Middle Earth is the undisputed birthplace of fantasy roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons borrows heavily from that famous fictional world. However, the design of D&D and it’s brethren also picked up another feature from the Lord of the Rings. Let’s call it “Tolkien Syndrome.”
J.R.R. Tolkien created a rich fantasy environment with a deep history. However, Tolkien was primarily interested in writing a fictional history of Middle Earth instead of a story about its inhabitants. Thus, his emphasis was primarily on the events and setting. The characters do not drive the story so much as they are driven by it. You can actually see a reflection of this mindset in Tolkien’s art. There are plenty of landscapes, designs, and maps. However, there are no people. The closest he came was a pair of trolls in an illustration for the Hobbit.
You could say that Tolkien Syndrome is a necessary component of traditional roleplaying games. Since they are an outgrowth of war games, there is a heavy emphasis on concrete elements such as armor and weapons. You create a map, villains, combat strategy and a basic plot. Then you drop in your heroes and stir.
That’s right. The heroes come in last. It doesn’t matter who they are. They could be anyone. So, what can game design do to make the player characters more interesting than their surroundings?
Flaws are Fun
Most players prefer to have their heroes without any flaws or relationships that could get in the way of an adventure. In other words… boring. The mindset is understandable, since traditional roleplaying games puts the gamemaster in an adversarial role, and you don’t want to give the GM anything that he can use against you.
In fiction, flawless heroes evoke boredom. In The Lord of the Rings books, Aragorn is sure of his destiny to become the next king. His romantic relationship with Arwen is an afterthought. He was much more interesting earlier in the story as the “looks foul but feels fair” Strider. The movie version has doubts about his destiny. He’s not sure he wants the crown, and fears he may fall to the influence of the One Ring as his ancestor Isildur did. The relationship with Arwen comes into the foreground of his story. He becomes fascinating as a result of these changes.
There are games like the Hero System and GURPS that allow you to build flaws into your characters, but the only thing that makes them attractive is that they provide bonuses during their creation. After that, they become a tactical disadvantage that the players would prefer the GM forget about.
Instead, Flaws should reward the player characters for bringing them into the story. For example, the Fate system gives the players Fate Points for whenever an Aspect causes a problem for a character. Does your Dwarven character absolutely hate orcs with a passion? Let him jump out of hiding before your party is able to spring a trap on a war band of them, and that character gets a reward for doing so.
Tolkien loved maps. Traditional roleplaying games also rely heavily on maps to determine where things are and how long it would take to travel from point A to point B. While there is nothing wrong with maps in themselves, it can lead to over reliance on where things are.
Early roleplaying games usually took place in a deep dark dungeon filled with monsters and treasure. A room would have a monster or trap in it, you then defeated the obstacle and took the treasure it was guarding. It was simple and easy to keep track of things. However, as the hobby expanded into other environments, this approach continued. In extreme cases, entire cities have been meticulously mapped complete with the statistics of the building’s inhabitants. Very often, the gamemaster may want the players to head in a certain direction and the players decide to go somewhere else. This often leads to the GM railroading the characters. Tolkien Syndrome takes hold and the focus of the game is no longer on the heroes, but their environment instead.
The design can provide a solution by moving away from a location-based adventure structure and establishing an event-based structure. Outline the adventure as though it is a story made for the characters. Put the events in the order that you think would make the best story. Then prepare to change that story around as it happens. Are the players supposed to get an important clue from a non-player character at a local inn, but they avoid the place? Move the encounter to where the players have decided to go, or give the important bit of information to another character.
Share the Power
You spend weeks or months to invent a pristine little jewel of a world. It is the perfect world you have always dreamed about, filled with interesting characters, monsters, and ancient artifacts with histories going back thousands of years.
Then you introduce your players to the world. They immediately try to bring down the Evil Baron, but he is your favorite villain. You want him to be a thorn in their sides for years to come. So you protect him from the players. No matter how well they plan or hard they fight, you will not allow him removed from the story.
Like any creator, a gamemaster has is a strong desire to protect his babies. It’s only natural, since so much work has gone into them. However, this can interfere with a good story and take the focus away from the player’s characters.
In this case, game design can help by providing at least some of the Gamemaster’s power to the players. This means giving up control of the story to others. However, it can also yield greater rewards. Instead of placing the entire burden of the story on the gamemaster and the players simply reacting to what happens, the burden becomes shared. It stops being My Story and becomes Our Story. This helps the players become emotionally invested in the world since they are helping to build it as the story progresses.
A prime example of sharing the power is the game Universalis. In it, there is no designated Gamemaster. All the players have equal GM powers, and build the world and story by spending coins during play. The number of coins you have determines how much power you have at any time during the game and how clever a storyteller you are could greatly affect how many dice you are able to roll.
It would be possible to build a system by which there is a gamemaster, and the players could be given points that would allow them to act as co-creators. Do the characters have a contact in the town they are traveling to? One of them could spend a point to create an old friend there that would be happy to put the party up for a night or two. It gives the character some history and a place in this world, as well as someplace to crash for the night.
That Evil Baron that you’ve been having to protect while using traditional roleplaying methods? In a traditional RPG, he is merely another target to kill. By sharing the power, players could do something like designate him as an Arch Enemy. They get rewards every time he comes into a story. They then don’t want him to die, since the flow of rewards stops. If they manage to kill him, then they would need to create a new Arch Enemy.
The players will do greater things with the greater power. They will have their opportunity to step into a story that is about them, and be awesome.