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  • Four Axes Of RPG Design

    [03.28.19]
    - Arto Koistinen
  • This article began as an answer to a multifaceted yet straightforward question: what makes a good roleplaying game? I have worked with several RPGs during my career and even written and done presentation on the subject, but I have never before approached it from a holistic point of view. There are plenty of material on what makes a good game, and naturally, most of that applies to roleplaying games too, but there are some design decisions that are specific if not unique to the genre. 

    Since it's impossible to give a list of features a roleplaying game should have, and there are numerous ways to approach any given design aspect, I broke down the design into four distinct axes. None of the axes alone can tell if you're on the right path with your design, but together they help to manage the big picture. 

    Axis #1: Randomness vs Determinism

    From the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, Chainmail and their precursors, randomness has been in the core of the roleplaying game design. In tabletop games, you used dice to determine the outcome of any uncertain action -- and there were a lot of them back in the day. As the discipline of RPG design advanced, the number of dice rolls slowly decreased, and some games even left them out completely. In digital games, some randomness has been replaced by player skill in more action-oriented games, but it's still an essential part of any a traditional RPG experience, especially in fantasy games.

    There is rarely a sweet spot for randomness versus determinism, and the best approach varies from game to game. My process has usually started with too much randomness and then adding determinism iteration by iteration. My RPG battle design articles go into this in more detail, but here's a short recap. 

    In tabletop games, rolling dice is an action you take: "I rolled 17." Even though we consciously know that we can't affect the outcome of the roll (except by cheating), rolling well feels like a personal accomplishment and a failed roll is either your fault or just a bad dice. In digital games, a streak of bad luck feels like a fault of the game and can get frustrating very fast. That is why we need to give the players more options to own their action. In Rimelands, we added the reroll option for this reason. Since the game only rerolls the failed dice, the option actually reduces the randomness, and by costing a single mana point (you always have a pool of precisely five mana points), it makes rerolling an actual choice. 

    Another good option to add determinism is to have a relatively limited range of randomness for damage, a solution often seen in JRPGs. The worst luck becomes a bottom line, and you can only go upward. Rolling a crit feels good even if you're not the one doing the rolling, but you can never really botch due to bad luck. 

    A low amount of randomness usually leads to battles feeling more like puzzles in which you have to find the right combination of abilities to defeat a particular enemy. Usually, the most deterministic fights in such games are boss fights, but Persona 5 (for example) takes this to another level, requiring the player to know the exact strength and weaknesses to succeed in any fight. 

    The more options you give the player, the more agency they have. The player should never feel like the lost a battle due to a bad dice roll, but because of a choice they made. 

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