Asymmetry in RPGs

Along with being an RPG player, GM, and designer, I am a huge board game nerd. Some of my favorite board games share a common theme: asymmetrical play between the players. Take the game Root for example. In Root, you play as one of many forest dwelling factions, all vying for control. Or, not really control, but victory points at least. Either way, what makes Root so interesting is that each faction plays wildly differently from one another. While the Marquise player is essentially playing a Euro board game by themselves, the Eyrie player is playing an aggressive “dudes on a map” game. At the end of the day, they all want precious victory points, but how they get those points is so varied, it feels like there are four different board games being played all at once and against each other.

So what does asymmetry look like in RPGs? You could make the argument that any system that uses classes has asymmetry in it, that each player is playing the game differently based on the abilities of their class. When I asked on reddit what people thought about asymmetry in RPGs, I was surprised to see the top answer was that D&D is an example of an asymmetrical class system. While it’s true that a wizard memorizes spells, and a fighter tracks their action surges, at the end of the day they both roll a d20 and add a modifier, right? To me, that doesn’t satisfy the definition of an asymmetrical class system for an RPG. Another interesting response I get is that everyone should have the same resolution mechanic at the end of the day, because it keeps things simpler. It certainly does streamline things, but if Root can do it, why can’t RPGs?

Over my next two blog posts I’m going to explore how we can emphasize asymmetry in our RPG designs in two ways. First, asymmetry in resolution systems within the game, primarily focused on having different mechanics for non-combat and combat. Using D&D, a history check and a roll to swing my longsword are the same, a d20 plus a modifier. What if those two very different parts of roleplaying were addressed mechanically in very different ways? The second post will be about asymmetry in classes, with the hope that it is possible to create an RPG experience like Root, where each class feels like they are playing an entirely different game, but all with the same goal. Both of these ideas will be explored with two projects I am currently working on, to set down an example.

I hope you’ll join me on this asymmetrical journey! What are some of your favorite examples of asymmetry in RPGs or board games?

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