RPG System 12: Permissivity

Um… ok.  It’s been nearly 18 months since I last posted anything about my RPG system.  Yikes.

And that aside, here we dive in again!  Tonight looking at an aspect of game design that includes, in some ways, the area of how broad or narrow skills are in the system.  Going beyond skills, however, it’s a more fundamental and philosophical question about game design:  how permissive is the system?

This came up for me as a new way of looking at things during playing one of my early FATE games, specifically around a magic system.  Within the FATE campaign we were designing, you had a magic stunt that gave you access to magic, which you controlled with a magic skill…. and that was it.  For some members in our group, this was a bit of a headscratcher.  “So… with this skill, you can do anything with magic?  Anything at all?”  We thought about it,  “Yeah, I guess so, so long as it fit the theme of the magic stunt.”  We pondered some more.  “So if I have control over metal, I could attack with it, build a bridge with it, defend myself with it, make an object with it… all with the one skill.  Hmm.”

Coming from a number of games that had very specific “spells” and carefully siloed magical power into precisely controlled effects, this was at first both weird and worrying on a “power” level.   But as we sat with it more, we began to get, hey, this isn’t very different from a lot of the other skills in the game, and, more importantly, it was up to us to say whether we thought the magic could be used in a particular way.  It wasn’t necessarily an omnipotent effect.

Which in turn has, over time, led me to a greater view on the ways of delineating abilities for players.  Restrictive systems say “you can only do X if you have the right skill/ability for things (and here is the long list of skills and abilities).”  Permissive systems say “with this skill you can do ALLLLL these things.  Now choose which ones wouldn’t make sense for your character.”

In much the same way that Mouseguard is intriguing as it removes the constant attention and intention of how to maneuver your character to victory by getting the dice rolling out of the way in front (thus you get to play in interesting failure territory), a permissive system opens the gates into wide swaths of ability and asks you to limit yourself where your story says you should limit yourself.  I touched on this in my (way) earlier post on Skills:  rather than having a separate driving skill for a motorcycle, car, transport truck, boat, construction equipment, racecar, sailboat, barge, etc (and I have seen systems with nearly that level of granularity in the skill list), instead you have one skill:  Ground Vehicles.  Which could even include horseback riding, stagecoach handling, etc.  Your character jumps into a sailboat.  Now you, as a player, can examine your character’s background and choose:  do they get their full skill value here?  Is there a reason they’ve never gone sailing?  Maybe not!  And so you tell the GM, “I’m going to roll untrained this time – my character is way out of their element here.”  Or, “I haven’t done this since I was a young lass!  I’ll only roll with half my skill due to being rusty.”

Of course, you could also go ahead and use the full skill roll if it fits your character (or to “powergame”), and the GM can also suggest (or enforce) a lesser skill role due to what they see as your character’s background and experience.

Certain game systems take this concept to a very high level and remove skills altogether and replace it with very broad descriptive approaches or categories;  FATE Accelerated (Strong, Sneaky, Quick, etc) and the new Trek RPG (Command, Daring, Science, Security, Reason, etc) are two such examples.  There might be the concern for “won’t the character always use their best approach?” and the answer is yes, they might try… but everyone still gets a say if that approach is easy or hard, and the player can always (and would be encouraged to) limit themselves where it makes sense and makes for a good story.

And this isn’t limited to skills.  Tool use, magic or psionic powers, superhero abilities, knowledges, techniques, stunts, they can all be designed with this permissive mode in mind.

Tying this all back to my thoughts for my own system, I like this idea of erring more on the side of permissivity, and encouraging the players to be their own limiters.  I read an account of someone teaching their young child to play D&D once, and upon seeing a treasure chest, the kid said:

“I’m going to go up and check it for traps.  I will find it, try to disarm it, fail, and take 2 points of damage.”

The dad/DM was about to explain how the game was “supposed” to work, but stopped and thought this was incredibly remarkable.  This was the narrative that engaged their child, they liked this kind of idea of adventure.

And so I want to be sure there’s room for that.  Two years ago I may only have been thinking about it in terms of Skills, and to some extent with my 9-square grid of attributes which are intended to include aptitude as well as just “inherent potential”.  But now that I’ve distinguished this idea of permisivity for myself I’m going to design extraordinary and supernatural additions in the same way.  I don’t need to worry about spending time designing an intricate set of subsystems to control things.  Instead, I can lay a broad swath, give it a maximum power, and let the imagination keep things alive and interesting (and limited).

Any thoughts?  Please fire away!

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