Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Aiming for Your Target Audience

As I mentioned before in a previous column, I'm not in the habit of just linking to and repeating what other bloggers have to say, but occasionally I feel the need to do this in order to make a point. Yesterday I came across a really good column that I want to share here because it really helped me think more on the development of the Tankards & Broadswords RPG.

Over at the Viking Hat GM blog, the author talks about what happens when you suddenly realize the futility of using a given system if all you ever do is ignore 90% of what makes the system "itself". I.e., why bother using Rolemaster if you're ignoring all the rules that make the game "Rolemaster" - the charts, the maneuver rolls, the criticals. Why bother with GURPS Martial Arts if your players never bother to learn the difference between how one move works mechanically versus another. Sooner or later you realize that, if you're not using what makes the system "itself", you're doing yourself a disservice by continuing the charade and you're better off finding a system that jives more accurately with your style of play.

I can certainly relate to this. I've gamed and read and GMed a fair number of systems, and the (sad?) truth is, the majority of the 40+ RPGs sitting on my shelf, I'm never going to run. I really like Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane, but I'll never run it because there's just too much info for the players to digest without them owning their own copy of the rules, and I'd never want players to go out and drop $50 on a book when two thirds of it isn't information players are even supposed to read. I like Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying RPG, but like SWoSK, it's not a cheap book and 2/3rds of it isn't really intended to be for players.

I've got other RPGs that I feel are either too complex and convoluted mechanically, or are too "dense" in terms of the blended system/setting for casual players to get into. My current RPG of choice is Castles & Crusades, and it's not because I think it's a "better" RPG than other versions of D&D (I think it's better designed, but that's not the same as a better game), it's because I feel it's an easier game for casual players to understand and wrap their heads around - it keeps the "workflow" as direct as possible and doesn't really require the players to invest themselves in the system in order to get what they need out of it. If players also want to buy the books, all they need to invest is $20 to get the PHB - no one's having to drop a lot of cash on books that are only partially relevant to them.

All of this, I'm trying to keep at the forefront of my mind when writing the Tankards & Broadswords RPG. Over the course of my professional career, I've had to learn to be a very formal, precise, and articulate writer. Programming and HTML documentation, formal policy statements, explanatory how-to FAQs, and other work-related documents mean that while I can clearly and concisely provide information on how to go about doing something, I find that I can bore myself when I go back and read what I've written.

So it is with the T&B RPG that I all too often find myself writing as if I'm explaining to someone how to access a file share, or prepare an image for getting the best performance from a printer. I'm forgetting that in order for the game to be fun, the act of learning the game needs to be fun, which means the game itself needs to be written and designed in such a way that this act of exploration is, if not necessarily entertaining, it is at least engaging. Reading an RPG should never be a slog, it shouldn't be a head-scratcher, and you should always feel that you're getting more out of it than you're investing.

The same holds true with regards to designing the game itself. I think the natural tendency is for game designers to populate their systems with lots of "neat rules" that "enhance the role-playing experience". Well, while the rule might be neat, if no one remembers to use it, all you've done is waste word count. Sure, your system might have well-designed and well-written rules for weapons and armor degrading over time and use via the use of material hit points and effectiveness percentage values, but if the GM and players find that it's just a pain in the ass to have to go visit the blacksmith and pay gold to get their gear fixed all the time, or carry around four weapons because they keep breaking in battle, and then they start ignoring the rule because it's getting in the way of playing the game, all you've done is muddy the waters.

Now, perhaps your game is designed to be a very "realistic" game, and the people playing it want it to have rules for things like equipment degrading over time with use. In that case, by all means, go for it. Not to be over-critical of the Viking Hat GM, but it sounds like from his post that for years and years now he's been using RPG systems that are almost diametrically opposed to his and his player's gaming style, and frankly he probably should have come to terms with this long ago and done his best to find another system that does things another way. But we all go through periods of system denial, or system enablement, where we invest enormous effort in "tweaking the game to suit our needs" but wind up re-inventing it into something else entirely, while claiming the game is still "a good fit".

I suppose my long-winded point here is that when you're writing and designing RPG materials, whether they're adventures, or rules, or supplements, know your gaming audience, and only give them what they want. There's probably close to a thousand free or commercial RPG systems out there, covering a wide spectrum of preferences and styles. The best of these are written and designed by people who know who their audience is, and cater to that audience. The worst of these think they know who their audience is and are mistaken, or don't understand who their audience is, and do their audience a disservice because of it.

13 comments:

sirlarkins said...

I like Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying RPG, but like SWoSK, it's not a cheap book and 2/3rds of it isn't really intended to be for players.As an unabashed BRP fanboy, I am obliged to point out that there's now a free "BRP Lite" (in the manner of GURPS Lite) PDF available for downloading:

http://catalog.chaosium.com/product_info.php?products_id=3700

Badelaire said...

I just downloaded it and gave it a read-through.

Not bad, certainly enough to give a player a basic understanding of the game and how it works.

However, almost half of the document is wasted, in my opinion, with the usual "what is a role-playing game?" drivel as well as a whole section of adventures that could have easily been their own PDF. Again, I see no need to bundle player-only information with GM-only information.

But I will give kudos to Chaosium for releasing this, and amend my statement...somewhat.

Darkwing said...

I think this goes along with the post you made a while back about getting a GM that is compatible with the players. If the GM and the players want different things out of the game, it's a recipe for disaster.

In the end, the GM has to be flexible in terms of what kind of game he's going to run, both in terms of the type of game he wants to run, but also in the rules set he uses.

Kiashu said...

"Reading an RPG should never be a slog, it shouldn't be a head-scratcher, and you should always feel that you're getting more out of it than you're investing."I think this can be accomplished with concise writing. For GAMERS I set myself the goal of describing each skill and each rule in 25 words or less, and made it overall logical and assuming some common sense on the part of the players and GM reading it.

But the real issue is that you don't learn a game by reading it, you learn a game by playing it. Reading the rules of soccer does not really give you a sense of what a soccer game is actually like to play. Indeed, I doubt if even many professional players have read those rules. To know the game, play the game.

Given that, it's best for the rules to be over as soon as possible. Write them concisely and clearly and then let everyone get on with playing.

"it sounds like from his post that for years and years now he's been using RPG systems that are almost diametrically opposed to his and his player's gaming style"Not at all. In fact I am well-known amongst my circle of gamers for binning campaigns that aren't working, changing rules halfway through a campaign, and so on. Generally I'm the one pushing it, the players will say, "let's give the system another chance," while I say, "no, it gave us a boring game session, it needs to be euthanased."

The article came about as I reflected on my game book shelf, and asked myself why I'd spent all that money and yet not used those books in play for a couple of years now, and would I likely use them again?

Badelaire said...

"But the real issue is that you don't learn a game by reading it, you learn a game by playing it. Reading the rules of soccer does not really give you a sense of what a soccer game is actually like to play. Indeed, I doubt if even many professional players have read those rules. To know the game, play the game."Well, I'll mostly agree with this. To fully understand a game, you have to play it - that's how you discover the quirks of skill combinations and power balance and things like that. But I do think a reasonably intelligent person should be able to give a rules set a read-through, take a few notes, and come away with how the rules of the game function, at least on a mechanical level.

BUT, I get what you mean. Often it's only when seen in play that the light bulb pops on over your head and you say "aha!". To mitigate this issue a little, I do think loading a rules set with plenty of clear examples of the rules in play makes a lot of sense, and helps bridge the gap between the pure theoretical "book-learning" and the trial by fire of actual play.

"Not at all. In fact I am well-known amongst my circle of gamers for binning campaigns that aren't working, changing rules halfway through a campaign, and so on."Sorry about that - my poor reading through what you were saying, bad representation and all that.

I can fully understand what you mean with regards to having hundreds of dollars worth of a system sitting on your shelves and realizing you never want to use it again. I never plan on running GURPS, although I don't mind playing it. However, almost everything I have GURPS-related is setting sourcebooks, which I love just because they are a wealth of distilled information.

Sorry about any of the confusion, but thank you for your comment!

Timeshadows said...

By analogy:

When HP/Compaq, Kodak, and Lexmark all have a demographic for one of the new sorts of printers they think the market needs, some folks buy HP, others, Kodak, and others, Lexmark, ...and others purchase lesser-known printers for a variety of reasons.
Is the printer market diminished by the ubiquity of choices, even those printers that fail to accomplish what they set out?

For every five SenZarr, flash-in-the-pan RPGs, there is one that endures, at least as a favourite (even one never played).
I think that as a commercial art form, RPGs are a very healthy organic thing. The games usually are a barometer of social interests during their era, including sub-cultures such as fans of games like, 'The Thing that Ate the Late Show', or, 'Renegade Cops on Bikes'.

If serious examination of good rules design were the criterion for enduring charm, most of the old games would have gone extinct, and we know they didn't.

Just my take on the subject

Badelaire said...

"If serious examination of good rules design were the criterion for enduring charm, most of the old games would have gone extinct, and we know they didn't."Absolutely. Please don't take my comments to mean that any game that isn't "well designed" should be tossed aside. There's a game out there for everyone and people should play as you will.

I talk about game design not to necessarily denigrate older systems as games, but to look at them from a design point of view. I do dearly love old classic D&D - I own two copies of the Rules Cyclopedia - but I don't think it's a well designed game.

But whatever. You can't change the past and the only reason we can look back and say "this is pretty inefficient" is because we've got decades of experience and hundreds upon hundreds of games to make comparisons. I talk about "well-designed" games and "poorly designed" games because I think NOW, 35 years after D&D was published, there is a better idea of what paths in game design are more intuitive and lead to less frustrating gameplay.

But at the end of the day, I'm not here to tell anyone their favorite game is crap. Sometimes even poor "design" is overshadowed by wonderful "game-ness".

Alexis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexis said...

This is perhaps pedantic:

No matter the system, it has to be flexible enough to allow me as a player to "goof' with what is going on. If you put me in a room filled with barrels of jello mold, your combat system ought to have a kind of answer for me when I say that I'm using my warp wood to break barrels and cover the floor with gelatin...how is that going to affect the hoofed creatures I'm fighting right now as compared to how it will affect my primate-footed companions?

The only fully functional practical system is in the DM's head--and it is only as valuable as personal consistency from night to night allows.

Timeshadows said...

Badelaire,

I completely agree that perhaps a good percentage (most?) RPGs are mechanically of less than sterling quality.

One thing, though, that comes to mind are expertly wrought games that are virtually unplayable. Living Steel immediately comes to mind.

I just think that if the Sires of this hobby suggested, at the end of the day, that we already had all the rules and rulings we ever needed to make the game work, that it likely is true, and that less is more.

Now, if we are talking about presentation and the ability to draw a potential audience due to its cosmetic and marketing image/presence, then yes, RPGs could certainly get slicker yet, but isn't that one of the things some folks don't like about the 3.x+ editions?

Or am I still not getting it?
> looks at early AM hour <

Badelaire said...

Timeshadows,

I think your points are perfectly valid. And I'll agree that a game can be mechanically spot-on, but without a "soul" it's not going to go anywhere.

"I just think that if the Sires of this hobby suggested, at the end of the day, that we already had all the rules and rulings we ever needed to make the game work, that it likely is true, and that less is more."I'm not sure what you mean by "the game" here. I am personally very much against the idea that there's one "best" system, that rules light is inherently "better" than rules heavy, that Swords & Wizardry is the only RPG you ever need for the rest of your life, etc. etc..

I guess part of my ;references is that I come at things from a IT/Programming background, and there you do have "best practices". Yes, there's other ways to do X, Y, and Z, and they will work, and sometimes they are better suited for your environment - but there are also well-established methods of doing things that are preferable for most situations.

However, "good" design depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is your target audience. Rolemaster and GURPS are well designed for those who want a high level of fine detail and, I think, at least a substantial level of "realism" or the ability to facilitate realism. On the other hand, a game like Barbarians of Lemuria is perfectly well designed for what it is aiming for - an extremely fast, casual, no-need-to-look-up-the-rules game that you can probably play perfectly well three sheets to the wind.

As for "design" in terms of presentation, that's a whole other topic of discussion. Personally I have no problem with "slick", except that the term alone I think carries with it a lot of negative connotations that I feel are unfair.

Complaining that D&D 3.X was too "slick" looking to me is laughable - by the time 3E debuted, to NOT have a "slick looking" product would have been a death sentence, and I don't care what the Grognards think. After the RPG sea change of the 90's, D&D either had to step up and buy a new wardrobe, or just sit at home and not go to the prom. It was that simple.

Now I'm just starting to ramble. Yes, I think there is a "good" way and a "bad" way to design a RPG. No, I don't think they are universally applicable - I think they depend on who you're marketing to and what your player base wants to get out of your game. And yes, even a well "designed" game isn't going to go anywhere if it lacks the heart and soul that make people want to play it (I now have to find this "Living Steel" of which you speak - I don't think it's crossed my radar before).

Anyhow, thanks very much for your comments - I welcome any dialogue, whether someone agrees or disagrees.

Timeshadows said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Steel

I really just like talking things through until I finally get what someone is saying. I don't necessarily disagree with a single point you have made. :)

Nor was/am I saying that there is a single best RPG or Panacea.
My reference to the Sires and the paraphrase only meant to suggest that the knowledge of what it means to roleplay is all the 'game' one 'needs' -- I have been initiated into RPGs, therefore I never 'need' to pick up another rules-set to run a game, any game, every future game, simply because I have already learnt that skill in its fundamental form.

While I would like my RPG to be both true to the source material, and effectively reach an audience, but, at the end of the day, I'm not really sure which is more important to me.

Empire of the Petal Throne is an example of that -- the rules (by that day's standard) were run-of-the-mill, but it made very little attempt to speak to a specific demographic. Whoever was reading those words was in fact, its target audience. Perhaps a shot in the dark, but folks are still playing it, and the other excruciating systems created for it, but Tekumel exists apart from the RPGs.

Darn, I'm posting even later than before. I must be intellectually masochistic or something.

In any case, thanks for the conversation. :D

OdRook said...

Similar to Sirlarkins, I am obliged, as an enthusiastic Savage Worlds booster, to point you to the Solomon Kane Player's Guide at http://www.studio2publishing.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=25_74_125&products_id=2453

It's a PDF for $15 that contains all the rules up through the magic system - it is literally the first 114 pages of the core book, so you can even refer to the page numbers without having to 'translate.'

Alternately, the core rulebook for the system, the Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition, is still in retail for $9.99. There are some differences - different Edges and Hindrances, equipment lists, a few of the rules were tweaked between editions but conversion is pretty easy, and the magic systems are significantly different (but again, conversion is easier than it might at first look). That would make it easy for the players to have a hardcopy at hand for this and other campaigns (if you find you enjoy the system and wanted to try it in another setting, f'rinstance).