What roleplaying games (either in-print or out-of-print) explicitly put the focus on the immersion into a character, relegating other activities (such as combat) to lesser status in the system? Of those, how do their mechanics reward roleplaying?
locked by C. Ross♦ Sep 21 '10 at 19:44
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That is a huge, huge question. The sheer number of games out there is beyond listing, but judging by your handle you're looking for games that are at least superficially-similar to D&D and that trims the field down some.
There are two broad categories of roleplaying games based on how they emphasise the roleplaying over roleplay-free mechanics management. The first category is of games that tie a character's mechanical effectiveness to the player's roleplaying. (Yes, written like that it sounds daft. But patience—it can be done in an intuitive and sensible way.)
The second category is of games that make the player choose between the optimal mechanical choice and the optimal roleplaying choice. Games like this emphasise roleplaying by making the easy mechanical choice result in "fallout" for the character that the player just might not really want.
What both types of games accomplish is facing the player with roleplay-related choices that are embedded in the mechanics, so when they are doing something innocuous in a typical game (like mowing down orcs), the mechanics that they use to do so include reminders of their current and past roleplaying choices.
Some examples are in order. I'll give three. The first two are examples of systems that incentivise roleplaying by tying it to mechanical effectiveness. The last is an example of a system that makes characters mechanically effective by default, but makes optimal mechanical choices be roleplaying sub-optimal, forcing the player to think about what roleplaying costs they're willing to endure for success.
This is an example of the first kind of system: roleplay makes the character more mechanically effective.
In The Riddle of Steel, the combat system is quite lethal for even skilled characters—poor choices during a fight can very easily leave a character open to a lethal strike. However, PCs have a set of Passions that the player has chosen to reflect the kind of person the character is, as well as to reflect the goals and drives of the character. (e.g., one Passion might be "Baron DoEvil must die for what he did to my family"; another might be "I will become the most feared mercenary on the Ember Coast".)
When what the character is doing is advancing one or more of their five Passions, they add a substantial modifier for each Passion that is "in play" during that roll. The system is such that, with only two of the five Passions "in play", a player can have an effective bonus of up to (say) 200%; obviously that becomes greater with more Passions firing. The catch is that the bonus from a given Passion starts at zero and increases only when the PC makes a choice because of that Passion, even if the choice might be an objectively bad choice from an "optimal" point of view. Passions then become something that the player must roleplay, or the lethal combat system will quickly end the character.
Hence, to properly powergame the system, the players must roleplay early and often or be left behind (or dead) by the more diligent roleplayers.
In Burning Wheel (a skill-based system), characters often face challenges that are statistically impossible to succeed at with their current skill level, and facing down such "impossible" odds are necessary to advance their skills. In order to have a chance at these challenges, they must use the system's equivalent of Fate points to add to their die pools. However, to earn these Fate points, they must roleplay into their character's Beliefs.
Beliefs are life philosophies (e.g., "A good knight is merciful to his enemies") or character goals (e.g., "I am the true heir; I will have King DoEvil killed and take my rightful throne back") that represent the core of what the character is "about" and why they're interesting enough to be the main characters of the game. Roleplaying the Beliefs and making choices to further those Beliefs (especially when it causes trouble, because trouble is fun) earns Fate points.
Also, by writing down Beliefs, the player clearly shows the GM what sort of "impossible" challenges the player is interested in ("killing the king by stealth? then maybe there should be a castle infiltration!"). The system is such that these big, game-changing actions are within the player's reach, but only if they're willing to pay those Fate points to make the rolls succeed. Which, of course, earns them more Fate points, which encourages them to use them to earn more Fate points by pursuing their Beliefs, etc.
In Apocalypse World, characters are very capable and can pretty much have whatever they want—provided they're willing to "break a few eggs" and deal with the consequences of their choices. Most of this operates on the GM's side of the screen, but it's made clear to the players.
For example, when a player misses a roll, one of the options the GM has is to offer the player what they were trying for anyway, but at an unexpected cost. For example, the player might be trying to convince the leader of a fortified holding to lend the use of their manufacturing facilities so the character can repair their armoured truck. The player misses the roll, and GM responds by offering a hard choice: they can use the MFG facility, but only if they agree to help the hold's leader by driving their truck in a raid on the tribe to the north with which the character has already agreed to an alliance. Does the player turn down the hold leader and try to fix their truck some other way, or do they betray their new friends to the north?
Because the system is structured such that the players are constantly faced with such decisions by the task mechanics and by the GM, and "getting what they want" is often attached to unsavoury consequences, the character is defined incrementally with each dilemma answered. The game is further built to emphasise player choices by making them unfreighted by the GM's plot—the game gives GMs tools to make on-the-fly plotting work really well, so that the players truly have free reign to choose, and so define whether they are upstanding people, opportunistic scum, or some nuanced shade between.
The exact how of many of these system can't be easily captured in anything smaller than the rulebooks themselves, but hopefully this gives a broad idea of how a game that is not unlike D&D might make the roleplaying front-and-centre for the players.
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Based upon what you've phrased the question as, I can recommend several with different approaches to the issue of getting more story and less mechanics...
The mechanics are very simple. By having such simple mechanics as it does, it turns to one of a few modes of play:
1) Very descriptive - players describe all sorts of silliness and wild actions, calling for the GM to devise the saving roll difficulties on the fly, and then to describe the success or failure thereof.
2) Very methodical - the GM keeps lists of prior SR calls, as per #1... but this tends to bog down play, or reward repeated actions, based upon GM personality. Can be fun, but tones down the wild-and-wooly nature T&T is noted for...
3) Mechanistic - The GM and/or players simply go through the very bland mechanical motions, with little or no description of the actions. Very bland, very boring.
Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes Same base engine as T&T, but with skills, and set in the "modern" world (really, it's early 20th C noir...).
A little more on the mechanics, but everything that I said about T&T applies to it.
Another "Rules Light" but in a HUGE volume this time. Lots of it is setting. The rules are very clear. The game uses mechanical "passions", which, if you play them will shape to how you play them and also will shape how you play the character. Sometimes, they dictate how your character acts (you can chose to act against them in some cases, with penalties for so doing). Most of the time, if you take an act that's out of character, you risk it changing.
For each character, many of these traits have mechanical effects. Knights have a chivalry bonus for keeping certain of them at high levels. All characters have a religious bonus, which varies by faith, with 6 of the traits chosen.
There are 14 opposed pairs. So long as neither side is more than 20, the right side is 20- the left side; if one side goes above 20, the other stays a zero.
Passions are unpaired. They can be used to overcome one's traits, or to compel the player to act (if they don't, the risk madness or losing the passion). If, for example, your liege orders you to abandon your Horse, you can: obey, getting a chance to raise Loyalty (Lord); Disobey, losing a point; Roll for it, and if made you obey, but if failed, refuse.
Since the reward system provides benefits from high traits and passions, and players have to act in accord with them to keep them up, and acting against them can lower them.
Notes: I couldn't find the manufacturer's site. I recommend 4th edition, personally. The book of Knights is a short form, and is just enough to run the game. the big 4E PDF is awesomeness, and if you can find 4E in dead tree, it's worthy. 4E is also the only edition with a magic system....
Burning Wheel And its relatives: Burning Empires and Mouse Guard. (same site, really)
With its focus on reward cycles, if the GM keeps to the mechanics, it produces a rather odd, somtimes sort of stilted, but VERY intense character-driven game.
It's not rules light; far from it. The rules do encourage certain types of play, and the dice become VERY dramatic. Part of the system is the players writing their beliefs and goals, so that the GM has a clear idea of where the player wants the character poked and prodded.
Duel of Wits is intense; it's also somewhat stilted, a lot of fun, and if players are descriptive, a very cool means of taking the player's debate and oration skills out of the character's ability to orate and debate, but without making it just a die-roll.
The mechanics control who gets to narrate the results, rather than who succeeds. It's really quite a different approach, but it can be quite interesting. (I'm running B&H right now... 3 sessions in... and it's been EXTREMELY description focused.) The amount of player input into the narrative, however, can be off-putting to some, as the game literally robs the GM of control at least half the time.
An example of how it works:
Either one could be the GM; the only difference is the GM has lots of characters, and the freedom to introduce new ones when appropriate, while players have to introduce new characters by various mechanical means.
This is a fairly rules light game, despite the massive tome of rulebook. Simple systems, with lots of text describing setting and mechanics clearly.
The mechanics are, much like T&T, very simple, very consistent, and (at least like T&T 5.x) very easily digested. LOADS of spells in the samples (and they are JUST that, samples, for getting a feel for the power levels so you can build your own). And they specifically give bonuses for when the GM thinks you've been creative or described well. It's not a strong bonus, but it's constant presence makes the game much better.
Plus, in 3rd ed, it's Troupe Style... everyone takes turns GMing. With everyone a part-time GM, everyone either gets more narrative, or a few get burned out on it. Successful Ars Magica groups, however, describe a lot, specifically because the system is very bland if run in just mechanical "I attack him; rolling stress die plus 4...."
The ones I've listed I know from personal experience have the desired effect of getting players to describe more, and engage more with setting rather than by minis-style or boardgame-style combat. Many others exist that do similar, but I've not played most of them.
Further, Houses of the Blooded, Blood and Honor, Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, and Burning Empires all give players strong inputs to the group dynamic. Ars Magic 3rd ed, due to troupe style, makes everyone in the group the GM part time, so the whole is a shared world.
Another game that tends to result in fairly story-focused play is Legend of the Five Rings... Like its cousin, 7th Sea, it is fairly traditional rules semi-light, pretty much point build, but has classes of a sort, as well (Schools).
Because, like several others listed, it's inherent dice mechanics are very flexible, but the mechanical approach results in very bland play, and the setting is one where social skills are essential (when played as intended, at least), it all encourages, weakly, story focused play.
It does, however, suffer from zillions of special cases (each school's abilities are each a special case rule unto themselves, ranging from one line to almost a page each), and tons of setting fluff, and expensive books.
Amber Diceless Roleplaying
Conflict resolution is entirely done through description and dialogue. Characters have a wide array of powers and abilities, and it's a pretty rich setting which gives them plenty of options as to how they chose to tackle challenges and overcome obstacles. However the actual conflict resolution mechanism is very deterministic.
If you're better than another character at a given activity, you are always better than them (unless you buy it up higher) so all things being equal you will always eventualy win at it. The operative words are 'all things being equal' and 'eventually'. Being successful in Amber means being clever, making sure other factors aren't all equal and using time and pacing to either give yourself more options or deny them to your opponent. However this is all done either in-characetr or in narative descriptive mode. There are no dice or lookup tables, so you're roleplaying practicaly all the time, or at least with a roleplaying-to-"OOC chat" ratio that's higher than any other game I've played.