Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Asymmetry and Class Design in RPGs

Source: Stuart Robertson

In the early days of role playing games, there was a lot of push back against class based games like Dungeons & Dragons. Critics didn't like the inflexibility of classes and believed that they were overly restrictive to player options. This criticism still exists today in the debate between skill based versus class based games, but as strong as these debates seem today they are muted versions of games past.

I believe there are a couple of reasons why the debate has become less heated over time. The first reason is that class based games have expanded the options available to various classes. Most class based games allow Wizards to use swords and armor, though they might have to forgo certain other advantages to do so. The second reason is that the underlying logic behind having class based games, as articulated by J. Eric Holmes in his classic Fantasy Role Playing Games, is that classes were created to foster teamwork and that they are very good at creating fun shared experience play. One of the advantages of table top role playing games is their ability to foster friendship, and one of the best ways they do this is through the synergies created by soft-asymmetrical classes. A final reason I believe that the debate has become muted is that modern class based games are often even more asymmetrical in play than earlier ones, even as the mechanics seemed to become more symmetrical.

Where different classes played slightly differently, often using wildly different mechanics, in early class based games, in modern class based games players can choose to play entirely different game experiences. How so? In Dungeons & Dragons 3.x, players can choose to play a tactical miniatures game, a skill-intensive dungeon crawl, or a narrative storytelling role playing game. These are all potentially completely different experiences. You could do this with earlier editions of the game? Yes, you could. What makes 3.x different is that you can play these three ways, plus you can play a pub running simulation where you never interact with other players, a magic item design factory game, an art dealership game, or a mercantile simulation. Interestingly, with the exception of the magic design factory game, you can do all of these as solo game play experiences. The 3.x game system has mechanics that allow for simulated economy games. All you need is to take your character with a high Craft(Beer) and have that character make decisions about what kind of beer her or she wants to make, buy the supplies, make the rolls and you know how many cp, sp, or gp the character earns each week. You can do this until the character dies of old age.

If an economic Sim is what you want to play 3.x can accommodate you. Come to think of it, when I look at most of the complaints against 4e they actually come down to a complaint about the reduction of asymmetrical play more than anything else. You can narratively role play the crap out of 4e. You can free-form play it without miniatures. You can story tell with it. There are tons of game design options as you add more sourcebooks. What you cannot do, is run an inn using the basic mechanics of the game.

This trend of asymmetrical play in D&D, and in RPGs, started early. You can look at the War Machine and Dominion rules in the old BECMI Dungeon & Dragons game, GURPS, Champions 4th Edition, or Runequest. These games all have mechanics that allow for simultaneous asymmetrical play experiences. Not just the soft-asymmetry of classes having defined roles, but actual different play.

If you want more discussion of asymmetry in game play, here is a video by Extra Credit discussing asymmetry in computer games. It inspired this post and has me thinking about whether I've personally experienced periods of simultaneous and asymmetrical play in any past campaigns and wondering if you have any stories of your own experiences of asymmetrical play to share.

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