Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Response to John Wick's "Chess Is Not an RPG"

             John Wick, probably best known as the Origins Award winning lead designer for Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) First Edition RPG and his work as the Continuity Editor for the Legend of the Five Rings TCG, recently published an article, “Chess Is Not an RPG:  The Illusion of Game Balance” in which he defines what an RPG is and denounces the importance of game balance in tabletop RPGs.  Wick also expresses several controversial opinions about fan favorite games such as earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons and has caused a bit of a stir amongst the gaming community.  From the beginning of his article, Wick has set out to slay two of the sacred cows of gaming:  Weapons Tables and Game Balance. 

Taking aim first at a feature that nearly every RPG has in common, the weapon’s table, Wick’s article uses two examples from cinema to make his point:  Riddick’s use of a tea cup as a weapon in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and Sean Connery’s speech about how he can kill a man with only his thumb in the Presidio (1988).  Wick then questions how a Dungeon Master or Storyteller would adjudicate the use of those kinds of weapons within a particular system?  “Does [Sean Connery’s thumb] do megadamage?”  is an apt question.  Although that particular situation may not arise during a game, Wick is aiming at a fundamental problem with creating weapon’s lists for an RPG.  Just how much granularity does a list of weapons need?  Should the game system account for every possible weapon and variation on a weapon or merely offer a basic list of possible weapons? 
Vampire:  The Masquerade has probably the shortest weapon’s chart of any modern RPG.  Instead of trying to differentiate amongst an enormous number of handguns, assault rifles, shotguns, knives, and swords, the designers chose to simply use archetypal examples for their weapons.  In VtM, a 9mm Glock has the same stats as a .45 Heckler and Koch pistols or a 9mm Smith & Wesson.  A sword, regardless of its shape or origin has the same stats.  Katana, scimitar, and medieval long sword all do Strength+2 damage.  The player’s imagination and her description of her character’s actions fill in the blanks.  Dungeons & Dragons, conversely, offers a variety of swords:  rapiers, scimitars, long swords, great swords, short swords, and so on.  Each weapon offers different damage types and in earlier editions a character’s weapon even had an effect on her initiative roll, the infamous speed factor trait. 

            Wick calls for the DMs and GMS to remove the offending tables from their games, later recommending taking a Sharpie and obliterating the tables from the page beneath thick black ink.   Is Wick merely being hyperbolic and denouncing weapons tables to draw attention to one of the great dilemmas of game design and game mastering:  simulation versus abstraction?  In other words, how realistic should a game system or a particular campaign be?   Wick’s example of weapons tables stirs controversy which was undoubtedly his intent since that controversy will lead to greater discussion of his point. 
            For a less controversial example, consider how important it is during a D&D campaign for the adventuring party to keep track of their stores of food and water.  Should the players be responsible for tracking their consumption of food and water as they progress in their travels or is that just one more level of bookkeeping that detracts from the overall enjoyment of the game?  The answer to that question is “It depends.”  In a typical medieval fantasy setting such as Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk, tracking food and water is just bookkeeping.  Replenishing their stores is as easy as saying, “My character stops in town and buys food and water and spends 10 gp.”  Does that increase or improve the drama during a session?  Probably not.  In atypical settings such as games set in hostile environments such as Dark Sun’s deserts or an ocean voyage, maintaining stores of food and water add an element of drama to the characters’ travels.  However, if managing food and water doesn’t improve the drama of the game and provide interesting encounters, then that element should be dropped. 
            Wick’s most controversial statement, however, is “the first four editions of Dungeons & Dragons are not role playing games” but rather, “a very sophisticated, intricate, and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game.”  The history of Dungeons & Dragons supports that assertion.  Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson developed Dungeons & Dragons from their medieval war game, Chainmail; whereas most war gaming focused on units, Gygax and Arneson’s contribution was to change the scale of the game and focus on an individual character controlled by a single player.   Yet, D&D retained its combat simulation roots, especially in more recent editions such as D&D 3.0 and D&D 4th which had many game elements that necessitated the use of a grid mat. 

            Wick offers a simple litmus test for whether or not a game is a “role playing game”:  Can you play the game without role playing?  Or, can players advance through an adventure without actually taking on the roles of their characters and instead simply move their pieces around the board or grid mat no different than games like Dungeonquest?  Wick uses chess as his example for this argument.  Of course, he offers, one could take on the roles of the individual pieces, whether it is a pawn or rook or queen, and make decisions based on the imagined thoughts and feelings of the piece.  Using pieces in this manner would lead to sub-optimal decisions and most likely cause the player to lose the match. 
            Many players and gamemasters have encountered players who approach roleplaying games in the same way that players approach a chessboard; these players seek to make the most optimal decisions:  character creation, leveling up, tactical movement, etc.  They never take into consideration the role and the character that they are playing.  Optimizers, such as these players, research every aspect of the game seeking a way to ensure victory no different than studying books on chess strategy.   Since the advent of the internet, character optimization has exploded with forums offering guides, no different than videogame strategy guides, for how to create the “best” character and ranking character classes based objective power levels.  D&D 3.0 and 3.5 offer the worst examples of this kind of optimization with the continual stacking of base classes and prestige classes without questioning what sort of sense they make or how a character would gain the training in those classes. 
            If Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a roleplaying game, then what is?  Wick has created a working definition of a roleplaying game:  “a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with their character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.”   The definition is system neutral, but Wick doesn’t offer any examples of how players or designers can implement that definition in a game.  The key word in the definition is “reward” but a better word choice might be “positively reinforced.”  The gamemaster or the system reinforces the choices of the players.  The core reward systems for D&D are experience points and treasure which are rewarded when characters defeat monsters or overcome a challenge such as a trap.  Vampire:  The Masquerade rewards players with experience for taking part in the session, playing their character, having their character learn something new, and acting heroically.  Two very different ways of reinforcing the players’ choices. 
            Wick, however, stated that D&D was not a roleplaying game, but he goes on suggest that gamers should modify their preferred system to create an environment that rewards roleplaying rather than skill at a tactical combat simulation.  Here is the paradox at the heart of Wick’s argument.  Any game could be an RPG by simply modifying its rules to reinforce role playing or simply to offer opportunities for roleplaying.  Wick’s examples include changing the initiative system for Vampire the Masquerade which many consider clunky due to its method of requiring players to first roll initiative, then the starting with the person whose initiative is lowest each player declares their action, and finally, actions are resolved starting from the player whose initiative is highest.  D&D Second Edition had a similar system. 
            Wick’s argument stresses the positive reinforcement of roleplaying over maintaining game balance.  Anything that hampers or impedes roleplaying, therefore, should be removed.  Game balance is the most sacred cow of modern gaming.  The days of weak low level wizards slowly outclassing their fighter brethren are gone; now each class, tribe, clan, or archetype must be balanced against all others.  That game balance must be upheld. 

            Anyone familiar with John Wick’s work, especially on Legend of the Five Rings, can see this philosophy in his game design choices.  If you played the first edition of L5R, you’re probably familiar with just how unbalanced the Void Shugenja school was.  The various schools of each clan were not especially well balanced either.  Instead Wick’s design goal with Legend of the Five Rings emphasized the particular flavor of a clan or school which led to some wild imbalances but created opportunities for players to roleplay those clans and schools.  Some schools were extraordinarily powerful, such as the previously mentioned Void Shugenja or just Shugenja in general, and some were comparatively useless (at least terms of optimization, damage potential, etc.).  Other schools, such as the Crane Clan’s Kakita Bushi school were overly specialized in one area, in this case dueling, at the expense of general usefulness. 
            Wick’s final point is probably the most important, and the one big takeaway from his article that should be applicable to everyone who reads it.  In order to get good at roleplaying, you have to roleplay.  He doesn’t mean building characters or generating optimized builds or spell selection or even rolling dice.  He is defining roleplaying as only “the act of taking on the motivations and goals of the player’s character and acting in accord with those goals.”  Like any other skill, whether it is a physical task like throwing a football or something mental like solving a differential equation, only practice improves the skill.  Unfortunately, Wick does not offer any suggestions on how to improve one’s roleplaying skills, but perhaps that is asking too much in an article that Wick later describes as “something I spent about an hour writing, edited quickly, and the put it up for public consumption.”
            I am not quite ready to slay “Game Balance” along with John Wick, but I do agree that role players, myself included, put too much emphasis on game balance when the real goal of an RPG is not to build the best, most powerful character, but to go on a journey as that character, to live vicariously through the character and write collaborative stories with the other players.  Often this point is missed, and by pointing it out, Mr. Wick has written more eloquently than I have about the same points that I have tried to emphasize in this blog. 
            In the future perhaps players shouldn’t look for the best weapon that does the most damage, but instead finding opportunities “kill a man with just a thumb.”  Creating those opportunities requires collaboration between the player and the DM.  The DM must be receptive to the weird and strange ideas of creative players and not punish players for creating a “character” rather than building optimized characters.    


  1. Can't agree that D&D isn't an RPG. While you could play without role playing, that would be pointless and not very fun. Chess is still fun regardless. Also, for me at least, game balance is less about numbers and more story. Frodo maybe couldn't beat Gandalf in a fight, but who cares? His role is more important. Power isn't everything.

  2. One thing: on ficton, generally we got one protagonist, one primary character. On RPGs we have one team or group, so the game balance is importanta to me, to change the one character focus to one group. I think that isn't bad, the powergaming is it.