While I was putting together my review on Things Don’t Go Smooth — the new(ish) sourcebook for the Firefly RPG, I found myself starting to think about elements of game design over the years, and how they sought to achieve fairness, or player agency, or certain narrative focus. A bit of history —

When RPGs first evolved out of war games, there wasn’t much focus on stats and what they meant outside of how many spells you could have, how hard you hit in combat. The players might be stupid or super-intelligent, but ultimately, they knew what you did, and the player had to figure out the problems that were presented to them, and the dungeon master had a definite antagonistic role — both as the NPCs and creatures you encountered, but also in their design of the adventures you took on (which usually wound up with the party exploring high-improbable “dungeons” — from underground cities to cave structures that borrowed heavily from Moria in The Lord of the Rings. You were looking to outwit the DM — that was the fun of it — to figure out the riddles or traps, beat the monsters to steal their treasure. The DM was “the bad guy”, but in many ways, he was also “god” in the game — less a referee and more the capricious force you were playing against. In many ways, it was a more traditional competitive game experience. Did you “beat” the DM or not?

In the case of fairness, most DMs and players of the early games looked to randomizers to keep the action “fair.” Roll that d20 and let the universe decide if you succeed or fail. Did your character get killed? Maybe the DM sent something truly awful that would be near impossible to beat, but ultimately, a few good rolls could see you win the day. A bad DM might use his position as the referee to rule by fiat — declaring outcomes, rather than facilitating them. (See the movie Zero Charisma for an excellent rendition of this sort of DM.) This notion that you take your lumps, no matter what, because you made your decisions and the dice are impartial, is very popular with the older “grognard” (old soldier — very telling.) These guys usually like rules for any situation they could encounter…especially in combat, hence why D&D, GURPS, and other rules sets from this period normally have a combat chapter that dwarfs the rest of the chapters on mechanics.

This style of game design is very good for the beginning player and GM. There’s rules, you implement them, and adjudicate as prescribed by the rules. People good at finding the loopholes and using them to their advantage (the much maligned “rules lawyer”) do very well in these kinds of mechanics.

Quickly, however, role playing games started evolving away from the combat simulation-focus and DM-as-antagonist position of early Dungeons & Dragons (although D&D or variations on the game have remained, easily, the most accessible and popular of RPGs for the reasons evinced in the last paragraph.) To try and give the players more say over the stories told, and their characters more uniqueness, the statistics of the characters became more important, hence the shift to mechanics that usually had some form of die roll+skill level. Also, these games took a position that game master (GM) and player have a more collaborative relationship. The GM might still be creating the adventures and looking for ways to challenge the players, but the idea of the TPK (Total Party Kill) tended to be something that happened because the dice screwed you or you made dramatically bad decisions. One way to avoid this was the mechanic of the “hero point” from James Bond: 007 — a game that differed sharply from Top Secret (essentially D&D retooled for the modern spy genre) in the design philosophy that the players should succeed most of the time. It was cinematically appropriate, and in some ways, more fun.

Another idea for  making the rules serve a story was the elimination of randomness. Diceless systems, the first being (and I could be wrong here) Amber, focused on the relations of the characters as more important than the stats and fighting. In competitions between characters, the person with the higher stat won. Early World of Darkness settings from White Wolf tended to work this way, especially in the LARP community, where ties between characters of equal ability were settled with a quick round of rock/paper/scissors. The point was to increase player agency by having your actions (in character) be more important than GM (or in the case of WoD, “Storyteller”) fiat. For these systems, the “fun” is in having the characters interact, and having those interactions drive the story.

Serving the narrative and giving more control to the players was the design philosopy behind Fudge, its more evolved descendent Fate, and Fate’s cousin Cortex + (Firefly uses this last rules set.) In these games, giving narrative control to the players is central, and it is enshrined in the mechanics of the games. Players can create aspects or assets or complications (whatever they’re called in the game or the situation) as an outcome of a test, and invoke these to improve their control of the scenario or other characters through that targets’ aspects or weaknesses.

Thus endeth the history lesson. Let’s talk about the design intent and reality. When creating a game, the first goal should be to make something that when played is fun. You can have other intents — sharing narrative control, de-emphasizing combat, trying to make gaming more “inclusive.” The philosophy of the mechanics should be to make the game fun (and in my bias, that also means simple to use.) Keep in mind there is “no right way to play” a game; it’s a function of player (and this includes the GM) preferences when playing, but the goal is the same for nearly all players — to have fun.

A central dialogue in game design these days concerns player agency and how best to give or contain it. It is nearly always cited in opposition to GM fiat. The notion of the “sandbox”, where players direct where the story goes vs. the “railroad” — where the GM attempts to lead players through a tightly scripted story where the players’ characters are more puppets to make things happen. (Think any character in the Star Wars prequels….Obi Wan does stupid thing #3 because event A has to happen.)

Giving the players control over the mechanical factors of a scene using Aspects or through their narration of what they do — essential to the diceless approach — allow them to manipulate the events and outcomes. In Fate and Cortex+ this is systemized in that the actor in a scene declares the optimal outcome of the scene. “I slip in to the master villain’s fortress, taking out the guards without raising the alarm. I will invoke the “Moonless night” aspect, my “Expert with a Knife” asset…”

I question I have is the necessity to have this mechanized. Do I need to invoke “moonless night”, or should the GM have taken into account it’s dark and I’m wearing basic black sans pearls to give me a bonus. Which is easier and faster? The end product — maybe you got a +2 to your die roll, to use Fate as an example — is the same, but I would suggest the latter example is easier. In a diceless system, the hero might have a better stealth and the bad guys’ perception rating — he’s going to succeed, so why bother slowing the action with a die roll. As in a movie, unless the action is heightened by fighting the major henchman to get to the Big Bad, you should just go through the mooks like Captain America does in the ship scene at the beginning of Captain America 2: The Winter Solider. (A similar idea resides in the Ubiquity “take the average” mechanic — if the average number of successes you should get is better than the difficulty, just roll on.) Player agency, ultimately, is the most powerful element of RPGs in that the characters have to act or react for anything to happen. As the grognards might say, “The story develops from what you do.”

One mistake I think designers make when attempting to maximize player agency is misunderstanding the role of a game master. The GM is a facilitator — to use an educational term. They aren’t there to tell you a story, but to help you keep it on course. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is a good axion here. Having the players decide every aspect of the narrative leads to  1) a natural erosion of story or setting cohesion — what you might liken to having too many writers on a television show leads to a series jumping the shark, and 2) less “fairness” in that, while everyone supposedly has an input on events — as with the aspects idea of Fate and its ilk — particularly clever or charismatic players will naturally bend the story in the directions they want. While that can create some level of enjoyment and surprise, having someone rewrite the direction of an adventure that was obviously going in another can be less than satisfying. Case in point — the movie Event Horizon, which seems to have been cobbled together from two different scripts. The first half is a solid sci-fi thriller with some supernatural suspense aspects; the second half is a muddled slasher flick that feels like it was adapted from a Hellraiser reject script then slapped on the back half. Can you kit bash them together? Sure…but it doesn’t really work well.

Which brings us to GM fiat. How much control should the game master have over an adventure? It is unlikely that your players want to sit and listen to you do an audio book of your latest novel, while they periodically roll bones to allegedly “do something”, but leaving your players to wander about Night City while waiting for something to catch their attention is also not a particularly productive way to spend a few hours of your gaming time. Can it be fun? Sure, but is it fun for everyone at the table, or are some bored with yet another barfight to fill time? Can the gamemaster having strong, but not total (or even most,) narrative control create a cohesive game universe than is consistent (a central element to verisimilitude) and which doesn’t favor one player (not a character, one of which might naturally be “the lead”, but the player) over another. In a mystery or other suspense setting, having one guy that knows the secret can be much more rewarding when the surprise is unveiled than having another player say “You know what would be cool..?”

The idea that a stronger GM presence can make a game more fair is probably controversial to some in the gaming community. I suspect people with this viewpoint have had a bad experience or two with the old-fashioned DM-as-antagonist game master, and those who have their entire campaign plotted out with the players on rails.

Ultimately, all of these positions I’ve laid out show some preference for how to get at the fun of playing a role playing game. Should the players spitball together a plot like they did playing on the playground? It’s a natural way of playing, and feels “fair” when there are rules to contain the actions of the players. Can a game with an oppositional game master who sets up challenges and leaves you to handle them as you will be fun? Do you need dice and rolling to slow down the action? Do you need to mechanize every aspect of play, or can the mechanic themselves be part of the fun?