So, anytime you want to teach a game to someone (and, if you design games, you are teaching the game to the people who buy it), there’s a certain scale of understanding people have to meet to play the game successfully.
Spectrum of Proficiency
Consider this spectrum using Chess as an example:
1. Overall goal of the game (“Capture the enemy’s king and protect your own king”)
2. Structure of play, legal moves (“Taking turns”, “This piece moves like this”)
3. Intermediate goals/Tactics (“Cover your pieces”, “Force the opponent to react”, “Set up forking possibilities which all favor you”)
4. Strategy – recognizing patterns of play and tactics (“This particular opening”, “These two pieces work very well together” etc.)
5. Depth – you learn about the people you are playing with more than the game (“Normally he’d fall for this trap, but I can see he’s trying to lure me this time.”)
RPGs and broken wheels
Historically, a lot of roleplaying games have dropped the ball at the first two steps – stuff like my Same Page Tool is effectively a crutch to help people wedge in solutions to bad designs or bad writing.
The first step, the overall goal of a game, is basically the concrete direction of the Creative Agenda of a game. The second step, of the structure and legal moves in play, is the System of the game, including non-mechanical stuff like “If you say it, your character does it” sorts of declarations.
Without these two, you cannot say you have a complete game on hand – you have something people might cobble together into play, or might import parts to make it run, but by itself, it is incomplete in a fundamental way that quickly leads to a lot of wasted time in coordinating what game you’re really trying to play. It’s a broken wheel.
Things to know vs. Things to learn
By the time we get to the third step of proficiency, which is learning intermediate goals and tactics of play, you are basically identifying general trends of what you should be doing within the given set of legal moves.
Although in chess and adversarial games this kind of strategizing is easy to see, it also applies to strictly drama focused play in RPGs as well – “Use your character’s personal doubts to bring conflicts to a head”, “Create compelling reasons why your investigator KEEPS walking into the haunted houses” etc.
In terms of RPGs, this is a fine line to identify – how much of this is things necessary for play to even work at all, vs. how much are things that are more fun to discover in play? You can find examples of people doing this poorly in all kinds of games. “Oh, you picked the wrong feat for your character build! I guess you’re going to suck for 10 levels” – that’s certainly not a fun thing to discover. “This drama game only works if you make characters like this, but you can only find that out after you’ve played lots of the game.”
So where is the line? Let’s say the line is where you can at least stumble towards good play (by whatever definition the game itself makes for that, whether that’s tactical combat or high drama) and learn how to do it better, and not so far where you have a single optimal choice to make and no surprises come if it (which, is broken in a gamist view anyway).
What does this all mean for my group at the table?
Well, you better make sure your game at least covers the first two levels of proficiency. And then you want to make sure your group is proficient up to the point where they can HAVE FUN with the game, rather than spend most of their time trying to figure out how to get the system to work. You can’t have fun racing cars if you can’t get them moving.
Towards that end, where a game may drop the ball, you’ll want to create a quicksheet providing advice on how play should look, what pitfalls to avoid, or neat system tricks to take advantage of. You may want to set up the first few sessions towards highlighting these specific things.
“That sounds a lot like a videogame tutorial” – yep, that’s basically what you’re doing. The sooner players have a good grasp on what they CAN do, and what they generally SHOULD be trying to do, the sooner they can make meaningful choices, whether that is strategic or creative towards a story or painting a world.
When players can focus on how to do things better, they have more fun and can start developing the last two steps – which is system mastery (how to utilize the rules to their best effect) and then also being able to coordinate subtly from each other (as a team of people playing, regardless of whether they are playing cooperatively or competitively).
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