Monday, February 14, 2011


John Harper made a point on twitter the other day that speaks directly to something that bothers me in a lot of game designs, especially ones I've had a hand in. The problems is that a lot of games pick up inertia with quick rules and a strong premise, then grind to a halt when it comes time to pick stunts, powers or whatever other specific fiddly bits provide the exceptions the the baseline rules. Things grind to a halt as players flip through the book, reading and reviewing their options before making decisions that they're really worried will be the wrong ones.

This is a problematic way to start a game, and a number of strategies have been established to address it, such as setting up quick-picks and packages, or simply preparing characters in advance of the game. These can work, but they're ultimately duct tape and a band aid sort of solutions.

Video games handle this much better, especially more modern video games, since they are designed with an assumption that the manual will barely be glanced at. Players learn how to play by doing it. There are numerous strategies that support this, including familiar control schemes, but the most basic is to start the player with a smaller set of capabilities and options than they will eventually have in play. Historically, this was the domain of "tutorial levels", segments of play that were outside of the regular scope of play, where you'd be walked through the various details of rules and interface.

More modern games have made that tutorial a part of play design. The initial situation of play is usually constrained in some way: you might have only one weapon, one spell, or control only one type of unit. You will play a level under that constraint, and then the next level (or after soem other benchmark) you will expand your capabilities. You'll pick up another weapon, learn a new spell, add more units and so on. If situations require special rules, you'll get the chance to discover that as it comes up (rather than going back to the book). The net result is that you learn to play the game by playing the game, which is pretty slick.

Obviously, different games handle this to differing degrees. For many first person shooters, the ramp up is very small, while some real time strategy games use the entirety of their single player campaign as a ramp up. From an RPG perspective, the most interesting is probably MMOs.

World of Warcraft, for example, starts a character off in a fairly limited environment (a "newbie zone") with clear direction (The guy standing in from to you has your first quest) and well-concealed safety bumpers (there are lots of enemies, but they're the kind who won't attack you unless you attack them first, so they look more dangerous than they are). Beyond that characters start with the ability to make a basic attack (swing a sword, knife, staff or whatever) and perform one special ability (cast a fire bolt, make a power attack, something like that).

For the first 10-20 levels, new abilities come rapidly, but not so rapidly that you don't have time to try them out and get the hang of them in play. The speed of advancement levels off at higher levels (especially in terms of new abilities gained), but those early levels give you a chance to get a grasp on the class. But the thing is, while you're getting that grasp, you're still doing the same sorts of things that you'll be doing later on - getting quests and killing stuff. The fact that you are learning does not sacrifice the play experience.

The fact that video games do this well is not, I think, an indication that this is something that ONLY video games can do well. It would be very easy to conceive of a game like, say, 4e being tweaked into a model like this, so players enter play with perhaps a single at will ability, but gain other abilities quickly, perhaps between sessions when the time required to make choices does not detract from play (MMOs address this by offering very few choices - you get X power at Y level, and that's that. There will be some elements of choice, like WoW's talent trees, but even those will be fairly constrained).

The main thing this requires is a bit of rethinking of how we handle advancement, particularly that we might want to think about shifting some of the things we think about as normally part of character creation to advancement. Coming back to those stunt/power choices that really bog things down, there might be some real benefit in giving fewer of them at the outset, but make the first ones easier to gain.

There are adjustments that would have to be made. One thing you'd want are strong defaults that reinforce character concepts. For example, if you wanted to do this for Leverage, the GM might just pick on talent for each role and just give it to the player at the end of chargen, then let them add another talent at the end of the next two or three sessions. This constrains things slightly (so that, for example, all Hitters are ass kickers and all Hackers have "DO you have that thing I gave you?") but the trade off of quickly entering play really seems to more than make up for it to my mind.

Anyway, something on my mind.


  1. I think a problem is that there is a definite "pre-thinking" stage to an RPG that is largely absent from video games.

    You may pick up a book, have a character concept in mind for several months, finally get to play and really be familiar with the rules. And you can read RPG rules ahead of time in a way that gives a lot more insight than reading a video game manual (especially now that they have stripped those down to the nub).

    Someone can sit down to the table with a really coherent idea of how their character is going to shape up over the course of play. That is less likely to be true in video games.

    I agree with a lot of the spirit of the post though. I have been wondering a lot about advancement lately since I have been dabbling in the OSR where advancement is much slower than I am used to.

  2. I think the Recruitment Job actually tackles this idea in a sense, giving chargen a sense of actual gameplay and not having the players fill in all of the gaps. I've heard of people expanding on it even more, actually, with only the Attributes and Roles settled going in and all Distinctions, Specialties, and Talents left to arise during play.

  3. I second Cam's comment; it seems like Leverage already does this. I made the my character for our upcoming game in a moment, simply by deciding two things. The recruitment job will motivate the rest.

    Greg's kinda right, too, though, certainly for some games—it's worth it to sit and let a character brew. This only works when the system has a tight coupling between narrative logic and game function, though. I think part of the dilemma you're discussing is motivated by people worrying that the "fiddly bits" they choose will not function as they say on the tin.

    As a final point, there's a great line in Fiasco: "Now is the time to get it into focus, because leaving things to be fleshed out in play weakens them." I've been trying to figure out how generally applicable this is. An early RPG design project of mine fell flat in part because we left too much to be defined in play. So, there's a balance to strike.

  4. Heya,

    One of the problems of comparing a video game, especially a MMORPG to an RPG in this respect is the tendency for players to create and then discard a number of characters before finally settling on the one they're willing to play for a while. This is especially true for MMORPGs.

    When trying a video game for the first time, players frequently make mistakes in assigning points, choosing class/race combos, or leveling up advancement trees. So they ditch the character and start over. WoW is especially susceptible to this since leveling is so easy there.

    However, when it comes to tabletop RPGs, switching out a bunch of characters at the beginning of play can cause a lot of social conflict. The others don't want to wait on you to make your new guy. The GM doesn't want to shoehorn your new character into the campaign over and over. Plus, the player constantly changing characters quickly gets the reputation of a ditherer and might not be invited back.

    I'm not sure there's yet been a good way to solve the problem you identify. I wish there was, though.



  5. @Troy Heh. You have hit upon exactly the segue into tomorrow's post.

  6. I think this is an interesting idea, but one that can easily be done by the GM.

    Using your video game example, at least the non MMO one, the general understanding is that your character has near their full range of abilities in the start, but the game is introducing them to you one aspect at a time. So you start off with "move around", then graduate to "jump across this gap", "shoot that guy", "defensive roll out of the way", etc, etc

    In a new session a GM can do this, just as easily with opening up the character's sheet little by little as the game goes on, and players really looking for this could have the GM handle the mechanics of their character - based off an outline they provided perhaps.

    The only real change is time spent looking through the book to decide what talents and abilities you want now, as opposed to doing it every couple sessions as you get new abilities that you'd normally have at character creation.

  7. As you say at the beginning of the post, this 'problem' is only a problem if the game has lots of fiddly bits that provide exceptions to the rules. Alternative approaches are to either have customisations that are base purely on their desciptions (such as Traits in DitV), or mechanics that apply identically across all situations (such as Stunts in Diaspora).

    But it's interesting that you pick out the difference between the graduated exposure of the player to the mechanics of the game, in contrast to the "zero to hero" progression of PCs.

  8. While I think a GM could help unlock the character sheet during the course of the game, I would argue that it's pretty unlikely that a person brand new to the game/system will know how. And I worry that's the problem sometimes with games where one doesn't follow a pre-written adventure, it's a lot harder to teach new GMs these tricks. I wonder if recorded sessions, maybe even with video, would help.


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