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RPGs Are Engines for Making Interesting Decisions

Posted By Martin Ralya On April 20, 2009 @ 2:53 am In GMing Advice | 13 Comments

When you get right down to it, what is an RPG? It’s an engine for making interesting decisions.

When your players are playing in your campaign, at the most basic level they’re doing one of two things: making decisions, or having stuff happen to their characters. Stuff happening to their characters is by far the less interesting of the two — it’s the decision-making that really matters.

Game Mechanics and Decision-Making

The game rules — the mechanics — are there to facilitate decision-making (and to a lesser extent, to facilitate stuff that happens to the PCs without any player decisions being involved).

Even something as simple as having a rating for a skill is related to making decisions: if you’re really good at that skill, you’ll look for opportunities to use it; if you’re terrible at that skill, all sorts of fascinating — and entertaining — things might happen if you try to use it anyway.

And when you use the skill, the mechanics — and in 99.9% of games (coughcough Amber coughcough), the outcome of a die roll or two — determine the outcome. That determination is the game’s mechanics facilitating decision-making: As a result of your decision to make that roll, something will happen. But will it be interesting?

In most games, the outcome of a skill check is likely to be at least somewhat interesting — and at least some of the time, it will be game-changing, awesome, and unforgettable. But mechanically, skill checks are a pretty simple decision-making mechanic — they often fly right by without anyone paying much attention.

Combat: The Most Common Example

In many — probably most — RPGs, combat is the part of the system that best facilitates making interesting decisions. There’s something at stake with every die roll, and every single decision you make flows into other decisions that are made by everyone else at the table.

Combat is a complex dance of decision-making — which is part of why it tends so much fun. But what about the roleplaying side of roleplaying games?

Frankly, many RPGs are not engines for making interesting decisions when it comes to this aspect of tabletop gaming. You’re often left to make interesting roleplaying decisions on your own, without much support from the game mechanics — something some groups absolutely love, and others have problems with.

Often, you make an interesting decision on your own (either as a GM or as a player), and then find a mechanic that can be used to represent that decision in the game. Which is fine — improvisation is at the heart of gaming, after all. But it’s not always the best solution.

Roleplaying Mechanics

The first time I played Burning Wheel at GenCon a few years back, I saw an RPG that was expressly designed to act as an engine for making interesting decisions in lots of different ways — not just during combats.

In addition to an interesting physical combat system, BW features the Duel of Wits — a combat system for debates, verbal sparring, and all sorts of other kinds of roleplaying-heavy conflicts. Some of the most fun I’ve had gaming has been a direct result of this system.

White Wolf’s Morality/Humanity/Wisdom/etc. system is another good example of a roleplaying-related mechanic that’s specifically designed to foster interesting — and challenging — in-game decisions. I absolutely love the effect this system has on play, both as a GM and as a player.

In this past weekend’s Ghouls game, we had three serious Morality-related decisions come up that kept us playing until well past bedtime. We could have made the same decisions without a system to back them up, but knowing that our roleplaying was tied to a game mechanic that had teeth made the whole experience much more entertaining.

Why It Matters

Ever since I began thinking explicitly about RPGs from this angle — as being engines for making interesting decisions — my perspective on gaming has shifted. I find myself drawn more and more often to game systems that do that well not just in combat, but in other areas, too.

And as a GM and a player, I look for opportunities to use game mechanics to foster interesting decision-making — which makes the game more fun for me, and I hope more fun for everyone else at the table as well.

What are your favorite systems or mechanics that really shine in this area?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "RPGs Are Engines for Making Interesting Decisions"

#1 Comment By LesInk On April 20, 2009 @ 7:04 am

Martin, glad to see you had an exciting game there in your Ghouls campain.

As for systems/mechanics to help this area, I don’t think I’ve done much to make it really shine. The problem, I believe, is a perfectly interesting scenario can be messed up with some bad dice. However, I’ve been slowly getting into 4e’s skill challenge concept and working harder at trying to figure out how to make it ‘climatic’.

However, I believe the key with any of the mechanics/systems is to somehow build up the scenario in a story telling way and make the outcome become more and more important (i.e. put the scenario in a boiler and slowly turn up the heat). You know you got it right as the players lean more and more up against the table.

#2 Comment By Rafe On April 20, 2009 @ 8:26 am

Good article, and I agree: Decision-making is one of he most important elements of a RPG, and it ought to be the engine that drives it.

Personally, I find it interesting that one of the most successful RPGs (D&D) typically takes a great deal of decision-making weight off the players. Meanwhile, more indie or lesser-known systems emphasize decision-making in powerful and unique ways, or use mechanics to bring player decisions to the forefront and make player-driven actions the centre-piece of play.

I’ve gotten into Burning Wheel (and Mouse Guard) in a big way. Had a great one-on-one session the other day and the entire thing emerged solely from the player’s decisions. I led nothing, directed nothing. He chose and I but arbitrated the results of his decisions and the rolls of the dice, usually with his input (on successful rolls). I knew where he wanted to go because it was discussed with the rest of the group (who were absent that session), but the destination was a result of the group’s decision and he could have chosen not to go there. Via Beliefs and Instincts, he chose his own conflicts, so to speak, and his decisions were based on what he wanted his character to be and do. The entire game is player-informed.

#3 Comment By Wordman On April 20, 2009 @ 9:25 am

For a system where everything hinges on choices, take a look at A Dirty World

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#5 Comment By Scott Martin On April 20, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

Dogs in the Vineyard makes you think in every conflict. If you’re willing to go far enough, you’ll almost always win… but that means you’ll be shooting members of the faith in the street. Is it worth going that far over a stolen kiss, or a moment’s blasphemy?

Primetime Adventures does a good job of encouraging you to make most conflicts involve your issue, so win or lose you’re really identifying something significant about your character.

#6 Comment By Rafe On April 20, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

@Wordman – That RPG looks pretty cool!

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#8 Comment By ben robbins On April 20, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

Rock on Martin.

“The game rules — the mechanics — are there to facilitate decision-making (and to a lesser extent, to facilitate stuff that happens to the PCs without any player decisions being involved).”

I think this is actually the big dichotomy, that sometimes rules actually remove decision making (like the whole brainless spot check).

Boiled down I think you arrive at: some rules provide interesting choices, some rules replace complex thought with no-brainers. Sid Meier would argue that the former are games and the latter are not, but sometimes it’s okay to use the latter to skim over things that would be uninteresting to play.

A sub-category would be broken rules, those that intend to provide interesting choices but fail because the choice is uninteresting, too easy, or pointless.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 20, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

@ben robbins – I’m on the fence about Skill Challenges being in that “broken rules” category. In the right hands, they’re a lot of fun, but I can also see them being the 4E equivalent of grappling: lots of dice rolls, little entertainment value.

#10 Comment By Rafe On April 20, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

@ben robbins – That’s why I love BW: Say yes or roll the dice. Is someone going to spot something? Don’t roll. Just say, “Yes, you see/hear…” 5 people around the table rolling Spot/Perception checks in D&D drives me nuts. Someone’s gunna see/hear something… so why roll? Get on with the story.

#11 Comment By Martin Ralya On April 20, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

@Rafe – Ooh, Greg Stolze. That looks damned intriguing. I’m half curious just because of the One Roll Engine idea — I want to see how he pulls that off.

@ben robbins – Fantastic article, Ben! I need to catch up on your blog, which is and always has been one of the best RPG blogs around.

@Wordman – If you haven’t already checked out Trail of Cthulhu, I recommend taking a peek. The system is designed to make clue-hunting mystery adventures more playable, mainly by giving you clues without making you roll — but there’s more to it than that.

#12 Comment By Tommi On April 21, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

I agree with the post. A few observations.

I have discovered that I find choices with little effect on the fiction to be plain boring. Choices that affect the fiction is where the interesting stuff is, to me. Many combat systems tend to have more than a bit of this: Many versions of D&D are particularly guilty.

A lot of the “stuff just happening” should be consequences of choices made by players. Help an NPC out, get help later; offend one and there may be revenge on its way, for example.

#13 Comment By Wordman On April 22, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

@Martin Ralya – I’ve not read Trail of Cthulhu, but I’m reading Esoterrorists which is also based on the GUMSHOE system. It does seem to work quite well for mystery games, turning the point of the game from “locate the clue” to “interpret the clue”, which is what mystery games are really about.


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