Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Why Let D&D Be the Gateway?

Teach Your Kids to Game Week last week started me thinking about introductory games. In my last two posts I talked about wonder in RPGs and gave some advice to non-gamers on what to buy to get their kids into tabletop RPGs. These two things are tangled up in another idea I have struggled with for some time as well.

The Problem

It feels like the RPG hobby is set up to make D&D and all its assumptions the default. This situation is perpetuated by WotC being the only company actively marketing to people who are not gaming yet. By ceding this introductory space to D&D we allow the idea to persist that D&D is the default RPG and for many, the correct way to play.

There is certainly good aspects to the situation. It makes it easy to jump from game to game as all fantasy RPGs have familiar elements such as elves, dwarves and hobbits. It is easy to understand who the good guys and bad guys are and understand the basics of the world without instruction. In this way, the bar is lowered for entry as the D&D platform for play has been repackaged for other media over the years, from video and board games to books and films. These advantages only serve the argument that D&D is the best product for introducing the hobby to new people who do not have someone to guide them into the hobby.

In my last post I explained why Fifth Edition D&D would be my first choice as a tool for someone to introduce themselves to RPGs. The thing is, I would not use it to introduce new people to RPGs when I run. I have done so, and it works well enough, but I prefer using something else for many reasons.

Philippe Caza

Genre is not one of them. I love playing in fantasy worlds. I love the possibilities allowed by the magic or blend of sorcery and super-science that is available in such settings. Genre may be a factor for others though and it is certainly a valid reason to try to grab people before D&D gives them ideas about the right way to play.

This past year, I used The Black Hack to introduce my kids and some others to playing fantasy RPGs. With my kids and their friends we call it D&D even though we're using a completely different 20 page rulebook designed for experienced GMs to run fantasy games with simplicity and flexibility in mind. I've reviewed it before if you are interested. Although, between their play and the blank spots in the rules we've added and changed so much it's not the Black Hack anymore either.

What bothers me about D&D as an intro-RPG is also one of the reasons it works so well. It is generic. It is the fantasy that everyone is familiar with and that means it in many ways is not fantastic at all. My struggle with this issue is mixed up with my post on wonder in RPGs. When I started playing D&D it was an amalgam of the different ideas in the fantasy genre. It drew on all kinds of fantasy traditions to create a tool to allow groups to play in worlds of their own creation, inspired their favourite stories and themes used by the game's creators or jump into their favourite worlds from the list of influences, such as E.R. Burroughs' Barsoom, R.E. Howard's Hyborian Age, Jack Vance's Dying Earth, Tolkien's Middle Earth, H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, and the world of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Forty years later, controversy and corporate design has scrubbed it clean. Now its place in fantasy has eclipsed the media that inspired it and the elements in the game are part of regular fantasy.

"Regular fantasy."

"Normal fantasy."

"Mainstream fantasy."

As accurate as these descriptive terms are, they are words that simply do not belong together! Fantasy is expansive and wondrous! I think the first game should open doors to new spaces, like it did in the 70s and 80s, rather than present people with a well-worn path. While the well worn path leads to fun, it does not often lead to wonder. (I know it can, and since that earlier post generated so much discussion I'll certainly talk about that in another post. There's a lot to process!) I don't want new people who pick up an RPG, flip through it and try it with their friends to only have fun. I want them to have their minds blown the way ours were blown when I first started playing.

I'm not saying it is bad that so many people are exposed to fantasy as a genre, but the regulation of it makes the achievement of wonder more difficult. Reinforcing the walls around the fantasy gospel with the intro to fantasy gaming only makes it harder for people to hit one of the the high points of the gaming experience; the 'holy shit that's amazing' moments.

Sundered Skies is a campaign setting for the Savage Worlds RPG that suffers from where it stays inside the walls. The world is a shattered collection of rocks floating in an glowing mist full of madness and fantastic creatures. These islands of rock float in a chaotic arrangement that only increases the dangers of travel between them. Many could be lost or cut off to develop outside of the core society. Adventures feature characters sailing through the mists to explore these floating islands. The concept seems ripe for moments of wonder, at least in the short term, but it is populated with elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. Everything largely follows its type with a few changes to the elves. There are some playable fantasy creatures created exclusively for the setting that are interesting because they interact with it in unique ways, but even their origin is tied to the elves!

That's not the real problem though. Even if the publisher had committed to the setting and created everything to enhance their vision of the world no new players would have discovered it as their first RPG experience. It was made for Savage Worlds, a generic RPG system that is marketed to experienced gamers. In fact, the target audience for Savage Worlds is people tired of playing crunchy games like Pathfinder and 3e D&D.

If you agree with me, and I'm sure many of you don't, we're still stuck with a number of serious problems. How does a person design a game with wonder in mind? As an introduction, how much is too much when it comes to RPG conventions like levels and hit points? How do make sure the game works as an intro but is still fun for experienced players so they don't need to abandon it in favour of other games? How do we get an introductory game in front of the potential player without millions of dollars and 40 years of cultural capital?

Can a game be created to introduce the concept of RPGs, be fun to play and be a good platform for moments of wonder? What does that look like? To design something like that every element of a game's design could be examined with the criteria in mind to make sure it supports these three goals.

Hacking It Together

My home game, based on the Black Hack, could be a good place to start such an experiment (it certainly is for me), but almost any system or setting could work. I think simplicity is important for entry so a medium to light rule system is probably the best way to go. The lighter the better to keep rules from becoming a distraction that pulls people out of the events in the game.

Because the Black Hack is a D&D clone with bits cribbed from other, more modern games an intro version might be a gateway into regular D&D. The mechanics are different enough, and take enough from other sources that it should lead different places for different people. Hopefully, this means they explore RPGs with less of a bias than they would had they started with D&D. Besides, I think the main problem is the assumptions built into D&D that keeps it and many of its fans trapped in its lane.

One big thing from D&D that I did away with that is so ingrained in the system is initiative. The words 'roll initiative' signal a change from open roleplay and exploration to regimented, turn-based combat. 'Roll initiative" is such a part of the D&D culture it is an easily grasped punchline or image caption. I threw it out in my game with the kids because it was boring. Their short attention spans makes the moments where they are waiting their turn excruciating. Also, as the Black Hack has all player facing rolls so it seemed silly to keep it. Because they don't know when the monster will turn on their character or have a set time to act, they pay attention throughout the round, tense with anticipation or looking for opportunities. It's good for adults with smartphones too!

In practice, instead of switching from doing stuff to the combat game the players continue doing stuff in combat. This lack of transition is supported by the resolution for combat staying exactly the same as every other action. I've found this set up stops players from staying inside the box in combat. There's very little 'I roll to hit' and more of the 'I throw my maul at his legs' and 'I jump on the lion's back' I enjoy so much as a GM. It probably helps that I threw out half of the rolls from combat to cut down on needless die rolling as well. Anyone who plays Dungeon World will recognize these things as pretty normal, but from a D&D perspective, it's pretty revolutionary to separate RPGs from their wargame roots.

I'm keeping humans as the main playable choice because I think it is good to have us as a reference point to start from. I also added other options for creatures that characters can play as well as a host of human origins. The human origins help place the characters in the setting and add an extra dimension to them without needing too many character classes. They range from traditional staples like Barbarians and Street Rats to extraordinary ones like Child of the Prophecy, Driven by a Terrible Secret and Haunted. One good point made in the discussion about wonder was that it was most effective if it was interactive and personally relevant. These origins help flesh out the character's background with a single role or choice and that is something that can be used. The head of a giant statue might invoke wonder, but one that opens its eyes and delivers some important bit of information about a character's situation takes it up a notch.

I made playable creatures other than humans each its own origin. It makes the shared identity of each alien group important. Their otherness presents opportunities for conflict, roleplay and maybe even wonder. That's where I want to keep the focus. Otherwise the players are merely playing humans with pointy ears, etc. Lizard Folk have a different set of cultural values from humans largely based on their biology. Siebh (sheeve) are utterly alien hedonists cloaked in dreams. I was mocked on the internet for including felinoids and the like in my campaigns before because of the popular derision of furries, but they are fun to play, some people love them, and if I can think of a reason they support the presentation of wonder I'll keep them!

Goblins remained much as they were from our campaign as these malformed creatures, hatched fully grown, with a basic set of genetic knowledge and instincts. How does entering the world without a childhood change a creature's outlook? How much of that influences goblin behaviour, culture and history? Does playing that out give opportunities for wonder? I'll have to playtest it to find out.

I think there can be wonder found in playing something that thinks or feels different from humanity. Committing to that otherness might lead to some interesting ideas or interpretations of events that could change the whole group's perspective on events.

One game that built up each fantasy race as a different element well was Talislanta. It had a great variety of creatures to play with unique cultural identities. An example is how the desert people always wore elaborate masks. At one point in the fiction the masks were likely for protection from the elements but by the time the game was set in the masks had cultural and even religious significance. How does such a thing create opportunity for wonder? I'm not sure in that particular case, but room needs to be made for players and GMs to create those moments.

I don't feel like there is much room for wonder presented by another dour dwarf with a wretched Scottish accent. Fun? Certainly, but probably not wondrous. Do dwarves sap a game's or setting's potential for wonder simply by being present?Should they stay part of the mix because so many people love playing them? Is there a line that needs to be drawn? Am I being too hard on dwarves?

Maybe we accept dwarves the same way we accept humans and make sure there are no hobbits/halflings. The last time someone tried to make hobbits more interesting we ended up with kender. No one wants to take a chance on anything like that happening again!

The next thing is classes. Do character classes contribute to wonder?

Having each character inhabit an archetype of some sort ensures them spotlight moments. Dungeon World commits to that idea by not allowing two characters of the same class and going as far as saying the cleric, ranger or thief in the party is the only one of their class in the game world. Their archetype is unique in that setting. With the mix of stat variety, origins, classes and player choices every player character should be different enough to present the spotlight moments for everyone.

Is a spotlight moment wonderful though? On occasion, maybe, but they certainly are fun. With a good GM classes aren't necessary for spotlight moments but they might be for the sake of wonder. If anyone can cast spells is magic still magical? Besides, classes or any other form of specialization helps to ensure spotlight moments which might be important in an intro game where there is a learning curve for the GM.

For an intro game I think it's important to have clear differences between the classes. My nine options even start with different letters to make it that much easier to differentiate them (or put class in an NPC stat block with a single letter). In my campaign we have two spellcasting classes with the cleric and the magician. Their magic differs in significant ways. There are three classes that have magical abilities but no spells with the bard, druid and sorcerer. I set them up as reflections of each other, being structurally the same but thematically different. There are three classes that are exceptional at doing certain things with the expert, thief and warrior. The last one, the ranger, is so skilled at certain things they are kind of magical. I find this covers plenty of bases for fictional archetypes without being overwhelming. I didn't want to have more than nine because I read somewhere that the ideal number of significant choices is seven, plus or minus two.

Bards get a lot of hate for being lame, but in our campaign they are keepers of the law and truth. They are semi religious figures more like paladins, celtic bards, viking skalds, or biblical judges than the singing fools the class is often identified with. It works well with the Moorcockian Law verses Chaos vibe that I like to have in my games.

Levelled character improvement does serve the idea of presenting wonder. It allows the GM to scale events up so the experiences in the game can become bigger, more amazing and more epic. That process allows for more or easier opportunities for wonder. There's also an upward curve so the campaign feels like it is building. It's also good for new players as they get to grow with the character, learning how to play their archetype in slowly increasing stakes as they become more effective.

Hit points are a sore point for many and I can see both sides of it. I won't go into all of that in detail again since I've posted about it before. The real question is do hit points help with the presentation of wonder?

Hit points as an abstract certainly promote the cinematic style of play. That can help a group get to a place of wonder. The loss of hit points is often presented as a wound or other damage sustained which quickly becomes silly and makes it difficult to suspend disbelief as the characters level and gain more hit points. Making the recovery of hit points a healing process only exacerbates that problem. To keep new players from scratching their heads and to make hit points cinematic they need to be presented as the ability to continue fighting rather than soak up damage. Then hit point recovery needs to match the concept. With all of that, the abstract matches up with the levels and it all serves to get to those moments of wonder without breaking the fiction.

Based on the ideas above and my experience running it for the better part of a year I think our version of the Black Hack could deliver fun and wonder. I know it works for new players, but it needs to be repackaged for them.

Organization and Presentation

The problem with an intro game is how much of the necessary parts of it become useless the more it is played. The hate for the "what is a role playing game" section of every rulebook has featured in game reviews and internet arguments running back for years. It is a waste of space the moment it is read and understood, but it is necessary info to deliver in an intro product. This problem could be solved by putting the what is a roleplaying game on the back of the book along with the description of what is this roleplaying game.

As a reference an RPG works best with character generation in the front, followed by the rules and other resources for play. The how to play, and how to run are not necessary for most of the people using the book. In fact, the only person that likely needs to read such information is the first person to run it in a social group. They know their group better than any game designer and can explain it far more efficiently than we can. That means all the how to play, sample play transcripts and other nonsense can go in the back with the how to run a game advice.

The only problem with that is, as an intro book it's pretty crazy to expect someone to slog through all the other bits before getting to the context in the back of the book! Does that mean there should be a companion pamphlet that can be discarded? Would a 'how to use this book' section of the introduction/first page pointing new players to the relevant appendices in the back do the trick? I like the idea of the the context of what an RPG is and how to play it staying in the book because I'd like to be able to hand someone new the book and know they have everything they need. That's part of the problem with the game I'm playing now. I have nothing to hand to one of my players and say: "Here's the game. Have fun!"

What About the Marketing?

Let's say it's possible to have everything on how to play in the book without ruining it for experienced players. That still leaves the biggest problem: How do we reach the people not playing RPGs yet that would enjoy it without the advertising budget and place in our culture that D&D has?

Numenera owes much of its success to how its early marketing communicated a sense of wonder. The art was a huge component of that, but the setting itself seemed full of possibility. The idea of the Ninth World, an impossibly ancient version of Earth, filled with relics of an advanced past captured my imagination. The game itself is simple, the mechanics are easy to grasp and system takes no experience to run. It is organized so all the important rules are in the first 60 pages. The layout and design is nothing short of brilliant and it is a great reference book for game play. It could do all the things as far as presenting wonder and introducing new people to gaming.

Too bad it's marketed to experienced gamers based on Monte Cook's reputation in the gaming industry. It makes sense to do that. It's difficult and expensive to create new players for a game. Why not market to a receptive audience? It's good business!

Fate is dramatically different from D&D despite being part of its Open Gaming Licence. The gang that published Fate spent more than a decade building the audience for their game that they leveraged to create a hugely successful Kickstarter for the current version. With the exception of the Dresden Files fans who came to to Fate through their licensed RPG for it, Fate's core audience is gamers looking for something different. It's more of a game design kit, than a game itself.

Certainly there are games other than D&D used to introduce people to gaming. Plenty are brought into the hobby with all kinds of small press and indy games, but only when introduced by an experienced gamer. That limits new people to what they can find. For instance, there's no way anyone in my area plays Fate. I haven't even found anyone who has heard of it and there's no place to buy the special dice it uses within several hundred kilometres!

Even Hero Kids, a game designed as the first RPG for children, is marketed to gaming parents who are looking for a system they can use to introduce their children to the hobby. It's great for that, but it's not likely to be purchased by someone not already invested in the hobby.

D&D's fifth edition is the only RPG marketed effectively to new people. Pathfinder has its own starter set but you'll only find it at a gaming store. Even then, I'm not sure how many store owners would suggest Pathfinder to brand new gamers. When it comes to access, D&D is in the local bookstores and toy shops on top of the gaming stores. It is everywhere and that means many people will start with it not even knowing there are other possibilities. That's how it managed to cement its place in the market in the first place. I bought my first copy of D&D in a department store in 1982.

When successful gaming companies are shying away from the intro market what can a person with no money, reputation or cultural impact hope to accomplish? How can I get an alternative to D&D into the hands of the new people that don't even know they want it yet?

The 3 iconic player characters from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG -

I can think of two ways to approach it.

The first is a grass roots marketing effort. I'd reach out to people I know in the library system and try to get open games running there (because it fits with their mandate of promoting literacy). I'd need to convince them to support it with copies of the game book in the city and town library branches. It's possible local success could be built on to roll it out to other city libraries.

The local library also runs the local comic con. That's another cost effective way to get the word out to people receptive to the genre and possibly interested in the hobby. Getting some tabletop RPG intro games into the Con as events might even be possible.

There's a video game con that is put on locally that has potential as a place to reach the like-minded gamers. A lot of the common themes used in tabletop RPGs made their way into video games so it shouldn't be too hard to get some people at the con to try it out.

Both of those would do better with an online component. Luckily I'm married to a film maker who could shoot and edit a series of actual play videos. With those in place the people on the fence could see a demo that looks like actual fun. It also allows for a reach beyond the local area, which is key. A solid website is another necessary component but also not that hard to manage these days. That online component could then be delivered to bloggers and podcasters in any space that overlaps with RPGs. Building out from the face-to-face built core.

The other facet of the grass roots campaign would be marketing it to the current RPG market. Plenty of current players would love a solid tool they could use to introduce new players to the hobby that they could also hand off to them. Building some excitement in the gaming community for the game on its own merits would be important too. The more people playing it, the easier it will be to find a group to play with! A Kickstarter for an edition with colour art or a large print run might help build excitement and a reputation too.

As for the second method, I'm working on another approach that might completely change the RPG market. I'd be throwing out most of what I have above to operate on a level no one has conceived of before for gaming. I'll get to that in a later post. There's a lot of work I need to do first to see if it's even possible.

In the meantime, I'll at least get my rules into a printable version so I can hand it over to my players. The sooner they don't need me to play the better!