The phases of the moon.

Image by Spirit-Fire used under CC BY 2.0

When designing a roleplaying game, many elements are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Instead, they exist on a long scale, or continuum. Going towards one end or another of that continuum has both advantages and disadvantages, as does sticking to the middle. Where a game should fall on these continuums depends largely on what kind of game it’s trying to be.

Understanding these continuums is vital if you wish to design a game, or just evaluate a game you’ve bought. Join me in examining six of the most important continuums, providing insight into how roleplaying games work.

1. Lethality

An armored figure upon the ground.
You got knocked down, but can you get back up? Dead in Battle by Jakub T. Jankiewicz used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Most roleplaying games will feature some kind of violent conflict, which means PCs have a chance to die. Once a character is dead, they can’t be played anymore.* Some systems even have other mechanisms by which PCs can be rendered unplayable, such as Call of Cthulhu’s permanent insanity. How easy it is for PCs to become unplayable is what determines a game’s lethality.

A low lethality has obvious advantages. For one thing, when it’s difficult for a character to die, you don’t risk ruining your story because some damage dice rolled too high. It’s incredibly frustrating to lose a PC when they were critical to your ongoing story. Players don’t love losing their characters either, so low lethality often keeps everyone happy. Many systems, like 7th Sea and Legend of the Elements, even make it explicit that PCs cannot die from random damage rolls.

Another advantage to low lethality is that players who are less frightened of losing their characters are more likely to engage in the action. It’ll really take the wind out of your sails if you build a cool boss fight and the PCs refuse to engage because they don’t want to die. But herein lies the weakness of low lethality. When players know their characters can’t die, there’s less incentive not to engage in combat. Players may not see any reason to avoid violence when that violence carries little or no risk to their precious characters.

High lethality, on the other hand, is critically important to games with a scenario of disempowerment. Most such games are in the horror genre, and it’s difficult for a player to invest in the fearful atmosphere when they know nothing bad will happen to their character. That’s why characters are so fragile in games like Delta Green. The risk of dying at any moment is important to the fun.

Fragile characters are also important in games that encourage players to avoid violence. In Burning Wheel, for example, the mechanics send an important message: If you’re going to fight, it had better be worth risking your life, because characters can die of even relatively minor wounds.

One option for those who want a happy middle ground is to make PCs relatively fragile but require a player to give explicit permission before risking their character’s life. The GM doesn’t ever kill a character with random falling rocks, and the player recognizes that by drawing steel against the dragon, their character could become a tasty snack.

2. Character Customizability

The dissembled pieces of a car.
Just put these together however you feel like. Disassembly of a Car by Paul Hudson used under CC BY 2.0

Character customizability is a measurement of how many different mechanical options players have to create their characters. This isn’t about roleplaying flourishes or deep backstories, only options that affect the rules. The more options there are, the more players can customize their characters.

At first, customizability sounds like a completely positive value. Why would anyone want fewer options when making their character? But it turns out that low customization has plenty of advantages. Consider a game like Primetime Adventures (PTA). Characters in that game are nearly identical, mechanically speaking, with a handful of traits that have the same effect on the rules, so characters differ only in the way they are roleplayed.

In PTA and systems like it, character creation is very simple. Players don’t have to wade through a sea of options; they can pick from a small number and be ready to go. Once play starts, learning the rules is easier because everything is standardized. Games with low customizability are also much easier to balance. When designers have fewer options to worry about, they can focus on crafting a tighter experience rather than spreading their attention out.

Of course, the disadvantages to low customizability are considerable. Many players will chafe at being told their character must choose from a limited set of abilities, especially if the options don’t match what the player wanted. Dungeon World is particularly bad in this department; the rules don’t allow players to make something as benign as a halfling bard. Another hazard of low customizability is that every character can end up feeling the same. 4th Edition D&D has this problem in spades, with every class feeling like a slight variation on the same set of abilities.

High customizability has its own pitfalls, of course. Systems like Eclipse Phase can hit players with analysis paralysis when they look upon endless pages of options. After players sift through their countless choices, free-form character creation often leads to hyper specialization. Instead of spreading their points out, players will invest them all in being really good at one or two things, creating lopsided characters. And of course, more customization means more balance issues, because the more options exist, the harder they are to balance.

The main advantage of high customizability is letting players make the character they want to play. This should not be underestimated, as it’s vital for a healthy campaign. Players stuck with characters they don’t much care for will not be happy. Games with high customizability can also achieve high levels of depth, provided the extra complexity is put to productive use.

3. Skill Granularity

Different types of rice.
No, not that kind of granularity! Diversity of Rice by IRRI Images used under CC BY 2.0

Ever-present questions in roleplaying design: How many skills should the game have, and how broad should they be?* To build a house, should characters need Carpentry, Bricklaying, Electrical Wiring, Plumbing, and so on? Or should those skills all be combined down into Construction? Systems that choose the first option have high granularity, while the second option means low granularity.

A system with low granularity will have fewer skills that cover more situations. Chronicles of Darkness* is one such system. In Chronicles, a character doesn’t need to invest in rifles and pistols separately because it’s all covered under the Firearms skill. Similarly, any kind of theft-related activity is covered by Larceny, and Drive lets the character operate anything from a motorcycle to a semitruck.

In general, low skill granularity is easier on everyone. When skills are broad, it’s simple to make a character that does what the player wants it to do. There’s less risk that an engineer PC will end up missing Jury Rig because they thought Repair would be sufficient for hastily patching up a broken vehicle. At the same time, low granularity helps avoid absurd situations like a character being an expert with rifles but not knowing which end of a shotgun to hold, or a character with max ranks in Scuba Diving but no ranks in Swim. Because humans in real life tend to learn skills in groups, broad skills feel more realistic.

Still, broad skills are not without their pitfalls. Any system with a Science skill, as Chronicles has, opened itself up to some serious head-scratching. This skill covers anything science-related, which means it stretches across hundreds of degrees and fields. Imagine:

PC 1: What kind of scientist are you?

PC 2: The Science kind.

Feels a bit silly, doesn’t it? Language skills are similar. Investing in individual languages is usually a waste of time, but having a single skill for all languages is obviously absurd.

Of course, high granularity brings plenty of problems as well, such as players pouring through endless lists of skills or finding out halfway through the second session that the skill they really needed was buried in an obscure chapter. But high granularity can be very useful, particularly if a system is focused on a narrow field of play.

Riddle of Steel, for example, is about sword fighting. You can do other things with it, technically, but flashing blades and stabbing points are where the game shines. Because it focuses so heavily, it makes sense to differentiate between a rapier and a saber, when most games would file both under the Sword skill. This method can work with any highly focused system. If a game was all about bread making, it would be useful to split Baking into skills like Yeast Growing and Dough Mixing so that players know which element of the primary activity they’re good at.

4. Structure of Play

Metal structure on the roof garden of Les Halles, Paris, France
None of this free-form storytelling for you! Metal Structure on Roof Garden by Procsilas Moscas used under CC BY 2.0

Does the game you’re playing have rules that tell you when to do something or in what order? Does it track how many actions your players can take in a scene or limit the number of scenes you can have per session? All of those are examples of structured play, when the game steps in and tells you how and when to do things.

Outside of combat, most roleplaying games exist on the unstructured side of this continuum. For the majority of systems, especially older systems, the GM decides nearly every aspect of the narrative by fiat. The obvious upside is that the GM can tell the story however they like, without running afoul of any rules meant to govern their behavior. Unstructured play is also easier on designers, because it allows them to leave more in the GM’s hands.

Despite its popularity, unstructured play has serious downsides. Without any kind of structure, GMs have to spend a lot of their energy just maintaining the pace of their game. New GMs in particular often flounder, unsure of how quickly they should move the narrative forward, or they panic and skip ahead. Resources are also very difficult to track in an unstructured system. Few players are interested in manually counting each arrow they fire or every credit they spend.

Highly structured systems, on the other hands, have entirely different problems. If the structure rules are poorly implemented, following them can absolutely ruin a campaign. Burning Empires and Legend of the Elements both have scene management rules that make it extremely difficult to tell a good story. They restrict what the GM can do so severely that the narrative suffers.

But highly structured play isn’t all doom and gloom! When done properly, it can take a lot of weight off the GM’s shoulders. Mouse Guard, for example, has a scene management system that promotes a narrative of rising action followed by brief periods of rest followed by more rising action. A GM can let the rules take care of the game’s pacing and instead focus on making the best story possible.

Structured rules can also facilitate specific types of play that are difficult to run by fiat. No player wants to track every bit of resources by hand, but systems like Torchbearer have rules that make the process much easier. With Torchbearer’s food and light management rules, you can run a dungeon crawl where the number of rations a character has will actually matter.

5. Power Scaling

A fist with chalk energy lines around it.
Hadouken? Leadership and Power by NeetiR used under CC BY-SA 4.0

In your roleplaying system of choice, what’s the difference in ability between a low-level character and a high-level one? Is it the difference between amateur and professional or the difference between mortal and god? That difference is a system’s power scaling, and it has a huge effect on gameplay.

In systems with a small power scale, a high-level character isn’t that much stronger than a low-level character. This scale inherently makes more sense most of the time, because as humans we have a decent idea of human limits. One system that uses such a scale is Legend of the Five Rings (L5R). In L5R, a rank-five bushi* is a real badass but would have serious trouble defeating five rank-one opponents.

In addition to being more realistic, small power scales also allow for more competent starting characters. One way systems like Pathfinder achieve a large power scale is by making starting characters so weak they can be killed by an angry housecat. When the power scale is smaller, starting characters can have greater ability, since they don’t need to contrast so heavily against higher level characters.

Of course, it’s possible for a system’s power scale to be too small. Players like their characters to improve and can get cranky when that doesn’t happen. Sometimes, systems have such a small scale that it can be mechanically advantageous to start a new character if the old one suffers some kind of permanent stat penalty or depletes their resources. In Call of Cthulhu’s 7th Edition, characters advance their skills in such miniscule amounts that even a character who’s lived through several sessions will barely be any better than one starting out fresh. Characters also have a limited amount of powerful Luck points, which regenerate very slowly. Once the character runs out of Luck points, it’s better to retire them and make a new one.

Meanwhile, games with large power scales often make characters too powerful to contain. A 20th level D&D character is practically a demigod, able to survive falls from great heights and shrug off hits from trebuchets.* It’s difficult to tell stories about characters with this type of power, because they’re so far removed from human experience as we know it.

Another issue with large power scales is sudden upticks in ability. In Mage: The Ascension, a character with three ranks of Life magic can’t heal others at all. But the moment that character ticks up to four ranks of Life magic, they can heal someone from near-death to completely healthy in seconds.

You may have guessed that, in general, I don’t recommend games with large power scales. This end of the continuum doesn’t have much going for it, except one thing: meaningful advancement over long campaigns. In systems with small power scales, PCs can quickly hit the upper limit of advancement, and after that there’s nothing to look forward to. But if the game’s power scale is sufficiently large, PCs will have room to grow for much longer, which is great if you want to avoid experience points piling up everywhere.   

6. Narrative Control

Um, which button turns on the plot?
Um, which button turns on the plot? Control Room of NS Savannah by Acroterion used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Narrative control is anything players can do to influence the story that doesn’t come directly from their characters’ abilities. Meta currencies are one example. In Fate, spending a fate point to boost a roll is exercising narrative control, because it’s a choice made purely by the player. The character doesn’t know they just spent a fate point.

Some systems offer players no narrative control at all. In most editions of D&D, players are limited entirely to their characters’ abilities and nothing else.* Call of Cthulhu’s older editions are the same way. The next step up are systems like Legend of the Five Rings, which give players a small number of points to spend on boosting rolls.

In games with minimal or no narrative control, players are more passive in the story. While active players can still suggest alterations to the narrative, nothing in the rules supports them. The immediate drawback is that with less ability to influence the story, many players won’t get very invested. They might even feel that their contributions aren’t valued in a system that, by default, places so much emphasis on the game master. The upside is that low narrative control can make it easier to get into character. When players don’t have to worry about thinking as storytellers, they can focus entirely on who their character is. Like high lethality, this is valuable for any game with horror elements, and works well with players who just want to relax and be told a good story.

Systems with high narrative control grant players more meta currency and give them more ways to spend it. In Burning Wheel, players can spend points to completely change the outcome of rolls. In the Serenity roleplaying game, players can spend plot points to add new elements to the world, completely outside the GM’s control. Some systems go further. In Primetime Adventures, players have the same power that the GM has to establish scenes and determine their outcome.

High narrative control gives players some recourse when the dice fail them. This aspect is very popular, as most players don’t enjoy failing rolls. Anything that adds bonuses or allows a reroll will go over well. Complete scene control is more complicated. Some players won’t be interested in exercising it, and others may introduce story elements with no thought to whether or not they fit in the greater narrative. Even so, having the option means that players with something to contribute are more likely to put themselves forward, adding to the collective experience.

There’s no absolute right or wrong place for a system to fall on these continuums.* It depends entirely on what kind of game the system is trying to create. Cosmic horror games will want high lethality, low narrative control, and a narrow power scale. High action anime games will want just the opposite. As a GM, understanding these continuums will help you decide which system is right for your campaign. If you branch out into design, understanding these continuums will be even more critical, because you must adjust each one carefully so that your game does what it’s supposed to do.  

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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