Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Simplifying the Buy-In

So, as it may be obvious to anyone who has read a fair part of this blog, I have a lot of RPGs. Most of them, I have never played, and will probably never have a chance to play. Sometimes, this is just because of lack of players, or lack of interest on the part of players I do have, but sometimes it is something I think I can possibly do something about - the complications of the game itself. Some RPGs have these great ideas, that sound like a lot of fun to play with - but when you get into the system, especially the key part for new players - character creation - it becomes kind of a mess. That's where you lose people.

I take a lot of systems for granted, and most times, it's because I have a fair degree of familiarity with them. I've been playing D&D for almost 20 years now, in various incarnations, so I've got a pretty good idea on how it works (though 2nd Edition's THAC0 system still mystifies me at times). I've been using White Wolf's Storyteller System for quite a long time now, too, and so even the tougher games that use it have a fair degree of ease to me. But since I've used these systems, and many others, for so long, it's all become old hat to me. This makes me tend to often assume facts that are not in evidence when it comes to gaming - namely, that other people will see the systems the way I do.

The problem is, though, at least with trying to bring in new players - especially new players who are basically entirely new to the idea of tabletop RPGs - is that they aren't familiar with the system, and sometimes the most complex parts of the system are right up front in the character generation process. It's easy enough to say, for example, that D&D is essentially a d20-based system; it uses a 20-sided die for most conflict resolution, whether skill- or combat-based. But with character generation, you have to distribute points (or roll randomly) for attributes; pick skills; choose a class; choose feats that work, either mechanically or story-wise, with your character; choose powers for you character; choose equipment. Similarly, with the Storyteller System, most things are accomplished in-system by adding a stat + ability, rolling a number of 10-sided dice, and seeing how many reach or exceed the target number. But for character creation, first you need to pick a concept; then a Nature; then determine which type of supernatural/superpowered being you are; then often faction within that character type; then you have a pool of points for attributes, then another for abilities, then backgrounds, then powers, and finally, an entirely separate pool of points that can be used to add to just about anything.

Now, with a lot of practice, a good GM can guide a player through this, but it's still intimidating and sometimes difficult to work through. Even if you guide a new player through the process, there's a fair chance they won't really know what exactly happened. You can always create a pre-generated character for a new player, to use until they get used to the system, but then they aren't getting their character. So the ideal system to bring in new players, players who are unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, is one that doesn't use a confusing character generation system - or thinking up some way to describe the system, and how to build a character, that breaks everything down into more digestible parts.

Personally, I could go for both solutions, but I often find that using simpler systems makes me a bit crazy, because I'm used to more complex systems - for gaming purposes, anyway. So I think I prefer method 2 - breaking down a more complex system into more manageable pieces, easier to explain. So, in at least a couple of instances, I have written out basic primers for games. Most recently was for a D&D game I was thinking about running (that never got off the ground because I am bad with scheduling); I tried to simplify the core ideas of 4th Edition D&D character generation to about 8 pages , typed out as a Word document. It needs a bit of updating, since some things have been added since then, but shrinking the basics of a 200+ page book down to about 10 pages seems like a pretty good job to me. I did something similar with the previous edition of D&D, too, though probably not as succinctly, and I'm thinking about doing this for the Storyteller System - though something like that would probably have to be modified for each specific Storyteller game.

I'm not exactly sure why this idea came to me when it did; maybe I was just looking for something to say about gaming and my personal experience. I don't claim any great expertise, but it's my blog, so I'll share what I know (or think I know) and what I'm thinking. After writing a long paper about complexity in academic writing, I felt this was something interesting, and something that bothered me; I've never liked the idea of losing a prospective new player, especially one who I know is very interested, enthusiastic, and creative, just because the character creation and general system introduction was too complex. So, if you're looking for something like this for a game you want to run, but think might be too big a buy-in for new players, feel free to ask me - I have a fair amount of free time, I'm familiar with virtually every system of every game I've gone through over the last year, and I can always use the practice. I'm not looking to break copyrights or infringe on trademarks, just try to make it easier to bring some new blood into the hobby.

(I take requests for blog topics, too, especially if it's something I think is cool, so suggestions, and comments, are always welcome.)

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