Another Rumination on Roleplaying Game Design

In an earlier post, I make mention of focusing my tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) design efforts on a mechanical system that uses six-sided dice for ease of reference and access. It’s not the only such piece I’ve put together, though; for example, I drafted one on Rich Burlew’s work for another venue, and it is with Burlew’s comments in mind that I proceed. He makes the comment that mechanics and story should interact meaningfully; they should fit together, rather than one being a vehicle for the other or added onto it. Things should make sense together (despite the fact that the broader world does not, not by half). And since narrative requires milieu, and RPGs are narratives, the mechanics need to integrate into the milieu smoothly.

Shiny.
Image from AnimatedImages.org.

That notion in mind, and knowing that I mean to use six-sided dice, I started looking for convenient “natural” sixes. Two emerged in short order: cardinal directions and numbers. The former might seem to be counter-intuitive; as typically represented, the cardinal directions are but four: north, south, east, and west. But up and down are also to be considered, making six principal directions and offering six points of reference: north, south, east, west, zenith, and nadir. It’s obvious upon being pointed out, really, but it’s not often pointed out that I’m aware of, so it seemed a useful beginning point.

The numbering takes a bit more explanation. But if I follow the tendency of RPGs to have human or humanoid player characters–“humans in funny suits,” to borrow one turn of phrase that Burlew is not alone in using–then a five-fingered hand suggests itself. I can count six numbers on one such hand: zero to five. If I add another hand, I can reach thirty-five without working through knuckles, as some finger-counting systems do. And that sketches out a base-six numbering system; zero to five on one hand, then back to zero with a finger raised on the other hand. The place-value even begins to situate itself.

Those two sixes, aligning neatly with six-sided dice, have their own implications. Some move in directions that will bear exploring elsewhere. Some, though, admit of more local treatment. For example, the idea of a body-based numbering system that invokes place-value, which I am told by those who study and teach math was quite a development, suggests that the narrative milieu is one that values arithmetic. It’s a strange thing to have emerge, particularly for the work of someone whose degrees are all in English, and not one that I had expected to emerge.

That’s part of the allure of stories, whether read or narrated along with others and the help of dice, that things emerge from them that had not been expected. There is often comfort in the familiar, certainly, and there is nothing wrong in itself in stories following predictable patterns. But there is something special about new and un-thought-of things popping up out of even basic background work that thrills as a writer. I can hope that, in time, such things will also prove to be to players’ delight.

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