I try not to do too many “pure theory” posts, but recent gaming and some conversations with Quinn Murphy, has given me some thoughts I think are key mostly to design, though given the way a lot of RPGs work, that also influences how you run a campaign in the long term.
Moment to Moment Fun
Bungie, the developers of the Halo videogames, are often quoted as pointing out their design method is to try to make a few seconds of fun, then keep doing that, over and over, until you have a full game. This is emphasizing the moment-to-moment kind of fun, and videogames are quite good at it. Tabletop roleplaying games have this too, even if the moments are more “minute to minute” rather than seconds.
The trick in this, is identifying what is supposed to be fun in this experience. Videogames will have stuff like, “Running and jumping on things is fun!” “Making things explode is fun!” while tabletop RPGs have a different focus such as, “Being Spiderman is fun!”, “Smart tactics in battle is fun!”, “Showing courage in the face of adversity is fun!” and so on.
The problem is, of course, while videogames can focus on the literal moment to moment – where what you have your character do constantly is the “kick off” of the fun, in tabletop, it’s a structured conversation – you say things, the other players say things, and this mediates back and forth to create the actual experience.
And that experience isn’t coded into a computer that will reliably do the same things over and over, so you have to design procedures that allow groups to consistently get to the thing that is fun for this game.
What is the moment to moment fun supposed to be for your game?
What do you have in the rules to support that? What choices are players required to make? What input are they supposed to give? What does the system/rules do to create that?
Beyond the momentary fun, you talk about larger loops of decisions, rewards, and experience. This is actually the place RPGs have had the biggest effect in game design – the idea of leveling up, gaining resources, and long term play in this manner is pretty much a big thing which has ported over to many other games.
Play loops are on larger scales than moment to moment – we can talk scene to scene, over several scenes, over several sessions. You can have several loops working inside each other or parallel. Figuring out how fast a loop should complete and what decisions or actions it encourages is critical.
When it’s done right – you’re rewarded for doing the thing that is fun, so it’s doubly reinforced. When it’s done wrong, too slow, or against the grain of the point of the game, then it’s a grind (see below).
Focusing play or nothing at all?
A key consideration RPGs have to take into account is managing the fiction – how do you keep the group contributing and pushing the imaginary events and conflicts into the ways that make for the goal of that you want with your game?
This is the baseline issue of whether your RPG is well designed or not. Unfortunately, many games simply lack this and it becomes “style” or “experience” to find ways to make up the difference, which is why a lot of games have problems and fall down a lot – if you can’t consistently meet and create at the same fun spot – the fun is sporadic or absent. If you are working to get to different kinds of fun, you can be fighting against each other and again – sporadic or absent.
A clear loop of procedures allows people to more consistently hit the expected fun zone, which is why a lot of narrowly designed games, or even boardgames or videogames have eaten up a lot of the RPG crowd as time goes on. The more reliable fun, wins.
The difference between a loop and a grind is fun vs. boredom. When a loop is kicking off fast enough, and in the right way, you have a great reward loop. When a loop is taking too long, or is about doing something that isn’t fun or the point of the game, you have a grind.
The easy example might be to point to videogames. In Final Fantasy games, you mostly fight and explore. That’s pretty much the core fun of those games. But they started including mini-games, which, instead of being side extras, became things you HAD to do as part of play. Now you have to learn a different game, that is different than the core experience… and often put in lots of time. If it happens to be a game you like – great. But for many, it turned into a grind.
This is true also of loops that take too long. Fighting the monsters might be fun, but fighting the SAME monsters, over and over, for hours on end, without any changes to the situation, isn’t. Videogames fall into this pitfall because they often use it to artificially extend playtime without having to add real content. RPGs usually fall into this category by designing for campaign length play that people aren’t able to fit into their lives. The loop has to close sooner, and change the variables (difficulty, give you new options via powers, etc.) or it becomes boring.
This is actually a massive pitfall for RPGs. You have a slow moment-to-moment play, commitment times are usually 3-4 hours of play, weeks on end, months on end, and you can’t really play alone. Having a grind is killer to sustaining play. If you don’t have a reliable loop of what play is supposed to be, effectively all play becomes a grind, because the struggle is just in coordinating to play in the first place.
A useful question to ask about loops for any game you design, or play is: “Will I ever see this happen? Under what conditions? Is this reasonable to ever expect?”
If you can’t keep a group together for more than a month or two, do you need to buy tons and tons of supplement books for high level play? Do you need a mega dungeon? Do you need to prep for months of campaign?
What is the expected rate of this loop turning over? What actions does the group have to take to make this happen, and how likely are they to do so? Is this fun enough to make it worth it?