I was thinking about the practice and experience of playing a TRPG consisting of about six situations, and how you could look at the challenge of designing a game as having something interesting for those six situations. I’m using tropes from fantasy RPGs here, but I think it would be easy to reskin these situations to include different tropes.
Town, or the city, or whatever your home base is. Time spent in town is time finding a way to rest and recuperate. If you are going on a shopping spree, it’ll happen here.
I like the way that Torchbearer makes resting a challenge. It is not easy, nor assumed, that you’ll find a safe place to rest. You might end up hiding in a stable or sleeping in an alleyway. I also like the way that The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-Earth require you to open a Sanctuary before you can fully rest and recover there, often demanding a quest, or at least a successful audience with the ruler of that Sanctuary.
It’s always hard to add mechanical teeth to socializing. There’s this idea that you should speak and interact in character, and as you do so it’s hard to know when to roll the dice and when not to. What if you make a great argument, or come up with a killer lie, but then botch the roll? Or what if you make an absurd ask and then critically succeed? This kind of silliness can just be the fun of using a randomizer, but I watch groups struggle and disagree on where to draw the line here. Surely it’s because socializing is something we literally act out at the table, in contrast to exploration or combat. We never ask for anyone to test their weapon skills, but we do ask them to test their social skills from time to time.
Some groups, of course, don’t socialize much at all. You get the mission briefing, and then head to the entrance to the dungeon and kick in the door.
A lot of time in classic fantasy and sci-fi stories is often spent traveling. There is the canard of The Lord of the Rings being mostly just people walking and looking at trees, but even in something like Star Trek you spend a lot of time figuring out what you do while watching stars zoom past.
One option is always to just hand-wave the travel and get to the next interesting thing. As a lifelong road trip connoisseur, however, the journey really is about more than just the destination. Again, I think of The One Ring, and to a slightly lesser degree Adventures in Middle-Earth, as well as Mouse Guard as games that focus on the journey itself and provide mechanics to make it an interesting challenge.
Think if verisimilitude, when I think about traveling hundreds of miles through a fantasy landscape on foot, that would absolutely be a noteworthy life experience. Lots of challenges would arise and lots of interesting things would happen, not even counting the monsters and random encounters. I would like to have mechanics to support this.
I was thinking of having a camp checklist, and the more things you can check off on the list, the more comfortable you are and the better able you are to recover.
- Clean water
A simple example might be that for each checkmark in D&D, you can roll up to 25% of your hit dice. So with clean water and shelter but no food or fire, you can only roll 50% of your hit dice to recover. That’s not prefect, but is a decent example. Maybe you just recover 25% of your hit points and other expendables per check-mark when you camp.
Searching a crime scene, checking for traps, or exploring an ancient tomb all count, and have been central to TRPGs from the beginning. Some OSR folks make the case that original versions of D&D were more about exploration than combat. Some games do this part really well, like Gumshoe. Like with socializing, groups have a chance to choose whether they want to handle investigation with rolls or with players describing what their characters are looking for. I have a whole blog post about how you shouldn’t roll perception that you can check out if you want. But whether you are playing Mothership or Pathfinder, investigating dangerous areas and situations is a big part of what is fun about many TRPGs.
Most RPGs are mostly about fighting. If you read the rulebook, most of those rule are about combat – usually physically combat, sometimes social conflicts as well. But social conflicts go under this heading as well as fistfights.
I don’t feel like I have to put time into making the case that RPGs focus on fighting, honestly, but see below. They don’t have to.
So, if we look at each of these six categories of systems in turn, we can also imagine a group preferring to ignore some of them. Maybe your group wants to hand-wave their way to their destination, or maybe they want to just camp and rest and not worry about safety and comfort. Maybe they will handle time in town between games, just buying things from a price list and getting straight to the adventure when they get together to play. There could even be a group that wants to skip the combats (blasphemy!). If each of these systems is built like a module that can be used or ignored, I like that idea. You can socket in what interests you and get on with playing only the things that interest you.