Give Players Tools, Not Roles

Sitting down at a table with some of your friends, bullshitting around with a story, and making badass characters thrive is only a shallow perspective on what we actually want out of RPGs. That’s a problem, because it’s hard to pinpoint what makes the games we all remember so memorable.

The base design of any good game should always answer some core questions: what is this game about? What is it trying to accomplish? What is it trying to get the players to think, feel, and experience? For Hostargo (and RPGs like it), heroics is a possible answer. Awesomeness could be another. But really, playing an actual roleplaying “game”, and not just participating in a storytelling experience, requires meaningful, interesting choices to be made by the players.

The key here is that the adventure, not the system, is the most important aspect for creating these interesting player decisions. What that means for system design is that a good system should simply exist to aid in the design of interesting adventures. That means it should facilitate the creation of the characters, plots, environments, and situations that the players will find themselves in.

A system that has things like “classes” and character progression should really aim to be a toolbox, not a means to an end. I’ve been doing this wrong lately while trying to think of what “roles” characters should play in Hostargo. I might even be so bold as to just scrap the idea of “roles” from “roleplaying” all together, in favor of giving players an interesting toolbox, and having any players in any scenario feel like a “good player” for solving the problems at hand with their customized toolset.

Of course, we want a focus on teamwork, and giving every player an equal opportunity to shine. So, we need to tread carefully with our classes. Give players the generalized tools that make their character both unique and useful, but don’t shoe-horn them into such specialized roles that they don’t have the freedom to overcome obstacles that aren’t in their pre-defined “wheelhouse”.

The games that fail in this regard are almost obviously too rigid in their designs. Games that use the combat-triforce of tank/heal/dps clearly shoe-horn their characters. That can be valid for a video game, or even a tactics/war tabletop game, but it doesn’t lend itself well to merging story into the action. On the flip side, this idea can also result in an overwhelming sense of “sameness”, as we saw in 4th edition D&D. It’s technically a great game, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had, but when everyone starts to feel like they can do everything just as well as everyone else, you loose the sense of “team” that really makes TRPGs a shared experience.

The games that implement this idea the best, in my opinion, are Powered-by-the-Apocalypse. Each character playbook gives players unique tweaks and abilities that make them feel special, but when it comes down to the wire, the system is there to resolve players’ decisions, not give them a limited set of useful choices as a predefined “role”. This is one of the reasons the “rules get triggered” idea is so brilliant. The players make choices, the rules come forward to resolve those choices, rather than the players making choices based on the rules.