The Concept Hurdle

May 19, 2008

Flipside to wargame logic being applied senselessly to roleplaying games, there’s also what I’m calling the concept hurdle- how much does a player have to dig into the fictional setting and concepts in order to be able to engage the game?

That is, do I have to read 200 pages about 20,000 years of fictional history, made up arcane concepts, and fiction bits to really “get” the game? Do I need to read 200 pages of real world history? Either way, it’s a lot of investment.

The way I see it, rpgs basically fall into 4 categories with regard to baseline concept- the High Concept game (which you have to know X things to “get” the game), the Genre game (you must be familiar with the genre), the Genreless game (As a group, you need to set up what everyone needs to know to help produce the necessary concepts and keep them in play), and the Situation game (“This is a game about this specific place and time and this situation”).

So far, in my experience the Genre game and the Situation game tend to work best for introducing new folks- it doesn’t require either learning about a fictional world to play with it, or having to negotiate it amongst the group.

Geek-wise, I get why High Concept is the most common. It’s fun to write setting stuff, it’s fun to make a world and have other people play in it. It’s fun to pour your weird sci-fi/fantasy/horror ideas into something other folks can appreciate without having to either write a story, draw a comic, or make a movie around it. It’s also fun to lose yourself in a setting and make your own stories within it. At the same time, this is a pretty high investment request to ask of people.

It’s also interesting because this highlights an important part of roleplaying- everyone playing is involved in the process of creating the fiction- the more value you put on adhering to the fictional vision, the more the players will have to put in to get on the same page. If you’re playing a videogame, all you really need to do is fight things, solve puzzles and do fetchquests- no videogame is built for you to break it’s conventions, they’re automatically enforced- you just play and the concepts are delivered to you.


  1. This division is one of those perfectly sensible ideas I never clearly laid out for myself. Thank you for providing me with language to talk about a property of different games that is very important to me. I suppose what I’m looking for is a High Concept game with a very short list of guidelines. “The world is kinda like this, this sort of thing is cool, the game’s goal is for these sorts of things to happen, here’s some stuff common in other games that wasn’t part of my vision, and here’s a way of taking inspiration from things in your life or your favorite fiction and converting it into this world!”

    Maybe that’s more of a “Genre” game, except the conventions are at least semi-original (Exalted is it’s own thing, even though it’s roots are visible and obvious) and explicitly stated. Or maybe it’s a fifth kind?

    I just wanted to point out that some people feel that making up your own stuff is the investment, and that reading someone else’s ideas and choosing between them is the easy part. There’s some point along the scale of how-much-material-we-give-the-players where inspiration is maximized for the maximum number of the target audience, but I have no idea how to find it.

  2. You might want to look at Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, Bliss Stage, Galactic, Lacuna or Dread as some easier to digest High Concept games. The difference between those and the standard game is that while they do have elements you really do need to digest to fully engage the game, it’s usually a lot less in terms of actual reading, and leaves a lot of room for player input.

    I think finding the maximum really depends on what kind of game you’re making. I mean, all this I wrote about? Came about as I’ve been thinking about what kind of game The Emperor’s Heart is- it’s a High Concept game with lots of room for input. If I left it as just wuxia, it’d be a Genre game, and probably would appeal to a larger audience (though, if I wanted even a larger gamer market, I’d have to add lists of special fu powers as well).

  3. Not to be the self-absorbed dude who only comments on other people’s blogs where it pertains to his current projects, but…

    I wonder where Do falls into these categories? In stating the full premise of the setting out loud to a group of people in real life, I realized it’s a mouthful. Still, it’s a short read, only two pages or so.

    But then there’s the fact that each episode could technically be in a different genre, depending on which letter you’re choosing.

  4. Hey Daniel,

    Do is totally high concept. There’s no genre thing you can simply relate to for folks to get it.

    High concept doesn’t mean it -has- to have tons of concept to digest, though that’s usually been the fallback when the system does nothing to support the experience and it all has to be propped up by the group making it work.

    Again, look at the list of games I just gave Nicholas- short concepts, but still crucial to play.

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