Just For Fun: Tabletop RPGs 2: Effects Versus Causes, OR Why I Hate _Champions_


In my prior RPG discussion I talked about my basic approach to running a game – that the world is the important thing that I'm presenting, and the rules are the tools – often imperfect and clumsy tools – used to help the players (who are stuck in our world) interact with the game world through the characters, who live in the game world.

But what makes a game world a functioning world rather than, say, a bunch of settings, people, and things? My simple answer for this is that it is a place with an underlying logic to it. Our world has the complex underlying logical foundations that we know of as physics, chemistry, biology, and so on; if you understood all of these to their ultimate extent, you could examine any events in the world and understand how they came to happen.

It is, of course, impossible for a human being to create a fictional world nearly as complex as the real world, and in fact any writer of fiction or runner of games will of necessity focus only on those parts of the world that are important to the stories they want to tell; Tolkien, for example, was a language geek extraordinare and an expert on myth and legend, and at their core The Lord of the Rings and its associated works are meant as a showcase for the languages he created and the mythology he developed in association with those languages.

I have my own fictional languages, with Ancient Sauran/Draconic being the most significant, but I am not even vaguely comparable – even in terms of effort, let alone results – with Tolkien in this area. Where I have focused my efforts were on building the foundation of the world – explaining, for my own satisfaction, the ways in which the powers of the fictional worlds I ran worked – why you could do this with magic but not that, or how magic and psionics were different, what made the gods willing or unwilling to act, and so on.

Another core assumption I have when gaming is that the worlds make sense from the point of view of having humans, or beings pretty close to human, living in them (since all the games I've ever played in involve either human characters, or characters so very much like humans in their basic behavior that they might as well be considered human). This means that you really can't change everything about the way the world works, because human beings only survive in the world because their instinctual assumptions are "good enough", and because the world does, at its core, make sense. A primitive human (or other intelligent being) may not understand what the laws of physics are, but they are pretty good at learning the reliability of the behavior of the world around them, and – this is a crucial part – predicting the behavior of the world based on their knowledge.

This is a vital part of a real-feeling world. Events don't happen in isolation; they are produced by causes, which themselves have causes, and people know this instinctively. When they hear an unfamiliar sound, they look for what caused the sound; they know that sounds don't just happen for no reason. When they learn to make, say, chipped-flint spearpoints, they know that there's a logical progression from raw flint through striking the flint in just the right way to a finished spearpoint, and that this process is teachable so that it can be passed on.

Similarly, in an RPG world, if you have magic that's taught to people and used reasonably reliably by various characters, it, too, must be subject to rules, must be reliably teachable, producing pretty much the same results for anyone if they do the same general actions. The real rules may not be known to the characters, of course, just as the real laws of physics weren't known by our stone-age ancestors. For instance, the rituals of magic may turn out to simply be ways of calling the attention of magical beings who in turn actually perform the magical feats that the wizards think they're performing, but that doesn't change the fact that there are rules to the way magic works; just that the true details of the rules (which the magical beings know) are hidden behind the rules that the wizards know… but those rules still work, at least as long as the magical beings abide by them.

Similarly, if you have the power to perform some kind of action – say, to control the weather – this implies the potential to do any of the many things that weather can do. That is, making rain fall on a field or having winds blow or making temperatures drop to freezing are natural consequences of being able to control the weather. You don't have a set of isolated different powers (strong winds, rain summoning, freezing blast, etc.) but a single power that implies many different capabilities.

For this reason, I prefer games that focus on the causes – what method you use to accomplish something – rather than purely on effects (the thing you accomplish). This has been the trigger of a number of sometimes epic discussions/arguments over the years, because I will take into account not just the game mechanical effect description, but the description of what is supposed to be happening.

In D&D terms, I consider the Spell Description to be just as important – perhaps sometimes more important – than the spell effect summary which may be "Medium Range, d6/lvl Fire damage, Will negates". This is because the description tells me what the spell is supposed to be doing, rather than the specific, and usually sole, effect that the game designer came up with. One could think of the spell's effect summary as being what a CRPG (computer/console RPG) programmer would be encoding as the results of using the spell. It only encapsulates the effects/uses of the spell that the game designer contemplated as being relevant.

But often a player may want to use a spell to do something that makes sense, yet isn't in the spell effect list. This is what the spell description itself is useful for. For example, the effects of the Cone of Cold spell are pretty much exclusively limited to the physical damage the spell creates, but as the description says that it creates an area of extreme cold, draining heat from the area, one can envision a number of other possible uses; for example, if you wanted to cross a small body of water, you might freeze the surface and walk across. You might temporarily stop a leak through a dam or wall by freezing the water. You might use it to put out or reduce the size of a fire.

None of these are listed in the effects of the spell, yet they are all obvious applications of the cause – of the ability to generate a field of cold so intense that it causes extreme injury to any and all living creatures caught in it. A GM or player might argue the details of these applications, but all of them are perfectly reasonable effects that might be expected to be possible results of this spell.

D&D itself, of course, isn't really terribly method/cause based; it's more mechanic based with a broad tradition of interpretation to allow the players latitude on what they can "get away with". This was good enough for much of my early gaming years, partly because there weren't too many other popular choices to work with.

I was often encouraged to start using other systems, most notably either GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System, from Steve Jackson Games) or Champions/HERO System (Hero Games). I tried both of these, and I developed a strong dislike for them. It was at first very hard for me to articulate why. I could give examples of specific things that had, for me, failed in these games, but I couldn't quite figure out what was the essential flaw in them, especially Champions.

On the face of it, games like this had a number of features that ought to appeal; you could take a set of points and just build the character you wanted (rather than, as in the original D&D, randomly rolling your stats and hoping you got something good), and as you went through the game, you gained more points you could use as you wished to extend and improve your character; Champions, with an expansive set of special effect modifications and advantages/disadvantages that allowed you to basically engineer any power, ability, or skill to reflect your precise vision, would on first glance have seemed tailor-made for me, especially when I was younger and had many hours of time to devote to working out characters and other elements of my world in painstaking detail.

Yet they left me quite cold, and I finally realized that it had something to do with the way in which various abilities were described. To an extent, it was simply the language that was used – in one of the earlier versions of Champions, for example, if you wanted to make a surface slippery you described it as Telekinesis over an area with specific modifications as to how it affected objects and people in the area.

Now, it's true that while using a description for "slippery surface" that comes out as "telekinesis limited to a surface, makes any attempt to walk, turn, or stand on it harder, flying avoids the effect" sounds ridiculously complicated, at the same time it would seem needlessly petty to complain about the language as such (though I did, strenuously, in earlier years). Yes, no one would normally consider using the word "telekinesis" to describe a slippery surface, but if it produces the right effect, does the description matter?

Years later, once more thinking on one of those never-ending debates and my own experiences, I found myself thinking that line above, and my brain suddenly stopped on one word: effect.

Suddenly it was clear what my real problem with Champions – and to a somewhat lesser extent GURPS and similar games – was. They were primarily effects-based, and when combined with the mechanism of "points" – which was intended as a game-balance mechanism – this meant that consideration of how the world worked was not only not directly supported, but was directly hindered, by the game approach. Any capability you didn't explicitly design into your power was a capability it didn't have, and that you would need to spend points to get if you wanted it. It was a game entirely focused on the effect descriptions, and in which the "flavor text" was almost entirely ignored.

The same principle also directly conflicted with my earlier-described position, that game balance was derived from the players and GM, not the game design as such. To me, and my players, the important measure of proper game "balance" was "spotlight time". While spotlight time – the amount of time a given player is the center of attention – is often associated with raw power, it is far from always the truth, and I have run multiple parties wherein the different player characters covered a huge gamut of power, from barely-better-than-ordinary human to mountain-wrecking, and still had spotlight time for all of them.

The existence of the character points in Champions as both a power-defining mechanic and a tool to represent advancement of the character made it extremely difficult to make use of cause-based logic within the game. With this realization I finally understood why my prior experiences had been unsatisfactory, and why it had been so hard to articulate the problem. It wasn't a problem with the game. It was a problem with the game's assumptions that clashed with mine on a fundamental level.

As time has gone on, I've become less and less wedded to mechanics; my favorite game system these days is really something more like the AMBER diceless RPG, which is more a descriptive framework than anything else. This allows the game to flow with less interruption from mechanical demands, although it does have the requirement that the GM and players know/trust each other a lot more than in a game where there are specific rules for major aspects of the game.

But really, for me, that's necessary anyway. When I'm playing, I don't want to be wondering if I can trust the other players, or the GM, as players – I don't want my attention to be split between the in-game and out-of-game concerns. I don't want my players thinking of me as an adversary they have to out-think, or each other as competitors. I want them to live on Zarathan, or in the Reborn Empire, or wandering through the streets of Morgantown, if only for a while, and their worries and hopes and dreams to be those appropriate for that world, not this one.


What about you, readers? If you game, what do you look for, and why?


  1. My group keeps going back to ICE’s Rolemaster, even though we call it Rolemonster half seriously. The descriptions and the effects are in different places; and the effects can vary a great deal, allowing for some logical, fun and sometimes wildly improbable effects to occur. The downside is the books of charts used, but computerization helps there. If I feel we’re losing ‘frame’ and cannot find the right chart, I’ll roll a couple dice, and come up with some outcome that fits.
    We’re role-players, the immersion is what counts. I’ve seen other groups that are war-gamers, puzzle mavens or power hogs (Monty Hall Inc.), but have never been as good at handling those types.

  2. Ashley R Pollard says:

    A very astute analysis that points out things that I’ve trusted my gut on. So I love Call of Cthulhu, but despite all the shiny chrome of GURPS have never taken to it.

Your comments or questions welcomed!