Archive for the ‘Forsaken Conversations’ Category


Designing the game to be learned vs. taught

August 7, 2022

Over on Twitter there’s a couple of nested conversations going on about the difference between people learning how to play from the text vs. learning from a GM explaing how the game works. As someone who was in elementary school and had to teach myself D&D from the Red Box, I have a lot of both experience and ideas about this.

Learning to play from the book

First, the only games where it can be a fair assumption most or all of your groups will read the rules to learn to play are those 1-4 page RPGs. A trifold brochure game, or something like Lady Blackbird. Every other game, you can assume there is a split between the group.

The first group will read the rules and try to know how the game works. This ranges from “I get the basic mechanics and am fluent” to the player who makes a chart for ideal builds based on math or whatever.

The second group is skimming the book mostly looking for cool ideas to inspire their characters, think about the type of cool things that happen in the game, etc. Functionally what happens in play is that this group is still taught the rules by the GM or players more fluent in the mechanics, anyway.

As a designer, it’s key to recognize you have both types, and often enough, it may just be the GM who read the rules and now has to teach them.

Teaching how to play

Teaching how to play is a different matter altogether. The rules as a text reference may have all the rules for say, magic, in one section. However when you teach the group how magic works, you probably don’t need to explain the WHOLE section – you probably only need a very basic introduction to start it off and to come back and get deeper with it as needed.

The questions in teaching how to play are:

  • What order to we introduce concepts?
  • How deep do we go into any set of rules vs. put to the side for later?
  • How much does anyone need to know about the structure of play and how to use the mechanics to generally TRY to get the outcomes they want? (fluency)

Examples to check out

There’s no one answer, but I think there’s several games that have great examples worth looking at. Probably the most recent, and strongest standout game that teaches the GM how to teach it, is The Green Knight, which I’ve written about recently. Thirsty Sword Lesbians has the hands-down best teaching/reference handout pages I’ve seen so far. It walks you through setting up the game, teaching the basic rules and running a session. These sheets for Primetime Adventures worked great as quicksheets for the rules and as teaching aids. I know they were designed to be cut up into cards but just using the sheets as is worked better for my games. Dogs in the Vineyard had a great idea of putting the relevant mechanics directly on the character sheets and we can see some of the mirrored with the Playbooks in Apocalypse World.

Nowhere near the Same Page

And all of this is before we get to the common issue of “I read part of the rules and assumed the rest of the game works like (other RPG)” which happens quite often. It’s frustrating to design your game having to explicitly communicate where it differs from D&D, but unfortunately it is a common experience that can avoid some of the problems for new groups.

Now mind you, I’m not saying the designer is god in all of this; however, as the designer, you’re charging money to give people your game… and frankly, the RPG space has been full of decades of “well the group (aka THE GM) will figure it out” lazy design which has led to a lot of problems. Being clear about the baseline assumptions for your game make it easier to teach, and, easier to houserule.

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Same Old Song

April 15, 2022

Tanya believes that the only way to change things is to have more non-white, non-male people involved at all levels of the games industry, but especially at the top. “It’s not good enough to have the representation in games themselves be better, but the people writing/making the games are no different,” she says. “People get exhausted coming to work and being the only person of colour, the only out queer person … often people want to speak up, but they also need their jobs, and it’s difficult.”

I remember many years ago, someone wanted to do an RPG based on indigenous mythology and wanted me to be a consultant. I remember asking “Why are you asking me (not an indigenous person) instead of contacting the people whose stories you’re trying to profit from?” Unsurprisingly, they went ahead and made the game anyway, without consulting anyone then got angry when folks pointed out all the incorrect terms and ideas they used.

Just a few months ago, someone brought up a particularly egregious bit of GM advice in D&D 5E which managed to mash together a bunch of asian cultures in a rather loaf-mouthed, extreme ass-showing, full commitment to ignorance fashion.

I also don’t want people to imagine that simply having someone of X culture/descent on their project automatically is a gold stamp of approval either; as Tanya notes – a single team member may not have the clout to push for needed changes or feel safe in trying to push for it. We saw recently in tech several marginalized people have been pushed out, whether they were advocating against open segregation logics in the workplace or bare minimum ethics in the business practices. The fact that so many of these game creative spaces operate from a default of Segregation, or Apartheid in terms of leadership and direction is pretty telling.

And of course, we can’t assume “interest in POC culture” is any kind of indication of good intent, or that it’s not open racist propaganda, like the kind used to rationalize historical genocides, including from “established” publishers, and obviously, it is clearly the opposite of good intentions when people get VERY ANGRY for SOME REASON at the suggestion of folks who are not white men getting creative control and compensation.

As I’ve written before, “who’s writing this?” is actually not even the real question – the real question is whether the game is part of the vast media ecosystem that encourages white supremacy and speaks over and for, people who should be handed the mic directly, instead.

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The Licensed Game Pitfall

April 13, 2022

I am unsurprised that the 5E D&D take on Dark Souls is… not a great fit.

Games built on pre-existing licenses often fall into this problem, usually because the people who decide the licensing have no real experience in the tabletop RPG world; “X popular thing + Y popular thing should work great, right?” It’s a failure based in the idea that most merchandise you expand into still function the same no matter what you put on it: no one says “Oh my Power Rangers backpack should function differently than my Naruto backpack.”. But for games, actually yes, the game should be different because the experience you’re emulating is different.

What are the fans looking for?

First off, you’re doing a license because you want to serve a fan base. It’s a good idea to know what the fans want. Here’s a thing; if you have to do surveys or marketing polls to even get an idea of what fans are looking for, you don’t have an expert on your team and you’re badly positioned. Hire someone who is in the fandom at least to start (also why are you doing this license if you have no fans involved yet?!?!).

In the case of Dark Souls, people love mastery and tactics. There’s an element of player skill involved. That skill can be “git gud” or it can be “I found a way to cheese this enemy”. Both are in the game’s fanbase.

What systems already do this?

What RPGs do anything like what you’re trying to do? Maybe none of them, but are any close or have some ideas you can pull? Legally, RPG mechanics can’t be copyrighted, so, you should research and see. Obviously, if there’s a pre existing system that’s hitting 70-80% of what you want, maybe you can license it? If you’re going to use a system, you should also be KEENLY aware of where the system DOESN’T fit with the things you want to have happen. Because that’s where your hard design work is going to go.

In the case of Dark Souls, there’s the Japanese official Dark Souls RPG (…which…seems like the obvious choice to license), a dozen indie RPGs that go for the Dark Souls feel, and, in the sense of combat mastery, some games that make use of “blow for blow” tactical play, like Riddle of Steel or Burning Wheel.

Project vs. Money

Finally, to one of the key points from the old Forge Forums I wish people didn’t lose; decide how much money you can afford to lose before starting the project and build your final game product within those means. (I wrote about this again back in 2010).

One of the problems that has plagued a lot of TTRPG space is people designing their game book to match other games; “They have 300 pages, I better have 300 pages”. Apparently the Dark Souls game was 500 pages. The Japanese Dark Souls RPG wasn’t 500 pages. The indie RPGs like Rune Cairn aren’t 500 pages. You’re generating a ton of page filler to meet a goal that no one is asking for; it is hustling backwards.

Now here’s the thing; if you go read the article, do you think the fans are more invested in have 500 pages or in having functional core game mechanics? Which would have been a better investment of time and money?

Anyway, it’s deeply frustrating and sad because tabletop RPGs are among the least expensive things to develop (compared to, videogames, Netflix series, mass runs of physical merchandising) and we’re forever stuck in this cycle of bad design choices with licensed games.

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“Go make your own” “No not like that”

May 29, 2021

As of today, Into the Motherlands Kickstarter is four times funded and has several weeks to still go. It has 14 videos on Youtube showing play and setting in action, using Cortex Prime, which they have stated may or may not be the final system they work with, but clearly shows they have a strong vision for the game.

As usually happens, angry Hatebros are upset to see POC doing well and succeeding and we basically get the same questions that rarely seem to spring up for white creators. It’s no surprise that racists come out in droves when anyone excels in ways that make whites feel jealous.

It’s wild to me because you can look at most IP/Franchise based RPG conversions and see a lot of terrible design and those give you even less info on what the vision / goals of system are and we don’t see open accusations of fraud or deception…

Anyway, we’re back to the same old problems we’ve always had. Some folks got “whites only” signs in their heads and at their game tables and are very angry other people don’t play by those rules.


Basically this.

April 16, 2021