate Points to manipulate the success of rolling their six-sided die. This is an ideal system to have since being defeated due to a series of poor dice rolls leaves a bad taste in every participant’s mouth.
These conflict patterns all examine the successful use of conflict in role-playing games. What we take away from this is that in RPG’s, we want conflict and this usually takes the form of combat . There seems to be an innate human want to best an opponent and RPG’s are a good outlet for that want.
A human with an average level of empathy will read a story and be able to put themselves into the world and with the main character. This brings us to the next of Kirk’s patterns, the character makeup, which he breaks down into each common stat a character normally has in an RPG. I won’t mention each member of these patters but I will touch on a few.
Firstly, I will group some of the character makeups together: Attributes, Hit Points, and Levels. Attributes are gauges used to describe a characters capabilities, or “stats”, such as Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom. It is common to use these to determine a variety of other gauges such as your damage output or your evasion rate. Hit Points (HP), which can also be influenced by attributes, is a common way to determine the health of a character. Taking damage results in lowering Hit Points and having zero or less HP typically results in an incapacitated or deceased character. Levels allow players to grow and will typically increase a variety of aspects to a character, including attributes and hit points. Gaining levels also typically introduces new skills or abilities to characters, usually directly related to the last two character makeup patterns that I will mention.
The second of the character makeup patterns is the use of a Class system. An important note is that some famous video game RPG’s have moved away from a traditional class system. I talk at length about Skyrim in a design analysis. Skyrim doesn’t use a class system and, instead, you gain bonuses for choosing a race. After that you are free to build your character however you see fit. This doesn’t mean that class systems have been deprecated. Classes allow for a player to be assigned a specific group of abilities and sets the player into a meaningful role. A Cleric is typically a healer but isn’t stellar in combat. Alternatively, a Fighter is typically the one who gets up-close and personal with an enemy but has no innate healing abilities. Having players provide workarounds for other players’ shortcomings places them into their niche.
Classes from Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO)
The last character makeup pattern that I will mention is the use of Skills and Skill Trees. Skills can be used to mean basic abilities that players put points into, such as the “open lock” or “swimming” skills. These are important to use as they provide a gauge for determining the results of contests. I advise against a large number of these as many could be argued together. Having too many skills increases complexity and can lead to unused skills. Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition uses a “Swim” and “Climb” skill. One represents how well the player can swim while the other represents how well the player can climb. While these can be separate, one could argue that they could be combined since they both require the Strength attribute and they flavorfully represent how athletic a player is. Not to mention the swimming skill isn’t used unless there is water, so it would be a wasted investment of skill points. Wizards of the Coast agreed with this argument and decided to use the “Athletics” skill in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.
Skills can also be used to talk about activated or passive abilities that a player has that sets them apart in combat or other situations. To gain these kinds of skills, a player will likely need to meet prerequisites, and a common way to determine these prerequisites is the use of a Skill Tree. The Skill Tree is the use of having a skill as a prerequisite to other skills in a branching fashion, mimicking the image of a tree. The use of skill trees in games is exceptionally described by Kirk; “[Skill trees] provide a means for players to customize their characters with well documented abilities, allow those abilities to improve as play progresses, and expand the number of available options as characters gain proficiency.”
The character makeup patterns show that most successful RPG’s have a way to gauge how powerful your character is. This could be related to how humans empathetically relate to characters. Players tend to create emotional attachments to characters they have built or created. This can also be related to Kirk’s role-playing patterns, story patterns, and the half of the miscellaneous patterns that talks about alignment. Each of those patterns is something the player can empathetically connect them to their character. The role-playing pattern allows the player to make decisions that they believe would be made by his or her character, the story pattern allows for these decisions to lead his or her character through an adventure, and alignment is another method of making your character feel unique and can represent some consequences of decisions made in the story.
The last of Kirk’s patterns that I will talk about is the reward pattern. Rewards are a pattern used in almost any activity. Animals will only continue with an action if they get positive reinforcement and humans are no different. I’ve mentioned the operant conditioning chamber—also known as a skinner box—in a previous article and it is the perfect example of this. Kirk’s reward patterns are broken down into four parts: attendance reward, failure reward, narrative reward, and success reward. Attendance reward is something given to the player’s character simply for having the player attend gaming sessions. If this is too simple, you can provide rewards for retelling the exploits from the previous session. Narrative reward is something given to the player for having followed the narrative in an orderly fashion. Another way to use a Narrative reward is giving rewards for accurately role-playing your character. The Fate Points and Persona Points from Mouse Guard do this. A Success reward, the most common reward, is given to a player’s character when the player successfully negotiates a situation within the game. The final reward is the failure reward. Not always used in games, this reward is used to encourage the player to keep playing even if they fail an encounter. The failure reward can also be used to encourage a player to fail an encounter when it would benefit another part of the game, usually the narrative.
After having looked at the appeal of role-playing games in general, we now take a closer look at the appeal of one of role-playing games’ most common theme; quests. For this, I’ll be using ideas from the book Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives, written by Dr. Jeff Howard, associate professor of Game Development and Design for Dakota State University. Two of the most important pieces that Howard talks about with quests are the concepts of objects and challenges.
Objects in a game can be broken down into three categories. The first is clutter, the category for items placed in a game with no significance, usually only to simulate a real world. In Skyrim this would be the mostly worthless items like goblets or embalming tools. The second are helpful items, which are useable by the character, but are interchangeable and hold no real individual significance. This typically comes in the form of equipment; in the Witcher 3, that would be your swords, armor, and saddlebags. The last is usually called a quest item or plot item. This is usually the MacGuffin that drives the player through the quest and through the story. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time uses such a group of items; this would be the Spiritual Stones that young Link gets from the Deku Tree, Darunia, and Princess Ruto.
The story items can appeal to players on different levels. Maybe it’s a legendary item of great power, this can appeal to the curiosity of the unknown that many humans have, and it can appeal to the player’s sense of self-worth by proving themselves. Perhaps the player’s character is from a small village and the item will be used to save the village from an impending catastrophe. This can appeal the player’s sense of empathy and want to protect his or her family.
The concept of challenges in general can greatly appeal to humans, as long as it fits a certain criteria. It must walk the balance of being too difficult or too easy. If it’s too easy, the player will get bored and not want to play. However, if the challenge is too difficult, the player will get frustrated and still not want to play. The goal of a challenge is to be just difficult enough for a player to successfully complete while having to try their best.
Role-playing games have repeated patterns that commonly appeal to many of the needs a human has when it comes to entertainment. Narrative has been used since the dawn of time, and in those narratives, each character has to make decisions and has to chase an object to complete the narrative. Role-playing games trump a simple narrative by allowing a player to participate and steer the narrative to fit the player’s wants. Along with that, the quests in the narrative of RPG’s are challenging and rewarding, making the player want to come back to the game and play other role-playing games. It’s no wonder that the role-playing game is so popular and, to the true fan, something played from childhood onward.