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Learning Curves and Tipping Points

Started by Brimshack, May 10, 2009, 10:40:29 PM

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Okay, I'm facing a dilemma.

I have been developing this RPG (tentatively entitled, "Worlds of Hurt") for about 2 years now, not counting the year or so of working on it as a Skirmish Game for miniatures. It plays well, at least when I'm present and the group-think that helped make the game in the first place is there to shape the session. My core group and I always enjoyed the game. New players sometimes stick around and enjoy it; sometimes they say it's not their thing and go elsewhere. Mixed results, a pattern not too different than I used to get with D&D.

I ran demos at a local convention, one had mixed results, one had a single player who seemed to enjoy himself a great deal and asked to be kept up to date on the project, and one had several players, all of whom said that they very much enjoyed the game. In all of these sessions, I provided prefabiracted characters and had them playing within 5 minutes, explaining as I went.

When I bring new players into the game group, I can show them the basic game system in 5 minutes, just by giving them a character and putting it into a fight. This is followed by half hour to an hour of explanations and character creation. In general this approach seems to work pretty well and gets people into the game rather quickly. One feature of the system, it's open-ended character development, also enables us to start with simplified characters without condemning the players to forever play mistakes made in the first session. Anyway, it works.

If I try to explain the game first, and then have players roll up characters (i.e. skipping the immediate demo that has players rolling initiative as they sit down), then it takes about 4 hours and they begin fuzzy and uncertain of what their character can do.

So, I know how I want to introduce the game to people in person.

What I don't know how to do is give the game to someone and get them up and running from a cold reading. A huge part of this problem is the fact that the game was initially written for my own play-group. In the last month or two, I have been trying to add user-friendly features with an eye towards helping people outside my game group. I just reorganized the 1st chapter, rewrote the intro, added an easy demo in an effort to replicate the quick-fight lesson I use in person, and I've tried a few other things. Still I'm having no success with people who do a cold reading. It's a little too early to see if my last efforts have failed, but my feeling is that I still have a ways to go to get this right.

I realize it's hard to find game testers, and many who sign-up just want to see what might be coming out, but still getting someone to bite is the bottom line if the game is to go to market (still haven't decided yet, nor have I decided how much or in what format). One thing I am thinking about now is how important personal experience and personal dialogue is to learning many RPGs. I didn't learn D&D or T&T in any of the versions I played from a book. I was taught by other players. Looking back, I seriously doubt I could have, or at least would have, envisioned either game from a cold reading. Having a character in play was central to the process. So, I could take that as an excuse, but I'm thinking it's more of a challenge. Either I need an army of demo people (and no such army exists) or I need somehow to produce a text that actually does make people want to play.

Presently, I am thinking a new demo is the way to go. Perhaps, this one should be more than the simple, here-fight-some-orcs, that I originally cooked up just to show how the system works. Instead of just demoing the mechanics, I need a demo that sells the system as a whole. At least, that's where I plan to put my next effort.

But, to conclude my long-winded thoughts with a question or six; what do you guys think? How often do you learn a game from text and how often do you learn from other people? Do personal mentors seem essential for buy-in? How far into a game will you read?

Better yet, the last time you read a game and decided to play from the reading, what was the tipping point? What did you see on paper that made you want to play it, and how far into the text did you have to go to find that?

Conversely, when writing Game Rules, how do you think about hooking players in? I know when I write a memo at work, I always try to explain why someone should actually read the memo in the first sentence or two, but selling the game as I explain it is a difficult angle for me. Do others have any specific thoughts on this subject?


The funny thing is that if people here are to help you explain your game, you'll probably have to explain it to us!

There are a few methods that have been developed, like the "power 19" questions, which you could try out. The implicit structuring in the questions might be helpful even if you don't end up posting it here.

As to the more general stuff, I almost always learn by demos, but many are in my head! I think, "Ok, supposing you do this kind of thing" and see how it works in the rules. This kind of approach, and it's not what everyone does, is served by a book that can be easily flicked through, with page references at the side or summary tables whenever rules affect each other, and good logical chapters and subchapters.

Before I do that, I try to get a feel for the general ways that they design their world and their mechanics, the feel of the stuff; just so I know if it is going in the general direction I want. This may be best served by introductions saying what you love and what you don't like. What kind of games you normally play and the kind the game is nevertheless compatible with. That and rules structures that are clear, as you will always say stuff implicitly in how you put your rules together, but it's nice to get it direct from the start.

The thing that inspires me could be any little bit. I decide to play the game as a whole when I think that shifting this ruleset around is better than porting it's ideas to a completely different one, or that the designer has a really good grip on their stuff, and playing the game their way will give me a new perspective/experience.

You say your group has it's own understanding of rpgs that it is difficult to clue someone else into. What kind of things did you used to argue about? Perhaps that could give an insight into the unique understanding you have produced. On the other hand, you could start with games that are not as good as yours! You don't have to name them, but if you say why yours is better than those games, then anyone who disagrees with that analysis will suspect this is not the game for them, and the inverse possibly.

Also, if you want to introduce them to "the rest of the game", I'd suggest you do it in chunks about as big as the one people can already handle, or perhaps a little bigger. I'm not sure how your system divides up, but is it possible to run a complete demo without any combat? A demo of that plus a demo of combat might be 2/3 of the game. Perhaps a problem with the 4 hour explanation is that the poor players brains are still digesting all that detail when they would rather be playing. Bite sized chunks are the way forward!


When I go to play a new game with my group, the players learn as we go. I try my best to master the system before diving in... I guide my players through the character creation process, explaining what little I need to in order to get the basics pounded in 'em. Then as we go, I encourage them to ask questions and raise issues. Chances are the players learn quite a bit and so do I. Any complex game takes a few goes before you even hit every instance that requires covering.
You can learn from other books' format. What was a game that you read with a similar complexity to your own game that you understood pretty easily? Ask yourself why it worked so well.
Have you had someone not involved with the writing process or familiar with the game read over it and then fish for some suggestions? When a problem comes up that people have difficulty with, they are certainly capable of identifying at that moment and presenting it to you. Knowing precisely where the problem is could breed new approaches by itself.
Also, does the game have so many subsystems that operate so differently that referencing the material is absolutely necessary in order to make use of it? Trying to write a rule for every single situation that comes up isn't very efficient... If you have simple unified mechanics that cover a broad subject (like weapon combat, magic use, skill use, social interaction, crafting, etc...) then you won't have that bland generic dice rolling thing going on.
~*/\Matthew Miller/\*~



You are asking one of the fundamental ideas of game design. You've got this great idea in your head, how do you convey it in such a way that it's useful to other people?

It took me about four years and two editions of my game to even start getting it right. I had the exact same problems as you. One trick I learned was to listen to myself -- listen to how I explained the game to potential players. Then I turned those explanations into rules text. This is opposed to writing rules and then trying to explain them.

This method has the added benefit of helping you see your game rules more clearly. If you can't explain something to a player, then you should probably ditch it.

Good luck!


Okay, I'm pulling something from each of the posts above, but this in particular gives me an idea for a little thought experiement:

QuoteOne trick I learned was to listen to myself -- listen to how I explained the game to potential players. Then I turned those explanations into rules text. This is opposed to writing rules and then trying to explain them.

As mentioned previously, what does seem to work in person is putting the character in play and explaining as we go. What I haven't tried is using that for a model or presentation. Don't know how far I can take that, and that may be a little more ham-handed than what you had in mind, but it's worth a try.