Favorite Revolutionary RPG Mechanic
What is revolutionary? I’m not asking to be difficult. It’s more a reaction to the idea that RPGs were “one thing” because D&D was the first and that somehow the creations of other RPGs in the early design space were innovations. It’s also a question about whether modern design is innovation/revolution as opposed to a continued tinkering with the form which suits certain niches of the larger hobby community. Most new games don’t “change gaming forever” they simply offer another choice in a very large field of choices.
Was AD&D revolutionary for all the changes it made to D&D? Was class/level revolutionary or Class as a separate characteristic from Race on the character sheet? I could find myself making the argument that class and level are one of the single most revolutionary aspects of gaming mechanics as they are fundamental to the some of the most popularly played games today just as they were originally.
How then to compare the innovation of a point-buy system for creating characters over the random rolling of dice to generate attributes? This certainly opened up whole new avenues of gaming and was exactly what a portion of the population was looking for in their experience of the hobby.
Even more interesting to me is the transition from systems built around the d20 and 3d6 dice rolls to systems using Dice Pools (check out Casting Shadows for a take on the dice pool as a favorite revolutionary RPG mechanic). Dice pools using d6s or d10s certainly changed things for a lot of gamers. Then, of course, you have the oddly self-congratulatory d20 system, which effectively refines the original D&D blueprint by emphasizing the d20’s role even more, and somehow ushered in an entire era of gaming in the early 2000s. (I recognize that the mechanic of the d20 was less important than the OGL but many games are still building on this d20 system foundation laid by 3rd edition D&D such as Mutants and Masterminds and Pathfinder).
Hit Points – much maligned, still used – are a heck of an innovation. They effectively deal with a means for tracking the ability of your character to keep pushing forward and emulate the heroic aspect of many mythical heroes in that they rarely suffer debilitating injuries (except when it serves the purposes of the narrative, something the emergent, player/DM controlled D&D steers away from). And even games which do not use hit points often use “hit points in disguise” and simply change the names and ranges of injury or split them into two (or more) pools of points for varying attempts to simulate other things. In the d20 arena, you can look at the Wounds/Vitality split of Star Wars d20, but it’s just as instructive to look at the Health Levels of the World of Darkness (along with Willpower), and the Health/Fatigue split of a game like GURPS. Sanity in Call of Cthulhu is just a special kind of hit points to emulate a special kind of damage your character takes. And Hit Points are a staple of the video game RPG industry even if the way they are tracked is “hidden” from the player in some games. Heck, the fighting game industry puts a health bar above your head, so it’s not just RPGs.
Compare this to the consequence-laden systems of some more modern games (such as FATE) which provide a much narrower window of functional character play and then broaden it by virtue of stacking modifiers on your character. This is certainly an innovative and clever answer to the problem of wanting a very different experience from Hit Points. I’m certainly a fan of the concept if not a fan of the execution… every time I try FATE I just end up disappointed. Obviously, this is not the typical fan experience as it is a very successful and well-loved game. I really want to try Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) to see if my experience is any different.
This, of course, leads me to the “Story Game” revolution. So far, my experience with Story Games has been surprisingly flat. I read some of them and think they are brilliant (I have a serious unrequited love of Polaris. I need to play this game. I don’t want to run this game, I want to play it. It’s so beautiful). Unfortunately, I often find the end result of Story Games to feel more like they are trying to legislate game play to protect players from “naughty GMs” than to provide a better method for sitting at a table with your friends and playing a game that just so happens to also involve creating a cooperative story. Is this a fair review of story games? Probably not in all cases but it certainly is the impression I glean from many of the more popular ones I have encountered. My attitude about this has been evolving though, as some clever games have interpreted the GM-space in interesting ways (e.g., Lead Narrator in Cosmic Patrol) and I do love the shared power of narrative at the game table. I just find many attempts to legislate it to be bureaucratic and cold.
It occurs to me that I have strayed from my first endeavors point without talking about the dice. I have limited experience with early wargaming outside of playing a few Avalon Hill WWII games with my father (still a big fan of Afrika Korps) but the jump from wargaming to adding fantasy elements to “let’s use all these funky dice” seems to be a pretty revolutionary change. More than anything, I think that these wacky dice (see Dungeon Crawl Classics for a modern day revival of the funky dice debate) really could argue for being the most important revolution of the RPG hobby. It’s a hard one to argue with in my mind, especially considering how companies now are attempting to merge story gaming and heavy dice-pooling with games using “Narrative Dice” like Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer Fantasy and Star Wars lines, where the dice don’t even have numbers. Instead they bear icons which trigger specific outcomes in combination with a pile of charts. As an aside, I like the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games but I find the option paralysis and game churning slowness of interpreting dice pools, especially as characters gain more abilities to be a big drawback and it makes it difficult for me to get excited about the game.
There have been numerous attempts to get away from the tyranny of randomness in gaming from the beginning. Re-rolls, modifier points, using playing cards, etc. And as far as the eye can see, people are still coming up with new ways to play around with dice or with an alternative to dice. It’s pretty cool.
But as anyone who knows me will tell you, my favorite revolutionary game mechanic is one that is so rarely implemented well but so brilliant, so exciting, that I keep seeking the holy grail of capturing that magic… and that would be diceless play. I love reading diceless game systems. I love examining how they attempt to maneuver around the randomness space and the GM whim space. I love seeing how they handle combat. Diceless games are still rare beasts, and the pool that I consider “playable” rarer still. Diceless games, specifically those without a randomizing element at all, are like the Questing Beast for me. Playing without dice, without randomization, with only imagination, shared storytelling, and a thin veneer of well-written rules, is still my favorite way to play and the revolutionary idea that most captures my imagination.
Thanks for reading. This one was really fun to write.