Monday, 16 January 2017

The Fundamental Principles of RPG Style

In the early 20th Century the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin attempted in his Principles of Art History to come up with a method for describing works of art purely in terms of their form (rather than their quality). He eventually came up with five different "successions" which can be thought of almost as axes or spectra on which to locate a given work of art. Thus works of art can be compared on the basis of being linear vs painterly, planar vs recessional, tectonic vs a-tectonic, and so forth. You can then, according to Wölfflin, use this to understand and explain how representative forms change over historical periods.

Wölfflin's method is based on a cod-Hegelian historicist theory in which everything moves cyclically in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis sort of way, but his basic idea - coming up with a way to describe the differences between any given set of paintings - is interesting and sound. Let's try and do something similar with RPGs.

What I'm suggesting here is a normatively-neutral way of describing any game, campaign setting, adventure module, or even individual session, using these four handy Wölfflinian "successions":

Open v Closed. An open game system is one in which there are many (or infinite) possibilities - you could in theory do anything with it. Risus, GURPS, etc. A closed game system is one which is highly specific to a certain period or mood (Night Witches, Dogs in the Vineyard). An open campaign setting is one which leaves things, well, largely open (Isle of the Unknown, Planescape). A closed one is detailed and largely pre-determined (modern Forgotten Realms, the Known World). An open campaign is one which begins as open-ended. A closed one is one in which there is an expectation of a completed narrative arc. An open session is one in which the PCs begin without anything particular to do and set their own goals. A closed session is one in which what happens is largely dictated by circumstance.

Light-hearted v Serious. This is more self-explanatory. Light-hearted doesn't necessarily have to mean "humorous" - it could be, say, a non-combative animal fantasy game you run for your kids or something. Equally, it could be a game involving lots of death or torture if the players aren't taking things seriously or are playing Paranoia or something.

Easy v Hard. A hard game system would be Rolemaster. An easy one would be Ghost/Echo. An example of a hard campaign setting is Wraith: the Oblivion - you have to think about it a lot before you can really understand what's going on; an easy one is the Known World. An easy campaign is one which has simple goals or expectations (clear a dungeon); a hard one is complex and has many different strands. An easy session is one which places few demands on the players; a hard one requires lots of thought and effort.

Loose v Strict. A loose game system is forgiving and has rules which are readily broken or manipulated - like OD&D. A strict game system resists being fooled-around with, like D&D 4th edition. A loose campaign setting is one which does not hold fast to genre convention or to a specific canon, like Rifts. A strict campaign setting is one which does not mix well with others, like Middle Earth. A loose campaign is one in which the DM adopts a kitchen-sink approach; a strict one holds fast to expectations of genre, mood, or style. A loose session is one in which the players and DM frequently "break the fourth wall"; a strict session is one in which most things take place in-character.

Thus, you might describe D&D 5th edition as moderately open (you're generally going to use it for fantasy games, but other than that you're relatively free from constraint), moderately serious (there is a slight tongue-in-cheek element to it but it is essentially played straight), sitting between easy and hard, and relatively loose (you can fiddle with the rules quite easily).

Alternatively, you could compare D&D 5th edition with Pendragon and say it is more open, less serious, easier, and looser. Compared to Amber Diceless, Pendragon is more closed, about as serious, harder, and stricter.

Moving down to campaign settings, you could say Planescape is open, somewhat light-hearted, somewhat hard, and somewhat loose. It is more open than the World of Darkness, more light-hearted, harder, and looser. The World of Darkness is more open than the world of Cyberpunk 2020, more serious, harder, and stricter.

Yoon-Suin is somewhat open, somewhat serious, somewhat hard, and somewhat strict.

Maze of the Blue Medusa is somewhat closed, somewhat serious, quite hard, and quite loose.

Apocalypse World is somewhat closed, serious, somewhat easy, and somewhat strict.

In comparison to AD&D 2nd edition, BECMI is equally as open/closed, but a little bit more light-hearted, a little bit easier, and a little bit looser. On the other hand, 2nd edition is equally as open/closed as 3rd edition and probably equally as light-hearted/serious, but is a little bit easier and a little bit looser.

You can probably think of game sessions you've been involved in and how you might categorise them. I reckon the most recent one I played in was rather closed (it was a pre-published adventure), rather light-hearted (we approached it with a fair amount of levity), pretty easy (what we had to do was largely clear) and rather loose (we didn't hugely get into our characters and often commented on what was going on).

There may be other "successions" I've not thought of.


  1. No progress on these lines will be made until it is acknowledged that there is first of all a distinction to be made between two groups, one outnumbering the the other by twenty or fifty to one (take your pick). The heavy bag, or the bag 'of morons' consists of childish consumers of fantasy in the undeveloped form they first encountered it, cartoons, posters, heavy metal lps, pajama tops. The bag 'of morons' considers it a virtue to play D&D just as they did when they were 13 and knew fuck all about the world because they *still* know fuck all about the world. This is a legitimate problem. Adults don't read and adult popular culture is a teenage culture. The D&D community perfectly encapsulates the 'I am aging and depressed so I seek escape in childish things' mentality of the unsuccessful lower middle-class.

    Most of the creativity that is consumed comes from within the bag 'of morons' community. I will cite Zak S as an example of this because he might be considered someone from the little bag 'with no morons'. This would appear calumny only to anyone who has not watched video evidence of what a typical D&D session is like for his group, really pointless garbage there.

    So first things first, I urge you sans-culottes to acknowledge the aristocracy that wants to invigorate your D&D life. We don't even need your praise, just acknowledge your station.

    1. Kent, you're a very intelligent and interesting guy when you want to be. Why do you feel this need to (try to) be intentionally provocative?

    2. I think we should take up a collection and send you a Louise Redknapp poster.

    3. Yep, slipped into forum style palaver.

  2. Fascinating and thought provoking way to look at rpg's. I'm curious about the relationship between Easy vs Hard and Loose vs Strict. I imagine the way you evaluate those would have to be different depending on whether you were looking at a game as a player or a GM. Some things can be incredibly challenging to run, but fairly easy to play. How much of Easy vs Hard is evaluated during session prep vs actual gameplay? Similarly, theres been a lot of words thrown around regarding the role of GMs vs players and how the rules are adjudicated in simple vs complex game systems. The more formalized or strict the system, the more the responsibility for maintaining the game state falls on the players. Would that make a game easier for the GM and Harder for the players?

    1. Yes, that's an interesting point actually - hard for the GM may be easy for the players and vice versa.

  3. Am I understanding this correctly:

    "Yoon-Suin is somewhat open, somewhat serious, somewhat hard, and somewhat strict."

    The system is open.
    The campaign is serious.
    The setting is hard.


    Sessions are strict?

    If not...what does listing a bunch of qualities with no correlations mean example?

    Also, a given session would seem to be the most variable when it came to classifying and categorizing. One session might be hard, the next not as hard, the next easy, followed by hard again - or something like that.

    No? Am I understanding that properly?

    1. No. Each and all of the four different "successions" can be used to describe a ruleset, a campaign setting, a module, an individual session, a campaign, anything.

      Yoon-Suin as a campaign setting is somewhat open (because it leaves a large amount open to the DM to create as he wants), somewhat serious (as presented the subject matter is not particularly light-hearted but there is a slight ironic tone to bits of it), somewhat hard (it's not necessarily easy to get to grips with straight out of the book and requires a bit of effort to engage with), and somewhat strict (because it doesn't readily mix with other campaign settings).

      You can use the same four successions to describe an individual session and say it was open (because there was no predetermined goal for the PCs that particular day - maybe the start of a new "chapter"), serious (because what was happening was treated with great importance), hard (there ended up being lots of interfacing with the rules in quite complex ways), and strict (lots of in-character speech and role playing).

    2. Huh. I think I get it, but I'm not sure it fulfills my needs for defining a campaign. That could be because I run Sci-Fi, Superhero, and IP-based games more often than not, and my personal style/approach often supersedes some of the elements of the systems, or settings when need be.

      For example, Champions [Hero System] could be described as a set of rules that are Strict, but I tend to adjudicate it on the Loose side a little more than most.

      Still, and all, an interesting mental exercise to get perhaps a better grasp on ones own gaming philosophy.