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Games for Beginners: A Manifesto

by Paul Beakley

Game publishers and designers who eschew roleplaying games for beginners have forgotten the whole point of this exercise.

Getting into the roleplaying hobby was fairly easy up to the mid-1980s. School-sponsored clubs as early as elementary school, few product choices, and a clear market presence made it easy for almost anyone to "get" roleplaying, usually with the help of some friends.

Computers have, naturally, changed the gaming landscape quite a lot since then. But besides semi-immersive 3D shooters and lengthy puzzle games on computers that feed a need once fed by print RPGs, other factors have nibbled away at easy entry into the hobby: a complex market, too many products fighting for ill-defined market niches, attrition at both the experienced and inexperienced ends of the market.

Attrition. The merest hint that the hobby might be shrinking gives publishers and gamers alike the howling fantods. Yet they continue cage-fighting for shares of a zero-growth market, chasing fads in the hope of making payroll, depending on larger publishers and retailers to do the marketing work for them.

What the hobby needs, badly, is a willingness to bring new people into the hobby. While this may ultimately be a marketing question, games designed specifically for rank beginners must be at the heart of the effort. Without a suitable introductory product, there's nothing to market.

A regular thread on Usenet goes, "What RPG would you recommend for somebody wanting to get into roleplaying?" This may come from an interested parent or an old-school gamer with young siblings, or a boyfriend anxious to get his girl into the hobby.

Invariably the lists go something like "Everway, Star Wars, Vampire, D&D, Feng Shui, Ghostbusters, Amber." Clearly these are recommendations from fans who know and love these games, love them so much they've lost sight of why they love them. They've forgotten these games' appeals are in interesting rules, immersive settings, pop-culture reference, or faithful adaptations of other fiction media. There's a sense that primitive or fudgy rules must be good for beginners because they seem less daunting than "advanced" rulesets like AD&D, Rolemaster, GURPS, or Earthdawn. After all, most experienced roleplayers themselves got into the hobby via one of those games.

I know I could not recommend any of the games I listed above to a rank beginner. No way would I give, say, my grandmother a copy of Everway and say "Go to work, Grams. You'll love it." Give my babysitter, who happens to be a Star Wars nut, a copy of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game with no guidance? Right.

And these are the so-called "easy" games.

Efforts at producing truly introductory games have been laudable but ultimately failures, in my opinion. TSR nee Wizards of the Coast have released introductory kits for Dungeons and Dragons and Alternity; neither product explains roleplaying to some working mom who might pick it up at the local Waldenbooks for her kids. The Star Wars Introductory Roleplaying Game box is inviting but nearly impossible to find. White Wolf's beautiful introduction to Vampire, while perhaps the most attractive - and thus legitimizing - public face of roleplaying, is clearly a sales tool aimed at existing roleplayers for their product line.

There just aren't any games truly suitable for beginners. Everything available today requires previous experience or the guidance of current players.

Should any game publisher or designer want to stop depending on the hobby to grow itself and take an active hand in its long-term success, here are the items I would recommend they consider (in no particular order):

1) Presentation. Every roleplaying game ever published looks and feels more or less the same. The die was cast with D&D and has never been broken. Every roleplaying game is printed as a trade paperback or 8.5 x 11 hardback, which is actually a very odd size book if you look at coffee table hardbacks in the bookstore. They all involve charts, tables, funky dice, full-page character sheets that must be photocopied, "characters" represented by lengthy lists of get the picture. These are the trappings of all RPGs, period.

Ask yourself how your new game might look if you were the first to come up with the idea of a game in which a moderator led other players through an interactive storytelling experience. What if you woke up tomorrow in a world where D&D had never existed, and had this idea in your head?

Trade paperback is not the first format that jumps to my mind in this light. Neither are charts, tables, funky dice, or character sheets that must be photocopied.

The very act of breaking the standard RPG publishing mold would be a step in the right direction. It would be an indication that the product is not being tacitly positioned toward existing gamers and their familiar comfort zone.

This is one area where Everway got it right: The product looked and felt different than everything else on the market. Its problems weren't in its presentation.

2) Consider grownups. It's very hard to sell adults on the idea of swords and sorcery if they don't already have an interest in genre fiction. Same goes for superheroes, hip gothic monsters, undead cowboys, magical samurai, or cyberwear-laden elves.

All game publishers ignore the adult market; it's like anyone over 21 is an acceptable loss, and you have to hook kids before they're told gaming is dorky. This would be a fine strategy if every other publisher in the world wasn't already pursuing it.

Watch prime-time television dramas for a sense of where grownups identify. Lawyers, cops, doctors, corporate execs, artists, scientists, and other super-competent professionals are surefire winners. Adults might also respond to roles as sports stars, politicians and other members of the modern nobility.

The other effect of marketing towards adults is that, if they get interested, kids are guaranteed to get interested. All kids want to emulate adults. Which leads me to...

2a) Consider kids. Not all kids have testosterone-poisoned antisocial fantasies waiting to be actualized via roleplaying. There's no reason in the world why a beginning RPG couldn't be aimed at the pre-teen (pre-testosterone) market. However, such a game would have to appeal to the parents first.

Emphasize problem-solving and cooperation in any game aimed at pre-teens. The story can be wild and illogical - just look at any book aimed at the 8-12 market - but ultimately it should emphasize a positive morality. By the time they start gagging on the hand-holding niceness, they'll have plenty of flavors of badness to choose from in the current gaming market.

3) Build the game's play dynamics around the real world. In the real world, most people can't afford to throw eight hours at a gaming session of any kind. You can play 18 holes of golf in about three hours and call it a day; four hours in front of the tube watching Green Bay versus the Giants is, like, an endurance contest for some people. Eight hours is just too far beyond the pale for most people, whether your game is aimed at grownups or kids.

Why not a roleplaying experience that takes the same time as a television show? One hour and you're through. One scene, played out to a satisfactory conclusion, is a game.

This requires the game be built around one-hour blocks. Task resolution has to be fast and decisive; no more three-hour-long combats. Try a thing, roll a die, succeed or fail, and move on.

Avoid goofy dice, or include them in the game. If they have to go into a game shop to buy them, they won't buy them.

4) Get away from combat. Too much roleplaying is really just first-person wargaming in disguise. Thirty percent of a typical roleplaying book is taken up with intricate combat rules and explanations of abilities directly related to fighting.

In my experience, as soon as a fight starts in a game it's three hours before the story starts again. A fight scene in a book that took more than 15 minutes to read through would put me off the book forever; about 10 minutes of a really great fight scene in a movie is almost too much. Why should RPGs be any different?

Conflict is naturally the heart of all drama, but fetishizing combat into the highest and best sort of dramatic conflict has done more to turn off innocent onlookers than a whole dealer's room full of unwashed gamers in Klingon costumes.

There's a vast, untapped market in interpersonal conflict just waiting to be explored and exploited: can your character come to terms with her mother before she dies of cancer? Or ideological conflict: Imagine a game where the government really was run by jack-booted thugs and you got to play a brave militia member. Or environmental conflict: A new strain of ebola is spreading through your city and the fate of civilized society rests in your hands.

Action movies are still the most successful, so certainly the public likes a good fight. But it's the choreography and the special effects that wow them.

5) Play up the power trip. This is the crux of all roleplaying, and what makes it different than other fictional media. So far, the gaming power trip has not extended much beyond personal supernatural powers - not bad in itself were it not for the fact that most of these supernatural powers are really just combat tricks.

What about entirely different types of power trips, remembering that we're going for an all-new audience and not cynical, experienced gamers. Daytime soap operas are pure power trip, with the power being money, fame, looks, conquests, and family. Corporate gamesmanship is pure power trip as well, with the power being recognition, money, resources, bragging rights, and hard-earned trophies. Rock and roll fantasy is another power trip, based around fame, creative freedom, adoration, sometimes competition with other bands, and conflicts with evil producers while struggling not to "sell out."

Yeah, this stuff sounds goofy to experienced roleplayers...but does it sound goofy to the guy flipping burgers, looking for something to do with his buddies that won't cost him an arm and a leg?

Forget everything you "know" about what gamers want; start looking for what you don't know that non-gamers want.

6) Do something different with the artwork. Do we really need another book full of Bradstreet-esque dudes in leather and shades standing under lampposts, cradling machineguns? Or overmuscled steroid casualties? Or the old standby, the cheesecake shot?

Any publisher who staunchly stands by his guns-and-muscles-and-chicks pictures because "that's what sells games" have already implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, excluded huge swaths of potential beginners.

Get rid of line drawings once and for all; too many overtones of black-and-white comics. They're cheap and they look cheap. Consider photography, or paintings (watercolors or oils), or digital artwork. Consider subjects other than firefights and fistfights; even interpersonal conflict can be captured in media res.

7) Enough with the math. Mathematically modeling fictional reality as a series of statistical events is not how most people think about dramatic storytelling. When they read a book or watch a movie, they know things happen to a character because the author thought it was important to the story, not because they were statistically most likely to succeed at a certain action.

Certainly math is at the root of all games where players compete with one another. But does it have to be so obvious? If you're asking a beginner to add more than two numbers together, you're asking too much of them. Ditto if you're asking them to use anything other than a marked cube as a randomizer.

An idea: What if task resolution plays out according to the rules of the genre the game models? For example, in the film noir genre the femme fatale always gets the drop on the hero, at least once or sometimes more often; antiheroes redeem themselves near the end of the story and their newfound moral fortitude helps them overcome the corrupt villain. This could be worked out as math, but what if the math were hidden inside a narrative-based resolution system?

Hide the math.

8) Keep the story simple. Real simple. Even a relatively intricate property like Star Wars or Ghostbusters can describe all the important elements of its world in two hours. Don't ask a beginner to spend more time than this learning about the game's world or genre.

Keep invention at a low for this beginner's game. Use pop culture and genre conventions to your advantage. Provide an original backstory by all means, but keep the layers to a minimum. Don't mix genres unless the genres are very, very well known and understood by the lay person. A science fiction medical drama would be an easy sell; talking animals that are also netrunners would not.

9) Create a reward system that explicitly rewards the gameplay you want them to experience. Character development is a cornerstone of roleplaying, even in computer games. For a game aimed at beginners, forget "realistic" development and learning models - reward the player with more in-game empowerment, not the fictional character with abstract "experience."

10) Sell this new kind of beginner's roleplaying game in some way other than game stores. Game stores are the worst sales tools of the hobby. This gets to distribution, which is a whole other kettle of fish well beyond the scope of this manifesto.

Copyright ©1999 Paul Beakley

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