Tag Archive for role-playing games

State of the Instructional Art

Since I wrote about Dread, I’ve found myself noticing instructional design choices in role-playing games – and realizing that there’s a lot of great work happening in this space right now.

Boxed sets! The French edition of Dungeon World blew me away, and I don’t just say that because they’re talking about “Jessica Hammer Principles” in the context of great design. They’ve taken a role-playing game and broken it out into separate, thoughtfully-designed components. A beautifully designed dungeon map comes in the box. Powers are on color-coded cards. The set includes pre-punched figurines, so groups don’t have to scrounge up minis. And nametags! They have nametags! Plus, the game looks like a game, which opens doors to whole new types of players.

You still have a few more days to support them on Ulule. My French is terribly rusty, but I backed anyhow; design this good deserves to be funded. I’ll be using the game as an example of how to reduce players’ cognitive load, both when learning a new game and when playing.

Playbooks! Playbooks do a great job of reducing game friction: put the information a player needs on their character sheet, right in front of them! The character sheet doubles as a character creation workbook and a play aid.

I’ve seen a number of games with playbooks recently, but I’m particularly impressed with how Monsterhearts handles them. Why? A free and printable download of all the character skins. Free makes entrance easier for new players; it costs them nothing to look at the characters they might play and fantasize about which one best suits them. Printable makes life easier for game organizers. Choosing what pages to print from a larger PDF file is a small barrier, but for people who don’t love organizing games, small barriers add up.

Teaching tools! Our Last Best Hope is doing one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in instructional design for RPGs. They’re creating demo videos for specific sections of play, keyed to QR codes printed in the book itself. If you aren’t sure how to run a section of the game, you can just scan the code and go straight to a video explaining it in more detail. This isn’t quite the “book that automatically switches between teaching, reference, and vicarious entertainment mode” that Robin Laws posits, but it’s a pretty darn slick way to help people get a deeper understanding of the rules without bulking out the book with lots of unnecessary material.

It’s also a potentially disruptive innovation for widening the RPG audience. For many people, learning from a book isn’t much fun. That’s part of why game organizers are so critical for making play happen; in most of the groups I’ve observed, knowledge of how the game works is a primarily oral tradition. Giving people the choice of text or video might make a lot more people willing to learn how to play.

And I bet there’s more! Is your game doing something interesting with instructional design? Point me at it in comments, or drop me a line!

Making Horror, Selling Dread

The brilliant and inimitable Vincent Baker went to a horror convention and tried to sell horror role-playing games – and it didn’t work.

It seems like it should have been the ideal situation. Dread does a remarkably good job of producing a horror-movie aesthetic. Vincent is smart, personable, and experienced at selling games. The place was full of horror fans.

Aha, I said to myself. If Vincent can’t sell Dread to horror fans, something is going on here.

In fact, I think there are four things going on here, and all four are working against Dread becoming accessible to the mainstream.

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Pizza Box Maps and Game Ephemera

I just found out about the Play Generated Map and Document Archive, which organizes and preserves role-playing game ephemera like character sheets, maps, and campaign notes. (So, you know, more or less what it says on the tin.)

From the site:

PlaGMaDA’s mission is to preserve, present, and interpret play generated cultural artifacts, namely manuscripts and drawings created to communicate a shared imaginative space.  The Archive will solicit, collect, describe, and publicly display these documents so as to demonstrate their relevance, presenting them as both a historical record of a revolutionary period of experimental play and as aesthetic objects in their own right.  By fostering discussion and educating the public, it is hoped that the folkways which generate these documents can be encouraged and preserved for future generations.

When it comes to role-playing games, I’m not just a researcher – I’m also a player. This project makes me deeply happy on both fronts.

As a researcher, I’m quite interested in the question of how we get good data about the experience of role-playing. When I conduct my own research, I rely on direct observation and interviews, but I also look at precisely this kind of ephemera to understand how the group works and what they jointly agree to pay attention to. I’ve looked at emails, game websites, maps, character sheets, game-related fiction, art, and more – and I’ve found they all illuminate what actually goes on at the table, not to mention being valuable to analyze in and of themselves.

Until now, there hasn’t been a great centralized resource for this material. I’ve been acquiring it on an ad-hoc basis through personal connections with groups, and developing my own system for categorizing and analyzing it. This, obviously, only goes so far. I want big data, dammit!

As a player, I find myself struggling to document and archive my play experiences. In our group’s long-term games, we generally keep a world-building wiki and write up session notes after each time we meet, but that has limitations. One of them is that it doesn’t include precisely this sort of ephemera. For example, at the end of our last long-term game, we moved from sketching maps on the backs of pizza boxes to using a whiteboard laid across the table. We made the change for a variety of reasons – one group member got a free whiteboard, we had to run an epic combat or two – but there’s no record of it except in our group’s heads.

I’ve got other documentation problems, too. I basically don’t document our short-term or one-shot games; there’s a significant barrier to recording and explaining what happens, especially since short games often include people outside our core group who are less committed to the preservation of play experiences. Plus, I’ve been playing one-on-one games with my husband for more than a decade; we’ll casually drop into and out of play as part of the fabric of our lives, and that certainly doesn’t lend itself to recording without an enormous investment of time and effort.

I’m not sure PlaGMaDa solves all my player-side problems, but it certainly helps.

If your group produces neat material, you should submit it to PlaGMaDa – and if it’s really neat, you should also drop me a line so I can make sure to have a look at it!