Thursday, September 9, 2010

Newbie Adventures

The dungeon is a fantastic piece of gaming technology. It's one of the oldest, certainly, but in certain ways it has yet to be surpassed, and that fact is one that has a lot of bearing on anyone who is looking to sell an RPG to anyone who has not already been indoctrinated into the tribe.

As a means of running an adventure, a dungeon has certain advantages and disadvantages: most notably it's a closed, restricted environment so choices are strongly limited without it feeling like that is the case. You can, after all, choose whichever passageway or door you choose. That feels quite unrestricted, and makes it easy to overlook that the choices presented to you are controlled. This is great if you want to maintain pacing (it keeps the game on track) but frustrating if your players are looking for more of a range of activity.

These limitations have meant that other models for adventures have emerged over time, most of them superior in one way or another, but the dungeon has never quite gone away. Some of this might be attributable to it's "old school" appeal, but the reality is that it remains one of the simplest models possible, and simplicity is often quite desirable.

It is _especially_ desirable for people new to a game, facing questions of what they're supposed to do and how they're supposed to do it. The Dungeon most strongly resembles the pure game experience, and can usually be played as such by novices who are looking to teach themselves the game. In contrast, some other model will introduce complications, like making subjective judgment calls in an open ended environment or demanding more creativity from a novice GM than they may be comfortable providing.[1]

Now, I'm not convinced that the dungeon is the ONLY adventure model you can pitch to a novice who must pick up and play from the text, but I cannot yet think of an example that is comparably playable out of the box. It occurs to me that it might be worth looking more closely at the "game" aspect of these adventures. A dungeon mimics some elements of a boardgame - are there other games, board or card, that might be emulated in this fashion? Card games are the obvious choice, but on some level that is easier said than done.

No answer yet, I'm afraid, but definitely a question I'm chewing on. An alternative is something we're really going to need to find[2] if we want to broaden the appeal of the products.

1 - I explicitly say "comfortable" here because it's not a question of capability - I am ok assuming that the potential GM is creative enough to do it, but their first time out, they're going to be gunshy and worried about doing things incorrectly. You want to give them a complete recipe of what to do as a baseline. If they're comfortable going off book, then that's great, but if they're not then you wan tot make sure they're able to play.

2 - And again, I want to underscore, the priority here is that it's something someone totally unfamiliar with an RPG can grasp. It is easy to come up with ideas that are better than dungeon but unless they are more duffer friendly, the other ways in which they are superior are meaningless.


  1. I'll start by saying that I agree with everything you've said. :)

    My one problem with dungeons as introductory adventures is that they often severely downplay the actual role-playing. That's why I really like dungeon adventures that include a nearby town that is somewhat fleshed out. Keep on the Borderlands, of course, is the model here. You can shop, gather rumors, and even meet the local movers and shakers.

    As to your other point, let's look at some other popular games:

    Scrabble - It's about building, outmaneuvering your opponent for key spaces, and using your vocabulary skills. Setting aside the vocabulary skills as irrelevant (I think), the core of the game isn't that different from go. Or, I suppose, chess. While I could see building a combat system around "zones of control/threat," I'm not sure how else to apply it. The game mechanic pretty much requires the board, so extending the concept to a boardless game would be difficult.

    Bridge - There are two interesting aspects to this game. First, bidding. Yeah, I know that's how many diceless games work. But, it might also be interesting to use a bidding mechanic to create a feedback loop informing the GM and players of what is coming in the adventure. Perhaps as part of the rumor-gathering stage? "I find 3 rumors of thieves' guild involvement." "I see that 3 and raise you a puppet noble." Not sure how to make such a system newbie-friendly, though.

    Another interesting mechanic from bridge is the dummy hand. One player wins the bid. That players' partner puts all their cards on the table, and the winner gets to play their hand. It might be an interesting way to promote player empowerment if the players end up in charge of one of the factions in the story. In the example above, the thieves' guild rumors win, so the players get to control the thieves' guild actions to some degree.

    Poker - The obvious mechanic here is bluffing. I think that's a very dangerous element to add to a newbie experience, though. The line between "bluffing" and "cheating" becomes all too easy to cross.

    Uno - Honestly, an awful lot of the powers in 4e seem to already draw (no pun intended) on the special cards in Uno. Skip a turn, draw two, et cetera.

    Yahtzee - Can you construct a sandbox-style adventure using the "collect one of each type" method? Players have a sheet with various goals. Depending on their actions, they get various rewards (achievements?). If they do very well, they get big, "high-scoring" rewards. If they don't do as well, they have to cross off a lower-ranked goal. Once the sheet is full, the adventure is complete. The ultimate score is a feedback mechanism telling the players how they did. I think there might be neat idea in here, but it will take some experimenting to do it right.

    Jenga - Yeah, use Dread.

    Pictionary - Can you tell your story well enough that other players pick up on it and run with it? The basic problem here is that Pictionary works because there is one right answer. But maybe something like Apples to Apples is a better model? It seems to me like a lot of these social, adult games have bits to contribute. I don't play them enough, though, to have a feel for what that is.

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  3. One good way to help new RPG players (less so GMs) is to use a setting they're already familiar with. I recently ran Leverage with a player who had never played an RPG before, but her familiarity with the show allowed her to quickly identify what she should do.

    Similarly, my wife used to run demos for Guardians of Order back when Sailor Moon was popular. She said her younger players, also new to RPGs, immediately knew what to do as the sailor scouts; the show had given them a baseline.


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