I was thinking about my own early introduction to the tabletop RPG – I learned and played with guys who were already into it. They learned from guys who were already into it. I’ve never played with anybody who learned how to do it from the “How To Roleplay” section in the front of the book.
I’ve read dozens of these sections, and all the usual metaphors – cops and robbers with rules etc. But I’d already grokked it by the time I was reading them because I’d had it explained to me and demonstrated during actual play – I came by my intuitive knowledge of roleplaying by receiving it from more experienced players. The lore of roleplaying passed down, from geek to geek, stretching all the way back to the Founding Fantasists. I’m not saying that nobody bootstrapped themselves into a full-functioning tabletop player by only reading the ‘How To’ section, I’m just saying I never met that guy, and never met anybody who’s met that guy. Every player I know learned how to do it from friends, older brothers, uncles, or – for the lucky second-generation geeks – from parents.
I’ve written a few of these ‘how-to’ sections myself, and they always feel like boilerplate hash I’m obligated to put at the beginning, and I tend to write them (and the rest of my games) with the assumption that the people reading them will already have the essential mindset down – they’ll already know what roleplaying is and how it feels to do it. That they’re already ‘one of us’.
But a recent project has really got me considering making the ‘how-to’ aspect of the game genuinely useful.
How to make a game which serves as a gateway for total newbs who have no conceptual framework for the ‘playing pretend with rules’ thing, for the shared storytelling, the improv acting, the immersion in character, the exploration of the shared imaginary world via the avatar of my guy. Yet, also not making a game which is irritatingly basic and obvious for gamers already in the fold. How to make a game that gently eases new players into roleplaying without any pressure, yet allows experienced gamers to enjoy it with whatever level of commitment to the experience they’re used to making?
This suggests a game which can be played on different levels, with the most basic mechanically-intensive one being essentially roleplaying-free. A board game or low-crunch wargame as a possible model. Enough fiddly bits, collectibles, and strategy to encourage commitment and investment of time. A sense of ownership over your playing pieces (all the things your guy is made from). A sense of continuity, as you use the same playing pieces (your guy) from session to session. A board which is mostly imaginary, but has some presence on the table. Basically, an engaging game with some depth and personalization – build your guy, name him, track changes to his fortunes and stats.
Then, the ‘role’ layer stacked on top of this, and linked to it – strategic advantage down in the ‘game’ level for adding some improvisational color to your guy’s actions – speaking in character, adding descriptions to actions, engaging in the scenarios by providing motivations for your guy to be involved or to take certain actions instead of others.
Then, the ‘story’ layer which provides the tactical scenario for play (goals, prizes, challenges, threats etc) and can be elaborated upon to create a narrative context for the game-resolved actions and the role-played embellishments.
The gentle trick would be designing the game in such a way that players would come to roleplaying without even realizing what they were doing – the roleplaying zeitgeist emerging spontaneously from their experience of play, at a pace set by their inclination to delve into (or take advantage of) the ‘role’ and ‘story’ layers, with naray a “how to roleplay” section to be found anywhere in the game.
And having conceptualized this stuff, and knowing my own biases (and all the things I take for granted about how to roleplay) can I write that game?