Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Novice Game

I was talking the other day about broad categories of games, and I mentioned two particular modes, framework games (like 4e, where there's an existing framework that all expansion is built within) and modual games (Like storyteller or Cortex, games with a solid core where new rules and subsytems can be added and subtracted to support particular ends). Two other large categories worth mentioning[1] are the molecular games, those where everything is modular to a very fine grain, but there's an overall system to the modularity. Hero is the best possible example of this, but games like GURPS and BESM also qualify. At the other end of the spectrum you have the guidelines systems, which usually have only a few rules that provide sweeping guidelines for play. Risus, Over the Edge and some builds of Fate fall into this category.[2]

I have always been a big fan of guideline games. Over the Edge was the first one I was ever exposed to, and it was a totally eye-opening experience. The freedom and simplicity it represented was almost too much to wrap my head around. Ever since, I've greatly enjoyed playing and running guidelines games because it's so easy - there's very little bookkeeping for setup or prep, and it's easy to get right to play. They're also fun and easy to design because you can produce a comprehensive game in only a handful of pages.

Really, guideline games are so compelling that it's easy to overlook their flaws. Sure, some are structural to the games, such as a potential for mechanical sameness among the characters, but I think the real problem is even more profound, and it can be found in the skill list.

See, most guideline games are pretty freeform in terms of what skills/traits/descriptors or whatever the player is going to come up with. On paper, this provides limitless freedom to create, but in practice it creates a situation where players who know what they want think "This is easy!" and players who don't are bereft of any kind of guidance[3]. This is a "blank page problem"[4], and the irony is that it's the reason these games are often terrible for players who are new to gaming despite being obvious choices for their simplicity and ease of play.

They are, however, usually just fine for experienced players, especially those with enough know-how to impose their own structure. That's great for play, but it introduces another landmine - this ease of use often makes experienced players even MORE blind to the reasons a newbie might have trouble, and that makes for a cycle fof suc for everyone at the table.

Anyway, I mention all this in part because over at Gameplaywright they asked the very interesting question of "What's the best game for a total newb?" and that forced me t consider my own thoughts on this. Historically, I would have absolutely leaned towards a guideline-y game like Risus or my own Wheel of Fate, but these days I'm less certain of that. As much as I'm a fan of simplicity, I think even a newbie player can handle a few more moving parts, especially if those parts give some indication of what the novice player can _do_ in these strange and new circumstances.

This is a less than academic concern since I'll be running a game for a tabletop novice later this month, and I'm not yet sure exactly what system I'll be using. But trying to answer that is proving quite inspirational.

1 - These four categories are not all-encompassing, nor are they supposed to be. the purpose of the categories is not to label all possible games, but rather to just give a shorthand for what I consider Unisystem and Cortex the same "type" of game.

2 - Fudge, and by extension fate, can potentially fall into any of these categories, though usually it's molecular or guidelines as contradictory as that may seem. It comes of a strangely mixed community and an those that the game was more of a toolkit than a finished product.

3 - Not coincidentally, this also spares a designer from having to come up with skill lists, advantages or disadvantages, or other crunchy bits which are less fun to write about than almost anything else.

4 - Many people will, if handed a blank page and told "Draw something" will lock up with uncertainty regarding what to draw, with the intensity of the lockup being directly proportional to their uncertainty and discomfort with the situations. Tell them to draw a dog, and much of the hesitations vanishes. Once again, constraints breed creativity.


  1. I find that the best sort of games for newbies are the one's where the player is familiar (or at least comfortable with the setting). For example, Pendragon is an excellent game for newbies since almost everyone has some sort of understanding of what it means to be an Arthurian Knight.

    The game mechanics of any game can be readily obscured and slowly revealed to a player as they become more confident with what they are doing.

    Actually my preferred group is a mix of newbies and old-hands. The old-hands tend to support the game in mechanical terms, whilst the newbies often provoke the old-timers to get out of their rut and take a new look at what they are doing

  2. I personally think that the best game for a new player is one that shows truly transparent power scales. Rifts for all it's flaws did a fantastic job of this. Most games do a nice curved power scale where the top end is almost too attainable. Rifts on the other hand created a neat line in the sand dividing "normal power" and "AWESOME POWER" where you weren't supposed to go, then offered some loopholes that you could go through to get that awesome power.

    The problem was that there were no increasing returns for those still in the normal power range. A person with an Attribute of 5 and one with an attribute of 15 were mechanically the same. That combined with the fact that with each sourcebook the number of loopholes available for achieving awesome power increased exponentially.

    The thing to take from that is that if Palladium had made a few system tweaks to give PC's some returns for a low stat range, and more strictly regulated their loopholes to achieving awesomeness, they'd have one of the best games for newbs out there.

    In case I got sidetracked peeking down nostalgia alley, my point is this. White Wolf makes 2 normal and 5 the best ever, but any min-maxer can get 3 stats at 5 off of character creation with nary a disapproving glance from the GM. Guideline games make this even easier in a lot of ways. Being able to write a trait "Awesome with Guns" doesn't resonate with a new player as much as deliberately choosing the character's place of origin next to the best Gun-Fu dojo in the game to learn the best esoteric technique coupled with choosing a genetic freak psychic power that puts them over the top.

    The thing is, to an experienced player that stuff just feels like munchkining but to a newbie it's the joy of discovery and feels like exploiting a secret all his own. The important thing is to let that exploit break the game just-right. Enough to make the player feel special, but not so much as to annoy everyone else.

  3. Hmmm... would it work at all to have a more structured character creation method within a guideline game?

    So, in an "Over the Edge"-inspired game of psychics-on-the-run, for example, instead of saying, "Choose a central trait, two side traits and a flaw", you might say, "Whatever your job was before you were kidnapped by the Cronenberg Corporation and subjected to extended drug therapy and deep-wave treatments... that's your central trait. What one cool wierd psychic thing can you now do because of those experiments? That's your next trait. Now, are you any good in a fight? No? Make your next trait something that will help in a fight. Finally, tell me what your character does that would have gotten them fired from their job if the boss found out about it... that's your flaw."

    Of course, that also posits a more focused setting...

    Anyway, not sure if that would help a lot with the problem, but it might provide that initial structure that's lacking...

  4. Curiously, I disagree on the utility of Rifts as an intro game, or rather, I agree, but disagree on the reasons. I think the mechanics of Rifts are a real strike against it, with things like the importance of your # of attacks (and the inobvious necessity to buy the right feat-equivalents) and the power disparity between the various classes being front and center.

    But Rifts does manage to totally rock out on the setting, pretty much from square one. There's a nice balance between a structure to things and the openness to support a wide range of ideas. This utility ebbs and flows depending on which supplements one uses, but I fully concede that a good Rifts GM is liek a sculptor, cutting away a lot of crap to reveal something awesome within.*

    But that, in turn, resonates with something buddha said that gets me thinking. As much as system is a part of chargen, and it can absolutely be a burden, the really useful structure comes from setting. This can take a number of forms form the family of Amber to the clans of White Wolf to the broader "here's the rules of the world" of Rifts, but in a proper form, its something that a new player can be exposed to an, with no knowledge of the system, have ideas for what they want to play.

    Hopefully the system then provides support for those ideas, but that's a whole other thing.

    -Rob D.

    * In my mind, Rifts has something in common with one of my other favorite settings, Planescape. In pure text, it's good, but it's really the art that makes it come alive. Rift's will always be about those paintings to me.

  5. I can't argue with your points. Though Rifts was my first game so I'm biased in it's ability to charm the newb. Overall these days I'm of the opinion that 4e is a pretty fantastic starter game... though I'd advocate a ruleset that's a bit more streamlined.

  6. Is there some place I can get a copy of Wheel of Fate without having to open a Yahoo account?

  7. Should still be a copy up here. Reminds me how badly I need to edit and update it.

  8. Best intro/novice game I can think of is Mouse Guard. It has structure AND freedom, and marries tight mechanics with more "guideline" narration very well.

    It's a game with plenty of parts, but each part is simple enough that even kids can grasp it pretty well. But there's still some crunchy satisfaction for people who may be more interested in systems and strategy. And, the best part is that the fiction and mechanics are intertwined so that one intuitively helps you grasp the other.

    Along with all of this, the book and the comics on which it is based are all gorgeous and inviting. The writing very clearly and simply explains the role of the players individually, as a group, and the game master during all parts of the play experience. So it's not just good to run for new players, it's a good all-around introduction to the events of a play session and preparing players for GMing. Absolutely complete work in so many respects.

  9. I think this is where the difference between structure and complexity comes in to play.

    There are games with a strong structure -- like the various editions of D&D and similar class/level systems -- avoid the blank page problem and give new players nice big handles to grab on to.

    Similarly, buddha's description of a focused Over the Edge game brings the structure in terms of setting rather than rules.

    This is one of the reasons why I still like D&D in spite of itself. It's fun to create around the inherent structure, even if the limits of the system become annoying to me after a few months of play.

  10. I've actually run 4e with complete tabletop newcomers twice, and it worked out really well both times. Honestly, one of the sticking points was dice recognition: I think we old hands forget that humans are born with an instinctual knowledge of what a d12 is.

    But in terms of playing the game, they tended to pick it up really quickly. Starting at 1st level with character sheets printed from the CB helped a lot, too.



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