RPGs by Threes

If you’re familiar with video games, you’re probably familiar with Shigeru Miyamoto, or at least his work. He’s the designer and producer behind some of Nintendo’s classic titles and game lines, including Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. His design foundation consists of three steps that allow the player to learn and use game mechanics:

  1. Introduce the feature in a limited environment
  2. Expand the environment in which the player can use the feature, with numerous opportunities to expand competency with the feature.
  3. Require the player to use the feature as a benchmark to progress to the next challenge.

So, for example:

  1. Press a button to jump
  2. Introduce an enemy or environmental hazard that must be jumped; repeat
  3. “Boss fight” or other checkpoint that requires adept use of the feature to overcome.

(If you’re familiar with self-determination theory or the PENS model of player engagement, you’ll immediately recognize the elements of mastery and autonomy as motivating components. And if you’re familiar with Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun, you’ll notice the strong element of learning and applying what’s learned driving all three of those.)

This “rule of three” works very well for video games, in which feature progression and increasing difficulty of skill challenges forms the crux of the experience. These apply to good RPG systems design, as well.

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Consider the way many spell systems or other special effects scale with level in level-based systems like D&D/ Pathfinder, or with the increase in the effect itself in systems like Vampire’s Disciplines. A level-one spell or Discipline creates a very finite effect, and one of very localized scope. Combat spells can be used to clobber small foes, for example, and themed Disciplines can create a narratively defined effect, like controlling shadows. Progression increases key elements of the feature’s characteristics: a spell’s area or range, an attack’s damage, a new application of the themed element. In this way, character progression becomes just that: a progressive increase in competency or potential rather than just a hodgepodge of new powers dumped onto the character.

Using these in the context of the players’ story creates the campaign, chronicle, or what have you. One-two-three forms a loop, and repeating that loop a number of times contitutes a session, episode, chapter, adventure, or whatever parlance you choose to use.

Unlike many video games, these feature progressions in RPG systems design are often cooperative, and individual challenges aren’t overcome by single players, but rather by the group collectively applying its abilities. A cleric heals while fighters fight and wizards summon or direct damage, for example, or the Toreador undermines an enemy’s status while the Gangrel and Brujah lie in wait outside Elysium to stomp the rival into respecting the coterie. (Certainly, many video games do this, but it’s the raison d’être of tabletop RPGs.)

Importantly, these progressions are the methods by which players solve problems. If a game is a series of problems for which the players employ their choice of solutions, each feature is then an atomic tool for finding those solutions. Sometimes a problem needs only a single tool to solve and sometimes an array of features is necessary to overcome the challenge, but the key is in making sure the player:

  1. Has one or more themed inputs by which he can affect the environment
  2. Knows how to use the inputs, in terms of game mechanics, and
  3. Can use the inputs in creative ways to address the challenges posed by the game