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A New Beginning

by Sergio Mascarenhas
Aug 02,2004



A New Beginning

I'm back with my column after one year. Of course, it will be a different column. In fact I had presented the new direction at the time in the forums to The Travels of Mendes Pinto. The next phase of the column will concentrate on a different take on RPG design that will lead to the presentation of a RPG system called Glove Engine (labeled as GlovEngine). This I will start next month.

In the meantime I decided to present a column sparked by Sandy's June Soapbox (http://www.RPG.net/news+reviews/columns/soap11jun04.html). As you may recall he presented a set of issues any would-be RPG designer and publisher should consider. Some of these issues mirror my own concerns about the RPG market and are strongly connected with my GlovEngine project. Let's see...

Sandy asks how can RPGs attract non-RPG players (his questions # 1., 4. and 5.), a mandatory question to make them interesting to Walmart-like distributors (question # 9.). Well, I think we should look outside of the (soap)box first by considering other types of games. For instance, what about wargames, how can they be atractive to non-die-hard wargamers? If we consider the wargame market we can see that the answer is simple: There are wargames for wargamers (say, ASL, for instance) and wargames for non-wargamers (like Risk). There is a huge difference between wargames for the larger public and wargames for the dedicated wargamer (and a dedicated wargamer is someone that considers himself to be a wargamer). That difference is based on two key aspects: The depth and detail in handling the setting of the batles covered by the wargame; the depth and detail of the rules that model that setting in wargame terms. The wargames for non-wargamers tend to be 'impressionist' if not 'abstract' in their approach to setting while the wargames for wargamers search the 'highest photographic quality'. Likewise, the rules for non-wargamer wargames tend to be simple, fast to learn and fast to play, contrary to the rules in wargames for wargamers that more often than not are detailed and complex.

If we compare RPGs to wargames we have to reach a conclusion: All we have is RPGs for roleplaying gamers or RPGrs from now on (the equivalents of 'serious' wargames); there are not many RPGs for the rest of the people, the non-RPGr crowd. We lack the Risk of the RPG market.

Well, you may ask, what about 'introductory' or 'lite' RPGs, are these not designed to attract non-RPGrs to RPGs? Actually no. They are designed to attract commited RPGrs to a new RPG. You see, there's a difference between the commited RPGr and the occasional RPGr, just as there is a difference between the commited wargamer and the occasional wargamer. They look after different types of games. The fact that someone plays Risk (or similar games) does not mean that that person will be interested in Napoleonic or WWII wargames. For that person wargaming is playing Risk, not more, no less. And no serious Napoleonic wargamer would consider Risk as an option. The commited wargamer and the occasional wargamer want different types of games. This is so much so that the player of Risk may not even realize that he is a wargamer when he plays that game, while the commited wargamer may refuse to consider that a person that once in a while plays Risk can be called a wargamer. They represent two different segments of the wargaming market and they require different types of products. Designing a lite version of a complex wargame in no way ensures that it will appeal to the occasional wargamer and the gaming experience he is looking for. Let's face it: Risk is not an attention graber or an introduction to 'fully fledged' wargames.

Back to RPGs. As I said before, we have RPGs for the commited RPGr while we don't have RPGs for occasional RPGrs, so this segment of the market does not exist as such. Why don't lite versions work for it? Because they don't provide the playability the occasional RPGr is looking for (or, to be more precise, would be looking for if he was offered a product that would interest him). Lite versions are designed to attract the interest of the public to the complete game. Because of that they take as their paradigm the mindset of the person that will have an interest in the complete game, in other words, the mindset of the commited RPGr. They are not designed to appeal to the occasional RPGr. The idea that a simplified version of D&D, GURPS, HERO, etc. will atract non-RPGrs to RPGs is bound to fail. Non-RPGrs don't play RPGs because what's in the market is not what they want. They don't want to spend time creating highly detailed characters; they don't want to play week after week, months in a row, an intensive campaign; they don't want to learn detailed rules or complex settings. Neither do they want an introduction to a game with those characteristics.

So, what would want the hypotetical occasional RPGr? He wants slim gamebooks with simple rules and even simpler settings, plus atractive visual props. He wants to be able to play those games with a minimum need for setup (he wants to be able to start to play minutes after opening the book and after a cursory reading of its contents). There are four words that are absolute requirements in a RPG for the occasional RPGr: Clarity, simplicity, attractiveness, completeness. A RPG for the non-commited RPGr that fails on any of these three accounts is bound to fail. If the gamebook is not attractive the occasional RPGr will not pick it up; if it is not clear and simple the occasional RPGr will not start play it up; if it is not complete (in the sense that you can finish the game in a gaming session) the occasional RPGr will not finish playing it up.

Ah, you say, that's a problem for 'simulationists' or 'gamists' with their complex sets of rules. We, 'narrativists' or 'immersionists' play with almost no rules. Why don't we appeal to a larger public? Because, as I mentionned above about wargames, the issue is not about rules and rules only. It's also about setting. The so-called rule-less ROLEplaying game places too much focus on setting and character interpretation, a lot more than what the occasional RPGr is willing to accept. And the RULEplaying game does the same for the system side of the equation, even if the setting may be as simple and easy to understand as, say, D&D or Star Wars. (Worst still are games with both complex settings and complex rules, of course.)

The occasional RPGr wants something that is simple in both setthing AND rules. Helas, there's no such game in the market right now. Yet, there were some attempts in the past. Prince Valiant and Toon come to mind; I don't know Gostbusters but it seems that it also fits the criteria. Why didn't they take off and served as the basis for the creation of a market for RPGs for occasional RPGrs? Because unfortunately these games were never really looked at as the response to a potential market into itself by the companies that produced those games. What I mean is neither Chaosium nor SJG (to mention the companies that published PV and Toon) ever considered that there was a market to occasional RPGrs and that they had the right games for that people. This has to do with another issue mandatory to consider if one is to tap into the wider audience that may look at simple rules / simple setting RPGs: Marketing. Rpgs for non-commited RPG players need to be marketed differently. Their 'production values' have to be different from those of games produced for dedicated RPGrs. Here are some suggestions:

a) Licence the setting. It's better to produce games for settings well known by occasional RPGrs than trying to convince them to look at a setting they know nothing about. This facilitates the generation of interest in the game. Notice that the idea of licencing can be fairly broad to include things that are not strictly licencing but produce the same results. One can do a look-a-like close enough to be imediately recognised as inspired by Famous-setting A, but different enough to avoid being considered a copy; or one can pick Still-famous-old-setting B that is now in the public domain (like Dracula, or Frankenstein).

b) Have an 'universal' system that can be customised for any setting. This is important at two levels, actually: It makes it easy on the player to pick the game and start playing after a cursory read, something that is mandatory; it means a much shorter development cycle for the production of new games, something that is critical to ensure that the game company is able to have less costs in game production, thus being able to break even faster with its games.

c) Use extensively pre-gen characters. An occasional player of a simple game will not mind to use a pre-gen character as a norm, instead of the do-it-yourself standard in most RPGs. Character creation rules should be the option, not the norm.

d) Produce ready-to-play bundles of characters, rules and scenario. The non-RPGr is not going to buy a game book that will be left idle most of the time, and pick it up when he wants to play (unless, of course, that book is sold very cheaply and was conceived as a prop to sell the scenario books).

e) Since the game line is based on the concept of one game / one scenario, you need to keep placing new games in the market either for different settings or as sequels to a successful setting.

f) Look to the way things work for other businesses. In a sense the marketing model for RPGs for occasional RPGrs is closer to collectible cards, minis games or adventure books than it is to the usual RPG business. Look at those other markets instead.

g) Bundle with other media: Include pdf versions of the game in computer magazines; include ready to play games in comics magazines based on the stories in it; sell scenarios as merchandising for the basic setting (if it is a licenced setting produced for other media like a movie); place the game books close to the fiction literature that inspires them; if the game book is the licence of a movie, have it being sold with the dvd of the movie (maybe in pdf format).

From the above it's fairly easy to see why the non-RPGr RPG market never took off: Most game systems are too complicated to allow for the simple to learn, simple to produce requirement mentionned in b). The small number of games that could have worked (like the ones mentionned above) while they had the content requirements (simple rules and settings) failed in the delivery. Interestingly enough the game that was closer to the model I propose here was... ODD. That explains to a great extent its success. What is puzzling is the fact that TSR lost touch with it afterwards with their move to ADD. Even more puzzling is the fact that WotC was not able to revive the model despite the fact that it is successful with their main (non-RPG) product, MtG.

Are there any RPG systems right now that could be the basis for such a line of games? Yes. My personal take is the system used in HeroQuest with a simplified action resolution system. Why? Because it simplifies a lot character creation by not having pre-defined attributes, and has an abstract action resolution system. This means it inherently provides the flexibility mentioned in b) and facilitates a lot the creation of pre-gen characters as suggested in c), while the abstract decision system means it can be used for almost anything with minimum adaptation.

Sandy's 7th question is also very interesting in this context (How will your product displace the greatest games ever made in the hearts and minds of the gamer elite?). This seems to be inconsistent with my take on RPGs for occasional RPGrs, right? Of course it is! After all, the RPG gamer elite comprises the most serious of the serious RPGrs, exactly those that would look down at the type of 'fast-food game' I'm proposing. Ok, but... who cares? The games I'm talking about are not for the 'gamer elite', they are for the non-gamer proletariat. They will be bashed by the gamer elite like MtG was in the past. In fact, the more the gamer elite complains the better it is for the game because it means that it is successful. In games - like in all popular culture - the more the elite complains the better the product is doing in the non-elite market. In other words, the game designer that wants to be successful in the non-RPGr market should not look after 'winning the hearts and minds' of the gamer elite but, instead, at the oposite!

Sandy also places an important issue in his question 8.: How can the game designer deal with the competition by the players themselves, since they can design their own games? Well, it's the same with most things in life. Wy don't we do our own furniture, food, etc.? Because most of us lack the talent, the will or the time. The RPG designer will loose the creative GM with time to spare, in other words, he will loose a minimal percentage of the market. Furthermore, there is the 'production values' issue. Formal aspects are important in any walk of life. How many clever GMs can design as good looking game resources as a professional company? Both them and the players like well printed, well illustrated and properly published books. After all, any clever MtG player can design his own cards, right? How many are doing this?

What does all of this have to do with my GlovEngine project? To a certain extent my idea is precisely to create games for occasional RPGrs. You see, I don't play RPGs for two reasons: Lack of time and lack of other people interested in RPGs. Even if I had time I would need players and most people I know don't want to be commited with my hobby to the level I am. Further to this, there are so many interesting settings around there that I would ask myself why should I dedicate myself to any one in particular. In the present stage of my life I would love to have access to fast-food RPGs. I don't want a 400 pages tome of data and rules that I will never use. I want 48 pages I can play right away even if it is the first time I come across the setting, the rules or the concept of role playing. A game I can pick, read, play and shelve in one evening. (The truth is that I will keeping 400 pages tomes but not to play them. I buy them because I like to read and see RPG gamebooks. But this is a different hobby altoghether.)

I'm designing the GlovEngine with this concept in mind. Ironically I'll 'sell' it to the traditional crowd of die-hard RPGrs here at RPGnet...


PS Next month I'll present the concept of the GlovEngine and the first game based on it.

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