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RPG Systems: An Analogy with UI Design

The current game in our weekly role-playing group is Deadlands. The previous game was Shadowrun. Both rule systems lie closer to the “chunky” side of the spectrum. Shadowrun has a particular reputation for its complex and somewhat cumbersome rules, and while Deadlands has less overall complexity, the system has a degree of granularity that interrupts play more often than it enhances narration. I enjoy role-playing games because I like participating in a good story. The rules system provides a set of constraints for the characters, the setting, and the conflicts. They help give the narrative structure, a background against which the story will take place. Too few rules, and telling an interesting and well-developed story becomes difficult. Too many rules tend to get in the way of individual scenes or events. With the right balance, it’s possible for the game master, usually me, to be sufficiently fluent in the rules system to resolve any conflict without extended consultation of one (or more) books. When I describe my ideal role-playing system, I am reminded of user interface design. A good user interface gets out of the user’s way. The user shouldn’t have to think about UI elements like chrome, throbbers, or buttons. Everything should just work, leaving the user to focus on tasks, specific applications, and workflow. Likewise, I like a role-playing system that fades into the background of the story. If the structure is too obtrusive, there is no room left for the narrative.

Since I’m a game master and not a game designer, I can understand that striking this balance is not easy. A rules system can provide an amazing formalization of the setting’s flavor, defining the boundaries of the ordinary and extraordinary for the setting. I sometimes find myself running chunky systems just because the setting is provocative enough to motivate a bit of extra study and note-taking before game.


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