Could RPGs be more fun if they let you be more flawed?

I’ve recently started playing with a new Dungeons & Dragons group, drafted in after one of their numbers upped and left town. It’s my second time playing table-top D&D, after a splendid stint a couple of years back with Jim Rossignol (late of this parish) DMing, and it’s a properly good time. And what I’ve learned is that it becomes a much better time the more flaws you introduce to your character. Which got me thinking: wow, do PC RPGs not follow that rule at all.

I am very much an amateur when it comes to real-world D&D. I’ve learned my way around a D20, but it’s something I came to late and am still getting the hang of. So it is that reflecting on the previous game I was involved in, I’ve realised how wrongly I’d approached the whole thing. I was trying to win the game.

This makes perfect sense, really. Around that table were sat four long-time games critics, who have spent their day jobs trying and needing to win games. And that’s hardly the exclusive territory of critics. Games, in the main (yes, yes, roguelikes), are designed to be won, or at least completed. You’re given a character or a role, a set of tools, and then asked to get from the start to the finish, beating everything along the way. Which, I’ve realised, is not a great way to approach a table-top RPG if you want to have the most fun. Jim knew this – poor Jim. Sorry Jim. And while I had a brilliant time playing, I now realise that we could have let it be a whole lot more interesting for us.

In the new game, arriving midway through their story, I once again rolled a character I thought would be quick and smart and good at the game. And then joined a group of flawed, and frankly strange characters making ludicrous decisions against their self interest. And wow, it’s amazing!

Let me give you an example. One character, Royce, is a half elf and serial con-artist. So much so that he’s no longer sure who he’s conning. And his decisions are, shall we say, not given due consideration. We, our peculiar crew, are presently sailing up-stream to investigate a kidnapping, piloting a ship we’ve stolen that’s powered by magical items. Any magical item, so long as it’s magical, can be thrown into the furnace to keep the engines running. In the engine room is a rapidly depleting box of magical bits and bobs that were on the ship when we nicked it, their nature determined by the roll of a D6, then destroyed to further our progress. So when Royce is told there are only four objects left, and we need to put one in to keep going, he tries to put in all four.

I’d never have done that! I know how to play games! There are four objects, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us, many challenges in our way, and one item is enough to keep us moving. So one item, right! That’s how you win! But that’s not Royce’s nature, as Tom – the human – is dedicated to roleplaying. Royce would just stuff in as many as he could and then not really pay much attention to the consequences.

It went against everything I knew to be Right and True, and the result was brilliant. The results of all the idiotic choices he makes are brilliant. As are the ramifications of Randolf’s half-orc blundering drunkenness. He wins fights, but mostly ones he never needed have started in the first place. Then there’s mysterious and downright weird River Tam, a Genasi, far more interested in dancing and looking at the scenery than planning for battle. And into this arrived Ash, my elf assassin, quick-witted, silent and smart. And I realised I was the dullard at the table. My guy was a video game RPG character, elite and smooth, designed to win the game. And as a consequence, he added far less to the adventure. It only took me a couple of sessions to realise my mistake, and to very quickly vastly improve my character – and my experience – by making him so much more flawed.

In fact, I’ve attempted to parody my own mistake by imbuing it into the character. Ash, now, is vainglorious. His assumption that he is going to win, that he is an expert player at life, is his downfall. He looks down on the others he’s recently joined as idiots, fools, beneath him, and as such doesn’t listen. He’s also hot-headed and deeply impatient, while certain he’s right. And the more I’ve worked on getting my head into this space, of playing someone who might make the wrong decision because of his character, against his own interests, the more I’ve realised that computer RPGs (CRPG) just don’t have room for this at all.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 is an incredible game. There are few who would question that. It’s running in the background behind the window into which I’m currently typing, tempting me away from work, with the dozens of unfurling plots begging me to return to them, to complete them. It is, I think, the RPG that’s gotten the closest to allowing me to be an imperfect character within its complex world, allowing me to abandon plots, or walk away from those who might have interesting stories. If there’s a game that counters my argument here, it’s this one. But it’s “one”. And it’s still a game that’s asking me to win.

For the most part, RPGs replace the notion of a flawed character with variants of Good/Evil approaches. I can be a bastard, or an angel, but while particular choices can shut down particular stories, none is designed to make me worse at the game. Each, in the end, is written to allow the play to feel like the winner, to be the hero, whether virtuously or dishonorably. And they’re almost always designed around the idea of constant improvement, or outwitting the NPCs, of outdoing the situation, of becoming the champion, whether by rectitude or racket.

Clearly a CRPG doesn’t have the opportunities for improvisation available to a table-top DM. The player cannot simply walk off in the opposite direction to the intended story and see what’s happening over there instead, as one can when surrounded by improbably sided dice. Real life RPGing is replete with wonderful opportunities that just can’t be replicated by a computer game. But I still think the lesson I recently learned is one that games could too. That the player’s character could do well to be given opportunities to be not just good or bad, but also a moron. To make bad decisions with ridiculous consequences. To mess up.

It’s incredibly tough, and yes, I immediately think of all the problems that make this a designer’s nightmare. But perhaps the approach needn’t be so chaotic. Perhaps the answer is creating playable characters who are far more imperfect. Or even better, not on a pathway to perfection. Flaws that are really flaws, dialogue options that cause things to go very wrong in a particular situation. Right now we’re often presented with the option to agree to help someone, or to be crassly rude about not helping them. The latter might feel like what I’m asking for here, but it really isn’t more than a fancily written “No” button. The game might then offer to let you be mercenary or generous about helping them, but it’s far less likely to offer the chance to brightly agree to help, before incompetently failing to do so.

I get why. The idea of deliberately being “bad” at a game feels so entirely wrong to me. Decades of playing to win, of striving to improve and be better until victory, have taught me that deliberately failing a quest is lunacy. But the “RP” part of RPG suggests that it should be possible to play a character who would make bad decisions. Right now, sure, you can fail at a quest, but this is almost always to not complete it. What about a way to complete a quest in all the wrong ways? To bungle it because your character would bungle, and the consequences being fascinating or hilarious or horrendous? And I mean beyond doing it in an evil way. (Because, I imagine like me, your mind might have turned to Knights Of The Old Republic, of approaching a quest ostensibly to reunite warring families by provoking them to further turn on each other until nearly everyone’s dead. Wow, KOTOR was an amazing game. But, again, it was binary – good or evil.)

Perhaps my desires aren’t feasible. Perhaps enough people simply don’t want to play foolish or incompetent characters when sat at their PC, because it goes against the power fantasy that is central to almost all of gaming. But if I’ve learned anything from D&D, it’s that winning isn’t the goal – it’s about the journey, and being as interesting within it as you can.

147 Comments

  1. shinkshank says:

    Well, unfortunately, one doesn’t go into a CRPG expecting their freshly generated tosser to be the next Geralt or Aya Brea or whatever. They’re just a race and class combination with some attribute and skill points tossed in, and they really just exist to let you, directly, choose your path through the game’s story. And as a result of that, my options aren’t going to be about what my character would do, it’s about what I would do. ‘s why I much prefer a set of interesting, nuanced premade characters over whataver yutz I slap together from a list of options, although I’m sure it’d be considered an affront to customization and experiencing the story in my way and yadda yadda.

    • Rich says:

      I’m with you on this. That’s why I consider The Witcher 3 to be the deepest, most engaging RPG (or indeed any game) I’ve ever played, while Skyrim feels totally empty and characterless.

      • Dogahn says:

        I feel the Witcher (of which I’ve only played) 3 is the way to go with depicting flawed character in a RPG. Player choices rarely were tagged Good/Bad and often times had a negative outcome either way. Then, cut scenes and dialog often revealed Geralt’s flaws and disconnect. Interpretation of morality was left to the player. They really did a mature (as in complex & often cruel) setting well.

  2. Seafoam says:

    I’ve seen an alarming trend of big games companies scrapping RPG elements out of games and streamlining and dumbing them down to make them more like action games, or games that are RPGs kinda forgetting the whole “Role-play” aspect of it.

    Hopefully the games industry will be forced to change course,
    as consumers become more dissatisfied with*Pfrrrt* HA HA HA oh man could you believe if that was the case? Our only hope is indies as usual, or Cyberpunk 2077 whenever it comes out.

    • Seafoam says:

      I kinda forgot to imply that I think improving role-playing games to be much more like real role-playing seems non-issue when it’s tough to even find hardly any role-playing at all these days.

      And also in games the fact of the matter is that if you cock up a quest and end up making things worse for you or for others, it’s either written as such from the start and is the only outcome ( you’re a step closer to 100% completion anyway, you you don’t fail in a sense), or it is treated as a “quest failed” or “bad ending” and you just reload your save file.

  3. Baf says:

    This reminds me of a tabletop story-game called Fiasco.

    One of the basic things about Fiasco is that the players start the game with a pool of black dice and white dice, which are mainly used as tokens rather than as dice: a white die represents a good outcome to a scene, a black die represents a bad outcome. By the end of the session, you have to use every single die in the pool. So if you have mostly good things happen during the first half of the game, you’re just guaranteeing that mostly bad things will happen in the second half.

    I’ve found that this mechanism really encourages the players to play flawed characters, and to make bad decisions when appropriate. If you’re going to fail half the time no matter what you do, there’s no point in trying to be perfect. So you might as well instead try to deserve what you have coming.

    Anyway, Fiasco is a hoot, and I strongly recommend it to Mr. Walker on the basis of what he says in the article.

    • Scurra says:

      Was going to say exactly the same thing. Fiasco is a perfect introduction to “modern” role-playing; it confines consequences to that single session which makes it easier to one to be more experimental, and it encourages one to take a broader perspective on both the game and the experience.
      A lot of modern indie RPGs incorporate those sort of elements into their structures to make it easier for folk to grasp the implications (see, for example, the revised 7th Sea game, which uses attributes as a sort of resource management system.)
      In some ways, D&D is actually not very good at this, but that’s partly due to its heritage. Fortunately, players now have a much wider pool of experience to draw from, which enables a lot more of the “flawed” experience described in the article.

  4. TheChaya says:

    So, taking multiple sessions and who knows how many hours to learn how a game works is okay in this case, but not okay with video games? Why do video games need to cater to complete newbies and teach them a complex system in a very short time or be called “bad”, while this TTRPG is allowed to do so in many, many hours without beratement, nay, with joy of discovery?

    • bob27 says:

      Because of the way that it be.

    • Premium User Badge

      John Walker says:

      I’m sorry, are you lost?

      • TheChaya says:

        No, I’m sorry, was just invoking some of your previous writing and comparing it to your thoughts expressed in this article. Point being that you treated two strategic/tactical games differently and what was a joy in one is a hindering in the other. Mostly talking about that Stellaris thing where you gave up after 30 minutes.

        Now, I’m sure you or someone else will tell me that there is no point in comparing a video game you played in singleplayer with a real life tabletop game played with other people, but I will say the principle stays the same. Both require an investment of effort and time to be able to play them properly. Would you not agree?

    • Minglefingler says:

      Because he’s not talking here about learning the mechanics of the game but rather learning to use the framework the game provides to have fun in imaginative ways? I could be wrong but that’s what I took from the article. Also, it seems that John has an allergy to tutorials for more complex games. Which is fair enough, they’re often terrible. For example, I spent ages looking for a button or slider to reduce taxes in Total Warhammer 2, only to discover my faction couldn’t not tax their provinces. Being able to ask someone who is in the room with you how it works would help frustration of learning a complex set of rules. I remember his post about not being able to play Stellaris due to the tutorial, I very hamfistedly advised him to stick with it as the only way to learn the game and got a reply that was the comment equivalent of something between a tut and a glower. The man likes a good tutorial when playing a videogame. Which is not unreasonable, as long as it’s skippable.

      • TheChaya says:

        Learning the mechanics in Stellaris is the equivalent of learning the correct framework and mindset in TTRPGs IMO. Both enable you to have fun in their respective systems. I’m confident the rules of D&D didn’t explain that you have to “win” the game, so in both cases the tutorial/rules were misinterpreted resulting in poor gameplay.

        • Minglefingler says:

          Learning the mechanics of a game like Stellaris or any game is in no way comparable to adjusting your mindset within the rules of a game to having fun with a character rather than winning. The logical contortions required to equate the two suggest you have a problem with John Walker rather than reinforcing your point.

          • TheChaya says:

            I might have certain objections to some of his writing, but I maintain my assertion that investing time in a complex system is necessary for the enjoyment of such a system, whatever that system is, and a fair enough judgement (of a system’s fun factor or anything else) can only be achieved through that investment and not in a lack thereof.

          • Premium User Badge

            subdog says:

            The social act of adjusting your mindset and playstyle to play a role is not in any way equivalent to system mastery. Sorry.

            System mastery is definitely a factor in tabletop RPG’s (and can help or hinder those adjustments), but that’s just not what John is talking about here.

  5. Roshirai says:

    Interesting piece! Couple thoughts…

    1) The most fun I’ve had in tabletop RPGs is rolling up a random character and having to make do with it. Playing really low Intelligence wizards can be a blast, for example.

    2) I think the main hurdle for getting something like this to work in a CRPG is the lack of meaningful consequences for failure. Typically, failing a quest means retrying it, or restoring an earlier save because the effect failing that quest has on the world is “bad” or otherwise undesirable. Pyre tried to address this by having specific plot beats connected to failure, but arguably didn’t really do enough. In order to be able to comfortably play a character that makes bad decisions or frequently fails to achieve their goals, the game and world would have to be interesting and compelling whether I succeed or fail every major quest. The first step here is probably to make it so winning every time doesn’t result in the “best ending”. :D

    • Minglefingler says:

      Torment: Tides of Numenera had some interesting consequences for failure, the fact I can’t remeber ny right now should be taken as evidence of my middle aged failure to retain information rather than any weakness on the game’s part. Well worth a look if you don’t mind reading a lot of text.

      • TheChaya says:

        Yes! Tides really did a great job of providing choice for encounters that didn’t end up being simply DO GOOD or DO BAD. Remember my character being a very good fist fighter who didn’t want to fight people (while secretly wanting to fight people so she was basically fighting against her desires of violence) so almost all encounters were sorted out without violence. It was difficult achieving favorable results as the character wasn’t charismatic or a great talker, so there was a lot of what other games would consider failures during my adventure. But it made the game feel alive!

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      I’d say that the main hurdle for this in CRPGs is that all the content has to be created in advance*, and that this creation takes effort (especially if you’re doing voice recording etc).

      This is always going to seriously limit the number of options at any decision point, and the number of outcomes of any given action.

      * for the forseeable future anyway.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      In CRPGs, you can screw around and take silly options and then reload if the consequences aren’t what you wanted.

      The problem is, in most tabletop D&D games the options are: (a) Win, (b) Everyone dies and stays dead.

      Just about every situation is monsters trying to kill you, and if you try to act against your interests through role-playing, the monsters will succeed and the story will end.

      Before the players can stop “trying to win” the GM has to first make sure that “losing” won’t ruin the game.

      • Emeraude says:

        One key difference with tabletop; you can have a session where everyone dies and all the players are perfectly satisfied with the outcome.
        Table top RPG isn’t about the manipulation of its abstracted system layer proper, it’s about the manipulation of narrative elements through (and often around) that system to reach a satisfying cluster.

      • Ich Will says:

        “The problem is, in most tabletop D&D games the options are: (a) Win, (b) Everyone dies and stays dead.

        Just about every situation is monsters trying to kill you”

        What? Get a more imaginative GM!

      • RayEllis says:

        Ah, you’re still in the “D&D is about dungeon-delving” phase of your RPG experience. Trust me when I say that, once you move beyond that, to a more free-form game where everyone rolls their eyes at the thought of “doing a dungeon” and an entire session can be spent without rolling a single die for any reason, then you will truly know the real reason a lot of people roleplay.

  6. KingInJello says:

    It tilts the shit out of me that D&D is so dominant in TTRPG conversations, because there are games out there that do a WAY better job at making people’s flaws part of the game, and encourage them (with mechanics) to make those flaws a part of gameplay. A few examples:

    FATE has rules for “Aspects” which are character traits that are often double-edged swords. “Vainglorious” might be one example. If your character has that aspect, you can spend the currency of the game (Fate points) to get bonuses to relevant rolls, or if you’re in a situation where it might be a drawback, the GM or another player can offer you a Fate point to take a penalty.

    Blades in the Dark has “Traumas” that come from taking on too much Stress (one of the game’s resources). If you make a decision that compromises your mission because of one of your traumas, you get XP.

    Apocalypse World and its successors award XP for failing, and allows players to ‘highlight’ one another’s stats — if you roll a highlighted stat, you get an XP. Players can highlight your strong stats if they want to have a session where people get shit done, or a weak one if they want your character to struggle that session.

    These kinds of systems could easily make their way to CRPGs, especially stuff like Tyranny, Pillars, Mass Effect, etc., that require you to make a lot of narrative decisions.

    • colw00t says:

      Blades in The Dark is great because it’s organized around your PCs having a decent chance at being able to accomplish anything they want to do, but at the cost of consequences. Makes for a very entertaining and flexible system.

    • imperialus says:

      I think a lot of it is because D&D is kinda like the vanilla ice cream of tabletop RPG’s. Almost everyone who has slung dice has played it, almost everyone else has at least heard of it (thanks Pat Pulling), and it’s kinda the one system that everyone thinks of when they picture people playing a tabletop RPG.

      I agree there are many other systems that do a better job of creating flawed characters. Shadowrun has a really cool negative trait system. Dungeon Crawl Classics strongly encourages players to make do with whatever cockamamy set of stats the dice happened to generate for them while rolling 3d6 in order. Paranoia actively encourages players to work against their own best interests.

      The thing is though that outside of D&D and Pathfinder these are all ‘fringe’ systems. They are a niche within a niche hobby. Clickbait aside, how many people on RPS would wade through a thousand word article talking about FATE? And that’s a game that is fairly well known in RPG circles. I’ve been playing TTRPG’s since the late 80’s and I’ve never even heard of Blades in the Dark or Apocalypse World.

      • April March says:

        Which is an incredibly sad affair. DnD is the Call of Duty of tabletop: it does what it does best very well, and does a lot of ancilliary things well enough that many people play it for them, but it also casts a shadow on what the medium is capable of. I never had fun playing it (though I’ve played it very little) and these days every time I see something like a weapon chart my eyes start to glaze.

        I would also say that the amount of people who’d wade through a thousand-word article on FATE would be roughly the same as those who waded through this article on DnD, since John only mentioned the system past the midway.

        (Also, if you don’t know what Apocalypse World is, go after it. There are a few free or cheap games using its engine (Powered by the Apocalypse) and it’s the most remarkable thing to happen in story-focused RPGs of late IMO. It basically took the best parts of crunch-focused RPGs and left everything else behind.)

        • Kitsunin says:

          Hell yes, it’s a sad state of affairs. I’m in a D&D group because it’s the only thing I can get. For a couple months our members were traveling, so we shifted to playing indie RPGs. It was the most fun I’d ever had with that group.

          Now we’re back to D&D and I’m honestly having difficulty even tolerating the system. Its mechanics simply do not encourage you to tell a story or be (much of) a character. They encourage you to solve puzzles and get through tough situations. You can play a flawed character but the mechanics will punish you for it (though your DM can ensure things are easier to compensate). The worst part is that you can waste loads of time doing things which are literally pointless (thinking maybe they won’t be). Or forget to do something and feel completely incompetent. Or be unable to match the cleverness or suaveness you want your character to possess, and so end up feeling like your character is a dullard because you are.

          On the other hand I ran a very short Burning Wheel campaign, for a D&D feeling campaign, that was way cooler. I also ran a too-short Apocalypse World campaign (we had to drop it after session 4 because two players could no longer show sadly) and it was incredibly fun. But now that we’re back to D&D I can no longer get a group together to play anything else. And I’m finding D&D so intolerable I’m still going back and forth on quitting even that. It’s not the DM either, I know he’s doing good. It’s the system.

          • Someoldguy says:

            D&D (well, any RPG) is only as good as the GM. I have played it since 1st Ed and there’s no doubt in my mind that how it plays is all down to the group at the table, particularly the GM. If the GM is of the mindset that you can only do something if there’s an explicit rule for it, then you’re in for a tedious, mechanistic experience. If the GM encourages creative thinking and fun then it’s very different. The guides do encourage the latter, but it’s hard to explain how to do it for people who need everything codified. At least 5th Edition has inspiration, so your GM can award that to good roleplayers. To some extent the fault lies with the module writers too. There are virtually no modules that introduce quirky encounters or write in examples of ways the player can overcome the bulk of encounters without traditional combat. That would help a lot more fledgling GMs develop the skills to run a more interesting game.

          • Kitsunin says:

            It’s the mechanics. The mechanics are EXTREMELY weak for storytelling and roleplaying. I’ve heard your argument often, almost always from people who grew up playing D&D or GURPS. You can overcome it via skillful play and GMing, but you’re fighting the system, and that’s the truth. I’ve played D&D for a long time, with a lot of people, while I’ve played other games for just a short time, but enough to make this blatant.

            For instance, creating a character in D&D gives you a set of skills which say nothing about who your character is. If I’m skilled at History and Perception, this says very, very little about my character. It says a lot about how I can overcome an obstacle, but almost nothing about who I am. Compared to Burning Wheel, where you can get a great feel for who your character is through their skills at, say, Ugly Truth and Field Dressing. In D&D aside from backgrounds, who your character is is something you have to make up completely freeform. In Burning Wheel, it’s almost impossible to create a character who isn’t already filled to the brim with personality thanks to Lifepaths, Beliefs, and Instincts.

            And even after that, Artha encourages you to roleplay via its mechanics, while being able to spend Artha gives you far more control over how the story plays out.

            Burning Wheel is about “fighting for what your character believes” or as it’s said in Mouse Guard “It’s not what you fight, it’s what you fight for.” D&D’s mechanics encourage the opposite, even if you can overcome that.

            Then there’s a game like Apocalypse World, which straight up gives the players as much control over the world and the plot as the GM has. Even more, if you’re playing it right.

            Basically, in D&D the roleplaying part is completely freeform. Playing a character is very difficult. Having mechanics which push you to do it, makes it vastly easier to do. If you care about storytelling over “gameplay”, you need actual storytelling-based mechanics. Not just problem-solving mechanics.

          • ffordesoon says:

            @Kitsunin:

            I don’t normally wish for upvote systems in comments sections, but if I could upvote this post a thousand times, I would.

            Do you cringe as hard as I do when you see all the references to “story” and explicit callouts to literary techniques in the 5e DMG? Augh, so misleading for new DMs!

          • April March says:

            You can overcome it via skillful play and GMing, but you’re fighting the system, and that’s the truth.

            Pretty much this. A good GM can make D&D work as a good RPG for storytelling and non-combat roleplay. But you can also use a frozen banana to hammer a nail; that doesn’t mean that when you need to fix the roof you should bring bananas and a freezer.

    • Ich Will says:

      Torchbearer, which asks the question, what kind of person is desperate enough to become an adventurer? The answer is, in the game, the deadbeats of society, the ill, the unlucky, the addicted and the desperate.

      Brilliant game for playing characters with flaws.

      • ffordesoon says:

        Seconded. Took me a few sessions to get on with Torchbearer, but ever since I got into the groove around the fourth or fifth session I played, I’ve been loving the hell out of it.

  7. MrUnimport says:

    I’m glad a John Walker piece went up today that I do actually agree with. Fallout is consistently lauded for having low-INT dialogue options, and thus making intelligence count for more than just a damage modifier in one kind of combat, like how DEX modifies damage with arrows and rapiers and STR modifies damage with big old swords and axes. Reconciling player freedom with a character supposedly defined by their stats may be an intractable problem — in tabletop RPGs, it was addressed by the DM’s presence and a cultural bias against minmaxing and munchkinning. In a video game, this is probably best achieved by providing tools to roleplay with and avoiding incentives to minmax, as much as possible.

    • Seafoam says:

      I completely agree what you’re saying, but is the solution really as simple as rewarding players to be sub-optimal? Or how would you punish players trying to be optimal anyway? Then being optimal wouldn’t be optimal, youre just forced into picking different classes.

      I remember picking the “terrifying presence” perk when I played New Vegas the first time, it was great for role-playing, but since I found out it was only used like 4 times in the entire game you just felt like you wasted a perfectly good perk point, so I never picked it again in other playthroughs.
      If the rewards for role-playing tools aren’t good enough people just wont pick the option, but if the reward is really good then what differentiates it from any other perk? You’d just end up minmaxing anyway, with some role-playing elements on the side.

      • TheChaya says:

        You shouldn’t punish a player for being optimal, but you can provide options for varied roleplaying, other than incremental number changes in invisible dice rolls. Something like this might be extremely hard to do in RPG video games. Any meaningful change needs full game implementation and dev resources and time are limited.

        The main idea is that players play TTRPGs to role play and have some improvisational fun, while in video games it is about winning AKA experiencing the story since winning will provide more story. A fundamental change would be to not equate winning with story progression, again, something terribly difficult to do. It would require failure to continue play as much as winning, but they cannot lead to the same conclusion, meaning the time needed to develop any option is just too much.

      • April March says:

        There’s an RPG announced by some RPS fans, No Truce with the Furies, that works by having each stat having both positive and negative traits. So a character with high Intelligence is distracted by minuntia; a character with high Strenght is boisterous and aggressive; and so on. (I think these are the two examples they mentioned.) That’s a good way for a cRPG to make it so every character is flawed, but it still feels like your character because it’s flawed in your favourite way.

  8. Trodomir says:

    My first RPG was D&D, but I didn’t play much as it was 1979 and only one friend was interested. My first RPG that I played a ton of for years and years was Champions, a superhero RPG. You built your character with points and had to balance it out with disadvantages. This was 1981.

    A 300 point character on a 100 point base meant 200 points of disads (disadvantages of course). These are not just concepts that you roleplay around, these have a real effect on your character and the game. Just like characters out of the comics, you can have vulnerabilities that cause extra damage, psychological issues, dependents, enemies, foci that can be taken away, and the one GMs have the most fun with: hunted.

    The disads are also not just character wide, but can be specific to your powers (like a focus). These can reduce the cost of a power at a price. My heat ray only works in direct sunlight. Well that’s a pretty big disad when we have to go through the sewers to enter the villains base. etc. etc.

    The system is quite complicated and obviously involves a lot of math. I had the absolute luck and pleasure of living in the same city as Hero Games and got to play with the designers. I still have a huge binder of characters.

    I guess my point is this isn’t a new or novel idea of characters having flaws, disadvantages, hinderances or whatever the system calls them. The juggernaut that was D&D just hid that from many players.

    BTW, don’t have dependents. Just don’t.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Yeah, it feels a bit akin to playing the old fart card. ‘Water is wet!’ cried the newcomer. But, it’s good they noticed.

      I started out on D&D back in it’s first year, but moved on to second generation rules systems pretty quickly, Champions being a major one. Played in the Strike Force campaign. Good GMs make it special, regardless of the rules.

      • Premium User Badge

        John Walker says:

        I hoped I’d made it perfectly clear that I didn’t think my realisation was revelatory to anyone else, by stressing that I was new to that world, and that I had joined others who clearly already understood it.

        The point of this article was that in realising my mistake, it occurred to me that it’s a mistake most CRPGs are making too.

        • Tigris says:

          Just because you consider something a mistake in your pen and paper group, does not mean it is a mistake in computer games as well.

          In Magic, when playing commander, most groups have more fun playing wonky decks (which sometimes work and sometimes don’t).

          However, when playing magic in a computer game, most people are pretty annoyed when they have to play such bad decks.

          Partly because these are not the same people playing (commander are more “casual” players which do not care about winning), but also partly because you were not the one who made this wonky deck!

          People playing commander (or pen and paper) feel clever when they come up with wonky decks (or faulty characters), and they like it because they came up with it.

          (Ideas are like with kids even if yours are crappy you still like them).

          If you want to screw around in a computer game, feel free to do it in games like eve online!

          This does not mean, however, that computer games should become more screwed up themselves.

  9. RobbieTrout says:

    Let’s not forget Paranoia, the hilarious RPG set in a dystopian future ruled by an insane despotic computer. Even if you want to play as the goody-goody hero, you can’t, as part of the basic character generation includes being assigned a mutant power (illegal) and membership of a secret group (also illegal). Gameplay consists mainly of bootlicking, blame-shifting, and running for your life.

    • alienryes says:

      I was thinking of Paranoia too – it’s an absolute blast. Although I haven’t played it since the late 80s.

    • colw00t says:

      Paranoia also neatly deals with rules-lawyers by making knowledge of the rules treasonous and encouraging the game master to kill them.

    • subprogram32 says:

      You can technically get around the ‘illegal’ Mutant bit by having your character be a registered Mutant, but as with almost any situation ever, having automatic second-class citizen status is usually just as bad, especially in that world.

    • Dogahn says:

      My group bounced off Paranoia, we got the concept, but funny thing about a game that punishes you for not filling out all the paperwork… feels an awful lot like real life to us at 35+

      We really enjoyed savage worlds though, adapting it to many themes. The character creation where you pay for (feats) by taking on hindrances creates flawed heros.

  10. HothMonster says:

    I immediately thought of the stupid options from the old Fallout games. Set your intelligence too low and half the games dialogue was you not understanding what was being said to you and then saying something ungodly stupid to the person talking to you. It was hilarious and, iirc, actually harmful to your ability to get things done.

    I was thinking about this playing co-op Divinity recently. My partner was grumpy because I was doing something that was clearly not ideal for us as players because I thought it fit how I’ve been playing my character so far. It’s interesting that no matter how I’ve played my character all game the same dialogue options exist for most anybody. If I’ve been valiant and brave the whole game should the game start taking the none valiant and brave options away from me? If I’ve been greedy and self centered should I not even see a dialogue option agreeing to help these poor orphans who clearly have nothing to offer me? I’ve been a paragon of virtue this whole game but I know if I punch this old lady in the face I get a better reward for the quest and there are no consequences.

    This would certainly be harder to make and of course few devs like making a lot of content most people would never get to see. It would also be hard to make sure you’re allowing for character growth and allowing people to change realistically but it would be nice if I couldn’t just be mean, nice or neither depending on what I think will benefit the player the most at this given moment. Obviously someone is going to say no one is forcing you to metagame which is totally true but we often bemoan that player choice is largely an illusion and putting more focus on locking you into behaving consistently would certainly make our choices matter a little more. Instead of just having some amount of good or bad points you have to accrue to get the ‘good ending’ or the ‘good power’ even if that lets you burn a couple orphanages along the way.

    • bob27 says:

      I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve played of DOS2 but I was a bit disappointed that the review didn’t point out some of the flaws in the dialogue, in fact it did the opposite. I felt contearian even mentioning it.

      My main issue is that on several occasions I was given information in the form of things I would say, that Ihad no idea about. I visited the witch before freeing the dragon for example, but for some reason the game didn’t know that, so half my dialogue options made no sense to me, because they were about things that hadn’t actually happened yet.

      I haven’t found the dialogue to be at all reactive, aside from one single example, where a character references a murder I committed.

      I guess that stuff is extremely complicated, but tbh I think it’s really important.

      • HothMonster says:

        Yeah we have had a few instances where game was clearly giving us dialogue it shouldn’t. Oddly enough it feels like the first act is the least we’ll put together as far as little things like that go. Too many iterations in EA and not enough cleanup I guess.

        Playing co+op you can actually see where the game excels at this as well. If my partner read a book and told me about it my character won’t have an option and theirs will, or same thing if I learned something in a previous conversation buy her character wasn’t around so that’s cool.

        I’ve also had a few instances where I read a book but didn’t catch something until my character had a dialogue option that put everything together. But it’s not the games fault my character is smarter than me.

        I sometimes miss the older keyword systems that forced you to actually lead the conversation but then I remember how often I’d end up feeding a dictionary to people to try to learn something.

    • Archonsod says:

      Dragon Age 2 tried something similar. Alpha Protocol likewise adjusted the character based on the player’s actions and responses.

      • HothMonster says:

        I really need to give Alpha Protocol another shot.

        Did you think those games implemented that well?

        • ffordesoon says:

          Yes! Alpha Protocol implements this one mechanic so well that it’s one of my favorite games despite innumerable major shortcomings in other areas. It also has some of the best writing and VO ever in an RPG.

          That said, the combat and stealth are pretty lame, the boss fights are bullshit and the hacking minigames and menus feel like they were designed by Pinhead from Hellraiser. Always play on Easy, and specialize in pistols on your first playthrough. The bits where you’re James Bond-ing around in open areas are not without their pleasures, but the conversations are the heart of the game.

          Oh, and the checkpointing is pants, so save-scum like a mofo.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I may be investing it with more qualities than existed, but I remember Arcanum as having all sorts of quirky options, both in quest solutions and dialogue. Not just the low IQ lines but all sorts of others based on your race, position in society, favours owed, traits chosen etc.

      I don’t think that there’s much room in a CRPG for the really wild flights of fancy you get in pnp RPGs because those flights of fancy are a shared experience between the players at the table. The GM has to enable your wilful foolishness by moulding the story around that, rather than brutally crushing you for making “mistakes” that enable the monsters to “win”. Plus the other players have to want to engage with it too. Not much point being a drunk if one of the other characters is going to dump ice water over your head every time you hit the bottle.

      I’d love to see fantasy CRPGs adhering more to the Pendragon ruleset style, where many of your traits are opposed. Chaste/lustful, forgiving/vengeful, just/arbitrary etc. Whichever way your traits go, you’ll have an interesting time. Of course the hard part is writing a storyline that makes sense and is equally fun for all flavours of those, but it’s much more engaging than just starting with bad stats and slowly improving them. That said, recent versions of pnp D&D make it clear to the GM that any way the group overcome an encounter you get the xp, so there’s scope even there for crpg designers to think imaginatively about how you can do more than fight your way through their game. It just takes willingness to pour resources into that side of the game.

  11. kabill says:

    The Banner Saga is an example of this?

    It’s degrees of freedom are very limited, sure, and it’s hard to play entirely “foolishly” or “incompetently”. But within the options it gives you, there’s more or less nothing you can do that will utterly block your progress – only a few battles absolutely have to be won and only one or two correct decisions made – giving you free-reign to role-play the characters you are presented with rather than playing “optimally”. Hence, for example, you can play Rook as a dire idealist who strives to save everyone, even if that often ends badly. Or Bolverk as an out-and-out mercenary who looks out for none but his own.

    And while you might quarrel that neither of those are “flaws” per se, I would argue that they’re productive of the same effect John is writing about above: characterisations which result is less-than-optimal engagement with the game world. Indeed, I’d suggest that the scope of John’s article above is maybe too narrow and that “flawed” characters are only a subset of what actually makes games more interesting (i.e. characterisations which do not always produce optimal outcomes).

  12. abomb76 says:

    “Flaws that are really flaws, dialogue options that cause things to go very wrong in a particular situation.”

    Renowned Explorers: International Society does this to a certain extent. If you have a character with a particular trait (like ‘Greedy’ or ‘Vain’) some dialogue choices are locked off and you can only choose the ‘greedy’ or ‘vain’ option, even if you wanted to select another option. Similarly, if you choose to perform certain actions, like take out a Nun with an aggressive attitude, then your religious or superstitious characters will feel guilty afterwards and take a penalty to their stats. So it’s not exactly introducing flaws but it is incorporating personality eccentricities into gameplay. Maybe not the whole enchilada you’re asking for…but it’s a start?

    And Darkest Dungeon takes flawed characters to a completely different level, where some of your characters become so flawed they’re practically unplayable – while at odds with the concept of winning the game they certainly make the journey a lot more…dramatic.

    • bob27 says:

      RE is a very good example, I didn’t think of that! Although they’re not player choices the negative perks they pick up do have some interesting story telling effects.

      But yea DD almost seems like cheating, as it’s all about the negatives :p

  13. K_Sezegedin says:

    Remember how Daggerfall let you add phobias and fatal flaws to your character?

    That was a cool idea though just used to bring your leveling rate down after loading up on the stuff you’d actually be using to win the game.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    The first and only time I’ve encountered an RPG that builds flaws into characters and makes people run with it is the Savage Worlds rule system, which is a contemporary tabletop RPG & Miniatures ruleset. It’s faster and less complicated to pick up than D&D.

    Savage Worlds makes you pick “hindrances” on your character sheet, which are exactly what they sound like – character flaws – that change the way your character behaves but in (my opinion) more interesting ways than simple race/class/attribute inabilities or limitations. They are tied to your character. They are also usually defined by the rulebook, so other people can have a pretty good idea about them too. Most hindrances have in-game effects. Here’s the base list: link to savagepedia.wikispaces.com

    I found this fascinating and endearing at the same time. My single biggest pet peeve about talking about D&D or Pathfinder characters with new people is that hearing somebody talking about the adventures that they’ve run or the character they’ve built almost inevitably turns into bragging and one-upping. I don’t give a crap about your level 8 elf ranger-warrior, and your dragon scale armor +6. Why is your character interesting? Do you actually role-play? Building character faults that must be role-played and are known by the DM and your adventure party absolutely helps with player immersion, party interaction, and creative storytelling.

    Hindrances also make your characters less of godlike super people and more of skilled, but flawed, individuals doing heroic things.

    • DarkMalice says:

      Shadowrun. You select negative qualities (e.g. addiction) to give yourself more karma, which lets you choose more skills, spells, etc.

    • Sandepande says:

      It’s an old mechanic, get flaws, have extra points. Munchkins will of course try to pick as many inconsequential flaws as they can, but that’s up to the GM to monitor.

      SW assumes everyone gets the maximum Hindrances anyway, and tells not to sweat it too much (while advising the GM to make use of them during downtime).

  15. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    I know RPS has a fine history of covering the boardgame side of the tabletop world, but I’d love to see more writing about the RPG side of things.

  16. Kefren says:

    I love face-to-face RPGs. The freedom is unmatched. Computer RPGs aren’t RPGs, they are stats-based games with limited choice. It doesn’t mean they can’t be good, but when your conversations and actions are limited to what the programmers predicted, not what you want to do on a whim, they can never allow you to shape the world in the same way. What if I want to travel down the river in a barrel? What if I want to keep going back and asking for directions? What if I want to give mysterious winks to all and sundry, and try to develop a reputation as The Winker? Actually, that’s all tame compared to what happened in the best games when players did the unexpected.

  17. DEspresso says:

    So in other words every Paladin ever :)

  18. KingFunk says:

    I agree with the general sentiment, as well as the admission that it probably won’t be possible in video games for a while yet. I’ve only played in one DnD session, but decided to RP the shit out of it because it struck me as being the most fun. This culminated in my lecherous, pipe-weed-addicted Chaotic Neutral halfling rogue Bastard Fingers successfully intimidating a goblin by dropping trou and giving him an eyeful of a generous set of inches! Also, the more drunk I got, the more fun it was to shout “Oi! Magic Tits!” at our Sorceress companion.

    The way I see it, a good TTRPG is just a structure for one’s imagination. Now I’m hugely looking forward to D:OS2, but I doubt it can quite make that claim…

  19. bob27 says:

    I think that ultimately PC RPGs are about winning. Start to finish you have a goal to conquer and your build is what allows that to happen.

    Real D&D is about the journey, more like an interactive movie than a game – the outcome really doesn’t matter.

    I think we’ll probably have to wait until games can deliver a truly organic story before this makes sense.

  20. BaronKreight says:

    Video games are just video games. They have rules and player must abide by those rules. It’s not like an interactive dialogue from real life. You can’t buy your video game a beer and tell it a joke so that it would make it easier for you.

    Real life is different. It’s full of surprises and irregularities and flaws. Of course we can dream. Maybe some day.

  21. Archonsod says:

    I think the problem is CRPG’s have a somewhat more literal definition of role playing. Usually the character already has a non-player designated role (usually some variation of The Chosen One) with the player given some leeway to act within that role.
    You could argue that you already have some flaws in that sense – the dialogue options or even courses of actions open to you are those which fit with the predesignated role, despite the fact that you as a player might be able to see better alternatives.

  22. Hedgeclipper says:

    CRPGs really too the tabletop tactical side of RPGs and ran with that to the extent the actual role playing is mostly ignored (sure you can be a wizard or a barbarian or a thief but 90% of the dialogue is going to be exactly the same choices and responses with the occasional ‘[Int 6] Me so stupid’ option for laughs).

    The only computer game I’ve felt really opened things up to story telling and character driven play was online NWN – not surprising as it was designed to try and bring tabletop DM games to the PC. DM run campaigns didn’t have the flexibility of tabletop but with preparation and imagination could get close. Where it really shone for me though was the RP enforced persistent worlds. While there were limitations on how big you could make them a good DM team could keep them interesting but what really brought them to life was the characters. While with pen and paper you might play your character a several hours a week its no exaggeration to say people were role playing their character(s) on NWN PWs well over 80 hours a week for years at a time which gave scope for so much nuance and development that just wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. The closest thing I can think of might be the author of a long running novel series but even then what shapes the characters is for the most part the product of one mind without the twists and surprises of other players acting out their own stories.

    Most MMORPGs I’ve seen had a bit of role playing if you sought it out but as they generally didn’t enforce the RP side of things had constant interruptions, overarching plots where everyone was the most important person in the world, just like all the other most important people in the world, didn’t help either.

  23. willow731 says:

    It’s not an RPG–well, I guess it could be if you decided one of the colonists was YOU–but this is exactly why I love Rimworld so much. Almost every character is flawed, and it can easily lead to all the colonists dying, but more often, for me, it leads to some pretty hilarious “stories” that play out. I’ve never “won” the game; I don’t even think about winning when I’m playing Rimworld, but rather about whatever weird thing is happening because of how some characters’ traits clash so beautifully with other characters’ traits.

  24. Premium User Badge

    syllopsium says:

    Icewind Dale 2 does do some of this, from racial biases, to Paladins refusing rewards (the option is simply not there to claim if the Paladin is sent in..).

    Sadly it’s not the most balanced of games.

  25. onodera says:

    I think it kinda intertwines with CRPGs almost always having some *optimal* playthrough. If you try hard enough, you can find a sequence of actions that gets you the most XP, the best items or keeps everyone alive.

    I remember being ecstatic about Mass Effect actually forcing you to sacrifice one of the companions. I also remember people on the interwebs moaning about their inability to save the Brotherhood of Steel after they sided with Mr House. It seems the more open the game is, the more people want to find that optimal path. Maybe they do not like being locked out of content? I remember refusing the cooperation offer of the forger lady in DX:MD for RP reasons and kicking myself under the table, thinking, “you’ll never replay this game, you’ll definitely will miss some later quest from her”.

    With PnP RPGs you won’t run into an insurmountable difficulty spike if you play suboptimally. You aren’t afraid to miss interesting content because its generation is limited only by your DM’s free time. You cannot backtrack and second guess yourself to see which action was better.

  26. napoleonic says:

    A game that does this well is Crusader Kings II. My monarchs often do disastrous things like go insane or convert to paganism or seduce their daughter-in-law, simply because that is in character for that monarch. I think there are two things that help this.

    First, the game does not have scripted narratives but instead the narrative is emergent. Because the narrative is emergent, there isn’t really a right or wrong thing to do – the aim is to see what happens. But RPGs are so scripted, with choices directly from scripted narratives, that there’s no space for emergent narratives.

    Second, the player doesn’t identify directly with the monarch. The monarch was only born recently and will die soon. So there’s not the same imperative for that character to be perfect – it no longer feels like a reflection on the player and the player’s ability if the character does something weird.

    So I think for a game to do this successfully, it will need to a) rely more heavily on emergent narrative rather than solely on scripted narrative, and b) decouple the identity between the player and the character, that what the character does reflects on the player.

  27. Dogshevik says:

    The day game developers realize that roleplaying could actually involve playing a role will be a joyous one. Especially should they consider letting the player have some say in what role he would like to play.
    The Chosen One as a stand-in avatar for the player (to probably run amok in a power fantasy) gets really old, after a while.

    But taking this seriously would require taking the player serious and having his/her decisions have serious consequences. Too much seriousness for publishers who know mediocrity sells just as well.

  28. Turkey says:

    This wouldn’t be a complete solution, but letting you pick skill checks that you’re not qualified for and having your character stumble would probably be a nice first step in making flawed characters. The skill check options are usually just greyed out if you don’t pass them.

  29. elevown says:

    I remember some rpg ages ago – maybe it was fallout 1/2 ? Where you could pick bad background traits, or flaws – and for each you took you could pick another ‘good’ trait too – so if you REALLY wanted a specific extra good trait you might except some bad flaw. There were all sorts, some a lot worse than others, that effected gameplay in many ways, from combat to dialogues, and would change how you played to cater to your flaws etc. It was a good system.

    • napoleonic says:

      Stellaris does this. You can pick bad traits for your species which give you more points to pick good traits with. Like with Crusader Kings II, Stellaris (and other Paradox games) do what John is asking for well.

  30. milligna says:

    Why do people wear hats/caps indoors? Generally I figure it’s baldness related but that’s clearly not the case here.

    Fun piece tho, brings to mind ancient games of PARANOIA.

  31. cloudnein says:

    Have to say, I love playing flawed characters. Played ’em since AD&D first came out.

    But I know some folks like to “minimax”, really exploring the rule set and finding the weaknesses and making the optimal character. It’s not my style, but it may explain CRPG’s (the minimax behavior is similar to speedrunning or exploiting computer game glitches or hacking save files or network protocols.)

    Making CRPG’s easier (as a game start option) may help some, as most games are designed to be challenging for the optimal character builds and nearly impossible for a flawed character/party.

    Of course, computer games with emergent storytelling may also help. Hoping the new Underworld Ascendent brings back some of that…(Yes I backed it in KS.)

  32. LuNatic says:

    I think the first step towards this is avoiding zero-to-hero storylines. When you force the player character to walk towards a grand heroic confrontation to decide the fate of the nation/world/galaxy, you severely limit the flaws the character can possess and still reach the endgoal.

    Second, characters need to stop being written as base level wish fulfillment. If we look at The Witcher’s Geralt, or any Bioware main character we have a handsome/beautiful ‘manly man’/’womanly woman’ who wins all their fights, outdrinks anyone in the pub without getting a hangover, easily charms anyone they want into bed and generally kicks arse. This is the shallowest level of wish fulfillment, and the industry ought to move away from it. (Interestingly, Geralt in The Witcher novels is not like this at all).

    So we come to my inevitable rant about Mask of the Betrayer. While being far from perfect, it was a game that allowed a certain level of flaws to be roleplayed(although, mostly in terms of starting unnecessary fights that hindered you, but were in character). Part of the reason why the game could allow this was because it is a story about self discovery, not about saving the world. The PC is dropped into a shitty situation, and has to find out why. Eventually the entity responsible is confronted, and can be fought(can, not must). But even if you slaughter your way through everything you can, your impact on the world at large will still be minimal. No statues will be erected in your honour. There will be no parade. Few people will know your name, and of those that do most will mistrust or blame you for the situation you fell into.

  33. sagredo1632 says:

    This kind of thing exists to a limited extent in some games. Often, this opportunity/reactivity to player characteristics is available as a consequence of your choice of race (e.g. non-human bigotry), or as popularized in ye olde Infinity Engine titles, certain dialogues that become available only at specific stat thresholds. Very rarely do meeting these thresholds compel you to make a specific type of response, and instead give you different options for approaching a given situation (the moron of Vault 13 being a notable exception).

    I think it would be interesting if an RPG were made that stepped away from the numerical grind, and simply asked you to create a character, rather than fill out a slate of numbers. What if the character creation in TES games simply stopped after asking you about how you would handle a situation with sweet rolls? The kinds of interactions that would stem from relying specifically on the choices of character would make for a very different experience from one that was designed around the choices of stats. It would force developers to create a set of mechanics that is less focused on the velocity at which you can kill things, and more focused on whether you would be the kind of person who would rather run and hide in the first place.

  34. Rorschach617 says:

    Very good article, but I don’t believe the problem is in the developers not adding meaningful role-playable flaws to the game (tho it would be a step forward).

    I played TTRPGs with my mates. I wanted to entertain them and they wanted to entertain me. “Winning” involved coming together a few months later, sitting down and just remembering the crazy shit we pulled.

    I play CRPGs alone. Winning is just about seeing as much content as you can in the time you have. Without people there to bounce ideas off of, there is no point to any shenanigans you can think of, the game usually provides a simple efficient route through any problems.

    And while Developers could expand the options available to the player, to match the TTRPG experience they would have to factor in such options as attaching a bomb to a pet droid to use as an impromptu hand grenade, convincing a zealot witchfinder that a harmless chicken was the cause of a village-wide plague (silly peasant voices included) or the classic “this quest is boring and/or badly paid. Lets check out the next country”.

    If you want role-playing, robust multiplayer is a must. And it has to be more than 2-player co-op, the bigger the party, the more options for RP become available. And yet it has to accept the party splitting into smaller groups.

    The challenges involved in the programming and writing sides become exponentially larger because the game has to try to be a good GM in those situations.

  35. batraz says:

    Being a moron is so much common that playing with the idea hasn’t much appeal… what kind of roleplay is it if I’m just like myself ? Being a hero, on the other hand…

  36. Premium User Badge

    jssebastian says:

    The witcher 3 definitely has a some places where you can “fail” in interesting ways by making the wrong choices, that to me do not feel like I have to reload to get the “better” outcome. In a lot of cases I don’t even know if there is a better outcome available: a lot of the time I’m roleplaying as my version of Geralt, trying to do what he would do.

    Like the quest where I decided to appease the Leshen with some offering as the elders of the village were asking me, instead of killing it… which resulted in the youth slaughtering all the elders while I backed away slowly thinking “you know what, whatever, I don’t want anything to do with you crazy people”

    You can make choices that cause you to fail at the overarching plot of the game (fail to be the right kind of father figure for Ciri), fail at romance (try to bed both Triss and Yen, and get tied to a bed and left there), or give your friend bad advice so she ends up killed at the stake, or just get excessively drunk with your mates and find yourself cross-dressing in Yennefer’s clothes while drunk-dialing on her megascope.

    Of course, all of this is scripted, you never have those fine moments where you do something absurd and unexpected and the GM mutters something under his breath and tries to improvise something to salvage the rest of the session he has prepared… Maybe D:OS2 tries to replicate that unscripted feeling a bit more, I have not played it yet…

  37. Risingson says:

    I think this worked because you four had a similar state of mind that allowed this “flawed” gameplay to flow. Very difficult to translate to a game. Or to any other group of people.

  38. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    I know this is comment 900 and it’ll never get read but…

    whoever brought the snax to that game, the NHS would like a word. :P

  39. gwathdring says:

    I’m not sure how much of this has to do with “flaws”, exactly. You can build interesting characters who make interesting decisions without ever really thinking about their specific weaknesses or Quirky Personality Traits ™, because in a tabletop RPG you can negotiate the fiction amongst yourselves (and the dice, but largely amongst yourselves before the dice are eveb rolled). You can get a sense of what people find interesting and compelling and follow that to its natural conclusions. You can ret-con things that don’t work. You can cobble together new rulings or new behaviors out of old rulings in an instant.

    These things are not impossible to take meaningful inspiration from, but they are never going to translate particularly well. I don’t think characters need to make Quirky Bad Decisions ™ to be interesting to play, nor (as the original Fallout games show) do they necessarily need to have clear personalities at all; but the storytelling needs to flow and be coherent and provide a variety of interaction points that go beyond Yes, No, More Info, and Comedy. The character’s actions need to change the status quo.

    Tabletop RPGs make it a lot easier to do this. For some groups, having characters that have clear “flaws” rather than just goals and conflicts helps open up more opportunities to see those mechanisms in action. But putting those characters into PC RPGs doesn’t (and hasn’t) done much to make up that particular gap in reactivity and consequence whereas I feel other changes have had more success.

    I do agree that failing forward is something PC RPGs need to let you do, though! I’m just not sure that necessarily needs to involve making mistakes. You can do everything “right” and still fail … and still move the story in a direction that ultimately creates interesting experiences and decisions and consequences for player and character. And it’s that last part that really makes tabletop RPGs tick for me. The world goes on without the character, and the character’s story goes on without the victory.

    • Ich Will says:

      Just wanted to second everything you said here – for me, as someone who has only been a GM since the early 90’s, when a player is created with an obvious flaw, it’s one of the players way of communicating the type of game that they want, and with some effort, you can try to ensure they have that game without turning it into a quirkfest, and when players get “quirky”, it’s because you’ve not engaged them in the way that they desired more often than not, and as a GM, you have to rethink the game being played, although some players just like being the quirky one, and thats great too, especially if they can be serious too!

    • ffordesoon says:

      Just wanted to mention that every post of yours I’ve ever seen (both here and on SUSD) has been thoughtful, constructive, and well-written. I don’t always agree with you, but I do always love reading what you have to say, and would subscribe to your newsletter. :)

  40. bob27 says:

    I’m glad to see that even when it comes to tabletop gaming the culinary options are just as shit.

  41. Tigris says:

    Well I think you forgot one thing:
    Pen and Paper RPGs suck.

    Thats the reason, why people try to make them more fun, by doing silly things. When you have a bad movie, it gets more fun, when it becomes even worse. (Trash movies etc.)
    So people screwing the (bad) game add value to it, because the game is really boring if it is played “right”.

    Pen and Paper RPGs are a relics of a past where no computer games existed, and the reason why they still are quite popular is, because people can feel “clever” and “creative” by doing random shit.
    It is a sandbox you play with others, where you get positive feedback for doing dumb things.

    There are computer games like this (goat simulator), but the normal RPGs are pretty different.
    They want to tell (hopefully) good stories, not random fan-fiction made by people who want to feel clever.

    • Ich Will says:

      Bless!

      • BewareTheJabberwock says:

        Your 3000 word takedown of Tigris (which RPS won’t let me reply to specifically) was freaking epic, and should be taught in English composition classes at university level. I sense a new addendum being hastily written to the Russian Trollbot Manual.

        Bravo, sir or madam.

    • ffordesoon says:

      I’m sorry to repeat what other people have undoubtedly said to you when you’ve expressed this opinion before, but if you think all PnP games suck, I would imagine it’s because you haven’t found the right game or the right group for you. I can think of many PnP games which are magical when played “right.” Unfortunately, those games don’t have a fraction of D&D or even Vampire’s cachet.

      • Tigris says:

        There is a much simpler explanation:
        Pen and Papers really do suck, and I don’t like playing games which suck.
        Pen and paper players like them, because they can be “creative”.
        It is something which lets them believe, that they are clever and special, when they make things like described above (making wrong choices “because thats how the character is”).

        I, however, am not someone who needs such a game for telling me that I am special or whatever.
        Additional I am not someone who thinks stupid ideas are good, just because a friend had it.
        (I also tell people openly when the food they made sucks, which is often the case in general.)

        Of course with the right people it might be fun, but with the right people everything is fun!

        (If I ever get asked to play pen and paper by a group of hot (and interesting) girls I am sure it would be fun, but surely not because of the pen and paper.)

        • ffordesoon says:

          You seem like really miserable company. I think I know why you haven’t had a good PnP experience.

          • Tigris says:

            Well a lot people have problems with an objective and honest person ;)
            Most people do not want to know that they are actually not as clever and innovative as they think.

            However, you are in luck, there are not many honest and critical people, so you will most likely not encounter someone telling you how stupid the stuff is you do in your pen and papers, and you can keep the illusion of you being creative and clever.

            Haha the link in your profile is exactly what I described. A hobby writer making some fanfiction while thinking he is clever and innovative XD

          • Ich Will says:

            “Well a lot people have problems with an objective and honest person”

            I don’t – but I can’t help but notice you haven’t been objective, at all – in fact you’ve only been subjective. Tell us objectively why pen and paper games are bad, or I shall call into question that you are honest as well.

          • ffordesoon says:

            7/10 would read again

          • Tigris says:

            Why they are bad? Well its obvious they try to do what computer games do, with antique techniques.
            The list is not in a particular order, just different points.

            1. A fight which takes 2 seconds in a computer game takes 10+ minutes because you have to roll the dice all yourself.
            2. They cannot provide an acurate graphical representation of what is happening. Only some scheme (map place of figures etc.)
            3. They depend on a GM. So there is always 1 person in need of doing the work a computer can do.
            4. It needs player to “play their role” in order to be fun.
            5. You need to read a book in order to play it. (In a computer game you can just start and play).
            6. Most of them have way too big randomness.
            7. The combat systems are always clunky while still being simplistic. Instead of 1 button press to make an attack and a 2nd and 3rd button press to do a combo, you have to roll dice for dice for dice for doing just normal attacks. No combos, no flashy animation no stamina system just the same repetitive throw of dices all over again.
            8. It is (from this article) more fun to play bad, than good. This is one of the most obvious design flaws existing.
            Optimal play should be fun, else the game sucks.
            9. Instead of stories written by professionals, it is made up (on the fly) by random people (the guys you are playing with).
            10. Way too much discussions. A good cooperative game reduces them to a minimum not > 50% of the time.
            11. The people who play it are mostly strange. (As mentioned above people who want to feel clever by making stupid stuff…)
            12. It is just totally not efficient in anything it tries. The stories happening during 5 hours can be told in 10 minutes. The involved combats are a strategically a joke comparing them to any good board game. (And take way longer)
            13. You need (the same) 4+ people all the time to play at the same place. A computer game can be played alone or online etc. logistically thats a lot easier.

          • Ich Will says:

            1. A fight which takes 2 seconds in a computer game takes 10+ minutes because you have to roll the dice all yourself.

            You’re rolling dice wrong – the two second fight on the PC takes… drumroll…. 1 second in an rpg. Yu know the number you need to beat, you roll the dice, that number comes up, you win and the game carries on, all in the space of a single dice roll. I assume you drop it on the floor and have to go looking for it – that’s a you problem. If it’s not that easy, then it’s not a 2 second fight in many computer games. The witcher, for example, if you are fighting level appropriate drowners, your combat will take a minute, unless you’re playing on “babbies first video game difficulty”.

            Besides which, you’ve failed to state how this is objective – you may prefer 2 second combat, other people like to relish each sword blow – it’s subjecive, not objective.

            FAIL

            2. They cannot provide an acurate graphical representation of what is happening. Only some scheme (map place of figures etc.)

            And? Neither can any PC game. Sorry, you think clipping through scenery is “accurate”. Get out more. Besides which, you’ve failed to make the case that having an accurate visual representation is objectively better. Some people don’t like having visual representations of the action foisted on them – plenty of books try to do this – you know, babby books mostly, because by the time you get to the YA catagory, they realise, their readers find visual representations….. immature.

            FAIL

            3. They depend on a GM. So there is always 1 person in need of doing the work a computer can do.

            Being a GM is fun, and that’s something that games can barely provide, with most attempts overly simplistic or ham fisted. As some people find being a GM fun, this can’t be an objective point, merely subjective.

            FAIL

            4. It needs player to “play their role” in order to be fun.

            No it doesn’t. Plenty of players don’t “play their role” and just do what they want. And have fun.

            FAIL

            5. You need to read a book in order to play it. (In a computer game you can just start and play).

            Fair point, except, some people like reading so much, they even do it in video games. Therefore the lack of reading cannot be considered objectively better – and if I may say, makes you sound really rather unintelligent to many people – not me, but to lots of people (which is their problem, because we both know your mind is sparkling)

            FAIL

            6. Most of them have way too big randomness.

            Oh… I literally just told you that you had a sparkling mind, and you come out with this….. OK, some RPG – as with some video games (XCOM, the video game version of Blood Bowl, every roguelike and roguelite ever, every proc gen game ever) have a lot of randomness that can define your game. But many others do not. There are plenty of pena and paper RPG’s that have no dice what-so-ever. So, you fail this one purely from your own ignorance. Big ignorance.

            FAIL

            7. The combat systems are always clunky while still being simplistic. Instead of 1 button press to make an attack and a 2nd and 3rd button press to do a combo, you have to roll dice for dice for dice for doing just normal attacks. No combos, no flashy animation no stamina system just the same repetitive throw of dices all over again.

            Echoing my last rebuttal. You are bigly ignorant, because this statement is factually untrue. The existance of even one pen and paper rpg without dice proves this, and one is mentioned in these very comments section.

            FAIL

            8. It is (from this article) more fun to play bad, than good. This is one of the most obvious design flaws existing.
            Optimal play should be fun, else the game sucks.

            Firstly: Reading comprehension of the article FAIL. Secondly, that was one man’s subjective opinion, of a single game. He tells us front and centre he is a newbie. Plenty of video games are only fun if you play them badly.

            But in the end, plenty od pena nd paper games are very fun if you play them optimally, as pointed out above, John is basically playing the wrong game

            FAIL

            9. Instead of stories written by professionals, it is made up (on the fly) by random people (the guys you are playing with).

            Ok, but some of those random people are the professionals who write your beloved video game stories. Which is your favourite video game story by the way – let me guess, The Witcher 3, being as it is, one of the only video game stories for the last 3 decades that doesn’t come across like babbies first scribblings “And then the soldiers kick in the door and then theres a helecopter shooting through the window and then the soldiers run past it and then they climb through the hole and then there were baddies and then the soldiers shot the baddies and then the soldiers ran into the next room and then there were more baddies and then the soldiers shot the baddies and then they got to the roof and then they went down a zipline…” Inspiring stuff, and that’s froma real video game. And, no, in pen and paper RPG’s they are not made up on the fly. I put 30-60 hours into writing each individual story when I GM. However, even if they were, some people appreciate seeing skill “live”, rather than recorded in a studio and the same every time. Therefore, even if what you were saying was true every time, we can rule this subjective, and thus:

            FAIL

            10. Way too much discussions. A good cooperative game reduces them to a minimum not > 50% of the time.

            Well, pointing out that you only need discuss as much as any video game seems too easy, so let’s pretend this is true. Let’s also pretend that many co-operative games have no errors and bugs which ruin your game experience, because netcode is hard. Even if we pretend all that, you are still left with the idea that not talking to your friends is objectively better than not talking with your friends – although in your case, from your friends perspective, I don’t doubt this is true. But still, obviously some people actually like talking to their friends, which makes this point subjective, not objective, and another

            FAIL

            11. The people who play it are mostly strange. (As mentioned above people who want to feel clever by making stupid stuff…)

            Lets take a little diversion here, hold on, even in your own words “mostly” you conceed that this is subjective, not objective, so lets get the FAIL out the way now. I want to talk about you for a moment.

            Has someone told you that you have autism? Because I know several people who had been told, at some point in their lives that they did have autism, yet it turned out that they didn’t. One was convinced by a parent that he had been trested, turned out to be a lie. The other was a diagnosis service mix up. Point is they both acted exactly like you, this whole “I say the exact truth no matter the social situation” thing, and the whole “My opinion is the only point of view that I understand and can brook no others”. I mean, I’ve texted them both today to check they weren’t you. Dude, I’m not getting personal here, this isn’t something I want to discuss with you, but let me just say one thing and leave it at that: If you’ve been told by someone that you are autistic, it may be worth getting that double checked, because you act like people who think that the way you act is what autism is like, when it’s not.

            12. It is just totally not efficient in anything it tries. The stories happening during 5 hours can be told in 10 minutes. The involved combats are a strategically a joke comparing them to any good board game. (And take way longer)

            We’ve already pointed out that your love of snappy short combat is a you thing, and therefore subjective, but I’m interested in the strategy angle – it’s very interesting that you said strategy, not tactics – because of course, famously D&D is poor tactically – but strategically, nothing could be further from the truth. However, there are plenty of p&P rpg’s which don’t even involve combat, and there are plenty which apply deep rules to the strategy and tactics, there are plenty of GM’s who know how to run a masterclass in strategic games (and tactical games too) so, just wrong, also subjective, therefore

            FAIL

            13. You need (the same) 4+ people all the time to play at the same place. A computer game can be played alone or online etc. logistically thats a lot easier.

            Again, there are games set up specifically to be played by an ever shifting set of players, there are games which by their nature take to it well. There are web clients set up to play rpg’s over the internet, and of course skype exists, so once again, you say things that aren’t true

            FAIL

            Also, you have proven beyond a doubt the following:

            1) That you are a lot stupider than you believe you are
            2) You are a liar
            3) You are not objective in the slightest, but very subjective though – so that’s something?

          • Tigris says:

            Thats what i meant with lots of people can’t stand the truth;)

            Well I leave it at this. You can always say “i prefer these bad things, so they are not objectively bad.”

            Some people like to put needles under their finger nails…

            (Having shorter games is in general considered better, if you ask any board game designer. Doing the same thing in shorter time is better since you can do more things.)

            And of course no one wants to acknowledge that they play a crappy game just because it gives them opportunity to feel clever.

          • Ich Will says:

            Ha, you misunderstood me entirely.

            I care very little to what an obvious troll writes about things I like, but I just can’t pass up an opportunity to mock you in 3000 words when just one would suffice. That to me is the height of comedic prowess.

            Oh, and by the way, as the designer of a little known board game you may or may not have heard of called gloomhaven, I think that had I made my game a shorter experience, I wouldn’t now be a millionaire.

            Toodlepip!

          • Tigris says:

            Well too bad no one will ever read that (I have just the first phew sentences) text, so you wrote your little “mockery” just for yourself, but well thats what pen and paper players do all the time anyway?

            If you are really the maker of gloomhaven: Congratulation you made a game which takes (almost) all of the things which sucks in pen and paper away!

          • Ich Will says:

            (To tigris’ creators: Turing Fail, try again попробуй еще раз – the claiming to have only read the first few sentences and referencing the last paragraph, classic mistake though I’m impressed by the refusing to accept the objectivity/subjectivity, you’ve learnt well from the trump boys, bravo!)

          • Ich Will says:

            To everyone else out there, I’m not the creator of gloomhaven, everything I wrote to the bot beyond “bless” was a lie intended to feed it and ultimately trick it into a mistake, I used gloomhaven on the basis that the bgg website database gets downloaded a tonne by Russian argument bots, and this one already referenced board games even though it’s reference disproved it’s own “points”. When it used the Noun how it did, it was all to obvious, because I’ve found the bgg thread it’s been copy pasting from

          • Sheng-ji says:

            Good catch dude, 100% a bot!

            Just check out the accounts historic postings, definately a sudden change from normal decent poster to raving arguing wierdo!

  42. Laurentius says:

    I think it wouldn’t be that hard to implement. Have some stats be invisble to player but just manifest as game progress. FM did that first with always hiding bunch of statisitc for a player to observe during time spend with a club like “important matches”. So for example PC could be hot headed wiich would result with more diplomatic talks options want appear etc. It can be done with some creativity.

  43. Eery Petrol says:

    Fate is a great tabletop RPG system for this. Its core mechanics revolve around your character-defining aspects being used both for and against you. Players are rewarded for letting bad things happen to their character wherever it fits the narrative. And bad things are not to be shunned; when your characters are defeated, they don’t die per se; they are subjected to the will of the opponent. The game leader is constantly encouraged to make this consequence interesting.

  44. Shiloh says:

    Yeah, I agree – playing flawed characters is much more fun than playing the hero. There are computer games out there that simulate flaws – others have mentioned CK2 which I’ve always played as an RPG more than a dominate-em-up – and there are others, including a wide swathe of the interactive fiction/Inkle stuff, which seemingly allow you to screw up to your heart’s content.

    However, the underlying issue is that PCs can’t think like human GMs/DMs (I’ve been out of the RPG scene for years now so not sure which is correct usage), so acting like a twat in most CRPGs just means you end up acting like a twat before going on to save the world.

  45. AbyssUK says:

    Isn’t the answer simply that a Computer is a logic system that has to follow set rules/processes which are preprogrammed, while a table top has a real person ™ DM who can go off script whenever they choose with an endless supply of possibilities for every outcome.

    Now teach Googles Deepmind to play D&D as a DM and see what happens… but perhaps give it a few years.. you know after it’s solved the cancer and aids problems..

  46. Saburou says:

    So, we’re not going to talk about how half of those pictures are of a game of GAMMA WORLD, not DND? A game that, though based on 4th DnD, is a perfect example of how to mechanically encourage playing flawed characters while still utilizing some OSR-style gameplay?

    Because, man, GAMMA WORLD (7th Ed) deserves the love.

  47. Captain Narol says:

    As someone who has been playing tabletop RPGs for 30 years, my answer to the title question is a definitive “Yes”.

    Flawed characters are often the most memorable and make the best stories.

    Is that transferable to computer RPGs ?

    Honestly, I’m not sure but it’s worth trying.

    In practice, the RP in computer games is just the one you have put in it yourself.

  48. ToomuchFluffy says:

    A very important topic in my opinion. Skimming over the comments, so many things I have been thinking about shot through my mind while reading. Hopefully the post won’t end up as an unreadable mess.

    I believe a lot of what John Walker is talking about already exists in cRPGs in a number of forms, though maybe in a mostly rudimentary form. The issue is, that I haven’t yet had time to play a lot of the good candidates: Arcanum, Age of Decadence and Storm of Zehir are what mostly comes to my mind. Maybe Tyranny and other newer RPGs. I have played through Bloodlines and Alpha Protocol and in its own way Icewind Dale also seems like a game that should be mentioned. After all, one could build the whole party however one wanted. There really was no reason to have that evil Halfling (-1 Strength!)-fighter with focus on short swords and daggers in my party, except that I didn’t want my party to end up being optimized and boring. This may be a very basic example that is in no way different from what something like Fallout 3 provides, but I think it’s the basic requirement: RPGs, or at least some of them – need to be built in a way as to be able to respond to the characters inserted into them by the player.

    Bloodlines for example mostly responded to Clan and Gender, as well as providing some special dialogue-options based on skills and Clan-based abilities. Personally I feel that this is the way to go. In my opinion RPGs should be uncompromising in their reactivity. Like that one time Bloodlines forced me – completely contrary to my usual behaviour – to be a complete ass because my humanity was too low and the game had taken away all my other dialogue options. It’s this kind of thing I really would like to see implemented. Imagine Baldur’s Gate II with all its smaller, medium-sized and big side-quests, except now the developers attach a number of conditions to everything. So, your character doesn’t have very high Charisma, isn’t an elf-mage and hasn’t explored a particular school of magic sufficiently? Too bad, the quest-giver won’t even notice your protagonist. Or maybe the player-character simply doesn’t fulfill the condition (maybe having a particular perk, or a particular set of quests fulfilled) to get a particular dialogue-option with a character that then would offer to join your party. With all (or just some?) of the attached baggage. Imagine some NPCs that didn’t seem of much importance on the first two playthroughs suddenly offer new options. It’s this kind of depth that RPGs should be able to offer in my opinion. Who really needs another 60+ hour RPG that tries to offer most of its content on the first playthrough? To be fair, some of the development already seems to be happening.

    P.S.: As a sidenote, Magic in games seems to suffer similar problems. Most of it is just combat-oriented. First, not everything should be easy to learn, especially when it comes to something called “magic” – a term which is undeserverd in a lot of Fantasy-scenarios. There is usually nothing magical about it. Part of the problem is that it often almost exclusively exists outside of the narrative context. It’s not only combat-oriented, but also mechanics-oriented. Imagine instead lifelong-learning in one or two particular aspects of magic (or however it’s called in the system at hand). This would inevitably have a strong impact on how the game can be played. But even implemented in a more simple manner it would already be a change for the positive. For example, if there were more opportunities to use spells like “Detect Evil” or “Freedom of Movement” in non-combat-contexts.

    P.P.S.: Oh, and of course the fact, that RPGs tend to be more or less combat- and power-focused is probably the biggest problem of them all. The same can apply where story is concerned. The requirement of having one can be very restricting. Developers often need to allow players to gather a certain amount of characters while introducing artificial restrictions to how many can join your party, instead of restricting the number naturally. When a certain number of NPCs and a certain power-level are required, that doesn’t allow for a very open-world design. The combat-focus also is an issue in regards to an open world. So, maybe we can wander into an area, where me might stand no chance. Ok, better than level-scaling, but does dying represent an interesting interaction with the game-systems? Maybe instead one can wander into the very same areas an be allowed to actually solve a situation or at least be able to interact in specific ways, because you have a particular character with you or a particular skill on a particular level. Really, getting rid of most combat is probably a good idea, unless the RPG in question isn’t something very combat-oriented like Icewind Dale or Blackguards.

    The power-problem can probably be shown quite well with the example of Gothic. It’s at its most interesting when the player is weak and barely able to win fights as well as barely involved in any bigger happenings. Once its storyline starts rolling and the player gains in power it soon ends up as a rather pedestrian experience. Now, the player can increasingly interact with the world by killing it off and “power” as a meaningful word simply loses its meaning sooner or later. Wouldn’t it be ok if for once we were never able to kill of that Dragon/Lich/whatever?!? Sure, allow players to kill everyone. It doesn’t mean that it has to be a viable approach. So, the player can’t finish the storyline after killing off an important character. So be it. But maybe in some cases, it even opens up new and perhaps unexpected options.

    Ok, the expected mess ;-)

  49. ffordesoon says:

    As someone who just finished running a Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons game for a year and a half, it’s worth noting that in terms of its written/vanilla rules (especially post-Third Edition), D&D is absolutely about winning. The most enjoyable D&D campaigns tend to involve a lot more than its core reward loop (kill monsters and take their stuff to get better at killing monsters and taking their stuff), but ninety percent of that nebulous “a lot more” emerges organically over time from the interaction between the DM and the players, and through the creation of “house rules” specific to a given group.

    This is not meant as a criticism of D&D at all – I’ve been playing the game for half a decade at least, and I love it to death. I’m also not saying your DM is “doing it wrong” – on the contrary, it sounds as though they’re doing it very right. My point is that the reason cRPGs are so bad about letting you play genuinely flawed characters is because their reward structures are almost all either inspired by or directly lifted from D&D as written, and D&D as written is designed to reward build optimization rather than doing what your character would do.

    A big part of the problem for cRPG devs is the lack of a human DM to adjudicate and improvise, but the more non-D&D TRPGs I play, the more I believe that’s an inadequate excuse. Computer RPGs will never be as flexible as tabletop RPGs, that much is true, but plenty of tabletop RPGs have mechanisms for rewarding suboptimal decisions which could be translated to cRPGs with little trouble.

    As others have mentioned, many tabletop RPGs have metacurrency systems built around “failing forward.” Burning Wheel, Torchbearer, and FATE are built around making suboptimal decisions for your character now to earn metacurrencies you can spend for bonuses later. Dungeon World awards XP every time you miss a roll, play to your alignment, or resolve a bond with a character. Blades in the Dark has different XP triggers for every character class, and rewards you with XP for putting yourself in a desperate position. Hell, even Fifth Edition D&D has dipped its toe in these waters with its (half-assed, IMO) “Inspiration” mechanic. These are all mechanics which could serve as the systemic basis for wonderful cRPGs.

    • Premium User Badge

      subdog says:

      I don’t have much to add to this except to say that I agree with this post 100% and it definitely reflects my experiences and recommendations with PnP RPG’s.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Yeah, there’s no doubt that D&D’s mechanics as written are all about solving problems. It’s something I feel pretty strongly about (thanks for engaging with my opinion!) and it’s the reason I don’t personally, like it. It’s based almost entirely upon Western cRPG standards, and it’s definitely not designed to encourage the kind of play talked about in this article. When combat starts in 5e, I all but fall asleep (well, this is probably because I love tactical JRPGs, so it just makes me wish I were playing Disgaea instead, lol).

      If we want to improve the ability of games to allow us to play characters with flaws, and to fail forward, we should be looking at other systems for inspiration, as cRPGs have gotten everything they can from D&D already.

      One of the things I find most interesting about modern storytelling games, is that they’ve found you can much more easily tell a story by restricting the GM while freeing the players. One of the best storytelling games I’ve ever played, Ten Candles, often hands complete narrative control over to the players, but because you know nobody will be alive at the end of the story, there’s absolutely no reason to avoid putting yourself into trouble, or playing your character’s flaws to their fullest (while in D&D I’ve seen people lose their damn characters due to flaws, while the boring-as-heck guys survive because they don’t do dumb stuff). In the end, every session of Ten Candles I’ve played has had a fantastic narrative arc with a beautiful conclusion.

      Or, how Apocalypse World is stuffed with rules for the GM to follow. The idea is, so long as they follow those rules, they can’t really avoid leading everyone into telling a great story. And you know, it works!

      Now these are ideas gaming could learn from. I’m not sure how, but I have a feeling there’s some real potential there.

      • gwathdring says:

        Possibly just a typo but I feel compelled to mention: DnD significantly pre-dates the Western cRPG–I think you’ve got the causality backwards there.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Whoops, yes, what I mean is that D&D hasn’t done anything to move away from mechanics which exist in cRPGs. The closest 5e has come to moving away from simulationist, video-gamey mechanics is to say basically “lol just ignore mechanics, make your own, or make judgment calls, if you want”.

          The combat system, for instance, could straight-up function identically in a video game. TRPGs have done it right, in my eyes, in systems like the simple, loose, fiction-first, and incredibly cinematic combat of Dungeon World.

          Since we’re already there in less popular TRPGs I dream of the day we have…AI or some other way to use such systems in cRPGs.

  50. krevvie says:

    The biggest problem with this is one of game design. A DM can improvise right alongside his players, creating a type of shared mental theater where the tone of the universe can be readjusted to align with the party’s choices, however moral or wise (…or not) they may be. A CRPG needs to account for every possible permutation ahead of time: every line of dialogue pre-written, every scene pre-rendered, every outcome preplanned. A nice, straightforward story – the characters dispel the enchantment, kill the dragon, and marry the princess – is much easier to plan, develop, test and refine than the story where the players *might* play it straight–or they might try to take over the enchantment, marry the dragon and kill the princess, or they might decide to just keep walking west and see what happens. Every possible choice creates a branching tree of further choices that need to be planned for.

    What I’m saying here is, keep playing pen-and-paper RPGs, because CRPGs can be great, but they’ll never be the same.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>