What is it that makes RPGs hard?

This is one of my perennial topics. I harp on it because if you were able to remove the entry barriers to an RPG, you might see a lot of people take up playing. There have been a lot of attempts to remove barriers, but they seem to have missed the real thing that keeps people away.

Let’s do a quick list of the things people most often try to fix when it comes to RPGs.

  • Too much reading
  • Too complicated (too many rules)
  • People want story not more game

But there have been games that address these problems. For example Risus has a shorter list of rules than most board games. There isn’t too much reading and it’s not too complex. There are a large number of story games that remove mechanical barriers and allow story freedom. I agree that these things are potential barriers to people picking up a game but they haven’t suddenly produced a huge number of players. This tells me that while these things are nice, they aren’t the main blockade to RPGs being accepted.

What games are the most successful of all the RPGs? D&D, Pathfinder and the Star Wars franchise. Each one of these games has a large buy in to our cultural consciousness. People just know what D&D is, it’s been around long enough to have embedded what it is into people’s consciousness. Pathfinder is a straight out extension of that. A majority of people start playing RPGs in these two games because to many, these titles are synonymous with RPG. In essence, someone says “I’d like to try this RPG thing” and they pick up one of these big titles.

What about Star Wars? This may be the one example of an RPG that draws in a lot of new players that may not have looked for an RPG in the first place. I see a good number of players that talk about starting their RPG careers in a Star Wars franchise. Many of these new players started in the D20 system. This is not a simple system. It requires a lot of reading. It’s very mechanical, often artificially so. It bucks the trend that RPG designers are trying to work toward and bring down the barriers to entry.

What does this tell us then? It’s possible that Star Wars is doing something that people aren’t working toward?

In general, franchises of popular media entities get faster adoption than generic games or new stories. Why? It seems that the barrier isn’t the reading or the rules. It’s trying to fit a new world in your head. If that world is already there, the barriers are far less.

Is that the end of the matter then? No, I don’t think so. I think there should be a way of shortcutting this barrier without having to adopt a big media franchise as your world. As an example, think of video games. There are entrenched media worlds like Super Mario Brothers, but there are also new titles that get picked up, like Portal which is now an established name of it’s own but that started off as a throw away concept game.

In each case of a new world being introduced in books, movies or video games, the world has to start in just the right way.

  • It has to have limited options at first. Think of the first Super Mario Brothers, jump run, left, right and a few others. Think D&D, left, right, straight, fight, detect trap (in a  dungeon anyway).
  • It has to be vibrant. Questions about what this world is and what happens in it have to be answerable intuitively.
  • It helps a lot if the answers to questions are amusing or unexpected. Think about Portal, the unusual uses of the gun that are explored. Super Mario, piranha plants come out of sewer pipes. Star Wars juxtaposes high tech with a priestly order and a cowboy smuggler.
  • There has to be obvious first order strategies that will get you through. A focus on brute strength, or raw speed for example.
  • Familiarity with the real world helps as an anchor. The world is ours, except for X. Although this takes away from the vibrancy and simplicity of the world because people know the world is complicated and often boring.

These are just some common things that hook people into a new world. These things are inherently limiting, but that’s the point. Potential players are often overwhelmed at the start of trying to pick up an RPG. Making the story options limited by only giving the players a few starting activities that they’ll take part in limits the scope of things they have to absorb. Designing a world that explains itself means less reading and the players will get a better concept of how to move the game forward.

The problem is less with the complexity of an RPG’s text, and more with the complexity of it’s play. Story games have missed the point and often increase the complexity of play by opening up more possibilities to a player that would have a hard time with a dungeon crawl.

Can an RPG be taken down to the complexity of a board game or a video game and still remain an RPG? I think it can. Think of Dungeon World* and how it basically gives the player five or so “buttons” to push as actions. It’s far easier for players to know what to try next when the options are narrowed down for them.

I don’t think RPGs should be limited to this kind of design development, but it would be good to have a race to the bottom in terms of story complexity among a group of writers. It would give a list of easy answers when someone says that they’d like to try an RPG but want to start easy. We need a class of RPGs that really push the boundary between playing like Monopoly and keeping the theater of the mind that an RPG has.

*I feel Apocalypse World limited itself by having an adult theme so is less a contender in helping RPG adoption.

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