Gamebox3000's BFT on the history of social moddling in Table Top Roll Playing Games

Part 0: Arneson & Gygax
To talk about social modeling in Table Top Roll Playing Games (TTRPG) I’m first going to briefly touch on how the genre started out. Original D&D(OD&D) is to wargaming as MOBA’s are to RTS. As a result, the rules of OD&D build a game that is less like the collective campfire storytelling TTRPG’s are known for today and more akin to playing Gauntlet or Magicka. That’s not to say people didn’t do the former anyways but it was done in a space largely beyond the rules. The first thing the book asks the referee to do is build a dungeon and the system assumes that all the players motivations are to kill monsters and get loot.

The rules for social interaction and character motivation in OD&D are sparse and as follows. First, One of the six core attributes is Charisma and is used as a catch all for social interactions. No additional mechanics are tied to Charisma unlike all other stats. Second, all creatures are assigned an alignment of either Law, Chaos, or neutrality. While this thematically ties into character motivation, mechanically this only serves to tie into the settings metaphysics on who certain magics work on. Thirdly, Language is mentioned and smarter characters gain access to more languages. Fourthly, there is a system for hiring retainers as well as a system for temporarily enslaving monsters as well as tables for modeling the loyalty of people hired by the players. Lastly, there are rules for players owning Baronies as a late game goal and within that an excerpt about villagers revolting. I’m comfortable with say OD&D’s ruleset encourages building anti-social characters A.K.A. murderhobos.

Advanced D&D doesn’t actually expand on this that much outside adding a bard class (described as optional and only usable if the referee ok’s it), expanding on the henchmen rules, and semi-recognizing that play exists outside of dungeons.

Some other footnotes of the 70’s and 80’s include Traveller and Call of Cthulhu. Traveller added a robust character backstory creator infamous for killing characters during creation. And Call of Cthulhu ushering in horror to the genre with its sanity modeling mechanics. If I’m being honest my knowledge of this time period is limited and the number of games published immense. The general trend was for games to be detailed simulations of any and all actions the players could take (this philosophy ultimately leading to the G.U.R.P.S. TTRPG) with the explicit exception of social interaction, which were assumed to be handled outside of the game rules by the Game Master (GM), and character motivation which was presupposed by the game setting. The latter will be challenged in part 1 of this series with the former being challenged in part 2.

Sorry if this primers a bit lacking in ways to implement social interaction in games most of that meat comes in part 2, I'll post part 1 latter this week after I reread the rule of the Storyteller systems. Also critique on writing is appreciated.

tl;dr: D&D mechanically encourage murderhobos.
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Part 1: I vant to suck your bluud
Vampire: The Masquerade (VtM) is probably the second most influential table top RPG outdone only by D&D itself. While many of its innovations can be found in earlier systems VtM’s contributions come from popularizing and bringing these mechanics under a cohesive design philosophy. Built off the aptly named Storyteller system VtM is heavily character driven in opposition to the environment driven gameplay of its predecessors. While this focus on character is true for all the Storyteller games, VtM is particularly interested in the player characters angst and inner conflict.

Before I dive into how VtM achieves its design goals through its mechanics I want to explain why the mechanics of TTRPGs matter. TTRPGs have the enormous benefit of being able to rely on its players in order to fill in parts the game not written down. It’s very possible to sit around and make these collective stories with little to no rules at all. While the rules in video game determine what the player can do the rules in TT games exist to constrain and organize play. However just as importantly the mechanics of TTRPGs serve to emphasize and encourage certain mindsets and modes of play. Going forward the primary questions we will be asking is “What does this mechanic emphasize and why?”

The Humanity stat is what defines Vampire games even amongst their contemporaries. The humanity stat ranges from 0-10 zero being equivalent to player death, ten being saintly, and seven being an average human. Humanity is designed to be far easier to lose than it is to gain with higher levels being progressively easier to lose from smaller moral slights. The players ability to empathize and interact with humans is directly tied to their humanity. However, those with low humanity can perform violent or morally dubious acts without consequences, even tapping into powerful blood frenzy’s at lower levels. Many TTRPGs are power fantasies and VtM creates a mechanical consequence for indulging in its own power fantasy. What makes the humanity stat shine is the addition of the blood pool. A resource both used for using powers and keeping the player alive. A contradiction in motives appears in that refilling the blood pool is much easier if the player is willing to manipulate, steal, and kill for blood. These two stats are further reinforced with several smaller subsystems like willpower points and virtues stats. VtM describes itself as a game of personal horror and together these systems make that a reality for the players, forcing them to wrestle with their own nature.

Before getting into social mechanics lets look at some of the other ways VtM encodes player characterization and motivation. Most prominently is which clan the player chooses to join. Clans are akin to classes in D&D but instead of describing the characters roll within an adventuring party it describes the players stereotype within the settings culture. In conjunction players can choose a nature – such as rebel, traditionalist, or caregiver – and when players roll play in a way reflective of their nature they gain rewards. This sort of explicit rewards for good roll play would eventually become ubiquitous amongst TTRPGs even finding its way into the 5th addition of D&D. Additionally, most of the rule book give guidelines and tips on how to make interesting characters with backstories that fit the games world and themes. This is in stark contrast to VtM’s predecessors who emphasized the players building the setting. VtM would eventually help create a trend of TTRPGs that are setting hyper specific.

Looking at an RPGs stat system says a lot about what sorts of actions the game prioritizes. In contrast with D&D dedicating 1 out of 6 of its stats to social interaction VtM dedicates 3 out of 9. VtM splits its 9 stats into three categories: physical, social, and mental. Each contains 3 attributes the social attributes being split into Charisma, Manipulation, and Appearance. Charisma is used for longer encounters/longtime relationships as well as public perception. Manipulation is used for running cons, giving speeches, or convincing a stranger. Appearance is used for seduction and first impressions. Additionally, the game features 30 abilities that are more specialized in their uses. Depending on how you count somewhere between 10-13 of these abilities are used in social encounters. This level of granularity is necessary in the character focused gameplay of VtM as they allow creativity in both the design of social encounters as well as allowing for more avenues of creative problem solving.

Backgrounds are a set of stats that not all characters necessarily have access to. They track what might be considered social capital. Each point had in these stats denotes some sort of NPC that exists to have a certain kind of relation with the player. Rolls in these stats can be used to make contact and gain benefits from these relations. This sort of system will see expansion in The Burning Wheel which I will cover in part 2. Examples of Background stats include allies, Fame, Influence, contacts, Mentors, and Herds.

Finally, the game also has a series of sub systems to be used in specific situations instead of the generic conflict resolution system. These are largely optional and sparse in design but worth looking at. This include things like a seduction system in where the player will make a series of rolls in order as so: Opening line->Witty exchange-> Conversation->Intimacies. Fast Talk describes a system where failure results in the target becoming immune to subsequent attempts. Several other systems include tables that describe the outcome of the roll, and most bring in stats that would otherwise not be rolled on if using the standard system.

There’s much more that can be said about VtM and despite how much I would like to say most of it exceeds the scope of this project. Next time I do a deep dive into The Burning Wheel. After that I'll either my thoughts on how this all relates to video games or a dive into some other systems depending on peoples interest.

tl;dr: Deliberately encoding things like character motivation into your game rules can be used to emphasize certain modes of play.