Tuesday, January 8, 2013

For the future of RPGs...get rid of the DM!

A while back on G+ there was a request for suggestions on a RPG gift for a 12-ish kid. Now their interests weren’t quite towards fantasy, so it was a bit of a pickle as D&D and Pathfinder were out as options. Folks gave helpful suggestions but it got me thinking about the difficulty a group of kids might face jumping into RPGs. Plus, I wondered about the future growth of the hobby without having that influx of new players and kids getting interested at a young age.

From a player perspective, I think RPGs are fine. You have a character. You have a group of people to bounce ideas off of and interact with. It’s sort of structured storytelling. As a DM however, I think it’s much more of a difficult role to grasp. As a DM, you straddle this line of referee and director. You are the one thinking up the neat adventure ideas. It’s like you are throwing out toys to the group of players and see what they pick up and play with. It’s hard to conceptualize as a young kid. Even worse, you all are playing the same game but having a very different play experience.

I think we’ve gotten this concept drilled into our collective skulls. This is how RPGs work. You have a group of players and a GM. The GM crafts the framework of the story. They are the arbitrator of rules. They play the opposition for the players. For the most part it works immensely well. But as a young kid being shown this, I wonder if it’s overwhelming. If the divergence in play experience is so different for the DM compared to the PCs, you have kids liking the idea of RPGs but never really running them (simply no one wants to DM).

So what could RPGs incorporate if trying to draw in a younger audience? While older players might accept the different game roles for RPGs, I think this is something needing to be altered for younger players. On to some ideas...

No DM... - By far I think this is something that needs to go. You have this drastic division of tasks and player expectations when a game requires one to actually referee. There is such a large split in what the different players actually do while playing the game, I think it creates difficulty in trying to convey that shared play experience. One person suddenly gains all this additional responsibility compared to the others.

Removing that division would likely help in making RPGs more acceptable to younger players. Some games have dabbled in this. Fiasco (while potentially wildly inappropriate for kids) is a prime example of a DM-less game. You have a good/bad dice mechanic where either the player decides the outcome, or allows the other players to decide it for them. Mechanics could be structured to remove the lone burden of storytelling and helming the opposition by one person, and instead have the input of others dictate the story and what happens.

...or Share the load - An alternate to this would be having a DM, but require that all the players take a seat behind the screen. Possibly each major story junction would use one of the players to act as the DM for that scene. One aspect could be that the 'DM player' gets some bonus which can be used at a later time during the game. That way people are encouraged to DM and give the players hard choices, as they get a resource to use when they shift back to being a player. The key point of this is to steer away from one person running the show and make it more a shared duty among the entire group.

Material on sheets, not tomes - Have a system with less choices right off the bat. Make character progression and creation simple and easy to grasp. Having this huge book with pages and pages of options is daunting. Keep the options and information limited, and slowly branch it out. Not only is this great for the PCs being able to jump into the game, but it also means potential conflicts and opposing forces can be easily worked up. Having this huge laundry list of abilities and skills for the PCs likely means NPCs might need something similar, and then likely means a full-time DM would be needed to craft the other story characters.

I pooh poohed Penny Arcade’s Thornwatch initially. A deck of cards to represent actions and abilities of a player? What a silly concept and how limited. But slowly I realized the genius behind this. If you have limited stats and abilities that are simplistically represented, you can also do that for NPCs and monsters. This gives room for having a game that doesn’t require someone to DM, and instead could have conflicts be resolved automatically through some other process. I think they just might have a breakthrough hit there with getting young kids into RPGs.

Less choices, just more outcomes - Another possible way to reign in things without needing a DM might be having less possible choices for tackling a problem, but have some wiggle-room with gradations of successes and failures. With a traditional RPG the DM needs to be ready to parse out all the wild ideas from the PCs in how they find solutions to obstacles. Then they either succeed or fail, and move on to the next conflict.

An alternate would be to shake up the problem-solving process having very specific approaches to solutions, and instead have varying degrees of outcomes. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire has a nifty dice mechanic for resolving checks, and introduces complications and advantages along with the outcome. Mouse Guard RPG (aka Burning Wheel lite) has a similar concept with allowing players to accept success or failure, adding complications to other tasks. In both cases these advantages/disadvantages build on the story having an impact on future decisions.

The input from the players are initially limited, but the outcomes have more branches. Having the other players give input to how well (or badly) a situation resolves for a player has a means for running a game without a DM. As outcomes are paired with conditions, this actually could limit player choices (or make others far more appropriate to select) for future obstacles. You have this branching path of of events that slowly expands due to outcomes, rather than having 20 ways to approach a problem initially.

Decentralize rule authority - Have everyone give input to how situations resolve. While one player might want to do something, everyone else at the table decides the outcome. Get away from the DM making all the decisions. Even better, have some kind of game mechanic dictate how well or badly a PC does with input from the other players.

Mouse Guard has a set script for actions and different phases with resolving conflicts. It’s a very cut and dried way to determine outcomes and has room for allowing other players give their input how things unfold. Avoiding one person have the final say in the rules, and instead adopting either a die roll or the decision of other players could do wonders for having a RPG without the need of a DM.

D&D has its roots in wargaming and it shows. The entire idea of a Dungeon Master, a referee, an arbitrator of the rules is so very much from older wargames. Typically you needed a neutral party to disseminate limited intelligence to simulate the fog of war. You’d also need a final say on how much an impact certain terrain would have on movement, how much cover does a building provide, or line of sight issues. While players could always adopt the ‘just roll a die and play on’ means of resolving problems, it was ideal to have a referee in the game.

This is something that RPGs need to eventually drop. I think it is a major stumbling block for introducing new players into the hobby, especially for younger players. Shifting RPGs away from a central person laying the foundation of the story, to a shared responsibility is key. It may not be possible to completely eliminate it. But the idea of having a dedicated DM for the entire game should be dumped. Having a rotating DM seat throughout a session, even something as simple as the player on the character’s right decides what happens next, is a step in the right direction. The responsibility for telling the story of the game needs to be disseminated among all the players.

In the long run, clinging to the idea of a lone DM running the show is something that will keep the hobby from flourishing in the future. Here’s to hoping new RPGs on the horizon drop that concept and come up with something exciting and new.