Friday, June 23, 2006

Towards a Casual RPG

[RPG] [Game Design]

What would it take to make a casual tabletop-style roleplaying game (RPG)?

I posted previously about the Steve Jackson workshop I attended at Conflux, and talked about context-sensitive rules and when to use the "crunchy bits". The other interesting thing that came out of that really only occurred in passing.

Towards the end of that session, I asked a question along the following lines:
The biggest increasing market in videogames at the moment is in casual games; games which can be learned quickly, are low on complexity and jargon, and can be
played in short sessions with little to no set-up. A particular success of casual games has been attracting new consumers into the videogaming marketplace. Considering that you've said that attracting new consumers has been one of the most significant challenges facing traditional roleplaying, do you think there's a potential to develop "casual roleplaying"? Or are RPGs inherently non-casual?
Steve's answer was, "I don't know if you could make a casual RPG, but the person who does will make a fortune."

Naturally, that set me thinking. Exactly what would it take to make a tabletop-style RPG that appeals to a casual market? It's an intriguing enough question that I'd like to throw it open to everyone who reads this blog. Post comments, post on your own blog, discuss the topic. I have a list of thoughts and specifications that I'm happy to share, but before I blog them I want to let you have your own shot so I don't contaminate you with my assumptions.

Let me know if you post on another site - I'll provide linkage to you when I write up my thoughts on the subject.

12 comments:

Corvus said...

More casual than Mystery Dinner Theater events?

Or better yet... more casual than attending a Renaissance Festival in costume?

GregT said...

I'd thought of the "How to Host a Mystery" games, though not of the Renaissance Festival. I think these have a lot of good principles, but they're not "casual" games inasmuch as they both require considerable preparation and setup. I'm really thinking of a situation where three people are, say, out the back of the office for their smokebreak, and one looks at their watch and says, "Want to roleplay for five minutes or so?"

That's probably an extreme case, but I'm really talking play patterns that match the way people use Popcap, Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, or Tetris. Outside of RPGs, Solitaire and Go Fish are good examples. Or, if you know people who were in the Camarilla, the way that spontaneous "mini-gaming" conversations would spark up between players in casual settings.

David Cake said...

There are quite a few games, particularly from the indie games crowd, that are designed to be picked up quickly and played for a single session or so. But thats still not casual in the sense you describe.

I do think you are conflating two sorts of games - games like tetris, that is a simple standalone game, and games like Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, etc that have short bursts of play in the context of a long game. Your Camarilla example shows the latter type can occur in RPGs - it would be interesting to create a game system/setting designed around it as the primary mode of play.

GregT said...

Yeah - most of the short session RPGs I've seen operate by making use of a large number of "legacy skills". They don't work so well when you introduce a mundane to the game - they have to relearn a lot of RPG stuff from scratch. The Camarilla/Mind's Eye Theatre is a good starting place in terms of its simple dispute resolution mechanisms and the way the play is viral and continuous, but it's no good in terms of being jargon-heavy and having a lot of stuff going on "under the hood". Plus, you know, scaring the mundanes.

GregT said...

Oops, and on your second point - I'd be equally happy with single-session Tetris style games OR long-period games in microgaming installments a la Animal Crossing. My only specifications are that it appeals to a mass market, it can be played in short sessions, and it's recognisably a roleplaying game.

Phrancq said...

I do believe that a casual RPG is possible, but that a team comprised entirely of dedicated gamers making it would not be such a good idea. We do have a tendancy to complicate things and bog them down with ideas (at least I find I do).

Perhaps consulting with non-gamers would be the way to go.

Also, getting the non-gaming communty to take notice would be hard, but if you can crack that, the sky's the limit.

Sim said...

My thoughts:
The biggest hurdle to overcome would not be game mechanics, it would be fairly easy to strap something simple together...
Having a word setting and background that would be easy to pick up and run with on no time at all is the challenge.
You have mentioned Primetime Adventures before. I think that is a good way to introduce non-gamers to roleplaying. Most peeps know how a TV show works, and the heat and fan mail concepts are easy to handle. Players make their own backgrounds, so having mountains of sourcebooks isn't an issue. It fails in you criteria for being a 5 minute game though, becasue it requires at least an hour of getting together and setting things up. But if you could get a book of shows together, with all the character backgrounds done, I think that it would come close.
Another thing to consider is Munchkin the card game. It has role-playing aspects and can be picked up in no time at all. Choose your character, but take on each monster as a party, as opposed to making it competative. Don't change the loot drops, and watch players squabble over who gets what. You wouldnt' need a DM, because the random Deck is dictating what happens. Without the competativeness, the game has no set win point, you just play until you are sick of it, or your lunch break is over.

Gotta go to work now, more thoughts later...

Sim said...

I have brought Munchkin to various mundane gatherings, and had great success with it. Especially after LOTR movie came out, fantast combat is way more familliar with mainstream population.

GregT said...

Sim - I like the idea of removing goals and "win states" and just having a "shoot for the sky"/"high score" kind of mechanism. That's something to take on board.

I suspect that ultimately a shared world is going to be needed to give everyone the same framework. I'm anticipating something where essentially every player is playing the same game, rather than having "groups" like most RPGs. I further suspect the shared framework will need to be fairly simple, which means either a fantasy setting or a "locked-room" style setting (single small town or apartment block). Something you can learn the basics of quickly and be on the same page as everyone else.

Actually, Phillip K. Dick once wrote about such a game... admittedly, using magic technology and with a scary spin on it...

Source books are probably out. You can't assume others have read them and you can't port them around to quickly show other people. But source CARDS are a possibility. (Dammit, if only CCGs hadn't already been designed I'd be a millionaire already!)

I think you're right about making it cooperative. I think one of the key strengths of RPGs that translates into a casual market is the social aspects, and spontaneous team-building is probably a good way to harness that.

Duncan said...

I think that Craig Perko tried to do something like this a little while ago. It was called "Kung Fu the Card Game the RPG". It was primarily an attempt to create a distributed story RPG, where players in groups of at least 3 or 4 could gather and build intertwining conflict.

Basically, an RPG that could be picked up by a few players, and played in several sessions with different players each time. Each time you played, you would have new narratives and conflicts arise.

I'm pretty sure that there were some problems with the initial design. I fully expect him to try something along these lines again.

The relevant posts are here, here, and here

GregT said...

Yeah, I was hoping Craig would stop by and post, seeing as he usually has something good to say on RPGs. I'll check out those posts and take them into account when I come back to this topic.

GregT said...

Update: I had read the later of those posts before, but in the context of story generation, which I'm a bit oversaturated with at the moment and promptly skipped the end of. But I think Craig's thinking along similar lines to me. Basically traditional RPGs are the server-to-client model, with the GM as server, but for a casual game we're going to need a peer-to-peer distributed model. His Kung Fu the Card Game the RPG system is pretty close to what I'm thinking of, except that it's a bit logistically heavy and jargon-centric for a casual game, but it's remarkably close to what I'm talking about. I think a casual game will end up having physical markers to govern play - cards are a possibility. I was also talking with a friend about some sort of manufactured bracelet that has variables you can alter (like HeroClix for your wrist) as that would also have the advantage of identifying playerse to other players. Of course, then you have the fashion issue...