Mar 21, 2011

RPG Mechanics Taxonomy: Probability Scales

It's taking me longer than I wanted to finish some analyses of Dream Pod 9's Silhouette system, so part 2 will be delayed while I tell you a bit about role-playing game mechanics taxonomy.

Humans love to find patterns and name things.  Our brains do it automatically, giving us ways to predict the outcomes of novel situations by comparing features to those of situations we have been in in the past, though not always accurately, often resulting in bad stereotypes and superstitious beliefs.  When we are mindful, we can harness this wonderful ability to organize information to facilitate analyses, searches, and predictions.  We give names to groups of items that share patterns of features.

Dr. Wayne Saunders of the Museum of Man developed a taxonomy of games that identifies 20 types of game based on how they are played, and three categories of games based on victory criteria.  He classifies role-playing games as "production" games because the goal is to create something rather than to win.  Within RPGs, I further break down games into categories based on patterns in their mechanics.

 In this post, I am going to focus on scales of probabilities that characters succeed at tasks they attempt as they relate to character creation or experience point costs.  There are other mechanics that I will address in later posts.  There are two main categories of probability scale features:  the method by which the scales are determined, and the patterns of increases in probabilities of success as they depend on point costs.  I will abbreviate these to Method and RoI (Return on Investment).

There are four Methods:
  • Utility: The point costs of probabilities of success at tasks are intended to reflect how useful the tasks are in the game.  Tasks that occur frequently in the game would generally cost more points for a given success probability than for less common tasks.  In a typical RPG, Karate comes up a whole lot more often than Basketball, and would cost more points to be good at even though training in those skills may take similar effort in real life.
  • Realism: The point costs of probabilities of success at tasks are intended to reflect how much effort it would take in the realm world to achieve such a success probability. Being an expert historian of spoons would cost the same points as being an expert computer programmer, even though one is clearly more useful (I won't tell you which one). 
  • Constancy: The point costs of probabilities of success at tasks are all the same, regardless of task utility in-game or the effort required to learn how to accomplish the tasks in real life.  
  • Arbitrary: The game creators just assigned costs to success probabilities without strictly or clearly using one of the other three methods.
There are four Returns on Investment:
  • Increasing: The increase in probability of success increases with additional point expenditures.
  • Decreasing: The increase in probability of success decreases with additional point expenditures.
  • Equal: The increase in probability of success is the same for every point expenditure. 
  • Inconsistent: The increase in probability of success is sometimes higher or lower or equal for successive point expenditures.
We may be able to place RPGs on a table based on their Methods and RoIs.
How would you classify your favorite system?

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