I often look to all types of games when considering game design and play issues. Yesterday I had enough friends come through who were willing to try out some boardgames I hadn’t gotten a chance to play yet – the more involved, crunchy-rules kind. Between those games, it occurred to me a key goal of game design that often isn’t addressed for RPGS: First Session Comprehension.
The basic idea is this: by the time you finish the first session/game, you should have a firm grasp of the procedures of play, a good idea of viable options, and a notion towards more optimal options to go try out.
Procedures of Play
These are the logistics of play – how to set up (for RPGs, this includes things like character generation), the flow of resolutions, how to track resources, and, how things like gameboards, cards, or figures are used.
For one of the games, we failed to even get past set up, because the instruction manual was fairly opaque, and we set aside the game for another time (after, say, finding a tutorial video or something.) This was a lot like my first experiences trying to run Red Box D&D as a kid – we’d get to the “buy your equipment” part and everyone would stall out, either not sure what to get, or get bored and quit.
Many RPGs are designed with the idea most, if not all, of the group will have read the procedures of play, which is already a step beyond what boardgames expect. Dogs in the Vineyard had a great idea of putting the basic resolution procedure on the character sheet, which mirrors a lot of boardgames idea of a reference card that shows how to play out your turn. Other RPGs, on the other hand, assume “just tell the GM what you want to do” is adequate, but that also has the pitfall for counterintuitive results (for the player) or frustration if they run into non-viable actions.
“What can I do?” Viable actions are second step – how can your pieces move, how can you spend resources, can you initiate some kind of special sub-system rules (“I’m declaring a duel!”) etc.
Tabletop RPGs have two layers here. First is “I can do anything fictionally viable for my character”, which is a hurdle very different than boardgames. While I’ve seen people take to this quite quickly, for traditional RPGs it seems to slow down and players can take as much as 3-5 sessions to get it. (I feel a lot of it has to do with opacity of WHEN rules are applied, vs. not).
“What are the best options?” This is the point where people are truly playing the game – they’re not having to fuss with the mechanics of HOW to play, they’re not trying to remember what they CAN do, but they can now focus on what they SHOULD do.
And while “optimal” is a word most folks think of applying to Gamist goals (how to win), it applies equally to the goals of Simulationist play (how to make this FEEL like the fiction/experience we’re trying to create) or Narrativism (how to MAKE compelling, dramatic situations as we go). In all cases it is about how to best use the tools towards the established game agenda.
The goal for design in comprehension
The better designed boardgames and card games, I see the goal is getting people to cycle through those three levels turn-by-turn, such that they’re already looking at optimal actions before they’re even done playing the first game. Once people are thinking of optimal actions, they’re playing out scenarios in their head, of what to do, and whether something would work or not – and they’re eager to try it out on the next go around.
For tabletop RPGs, however, I feel like traditionally we’ve accepted 3-6 sessions, and even with the lighter indie game arena, we’re still talking 2-3 sessions before people get a good feel for what’s happening.
Because tabletop RPGs have most of the action exist in a fiction space that we collectively imagine, there’s a cognitive load that makes it harder in general (I cannot simply look at the game board and get an idea of the game state, I must remember and imagine what is happening, and communicate with others to get that info or clarify it). Even then, I think we could probably do better, design-wise, thinking about these things and applying them to our games.
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