Creating the Ultimate Tabletop RPG (Charming and Open)

Back in September, I served as the featured blogger for the Question of the Month event hosted by Later Levels. This is a monthly community event where a blogger poses a question to the community at large, reads all of the posts submitted, and then chooses a winner for the month. I asked game bloggers everywhere how they would create the Ultimate Video Game if they had to graft the graphics, sound design, story, and gameplay from four separate video games and Frankenstein them all together. It turned out to be a fun question because lots of clever bloggers took it in interesting directions that I didn’t anticipate.

Recently I decided to take my own question-and-answer event, Charming and Open, and move it to a monthly format as an experiment of sorts. I asked for volunteers online and the early response was promising, particularly as my very first brave volunteer was none other than The Gaming Diaries! This excellent game blogger is a past participant in Charming and Open so she knows all about how it works, and as a bonus she gave me three different questions to choose from. One of which, a question about tabletop gaming, took some inspiration from my Question of the Month submission:

“What would your ideal tabletop game be? (I’m totally not getting inspiration from your question of the month question here… nope.)”

Oh…I mean, uh, no it didn’t. I don’t know where you got that idea. At any rate, given the similarity of the two questions, I wanted to approach the idea of the Ideal Tabletop in the same way that I asked others to consider the Ultimate Video Game: an amalgamation of four different ideas taken from separate titles. I’ll be talking about the kind of game that I want to create, and then choosing a different tabletop game for setting, character creation, player rules, and gamemaster rules in order to achieve that original vision. So let’s look first at the game I’d like to create for my ultimate RPG.

Sixteen Cover

CONCEPT
If you’ve been around Adventure Rules for a really long time, before the blog hit the point where it could be considered “successful,” then you might remember the period of time where I was working on developing a tabletop RPG. There’s this joke in the design community about how you become responsible for designing a game if you want to play it, but then realize it doesn’t exist. For my group of players, the desire to incorporate our fascination with Myers-Briggs theory of personality into the roleplaying games we played pushed me to want to create a game based around them.

At the time, I had no design experience – not even hacking, really – and had played only a small selection of games. My library has expanded quite a bit since those early days. Additionally, my preferences and philosophy have changed concerning tabletops, and I have a greater understanding of the elements that I enjoy and those which don’t work for me. So while I don’t intend to legitimately revisit the development of this game, I like the idea of revisiting the concept with my new knowledge and seeing how it influences my design.

Originally I envisioned the Myers-Briggs RPG (I’ll refer to it as “Sixteen” from this point forward) as a typical D&D style fantasy RPG with the personality aspect simply grafted onto the class system. However, I think a game that is fundamentally about psychology should be more complicated – not necessarily in the rules, but in the themes. The mindless violence and singular focus of action games doesn’t mesh well with the idea of showcasing the personalities of the characters. So as I choose games to merge together in order to design Sixteen, I want to consider titles which allow the focus of the game to be the characters themselves. In the interest of that, let’s look at the game which inspires character creation first.

Burning Wheel

CHARACTER CREATION: THE BURNING WHEEL
The Burning Wheel is a character-driven tabletop RPG. It’s focus is on the beliefs of the characters and how those beliefs push them to make hard choices. Characters are made up of these beliefs in addition to instincts (actions they take without thinking) and traits (descriptive words or phrases that tell us something about the character). It should be immediately clear how characters of this sort would work for a game that’s all about the psychology of the characters – their beliefs, instincts, and traits could be strongly tied to whatever Myers-Briggs type they happen to be.

When it comes to stats and skills, Burning Wheel characters gain these things from lifepaths. Lifepaths define the history of the character from birth until just before the start of the game. A character who was born noble was raised quite differently than one born in a farming village. They have different opportunities to develop physical stats versus mental stats, and different access to resources such as money, property, and connections. A slave-born character likely started working earlier than a one who was city-born, and the opportunities available to them are significantly different. Your character’s skills, stats, and traits are dependent somewhat on the paths that they have followed through life – a theme quite fitting with the teachings of behavioral psychology.

In Sixteen, I could possibly see these lifepaths as being the eight preferences: introvert vs. extrovert, thinking vs. feeling, and so on. Each person’s combination of four preferences would give them different histories, skills, and traits, allowing each character to feel meaningfully different from the others. And since the player can assign completely unique beliefs and instincts to their character, two characters with INFP personalities will still be motivated to do completely different things even if their approaches to succeed are similar.

AW2 Cover

PLAYER RULES: APOCALYPSE WORLD
In a game about characters with complex motivations, the rules the players obey must challenge those motivations and force the characters to make hard choices. No game does making hard choices quite like Apocalypse World, a game that thrives on the 7-9 roll where the player ultimately gets what they want, but it costs them something. Apocalypse World has deceptively simple mechanisms that work well because they know what they want to accomplish.

Say I’m playing an ESTJ, a Guardian-type character with lots of human connections that approaches the world in a logical way. My character has a belief about saving her city from an epidemic, as well as a belief about raising her younger sister since their parents are out of the picture. After her sister catches the plague, my character’s two beliefs drive her to work harder than ever on the cure. I make a roll and get a 7-9, and now I have to make a hard choice. The GM tells me that my sister suddenly starts convulsing – she’s not going to make it if I don’t give her the full dosage right now, but if I do that then I won’t have a sample to copy for the rest of the city. I’ll have to recreate my formula from scratch, during which time more lives will be lost. Which belief does my character care more about? Does cold logic take over? Or her desire as a Guardian to watch over people? Apocalypse World’s mechanisms work perfectly with Burning Wheel’s beliefs to create a situation which would be quite compelling to roleplay at the table.

I also like how in Apocalypse World, you are given an incentive to behave a certain way because other characters have chosen what kinds of actions will give you experience points. Maybe the whole reason my character got into the situation I just described is because I got XP for using the skill which enabled me to synthesize a cure – if instead my skill for driving her to the hospital had been highlighted, I might have attempted that instead and be locked into an entirely different hard choice. In this sense, Freud’s superego – the pressure from society to behave according to social norms – would be the highlighted stats our other players give to us. Conflicting motivations based on the expectations of others highlight (ha!) the psychological nature of the game.

Ryuutama Cover

GAME MASTER RULES: RYUUTAMA
I waffled a lot on whether I wanted to choose Apocalypse World for this category because the way that game instructs game masters to play completely redefined my ideas about tabletop roleplaying. However, that style is a philosophy more so than a rigid set of rules that must exist in the game in order to obey them. Ryuutama is drastically different in style and tone from everything I have described so far, but the idea of a GM character is too unique and interesting to me to set it aside. In particular, I enjoy how benedictions and artifacts influence the game.

In most tabletop RPGs I have played, the dynamic of the game changes based on the characters that the players create. A party with a fighter, paladin, and thief plays a lot differently than one with a ranger, bard, and wizard. Because they have different skills and solve problems in unique ways, it changes the tone and action of the campaign. Ryuutama adds another layer to this by giving the GM different abilities based on the character type that she chooses. An azure dragon’s artifacts emphasize human connection and her benedictions reward roleplaying. Meanwhile, a crimson dragon has artifacts that change the combat mechanics, and his benedictions make battles epic showdowns with tons of back-and-forth. Just as adventuring parties with different character types feel different, two Ryuutama campaigns with different ryuujin will feel subtly different from one another.

I like the idea of Sixteen having a GM character that helps to define the tone of the game. If the GM plays an “id” character, for example, maybe he can spend points to activate an instinct for NPC characters to make them more dangerous, or bargain points with player characters to give them an incentive to give in to their baser desires. Maybe a “superego” GM could have an artifact that establishes a single set of cultural traits for every character in the party, defining some of the societal expectations to which they are subjected. The unique combinations of GM and player character types could lead to a larger variety of campaign possibilities depending on the tone that the group at the table wants to achieve.

City of Mist

SETTING: CITY OF MIST
City of Mist is a game that I was very excited to play when I first got a taste of it, but ultimately let my group down because we can’t play often enough to make its systems function well. City of Mist demands a long campaign played regularly in order for the mechanisms to really sing – but I don’t need those mechanisms at all to capture what I really like about the game. The setting in City of Mist is a compelling world where legends re-enact their stories through ordinary people, and those chosen few must struggle to balance the life they want for themselves with the story that is trying to express itself through them.

Once again, I’m choosing a game which I hope emphasizes the importance of making choices. In City of Mist, the characters have two opposing forces in their lives which push them in different directions: their logos, or ordinary life, and their mythos, or the legend within them. All of the action of the game takes place in a single city, a city where an unusual mist obscures the supernatural goings-on. The setting already has some psychological themes to it – how the human mind will instantly come up with and accept a half-baked logical explanation for events in order to dismiss the possibility of something it can’t understand, for example. It also helps that City of Mist has intentional design similarities with Apocalypse World and unintentional ones (I think) with Burning Wheel, so the setting should gel well with the mechanisms that those games introduce. A mythos is also a pretty sensible explanation for the GM character introduced by Ryuutama.

In Sixteen, I imagine that the mythoi might be the different personality types expressing their motivations and intent through the characters. For example, sensing-perceiving types fall into a broad category called Artisans, so perhaps the concept of being an Artisan is a mythos which drives characters affiliated with it to act upon their creative desires. Artisan characters will always have the pressure to choose that path, so when they take actions or make decisions that would prevent them from following their creative fancies, that would go against the mythos that drives them and potentially cause them problems – or earn them XP or some other kind of resource reward.

CHECK OUT THE GAMING DIARIES’ POST!
So there you have it, adventurers, my ideal tabletop game and the four games I would use to create it. While this post may be coming to an end, it’s only one half of the story – The Gaming Diaries has her own Charming and Open post for you to check out. She submitted an answer to this question:

“If you could remake an existing game/series in a completely different genre, what would you choose and how would it change?”

So to see her excellent answer to this question, follow this link to her blog. If you yourself are interested in getting involved in Charming and Open, asking me a question and being asked one in turn, then you can reach out via Facebook or Twitter. You can also sign up for Charming and Open using the Business Inquiries page here on the blog proper. I hope you’ll consider submitting your own great question – in the meantime, thanks for reading and be sure to go support The Gaming Diaries!

4 thoughts on “Creating the Ultimate Tabletop RPG (Charming and Open)

Add yours

  1. So I decided not to long ago that I was going run a post apocalypse campaign instead of our standard D&D campaign. Just the other day someone was telling me I should looking in to Apocalypse World even if I don’t use that system. I enjoyed reading your prospective on Apocalypse World. I will be back to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to try the game myself either, but I am looking forward to the day I can. Just reading the book really whet my appetite for the full game.

      Liked by 1 person

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