Archive for February, 2022


The Pitfall of Overexplaining

February 25, 2022

I was talking with a friend today about a game I skimmed through recently that has fallen into the trap of overexplaining. It’s something I see in a few games, and it’s unfortunate because it’s also a trap that makes you do MORE work as a designer rather than less? So it’s like a double pitfall in a way.

Making the simple, hard, for no reason

When you overexplain an idea for your game, your potential players tend to do one of two things. One is they may imagine the thing you’re talking about is something completely different, or more difficult than what you are actually talking about. Two, they might imagine you are talking about something deeply theoretical, maybe not even real.

For example, a lot of gamers who play traditional RPGs believe that improvisation in play is some kind of expert or god-tier skill sometimes, and that’s mostly because a lot of traditional games spend a lot of time over explaining what a GM does, and mostly in vague, handwavey terms, which makes it seem SO HARD, when it’s not.

Funny enough, the -overexplaining- is often ther eason

Chasing lost causes

Now, part of the problem is trying to explain to people who effectively aren’t your audience. It’s another trap that’s easy to fall into; even assuming goodwill, there’s some portion of people who, for whatever reason, you will never be able to write something in a way they “get”. And chasing that small group and trying to over explain to them, will lose out everyone else you should be making the game for. (As someone who cut their teeth at the Forge Forums, I know this all too well. The Forge Theory posts bookmarked on the right are all my cutting away the cruft.)

Consider trying to teach CPR; there’s procedures and some advice to make it easy to memorize. Imagine some subgroup of people demanded to be educated on the full interaction of molecular science and blood chemistry before they would consider learning the basic steps. If you let them guide the course, what was a 2-3 hour workshop is now several years of college classes; and most people don’t learn CPR anymore (and, a lot of the people who made the demand, also still don’t.).

When you teach a game, if you can get it to where ENOUGH of your potential players get it, that’s fine. Perhaps several years down the line you might find better language to explain ideas and create another edition, maybe your audience puts together fan guides with advice, or blogs about how to best play your game. Hell, there’s plenty of Youtubers who make their living just giving people advice on how to play D&D.

Do this instead

  • Explain the basic idea before giving exceptions/side cases
  • Chunk up the information. If it looks like a huge block of text, it is.
  • Introduce a general concept, give details, then summarize in reference locations
  • If a side case takes several paragraphs to explain; consider just… not explaining it? Or an informal sentence? Maybe a side-bar so it can have it’s own space, if you must.
  • A somewhat vague instruction (often Directive based ideas) can be made clear with examples
  • Describing a hypothetical player or GM’s thought process in WHY they would choose one thing or another in your examples helps too
  • If two ideas are connected but can’t be covered in the same section, include a short bit on the other idea and something along the lines of “This system works with That system, which you can read about in the X Section further in the rules”.
  • Verbally explaining the game is a very useful tool for figuring out what people need to learn and in what level of depth.

Funny enough, there have been times when I’ve told my friends, “Here, just read the quicksheet I’ve made rather than read the rules” because I’ve seen games where the overexplaining has left them more confused rather than better set to start. And that’s assuming the size of the rules wasn’t an intimidation issue to start with.

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Game Hype Feb 2022

February 23, 2022

It’s been a minute since I’ve done one of these!

I picked up quite a few games recently and have been slowly going through them. Life has still been hectic and I’ve got a lot of games to try out from LAST year (I did manage to play 6 of the games I’ve hyped since last year, so yay that). Oh well, here’s more.

Fight City

Fight City is set up to do the classic beat-em-up genre of videogames; Final Fight, Streets of Rage, TMNT, etc. There’s nothing complicated here – just 6 pages of rules, a minimalist system with a few short charts for things like healing items or the variety of weapons you pick up (“Club” “Sword” “Car battery”) and so on.

It’s also simple enough that you could probably introduce kids to it without much problem (other than, you know, making sure they well understand action movies and violent games are not behavior guides.)

Planetary Loop

Planetary Loop is a solo journaling game that basically applies the life/time loop stuff to deep setting exploration. It uses a set of standard playing cards and a simple D6 to set up the planets you explore and to set up prompts for what you find there. As you re-loop, each additional run adds more details and world building to each world. When you have successfully explored each of the 4 target planets enough, you can take a memory from each, to go create a new universe built on those memories.

One of the things that usually turns me away from some prompt games is when it feels like it depends solely on the player to create the variety – the prompts are simple and always the same and the reason to use a game system is to help jolt you out of whatever you would normally always choose. In this case, Planetary Loop’s randomization in the prompt ideas you’re working with prevents that, and, that ‘failure’ is being forced to re-loop and create more cool setting? So it’s… not really failure, it’s just leading you back to the thing you enjoy doing for this kind of game.

Hard Wired Island (hardcopy update)

I’ve mentioned HWI before, but now it’s in a hardcopy format. It’s a cyberpunk game that remembers the PUNK part instead of becoming “murderhobos for capitalist rules” which tends to happen far too often in the genre. I particularly like that the system recognizes that your standard daily life career/role gives you certain advantages – a technician knows secret maintenance tunnels, the solar panel installation guy has the suit and ability to do spacewalks, etc. while cybertech comes with the cost of being easier to track as an individual (between the special parts you need, never mind if it’s connected to the internet in any way).

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All Genres isn’t actually all genres

February 19, 2022

A tweet I saw this morning made me chuckle:

I played a bunch of GURPS back in high school. I’ve played Big Eyes Small Mouth, FUDGE, FATE, Savage Worlds, and probably read through a good number of ‘genreless’ RPGs. Funny enough though, I think there’s two big hurdles people miss when they think genreless RPGs are the answer to all things.

The lesser issue is conversion work. Just because the rules don’t get in the way of you playing whatever genre, doesn’t mean the material you need to play is ready; how much prep time do you need to stat up things? How much time do you have to spend figuring out which subrules work for THIS thing you’re trying to do? How much time do you spend explaining this new subset of systems to players? FATE games tend to skip a lot of this by making aspects just “labels” you toss on rather than subrules, and this is one solution.

The bigger issue is structure of play. GURPS is very well suited for dealing with “does X happen or not?” with a skill roll or ability check. It is not structured to set up pacing for a game of tragedy, it will not force players to make choices of loyalty, it will not make your give up your treasured values one by one on a quest of vengeance. There are genres and fiction archtypes that basically thrive on these things, and, also rpgs that do these things as part of the system. Genreless games don’t have these structures because… well, they’re literally genre defining and very much at odds with each other.

Someone shooting someone with a shotgun is a skill check. What it looks like and means in a Looney Tunes cartoon, vs. a grindhouse revenge movie vs. a B Zombie film vs. a noir detective novel vs. a war-is-hell story are all different. WHY you shoot someone, what drives you to make that choice, those are also extremely different as well. Most genreless systems depend on a group enforcing those expectations and being genre savvy enough to know when, how far, to go.

When I was a teenager and played a lot of GURPS, when I found Cyberpunk 2020, I moved over to running/playing that more. While I could have had “more flexibility” with GURPS, Cyberpunk was already ready to go, if I handed the book to a player, I didn’t have to explain setting to them, it was right there. Gameplay moved faster, which fit the feel we wanted for the game. (It also, system-wise, felt better than it’s competitor Shadowrun, for moving faster, etc.)

For most people these days, when they want a “genreless” system, what I usually hear is they want something the systems they’ve tried have not provided. Often that has me pointing them to Primetime Adventures, since a lot of times what folks want is a system that encourages narrativism, but all they can find are systems built around skill rolls and 5 foot tactical squares.

I just wish more people who are hardcore “genreless system” advocates knew how to ask a few more questions to even see if the system would actually help folks get what they want or not, before simply shooting off at the hip.


Extensibility vs. Completeness Design

February 4, 2022

I’ve been looking at a lot of games in the last year or two and one thing I realized is a key design choice is whether the mechanics and system are built around extensibility or completeness as the core philosophy.

Completeness Design

Some games are built with the idea that the core rules are flexible and can encompass pretty much any situation that is likely to appear. That might be because the theme/situation of the game is limited and the rules are extensively built around that (Poison’d is about pirates, and the rules around Cruel Fates and weapons etc. encompass that situation fairly well) or the rules are very broad and just about anything can fit into it (The Pool, Primetime Adventures, Universalis, FATE games, Cortex games, Heroquest/Hero Wars).

Completeness design systems have some advantages:

  • These games are usually quicker to learn, there’s less exception based rules.
  • There’s less to keep track of (in terms of rules)
  • Many of these games make improv easily – modeling anything or outcomes is usually pretty easy because the rules already encompass it.
  • This kind of design works well for games that include closed economy pacing mechanics; things that drive a story forward to a systemic outcome.

There are some disadvantages too:

  • You have less specific, unique mechanics for different things. Poorly done, everything feels the same.
  • Depending on the rules, fitting everything into the existing system may require fairly good skills at abstraction – some people find this very hard
  • Some systems have a tight economy in the game system; adjustments might result in imbalancing the game as a whole or breaking some pacing mechanic
  • From a business side – you don’t really need to sell anything past the core book

Extensibility Design

Many games are built with the idea that you will need specific rules for many things and that the system is built with the expectation more rules will be added or imported later (whether homebrew add-ons or sold supplements). This is pretty much the standard for D&D and most games out of the 80s and much of the 90s.

Extensibility design advantages:

  • Exception based rules makes it possible to model many “factors” in any situation, which can lead to some fun tactics and strategizing (it is the same thing that makes Magic the Gathering work, or hell, the different move sets in Chess)
  • You can reduce the amount of abstraction needed to run the game since rules can be specific to different situations directly
  • Player base can fiddle with lots of small modifications; encourages tinkering (which, in the modern internet era works as a form of promotion too -everyone cross promotes by talking about what little rules or ideas they’re thinking about).
  • From the business side – you can sell endless expansions with specific rulesets

Extensibility disadvantages:

  • There can be a LOT of different rules to learn, or at least skim past. It can be overwhelming for new players.
  • If one player like a GM is expected to interface with them all, that can be a high cognitive load as well
  • Cross coordinating rules from many books is also a challenge
  • It’s possible to create serious sets of imbalance – as much as the extensible rules work for CCGs like Magic the Gathering it is also why they end up rebooting the game every few years; the subsets start forming combinations that are highly unbalancing
  • Improv can be made harder if the system is expecting “specific interfacing rules” and you have to math/kludge together a lot to play.
  • Likewise, extensibility systems can hide core design logic; you can find people trying to hack or mod systems to do things they’re not cut out to do – but because it’s the result of layers of rules, it’s not immediately apparent. If you want people to mod and add more onto a system, it helps to make those issues clear to avoid pitfalls.

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