Not Just For Geeks!

Not Just on Computers!

Role playing games (RPG’s) started with war game simulations. Playing pieces called miniatures, each designed to represent a specific type of military unit, are moved around the board, with “combat” between two units being resolved according to established rules. Eventually the pieces were given personalities so players could have them interact with other units, and role playing games as we know them were born. They provide an environment for creativity, social interaction, and fantasy, which some people ignore as being “for nerds only.”

There are many reasons why people play RPG’s; the “fantasy escapist” excuse is among the least common. First of all, RPG’s provide a great social outlet; for a number of hours each week you’ll be sitting around a table with your friends talking to each other. Do you remember talking? It’s that thing we used to do before computers….The other major reason people play is RPG’s provide an excellent story-telling environment. Of the 8 or so people I game with on a regular basis, every one is an aspiring writer or enjoys writing. The “escape” only lasts for a couple of hours while you play and maybe a few more afterwards, but people will talk for years about the cool stuff they did in game; not because they’re “geeks” or “nerds” with “no life” and a “tendency to overuse quotation marks”, but because they wrote it. They came up with the ideas, the sayings, the characters that their friends will always remember.

I actually did a research project about identity creation and maintenance using RPG’s as a vehicle and found some very interesting results. This has gotten me interested in RPG’s potential as a subject of research in their own right. To do this I’m creating what I guess is a metanode (I’m new here), which will contain my thoughts and research on various aspects of gaming as I write them.

Types of Role-Playing Games

All role-playing game systems are designed to do the same thing: provide an agreed upon method for task resolution. Imagine an RPG in which the players were on a baseball team. When Sluggo Sockem gets up to the plate and swings at the ball, some method is needed to determine whether or not he succeeds. Then the question comes up, how well did he hit the ball? Did it sail majestically out of the park, or bounce in the dirt and plop into the first baseman’s mitt?

This question can be resolved with a simple flip of the coin, or using complex equations. Most RPG’s use dice, ranging from the standard 6-sider to the infamous 1000-sided die, for this purpose. Some games augment this with cards or poker chips, and some go to the other extreme. These diceless games use “rock, paper, scissors” or bidding formats to determine success.

Whatever method is used, there are a few common structures between RPG’s. This is an attempt to classify the major types of games based on the most fundamental aspect of the system: how do they determine success? I’ve included only games I know, so the list is limited. If there is another game you would like to add to the list, or especially one you think defies the current classification scheme, please let me know.

Skill Add Systems

In these systems each task is assigned a difficulty number, and the player must beat that number on some number of dice. Skills are added as a bonus to this roll, so higher skills make tasks easier. Using a hypothetical Skill Add system with the example above, when Sluggo wants to hit the ball (difficulty 13) he rolls three 6-sided dice (3d6) and adds the results. He gets a total of 10, which is not enough. However, he has a batting skill of 4, giving him a total of 14; enough to hit the ball.

Advantages and Disadvantages

One nice thing about Skill Add systems is it’s very easy to give a bonus or penalty. In Dungeons and Dragons, the biggest of this type, all skill checks are made on one twenty-sided die (1d20). The dungeon master can easily reward good play, tactical planning, or any other circumstance with a bonus of +1 or more to the roll. Likewise, if the character is tired, using a bad weapon, confused, etc., a penalty of –1 can be assigned. The only problem with this is it can make bonuses meaningless. On 1d20, +1 is only a 5% increase, which doesn’t feel like much. Several bonuses stack well, but a small bonus feels insubstantial.

Another issue is the removal of probability. The point of rolling dice, drawing cards, flipping coins, etc. is to introduce randomness into play; when you always add 10 or 15 to a roll on 1d20, failure becomes much less of a concern. Player characters (PC’s) usually don’t care, but it can be frustrating when your opponent never fails; game masters, likewise, have the reverse concern; the pc’s will always trounce anything they meet.

Examples of Skill Add systems include:

-Dungeons and Dragons
-Macho Women With Guns

Success Based Systems

Most Success Based systems use dice, but a few diceless systems fall into this category, too. With dice, a difficulty is set (say, 4 on a 6-sided die). The player then rolls a number of dice, and each which rolls the number or higher counts as one success. Normally, one success means the action did what it was supposed to, while additional successes indicate better performance. Back to Sluggo for a moment; if he rolls 7 dice total against a difficulty of 4 and gets 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5 on his dice, then he not only hit the ball (the first success), he probably got a triple (the two “extra” successes).

Advantages and Disadvantages

Success Based systems are nice and simple; it’s very easy to tell if your attempt worked or not, and it’s easy to tell how well you did. Furthermore, they make contested rolls very easy. A contested roll occurs when you attempt to do something and someone else attempts to stop you, or to do it first. In our baseball RPG, Sluggo would probably have a contested roll against the pitcher to hit the ball. The successes one person scores subtract from the other person’s, and the highest net total wins. So if Sluggo got his 3 successes but the pitcher got 4, it’s a strike, not a hit. If the pitcher only had 2 successes, Sluggo stops at first base rather than third. In this type of system, bonuses usually come either as free successes or lower difficulty numbers, while penalties will raise the difficulty or require extra successes for the action to work.

While Success Based systems are easy to work with, they also can get a bit slowed down by the dice. Every time I roll to succeed, my opponent also rolls to make me fail. Then we have to compare successes and determine the final result. It may not seem like much, but it can really bog down some parts of the game, especially combat which already involves a lot of rolls.

Examples of Success Based systems include:

-White Wolf Tabletop Games (Vampire, Werewolf, Aberrant, etc.)
-White Wolf LARPs (using “rock, paper, scissors” for success generation)

Target Number Based Systems

The major difference between Target Number Based systems and Skill Add systems is the way skills are used. In a Target Number (TN) Based system, skills determine the amount of dice you roll. A certain number of these dice are then added together and compared to a preset TN. TN Based systems usually talk about the number of dice rolled and the number kept; the kept dice are the ones you get to add. So Sluggo might roll 7 dice (6-siders) and keep the highest 4, trying to beat a set number (in this case 15). If he rolls 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5 he’ll keep the 3, 4, 4, and 5 for a total of 16; success! In these systems, you can achieve better successes (hit the ball harder, run faster, etc.) if you call a raise, voluntarily increasing the TN, or if you beat the TN by a certain amount.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Bonuses in these systems come as reduced TN’s, free raises, or extra dice to roll. Penalties are higher TN’s or fewer dice. One of the nicest features about these systems is the ability to roll very high, which is exciting for everyone at the table. While they tend to be slightly more difficult to learn, they are very easy to play once you’ve learned them.

There are only two real disadvantages I’ve encountered with these systems. One is a tendency to slow-down while you wait for people to add dice totals. It sounds like a silly consideration, I know, but it’s very real. The other is that many TN systems only look at whether you hit the TN or not; there is no bonus for rolling higher than needed. A few systems give raises based on how well you roll, but most require you to call raises before rolling, and rolling a 25 is just as good as 65.

Examples of TN Based systems include:

-Legend of the Five Rings
-7th Sea
-noir (the RPG, not the color or genre)


There are a few games people have mentioned which I cannot classify yet as I know nothing about them. If you know anything about these games and have a suggestion which of these categories they fit in, or if they need a whole new category, let me know.


An indie role-playing game is most commonly defined as any RPG where the game is owned and controlled by its creator.

At the very least, this is the definition used at The Forge, and certainly applies to most games that get tagged with the label, such as Inspectres, Sorcerer, the Wuthering Heights RPG and Universalis.

Most indie RPGs push the boundaries of role-playing past the very Simulationist or dysfunctional Gamist methods of the more well-known games like Dungeons and Dragons and White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade.

Certainly it's true that a game of OctaNe is a lot more fun than a dungeon crawl, Xcrawl nonwithstanding.

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