What Is Good RPG Design?

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There's been a bit of a furor lately, and it ended up being the catalyst to get me to write something I've been meaning to for a while.  The question to ask is simple;  the answer is complicated, and the post is long.

What is Good RPG Design?  How do we know when choices and pathways and tradeoffs are good decisions, or bad decisions?  How do we make a great game?  In order to start answering this, I think it would be good to identify specific metrics.  There may be more involved, but this is a good start for now.



  • Feeling of Awesomeness

  • Choices


    • Character Depth

    • Character Breadth

    • Overload

    • Character Distinctiveness/Definition

    • Choice transparency



  • Balance

    • Defining Overpowered/Underpowered

    • Inter-character balance

    • Intra-character balance



  • Fluff




Feeling of Awesomeness


This is, in my opinion, the most general design principle to be adhered to, which is why it's first on the list.  When playing a game, the player should always feel like their character is really cool and awesome, and they should have fun playing.  Note that this is not the same thing as being powerful.  Low-level characters aren't powerful, but they should still be awesome.  When you ask a player what character they're playing, they shouldn't respond meekly.  They should feel proud of the choice of character to play.  Pride in one's character is a good example of the feeling of awesomeness, but not the only one. 

So far, Wizards has done pretty well on this.  You don't play some guy with a sword, you play a Fighter.  Fighters do cool things, and they do them well.  There are some notable exceptions, though.  Strength cleric and the ossassin come to mind, though there are others.  Note this is distinct from the question of "can be CharOp'd to greatness." What you don't want to have happen is a player choose a character that sounds fun and cool, but has mechanics that get in the way.  In the cleric's case, it's being severely MAD, lacking good power support and good paragon path support.  For the ossassin, Shrouds are the best example.  They just don't work the same way as all other combat in the system, and the result is poor performance that interferes with what otherwise would be an awesome class.

There will always be players who enjoy suboptimal characters, which is why this concept is distinct from optimization.  A character can still be awesome despite being weak 'by the numbers.'  I'd actually use the Vampire as a good example of this.  The damage numbers are low as strikers go, but the class doesn't have any major mechanical impediments that cause that; they just lack appropriate support and are generally underpowered.  Their mechanics are in fact pretty cool and innovative, especially on the healing surge side.  Whether they struck the right balance between durability and damage output is a much more subtle question than "is the vampire awesome and fun to play."


Choices


Here's a big one.  Critical to any game design are the choices the player makes.  Games are an interactive medium, and choices form the backbone of that interactivity.  There's a large range of choiceyness in games, from the ultra-customizable to the choiceless.  The degree to which choice is present and plays a role in the game is one of the most fundamental early decisions made.  A game like Tetris is a good example of a game based on choicelessness.  You have zero control over what pieces you get, and that forced order is where the bulk of the game's depth and strategy comes into play.  You have to mitigate bad results while holding out for what you really want.  If you could choose which pieces you got, the game would be trivial.  On the other end of the spectrum, I would argue, is D&D and other person-led (DM) gaming.  Rather than competing against a computer, or random cards in a deck, or even an adversary playing under the same set of rules (sports), the game in D&D is generated exclusively by one member of the group.  Nothing is proscribed, everything is mutable.  Everything the players encounter is specifically chosen by the DM.  Even if the DM uses random generation, the choice to use random generation is made.  Given how fundamental choice is in such a "the world is your sandbox" game, I rank it very highly in how I evaluate what is good and what is not.

Choices fall into two general categories:  trivial choices and meaningful choices.  Trivial choices are those that are made, but don't really impact gameplay.  Another set of trivial choices are things that impact gameplay, but are so automatic that they aren't really a choice at all.  These things typically get called "feat taxes" as one example.  I don't really want to get into whether they're really mandatory and that whole debate, but the point is that the value of a choice matters in terms of how things play out.  The value of a choice isn't constant, however.  It can change as the character progresses, as is the case of Thief's Tricks.  As a set list, you pick the two 'best' choices for your goals at level 1, and then continue to take more tricks.  Each time, though, you're picking something that wasn't as compelling as the thing you took before.  That's a drop in the value of the choice as you progress from 1-30.  Maximizing the total value of choices is the goal, both through the number of choices and the value of each individual choice.

Character Depth

Character Depth is the amount of meaningful choices a character can make while focusing on one aspect of gameplay.  As an example of what I mean, take the Ranger.  As a striker, its primary role is that of single-target damage dealer.  Even within a build, though, there are meaningful choices and different styles of play, and that is depth.  A melee Ranger has the same structure, generally, but the sheer volume of builds that LDB alone has come up with is emblematic of a high degree of character depth.

Character Breadth

Character Breadth is teh amount of meaningful choices that a character can make while distributing resources to a number of different focus areas.  Wizards are perhaps the best class demonstrating breadth.  You have a wide variety of very potent options that can lead to hugely different styles of play.  Blaster wizards, debuff wizards, summoner wizards, etc.  They generally fit the role of "controller" still, but how they go about doing that is vastly different.  This is different from the ranger example above in that the rangers exhibit different ways of doing single-target melee damage, whereas the wizards I mentioned use completely different tactics and build goals.

Character Area

The combination of breadth and depth is area, the parameter space of a class.  Under a perfect choice system, overall power level would be constant across this parameter space and the distinctions would come in the form of different character concepts that are all equally effective.  That's not realistic, but it is still a worthwhile goal to pursue as having a wide area makes the classes dynamic and fresh for a long period of time.

Overload

Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff when the volume of choices starts to get in the way of making the choices meaningful.  If the amount of options grows too large, the player cannot be reasonbly expected to evaluate them appropriately and large chunks of choices get eliminated without much thought or reason.  The biggest example of this in the current game is the feat list.  It's easy to add feats, as content goes, but they're impossible to remove.  The result is a few thousand feats that in some cases are outright redundant.  This is not a good situation to be in, especially as a player with low system mastery, as it can result in "trap" choices.  The goal for a choice is clearly stated, but the choice made isn't the best one.  As an example, the choice should be "I want to do more damage with implement spells" not "should I take burning blizzard or implement focus."

The solution to overload is sometimes to simply eliminate choices, but I don't think that that is a good way of going about things.  Guidance toward simpler solutions is always preferable to eliminating the other solutions. 

Character Distinctiveness/Definition

One of the most important results of meaningful choice is that your character becomes personal and unique.  It isn't a good thing if every (Charcter X) looks, feels, and fights the same as every other (Character X).  A lack of distinctiveness comes from a lack of breadth, depth, or both.  The essentials martial builds are examples that have nearly no breadth and minor depth.  Most slayers, as an example, will look pretty similar.  You pick a big two-hander, get your charging stance and your non-charging stance, and at that point the only variation is which weapon group you chose.   The character distinctiveness primarily comes in how one roleplays the character, but such aspects are uncorrelated with the underlying game mechanics, which I will examine in more detail later. 

The hierarchy of choices from highest potential distinctiveness to lowest is as follows: class, feature, power, feat, items.  You can make two fighters that are possibly the same, but possibly different if they take different features.  Same for two fighters with one-handed weapon talent if you take different powers.  And so on.  This hierarchy is a good thing, as it provides structure and an easy method of figuring out which choices make the most large-scale impact and which are the subtle differentiators.  The farther you make the large-scale impact areas choiceless (features and powers) the more you make the characters still 'mostly' the same.  If you hold constant class/feature/power/feat choice, and just adjust items, you'll end up with mechanically nearly identical characters.  The item choice doesn't end up being particularly meaningful, as it doesn't impact how you play the character in a strong way.

A related topic arises when you want to add new choices via new content.  The new content has to be distinctive, and different from the previous content in a meaningful way.  The simplest, trivial example would be adding a new class that has different power names but the power content is identical to those in an existing class.  Clearly that doesn't happen, but it does happen that content isn't sufficiently distinctive from what was there before.  This happens most often in feats and items, sometimes in powers and rarely in features.

Choice transparency

Meaningful choices should be transparent all of the time.  By transparent, I mean that it should be easy to evaluate what the effects of a choice are.  You have a goal, you say "Which choice most helps me meet my goal?" and you should know at a glance which ones help that goal.  Twin Strike is a great example of this breaking down, especially for new players creating first level characters.  At first glance, Twin Strike doesn't look very great.  You take a big damage penalty (no ability mod) in exchange for two attacks.  What's not immediately obvious is how absurdly well Twin Strike scales in comparison to the other rogue at-will powers.  Unless you know that multiattack powers multiply the numerous sources of static damage modifiers, and you know that those sources are in fact numerous, you won't know just how incredibly awesome Twin Strike is.  This is a lack of choice transparency.


Balance


Ahh, balance.  The crown jewel of the 4e system as compared to other games.  4e likes to pride itself on its focus on balance as a primary design goal, and that pride is warranted.  There are specific things to look at, though, in determining balance and whether a choice is a good or a bad addition.

Overpowered/Underpowered

The concept of OP/UP in a game like D&D is very distinct from that in other game genres, such as videogames.  In D&D, all power is relative.  Because every interaction is at least filtered through a DM, it doesn't matter so much about the absolute power level of any given character/feature/power/item because the adversary can be adjusted around it.  Now, that flexibility shouldn't have to be called upon every game, which means it's important to have a baseline and have the absolute power level be in the general range of a specific target, but we aren't in the position of trying to make all possible ranger builds having the same DPR.  Compare this case with, say, a MMO, where if your particular build results in lower performance against the same, unchanging adversary, you run the risk of not being allowed to play.  The tolerancing on balance is therefore significantly looser in D&D than in other gaming environments.  Personally, I think that's a good thing, as it expands the parameter space that is viable (and not in the "tiptop #1 build" version of 'viable' that sometimes gets used).

Inter-character balance

This is what people tend to go for when they start asking questions about balance.  "Is a fighter a better defender than a warden?" "Is a sword+shield fighter better than a battlerager?"  Two distinct, different characters, compared directly in (hopefully) environment-neutral fashion.  Unfortunately this is generally the least productive and most flamewar-inciting aspect of balance to discuss in a system as complex as 4e.  That is not to say that it doesn't matter.  It again comes back to meaningful choice.  Strong inter-character imbalance results in a lack of meaningful choice, as if for example a fighter is always the best defender in all circumstances, then it becomes much harder for people to pick anything else.  Sure, you can still play a swordmage, but if you're always going to be worse it's probably going to make you feel bad about that choice.  Yes, you can suck it up and deal with it, but you shouldn't have to.  It's also much more likely that you won't feel awesome while playing the clearly weak character.  Inter-character balance isn't itself a fundamental problem, as the overall encounter difficulty can be adjusteed - it is more in what inter-character imbalance causes problems in other metrics.

Intra-character balance

This aspect of balance is much more subtle.  These are aspects within a character concept that are presented as equivalent choices, but may not always be so.  As an example, take Scorching Burst vs Freezing Burst.  The only reason one might choose Scorching Burst is if you are specifically taking it because it is a fire power - otherwise, Freezing Burst is strictly superior.  Another example would be Twin Strike.  It's so far ahead of the other ranger at-wills that it becomes the very foundation upon which nearly all of the builds are made.  It informs encounter/daily power choice, feat choice, item choice, and its enormous power restricts the parameter space of the ranger class.  It's easy to say "Well, that's not really a problem, because all rangers can choose Twin Strike." But the problem with this is that there could be interesting, fun, awesome ranger builds that don't use twin strike that would be more likely to be used if the intra-character balance were better.

These sorts of comparsions are the bread and butter of the class handbooks.  The red-through-gold rating system for powers, feats, paragon paths, etc. are all examples of evaluating the intra-character balance of the available options.  This is one of the most valuable contributions to the community, as it provides a huge resource for reducing overload and helping guide choices once a player has a goal in mind for a character.


Fluff


This definitely gets its own heading, as it's definitely related to game design, though not perhaps for the reasons some people might assume.  Certainly, fluff should be disjoint from mechanical effectiveness.  Your character shouldn't suck just because of the fluff in a choiceless fashion.  You can always choose a weak character, but your character shouldn't be weak just because of its power source, as an example.  Note that this is not saying that one should be able to ignore mechanics (such as primary ability scores) and expect to have a functional character.  If you can ignore the mechanics in the name of fluff, then the mechanics aren't providing a function. 

The question then becomes what does the fluff actually do, and how does it inform the mechanics?  Primarily, fluff can be used to enhance character distinctiveness.  What's the difference, mechanically, between a barbarian and an avenger?  On the whole, not a whole lot.  The avenger trades harder hits for more accuracy, and they both have encounter-long buffs after using daily attack powers.  They both use two-handed weapons and have approximately the same AC.  What's the difference between a barbarian and avenger, on the whole?  The fluff.  And that fluff is important to include in the design of any new content as well as adjustments to existing content.  You can make things that perform the same role, in nearly the same way, but structure them so that they feel different, and awesome.


Now that these are defined and explained, I'd like to add my opinion on some of the more recent developments, mostly those that I haven't been happy with.  First off, let me start that I enjoy and think is good design the vast bulk of 4e material.  It's ahead by a good margin of the other RPG systems I've played, and has strong design factors that I can identify through non-tabletop-RPG gaming that have significant advantages.  I will warn you in advance that most of my gripes have to do with things published after Aug 2010 - call those products what you will.

The Vampire

I was really, really disappointed by this class.  I wanted so badly to love it.  It's got awesome fluff, a huge distinctiveness relative to existing classes, and innovative mechanics in regards to its hitpoints and healing surges.  But why, why oh why did it have to be so low on the inter-character balance scale?  This is a case of a simple error in the allocation of the power budget, in my opinion.  The vampire has strong durability, but lowish damage.  There's supposed to be a concept of a trade there.  But when you have things even from the same book, like the Blackguard, that have both strong durability and good damage, it makes me go .  But this isn't even my biggest complaint. 

Why are there no choices?  Two levels of utility powers, and your paragon path?!  The distinctiveness that was generated relative to the other classes vanishes completely when comparing your vampire to any other vampire anyone else could make.  This fails miserably, and I don't understand why.  The allegedly-good design goal of making "simpler" classes I think hit the vampire pretty severely, to the point where it calls into question the value of the "simpler" approach.  There was so much more that could have been done by the vampire, but now I can't do that because the rules present no mechanism for me to make a vampire mine, my own, my...precious.

Themes

As someone who got his question answered in Rule of Three about why themes haven't been implemented everywhere, in which I called them "the most innovative new mechanic in 4e since its launch," I have a more personal attachment to themes than most.  I was very, very disappointed in what was presented.  Instead of continuing the Dark Sun model, which added a unique vector for pseudo-multiclassing and a huge, thorough degree of customization via power swaps, the recently-released themes are exercises in how to lock in choiceless features.  Not only are some of them mechanically clunky (Animal Master - should have used Familiar rules) or imbalanced (Order Adept), they are locked-in progressions of features without any variation whatsoever beyond the ability to pick a substitute utility power. 

Themes in Dark Sun did vastly more than give a slight power bump to a harsh setting.  They added an entirely new layer to the character-distinctiveness hierarchy, one on par with class and powers simultaneously.  Sure, many people may not have chosen to do the power swaps...but the presence was there.  And choosing whether or not to use a power swap is a much, much more solid result than a flat bonus to something you may or may not actually care about.  Every level, the theme was important because it gave a decision point for your character.  With the new ones, you only get the choice on utilities, and not even at all utility levels.  How on earth were these seen as even on par with the design of the DS themes?

The Cleric Nerfs

A lot's been said on this in the last day or so, but I'd like to put my thoughts in the context of the balance discussion above.  These nerfs do one thing:  reduce character breadth, and in doing so throwing off both intra-character and inter-character balance.  This not only makes the cleric mechanically weaker, it makes the cleric feel less awesome.  What's more significant than merely the reduction in power is the idea that the reduction resulted in stomping on what used to be fun choices.  In order to mess with the feeling of awesomeness, you'd better have a damn good reason.  And that reason, as far as I am concerned, is completely absent.

Essentials Books

I haven't bought any of the Heroes books, and here is why.  If I want to make a Fighter who does nothing but swing a big stick really hard, I don't need a book to tell me how to do it.  I can make a Fighter, I can give him a striker damage bonus and take away his mark, and move forward.  Even if I weren't willing to do the work of figuring that out, the Slayer would have fit better in a Dragon article on strikerifying the Fighter.  If it's really a subclass, an extra option, and a simple one at that, then it didn't deserve the same rating of Good/Bad Design that a full class gets.  If it's really a class, then it should be able to stand on its own using the same metrics with which we evaluate all the rest.  And the Essentials Martial classes, in particular, don't measure up.  All of the presented goals - "easy for new players to grasp and start playing" "simpler design"- could have been put in Dragon articles and been left at that.  Instead they took up development time and publishing time instead of what could have been done...

Lack of More Supplements

It's easy to argue that D&D is reaching a point where they're starting to run into the second half of the distinctiveness problem, that of new things being too close to existing concepts.  The treatment of the Strength Cleric is a particularly good example.  First comes the Runepriest, which has nearly the same fluff, almost the same mechanics, but can't capitalize on the existing cleric support.  Then comes the Warpriest, which has literally identical fluff and mechanics, but overwrites the existing material rather than supplementing it.  I think this is without question a poor idea.  If the Warpriest had consisted of a bunch of powers that could be selected completely freely by any cleric along with some alternate class features (like how you can trade Lay on Hands for Ardent Vow), then the exact same material presented could have enhanced the existing class, rather than overwriting it.

This is mostly to say that D&D isn't stale.  The existing classes aren't in a state where they can't be added to, can't be enhanced, can't be made better.  We should be careful of introducing new things, still, to make sure we don't destroy distinctiveness by having too many things the same.  But things like Arcane/Primal/Psionic Power 2 don't yet run into problems, in fact there are several aspects of the game that could benefit greatly from them.  I think the case is pretty clear that, with care, more can be added to the game still and in a way that enhances all of the current product, not just particular preferences of it.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
I think a lot of what I said in my response to Schwalb's blog post applies here.

To add; I think that it's important for each class to be viable out of the box. Many AEDU classes have a problem where, in order to play a character how you want to play the character, you need 2 or 3 feats in order to get to there. And then when you add in whatever feat taxes you feel you need, you've just gotten to Paragon Tier. That can really hurt the "Feeling of Awesomeness".
I think a lot of what I said in my response to Schwalb's blog post applies here.

To add; I think that it's important for each class to be viable out of the box. Many AEDU classes have a problem where, in order to play a character how you want to play the character, you need 2 or 3 feats in order to get to there. And then when you add in whatever feat taxes you feel you need, you've just gotten to Paragon Tier. That can really hurt the "Feeling of Awesomeness".

It's not just AEDU classes that suffer from that feat-patch/tax problem.  The Knight really needs a few feats to shore up it's stickiness, for instance.  But, it's been a clear problem with WotC throughout the run of 4e, if not back into 3.x, that they deal with underpowered or badly-designed classes by giving them feats fixes instead of errata'ing the actual problem.  It's a poor aproach and it leads to feat taxes, trap builds, and degrading game balance.

 

 

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Added section on themes. 

I don't see the 2 or 3 feats requirement to really get to the heart of a build as a problem, actually.  One aspect I didn't talk about is that of power progression - where the rate at which a character becomes noticeably more powerful is vitally important.  Oblivion got it horribly wrong, where playing intuitively you effectively deleveled your character's power progression.  Feats are one of the major ways that characters gain truly new functionality during their career, and having that spread out over the progression of levels is a good thing.

You might think that a character should be design-ready at low levels, but that obviates the potential for character growth.  Now, the question of how many feats you need to sink as taxes before you get to the 'heart of the build' feats is another story.  But I don't see much problem with my Warden needing Dwarven Weapon Training, Crippling Crush, Sudden Roots, and World Serpent's Grasp before he really starts being amazing.  If you didn't need all of those feats to get there, it would devalue feats as a meaningful choice.  I'm not sure that going quite that far is a good thing.  The feat taxes really should go, though.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Usually fun in a defined 'universe' whether that universe is serious or whatever- D&D, WoD, Paranoia, Star Wars etc.

 Fear is the Mind Killer

 

Sorta TL;DR ... I skimmed it.

A lot of elements of good game design are subjective.  For example, some people like gritty lethal dark fights where a single attack can kill you, some don't.  For another example, I think most racial feats are horribly designed; unless it mechanically interacts with the race's mechanics, it shouldn't be racial.  For example, Tactical Inspiration is eladrin only ... why?  It has nothing to do with being eladrin.  Dwarven Weapons Training shouldn't be racial; anybody can learn to swing an axe or hammer.  Enlarged Dragon Breath, however, should be, because not everybody can hork up a blast of lightning; only Dragonborn do that.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
[/sarcasm]Good RPG design is whatever sells RPGs:   A racey cover.   A nostalgic box set.   An ever-changing setting meta-plot.  Collectible anything (cards, dice, minis).  Competative organized play events.   New stuff for your character that's always better than the last set of new stuff, even if you have to nerf the old stuff to make the new stuff better...
[/sarcasm]

 

 

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I think there is a much simpler answer, to a much simpler question. Is the concept of the game sound, and does the design deliver on the concept. It's that simple because working well as designed is such a rarity in the RPG world.
...whatever
I think there's a lot of stuff in there that's specific to Dungeons and Dragons in particular. Game design is not easy. You have to be able to distill broad concepts into concrete actions. I would say that good role playing games are designed primarily around choices. As in: the choices the players make should matter. This is why I hate save or die and other swingy mechanics. They invalidate choice.

In the end, this is why build balance is a priority. The choices you make should be meaningful. If you have to choose one build over another just to stay viable then there's an issue.

Personally, I enjoy the "build a character" mini game that modern D&D employs but I don't think the game should be won or lost there. I think the choices I make there should define the experience while success or failure should be predicated on my "in play" choices.

I guess that's my theory on what I find fun in an RPG any way.   
In response to Mand, I would say that Wardens are a class with everything they need at low levels; though, I would say that they can be rather unfriendly to races without a optimal set of stats, compared to other classes.

Take the traditional Strength Cleric. They absolutely need to take a weapon proficency feat.
Artificers are the same way; they're a weapon+implement class, with few weapons and no weapliments without feats.
Rapier Rogues.
For some, Intelligent Blademaster on Swordmages, Power of Skill on Avengers.
QED
If a game is fun and enjoyable to those who play it, it is designed well.  The rest is opinion.  Person A may feel that rule X is poorly designed and Person B may not feel that way.  There really is no objective standard for what is well designed and what is not.
What is Good RPG Design?


In my opinion, there are three elements:

  1. The mechanics must meet the objectives set by the designer

  2. The flavor must evoke the mood and/or setting that the designer intends

  3. The prose must effectively communicate these elements to the consumer

That's it.  Everything else is arbitrary.
If a game is fun and enjoyable to those who play it, it is designed well.  The rest is opinion.  Person A may feel that rule X is poorly designed and Person B may not feel that way.  There really is no objective standard for what is well designed and what is not.



Sure there is.  Game design is no different than design for anything else with a subjective metric, but even that subjective metric can be analyzed objectively.  "Opinion" does not mean "unknowable."  I mean, my first big heading was "Feeling of Awesome."  That's about as subjective as it gets, but that doesn't mean you can't try to predict what will be fun.


(btw, on the warden thing, please don't pick apart the examples for extreme CharOp accuracy.  they were there to illustrate more general points)
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
What is Good RPG Design?


In my opinion, there are three elements:

  1. The mechanics must meet the objectives set by the designer

  2. The flavor must evoke the mood and/or setting that the designer intends

  3. The prose must effectively communicate these elements to the consumer

That's it.  Everything else is arbitrary.



Saying "that's it" to #1 and #2 are like saying that an aircraft carrier should carry aircraft, and that's it.  There's way more behind the scenes.  How do you determine your objectives as a designer?  What are good objectives to have?  Where do you make trades between competing objectives, and how large a trade do you make?

It's these questions that are the real meat.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
I like to work my up to awesomeness, not having given to me at level.  I like to feel the gradual increase as I level up until finally I am beyond greatness at the end.
If a game is fun and enjoyable to those who play it, it is designed well.  The rest is opinion.  Person A may feel that rule X is poorly designed and Person B may not feel that way.  There really is no objective standard for what is well designed and what is not.



Sure there is.  Game design is no different than design for anything else with a subjective metric, but even that subjective metric can be analyzed objectively.  "Opinion" does not mean "unknowable."  I mean, my first big heading was "Feeling of Awesome."  That's about as subjective as it gets, but that doesn't mean you can't try to predict what will be fun.


(btw, on the warden thing, please don't pick apart the examples for extreme CharOp accuracy.  they were there to illustrate more general points)



The problem with that is that there is a wide range of what people like.  Take 3ed and 4ed.  Both have very large followings that think their game is fun and have issues with the other version of the game.  Each side feels their game is better designed.  Which side is right?  The answer is both of them.  Both games are well designed, yet have flaws.  Both games are very fun and successful.
The problem with that is that there is a wide range of what people like.  Take 3ed and 4ed.  Both have very large followings that think their game is fun and have issues with the other version of the game.  Each side feels their game is better designed.  Which side is right? 

The side that like the better-designed, better-balanced, more modern ed, obviously.  It's OK to enjoy something inferior.  I love 1st Ed Gamma World, it's a nostalgia trip for me, and it's like watching an Ed Wood movie, it's bad, but it's so bad, it's fun.  I would never try to argue that 1st ed Gamma World was 'better designed' than 2nd or 4th or the current ed, though.   I could only just barely manage an argument against 3rd, which, though absolutely aweful in a lot of ways, was only really abysmally designed becaue /they forgot the freak'n artifacts!/ (I mean, seriously, that's like revising D&D and forgetting to revise the magic.. er... items... nevermind).

Um, anyway, in closing well-designed games can be unapealing - GURPS was beautifully researched, reality-checked, playtested, and continuously revised to make it better, but I still couldn't stand it.  And bad games can be fun - but still be bad.

Waving the whole issue away as 'subjective' is lazy and pointless.

 

 

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Um, anyway, in closing well-designed games can be unapealing - GURPS was beautifully researched, reality-checked, playtested, and continuously revised to make it better, but I still couldn't stand it.  And bad games can be fun - but still be bad.


And still managed to fail on a standard balance metric - is it trivial to build a character that completely pwns another with many fewer resources spent.


Waving the whole issue away as 'subjective' is lazy and pointless.



A lot lazy going on these days.
  Creative Character Build Collection and The Magic of King's and Heros  also Can Martial Characters Fly? 

Improvisation in 4e: Fave 4E Improvisations - also Wrecans Guides to improvisation beyond page 42
The Non-combatant Adventurer (aka Princess build Warlord or LazyLord)
Reality is unrealistic - and even monkeys protest unfairness
Reflavoring the Fighter : The Wizard : The Swordmage - Creative Character Collection: Bloodwright (Darksun Character) 

At full hit points and still wounded to incapacitation? you are playing 1e.
By virtue of being a player your characters are the protagonists in a heroic fantasy game even at level one
"Wizards and Warriors need abilities with explicit effects for opposite reasons. With the wizard its because you need to create artificial limits on them, they have no natural ones and for the Warrior you need to grant permission to do awesome."

 

What is Good RPG Design?


In my opinion, there are three elements:

  1. The mechanics must meet the objectives set by the designer

  2. The flavor must evoke the mood and/or setting that the designer intends

  3. The prose must effectively communicate these elements to the consumer

That's it.  Everything else is arbitrary.



Saying "that's it" to #1 and #2 are like saying that an aircraft carrier should carry aircraft, and that's it.  There's way more behind the scenes.  How do you determine your objectives as a designer?  What are good objectives to have?  Where do you make trades between competing objectives, and how large a trade do you make?

It's these questions that are the real meat.


 yeh, trivializing the advancements accomplished by the latest game seems a trend too come to think of it.
  Creative Character Build Collection and The Magic of King's and Heros  also Can Martial Characters Fly? 

Improvisation in 4e: Fave 4E Improvisations - also Wrecans Guides to improvisation beyond page 42
The Non-combatant Adventurer (aka Princess build Warlord or LazyLord)
Reality is unrealistic - and even monkeys protest unfairness
Reflavoring the Fighter : The Wizard : The Swordmage - Creative Character Collection: Bloodwright (Darksun Character) 

At full hit points and still wounded to incapacitation? you are playing 1e.
By virtue of being a player your characters are the protagonists in a heroic fantasy game even at level one
"Wizards and Warriors need abilities with explicit effects for opposite reasons. With the wizard its because you need to create artificial limits on them, they have no natural ones and for the Warrior you need to grant permission to do awesome."

 

3.5 was so badly designed it still has a large following and PF has a busier publishing schedule than 4th ed.  3.5 can still do some things beter than 4th ed and 4th ed was built on 3.5 bones.  If 4th ed tanks I would want some hybrid of 3.5 and 4th ed or something similar. No more overpowered spellcasters a'la 3.5, more emphasis on skills and out of combat class features.


Problem is everyone wants somehting different form "their" version of D&D and one must be careful what you wish for. If 4th ed tanks it may take D&D with it or 5th ed could suck more than 3.5 and 4th ed. 4th ed is better balanced but it is also kinda boring at least to read and the PHB is essentially obsolete if not alomst pointless. Ideally 5th ed would have the right elements of 3.5 and 4th ed in there somehow.

 Fear is the Mind Killer

 

I play 3rd/Pathfinder for 3rd/Pathfinder.

I play 4th edition for 4th edition.

I don't want 4th edition in my 3.5/Pathfinder and I don't want 3.5/Pathfinder in my 4th edition.
I think the OP sums up just about everything that goes into good RPG design. The only thing I may add/ suggest to explain further is the importance of the games overall aesthetic.

VtM for example, despite having less then stellar mechanical design presented a compelling aesthetic, including mood, setting and metaplot that all lead to a superb RPG. GM's can of course accomplish this themselves, but it's nice to have the default setting be awesome.
The essential theme song- Get a little bit a fluff da' fluff, get a little bit a fluff da' fluff! (ooh yeah) Repeat Unless noted otherwise every thing I post is my opinion, and probably should be taken as tongue in cheek any way.
I play 3rd/Pathfinder for 3rd/Pathfinder.

I play 4th edition for 4th edition.

I don't want 4th edition in my 3.5/Pathfinder and I don't want 3.5/Pathfinder in my 4th edition.


I am quite sure there are definite directions forward without mixing.


  Creative Character Build Collection and The Magic of King's and Heros  also Can Martial Characters Fly? 

Improvisation in 4e: Fave 4E Improvisations - also Wrecans Guides to improvisation beyond page 42
The Non-combatant Adventurer (aka Princess build Warlord or LazyLord)
Reality is unrealistic - and even monkeys protest unfairness
Reflavoring the Fighter : The Wizard : The Swordmage - Creative Character Collection: Bloodwright (Darksun Character) 

At full hit points and still wounded to incapacitation? you are playing 1e.
By virtue of being a player your characters are the protagonists in a heroic fantasy game even at level one
"Wizards and Warriors need abilities with explicit effects for opposite reasons. With the wizard its because you need to create artificial limits on them, they have no natural ones and for the Warrior you need to grant permission to do awesome."

 

I think the OP sums up just about everything that goes into good RPG design. The only thing I may add/ suggest to explain further is the importance of the games overall aesthetic.

VtM for example, despite having less then stellar mechanical design presented a compelling aesthetic, including mood, setting and metaplot that all lead to a superb RPG. GM's can of course accomplish this themselves, but it's nice to have the default setting be awesome.



This.  It's a point significant enough to be worth adding to the OP.  I mean, Changeling: the Lost is about as far as you can get from 4e, in terms of clarity or rules, ease of running, internal or external balance, etc.  It lacks everything I love in 4e, all the design elements without which I wouldn't have given 4e the time of day.  But the aesthetic, the atmosphere, it's amazing, and it sucks me in.

3.5 was so badly designed it still has a large following and PF has a busier publishing schedule than 4th ed.  3.5 can still do some things beter than 4th ed and 4th ed was built on 3.5 bones.  If 4th ed tanks I would want some hybrid of 3.5 and 4th ed or something similar. No more overpowered spellcasters a'la 3.5, more emphasis on skills and out of combat class features.


Problem is everyone wants somehting different form "their" version of D&D and one must be careful what you wish for. If 4th ed tanks it may take D&D with it or 5th ed could suck more than 3.5 and 4th ed. 4th ed is better balanced but it is also kinda boring at least to read and the PHB is essentially obsolete if not alomst pointless. Ideally 5th ed would have the right elements of 3.5 and 4th ed in there somehow.



Our kiwi friend has a point, +1 to this.

I play both systems as well, and while PF does have some strengths; mostly in the magic system and some of the better designed classes/class features, it inherited that awful combat system from 3/3.5 which I absolutely hated. 4E to me has a cleaner, simpler, more fluid combat system and I really enjoy the AEDU power system of the system.

Personally, I far and away prefer 4E, but I think there are some unique elements from 3.5 that can be introduced when 5E is developed. I really miss class features, I think they need to make a comeback. However, I don't want them replacing powers and power choices. 5E needs to blend the two into a new whole to give players the ultimate character customization experience.

"You got your Essentials in my 4E!" "Well, you got your 4E in my Essentials!"
I play 3rd/Pathfinder for 3rd/Pathfinder.

I play 4th edition for 4th edition.

I don't want 4th edition in my 3.5/Pathfinder and I don't want 3.5/Pathfinder in my 4th edition.




Good design is good design. I'm just saying there are elements of 4th ed that could be put into pathfinder. Put it this way I like Paizo better than WoTC for various reasons but prefer 4th ed to Pathfinder as PF still has the I win spellcaster effect at higher levels (timestop etc).

 Fear is the Mind Killer

 

What is Good RPG Design?


In my opinion, there are three elements:

  1. The mechanics must meet the objectives set by the designer

  2. The flavor must evoke the mood and/or setting that the designer intends

  3. The prose must effectively communicate these elements to the consumer

That's it.  Everything else is arbitrary.



+1


Saying "that's it" to #1 and #2 are like saying that an aircraft carrier should carry aircraft, and that's it.  There's way more behind the scenes.  How do you determine your objectives as a designer?  What are good objectives to have?  Where do you make trades between competing objectives, and how large a trade do you make?

It's these questions that are the real meat.



The thing is, the answer to all your questions is arbitrary. There is no objective answer as to what should determine your objectives, what are good objectives to have, and what sort of trades should you make between competing objectives. The answer to all those questions relies solely on the realm of subjective, personal, taste. Which is why I think Wrecan's statement is bang on.

So, it's impossible to make rational choices about game design?  Glad you're not a game designer.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
I play 3rd/Pathfinder for 3rd/Pathfinder.

I play 4th edition for 4th edition.

I don't want 4th edition in my 3.5/Pathfinder and I don't want 3.5/Pathfinder in my 4th edition.





Good design is good design. I'm just saying there are elements of 4th ed that could be put into pathfinder. Put it this way I like Paizo better than WoTC for various reasons but prefer 4th ed to Pathfinder as PF still has the I win spellcaster effect at higher levels (timestop etc).



Actually good design requires a structure to support the elements you are targetting a fundamental underpining = PF doesnt look to have the bones to paste too much of 4es musculature on. 
  
  Creative Character Build Collection and The Magic of King's and Heros  also Can Martial Characters Fly? 

Improvisation in 4e: Fave 4E Improvisations - also Wrecans Guides to improvisation beyond page 42
The Non-combatant Adventurer (aka Princess build Warlord or LazyLord)
Reality is unrealistic - and even monkeys protest unfairness
Reflavoring the Fighter : The Wizard : The Swordmage - Creative Character Collection: Bloodwright (Darksun Character) 

At full hit points and still wounded to incapacitation? you are playing 1e.
By virtue of being a player your characters are the protagonists in a heroic fantasy game even at level one
"Wizards and Warriors need abilities with explicit effects for opposite reasons. With the wizard its because you need to create artificial limits on them, they have no natural ones and for the Warrior you need to grant permission to do awesome."

 

You could plug various types of powers into Pathfinder though via feats or alternate class features and new races. A new class could be similar to an AEDU class in the PF system. Also monsters similar to the 4th ed ones could also be designed. As I said elements of PF and 4th could flow both ways. You could plug the 4th ed PHB elf into PF easily enough after slapping on a -2 con.

 Fear is the Mind Killer

 

Great post, Mand.  I would add one more thing to the list of good game design:

Easy for players to make it their own.  A good RPG should make it very easy for the players (and DMs) to change things in order to make the game suit their own individual needs.  I think 4E does this very well.
Take the Vampire, for example.  You were very disappointed in the extreme lack of choice, and implied that you have some ideas for how the class could have encompassed more.  It is very easy to make your own options or ask others on the forum for help in making more options.  Say, for example, that you wanted a choice at each level of power between a melee power (for your feral vampires) and a ranged power (for your charming vampires).  You can very easily do just that.  The power structure of 4E makes such homebrew work very easy.
So, it's impossible to make rational choices about game design?  Glad you're not a game designer.



It is possible to make rational choices, insofar as the choices will be based on reason. However, ultimately, that reason will boil down to subjective personal opinion. If you like gritty games in which the "heroes" are downtrodden men/women put through the proverbial blender of life, you are going to want a very different set of mechanics than someone who comes to the table with the assumption that "everyone should be awesome." In the end, while a game should have a coherent/unified set of mechanics, what informs the direction those mechanics should take is based on the arbitrary tastes of the game designer. In other words, a good game needs to: 1) have mechanics that must meet objectives set by the designer; 2) must evoke the mood and or setting that the designer intends; 3) the prose must effectively communicate those elements to a consumer market. Everything beyond that boils down to arbitrary taste.


    The problem with that is that there is a wide range of what people like.  Take 3ed and 4ed.  Both have very large followings that think their game is fun and have issues with the other version of the game.  Each side feels their game is better designed.  Which side is right? 

    The side that like the better-designed, better-balanced, more modern ed, obviously.  It's OK to enjoy something inferior.  I love 1st Ed Gamma World, it's a nostalgia trip for me, and it's like watching an Ed Wood movie, it's bad, but it's so bad, it's fun.  I would never try to argue that 1st ed Gamma World was 'better designed' than 2nd or 4th or the current ed, though.   I could only just barely manage an argument against 3rd, which, though absolutely aweful in a lot of ways, was only really abysmally designed becaue /they forgot the freak'n artifacts!/ (I mean, seriously, that's like revising D&D and forgetting to revise the magic.. er... items... nevermind).

    Um, anyway, in closing well-designed games can be unapealing - GURPS was beautifully researched, reality-checked, playtested, and continuously revised to make it better, but I still couldn't stand it.  And bad games can be fun - but still be bad.

    Waving the whole issue away as 'subjective' is lazy and pointless.




    Who said to wave the whole issue away as "subjective"?  I was only saying that it's tough to pin down good game design.   Frankly, there are multiple ways to design a good game and ideas such as "balance" and "modern" don't always = good game design.  3ed wasn't nearly as balanced as 4ed is, but it was still designed well in many ways.  Yes it had its flaws, but so does 4ed. 

    I also strongly disagree with you that bad games can be fun.  Bad games are unfun.  That's what makes them bad.  Fun games are good games.  Fun is what makes them good.

    Having the flavour of the game you present match the experience the players share.

    Promise a balanced system where every PC can be equal, but only a few choices really matter? FAIL!

    Promise a system where any kind of PC can be created at the cost of balance, and the result is a horribly unbalanced but fun experience? WINNING!

    "Ah, the age-old conundrum. Defenders of a game are too blind to see it's broken, and critics are too idiotic to see that it isn't." - Brian McCormick

    Not blowing to smithereens a class that worked fine despite itself for three full years would be a start.

    I suppose the OP means what is good for the player.

    However, sadly the design also needs to cater to economic realities.
    Because of this, any system with longevity (like d&d) needs to have a constant flow of content and also it needs to renew itself occasionally (new editions) to stay afloat.

    For this reason, the overflow part can't really be avoided if you also want the game to be on the market for more than a couple of years. This also creates severe problems for the balance issues, as a constant flow of content will make the system so large that evaluating any changes in playtesting is only a scratch on the surface.
    Any generalised statement about what makes good RPG design should at least be checked to see whether it applies to Call of Cthulhu.  (I'm tempted to add 'and Paranoia', but Paranoia is a little bit of a special case.)
    Are Call of Cthulhu PCs awesome?  Not in any straightforward sense: they're poor saps who are going to be sucked down into a spiral of madness and death.  But that doesn't mean CoC isn't a good RPG.
    Now as a criterion for heroic fantasy, then yes, the characters should all be achieving feats of heroism and so on.

    I would replace it by a claim that the characters should all be capable of taking part in the campaign goals.  You should never have a situation where a player feels that their character is the load: just sitting back and watching one or other characters do their thing.

    Hoard: may earn you gp; Horde: may earn you xp.
    Feats of heroism isn't quite what I mean when I say "feeling of awesome."  Going down the spiral of madness and death, itself, is awesome.  Your character doesn't have to stand triumphantly victorious as the only sane person left upon Cthulhu's rotting corpse in order to be awesome.  If you manage to survive slightly longer, that might be enough to make you awesome.
    D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
    Feats of heroism isn't quite what I mean when I say "feeling of awesome."  Going down the spiral of madness and death, itself, is awesome.  Your character doesn't have to stand triumphantly victorious as the only sane person left upon Cthulhu's rotting corpse in order to be awesome.  If you manage to survive slightly longer, that might be enough to make you awesome.



    check your pms chuckles
    How do you determine your objectives as a designer?  What are good objectives to have?  Where do you make trades between competing objectives, and how large a trade do you make?

    It's these questions that are the real meat.


    Yes, but they are, fundamentally, unanswerable.  There is no limit to what RPGs may attempt to accomplish, because thay are games (the "G" in RPG).  So a designer has nearly limitless objectives from which he can choose.

    I don't think you can define "good objective" in a universal manner.  One person's "good objective" is another person's "useless game". 

    Finally, because it's all subjective, the appropriate level of trade-off is also going to be subjective.  If a designer decides he is making the Les Miserables RPG.  He decides he wants both gritty realism (brutal battles with festering wounds) and romantic sweep (French Revolution and love stories that drive people to great deed), they need to be balanced against one another.  In places, they may work together well, and in others, they may be mutually contradictory.  There's not right or wrong answer to what the designer chooses.  However, if he decides that romantic sweep is more important than gritty realism, then he can be judged on how well he accomplishes that. 

    But often, consumers of RPGs must guess at what the designer's goals are, so judgments are difficult to make.
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