09 October 2010

Pandering a Game: Doomed to Fail?

It's always seemed silly to me for a company to try and pander its products to people who aren't the target audience, and to try and be something that it isn't.

Let me explain with a short preface.

I've got nothing against any edition of the game, per se. Several of the choices made in the name of D&D4 are a little silly, sure, and very many of them are misguided or just plain dumb. But it's not a bad game for what it is. It doesn't have any more than superficial similarities to Dungeons and Dragons, but that's not the point.

The point, and this is something I posted in a blog comment last night, is that trying to market something like role playing games as board games and video games is doomed to fail. And here's why.

Role playing games aren't goddamn board games. And they're not video games.

Board games are something that you can pick up and play, and then put away again. They're always the same, so there are strategies you can use to overcome the static obstacles or the other players, depending on the game. The rules always stay the same, unless it's a game like Nomic where the rules of the game are that the rules change. But Nomic is a complex example. For us, the archetypal board game will be Monopoly. Everybody knows what Monopoly is. The rules are always the same, the objective is always the same. You need a group of people, the board, the playing peices, and the dice. And then you play for a pre-determined amount of time until somebody "wins" and then the game is over.

I have nothing against fantasy-themed board games. As a matter of fact, on my floor right now is a half-played game of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. It looks similar to this:

It's got board peices, and cards, and little figurines, and static character sheets and stuff. It's like a game of Diablo, or like an entire D&D campaign squished into one 2-5 hour sitting.There's nothing wrong with this game, because it knows what it is. It's not trying to be a grand roleplaying game, because it's certainly not. It's a small-scale tactical miniatures combat game with a fantasy veneer. And it's great fun. But it's not a roleplaying game.

And video games are pretty awesome as well. When I'm not at work, running errands, spending time with my girlfriend, or writing, I'm generally playing something with my brother, my cousin, or both. One of the games we've been playing recently is called League of Legends. It looks like this:
It's bright, and colorful, and features explosions and magic missiles and all kinds of interesting stuff. It's a great game about tactics and teamplay, since if you don't work together and utilize your character's abilities to the utmost, then you're going to lose. And it's really great fun to pit our team against theirs, and see who comes out on top. Sure, character customization isn't the greatest, as you can only choose from a handful, but combine that with the items you can buy from the shop, and you can find a playing style that closely matches your ideal, and then utilize that to steal victory from your foes.

But board games and video games aren't roleplaying games. I know it sounds obvious, but if you state the inverse, it becomes: Role playing games aren't video games or board games.

I know it sounds crazy, but I think it really bears repeating. Role playing games aren't flashy. They don't have static challenges to overcome. They shouldn't require specialized equipment, like dungeon tiles and twelve thousand miniatures and sixteen "splatbooks" or "expansion packs" to play the fucking game. They don't need art on every page, and they don't need to keep making modules and campaign settings and other extraneous horseshit to tell you how to play the game. We don't need you to package games without the fucking dice and instead give us fifteen metric fucking feet of fucking tiles.

We want you to make a game that doesn't require a computer to do the math for us, and a game that lets us
1) Understand the system in fifteen minutes
2) Expand it ourselves
3) Make a character in under a fucking hour
4)Make shit up
5)Ignore stuff without worrying that it'll "break the game"

D&D has succeeded marvelously on all those points, constantly, right up until its last edition. An edition that is so bad that not even half of the people who were playing 3rd edition bother to play it. Great job, folks. Way to know your target market. See, you could read over the book and understand it on the first read through of just the player's section. You know that you need to roll 3d6 and pick a class and then buy stuff, and that you roll 1d20 to attack and 1d6 for damage. Done. That's seriously it. Everything else, you either make up, or maybe roll underneath your attribute on a 1d20. The system is over. I seriously know everything I need to know to run a game of Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, or whatever right now. No prep time.

4th edition is horrible about every one of those. And make no bones about it, those are the important damn parts. The system itself is complicated, and has the important bits spread across nearly 200 pages. You can't hardly expand it, since making anything up other than a single power or magic item would mean that you have to figure out what the right damage range is, whether the magic item should be level 15 or 14, whether the spell you just made up should do 1d8 or 1d6+1 and whether it renders the other attack spell irrelevant... horseshit. Let me just make stuff up. I crave a looser system where I haven't got to whip out a calculator or understand what the holy fuck [W] + 2 means in an attack power, or how goddamn far five squares is, or what the holy flippin' difference between shift an opponent three squares and move an opponent three squares means. Holy shit, I thought we were playing a role playing game!

Good god, how I've digressed.

If you read until the end, I'll be surprised. Not even I read this far. But let me end this with just a quick statement:

"If you want to make a good role playing game, don't punish the creative people. We're the ones that keep the game going, not the idiots who don't know how to play without reading a module."


  1. This post deserves to be labelled better than rant. Should be labeled "all too true".

    When designing our Dark Dungeon (now 2nd edition) game that's exactly what I tried to do. Less rules, more space to be creative. We found that the best game masters rarely keep to the rules if these become more complex anyway - they're too busy telling a story and keep the pace. They have no need to hide in a rulebook.

    Then again, maybe there is a whole new generation of prospective 4e players who do the game in an all new way. Maybe they're computers ;-)


  2. This post relates slightly to something I've been thinking about for a while, so I've responded to (some parts) of your "rant" at my blog.

    In short: I think some of the ideas from board and computer games are actually really useful to RPGs and incorporating them can improve the game. Even OD&D (and I've put a deliberately inflammatory picture up to make my point).

  3. You are wrong.

    When you play Monopoly, no one wins.

  4. @Jaap: I agree wholeheartedly, and point to encumbrance rules as a great example where the system is too complex for its own good. Sure, the intention is good, but who really wants to calculate one's own weight in gold peices and then reference a chart? For my own use, I generally only worry about weights in 10' increments, and ignore weights less than that. More or less.

    @faustus: Despite the tone of my post, I agree completely. There are some seriously good ideas in video games and board games, and there's nothing wrong with attempting to borrow an idea or two. Making roleplaying games into a pick-up-and-play endeavor like board games is a pretty good idea, for example, and something that's worked fairly well in the past and will certainly work into the future. West Marches, D&D encounters, and OD&D tournaments all come to mind, where taking your character from one game to another is no big deal. Play or don't play, whichever works for you, right?

    Unfortunately, people seem bent on taking the most superficial elements of either and pasting them together, frankenstein-style instead of making them a delicious goulash. We don't need roleplaying games with flashier art and more explosions and complex rules. Those things are fine (and in many cases, desirable) for video games, but not for roleplaying games.

    I'll check out your post when I get a little more time on my hands. :)

    @anarchist: Good god, if there's anything more boring than a 2+ hour game of Monopoly, I'll eat my blog post.