Sunday, May 15, 2011

Alignment: the most important thing in an RPG

The title is a red herring; this has nothing to do with Law vs. Chaos.

Alignment is the degree to which people or organizational units share the same goals. Where those goals don’t align, we can facilitate alignment through proper reward structures. For instance, imagine a game table with a DM (“I want to develop a vibrant world for players to explore.”) a RP-centric player (“I want to watch my character organically evolve through play.”) and a combat-centric player (“I want to kill things and take their stuff.”). Initially, they are not well aligned, but if the DM weaves an engaging story involving the RP-centric player’s background that requires them to collect seven swords held by seven sword masters spread across the land, they all just might get what they want.

Alignment in this sense is synonymous with good DMing and paying attention to what your players want. That is nothing new; it is understanding what motivates players and then using those motivations to get them to do what you wanted. The identical concept exists when designing rules, but not only do designers regularly not take alignment into consideration, they often embed reward structures that directly conflict with the goals they purport to be aligning towards.

I have some future articles planned to argue this point on specific rules, but for now I just want to try and prove this is a legitimate issue for RPG game design. As they say, the first rule is “show, don’t tell,” and despite the fact that that rule is intended for a different field of writing, I like it.  So I decided to make a mini-game to show how proper reward structures could take into consideration a range of unaligned goals and focus them into a single route towards a single goal. To make it harder, I decided I’d focus on a time when people are probably the most misaligned: immediately following a TPK.

The first thing to consider was the possible goals at the table. From my own games, I’ve seen people who were frustrated, some wanted to vent, some wanted the DM to narrate closure, and some really don’t care and just want to move onto the next fun thing. Most of those goals are misaligned and some are in opposition. The only thing they even potentially have in common is the TPK. Unfortunately, the characters are dead. Fortunately, that fact just helped me satisfy the goal of the “onto the next fun thing” crowd. I started toying with the idea of making it a drinking game just to make sure…

I decided the communal goal would be figuring out the characters’ eternal resting place. This provides a decent amount of levity but still some motivation because most people would at least prefer their character “be” some place neat. This also helps satisfy the “looking for closure” folks.

The hardest goals to accommodate are from the folks who are upset because their goals have the potential to interfere with the fun and closure. So I put them front and center and made hearing these people out the heart of the game, but with enough structure that we can transform frustration into fun. Having “stuff to say” would be the primary resource that drives the game and if that stuff stems from frustration, great; if it stems from happiness, showmanship, or pure comedic wit, all the better.

The final thing I knew I needed was something to drive the narrative to ensure frustration couldn’t derail the game. I quickly settled on Dante’s Inferno and would use the circles of hell to focus the content of “things to say” in relevant areas. This provided narration, structure, and increased the difficulty by narrowing options. It also, luckily, covers a lot of the same areas as RPGs so it would provide a legitimate chance for stuff to come out.

Then began the tricky part: putting it all together. In addition to the above, it had to be able to be played fast and fun without preparation (most don’t plan their TPKs). It also couldn’t guarantee alcohol poisoning and had to naturally scale to accommodate any number of players. From my own groups, I knew it also had to accommodate players betraying players because if I didn’t put it in, they’d find a way.

You can see the final product here in Epilogue: shot to hell. It is a simple game that achieves all of my goals, helps change the focus after a TPK, makes sure people who want to be heard are heard, gives people closure, allows for betrayal, teamwork, manifest destiny, and drinking with friends. It does all of this because I deliberately thought about what would motivate people going in, how that motivation could be a problem, and how it could be shifted into something useful and fun.This isn't to say you couldn't end in the same place without deliberately planning for alignment, but it doesn't hurt your odds.

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