Deck-Building and RPGs
© 2 Dec 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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How rules can restrict players’ thoughts.


When Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition came out one of the most common criticisms I heard was that it was “‍an MMORPG on paper‍”. In other words, people feared that the editions’ more structured rules for how each player could do what would remove the sense of living in a muddy, fuzzy, real world and move toward a sense of living in a crisp mechanized game engine. After several years of playing 4e almost weekly, I have had no difficulty creating just as vibrant worlds in it as I did in 2e and 3.5e before it, but I have come to understand more about how the rule set changes gameplay.

Deck Building

In 4e, each player has a set of combat-oriented powers. When not fighting, play proceeds about like you’d expect: each player describes what their character is doing and saying; when they try to do something with an uncertain outcome dice are used to approximate the chaos of the real world. But in a fight, the game changes dramatically. Instead of the conversational anything-goes model used elsewhere, play turns into a turn-by-turn board game with a deck of cards (powers) that each player can use. There is still theoretically no limit to what can be done, and I have seen my players do things the rules never dreamed of; but most of the time it is played more like a really involved card game.

Within the world of card games is a class of games based on deck-building. There is some kind of gameplay rules, but they involve having a hand of cards drawn from a custom deck and using those cards in strangely synergistic ways to best the other players. “‍This card lets me play two more white cards, and since this other card is still active those cards are boosted in power by one, but this third card lets me sacrifice that boost to change this other feature…‍” Winning these games is partly about picking the right deck and partly recognizing and taking advantage of the most ingenious combinations available.

Many tabletop RPGs have an element of deck-building game in them. You pick and chose powers and options to make set yourself up for crazy combos and sublime synergies.

Impact on Role Play

It is generally agreed that more deck-building means less role play. This is not a law of nature; some people even role play after a fashion in exclusively deck-building games. But it is a fairly pervasive trend. Why?

There are, I think, four answers to this question.

Cognitive Load

It takes mental effort to play a complicated deck-like game. The more interesting the game becomes (in the sense of having many options and interactions) the more mental effort can be productively spent on it. If I spend my focus thinking about what powers to use then I have less left to think about what my character would do and say. This shows up in movies, too: the intricate special effects scenes are rarely full of engaging dialog.

Implicit Expectation

In an RPG, rules define the world. It’s one thing to say “‍jets of flame shoot from your fingers, shocking all how see it,‍” but if the rules say you can do that as often as you wish and it is about as damaging as punching someone, the rules trump the flavor text and it becomes commonplace and dull.

The more rules there are for a particular scenario, the more this implicit expectation modification matters. When combat (or any other aspect of the game) has a very involved and detailed set of rules, those rules create an image of what combat is. Instead of expecting a fight to be a moment of self-expression and creativity, we come to expect it to be the deck-building game it is.

Reduced Scope

Without rules there is no game. With too many rules there is no scope for imagination. If we make rules for what happens when you swing off flagpoles then swinging off flagpoles moves from role play to clever rule exploitation. If we make rules about dozens of such maneuvers then the rules start to become a finite set of options instead of a framework for doing anything.

Mechanism over Imagination

The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is the loss of need for creativity.

If I say “‍you have a sword and can make a ball of fire in your hand‍” and leave it at that, you are more-or-less required to think about what you can do with a sword and a ball of fire. If, on the other hand, I give you a deck of cards that explain your options and what they do, no imagination is required. You may still be creative, adding your own flavor to the rules I give or using them in ways outside of what I had in mind, but in a sense creativity is despite, rather than because of, the rules.

What is Better?

I have been writing this from the perspective that we want to have a more open, role-play-heavy game; pointing out the weaknesses of a solid rules set. But there is another aspect to the matter. A well-structured rule set can make for a very engaging game. If a battle can be enjoyably played even without linking it to the story that supports it then there are multiple avenues of fun. Poor story? The combat can still entertain. Having trouble in combat? The story can pull you through.

Perhaps because I have a steady board-game group as well, I tend to like to emphasize the non-board-game parts of RPGs. Hence, I often wish I was playing something a bit lighter than D&D 4e. But I have to say, 4e has an interesting and balanced batch of rules, and I never have any trouble weaving my story around and through the times when we are not playing the powers sub-game.

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