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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Questions About the Family Gamer

I want to write something about RPGs aimed at "family gamers", inspired by this post at Greyhawk Grognard. Specifically, I have some different ideas about what would work for an RPG that could be played by a whole family of non-geeky people who are just looking for something to do on game night, as well as how this relates to the casual gamer. I also have some commentary inspired by some recent reviews of Lego Heroica, which sounds like exactly what family gamers would be looking for.

Unfortunately, I'm distracted by some other issues (fortunately, they're related to RPGs.) So I can't really go into my thoughts in detail right now. Instead, I'll just leave everyone with some questions:
  1. How much detail do you think is needed to make a game an RPG?
  2. Can a game be designed to appeal to both the family gamer and the hardcore gamer?
  3. Do typical RPGs fetishize combat and fantasy elements too much to appeal to family or casual gamers?
  4. Do they fetishize math too much?
  5. Are they too self-referential?


  1. these are meant to be considered deeply rather than answered glibly, right? Nonetheless, I'm going to question your hardcore/casual gamer dichotomy - it seems to me that a lot of indie games could potentially work both for experienced and novice gamers, if only they were introduced right.

    My sense is that both habitual and occasional gamers could be drawn to the right setting (a couple of years ago I'd've said Harry Potter), and that the games might support different modes of play - say with clearly structured victory conditions for casuals and more open-ended problem spaces for habituals. There seemed to be a moment when something like this was about to happen with boardgames like Talisman or Dungeon... but perhaps the tactical game idea that glued them together was diverted into video games.

    I think (but cannot prove) that clarity about what you can do in a game and what that means for who wins (the tactical problem space and its consequences) is the critical thing to achieve in a game for those not already in the RP choir. Magic: TG was mighty complex when it debuted but created a huge following among new players - complexity itself could not prevent its spread.

    That said, how complex must an RPG be? I'd cite Baron Munchhausen - not very!

  2. Lotsa rambling:

    When I adapt old TSR modules for old school D&D with my kids... I sometimes ad lib in a more story telling style where death is not possible. My son notices this and asks why we're playing without the usual mapping thing. To complete the Palace of the Silver princess, I turned the final rooms into a puzzle where the ruby could be gotten and the big monsters could we outmaneuvered through use of secret doors.

    With the kids... we could do an entire epic session with just the B2 lizard man mound if we took time to describe the Keep, talk through the camping and the watches, and so forth. Finishing the last round of combat and dividing up the magic items was really satisfying to them... and my daughter got my son's halfling to taste the poison potion. (He made his save.)

    If I were to design an adventure just for them... I'd have a big area that they could explore. I'd introduce some simple puzzles and draw more on Infocom than TSR. I'd hand out XP for opening up new areas for exploration and retrieving treasure. My son can read now, so the spell lists are something he can pick over now.

    The kids get far more of the D&D thing than I expected. The key thing is to meet them where they are and to slowly dole out the complexity-- the slow advancement of Moldvay basic is useful for that. If you think about how much of the rules we flat out ignored as teenagers, then you realize that gaming with young kids is not fundamentally different.

    The game master is the interface to the world, the rules, everything. You could almost run any game with them. The tropes of D&D are just so accessible. There's not much doubt as to what needs done. Though the Keep part is confusing because it's no longer obvious what needs doing there. The Caves of Chaos are a death trap, but if the party has two second level magic users, they can maybe deal with it.

    You have to adjust your game though.... Gauge the frustration levels. I think my kids could actually handle a total party kill. They just love to play more than anything else.

    Scenario design is what is the key thing here for making this work. System is irrelevant, but the scenario needs to be tailored to a particular system. Once kids learn a core rule, they never forget it and will hold you to it.

  3. I skipped the questions:

    How much detail do you think is needed to make a game an RPG?

    An interactive puzzle world like Infocom's Zork can be defined entirely via a scenario and needs no traditional rpg rules to run it.

    Can a game be designed to appeal to both the family gamer and the hardcore gamer?

    Mostly you just need to take out the gore and ta-ta's. Zero-prep scenarios that are kid tested are what's needed. It won't be a mega-popular fad, but you need to make it easy.

    Do typical RPGs fetishize combat and fantasy elements too much to appeal to family or casual gamers?

    Kids don't want an experience that is obviously neutered or dumbed down. The Moldvay set's "for adults ages 10 and up" was the correct approach in my opinion.

    Do they fetishize math too much?

    Do Baseball fans fetishize math too much? There's a lot than can be streamlined, but again... make a good design, sure, but don't treat them like they're dumb. The crunchy rules are part of the illusion sometimes.

    Are they too self-referential?

    The tropes of D&D are an instant sell. There's no issue related to this that can't be addressed via scenario design. Imagine taking all the tropes that is classic D&D... and then creating a series of easy to run/play scenarios that will communicate them to a new generation. Look... just testing a new potion is something that will create memories. That stupid list of magic items in the Basic Set-- it's all brand new to them. It's a good idea to present situations where they can know what to do with it. (Ex: use gaseous form to get to a new location... then solve some new puzzles... then get their stuff back somehow.)

  4. I think the main two factors that must be considered are these:

    1) How much prep time does this game require? It had better be very little, because most people aren't going to have the patience to spend 20 minutes making a character, much less an hour. It needs to be playable right out of the box.

    2) There shouldn't be too much math. I say this as a gamer who's a bit math-phobic (I still have to count imaginary dice pips to do basic addition), but if chargen and/or rules require anything more complicated than simple addition/subtraction or consulting a die-roll chart, you're going to lose people. I don't think this is an issue of "dumbing down" the game so much as it is the fact that most people want to play games to have fun and relax, not to perform an activity akin to filling out tax forms.

    The time the game takes to play is another issue to consider, I think, though perhaps not as important if your family has a regular game night. But if it's more of a holiday evening thing, you're going to need to be able to play out a scenario in a single evening - you may not see those cousins again for another year.