Friday, April 2, 2010

Gateway Gaming: Easing Others Into The Hobby

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.

A Board

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.

Level Advancement

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.

And More

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.


-Mark said...

I'm just a recreational game designer. I can quit at any time.

David said...

Something like heroquest might be a good way to go.

Jason Richards said...

Hmmm, not familiar with Heroquest, but after Googling it, it appears that it might be a good start. Doesn't look like it has much of a player vs player option, though, but is basically a minis rpg dungeon crawl platform. Definitely meets a number of the basic concepts, though. A good start.

If anyone is familiar with Frag by Steve Jackson Games, it also has some good framework for this sort of introduction.

Steve Dubya said...

I've been thinking of something along the same lines, and from personal experience I think that something along the lines of the "Murder Mystery" games that are available. These currently existing games tend to encourage systemless LARP from the participants without the stigmata that something like D&D can bring with it.

In any event, I think that there are a couple of "Big Things" that need to be considered:
1) The game in question needs to have dead simple rules, so simple that they don't take up more than a couple of pages. This fills two needs: it makes it easy to explain to others (who might be new to play) and,
2) The game needs to be easily played over the course of perhaps an hour or two. While I've done the marathon sessions of traditional tabletop gaming, this is really a barrier for someone more interested in casual play, which is where you'll get more general interest.
3) And this is a big one - the game HAS to focus on more than just combat. HAS to. This isn't to say that there can't be any CONFLICT; on the contrary, a game without conflict would be pretty dull. But while most of us familiar with trad TT gaming have become quite accustomed - perhaps even comfortable - with the idea of most problems being solved with imaginary violence, this isn't something that lots of folks would necessarily want to be a part of.

A.L. said...

Way late to this party (thanks for the link in the RDD post) but what about games like Dragon Strike? It basically is a D&D board game. Not really associated with D&D, but the theme is there. Players play different characters, there are 4 boards that can each be slightly individualized, and there are missions for each 'story'. The players play characters, and the GM controls the movements of enemies. It is essentially a stripped down, simplified dungeon crawl.

I'm also not sold on PvP being necessary. PvE board games have been doing fairly well recently and also will help to get people into the mind set of a group. Games where the players must defeat some enemy on the baord represented by mechanics, or escape a situation. things like in Arkham Asylum where you /can/ work against other players if you want, but it is still winnable by working together.

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