Friday, October 14, 2011

On Endgames & Expectations...

So things got a little balled up, unfortunately, and Heron’s B/X game didn’t happen last night. Steve and Josh and I still hung out for a drink, and I was tempted to run a one-off B/X game of my own using Heron’s setting by scavenging his emailed notes (it really is a neat setting, fraught with ideas and conflict and drama potential). In the end, though, we played another one-off of my post-apocalypse game MDR and that was pretty enjoyable.

[sorry, Randy…I know you asked me to tell you when we would next be playing MDR, but it really was a last second kind of thing]

Steve-O liked the game a lot, especially the quick character creation that comes with the card-dealing mechanic. He sees it as having the potential for a wide range of RPG applications, and I agree…but right now I have enough on my plate without spreading myself any thinner. Again, there was some discussion about the truncated endgame: having an endgame at all makes the game feel kind of “board gamey” to the players, even though they understand that in a normal campaign there would be many adventures before anyone “won.”

I think the “weirdness” for the players may be their relative inexperience with indie games. A lot of the indie RPGs have endgames or set limits on play…very few of ‘em have the “infinite play till you die” expectations of “regular RPGs.”

With the “mainstream” RPG scene, it appears that the default assumption (or hope) is this: good games will be so entertaining that people will want to play them until their attention is drawn to another game, and possibly indefinitely so long as one puts out adequate quality source material for exploration, or so long as there is potential ideas for mining.

Um, okay, that’s a valid point of view/design consideration, I suppose. It especially takes on more merit when one considers the size and scope of your average game system on the market. Even “small” RPGs like Mongoose Traveller or Thousand Suns (in its first incarnation) take quite an investment of time just to learn the game…there’s an expectation that one will get more hours of game play out of the game than the hours spent on reading the book.


Hey, I AGREE with that premise. Hours of Game Play SHOULD exceed Hours of Game Study/Learning. Fact o the matter is, folks these days (including myself) are pressed for time; time is a commodity precious and not to be wasted (and yes, sleeping is valuable and a good use of time, too).

But I grok this premise a little different from others. I do it like this:

X > Y

Where X is time spent in actual play…not reading the book, not teaching the game, not character creation…and Y is time spent in all that preliminary/start-up stuff.

If D&D (and old school D&D specifically) has been uber-popular for decades, could it just be that Y is so well-known and understood that X can’t help but exceed Y?

In a way, the phenomenon of “one dude knows the rules/owns the book” is a short-cut method of helping to achieve this objective…if only one person has to spend 12 hours learning a game system, than then the other 3 or 4 players can just show up and the GM can “explain the game as it goes,” perhaps even providing pre-generated characters. One then gets multiple hours of game play (4-5 players, including the GM multiplied by hours spent playing) compared to the time spent by one player (the GM) reading and prepping.

Does what I’m saying make sense? As usual, I’m a little groggy this Friday, so I may not be writing this in an exceptionally clear fashion. Let’s get some concrete examples.

I am going to stick with my X/Y thing, but I'll nail down proper definitions:

X = hours of game play. It is defined as hours spent in-session (doing imaginary things in an imaginary world) multiplied by the number of players participating.

Y = preliminary set-up prior to game play. It includes time spent reading (and re-reading) the rules and supplementary source books used, any explanation or teaching that occurs, dungeon/adventure creation, and character creation. For each of these tasks, the number of hours spent are multiplied by the number of individuals participating in the task.

For example, say me and three buddies decide we want to play Basic (Moldvay) D&D. We each buy a copy of the book and spend a couple hours or so reading the rules (it’s 64 pages long, not all of which are necessary for immediate play, and assume we all have some passing familiarity with D&D, if not this specific edition). So far that’s 6 hours (2 hours x 3 people) in the Y category.

Prior to “game night,” it is decided that I will be the DM and I dutifully prepare an adventure, including a scenario idea, a map, and a list of monsters, treasures, and traps. Call it four hours of prep time total, just because I’m slow and it takes me awhile to get everything together (usually, a one level dungeon doesn’t take me that long to script, once I have a scenario idea, but I’ll spend time fine-tuning some of the challenges). Category Y is now increased to 10 hours (6+ (4x1=4) ).

On game night, each player spends 45 minutes making a character. An extra dude shows up to play and the DM (me) helps him with charactergen while simultaneously explaining the basics of the game (since Buddy #4 didn’t buy/read the book). An extra 3 hours and 45 minutes is added to the Y category giving us a total of 13 hours and 45 minutes of human time spent in preliminary set-up “costs.”

So how does the game time become “cost effective” (in terms of entertainment value for time “spent”)? By having more actual game play than those preliminary costs.

If the five of us sit down and play for three hours (after character creation), we get a total of 15 hours (3 hours x 5 people) of actual game play (the “X” in X/Y formula). Not much of a “return” for our preliminary efforts. However, if the adventure created by the DM takes two or three sessions to complete and the players are able to keep their characters alive (or if they get a lot faster at making characters, as tends to be the case with B/X game play), then that X category starts building up; 15-20 hours per session multiplied by 3-4 sessions results in a much better return for time invested (the Y category). And because the Basic set is so simple to learn, there’s not a whole lot of “refresher training” needed between sessions; for the truly obscure issues that arise, DMs generally need to make snap rulings during game anyway, rather than conducting Search & Handling efforts (something that takes away from actual play time).

Now compare that X/Y value with a game like Vampire the Masquerade or GURPS or (God forbid!) Champions. Look at the number of hours that goes into the preliminary set-up (“Y”) of those games…hell, even character creation. How many hours of actual game play (“X”) do you need to run to get back a decent return on those games?

And what is a decent return? 4 to 1? 5 to 1? Personally, I’d want a lot more entertainment for my time. When I bother to go to a movie the commute to and from the theater is generally less than 20 minutes, and I expect a good solid two hours of entertainment (a 6+ to 1 return on my time, depending on how long I have to wait in line). But the quality of entertainment for a cinema is pretty amazing: big screen, big sound, quality acting/directing, etc.

Last night’s MDR game took us about 5 minutes to do character creation and 5 minutes to explain the rules to Steve, and the scenario was already written (it was “Part 2” of last week’s scenario). We then played from about 9 to 11:30, sprinkled with a lot of BSing and wandering conversations and food ordering distractions. Call it close to two hours of game play, probably a 10 or 12 to 1 ratio of X/Y. THAT’s the kind of return I want, but most games don’t give you that “out of the box.” Instead, you have to play many-many multiple sessions to get that kind of return on, say, Pathfinder or 3rd edition D&D.

I mean, how long did it take you to learn 3rd edition D&D? How long does it take to teach the game to those who haven't owned/read it? I know part of the reason I grew to loathe the game was the time spent prepping adventures due to extensive stat blocks of monsters and such. I understand that a lot of folks “wing it” when it comes to D20 or Pathfinder, making shortcuts to prep, and house rules to decrease S&H time, but I’ve always been of the opinion, “why bother?” when you can just play a simpler, more efficient rule set.

But that’s getting off-subject: most of the big, slickly-produced RPGs on the market take a ton of “Y” time…so much so that one needs to have an assumption of “long-term campaign-play” in order to make learning the game worthwhile…and with character generation (often EXTENSIVE chargen) being such a huge part of post-1990 RPG design, it becomes even more important to allow PC survival to occur (as creating new characters eats into the X time with additional Y time expenditure).

God, just realizing this makes me a little sick to my stomach…we used to play games like Vampire that spent an entire first game session (three or four hours) in character generation alone…not counting all the hours I spent as a GM poring over an impressive collection of books and supplements. And then we’d play maybe three or four sessions? Maybe? Ugh…I always felt like I was getting the shaft when I was asked to run those games and now I see why!

Indie games (just to get back to the earlier topic) aren’t often concerned with “long-term” campaign goals, and often provide only the basic rules one needed to run an ultra-specific type of game. I’m not terribly interested in this type of play, because I like the development of both character and setting that comes out of long-term play. At least, that’s what I’ve always said in the past. I still feel that way…but now I’m starting to think that “real development” only occurs with extensive time spent in the X category, rather than the Y. We saw more of this type of development in games like old school D&D and Marvel Superheroes than we ever saw in a White Wolf or Palladium games (the latter are interesting because they require so much time to “fix” their broken bits that you effectively ramp up the Y time on what is a relatively simple system). Despite White Wolf’s touting of emphasis on story, the bulk of any storytelling always occurred in the set-up phase (the “Y,” in other words) rather than in the actual play of the game itself.

In other words (or rather, to sum up): long term play is desirable so long as the play is "actual" and not just prep (adventure prep, rules prep, character prep). If the X to Y ratio (where X>Y) isn't good, than it doesn't matter whether the games last many sessions or not; you're not getting a decent investment for your time.

Wow...this goes a ways to explaining a lot of game design decisions of the last 20 years: like the inclusion of extensive fiction/prose in games and the need to make character creation (or "advancement planning") a form of mini-game. It's almost like the designers have been saying, "well we understand that the Y-portion of this role-playing game takes a lot of time away from the X-portion, so we'll try to make it more entertaining for you," instead of just...*sigh*

WELL...this turned into a bit longer post than I expected. This is probably enough to chew on for awhile.
: )

[you know, last night Steve was giving me a bunch of ideas for a high concept setting using my MDR mechanic and made the statement, "the game practically writes itself!" No, Steve, games do not write themselves...this kind of theory-bashing just makes me realize it even more]


  1. I normally don't bother with 'theory' posts like this one, because many of them make my head spin.

    This one is very good, and I agree with what you say here. I've also been agreeing with your recent similar posts (about 'what's the game about?'). I've had similar disappointments in games; now I know why.

    Keep up the great posts! I'm really enjoying them.

  2. There is definitely a good point here.

    I've been working on that very concept with Old School Hack. Barsoomcore made a 1 page pocket mod with the rules, so if you have that and a character sheet and a template sheet, 5 minutes of explanation and you're ready to play.

    On the DM side of the screen, I'm building a geomorph stocker with the expectation that 10 minutes using the stocker equals an hour of game play.

    So once you're past your first session (and the start-up explanations) then you'd have about an hour of prep by the DM equaling five or six hours of gaming.

  3. ... "brilliant!" That's an excellent observation.

  4. glad you find the setting interesting (on paper, at least). But I can't take too much credit. The basic premise (semi-tribal lands occupied by a foreign, culturally advanced Empire) is straight out of Runequest. Also: the Bible. ;)

  5. @ IG/Heron: There were dwarves in the Bible? Are the River Folk analogous to the Israelites? I seem to recall David being good with a sling...
    ; )

    [I've never played RQ]

  6. Intellectually, as I read this piece, I started out wanting to argue with your premise of quantification into cost (prep) and return (play). But then I read this:

    But that’s getting off-subject: most of the big, slickly-produced RPGs on the market take a ton of “Y” time…so much so that one needs to have an assumption of “long-term campaign-play” in order to make learning the game worthwhile…and with character generation (often EXTENSIVE chargen) being such a huge part of post-1990 RPG design, it becomes even more important to allow PC survival to occur (as creating new characters eats into the X time with additional Y time expenditure).

    ...and I realized that that was the clearest statement of what I see as the advantage of old school light rules systems that I have read so far. Without light character creation, the referee is too involved in the fate of the (lovingly crafted over many hours) PCs to really be impartial (not to mention the player partiality to the character).

    That's why I think that one of the most valuable principles of game design regarding character creation is to not front-load the process. Sure, allow mechanics for the characters to gain complicated powers or whatever, but only gradually through play, so the player is not swamped with rules at the outset.

  7. JB, you hit the nail on the head.

    Regarding 3rd edition vs B/X:

    Just looking at the character sheet for each edition is worth a thousand words. I often find myself DMing for folks who either are unfamiliar with the game or haven't played in so long that they have to relearn the rules. It takes much longer to create even a level 1 character in the later editions than it does in the basic version.

    While I love the numerous options that the later editions provide for the players, I find it frustrating when the game gets bogged down because I have to explain to the layer how to allot skill points for a character who is 6 hit points away from the garbage pail.

    I am tempted to switch to an old school clone just to save everyone time, yet still have that D&D feel.

  8. That X/Y ratio is the thing that drove my gaming in the last years; and with a toddlers in the last 2 years, it has practically ruled my gaming time.
    I am not so sure about the effective returns, or long term campaigns effects; in my experience, if you manage to play at least a few sessions (say, 4 or 5; a month's worth) even 3e (3.0) character creation can be worthwhile (by using the predefined character templates in the PHB.)
    Where Classic D&D and similar games shine, is in one-shots, or self-contained games (e.g. single modules.) I have had many of these in the past months, due to ever-changing groups, and the only way to get the "D&D experience" in a time-effective way was to use Classic D&D.

  9. Once upon a time, just reading a new game, module, setting, or splat book was a pleasure. I really enjoyed planning and worldbuilding and would, just for fun, sit around and make full characters that would be lucky to see the light of day as a throwaway NPC. There was a reason i moved from Basic to AD&D, 2nd ed, and 3rd, as well as dabbling with various other fantasy, superhero, sci-fi, horror, and indie games along the way - i enjoyed those games and enjoyed reading them and getting ideas from them even if they never saw play.

    I don't have that kind of time any more and years of experience have left me jaded when it comes to looking at new games. Because of this, my current practical requirements for a game do align with your definitions, but i'm not willing to try and use that as some metric of game quality. I wouldn't tell the younger me that all those other games were a waste of time. I enjoyed them and I learned a lot from them.

    While i am drawn to OSR stuff, sometimes I think the OSR crowd enjoys the nostalgia as much as the game itself and seeks to justify its choices without acknowledging that aspect of it.

  10. @ By the Sword:
    I don't know why you've waited so long to make the switch!

    @ Matthew:
    If I was interested in nostalgia, I'd be playing AD&D.
    ; )

  11. Matthew has some good points.

    I will certainly admit that when I read the Labyrinth Lord rules I get that feeling of wonder that I had when I first read the Moldvay basic rulebook back in 1981. Only now I know what to look for, and where to look and basically how to play. I also like how the retro-clones are concise in their rules.

    I don't know if a brand new player would get the same feeling as I would out of exploring these rules, but I do know that I love the game and if I ran it, I would put my heart into it and hopefully make it enjoyable for any group that I played with.

  12. Your post is absolutely right, so far as it goes.

    The flip side is that quick-and-easy character generation can lead to players throwing their lives away and refusing to take the challenge seriously.