Abstract Resources in RPGs, part I

Axe to GrindOne of the key factors with which many rpg players, gamemasters, and designers struggle is the degree of abstraction (DoA…I like that). How much abstraction, what type of abstraction, and where in the game it is.

One common goal that is mentioned by gamers is the concept of Realism. It should be noted that Realism is a loaded term in gaming that means many different things to different people. In fact, most people don’t want Realism at all. In a realistic world, the dragon eats the knight in shining armor…..just about every time and regardless of what the knight does. Most players don’t want that result.

What they do want is internal consistency. They want it to feel right. They way their abstractions in comfortable places and of the types they find agreeable. What they want is verisimilitude. I’ll talk more about that later, but for now…Let’s look at some abstractions.

For example, in D&D, armor makes a character harder to hit…at least superficially. And for this reason, many people look at the D&D implementation of Armor as “unrealistic”. When we look deeper at the decidedly abstract combat system used by D&D, we can see that Armor increases survival or, put another way, makes it more difficult to score a meaningful hit on a character. It (a better Armor Class, AC) is a non ablative barrier to character death. When we express it like that, many players feel a little bit better about it.

The same applies for hitpoints. A 5th-level D&D character has approximately 5 times the number of hitpoints as a 1st-level character of the same class. If hitpoints are viewed as discrete physical damage that a character can withstand, this would seem to imply that our 5th-level character can actually withstand 5x the physical damage that our 1st-level character can. Understandably, this has bothered many people over the years. However, this is not the intent of hitpoints. They are intended as an abstract concept that embodies character survivability. It is an ablative resource barrier to character death. When we express it like that, many players feel a little bit better about it.

Now individual players/GM’s/etc. may not like these particular abstractions any better, but they may better understand the nature of the abstractions. And that is key.

I have been exploring these concepts for some time now. I’ve come the full gambit from wanting the utmost of Realism or, rather thinking I did (hey, it was the early 80’s and I was 10!) to reluctantly accepting certain abstractions in play as a necessity, to embracing abstractions in play and seeking for “new” places to put them in my gaming.

In my next post on this topic, we’ll look at how ablative/non-ablative resources affect play.


7 thoughts on “Abstract Resources in RPGs, part I

  1. Rules as physics are vastly overrated, IMO. What matters is that more capable characters succeed more often (and less capable less often) and that the level of difference between the characters is suitable to the genre and style of play.

  2. That is exactly what I’m talking about. I might propose that one can let the system/rules to generate the end result (success or failure that matches the needs of the genre/style-of-play/etc.) Leave the actual physics of how we get there to the imagination. Surrender to the abstraction. Now there are many flavors of abstraction. Some are more palatable than others….and different players have differing preferences.

    Great game design (at both the I am designing a game for people to play AND I am setting up a game for my friends and I levels) is dependent on harvesting “appropriate abstractions” and in the “correct amounts”.


  3. Well I think that saying something is an abstration isn’t very useful. We know that it is an abstraction.
    The question in my mind, when it comes to game mechanics, is what kind of behavior am I modeling, what kind of behavior does it encourage in the players, and how elegant is the solution.
    I have problems with AC and hit points for all of these reasons. The problem is that you have two systems doing the same thing and neither of them well. They are both supposed to reflect if you got hit or not and the both do so badly. You end up having to make all sorts of exceptions for things and they dont model reality AT ALL. That is not just an abstraction, that is a failure in the system to do what it is supposed to.
    What is worse is that there are several systems that model this better out there, specifically Defense based systems and armor as damage resistance. This means that you have the question of if you hit based on one thing – Defense. And you have damage effects reduced by armor but at a finite level.
    Saying it is an abstration is no excuse for a bad system.

  4. Genius Game Creator

    Hit points? Armor Class? Self Healing? Abstractions? Of course, but the problem is that you cannot create a realistic role playing system, or else most all of your PCs would be “realistically” dead from sword and dagger wounds in the first round. For example, a broken forearm created from a sword wound could realistically take 2-3+ months to fully heal before the arm was usable again. Abstraction is without a doubt necessary for the creation of any RPG system. Don’t think so? Create a realistic RPG, test it, and see how fast, deadly, and “un-fun” it really is. The failure of D&D is the lack of explanation in abstraction. If you use abstraction you must explain it, or market it. If it represents some sort of buffer or holds multiple concepts, then what makes up that buffer or those concepts? If you give me a good definition of what the abstraction really means in game terms, then I may believe it and never question it again.

    My fear for D&D 4th, is that there have been so many abstractions to patch the failings of an aging rule system, that some new players and most veteran players won’t be able to accept the hacked-to-death rule system anymore.

  5. GGC; The speed at which player characters die in combat is only relevant if combat is a common occurence in the game. Games with little to no combat work just fine.

    Also, realism does not imply a horde of detailed rules. Freeform and Wushu are among the most realistic games I have discovered.

  6. Genius Game Creator

    Re Tommi: Wushu realistic? You must be joking? Just to make sure readers of this article are not confused by your comments, let’s first state that Wushu is by far NOT a realistic RPG. In fact, Daniel Bayn, the creator of Wushu created the game for its anti-realistic, silly kung fu movie based cinematics. Daniel Bayn didn’t create anything new. Narrative, cinematic-based RPGs have been around since the mid 90’s. I don’t think the comments in reference to this article are about trying to create a totally realistic RPG, they are about just tweaking the mechanics with a little more sense, or at the very least providing a better explanation of a specific abstraction and creating consistent mechanics in the game at hand.

    In summary, the author of any RPG must decide for him or herself to what degree that abstraction will enter into the game. Making an RPG realistic is just, well, unrealistic as characters will simply die too quickly. The key to creating a great combat-included RPG is explaining the abstractions so that they make sense. They rules should be acceptable by the players and also include a balanced rule set so that characters don’t enter Round 1 of Combat 1 and unheroically die from a small dagger to the stomach.

  7. GGC: I am very serious. Wushu has two primary rules-bits: First, everyone can narrate and veto. Second is a pcing mechanism. The rules don’t address the content of the narration at all. So, given a group of people who actually enjoy realism and want to play a realistic game, they can do so with Wushu and actually be supported: If someone says something unrealistic, they can veto it. And the rules, as long as the pacing is understood by everyone, will never give an unrealistic result.

    Personally, I usually prefer combats to be very deadly. That way, entering one is always risking the character’s life and players will be hesitant of doing so; when they do, it tells a lot about what is at stake.

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