At the center of every game is a core activity. In a First Person Shooter video game it is the shooting, in a game like Devil May Cry it is the hacking and slashing, and in puzzle games it is - surprise surprise - the puzzle solving. What about RPGs though? RPGs, table top ones and video game ones, have core activities as well. Often times this is combat - much like many other games - but what else could we do with it?
Why Combat Works
Before we can look at other core activities I want to take a moment to look at why combat works. The big reason here is because combat is easy. It is directly confrontational, has clear cut stakes for winning or losing - that include an "ending" if the PCs lose at the wrong time, and ultimately is very straight forward in how it works. Sure, a fight can have a lot of complexity in it, but the core of what makes a fight a fight and what determines when one ends - or how one ends - are all easy things to grasp and easy to code. So much so that often it is easy to disguise other concepts as combat and claim you have changed your core activity.
Why Have A Different Core?
Why do you want a different core though? Well, because the core activity is what the game is supposed to be about. If your core activity is combat - which most RPGs have - than you expect a lot of that in your game. Even with all the drama and political stories you run, if that core mechanic set comes up a lot you end up with a "Action Political Drama" or "A Political Drama with a Modern Action Gene" to use the fancy talk movie reviewers use. A core activity doesn't have to be used - many a D&D game has had lots of politics and RP instead of just combat - but it is where the game will be trying to push things, and where the game will feel the most natural.
Racing, at its heart, feels like it could be a good alternative core activity. There is a clear cut winner and loser, and the whole thing is easy to conceptualize even while you could have very diverse mechanics. Instead of Hit Points you would have distance between racers and distance to goal. Instead of combat maneuvers you could have stunts. Spells per daya/mana could be replaced with stamina, energy, or fuel.
At the same time though, this feels like it would mostly be combat re-skinned. This isn't a bad thing, but if you're just changing the paint job are you changing the core for real?
Robin D. Laws did this beautifully with his Gumshoe system. Sure, there are combat rules in the system but they're pretty fast and loose. The game puts focus on solving a mystery, and it works well for doing that. The emphasis takes away from dice rolls - the one thing that can make an investigation themed game so frustrating - and puts the focus on the actual detective work. Gathering clues, interpreting clues, and matching it all together.
Exploration is something that a lot of movies and shows have focused on. In a lot of ways, Indiana Jones is a combination of Investigation and Exploration. Star Trek is also about exploring and discovering new worlds. Still, I'm not sure how well the idea would go into game play. It can be done, but the mechanics for it would need to be carefully crafted to get that feeling of being on the frontier - or beyond - and seeing things never seen before. In all honesty, I'm curious what you folks think. What should go into a game focused on exploration?
Games as old as Birthright, and older, have worked on politics and running a kingdom as a core activity. The goal has merit, but would also be a pain to make a core activity I think. So much goes into politics that it almost feels like it'd be better to have it be an option a GM could throw into a game with a different core activity in it, and just use that activity for political ends. Still, for a game to have politics - especially Player vs. NPC politics - you'd need ways for tracking information, influence, favors owed, and all those other wonderful social tallies that everyone just knows when you enter the political sphere.
Almost anything out there could be turned into a core activity. You don't need to look much further than sports anime to see that possibility (competitive bread baking for the win, btw.) Still, there is a difference between saying that tennis is your core activity, and having the tennis in your game being more than re-skinned combat. What ideas have you had for core activities in games? What got in the way? What helped out more than you thought it would?