Let’s kick things off with a bang and dive right into the flawed origin of RPGs. The inspiration for this piece comes from Mu’s Unbelievably Long and Disjointed Ramblings About RPG Design and the concept he calls “The Grandfather Clause of Stupidity.”
One of the flaws underpinning many RPG systems is the underlying assumptions that motivate them. To be precise, RPGs as we know them today came from the original Dungeons & Dragons, which itself came from Chainmail. Chainmail was not an RPG; it was a miniatures wargame. As such, many of the operative underpinnings that form the basis for D&D, which in turn formed the body of expectations for its offspring, come not from an ideal solution for role-playing, but for war-gaming.
The quickest way to demonstrate this is to open the index of the D&D Player’s Handbook. Do you see an entire chapter devoted to combat? I do. By making combat the focus of an RPG system, the designers of D&D — and this applies to any edition — have put forward a system the intent of which is to place a fantasy world dressing around a miniatures combat game. If that’s the goal, that’s great. However, if we step back and look at the broad genre that is role-playing games, we see a great deal of dressed-up, miniatures combat games.
I’m not knocking miniatures combat games, nor am I knocking the idea of combat in an RPG. I get into a good combat encounter as much as the next person. I think it’s worth raising the awareness of this “genetic trait” of RPGs, though. A quote I’ve seen attributed to John Wick (7th Sea, Legend of the Five Rings, Orkworld) says, “All RPGs have a grand total of two mechanics: swinging a sword and picking a lock.” While I doubt the veracity of this attribution (since I’ve seen it in only one location), I think it’s a succinct way of encapsulating the flawed box in which RPG design thinking often takes place.
I define RPGs by a break-down of terms: a game in which one role-plays. One can read many possible interpretations into that. For my money, it’s a game in which the participants derive enjoyment from the portrayal of a role — a character. Absent from that definition is any mention of rolling dice, swinging swords, killing monsters, and many of the other conventions that are common in RPGs. I’m not suggesting that I don’t enjoy such things, but they are not what the reason for which I’ve come to your table.
So far, the only system I’ve encountered played that gets away from the idea of RPG-as-wargame is White Wolf’s Storytelling system. While it does have mechanics for handling combat — for which I do think RPG systems need to account in some fashion — there’s little room to argue where the focus lies: story, mood, and character. Storytelling is by no means a flawless system. An unprepared GM could find himself dealing with a party of munchkin characters if he’s not careful. Such characters, though, defeat the purpose of Storytelling and so one might wonder if such a group would be better off playing D&D.
EDIT: While I never stated it in the above, one of the unspoken assumptions in the preceding paragraph is that the core World of Darkness book did not have its own combat chapter. Imagine my chagrin when I realized it did, in fact, have one. Plain-as-day. So, I apologize for any presumption that I may have appeared to make in that regard. (Yes, I can be wrong. When I am, I will admit as much. This minor revelation does not alter in any significant way the above post, though.)