I've long thought that one thing that we lack as a community is a good method of easing people into the tabletop role-playing hobby. Anyone that has ever tried to explain traditional gaming to a friend or coworker has invariably fallen into the familiar problem of trying to describe a gaming session without sounding like a weirdo, even if said gamer is, in fact, a weirdo. Gaming is so different than other grown-up pursuits that it's hard to put into words. If it's a game, then why are there no winners and losers? If it's like theater, why are there no written lines? If it's just "playing pretend," then what are these character sheets for? And what's with all the different types of dice?
What we really need is a sort of "gateway game" that can be used to introduce role-playing through more universal, non-geeky gaming standards. Here's what I think it should include. Let me know where I've gone wrong.
This isn't a big departure for many gamers. Personally, I'm not a minis gamer, but I'm certainly familiar enough with drawing maps and using dice or tokens to represent players as they scoot around on a hex grid. The board for this game requires some special things that differentiate it from both gaming boards that are set up by a Game Master, as well as static boards that are never different from one play through to the next.
The solution here is a variable hex board such as those that are found in Settlers of Catan or Twilight Imperium. These games have simple rules that allow the board to be generated differently every time the game is played so that strategies must always be different each time around. In our case, the board could be set up in the player-generated style of Settlers or TI for play like a board game or, over time, altered so that the Game Master could set up the board from the start.
One Unique Character Per Player
To differentiate our game from a normal war game such as Axis and Allies or Risk, and to make it more like a role-playing game, each player much have a single role to play, rather than commanding armies of various units spread across the board. Further, each character must be different in some way, having a different set of advantages and disadvantages, skills and weaknesses. The idea here would be to create an atmosphere where it benefits the player to take on a certain style of play, just as a pen and paper gamer becomes the wizard, fighter, or rogue when sitting down at the table.
Differentiations in character types could be achieved by providing situational bonuses, and benefit even from borrowing from traditional gaming archetypes. A fighter type character may get bonuses to aggressive actions, while a rogue type may get buffs for a sneak attack. A healer may be a valued ally of other players, and a wizard capable of achieving unique effects in either combat or diplomacy. Should the game employ resources, be they Tech Bits to upgrade weapons or Mana to fuel spells, various character types could employ those differently from one to the next.
That's all ignoring the simple things that can be used to develop a character. If each player picks a template and then assigns a name, chooses an avatar to represent the character on the board and on the character sheet, and establishes some basic stats, the character becomes unique. This can even be established by doing some basic character building by selecting strengths and flaws that further affect gameplay beyond the use of a basic template.
Player Versus Player
A scenario in which there are winners and losers is what makes sense to most people not indoctrinated to a role-playing way of thinking, so setting players against one another in the achievement of some objective is, I think, the best way to introduce people to this game. Eliminating the competition from the board or being the first to solve a Clue-style puzzle could be variations on what is otherwise the same game. Wouldn't Clue be better if Colonel Mustard actually got to carry around the candlestick and whack people with it?
By manipulating the objective, team play can be introduced. It's only natural that players will form alliances and hold grudges on their own in a game. By making one of the players at the table the Game Master, who controls multiple game components and establishes the scenario, it serves to more directly draw the battle lines, uniting what becomes an actual gaming party that works together to defeat the scenario set up by the referee.
At the end of a seemingly-endless game of Monopoly, you have one guy with all the money and everyone else is broke. What if, the next time you played, the winner still had all of his money from the last game? That sort of continuity is important in our gateway game. Sure, it could be played as a one-shot, but once a player has established his or her own unique character, continuing to use that same character from session to session, each time with a few more tweaks and advantages gained through the accumulation of resources or skill points, and soon you're looking at a bona-fide player character.
I'm sure this isn't everything, but I think it's a start. This sort of thing may even already exist, and I just don't know about it. What did I miss? What would you add? How would you improve on this? What sort of mechanics would you include.
Oh, but be careful in answering those questions. This blog just might be your gateway to the hobby of game design. You've been warned.