Of late I’ve been thinking a lot about board games and what RPGs can learn from them. I’ve said before that I’m not generally much for board games, but it’s hard to look at them and not admire the production values and sophistication. I started a thread on Story Games, which turned up some very interesting points that are very hard to ignore. I also hit on a game I want to put together as a sort of proof of concept, a new version of Peerless Food Fighters.
A lot of the stuff I’ve been able to properly wrap my head around has had to do with presentation, with product design. The thing about the traditional RPG format is that it has tremendous flexibility, longevity, and economy, but it achieves those things by way of sacrificing presentation, teachability, and ease of use. When you buy an RPG you get a book, and that’s it. You have to dig through and absorb an enormous amount of text before you even get started, you have to provide all of the other materials yourself, and you have to do a lot of work to prepare and get everything together, often making a lot of decisions you can’t fully understand until you get well into the game. You get stuff out of the deal–I wouldn’t for a moment suggest tossing out traditional RPGs–but here’s yet another avenue for trying things out and creating something new with its own distinct merits. The better board games do a really good job of easing you in to learning how to play. I recently tried playing Space Alert with some friends, and the game is impressive for how it sets up a series of tutorials that gradually add more of the full game’s mechanics. That’s especially important for Space Alert, which expects you to work your way up to being able to use the cards and such to plan out all of your moves over the course of 10 minutes, and then resolve them all once the recording ends.
The best pithy one-liner from the SG thread is from TylerT, and it goes, “Your game is not a book.” This is true no matter what kind of tabletop game you’re talking about. Even if the book is the whole of the presentation, the actual game is what happens at the table, and the book is the means of teaching it. Board games can be really good at putting game content into easily digestible chunks, while many RPGs subject you to a huge infodump before you even start playing. This is an instance where for example Apocalypse World, with its playbooks and such, really shines, especially on the players’ side of things. My recent forays into card games have been really interesting just for how it’s become a routine thing that for a game I’ll have a Word doc of the rules and an Excel spreadsheet of cards, often with the latter having more text overall.
Board games are also free to be much narrower in scope than RPGs typically are. That’s another one of those things where I wouldn’t want every RPG to be that way, but I would like it to be a viable choice. Going back to the thread, one person pointed out that for example wargamers are really big on putting together elaborate terrain, but they have one battlefield for a given hours-long game session, and wouldn’t put up with having to set up a single-use battlefield and minis for many small battles the way you do if you use miniatures in D&D. Chris Engle‘s Engle Matrix Games are RPGs with small, simple boards, providing a map element that’s self-contained and manageable. Somehow people act like it’s just totally unthinkable to have an RPG with any real limitations on the scope of the game. Looking at some of the board games that have entered my life lately, there have been things like Space Alert (where you play the crew of a Sitting Duck class spaceship for 10 minutes as it records data and you push buttons to try to fend off alien attackers) and Red November (gnomes try to survive in their deathtrap of a submarine until help arrives). I like the idea of RPGs that in essence give you a recipe for something with the scope of a movie and let you go at it with little to no preparation. (Though I have found that the more complex board games are like RPGs in that they run a hell of a lot smoother if someone has read the rulebook over in advance.) The next step up from there in variability is something like Fiasco, where in a sense there are dozens and dozens of downloadable “boards” to play with.
There’s also some stuff to do with how the actual gameplay is structured that I need to dig into more. Here are a few snippets to chew over:
- Make losing fun.
- Balance cooperation and competition.
- Structure gameplay so that you need to watch closely while other players are acting.
- Emergent rather than front-loaded complexity.
- Emphasis on building up things.
- Toys/tactile elements are fun!
- Small social footprint.
A big part of why Peerless Food Fighters so readily came to mind in terms of being an RPG with board game type presentation was that it was already one of the more board game-like RPGs I’ve done in terms of its mechanics. Even so, going all-out with that type of presentation has been really interesting. Like my dalliances with designing an RPG in the form of a smartphone app (and I really do need to get more work done with Raspberry Heaven), it opens up a whole different set of options and constraints. I’ve taken to calling it a “role-playing board game,” which I think sums up what’s going to be in the box pretty well. Stuff that I would ordinarily have in the form of Yet Another D66 Table instead becomes a small deck of cards. Looking at board game components is also just way more fun than it has any right to be, and I end up wondering what I could do in the way of an RPG that uses things like colored plastic rocketships and various types of meeples. Since I’m aiming to do it through The Game Crafter, their available selection of components is influencing some of my choices. One interesting but subtle things is that since I want to have clear color coding for the six pre-made characters and I want to have colored card stands for the character cards, I’m limited to the six colors they have the stands in (red, blue, black, white, yellow, and green). I think that actually made the character designs a little better, since it forced me to have more realistic colors, and avoid the obvious choices like having one character be mostly pink.
As I write this I’m planning for PFF to have:
- Event Deck (which provides situations for scenes)
- Complications Deck
- Fate Deck (a 32-card deck that’s like a paper d6 peppered with special effects)
- Score Board
- 6 Character Cards (w/card stands)
- Pawns (for use on both the score board and the map)
- Applause Tokens (which will probably the least changed element from the old version)
The rules booklet will be an important part of how you learn the game, but thinner than in a lot of Fantasy Flight’s games. I do think the way I’ve set it up potentially lessens the impact of the role-playing aspect, but it also focuses it, so that you’ll hardly ever want for ideas for what to do.
The essential practical stumbling block for hybridizing board games and RPGs is cost. You don’t normally manufacture board games in quantities of less than 1,000, and for an independently published RPG that would involve some unwarranted optimism. For that reason I’m pretty sure the new PFF is going to be more of a proof of concept, with a print and play prototype and maybe a Game Crafter version with little to no profit margin. Outside the unlikely event that PFF takes off beyond all expectations, on a commercial level this is going to be more of a trial run for something more mainstream (the cynic in me is whispering about Cthulhu here) and more ambitious.