Posted by: markfender | July 16, 2014

The Pillars of Gaming

The D&D Starter Set is out. I don’t want to talk about that.

dnd-nextInstead, I want to talk about one of the design goals of the new edition, or the three pillars of D&D: Interaction, Combat, and Exploration. This is an interesting breakdown of what the game values. Ostensibly, you’d want some rules stuff about each pillar so each character is good at different aspects of those three things (which I don’t think D&D does all that well), but let’s ignore that for now.

By calling these things out, you have a better idea what the game values. Looking at this list, I can articulate much better why I have never cared for D&D: I don’t care about Exploration. Whether it be overland travel or dungeon exploration, that’s just not a thing I care a great deal about. It also makes sense why all those games that converted to d20 in the ’00s maybe didn’t work as well as they could have – because the pillars of the game engine weren’t the pillars of that particular game.

By emphasizing these pillars, you can identify what a particular game does well (or, at least, emphasizes, even if it doesn’t do it well) and maybe have a better idea of whether the game is for you. So, some thought experiments:

Ars Magica – Combat, Interaction, and Research. You could perhaps expand Research into Management (since Research is typically a sub-set of Management within the system). I could even see changing Combat to Magic, as combat tends to involve the Companions and Grogs more than it does the Mages. Expanding Combat into Magic emphasizes the way that Magic can be used in the system to solve a whole wealth of problems, which probably hits the beats the game is aiming for a lot more.

Gumshoe – Combat, Interaction, and Investigation. You could make a case that Interaction incorporates Investigation, but I tend to see them as separate systems (especially considering how Gumshoe divides its investigative abilities into using a different system than the rest of the game uses). This breakdown would work for all those various Cthulhu-derived games, too.

Shadowrun – Combat, Interaction, and Infiltration. Now, in Shadowrun’s case, the Infiltration tends to fall apart pretty early and devolve into combat, but I do think the extensive emphasis on security systems and how to break them is definitely pointing towards Infiltration being a thing.

Unknown Armies – Combat, Interaction, and Devolution. That last one is weird, but with the obsession required to be a magick-user, the path to Godwalking, and the Madness system all emphasizing that your character is going to become something far from where it started, I think it’s a fairly good catch-all.

So, that’s four games broken down. Already, we can start to see some trends. Combat factors into most of them. Which tends to derive from the roots of the hobby and the action-adventure emphasis of most games. I could certainly see an argument for Combat in Unknown Armies being a really bad idea, but that might just play more into the Devolution part of the equation. And certain Gumshoe games emphasize combat less than others. I’d be curious to see some games where Combat is not one the pillars (as well as how popular they are).

The other is that Interaction factored into all of them. Which might just be that whole “role playing” thing. If your games doesn’t have Interaction as a tentpole, it’s probably closer to a board game or wargame. Again, I’d be interested in seeing some game that don’t have that pillar (and whether I’d still consider playing them on RPG night).

I was going to break down some other games, like the White Wolf catalog, but I honestly couldn’t decide on a third pillar. Almost all of them have a Humanity-type system, which tends towards the Devolution pillar of Unknown Armies. However, I think most of the White Wolf games don’t actually model that idea all that well. Combined with a lesser emphasis in some of those World of Darkness titles makes that third tier tricky. Is it okay to just have two pillars? Maybe. (I had the same issue with games like Fading Suns or Legend of the Five Rings, which don’t seem to have a really strong third pillar. Different campaigns could emphasize some mechanical system over another, but that gets into a weird area and an argument that those other systems are just another form of Interaction so I don’t know. Maybe the model just doesn’t work for everything.)

What are some others?

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