RPG mathematics ≠ RPG engineering.
Some of the first posts I wrote in this blog had to do with the mathematics and rule libraries of tabletop role-playing games. Recently, the GM of a game I’m in asked me for some advise about designing combat for our party. At roughly the same time I was trying to design a way for the character I run to switch from being a master of destructive chaos magic to being a more controlled, defensive sort of character and that meant stretching the rules, even designing my own, without breaking the balance of a game where everyone else was still by-the-book.
I expected no surprises in either of these processes; I know the mathematics well, I am very familiar with the existing library of the game we are currently playing, I expected it to be just so much algebra to wrap around the storyline core in question. But, as I first heard from Michael D. Jones at BYU, “the difference between theory and practice is larger in practice than it is in theory.”
My GM’s question was basically “how can I predict how a fight will feel to the players?” I was able to tell him fairly easily how to compute if the PCs would win or lose, but feel… feel is the only thing that matters, really, since RPGs are storytelling more than they are games, but it’s hard to define. If it takes just a few rounds to slay the dragon but in that time the dragon also incapacitates half the party, how does that feel? Was it harder or easier than a fight that drags on for hours, each side slowly eating away at the other’s defenses? How do you engineer fights to help someplace feel mysterious and dangerous, but not frightening? These are no easy questions.
My quest to find get my PC to have a sorcerer-flavor and knight-gameplay has also been more involved than I expected. The math, again, was easy, or so I thought; but it turns out that whacking someone’s mind at close range doesn’t play the same as whacking their body at close range. Close-range monsters are engineered with being hit with swords in mind; other kinds of attacks don’t quite work. This was, and still remains, something of a surprise to me. It was like taking a 3/4 inch nut and finding it doesn’t fit a 19mm bolt. Sure, I knew I was messing with things not designed to go together, but I thought I knew the math well enough to fudge it.
All of this brought to mind a discussion I had years ago about the (lack of) value of the boundary lines between academic fields. As a young idealist I thought the whole world would be a nicer place if everyone would all just share their ideas instead of re-deriving them with different vocabulary in each department. As time goes on I become less confident on that front, and I become convinced that mathematicians, scientists, and engineers are wisely distinct.
Fortunately, with a good group of players (and we have a good group, one of my best) you can have fun despite almost arbitrarily-bad rules. A good story can be told by engaged people around almost any obstacles. Thus, I ended up with a moral lesson and a fun evening to boot.