Friday, April 16, 2010

RPG Taxonomy

I don't think taxonomy is the right word here, maybe you can help me out with a better one. I think it would be cool to have an extensive look at the various approaches to the fundamental RPG situations. I'm sure parts of this already exist. For example, it seems Forge gamers have spent a lot of energy thinking about different mechanical approaches to Task Resolution in RPGs. I remember the 2e era D&D book Player's Option: Spells & Magic went into various systems of handling magic- spell points, at will, Vancian, etc.

But I would be fascinated with a book, or maybe a wiki would be more appropriate, that systematically looks at these common RPG elements and how you might approach them, and how they have been approached historically.

Lets take saving throws as an example: First what do you call this? Last Ditch, maybe. And how might it be/has it been handled?
  1. A general buyout where players have a kind of trump card or fate point-- Did Marvel Super Heroes do this? How about Savage Worlds?
  2. A general "luck" roll equal to all characters of all abilities-- examples?
  3. A more general roll modified by ability. So, the more dexterous characters, regardless of archetype, are more likely to dodge a fireball-- Norman, you said C&C's SIEGE system is like this?
  4. A general roll modified by severity, i.e. how Last Ditch it is-- Delta's system that Chris kindly pointed out.
  5. A general roll modified by archetype. So, wizards are considered more resistant to magic-- Swords & Wizardry
  6. A more specific roll based on archetype. So, wizards are considered more resistant to wands, spells and petrification, but less so to breath weapons-- classic D&D. Jeff lays out the classic D&D save categories here.
The last might be considered a roll modified by archetype and severity, but I think there is a distinction between Delta's idea of severity and that of save category types. What I mean is, you could have equally severe categories, which you felt different archetypes should have different chances at surviving. Also, traditional D&D seemed to have mixed feelings about this, thinking Death Ray from a wand and Death Ray from a magic-user, though equally instantaneously severe, were somehow differing in survivability. (unless I'm misunderstanding, did wands, staff, rods apply only if there was no more specific save category?)

This is why doing this is really interesting to me, when you start trying to categorize and lay something out in a system you are forced to encounter dimensions you hadn't seen before. When I started the numbered categories above I was working with the general assumption that they would progress from more abstract to more specific. In actuality, the different ways games have handled Last Ditch mechanics vary in different dimensions: the actor (wand, creature), those being acted upon (ability, archetype, experience), and severity (poison vs charm person).

One interesting thing this tells me is that we have competing features in our minds for what makes something more "realistic" for us. As DIY DMs we may feel that abilities seem much more important in the scheme of Last Ditch things than archetype or vice versa. And this is separate from how the mechanics play out in the game system. And these can be deviously hard to predict. Trollsmyth has a great post on trying to achieve certain goals through different mechanics (bonuses vs dice rolls).

Although, there may be general rules we can say are true, for example, the more of these categories a Last Ditch mechanic tries to incorporate the more complex it becomes. But then, perhaps that complexity can be "cooked in" or moved around various places in the system.

And Last Ditch is just one example. In trying to categorize and systematize all RPG situations, surely we would encounter some we hadn't even noticed. I think one example is the generation of hireling traits, which I've mentioned before. That is typically considered part of pre-play preparation, but that I've brought into play and handed off to players at Jeff Rient's suggestion.

So, hope that is more productive than my last post on saves.


  1. Obviously the original five saves of D&D try to play to the various strengths and weaknesses of the various classes and races. While I think a single save mechanic looks elegant, it loses the power to make a class strong in one area, but weak in another. Simply making the numbers different for different classes doesn't overcome this problem.

    The only way to do so, I believe, is to make the save number the same for all classes and then introduce a system of bonuses and penalties by class/race. So, a magic-user might get a +2 save vs anything involving magic, but a -2 save to dodging dragon's breath because he's not as agile as a fighter.

    The problem I envisage with such a system is that just like as in the original five saves system in which the player would have to check his character sheet to find the right number (unless he's got a really good memory), under a single save system with bonuses and penalties, any elegance is lost for the very same reason, having to check the sheet for the right number. So then it becomes a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other. And so the question must be asked, is this an improvement?

  2. Yeah, I agree. I think it would be rare that a decision on mechanics wouldn't involve a trade off somehow. But after analyzing, at least now we can talk more specifically about what we each value more.

    It sounds like you value the fine grain differentiation that having different saves for all categories gives. So for example, magic-user saves differently from fighter in everything but wands.

    While I'm pretty surprised that you can still save some differentiation-- magic user saves better against magic-- while keeping things simple enough to memorize.

    I do value the differences in the archetypes (or why have them, right?). So, I wouldn't want to go with options 1-3 above. I think they're too coarse a solution. But I'm sure others would disagree with me and would love the idea of a general luck roll and doing away with saves altogether.

  3. Is the need to be able to memorise such a number that important, when a quick glance at the character sheet literally takes all of one or two seconds?

    I certainly agree that while an attractive option, replacing the save mechanic with a luck ability (or similar) is a coarse solution. While it works fine in a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, if you start actually defining what creates luck for an individual, such as a combination of quick relexes, mental alertness, etc., you get back to the problem of some classes/races/individuals probably being entitled to a higher luck score than others, thereby complicating the mechanic or at least making such a simple mechanic unsatisfactory and ineffective.

  4. I think for me it's the total of all those quick glances-- to hit, saves, monster to hit-- in AD&D that have pushed me too want a more streamlined game. And, really, streamlining allows me to be more confident in making rulings-- I don't even need a book to DM with S&W, the rules are so streamlined.

    And you're right, I think adding detail to the luck roll makes sense and adds complexity. It all boils down to how much detail you're willing to accommodate the complexity for.

    I mean, I think some have criticized the classic D&D saves categories for their arbitrary nature. I can imagine someone wanting to specify them more clearly expanding to 12 or twenty categories.

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  6. I'm quite frustrated. There is a book that does this, and it's free on the net. I think it's by Joe Williams. But I can't find it >:(