Stripping Away The Personal Touch

edited January 2013 in Story Games
I've been doing some thinking lately and I've come to the conclusion that one of the biggest hurdles for TTRPG newbies is comfort level. Most people just aren't that comfortable opening up to other people, even friends or family, on a creative and imaginative level. I've been doing it for twenty years and I still get a little nervous when I try to speak like the NPCs or my character. I have a very hard time concentrating on playing a role-playing game when there are non-participants in the room, or even in the adjacent room if the door is open.

Role-playing is actually a very intimate thing when you consider it - you're opening up your heart and soul and sharing your dreams with people with the expectation that they're going to listen and react and build upon your thoughts and feelings. This takes a huge amount of trust and confidence. Most people just lack that confidence and trust in their friends (as sad as that sounds, I believe it's true).

There's some inborn fear that people will look down on you or laugh (at least on the inside) when you share an idea or make some kind of story suggestion or speak in character or whatever. It's borderline playing pretend - big kids, teenagers, and adults have all been conditioned to leave childish things like imagination behind. And this is on top of the inherent difficulty of improvisation and the awful social stigma that D&D has earned over the years. What if I say something dumb? What if everyone else is much more creative then me? Or worst of all... what if someone "cool" hears me talking about dragons and magic and knights and make-believe crap?!

In general, people are much more comfortable enjoying, referencing, discussing, and playing with "creative stuff" that come from known, established, and respected creative sources. Even the worst movie script ever will get a lot of attention if it's coming from a famous director or writer. I could come up with the greatest song in the world, but it might never get any attention because people don't know, care about, or have any respect for my musical talent - why would they - I'm a nobody! In fact, many of the songs I have written and played for people, they assumed were covers because people are naturally more skeptical and judgmental of creativity that comes from people they know and consider themselves equal with (implying that most people put famous artists on a pedestal). This trails into the whole peacock feathers thing - people often like famous people because there must be something to like if everyone else likes them.

I think that deep down, people really do like the idea of role-playing games, but want a less intimate way to interact with their friends where they don't have to put their imagination on the chopping block. Card games, board games, and video games serve this purpose deftly. With these games, you still get to tap into the part of your brain that enjoys imagining and experience another world, but all of the creative stuff is out of your hands. It's way less intimate to interact with other people on a rules-level because the rules are explicit and they come from known, trusted, respected, pedestalled sources. Rules, numbers, dice, and cards are sterile and therefore safe for interaction between you and your friends. Sure, I might use a poor strategy, but the mistake was fundamentally impersonal because it existed within the realm of rules created by a game designer

So what does this have to do with anything? When it comes to the future of the hobby, a lot. Designers have wracked their brains for decades in an attempt to find a way to bring D&D to the mainstream but have failed every time because ultimately the general populace doesn't want role-playing games. They have other forms of entertainment that are way more socially acceptable, easy to figure out, and probably most important, impersonal. So what do you do about that?

Well, you can attempt to worm TTRPGs into the growing mainstream geek community by trying to make them resemble other types of more-socially-acceptable games like card building games or board games, but that has been done before with little significant success. Actually, it seems the only way to turn a game on to the mainstream to strip away the things that make a TTRPG until there is nothing left that could be recognized as a role-playing game. In other words, once you take out the self-generated story and other creative elements of the game that come from the imagination of the people playing, it suddenly becomes much easier for people to play..

Instead, I think the focus needs to draw away from publicity and mainstreaming, and turn towards making games for the existing audience. Keeping the existing players interested in the hobby is more important than gaining the occasional flash-in-the-pan visiting gamer. Make games for the people who are already buying them and make it easy for them to introduce this hobby to their friends. That's what we need to be focusing on.


  • But I like games that only kinda resemble RPGs! Honestly, I'm not here for the role-playing (I can take it or leave it); I'm here for the games, no matter what they look like.
  • My wife struggles with this a lot. Much of what you say about nervousness and judging and such is what I hear from her when she shies away from a game.

    For her, there are several factors in place, and if any of them are askew, she's going to struggle.

    She needs to be with a small group of supportive friends. There's no way in hell she would play at a convention, for example. And even with those very supportive friends, she still does a lot of comparing herself to others and consistently considers her own performance to be inferior. So she needs consistent reassurance to combat that.

    It helps a lot if she feels really comfortable with the setting. She's expressed interest in playing in a friend's upcoming Mistborn game, and I know that one of the major factors is that she has read all the novels in the series and feels like she would not be out of her depth with regards to setting knowledge. Also, some settings inspire and intrigue her more than others.

    She needs to not be expected to understand complex rules and apply them tactically. It's not that she can't act tactically, but she can't be bothered to learn a complex rules set, analyze it for tactical opportunities, and then implement some of those opportunities. She needs decisions that are a matter of choosing from a clear set of options with clear differentiation in what her choice means.

    She needs to not have a lot of freeform creativity expected of her. She would probably have a difficult time answering the leading questions that are a part of how most *World games are structured. The nearly-blank-white-page freedom would result in creative paralysis for her, I would expect.

    She just plain needs to be having a good day. When she's tired and/or behind with her work (she's a teacher, so grading and lesson planning are constant obligations) then she has a hard time feeling like she can step up to the plate.

    All that being said, good design can go a long way toward helping borderline target audience folks like her be more interested in playing.

    I think the moves structure of a game like Dungeon World might work well for her, though there are some parts that it would take her a while to get used to (like using fictional positioning to line up the bad guys so you can hit multiple of them with the same attack). Though, like I said, the provocative questions thing may or may not work.

    And like I said, just doing a good job of incorporating certain settings that she is familiar with and enjoys would help.

    I think there's a lot to be said for giving people really positive first experiences with roleplaying that will help turn more maybe's into yes's.
  • Hey, me too! The point was not to disparage non-RPG games at all. Nothing wrong with them - they're just not RPG's and that's why they are so much more popular. The main point was to say the mainstream doesn't really want TTRPGs for various reasons and therefore it might be better for the hobby to focus less on gaining new customers by changing the nature of the game and more on making RPG's awesome for the people who currently play them so they can continue to pull their friends into the fold.
  • edited January 2013
    Doesn't a similar situation apply to other types of games as well? I've encountered plenty of people who didn't want to play strategy-oriented games because they thought they would be bad at them and didn't want to embarrass themselves or feel bad about losing. Most of us probably react to our weaknesses, perceived or real, on an emotional level. Acting from a place of weakness is an intimate ordeal. So I don't really think this is something unique to role-playing or creative acts in general.

    I'm pretty much coming from the same space as Jonathan. I like to play games, a wide assortment of them. Whether they are RPGs or not is almost incidental.

    *cross-postage with Zach and Rob
  • edited January 2013
    All that being said, good design can go a long way toward helping borderline target audience folks like her be more interested in playing.
    I think there's a lot to be said for giving people really positive first experiences with roleplaying that will help turn more maybe's into yes's.
    Totally agree Rob. Good support for veterans to assist and introduce new people is the best bet I think.
    So I don't really think this is something unique to role-playing or creative acts in general.
    Role-play is most definitely a different activity than playing Risk, Scrabble, Chess, Checkers, Pokemon, Yu Gi Oh, Halo, WoW, etc.
    I'm pretty much coming from the same space as Jonathan. I like to play games, a wide assortment of them. Whether they are RPGs or not is almost incidental.
    Not sure how this is relevant? Totally not talking about anyone who is already an RP gamer.
  • Is D&D online an example of the idea?
  • edited January 2013
    I'm not saying role-play isn't a different activity. I'm saying that the underlying fear of engagement you're talking about, the dynamics of it, are the same across a multitude of activities. Which is to say that I don't believe people being afraid of the intimacy of role-play has much weight in terms of how it effects the size of the rpg playing audience. Is it a thing? Yes. But no more than the same underlying fears effect participation in any other activity. Other factors, such as social stigma, likely have a much greater effect.

    My comment about playing a lot of different kinds of games has to do with conceptions of the RPG audience. It is, I think, much more varied in its consumption than you seem to be implying. There's a pretty broad scale between 'not an rpg' and 'definitely an rpg' and having games all along that scale, regardless of the drive behind their creation, is a good thing in my opinion. If nothing else it allows an entrance for people to come in to the hobby at whatever level they feel comfortable. Plus it means a greater variety of games to play for those already in the hobby.
  • edited January 2013
    What Chris said.

    In general, I agree with your overall point that having a huge amout of anxiety about whether specific audiences will like your game or not is probably not super productive, especially if you yourself are not a member of those audiences and don't really understand what they might want. If I read your manifesto as "just make your games for the people who will like them, and don't worry too much about the rest" I don't really have much of a problem with it.

    That said, people who are looking to make real money with their games (the fools!) do have to think really hard about outreach and marketing, yeah? I mean, whether they'll really be successful at reaching out to other audiences depends on a lot of factors. It's super difficult! Most people, like you say, are probably better off not bothering too much with that and just making what they like for the people who also like that stuff. But not everybody is satisfied with that.
  • edited January 2013
    If you want to find an audience who isn't scared of opening up creatively, you could try reaching out to theater types. Those people love role-playing already, they just don't know it yet because they associate it with Lord of the Rings nerds moving minis around a hex map.

    I think Fiasco's success in the non-hardcore-RPGer market comes in part from the fact that it doesn't demand or require you to play it a certain way. You can do lots of talking in-character, or you can mostly just describe what your character does; you can zoom in to the details, or you can kind of summarize. People who are interested in the game but don't want to be very creatively open may just assume that they can play it the way they're comfortable with -- just like players do with performance-based board games like the Cranium line.

    Ultimately, I think the potential size of the role-playing audience grows and shrinks depending on what you view as core to role-playing. If your core is simple or flexible enough, I like to think that there are role-play options out there for all kinds of players, including the not-creatively-brave!

    ...but clearly the market is way tinier than for Dominion. I have no delusions about that. And the number of players any given RPG can reach is tinier still. *sigh*
  • edited January 2013
    It seems to me that what you're talking about is to remove the creative block that some players may have. What you need is a creative environment, and this is how I create those on gaming conventions.
    • Use a theme known by everyone. It's not a coincident that my next game is about the pulp genre (Indiana Jones, King Kong).
    • Take time explaining things.
    • Run the game slow. Never rush things. Give everyone time to think, possibly by activating someone else meantime.
    • Run some exercises to show how to play the game. You can involve those exercises into the game, like a tutorial. Bad Family does this really well.
    • Make everyone involved in each others doings. That includes the GM, if existing.
      • Take up what another participant has said and add something to it.
      • Ask questions to release the block, but remember not to fire away a cascade of questions. Give them time to think.
      • Make the characters intertwined, so they have to care, or have rules that support active listening.
      • Invite the others to take part. Ask what the next situation could be. Ask the players to add something to the environment. Ask them to give a trait to a character.
    • Give positive feedback. Add something to what another participant just said. Cheer for them. Laugh. Give compliments (with real emotions - do not just add "cool" when someone does something). This is especially important if the player is normally quiet. Be glad that they contributed. That's a reward for you.
    • Take away any kind of demand of performance, like points for "good roleplaying", "fan mail" or similar. Instead, give positive feedback.
    • Make sure everyone are involved. Activate the passive players. Put them in situations, make them shine or allow they to add things.
    • Make sure to point out that it's a game of collaboration. No participant is more important than another. That's especially important when it comes to the player who describes to rules. Lower your status as much as possible, possibly by sitting lower than the rest.
    • Also point out that there is no right or wrong in how they do things. If someone actually does something wrong (rolls the wrong dice or something like that), take on the blame yourself and say that you haven't explained the game properly.
    • To enhance the previous point, run games that allows the players to be silly.
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