Some Interesting Questions for RPGs and the OSR

First, how do you make roleplaying games something that anyone can pick up and play for as much or as little time as they like – for example, at a party where people who aren’t already gamers are walking up and looking to experience this new thing without having to commit their whole evening to something they’re not sure they’ll be into? I feel like this is an OSR question because one of the hallmarks of the RPGs of the original era was that they enabled a situation where stoners with Frodo Lives buttons in a college dorm, or new recruits on a military base, or imaginative kids at a school game club would be able to walk up, create a character, and get hooked. And revivalist things like the Tower of Gygax are better enabled to do this than anything else I know about.

Second, how do you reconcile delivering an instant hit of RPG goodness to newbies with the contradictory goal of satisfying the “this campaign could be your life” promise of the neverending story? James has talked about how, even in a nominally open-table game like the White Sandbox, the mass of information an ongoing storyline accumulates can be off-putting. What structure will keep an enlivening churn happening between new players who want to be enthralled by the way their choices produce immediate results and old ones who want to keep on getting deeper into an exploration of the consequences of choices they made many sessions back in their collective memory?


14 Responses to “Some Interesting Questions for RPGs and the OSR”

  1. 1 zhai2nan2
    August 19, 2011 at 7:42 am

    In the 1970s, the fantasy market was under-served. There were a lot of discontented people who wanted to fantasize. They wanted some convincing dream-worlds.

    D&D was big in the 1970s because the market was starving. There was a lot of pent-up consumer demand. Furthermore, people didn’t have cell phones going off, people had longer attention spans, and there was little access to netflix, bitTorrent, etc.

    So when you say that you want to make the game accessible for people to take as much time as they like – some people will give you only two minutes, because that’s how long they spend on Bejeweled and Sudoku. Other people might want to spend many hours.

    Nowadays, if you want to fit a game into busy schedules, you’re probably going to be using computers of some kind. Maybe smart phones, maybe web sites, but probably not physical dice.

    The second issue – how you’re going to make people get to the fun immediately but also feel that it could last forever – can’t be answered until you’re sure that you know what kind of fun you’re delivering. Are you delivering dungeon crawls with trap-finding and cursed treasure, or are you delivering the Society-For-Creative-Anachronism thing where you try to make up a fictional character and actually deliver lines as if you’re acting on a theatrical stage?

  2. August 19, 2011 at 7:57 am

    I think the fun RPGs deliver is “you can do anything and explore what the consequences will be.” There is a problemsolving element that some RPG sessions have in common with Sudoku, but the dungeoncrawl that appeals to newbies in the Tower of Gygax is not yet so practised – you don’t have the experience to predict which treasures will be cursed, it’s just entertaining when they are – and the the appeal of longterm play is that the patterns keep being subverted, the Sudoku strategy you learned before may have to be applied to a different domain or reinvented for changed circumstances.

  3. August 19, 2011 at 11:21 am

    This is a really interesting topic and something I’ve been considering a lot lately. I think Zhai is onto something when he points out the radically different era that the first wave of RPGs managed to establish their popularity in. Creating a game that you can pick up and play with non-gamers at a social gathering is a noble target but regrettably I wonder if writing a game with the implied integration of social networks could work.

    It might seem contrary to the goal of a game you can fire up at a party, but to many people there would be appeal in playing a quick game that can be continued on facebook, twitter or google+ throughout the week. I wouldn’t go so far as to write a system that references these specific sites or uses the computer itself in any major way, but write for a game that can be played for 5 minutes at a time by players who don’t need to have the rules to hand. Of course, you can do this with many rules-lite games, but I’m yet to see one designed with this focus in mind.

    You still have the issue of getting people to sit and play at the social gathering, and I think that’s a topic I’ll post about on my blog some time soon. Hope there’s some food for thought in my stream of consciousness.

  4. August 19, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Walk up, play a minute/ten minutes/thirty minutes/an hour, pop out? Sounds like you’re running an Engle Matrix Game!

  5. August 19, 2011 at 11:55 am

    My thought is to shove it right in there with Sudoku and Bejweled. I’ve been waiting for someone to introduce a service that allows dice rolls over text messaging. I think it would be a potential way to play an RPG in little bursts when you get an idea or a few minutes. trodgers has been working on rules for how to play over twitter or text at http://pbtrpg.wordpress.com/

    Having the right kind of setting would help with being able to play a game that can be picked up and then dropped again repeatedly. Usually social settings with very few things to keep track of are easier to keep in mind than combat so that might translate better. Maybe play the crunchy bits when you’re all together and then as soon as that’s done, the rest of the week is over text message or twitter?

  6. 6 zhai2nan2
    August 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    ‘ to many people there would be appeal in playing a quick game that can be continued on facebook, twitter or google+ throughout the week.’

    This could be a high-tech twist on the 1980s technique of playing around a table for a few hours on Saturday, then writing in a notebook passed around at school about the backstories of the adventure during the week.

  7. August 19, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Interesting. When I think of turning a simple delve into a party game, the first thought is simplify simplify. How could that happen in D&D? Drop 3-18 numerical attributes and have a simple descriptor – strength becomes strong, average or weak (+1, +0, or -1 under the covers). Character is reduced to the barest of archetypes – like the core 4. The character sheet has check boxes for choices – all of your starting stats are average, but pick 3 above average and one below average. Circle 5 pieces of equipment. Everyone has a single save value. That kind of simple. All the choices are right on the sheet, and can be selected by checking a box or making a circle – not a dice roll in sight, no need to crack a rulebook, and no nuanced strategic choices around spells, skills, proficiencies, etc. (Maybe the campaign option allows folks to swap out stuff later on when they have enough mastery to make educated choices).

    If skill rolls or something similar is required, use a standard die – everyone understands pips and simple numbers. Leave the nerdy polyhedrals at home.

    I’m basically describing something like the “Dungeon” boardgame with a little more meat on the characters, but fully detailed rooms. The “adventure” would put everyone right in the middle of something interesting – some barebones background establishing why the group is there, then time to start interacting with the environment and each other.

  8. August 19, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    There are a number of wonderful “RPG Party Games” but I most assuredly attest that D&D is not one of them. In your example, do you really think getting someone with a ‘Frodo Lives’ button to play Lord of the…sorry…D&D, would be difficult. Try that same trick with those who play Grand Theft Auto, Halo or watch Dancing with the Stars. Not so simple. Open those doors a bit wider gang.

    Land of Og, Sketch by Corsair Publishing, Toon, Kobold’s Ate My Baby and numerous other ‘Beer and Pretzel’ games are far better suited to introduce non-gamers to gaming IMHO.

    I’m sorry but I always find it frustrating that so many default to D&D and it’s OSR ilk as intro games. I can describe, create 5 characters and play Og in under 10 minutes. Meanwhile, even the most basic D&D is like homework reading to most kids these days. Get them into it and interested first, then show them the depth it can get to. You don’t teach little kids to swim by sticking them at the deep end of the pool right?


  9. August 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    You know, my normal campaign is not far from what you’re talking about, I have minimalized and simplified, and use almost everything Beedo suggests– 3 classes, fast packs, handouts with spells etc. I have players that miss weeks and then show up again. The other players have to fill them in on where we are and why. Sessions tend to start at easy to understand points “A weird tower showed up outside of town, we’re going to investigate,” or “A storm wrecked our ship we’re waking up washed ashore.”

    I only had one player that got close to coming every session, so the reality is that players often already have to jump into a world that is already moving.

    But that’s talking about the game at the granularity of the session. If you want something finer grained, like people at a party literally sit down to join whenever they wanted to try out the game I suppose I would try to come up with something in-game to help explain and facilitate that: jump gates open every 30 minutes, a war with the orcs and loose bands of people go “over the top” into the no-man zone when ever they feel like it, etc, team gladiator matches. But the risk there is that you’ll shift the game so much that it won’t be the same game any more.

  10. August 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Tavis, I think you are dead on with the “you can do anything and explore the consequences” bit. I agree with Zhai that part of the initial draw was that people didn’t have as many ways to experience imagined worlds at the time D&D came out, and that we have so many other options now, from CRPGs to movies. The absolute freedom of a tabletop RPG, though, has not yet been duplicated elsewhere. Even the most “sandbox” style computer/console game on the market can’t provide the freedom of even a railroad/fixed plot D&D adventure. This is especially true about the second half of your statement; the ability to shape and change the fantasy world in a real way is another thing that is (currently) unique to analog RPGs.

    I don’t know that mechanics need to be any simpler than B/X style; I think the biggest thing is to black box those mechanics for the beginner. If you watch the Community episode of D&D, for example, I think the most important choice that Abed made was to roll all of the dice in the game. When someone sits down to play Farmville (or whatever) for the first time, the mechanics of the game are invisible to them. I think the best D&D introductions do the same thing. Even if players roll, it should be “You want to do that? Roll this die and tell me what the number is,” followed by “This is what happened.”

    I guess I think a lot of it is in the way it is run. Mechanics do shape play, and can continue to be refined, but I think that the current rules CAN be accessible. Just hide them.

    Asynchronous play via social networks is also an interesting idea, but I don’t think that’s the only way to go.

  11. 11 Robert
    August 19, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I’ve never wanted to RPG as a party game.

    I’ll run a demo session that is perfectly accesible to people who haven’t played. A regular session of an ongoing game can work too. Part of that is also that my regular approach is that they players shouldn’t need to know the rules, and I prefer that they not think in terms of the rules even if they know them.

    But a party game or a casual version just doesn’t interest me at all. It loses some of the most important aspects. There are other games of those types that I enjoy much more for those contexts.

    As for the second question: The long-term parts don’t have to prevent people from enjoying the short-term parts. It can be tricky, though, and not every campaign lends itself to having visitors sit-in. It can even vary from session to session within a campaign. That’s where a demo session can be handy. You run it like a one-off con game. It is still far from the full experience, but it is close enough to give someone a taste of it.

  12. August 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    If you are talking about people who have never played an RPG, I think Basic D&D is the way to go. Maybe with some pregen characters.
    However, there may be some who won’t be interested in the fantasy/elf/dwarf/dragon genre.
    I could see using a rules lite system set in the modern day. Maybe an iteration of the D6 system like Ghostbusters or Men in Black. Or maybe even Call of Cthulhu, sans the insanity system.
    For one thing, the players can more easily identify with the background and situations.
    And the systems are very straight forward without a bunch of esoteric saving throws and charts.
    With D6, you just say “Roll these dice and beat this number.”
    With CoC you can see the percent chance of whatever you are trying to do.
    These might be easier to understand for beginners. They wouldn’t need a DM to translate a bunch of modifiers and tables.
    Just looking at games as a complete beginner.

  13. 13 zhai2nan2
    August 20, 2011 at 2:50 am

    ‘“you can do anything and explore the consequences” bit. … The absolute freedom of a tabletop RPG, though, has not yet been duplicated elsewhere. Even the most “sandbox” style computer/console game on the market can’t provide the freedom of even a railroad/fixed plot D&D adventure. ‘

    I agree if you add “run by a DM who understands what his players want.”

    A DM who doesn’t understand his players is a disaster. Gygax was fortunate enough to develop a game with play-testers he had known for years. They could “explore the consequences” in a way that was sure to appeal to them.

    On the other hand, when I DM for people who are twenty years younger than I am, I don’t know that I’m very confident about what they’ll regard as plausible and engaging.

  14. August 21, 2011 at 1:14 am

    This is really a design question.

    1. Can you create an RPG that works as a party game? What features must it have? (Implied, because it is Tavis asking: can this be done with Dungeons & Dragons?)
    * Newbie-friendly
    * Drop-in / drop-out
    * Satisfying resolution in, say, 30-60 minutes

    2. Can you then modify the party game so that it delivers the continuity of an on-going RPG campaign, without alienating new players? (Again, impliedly: can this be done with Dungeons & Dragons?)


    The exact design features of the game are less important than working through the life-cycle of the game, which is something like,
    1. “Hey, do you wanna play this game?”
    2. “Okay, let’s set up the game.”
    3. “All right! Time to play!”
    4. “Ha ha, that was great, thanks for playing!”

    ….in a way that it takes (say) about 30 minutes to an hour at the outside.

    You can handle the “do you want to play?” thing by working out a really simple, catchy, fun premise that fits into one sentence. “this is a game where you pretend to be the Ghost Busters!” “This is a game where you pretend to wander around in a dungeon looking for treasure before the dragon eats you!” That kind of thing.

    Prep is easily handled before the game, by concocting a simple but extremely grabby situation, and if necessary, coming up with pre-gens. If character creation involves making more than, say, 3 decisions, I would throw that into pre-gens. As a compromise, maybe something like what Tony L-B did for “Capes,” where there are two aspects of a character that plug in together – so if you pick “angry orphan” personality and the “cosmic godling” set of super powers, you’ve got “angry orphan godling” character.

    The process of play can be EASED by moving all the mechanics behind the screen, but that time limit is a huge effin’ barrier. The real issue for role-playing games is the loop between:

    * GM presents a stimulus (players ask for clarification)
    * Players propose a response (GM asks for clarification)
    * The situation resolves, generating a new stimulus

    That’s going on during every second of play. It’s vital to communicate very quickly and clearly, and to identify options at critical junctures. There should be no more than three options, and the benefits and drawbacks of these options should be very obvious and immediate. If the players insist on inventing a fourth option, fucking let them do it and have it be the awesomest option ever – until it goes wrong surprisingly and they’ve got to improvise a way out of it (and then let them succeed).

    But still, this is going to take a lot of time simply to explain what’s going on, what can be done, and what happens next.

    In the Hunter Kids Class, I found that 4-5 kids around age 9 managed to get through about three “scenes” worth of material in about an hour of play. And we were going pretty fast, with practically no mechanics involved. It’s critical that these scenes resolve the core situation in a way that is entertaining and unexpected. I got reasonably good at improvising this stuff, but I think Tavis has a knack for this which I haven’t been able to match.

    As to building on prior material:

    I think it’s like this. The GM takes previous resolutions to problems, and creates a new stimulus. The stimulus should be interesting and compelling in its own right, though.

    The real problem here, IMO, is the “asking for clarification” part of the social layer, particularly where proposals are evaluated in light of prior adventures. “If we do _________, Ontussa the Sphinx may never speak to us again.” Or, “This idea is better, because it means the Ninth Menegril might owe us a favor.”

    All of that stuff is richly rewarding IF you know who that is. But if you DON’T know the backstory, it’s crippling, since everyone else is an expert and you aren’t.

    It also drags the process of decision-making down to a crawl, because every choice is evaluated in the context of an ever-lengthening list of past decisions.

    I don’t know an easy way to handle that, short of the GM just saying, “Look, this isn’t going to matter. Don’t sweat it.” Or, I suppose, a ruthless deadline which demands a near-immediate response.

    anyway, just an off-the-top-of-my-head response.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2011

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