RPG Pillars

I read this rpg.net D&D 5e review Review of D&D Basic Rules and came across these lines:  The “three pillars of adventure” they tell us, are “exploration”, “social interaction” and “combat” – and the way this section is worded makes it very clear that the first two are the game’s priorities. It has to be admitted that 4th edition tried to make this emphasis too, although the written intent was not completely supported by the combat-heavy focus of the rules.

Putting aside the idea that D&D 4e was anything besides a videogame turned into a boardgame, I started trying to think of arguments for or against the idea that these are the three pillars.

First of all, you can try to fit this model by expanding the terms.  Challenges of the natural disaster sort or the like could be considered to be “fighting” against something and rolled into combat.  Contests, say a poetry slam in L5R or a jousting event in a Camelot game might roll up into social interaction.

Why that and not combat?  Without getting into generalizing activity in RPGs versus challenges, let’s say we limit the three pillars to types of challenges.  Combat is interactive/opposed and threatens danger (mental/physical/spiritual?, as opposed to social danger?).  Putting out a fire, rescuing people from a burning building, figuring out what to do about an imminent tidal wave all feel opposed to me.  Social interaction could certainly be opposed, but I kind of see the root of social interaction being establishing your character’s place in the world – there’s some sort of lasting effect.  Contests often lack a danger element (or you can’t really do anything about sabotage except to stop it before the contest), but I see them about establishing your character’s place, with the rewards of success or the price of failure hopefully having some sort of lasting impact, whether immediate “you get to kiss the apple festival queen” or more general “+3 reputation in Apple Village”.

So, what distinguishes exploration?

Combat and social interaction aren’t about unknowns, aren’t cored on discovery.  Exploration is the discovery challenge group.  So, investigation is exploration, in this model.

I don’t know about this model.  In a post not that long ago, I talked about the common strategies parties take to deal with challenges.  One of them was stealth.  How does stealth fit into the model?  Or, is stealth a tactic and this three pillars model isn’t about tactics?

At some point, I had thought of some activity that didn’t seem to fit all that well, maybe.  If I think about recent experiences, let’s see if I can find a problem point.

I just ran a Conan session.  It was mostly about gathering information and planning how to find someone.  That was really just exploration, though it could have gotten into social interaction if there was more of an effort to establish something about the world.  A couple of players whose characters didn’t know each other talked to each other, which was social interaction.  I ended with a combat.  The (pure) thief stole some stuff.  Exploration because the thief was learning about his target?  Combat because he had to oppose Move Silently and Hide checks against Spot/Listen checks?

I ran a L5R adventure a couple of times recently.  There were rolls in the beginning to simulate investigation (exploration), tracking (exploration), fighting (combat), a natural disaster (combat).  Characters interacted with NPCs (social interaction).  They did investigations (exploration).  They fought (combat).  They debated ethics (social interaction).

So far, so good?

Let’s try some more exotic RPG genres.

Supers.  I fight supervillains (combat).  I investigate why something was stolen or where the supervillain lair is or where the plot resolver are (exploration).  I banter with supervillains, superheroes, and romantic interests (social interaction).  I hide my secret identity (social interaction).  I find out the supervillain is my twin sibling or is only committing crime to make the world better or is dying and will quickly resolve the plot for me, so I soliloquy (social interaction but maybe exploration if I had to do something to find out).

Gritty space.  The ship’s engines are acting up (… combat? … this is closest to being a natural disaster).  We need to make money by transporting wooden shoes to the planet “that knew nothing of arch support” (exploration to get shoes, find planet, chart course; social interaction to negotiate trade agreement).  Argue with fellow crew about priority of engines versus air quality versus keeping pet space skunks (social interaction).

I guess everything can be shoehorned on to these pillars.  If it’s about discovery, it’s exploration.  If it’s about establishing a character’s place in the world, even if it’s just in contrast with another PC, it’s social interaction.  If it’s opposing something, where a tidal wave isn’t what you are opposing but the tidal wave’s effect on Surf Village, it’s combat.  Kind of not too happy with the last one.  There’s a big difference between making some computer skill checks and trying to kill someone before they kill you.  Or, is there?

Again, it’s the consequences not the challenge.  Why are you making computer skill checks?  If it was to call up someone’s Facebook profile, that’s exploration.  For combat, it’s to stop a virus from spreading, it’s to activate hyperdrive before you slam into a sun, etc.  The opposition isn’t the computer, even if that’s what the roll is against.  The opposition is the consequence of failure.

Now, I’m projecting.  If someone was really arguing that the three pillars are exploring, social, and combat with those terms meaning just what they typically mean, that’s clearly not the case.  May say those are more common activities/challenges, especially combat.  May say that HoR tags correspond fairly well to those, in that the most common tags are:  combat; politics; travel; intrigue.  But, is an archery contest social?  Is it combat with no danger?  A not terribly unusual HoR tag is supernatural, which usually means learning about some spiritual thing.  Actually, I’m overlooking one of the most common tags:  investigation.  Exploration has to include investigation or three pillars fall done and crack.  Investigation is the most common activity in RPGs that aren’t tactical wargames.

As investigation is more common than exploration in RPGs, why not use the term “discovery”, instead?  I’m fine with not renaming social – I’m the one who emphasizes the importance of interacting with NPCs or NPLs (non-player locations) to interface with the world and make it more than just dice-rolling.  It may not seem social to brew the best coffee in the Million Spheres, but your brew only matters if someone else partakes or otherwise interacts with your coffee.  Combat is the most problematic term.  “Contention”?  Bad, as I’m putting contests into social interaction most of the time.  Actually, if one simply changes COM-bat to com-BAT, then it works, which is maybe what was intended all along.  I don’t do COM-bat with the heavy snowfall challenge, but I am totally com-BATting it with my bracelets of flamethrowing.

So, why do I care, besides upping my blog post count?

When I’m not doing something, I may think in terms of structure, think analytically.  In the moment, I just make stuff up.  Great!  Creativity and logic – pure frickin’ genius in one package … ladies.  Except, I look back on my GMing efforts and see lots of missed opportunities.  I see flipping the switch between creative and logical being an all or nothing kind of deal.  Maybe gaming theory doesn’t help me merge the two, hasn’t to this point much, but, if I can structure how I put together RPG sessions/campaigns, maybe I can take advantage of some logical thinking.  As a practical example, next RPG session I run – how many “discovery” does it have?  Social?  Combat?  Does the balance sound right given player preferences?  Can I clearly identify the true challenges and what the consequences should be to where I can set better difficulty levels?

Whoa.  That last question opens up a whole ‘nother blog post.  For this one, I’d just state that “combat’s” primary feature is the nature of the consequences.  “Exploration” has a consequence of failing to move forward or moving forward in a less effectual way … one hopes for the latter as the former is just awful in RPGs, but the latter can also be pain.  “Social interaction” has thematic consequences where “combat” has mechanical ones … I guess.  Gee, this really deserves more than a paragraph, if I think of more to say on the nature of consequences and what they mean for making better experiences.  Actually, this paragraph is probably far more important than arguing about what to call things or how one thing categorizes versus another.

Anyway, that review of D&D 5e does make things sound much better.  I’m not a fan of any D&D system, anymore, but the WoW edition of the game really irritated me, even after I stopped playing it.  D&D has not always been played as a tactical wargame for the simple reason that it was always one or two as market leader and played in many, many ways, but my experiences have only been as a tactical wargame except for one campaign that had a story if not a particularly coherent one, and I just don’t take it seriously as an option for a game that is supposed to have a story.  True, I do consider Conan d20 a legit option for telling a story, so I can see an argument that I’m overstating as one d20 FRPG is kind of similar to another d20 FRPG systemwise, but I just have never experienced D&D as anything with a coherent plot or with a world that you could meaningfully engage with beyond dice-rolling, which isn’t the system so much as it’s how people implement the system.  I take Fantasy Hero as a more credible system to run a FRPG (as opposed to boardgame) in, even though it’s all kinds of dry and crunchy, just because it lacks … for me … the baggage that D&D carries.

While I question D&D 5e emphasizing exploration and social interaction over combat, which is kind of irrelevant to my point but I can’t help trying to see if D&D can really take a move away from tactical wargaming, that review does point out how the system is adding thematic elements to characters.  The RPG narrative should be more than whether I critted the Drider right before it spellnuked me.  Mechanical narratives are cool, but I can get those from Descent or HeroQuest or BattleTech … from something that isn’t a RPG.

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