Thursday, February 4, 2010

RPG Designers - Easy Equals True

My good friend Masakari forwarded on an interesting article about cognitive fluency and "dis-fluency" this morning. The idea behind this concept is that the easier and more intuitive something is for a person to process, the "truer" that person feels the idea is, and the more trust they have in that idea. This is one of the reasons a lot of axioms rhyme, such as "a stitch in time saves nine", or why a lot of the best advertising campaigns use very simple or rhyming jingles or catch-phrases. Something as basic and simple as the layout and font used in presenting an idea can influence the reader; the easier a font is to read and the cleaner and more accessible the layout, the more the reader will have faith in the content they are reading.

The full article can be read here, from the Boston Globe.

In terms of RPG writing and design, the applications of this principle are obvious. If you're working towards an RPG system that you want to be readily trusted and accepted by those who read it and whom you see as potential players, you are going to want to make the rules and the layout as clean, simple, and "easy" as you can. Now, you'd think this is a pretty obvious concept; no one wants to make an "entry-level" RPG into some kind of baroque labyrinth of convoluted text and imagery that befuddles and confuses the reader. However, writing and designing one's RPG with this concept in mind can be beneficial to you in several ways.

One thing that a lot of designers and writers have trouble with is distancing oneself from the work. You create your RPG and you think to yourself, "How could anyone not get how the rules for armor penetration work? They're so simple". Then you hand the rules off and the first thing people point out is how convoluted your logic is in that section of the rules. Because you understand how a rule works, it is familiar to you, and therefore you trust that the rule will make sense to others.

Another idea that you can really run with is that complex ideas should be given simple names. Rather than calling it a "Impact Damage Multiplier", call it "Wallop" or "Oomph". Hit Points in D&D have been discussed to death for decades now, and these discussions can get shockingly complicated (HP being a mystical amalgam of physiological heartiness, mental fatigue, luck, divine intervention, combat skill, reflexes, etc. etc. etc.), but the truth of the "hit point" mechanic has stood the test of time; you've got a number, it goes down the more hurt you are, and when it reaches 0, you're dead. In other words, if you can take a complicated mechanic in your RPG system and boil it's core meaning down to just a handful of words, or better yet, a little jingle or rhyme, your players will accept it far more readily than the paragraph-long explanation of how the mechanic functions in the game.

Also, if you make it through the whole article (which I urge you to do), you'll also note that if you want people to really pay attention and think hard about something, it is actually a better idea to use a more difficult font and layout, and make the wording a little less intuitive. This instills a sense of un-familiarity and distrust in the reader, meaning they will read over the material more carefully and not so quickly make an intuitive judgment or assumption that could be an incorrect interpretation of what you're trying to get across.

I realize that my columns here have dropped down to almost nil over the last few months. I've been working on a lot that isn't gaming related, but I do want to try and bounce back some from this lack of activity. Hopefully I'll have a few more posts for you all in the coming weeks.


Christian said...

I love the hit point example. If it works, well, it works!

Norman Harman said...

> a little jingle or rhyme,

Maybe that is why THAC0 is survives. It
's always rolled off the tongue for me.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Very interesting; definitely something worth further consideration.