Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Roll Playing

For someone who's enough of an avowed Ameritrash fan to start a blog on the subject, I have an odd and ongoing aversion to boardgames that attempt to simulate aspects of role-playing games. There seems to be an ongoing relationship between AT games and role-playing games, with role playing being a common path for AT gamers to get into the boardgaming hobby (myself included). Really this is not surprising given that both types of gaming have a tendency to emphasise theme and narrative. As a result dungeoncrawl and role-playing style boardgames constitute a fairly large sub-genre of the Ameritrash canon. So why do I shut myself off from these games?

Well I ought to start by admitting that in part my reluctance to invest in these sorts of games stems from the fact that I know I'd have a hard time persuading the groups I game with to play them. The people I game with can generally be categorised as hardcore miniatures gamers, hardcore strategy gamers and casual gamers, none of whom have any great interest in role-playing and by extension in board games that attempt to simulate the experience. But my dislike for these games does extend beyond mere inability to find an opponent - after all a number of them make good solo gaming fare - to my mind the genre is plagued by a number of problems which mostly stem from the very aim they're trying to achieve. Allow me to elaborate.

The first question I always ask when confronted with a game of this nature is - why? Role-playing is a gaming scene onto itself with its own design conventions and where players seek after different things than they get from boardgaming. What's the point in trying to combine the two styles of game into one? Too often it seems to me that the resulting games only succeed in capturing the worst aspects of both hobbies - endless repetitive "monty-haul" style games with labyrinthine rules that have neither the freedom of choice and expression offered by role-playing nor the tactical depth offered by a good board game. What you do get in terms of a system and components for simulating combat in a more understandable and satisfying fashion than the typical verbal melee of a role-playing combat can often be achieved simply by using some board gaming props to help you along in your role-playing session rather than trying to separate it off into a different game.

The nature of role-playing is that a group of players co-operate together against the challenges thrown at them by the games master. Although I have run and played in games where player versus player plotting was a significant element (and a lot of fun it was too, I might add) it's difficult to imagine how a role-playing game could be set up which allowed all the people playing and the games master to be competing against one another. An attempt to replicate this situation in a board game leads to two problems. The first is a personal one - I don't generally like co-operative games so that's another turn off for me. The other problem is that the Games Master role in a board version of an RPG is significantly less interesting. Gone is the need to assess and pass judgement on the effects of the players actions, the fun of trying to role-play non-player characters in a memorable fashion, and the challenge of fudging the dice rolls in the interest of driving the narrative. All that's left is that smug feeling of knowing things before the players find them out which, while pleasant, is hardly enough to make you want to put time and effort into the game.

Another issue that seems to arise in these games is that they often seem to degenerate into glorified puzzles - a complaint that I often level at the bulk of Eurogames on the market. Given that the hallmark of role-playing games themselves is the creative freedom they offer the participants this seems like a particularly bizarre problem to throw up but it does seem to be a recurring problem. Witness the number of these games that suffer from the "corridor problem" - the tactic of having the heroes line up behind a door in order to pick off monsters one by one. In general it seems that too many of these games have optimal play solutions and don't have the open, creative access to strategy that I, for one, look for in a satisfying game. I don't doubt this is something to do with the fact that these games often play well solo - almost every solo game is going to suffer from this problem because you don't have another human brain playing against you to do unexpected and creative things that you need to consider and react to. The old fashioned solution to this problem in these sorts of games was to offer the players a vast and mind-boggling array of possible encounters but even this tended to get bogged down in the inevitable limitations placed on game play by having a boardgame-like rules framework which needed to cover every possibility instead of leaving some decisions to the GM.

The solution, in turn, to this problem was to make games of ever increasing complexity. The apex of that design path is Magic Realm which is the most complicated board game that I've ever tried to play. It's an interesting game but the basic problem with it, in my view, is that the satisfaction of play in no way makes the effort of learning all those rules worthwhile - and the same is true of every single role-playing boardgame I've come across that tried to solve the issues I've outlined by increasing the number of rules. We come full circle with the arguments now - if you've produced a game with a rulebook the size of a role-playing manual then again, why not just play the role-playing game instead of accepting a hybrid?

On reflection it seems to me that I often use my space in this column to criticise things instead of lauding them. Essentially that's pretty lazy - it's much easier to write an interesting piece and get people talking by throwing down insults than praise. So I figured I'd take the second half of this piece to look at a few role-playing boardgames that I think have succeeded and why.

My absolute favourite in this area has to be DungeonQuest although in fairness this game succeed by breaking almost every convention of role-playing games and is basically a boardgame dressed up in a dungeon-crawl theme. There's no GM and al the players are competing directly one another. The game solves the problem of not having a GM to dish out the map as the players explore by having the relatively simple expedient of having the player draw a tile when they enter a new room and take cards to simulate encounters. You might immediately spot that this has the potential to create unfair situations - players drawing dead ends or corridor directions that are useless and so forth. You'd be right - in fact DungeonQuest makes absolutely no attempt to be fair and oddly enough this gives it a big part of its appeal. It's short enough that no-one cares and brutal enough that usually all the players get shafted by the game in some form or fashion before the dungeon trip is done. Simply brilliant and a great antidote to too much carefully considered strategy games.

Another one I still find myself pulling off the shelf occasionally is a left-field oddity from Tom Wham called Mertwig's Maze. This was published by TSR in an AD&D RPG module sleeve as a "Forgotten Realms Gamefolio" in spite of the fact it had sod all to do with AD&D or Forgotten Realsm and would obviously have benefited from being packaged in a game box. This again has no GM and has all the players competing against each other but the particular mark of genius in this design is to have each player running a party of adventurers instead of a single character. Recruiting new characters into your party in indeed an important part of the game play. The result is a game that does manage to feel like both an RPG (there's your party of characters - go out and seek for cool treasure to equip them) and a strategy board game (you're competing against everyone else and there's the potential to exploit the rules for creative strategy). Tom's sense of humour also helps add to the longevity of this one, although maybe it's just me that still gets a chuckle out of the "Bollock the Bear" card every time it comes out. "Ork" goes the Onyx Oryx.

A game which does look to be worth playing - but which I have never, and probably will never, play - is Descent from Fantasy Flight. It solves the problem of the impotent and annoying GM through the simple but ingenious means of making the Games Master compete against the players - he can win by having his minions slaughter them all. The game does still look to have repetitive strategy problems but at least all the people involved are trying to compete against each other on a relatively equal footing. The reason I'm never going to play this is just because it looks too much like a long time playing a standard dungeon crawl to interest my gaming circles into trying it.

My final pick in this category is a favourite of a number of other F:AT writers - Return of the Heroes. This succeeds by tearing up all the conventions that usually govern this genre and reassembling the basic theme in the image of a Eurogame. This actually works amazingly well - I've already mentioned that there is in fact a link between Euros and RPG-style games in the mechanical approach to strategy that often results. In Return of the Heroes you've got the challenge of solving the Euro-puzzle style game play with all the added narrative and theme of an AT game. It's the narrative aspects that really make this - the stories that you build as you play can result in surprisingly engaging solo game sessions.


mrbistro said...

A fascinating article. I confess I am drawn to stand-alone adventure games, but am rarely satisfied by them because I end up asking, "Why play this instead of an RPG?" I am glad to see Return of the Heroes mentioned as it is a perfect example of an adventure game done right (and doesn't receive enough attention).

MWChapel said...

As an past RPG player myself, I have found none of those dungeon crawl boardgames really fit the experience of a true RPG. I think if you are trying to capture the experience of an RPG, why try, play an RPG. They are readily available.

Shellhead said...

So far, every post on this topic today has posed the same question, "Why not just play a role-playing game?" As a veteran of both a variety of role-playing games and "roll playing" boardgames, I think that I can answer this question.

Role-playing is a time-consuming and unreliable form of entertainment, and at least one participant must spend significantly more time and/or money to prepare for play than the rest of the group. Except for well-organized events at conventions with pre-made characters, a single role-playing session generally requires at least 5-6 hours.

Despite all preparation, the fun factor can still be missing from role-playing, because it only takes one bad player to mess things up. Or sometimes bad luck can derail the adventure, or willful players ignore obvious clues and go off on a boring tangent. Complex rules can ruin the atmosphere of play with jargon-loaded discussions, while simplistic rules may leave players frustrated, especially if the DM makes a lot of really arbitrary rulings to compensate. And there is often a mis-match between players and DMs, where one group may crave action while the adventure emphasizes mystery and intrigue.

But take the basic elements of an rpg into a boardgame format, and it can be more reliable entertainment. More structured play keeps things moving along, and the basic theme speaks to the type of play that the players can expect. There is still a sense of identification with your character, especially where the game allows you to improve your character or at least acquire additional equipment.

In particular, there is one genre which tends to work better as a boardgame than as an rpg: horror. Thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, most rpg'ers have an expectation of near immortality, with ready access to healing and resurrection magic. So when they find themselves playing a game like Call of Cthulhu, it is often an unpleasant shock at how quick and brutal combat can be, how easily investigators are dispatched by damage or by sanity loss.

But in horror-themed boardgames with a role-playing aspect, there is an excellent match between theme and play, at least in the games where player elimination is possible. This is why my group loves Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill, but is not so much into Zombies!!! or Black Morn Manor.

There are some other horror board games that my group loves where it's still similar to role-playing, but a given player may be controlling multiple characters, at least until elimination reduces those numbers. The Hills Rise Wild, Slasher Flick: the Revenge of the Boogeyman, and the Vesuvius Incident. With excess characters, there is greater opportunity for death and mayhem, because player elimination can't happen until near the end when most of the characters are dead.

I do agree that the dungeon crawl games usually miss the mark. Descent is too long and not very fun. Mertwig's Maze is mostly fun, especially in the party vs party fights, but the dungeon aspect feels too flowchart-like.

However, there is a sci-fi dungeon crawl that I really like: Asteroid. One player sets up an asteroid riddled with tunnels and robots and danger, while the rest of the players control a group of characters who invade the base to destroy the evil and insane computer that controls the robots. The set-up time is a little long for the player running the robots, and the game in unbalanced in favor of the good guys, but it is otherwise a really fun game.

Dan Corban said...

I found it interesting that you state Return of the Heroes is... "eurogamey". I am about as much of a eurogamer as a person can be and I found it to be one of the most tedious and boring games I have ever played. This surprised me since the gameplay appears similar to Runebound, a game that my friends and I have had a lot of fun with.

Mr Skeletor said...

The other problem is that the Games Master role in a board version of an RPG is significantly less interesting. Gone is the need to assess and pass judgement on the effects of the players actions, the fun of trying to role-play non-player characters in a memorable fashion, and the challenge of fudging the dice rolls in the interest of driving the narrative.

These are the reasons why I have no interest in role playing games

ubarose said...

Interesting. It made me think. I guess I have never thought that adventure games or dungeon crawls were substitutes for role playing games. They are certainly an offshoot of RPGs and use some of the same mechanics and terms, but I don't know that they are failed attempts at simulating an RPG. They are just their own thing.
For me, adventure games are about story telling. Dungeon crawls are about tactics. RPGs are about play acting and improvising around someone's script outline. So I have never had that feeling of "Why play this instead of an RPG?"

I play adventure games because they are like those choose your own adventure books, but you do it with other people and there are several stories being told at once. You pick a card instead of turning to page 62. As shellhead said, it's reliable entertainment.

Also, to me, RETURN OF THE HEROES has always felt like a pick up and deliver game wrapped in the trappings of an adventure game. I like pick up and deliver games too, so it's all good.

Jason Lutes said...

Shellhead and Ubarose nicely sum up the answer to the "why" question. I don't have the time (or the players) for RPGs any more, so a boardgame that plays in a few hours and has some RPG elements is as close as I'm going to get. That said, I've tried nearly all of those types of games and still feel like nothing has really hit the sweet spot. Not as an RPG substitute, but as a satisfying and rewarding adventure/strategy game in its own right.

My personal favorites would be Warhammer Quest in the dungeon crawl category (the biggest drawback of which is that it's practically a miniatures game), and Tales of the Arabian Nights in the adventure game category (still sadly out of print). The system employed in the latter, though somewhat fiddly in that involves looking up numbered paragraphs, really does encourage you to make decisions based more on your character than on any sort of perfect strategy. It's a pretty remarkable game in that regard.

I've been laboring away on my own pulp adventure boardgame, within which I'm trying to address some of the problems I have with the genre. So far it's been quite a challenge, but the playtesting feedback has been positive enough to keep me chipping away.

Mr Teufel said...

Your article, and the comments following, tend to focus on the D&D style of role-playing: ie the dungeon-bash. I think Vampire: Prince of the City models a different form of role-playing very well.

Shellhead said...

mr teufel: I think Vampire: Prince of the City models a different form of role-playing very well.

True. Like the others we have been talking about, Prince of the City is game where each player controls a single character and has a simplified character sheet with a distinctive set of abilities. Unlike the other adventure games, Prince of the City has more abstract gameplay, to the point where the each player's movement token only symbolically represents where that character is and what he is doing. Instead of exploring a dungeon, characters are competing for control of a city.

I worked on a competing draft of Prince of the City which ultimately got bastardized into Vampire: Dark Influences. White Wolf made a very conscious decision to publish Prince of the City as a curious hybrid between a Euro-game and an rpg-lite introduction to Vampire: the Requiem. Even so, I like the version of Prince of the City that got published. The rest of my regular group is less impressed, so we haven't played PotC in more than a year.

The version that I worked on was almost a pure AmeriTrash game. Characters moved a lot more, traveling through the city to interact with other vampires, get equipment, and gain influence over mortal institutions like the media and the police. Hunting for blood was a bigger part of the game, and there was a tragedy-of-the-commons element involving the masquerade that eventually would lead to increasingly powerful vampire hunters getting sifted into the encounter deck.

To be honest, our version suffered from some of the standard AmeriTrash disadvantages: long games (3-4 hours) and complex rules with some fiddly exceptions for the sake of chrome. It might have been a hit with people at Fortress: AmeriTrash, but it would have gotten poor reviews at BGG. We playtested it with roughly two dozen players, and got very positive feedback. The White Wolf playtesters enjoyed it, too, but had already advanced some money to Mike Nudd.

Pat H said...

You fudged the die rolls? Ever since I started playing D&D I was incorporating miniatures and tiles into play. I always found that this worked better than playing hybrids. I don't like the narrow confines of the typical dungeon map - not enough wide open spaces to effectively allow for magic and missile tactics. It will be interesting to see FFG 's new expansion for Descent allowing for outdoor situations.

J de said...

In full agreement with Ubarose. RPG and Boardgames are different worlds, with overlapping themes and mechanics. But in the end, mechanics in RPG are hardly relevant. There are no victory conditions, there are only the limits placed on you by the character that you play.

If all you do is moving from lair to lair, beating up assorted monsters as you go, you are not roleplaying. That's just a dungeoncrawl with minimalist equipment. A game without a board. And in that case, you might just as wel play a boardgame

Adam Skinner said...

I'm surprised Battlestations wasn't mentioned.

Jack Hill said...

Nice article. I may have to write another take on the possbility of creating stories within board games.

As to games, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Star Saga One are the only games which feel like RPG's to me.

And the Runebound and RoTH fans need to try Prophecy. I tell you, it is better than both. RoTH pick up and deliver and rule elegance combined with Runebound's variability. (RotH is actually kind of dry as those sorts of games go.)

Michael Barnes said... first I thought it was pretty good, but after playing it for almost a year I've realized that it's pretty _great_. It's much closer to TALISMAN than RotH or RUNEBOUND...but it's also a lot smoother, shorter, and strangely a little more thematic. The new Z-Man edition coming out in the Fall looks like it'll break the game to a new audience.

RETURN OF THE HEROES...I think the game has more in common with MERCHANT OF VENUS than D&D. I love it, but it is as much a pick-up-and-deliver game as it is an RPG-style board game.

I like RPG-style board games in general, although I do recognize that there's a boatload of particulars both subtle and overt that make RPGs a world apart from board games. I think where most games of this description fail is in not providing a fluid storytelling environment. Sure, in a DESCENT game there might be some kind of trivial story about killing a giant or whatever but it's really just a framing device to give a sense of purpose to a tactical board game. Hell, I usually forget what the story is during most games of DESCENT.

TALES OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, mentioned by Jack, is actually closer to a "real" RPG experience although your choices are on rails and the game master is replaced by a system of die roll matrices and a paragraph book. Yet all that adds up to something somehow more vibrant and narrative.

Michael Barnes said...

Oh, and MAGIC REALM...

Matt makes a great point, that bringing in RPG elements increases complexity and before you know it you've got an RPG handbook and certainly MAGIC REALM is guilty of those excesses. Yet, MAGIC REALM is in my estimation still the best "RPG on a board" because it really creates a world with its own peculiar functions, patterns, atmosphere, and even things like culture and politics. Yeah, it's ridiculously hard to learn how to play but when you get the hang of it, it's really an amazing piece of design full of detail and depth that _nothing_ in this genre can approach. The combat system, as detailed as it is, is just amazing- particularly if you like the level of finite detail that GUNSLINGER had. I think it's a brilliant game but I definitely understand that it's a tough one to get into...REALMSPEAK makes it a hell of a lot easier, but you'll still have to reference that legendary rulebook.

Mr Skeletor said...

I have played Prophecy - it was certainly the 'closest' to talisman of all the adventure games I played, but I found it was also the most problematic. It's not bad, but I found both Runebound and Return of the Heroes better.

Ken B. said...

I've tried to hold my tongue on this so I don't offend too many, but I'll be honest--as *games*, RPGs suck.

"But...but..." I hear some stammer. No. I've played them. I've played D&D. Earthdawn. Almost all the World of Darkness stuff. Shadowrun. Tales from the Floating Vagabond. Marvel Superheroes.

As hanging out with your buddy exercises, they're just fine. But like Shellhead stated (and in very excellent fashion)--there's always one person who has to put tons more effort into the experience AND they get the least amount of fun out of it. It wasn't just me; my friends always felt the same way. You ran the story as a courtesy so everyone else could play.

The goals were always nebulous, the rules didn't want to kill your pals unless they did something stupid and deserved it, so essentially the whole thing is a hand-holding exercise.

And a big "Yes" to your next question--"But you just haven't played the 'real' way!" Yes. Yes I have. I've played pick-up RPG games at game stores and conventions before. Those always devolve into "one person is the dominant personality and calls all the shots" mixed with "intense rules lawyering."

As a game, they fail. As a social exercise with rules attached, rock on.

That's why we were pretty much glad when the CCG revolution steamrolled through and quashed RPGs. Hey, suddenly we could all put lots of work into our own customized deck, and then we could ALL play.

I don't expect boardgames to duplicate RPGs. In fact, I'd rather they didn't. If they get the veneer, the superficial feel, then I'm all for them and quite like them.

Runebound is the perfect example. It is an RPG, alright--in the superficial SNES kind of way. And I'm perfectly okay with that.

I don't care if I ever actually play an RPG ever again. But give me a board game with a few RPG trappings, I'm there. And so are like-minded gamers; every two weeks you've got your people posting somewhere on line: "Where can we find an RPG-style boardgame?" There's plenty of them already.

Trying to make them more RPG-esque really is missing the mark. Keep the superficial RPG elements, but clean up the underlying gameplay--BOOM, license to print money.

Shellhead said...

Ken B.,

In truth, I've had great and terrible gaming experiences with all kinds of formats of games:

Board games: Roaring board games where everybody is standing because they are excited and can't wait for their next turn, OR absolutely tedious times, waiting silently while everybody does their analysis.

CCGs: Thrilling moments where somebody plays a new and cool combo that they improvised on the spot, OR a recent game of Jyhad where a vicious rush deck left me unable to do anything at all after the first two turns of the game.

LARP: Dramatic moments when two thespians clash with great improvised speeches as their long-term machiavellian schemes finally stand revealed, OR dull mass combats where nobody can move for 90 minutes while overworked storytellers rush around supervising scissors-paper-rock.

RPG: Minds are blown when a startling plot twist is unveiled, or players improvise a surprising solution to a problem, OR yet another stereotypical dungeon crawl grinds to a halt thanks to a chorus of tired Monty Python quotes.

Despite having some amazing experiences with rpgs over the years, including some occasions when I ran the game, I burned out on rpgs after a 4-year L5R campaign ended in 2003.

It wasn't just that the fun factor was unreliable, it's that the overall ratio of fun wasn't worth it. For every hour of laughter or exciting combat scenes, there was too many long hours of tedious conversations. Haggling with NPC shopkeepers, or players debating the significance of a new clue, or players arguing with the ST about rules questions.

Regarding the prep, there are two general ways to approach running an rpg session... lots of prep or lots of improvisation. I got pretty good at the improvisation, but it's really hard to avoid a certain number of cliches, especially after the first two decades of running or playing in rpgs. The pre-made stuff varies in quality and is generally limited in quantity unless the name of the game is D&D. And I'm currently burned out on anything resembling Tolkien.

Sorry for rambling, I guess I've been bottling this up for a long time.

Casey said...

RPG/boardgame hybrids are probably my favorite sub-genre and dominate most of my meager collection. I've got Descent w/Well of Darkness, Prophecy, Arkham Horror and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I've also tried my hand at Dungeoneer, Fury of Dracula, Talisman and a simple dungeon crawl a friend has been play testing.

I tried to teach myself Magic Realm via Realm Speak but couldn't get the hang of it. I have yet to try Runebound and Return of the Heroes.

I like roll playing games (look at me being clever using the title of the post!) better than RPGs because I could never wrap my feeble 12-year-old brain (at the time! 26 now, brain is still feeble though) around the rules. I still have no clue what a THAQ is. And why is a negative armor class better? Shouldn't I want a really HIGH AC? More armor is more protection right? But I digress.

Despite the other's claims of lengthy roll playing games' manuals, 30 pages does not equal a 200 page beginners handbook. Throw in a DM guide, books for each class, armories and creature companions you've got a lot on your hands.

Plus as mentioned before, it takes a lot of work and time for someone to prepare a proper campaign.

Plus board games are great for laying out the situation with tiles and miniatures, instead of having to use my imagination which has been killed by years of TV.

So that's why I like board game/rpg hybrids. My favorites being Descent for its tacticality (new word!) and Arkham Horror for its cooperation and story telling.

Roll playing games boil my favorite parts about RPGs (character customization, combat) and add the tangible elements of lots of bits.

I really don't find them hard to introduce non-gamers too. Descent has been a gateway for plenty of my friends and even my sisters-in-law.

Another hybrid I think should deserve some discussion are miniatures/RPG hybrids. Necromunda and Blood Bowl are some of my all-time favs. I'm really itching to get back into Necromunda again, or try out Mordheim.