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Why "The Math" Should Not Be the Primary Focus of RPG Design

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Some people tell me that "The Math" is broken in games I like, play, or design. The thing is, I don't consider "The Math" to be the be all and end all of good game design. "The Math" matters to some extent, but there's so much more a great game depends on. "The Math" for a game might be as close to "perfect" as one can get and still not produce a game that suits my needs or the needs of those who play in my campaigns. Great "Math" does not mean the game is fun for everyone or mean that it will suit the play style and specific needs of any given group. A game with "math" most people who care about such things consider horribly broken might be much more fun for a given group.

Avoiding "Math" so broken that the game does not work as intended (e.g. "skill challenges" in D&D 4e as originally released) is important in any game, but beyond that I think "The Math" is less important to creating a fun game than many of its proponents believe. Too much focus on getting "The Math" right often results in game that work perfectly in a spreadsheet and might even feel very elegant but that aren't as much fun to actually play for many people as games with bad "Math" because the design focus was on other areas of the game. "Fun to Play" for a broad range of players is more important that "Great Math" in my book. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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David said...
February 2, 2012 at 11:17 AM  

Isn't there something called Trailblazer or similar that rips 3.x down to the raw math, corrects the errors in that math, and basically reboots the game? I know I've seen that somewhere. It received some good reviews, but for the life of me I didn't get the point. I'm no professional designer, but when I house rule, it is usually about what looks/feels right. Tweak when necessary, then back to the game.

Matthew said...
February 2, 2012 at 12:20 PM  

Can you provide any examples where "The Math" is bad but the game feels right? I'm having a hard time contextualizing this because the only times i dive into the math behind a game it's because something feels off. Usually i can link that to the math.

It seems to me that, almost by definition, a game that feels right must have the right math. Math either returns the required results or it does not. If the game feels right then the right results are being returned.

If one person thinks the game feels bad and can trace that to the math, but another thinks the game feels right then that's really more about managing expectations.

Yong Kyosunim said...
February 2, 2012 at 3:16 PM  

@David. Yes, you're correct. I own Trailblazer and it's an excellent supplement if you want to rebuild 3.x to have a better math. They also have interesting variant rules.

Randall said...
February 2, 2012 at 10:29 PM  

@Matthew: I never have cared about "The Math" much, but according to many 4e advocates, "The Math" being right is one of 4e's best things and "The Math" was badly broken in previous -- especially TSR -- editions which is why they aren't fun to play. Of course, I find TSR editions more fun to play than 3e and far more fun to play than 4e.

What prompted my post was the stated in many posts worry of my 4e fans that the design criteria for 5e will not put "The Math" in the same high design priority that it had in 4e. My contention is that "The Math" working right should not be a higher priority than the game feeling much more like traditional (pre-4e) D&D and being fun to play for a wide variety of play styles (not just the combat balance is all important style).

I simply think that putting too much focus on getting "The Math" perfect is as bad as putting too much focus on mechanical balance, cool features, or any other single area of game design.

Philo Pharynx said...
February 3, 2012 at 1:14 PM  

The Math should not be the primary focus of the game, but bad Math can reduce the fun of the game. I've played some games where a good group overcame annoying mechanics, but it would have been better if it had worked. I don't think everything needs to balance perfectly, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention to balance. If the Math makes one player feel like a spear-carrier to another, then there's a problem.

If it's a few people saying this, then it might just be that they like a different style than you (especially if they are 4e/Gurps/etc. type people). On the other hand, it might be a more widespread group. Then the thing to do is to take a step back, bite back the natural pride we all have in our creations and take a look at what we've done.
Does the math you have fulfill the type of game you want to play (or does the text adequately explain the type of game that the math supports)?
How much does the game assume the GM is handling? If so, what sort of guidelines does it give the GM? As the designer, you know the game and can make up good rulings on the fly. Somebody who is new to the game might be having trouble with that. This doesn't mean you have to have a rule for everything, but you need enough examples to give them a place to start. Ask your playtester GM's what they had to think about, what they weren't confortable about.
Ask the players where they felt frustrated that their character wasn't meeting up to their expectations. Is it harder to make material to make certain character types relevant? Are certain people getting more "moments of Awesome" than others?

Daniel said...
February 8, 2012 at 3:10 AM  

Well here's the other part you really seem to be missing Randall: "The Math" was not at all perfect in 4e, it was actually rather shitty in a lot of places. "The Math Just Works" was a marketing slogan for 4e and so people ate it up. The bad math of 4e is a lot of what made it not a very fun game to play (among other things).

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