A Matter of Taste

So, before we go into how to encourage a particular genre with the rules, there is the question of what genre to shoot for. If my whole contention is that the real draw of RPGs is the non-mechanical aspects, then a good starter RPG needs to have a genre with wide appeal and plenty of material to fire the imagination. I'll run through a brief list of some popular settings/genres and my thoughts on them, but this is an area where personal taste could cloud my judgement extraordinarily easily, so I would very much appreciate comments on what flavors are good choices for players new to roleplaying.

Heroic Fantasy: By 'Heroic Fantasy', I basically mean Dungeons and Dragons. I'll include the grittier Sword and Sorcery flavor under this umbrella to keep things brief. In a heroic fantasy game, the players take on the roles of gifted individuals in a fantastic world (usually pseudo-medieval) and fight monsters and villains with magic, blades, and bows (again, usually. Star Wars has a lot of 'heroic fantasy' elements, despite being in space). Settings frequently come from mythology, popular fantasy books (like Lord of the Rings), or historical/pseudo-historical sources (like '7th Sea', which is roughly based on Age of Exploration Europe, but is a made up world with its own history). Benefits include that it is a familiar genre/setting to just about everyone, wide flexibility in the sorts of characters that are helpful, and just plain imagination firing fantastic elements. Negatives are that many folks have negative stereotypes associated with the genre (it's nerdy, it's for kids, it's the work of Satan, et cetera), and that many of the things you can do (magic, sword fights, lots of monsters running around) lend themselves to more complex rules.

Space Opera: Yes, the Star Wars genre. As mentioned above, it has a lot in common with heroic fantasy, and considering both have ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th century pulp writers, this is unsurprising. Space Operas are characterized by, well, space, as well as a usually 'fuzzy' approach to science and technology, a wealth of alien species and cultures, and a generally swashbuckling approach to problems. Benefits include wide knowledge and acceptance of (at least for Star Wars) which gives you players who already have a 'buy in' to the setting, the excuse to come up with just about any situation you want for adventures (on this newly discovered planet. . .), and the fact that you get to use laser guns. Downsides could include many of those listed for heroic fantasy, as well as the potential to need to handle multiple scales of conflict - human scale as well as space ship scale, for example.

Hard Science Fiction: Hard science fiction is a setting where the technology all either exists or else is based on extrapolations from current knowledge that are all consistent with modern knowledge of physics and science. A frequent 'freebie' is to assume some newly discovered aspect of the physical world that allows faster than light travel, and then treat everything else more rigorously. The emphasis on gritty realism of technology usually spills over into other venues, with realistic politics and gritty challenges based on the hard realities of space being popular sources of drama. Babylon 5, Jovian Chronicles, and Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie) are all 'hard' sci-fi to some degree or another. While the grittier drama and more serious tone of the game might appeal to some players, in reality this is even more of a niche genre than Space Opera or Heroic Fantasy. I love it so, but I don't think it's a good choice as a default for a starter game.

Pulp!: As alluded to earlier, pulp writing covers a fairly large range of genres, from HP Lovecraft to H Rider Haggard to Edgar Rice Burroughs and beyond. Spirit of the Century does an excellent job of marking out a 'default' pulp setting that focuses on early 20th century adventure with hints of the weird creeping in (rather like Indiana Jones) and an emphasis on the saving power of Science! I like to think of pulp as a genre 'overlay'. Since a huge variety of pulp magazines published a multitude of genres from historical fiction to weird horror, you can easily pick some other more general genre, and 'pulp it'. In pulping a genre, expect to up the action, up the melodrama, make the main characters a little larger than life, make the extras a little more two dimensional, and to keep the pace frenetic. Benefits of the default roaring 20s pulp setting or the wider pulp genre umbrella include emphasis on action, a purposefully simple approach to the world, and a flexibility in what sort of elements to incorporate. Downsides are that a lot of the original pulp sources are, well, written for adolescent boys in the 20s and 30s (or even before), and so tend to be sexist and occasionally racist. That doesn't mean your game needs to bring those elements in, but your players may have existing baggage about the setting. That being said, I'm leaning pretty strongly towards a pulp 'flavor' to whatever genre I pick, and Spirit of the Century is already an excellent quick to pick up game with a delightful roaring 20s pulp setting in the vein of Doc Savage or Johnny Quest.

Horror/Supernatural: For ease, I'm rolling together all the different flavors of horror and games about things that bump in the night. Vampire, Call of Cthulhu (pulp horror!), or whatever else, all of these games have a strong focus on either being scary, or at least on dark subject matter. As with the hard sci-fi, this darker subject matter may appeal to certain folks, especially those wishing their games to have a consciously more 'mature' theme. While I love this genre, I have a few issues with it as a starter game. For one, it's really hard to establish genuine horror in an RPG, and I imagine struggling to remember new rules and how this whole roleplaying thing works can't contribute to a feeling of dread. Likewise, by its nature, horror tends to touch on disturbing and unpleasant subject matter, and one of the ways RPGs make those themes especially immediate is to thrust the players into dealing with them directly via their characters. I think a starter game should be way more concerned with making players comfortable than with pushing their boundaries. So, with a heavy sigh, I'm going to put aside the sanity points and save them for when my novice roleplayers are hungry for more depth.

(a potential exception: a game on or around Halloween, when everybody's in a spooky-stuff mood anyway)

Westerns: Here's a genre with even wider appeal than the Space Opera or Heroic Fantasy settings. Not everybody loves westerns, but it's pretty rare to find someone who is entirely opposed to the idea. You have plenty of opportunity for action, violence, heists, and otherwise living outside the comfortable reach of the law or social norms. Unfortunately, being based on a fairly recent and well-known historical period gives you less room to play with things. Alternate history is a good way to get around this, and "Dogs in the Vineyard" does an amazing job of keeping a rock-solid western feel while allowing plenty of flexibility in making the game world suit your group. Some problems that could come out of a totally historical western are things like gender roles, race relations, and the interference of actual historical personages. I would give Samurai settings their own entry, but if Kurosawa and his influence on latter-day westerns didn't convince you, most of the issues and benefits apply equally to Samurai settings as they do to westerns, except that in America, it's a narrower interest than westerns.

Action (the Ah-nahld genre): By 'Action', I here mean the genre of popcorn munching action movies. I don't remember the name of it, but I played a pick up game based on action movies where the more ridiculous and cinematic your described action, the *easier* it was to succeed. Suffice to say, it was entertaining and people went over the top. This is a fun and easy to get into genre with loads of cultural context to fit it into. On the other hand, it doesn't by nature focus very much on the roleplaying aspect of things, being defined instead by the aspects of the game most usually revolving around dice and mechanics. My personal take is that Action is a genre better mined for content to throw into other genres/settings than one to host a game all by itself.

Some other genres I have less experience with (Gaming-wise) and thus less to say, but thought I should throw out there are:

As I said at the get go, I'd love the hear your thoughts on various roleplaying genres and their utility for introducing new players.

Setting vs Genre

Right now I want to talk about a distinction I recently came up with between setting and genre. Both get used pretty interchangeably with respect to RPGs, with setting usually having a slightly narrower focus. And either one is usually considered fairly separate from rules issues. But in a discussion of whether it was better to have specific rules for every game setting, or to have a great set of generic rules to use in whatever setting, I realized something about the interaction of the game rules and the game world that I think warrants a distinction in terms.

I realized that game rules have more to do with what the people in the world can do, and what sorts of things are likely to happen. More focused on the action and tone than on the physical places, objects and people. Pretty arbitrarily, I decided 'genre' fits this category.

Separate from genre, then, is setting. By setting here, I mean the actual physical characteristics. The scenery, the playable races, the technology level, and so forth.

Of course, these two categories interact and overlap to a fair degree, but some examples might help to clarify what I mean, and then I'll go into why I think rules affect genre more than setting.

Let's say you have two games with similar settings. Both take place over many planets, have people and aliens with spaceships and guns, and include faster than light travel, lasers, and psychic powers. But in one of these settings, psychic powers come from tapping into a dangerous and largely hostile alternate dimension, humanity is xenophobic and backwards, technology is little understood and maintained by a semi-mystical priesthood, and there is only war. In the other, psychic powers represent the next step in evolution, humans interact with aliens in a number of ways, including trade, diplomacy, and war, technology is basically an extrapolation of what is currently understood, and one piece of it is the last, best hope for peace.

As you can see, the physical elements of both settings have little to distinguish them, but what those worlds *do* with these things makes all the difference in the world. While both have 'space' as a setting, one has a genre of 'gothic science fantasy' while the other might be called 'hard science political drama' (or, you might call one 'Warhammer 40,000' and the other 'Babylon 5', but you get the idea).

It is my suspicion that game rules have more influence on genre than they do on setting. I'm pretty sure that if you made a space game with minimally modified D&D rules, it would still 'feel' like heroic fantasy, even though your barbarian has chain axes and your space elf has a laser bow, or whatever. Or else you get Spelljammer. That would also explain why you have had for a long time a number of campaign settings for D&D with minimal rules tweaks, but those that change the genre significantly from heroic fantasy have had the most significant rules changes (like horror in Ravenloft or post-apocalyptic survival in Dark Sun).

A good rule of thumb for finding the difference between setting and genre is to take a game world (or movie world or whatever) and see if you can describe it as some cliche or familiar genre in X (where X describes a difference in physical location). Some example might include:

  • "It's a western in Space"

  • "It's like cyberpunk in the wild west, but with steam power"

  • "It's like a medieval x-files"

So, where all this gets me is that the goal of rules design is to come up with rules that reinforce the genre of a game rather than trying to capture aspects of the setting. If your setting has elves, that's cool and all, but if they're just tall, pretty people they don't really need different rules. But if elven culture causes them to act in very different ways, or if subtle differences in their physiology makes them move differently, then rules can reinforce that.

Agon does an amazing job of defining its genre through rules, and even suggests multiple settings in addition to the default of ancient Greek mythology that would use the same genre.

So, is this a useful distinction? Or is it splitting hairs?

Rules and Roleplaying

Well, last time I talked about how I want to focus more on roleplay than on game mechanics in my starter RPG. Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge game mechanics nut. Sometimes I enjoy designing game rules more than I do actually playing them. As a kid, I once stayed up all night designing a wargame for little green army men that we never got to play because we were so excited about coming up with rules for each weapon, each vehicle, and every situation we could imagine. I mean, that is why I'm writing a game design blog right now, after all. So, for a starter RPG, whatever rules I do come up with, I want to be quality rules, but I want them to push the focus towards roleplaying rather than on to the interaction of different parts of the rules (such as which combination of options makes the best combat monster, or whatever). Later on, I'll have a whole series of posts on what I've learned from reading the works of smarter and more experienced game designers than myself, but for now I'll layout some general thoughts on the interaction of rules and roleplaying.

In my post on Setting vs Genre, I talked about how rules interact more with the 'genre' of a game than with the setting. Basically I defined genre as having more to do with how things in your game world act and what people do with them, whereas setting is the stuff that's there. With this distinction, it's pretty obvious that rules would have more to do with genre since rules cover actions. You don't have rules for whether a tree is there or not (well, you might if you have an anally retentive terrain generation system for a focus on tactics, but even there your interest is in how it will interact with the people around it). But you do have rules for the more common actions, like fast-talking and shooting and investigating and such like. And I'm willing to bet that your game has much more detailed investigation rules if it's about discovering hidden truths and following mysteries than a game about fighting monsters and taking their treasure would have.

And this gets us into an important interaction between rules and roleplaying: rules are for when the characters do stuff. And, more specifically, they're for when they do stuff that someone else might take issue with. You usually don't roll because a character walks across the street. But when he rushes across the street attempting to dodge machine gun fire, you probably would roll something! There's a conflict of interest here. This is what makes the situation interesting enough to focus in on with rules. That conflict also makes it important to determine which party gets to have its say, and things are more fair when there are rules involved. Otherwise it might be roleplaying, but it's not a game.

This brings us back to genre. Genre helps you to determine what conflicts of interest are worth paying attention to, and how much attention to pay to them. Pretty much any game is going to pay at least some attention to people trying to do violence to one another (or to owlbears or mynocks, or whatever), but it says a lot about the genre desired if the game has detailed rules on quick-draw duels or back and forth sword fights or large scale battles. A particular game system might have some kind of rules for all of those violent conflicts of interest, but it's a good bet that it focuses in on some more than others, and it's a better bet that that focus is on those ares most relevant to the genre of the game.

Since actual play time is the only currency that really matters in a game (hat tip to Ars Ludi), genre influencing rules will actually bend the roleplaying towards the genre the game is designed for. If you cover a pistol duel with one quick set of highly abstracted rolls that nobody is really optimized for, pistol dueling is a lot less likely to take a central place in the headspace of the players. If, on the other hand, you have detailed step by step rules that tie into multiple characteristics such that everybody has something relevant to pistol dueling and some folks are especially good at it, the game is going to take more time and focus on that situation, and players will devote more time and attention to it.

The other side of this coin is pretty important, though. And that is where rules substitute for roleplaying. Imagine a game where you simply said "Okay, roll to see how well your conversation went" with zero actual talking. Again with thanks to Ars Ludi, one common example is the spot check. Overuse of perception type skills takes players out of asking questions about their environment and becoming involved in it. And this brings me to another important element in 'what rules are for in an RPG': rules are for doing the things that the players can't do.

This might cover the fact that there are no actual goblins to hit with a sword, or it might cover the fact that most folks who want to play a scholar of arcane secrets probably aren't themselves scholars of arcane secrets. But when it comes to deciding what a player pays attention to, or coming up with plans, that very much is in the player's control. When it comes to running a game, my rule of thumb when deciding whether something should be handled by the player or by the character's abilities is to go with what results in more interesting play. Thus, if a fairly dumb and unimaginative character is played by a clever player who comes up with a zany plan for a heist that will make the game more fun for everyone, then the dumb character has a brilliant flash of insight. Or, if a player doesn't know much about astrophysics, but it will make the game go along better for his character to come up with something in that field, then he can break out the dice. But for writing rules, especially those meant to encourage roleplaying more than mastery of a particular game system, I want to build in the right preferences, rather than relying on individual GMs to 'make it work' (though I'm sure they will, as GMs making fun games out of whatever rules they use is a long and proud tradition).

I think the way to go here is to create broad, flexible rules that deal more with generals than with specifics. Perhaps build in the option for players and GMs to delve deeper into specifics if they want, but if I have a choice between creating a game where you more frequently here "Well, there's not really a rule for that, so just roll X + Y and we'll see how it goes" than "No, you can't do that, because you didn't take X trait, Y feat, and Z specialization", I'd much rather go for the former. Some of the game rules I've read recently have introduced me to some really exciting ways to get a lot done with few, streamlined rules, and in the next few posts I'll discuss some of these ideas. But in the meantime, what do you think about how rules encourage or discourage roleplaying?

The RP in RPG

In my last post I talked about my own introduction to RPGs through D&D and it's possible shortcomings as a game for new players, and then a game I found particularly suited to the task, Teenagers From Outer Space.

So why set out to create a set of rules specifically for the purpose of introducing players to the hobby? Well, for one I have pragmatic reasons. I'm living and working in a place where I don't know any other roleplayers, and so I don't have the opportunity to indulge in my hobby of choice. But for another, I feel like it's a niche that could use filling. Most people who try out roleplaying are talked through their first few sessions by a more experienced friend in whatever game that friend happens to be playing or to particularly like. Or else a group of friends stumbles on one of the big ones (usually Dungeons and Dragons, which has recognized it's place as practically the only RPG with name recognition outside of roleplaying circles and introduced starter kits in a box and so forth).

But for the reasons outlined in my prior post with respect to D&D (though they apply to other established systems as well), I feel like the focus is often wrong in these introductory attempts. The D&D in a box games provide little background flavor or opportunities to delve into characters. Joining an existing game in a full-featured system can have a steep learning curve.
So, where do I think the focus should be? For one, I think the focus should be more on the RP and less on the G. Most folks already have a pretty good idea what a game is, and from childhood have been trained to follow some fairly arbitrary rules in order to have fun. What RPGs offer that parcheesi or checkers don't is the ability to combine the imagination and storytelling involved with reading a good book or getting into a movie with the structure and social elements of a game.

My goal is to come up with rules powerful enough to cover whatever situation a wily group of players may find themselves in (or at least, powerful enough to give the GM a fighting chance in winging it) but simple enough to be picked up quickly and to take a back seat to character decision making and interaction. I figure that anyone whose interests lean to character development and interaction will either keep up with my system or find other games with a similar philosophy and enjoy their interactive storytelling. Likewise, those players who find themselves hankering for more definition to their actions and tactical decision making can be led to those games that better fit their tastes. But I think it's easier to go from roleplaying focused games to 'crunchy' games than it is to go the other way, and that there are more folks more likely to be turned off by too much mechanical detail than likely to be turned off of the whole hobby from too little of that and too much story focus.
But I could be wrong, and I'd love to hear feedback on why I could be totally mistaken here.

Dungeons and Teenagers from Outer Space

I have a few ideas on what elements a good 'starter' RPG needs, and I've been reading through a number of games in order to find more ideas to add to that list. But I'll start with some of my actual play experience with starting new players on RPGs.

To start with the start, my own (and I suspect many others') first RPG was the venerable Dungeons and Dragons. I myself started out with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition. I had many a great game of AD&D and it will always hold a special place in my heart, but I have begun to expect that it hooked me into RPGs more because of who I am than because of the rules themselves.

When I first read through the Players Handbook, I was just a kid (nine years old). I found the rules bewilderingly complex. Once I actually sat down and played, that helped a lot, and when I reread the rules two or three years later, they seemed amazingly simple. For one thing, I'm sure my own increased maturity and mental faculties helped, and for another I'm sure that having play experience to map the abstract rules onto helped a lot, but recently I've started wondering if my initial reaction was solely due to my youth, or if perhaps older people with no prior knowledge might find them similarly bewildering.

The Dungeons and Dragons rules, of all editions, show their tactical wargaming roots, with a strong focus on multiple exciting things to do in combat and detailed rules to cover them. Fourth edition has gone a long way towards making these rules easy to grasp, provide balanced play, and to be pretty darn neat, honestly. But as much as I love detailed games and rules systems, I don't think it's any of these features that made me grow to love the hobby. THAC0 never fired my imagination, hit dice didn't keep me coming to the table, and encumbrance rules certainly didn't make me think I wanted to branch out and try other roleplaying games.

It was always the roleplaying itself that gave the rules their spice, the imaginary people and creatures in their imaginary worlds that kept me coming to the table and rolling those neat polyhedral dice. The rules were a means to an end, albeit an interesting means. They were a tool for fleshing out personas and interacting with their surroundings.

It wasn't very long before I was introduced to one of my favorite RPGs of all time, which produced some of my fondest in-game memories and stories, and yet was one of the least serious approaches to roleplaying I've ever seen. I'm talking about Teenagers From Outer Space (R. Talsorian Games, 3rd Edition, when they got all the zany Anime stuff).

Teenagers From Outer Space (TFOS) is a light hearted comedy roleplaying game about, well, teenagers, many of whom are from outer space. It helped that I was introduced to it by a talented and entertaining game master who made improvisation seem effortless and who seems to have been made to run wacky, alien-filled John Hughes style stories. He also frequently used TFOS as a 'gateway drug' into the wonderful world of roleplaying games.