Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

The game that would sell to non-roleplayers

Started by Clinton R. Nixon, November 16, 2002, 11:26:53 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Clinton R. Nixon

Jon's post in What would make a non-roleplayer buy your game? got me thinking about what sort of mainstream game would sell well to non-gamers. However, it's a little off topic, so I started a new thread.

While surrealism and fantasy can be in the mainstream, I tried to take examples from popular modern entertainment to figure out what non-gamers might like. Primarily, the two examples that influenced me were reality television shows - which let people explore other roles - and "social games": boxed games like Scruples, where you ask others moral questions and vote on whether they lied or told the truth with their answer.

The idea I came up with: "Courtroom," a legal RPG. I don't have all the mechanics yet, but it seems so simple that I think I could write it easily. In Courtroom, one person plays the judge, one the prosecutor, another the defending lawyer, and the rest the jury. (Only three players are required.) The judge serves as a GM, as he gets to ok or disallow new rules. The group as a whole thinks up a legal situation - person A is arrested for murder, and is seen on security tape at the murder scene one minute before the murder, but says he was in the hospital, which records confirm. Once that's done, the prosecutor and defending lawyer take turns and present evidence - which they make up on the fly, a la "Baron Munchausen" - in the standard way it works in an American courtroom (opening statements, alternating witnesses, cross-examinations). They can also introduce new rules. Whenever either of them disagrees with a fact or rule introduces, they can object. In that case, the judge (and any jury members if there are any) vote on whether to allow the statement (in the case of a tie, the judge decides.) Jury  members also play witnesses during the case. When both the prosecution and opposition decide to rest their case, the jury votes on a winner.

For more fun, you can try games outside the modern-day or even real - play a medieval court, with the king and nobles; a far-future space marine military tribunal; or a council of wizards judging a member for diablotry.

In the box, I'd include a few pre-written setups. All in all, it probably wouldn't be more than 10 pages. I think people would go for it, though: while it's an RPG, it seems to not feel like one. (The lack of Fortune is what does that, I think.)

Two questions: (a) am I way off-base, and (b) what sort of ideas do you guys have for the cross-over RPG, if there is such a thing?
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


I think that would certainly be a possibility, Clinton. I was about to object to the GM (judge) aspect and the lack of a fortune mechanic, but I think there is precident for that style of game outside of rpgs. (I haven't played Scruples; if anyone has, can they verify whether Scruples has a Fortune mechanic?)

I had suggested the "Desert Island" game in the other thread. I forget who it was, but someone noted that it was a very limited scenario, much as yours is (the game takes place in a courtroom and doesn't involve other matters at all.) if someone wanted to be a stickler and say these games aren't real roleplaying games because "there's no real premise"/"it doesn't simulate every kind of situation"/"there's not much strategy or fairness" ... well, ok, but I still say they are close enough to RPGs. call them "pseudo-RPGs".

here are some more thoughts I had about "Desert Island". I may try to develop the idea into a full game.

first, although it could be phrased as either G, N or S, I would start off assuming it will be Gamist. the important part is that whichever mode it is, it's pretty rules-lite, much as the Courtroom RPG you describe. in fact, although there would be rules booklet, charts and summaries for the game would be printed right on the gameboard.

I'm seeing this gameboard not as a literal representation of the island, but a representation of possible actions. there would be an area in the center of the board with some kind of "track" with individual squares/spaces (like Aggravation or Trivial Pursuit, but smaller); when a player wants to search the island, they would use the track and would roll dice to see how far they move. each space would have a symbol on it that, when landed on, gives a bonus to a kind of action... and if your token lands on the same square as another player's token, you can ask to team up, try to steal from them, attack them, whatever.

also on the board would be an area for FOOD, one for WATER, one for SHELTER, one for TOOLS, one for RESCUE. each section would have a box to place tokens representing that resource. also in each area would be a quick rule or two relating to that resource, plus any results table that might be needed for using that resource. thus, once you've read the rules booklet, you no longer need to refer to it; everything you need to know is right in front of you at all times.

as I mentioned before, I would aim for this game to be winnable by one or more players, but perhaps not by all... the idea is to make it potentially easier to win with impromptu teams, but to also allow winning with an "every man for himself" attitude.

so far, it's very much an ordinary game. there's a tiny bit of role-playing in the sense that the players must talk amongst themselves to make teams and share resources. I would add some kind of "story description" mechanic, however, to get the players more involved in imagining events instead of seeking some rules-driven goal.

I could see keeping this basic structure for several other similar games, merely changing the color and a rule or two to make a "Celebrity Quest" game, for instance, with players trying to get their names in the paper, or a "Talk Show Trash" game with players trying to get on a horrid talk show (like Jerry Springer).
John Laviolette
(aka Talysman the Ur-Beatle)
rpg projects:

J B Bell

(a) No, you're not way off-base.  Such a highly restricted context, yet with infinitely many possible variations, is bang on, IMO.

(b) I think there was a thread a while ago proposing an "RPG in a CD case."  That was, again IMO, damned brilliant.

I've started going to a lovely new game store in Vancouver, BC, called Drexoll Games.  They have a weekly "German import game night," and these games are, frankly, awesome.  Their rules are typically chess-like in simplicity and elegance, they have good opportunities for sudden reversals, and they are suitable for, usually, 2-5 players.  They use very attractive components and good-looking art on the boxes; the games have a noticeable aesthetic that gives them distinct character, as a class, and as individual games.

I think a "mainstream" RPG could go this way, with nice cards to represent what amount to pre-generated characters, and highly tactile and visual record-keeping--tracks, pawns, tokens, and good old dice.  (There's a Formula One racing game of decent complexity, still easy to learn, and it even has a relatively sensible use of that bizarre artifact of dice obsession, the d30.)

Give players these goodies, or go the Cheapass route and have them cannibalize other goodies that are familiar and easy to obtain, and you are going a long way to get around the barrier of alienness that some may find off-putting.

To address your game specifically, some kind of cards for the Judge and other roles that say right on them what your special powers are would be quite workable.  This is somewhat Gamist territory, of course, but I don't think any "pocket RPG" would have to be Gamist by any means--Scruples is an excellent case in point, and is an RPG of sorts already.  It's not a far stretch to get to a Nar-styled mainstream game.

To re-iterate the "sudden reversals" bit--this can power G and N priorities pretty comfortably, and you can add a lot of color with a custom deck of some kind (I haven't played Dust Devils, but it seems to veritably beg for a custom deck--still a standard deck of playing cards, but stylized to suit the Western theme).  The Court Game could have a deck to inject variables like Star Witness, DNA Evidence, Appeal, Mistrial, and so on.

If I'm understanding Ron's position in these threads rightly, S seems to be the corner that would be tough to handle for this, but that racing game I mentioned managed a pretty fine simulation through all the seemingly random-gamey bits, and the Simmy bits are marked out on the board (flags with numbers indicate the speed one must be going through a turn--over that and you suffer various penalties).  So I do think S is doable too, and again a deck might work well there too.

What if Rune were packaged in a box with some little adventure booklets instead of as a whopping hardcover?

It may not be the Grail, but there certainly seems to be room for development here.

"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

Jonathan Walton

I was actually just thinking about something like this just this morning.  You see, I saw the new Harry Potter movie last night, and I was amazed at how easy it would be to turn it into a kick-ass roleplaying game for people of all ages.  Again, I'm not talking about the power of Harry Potter as a license (which, honestly, I don't really care about), but the power of the story structure that Rowling uses, and how this would make it easy for even 7-year-olds to roleplay.

Imagine a game that contains:

Two boards
-- a calendar, marked from June to May by months and seperated into various weeks (1st week of June, 2nd week of June, 3rd week of June, 1st week of July, etc.)
-- a general map of Hogworts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, not broken up into individual rooms (because that would strictly limit what did and didn't exist there) but into general areas

Everyone gets playing pieces.  One is used to keep track of the date, starting with the first week of June moving ahead until it reaches the end of May (when the school year ends and the kids go home).  The others are used to keep track of where the characters are once they get to Hogwarts.

Play starts the summer before the characters begin attending Hogwarts.  The characters could be pregenerated, but it's probably better to let the players make up a name and family background.  There could be suggested choices (maybe listed on cards?) for you to pick from if you didn't want to make up your own.

The Campaign would go like this:
-- The Summer: from June to the beginning of September, the players brainstorm what they've done over the summer.  Perhaps some of them, like Harry, come from families that didn't want them to go away to wizard school.  Whatever.
-- Going to Hogwarts: The characters have to go to Diagon Alley to buy all their school supplies, bumping into each other and getting into all sorts of misadventures (maybe also contained on cards, but could also be made up on the spot).  Then they go to Platform 9 3/4 and ride the train to Hogwarts, having the chance to get to know each other.
-- Sorting: The characters are placed in Houses by the Sorting Cap, either randomly (bleh!) or sticking all the characters in the same House (non-Slytherin).  I would suggest putting all the characters in Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw, so they're not overshadowed by Harry in Gryffindor or the "evil" children of Slytherin.
-- The Bulk of the Campaign: The characters go to wizardry classes, earning "spell cards" which can be used to cast spells of various kinds.  In their non-class time, they are free to wander around the school and do whatever they like.  There would probably be rules for playing Quidditch.  There might be cards marked "secrets" or "adventures" that could be drawn to add spice to situations.
-- Parallelism: Similar to what Orson Scott Card did, with Ender's Shadow paralleling the events of Ender's Game, the adventures of the characters would happen beside the adventures of Harry (as recorded in the books).  The calendar would show the events of the first book, which happen during the character's first year, the second, to happen the second time around the calendar board, etc.  This way, the characters could meet Harry & co, talk to them, hang out with them, etc. but still have their own adventures.
-- Different Styles of Play: You could either run the game slowly, so that each month or two was a seperate session, or run it quickly, so that 1 year = 1 session.  In the quick way, you'd quickly outpace the events of the books (since there are only 4, currently), but that would be both a good and bad thing.

I would imagine this to be the kind of game that parents (after having read the books to or with their children) could "GM," playing the game with their kids and helping them imagine themselves in the school.  As such, it would be billed more as a "storytelling board game," since the board and cards would make it have more in common (at least, at first glance) with other board games.  The "GM" could even take the role of the wizard Dumbledore, who, it's rumored, knows everything that goes on a Hogwarts.

Anyway, just my thought-of-the-morning.  It's too bad that the license would be impossible to get (and also, probably not worth it in the long run, considering the expectations that come with such things).  Still, it might be a fun "fan project" to do anyway.


Ron Edwards


I think it's fascinating that role-players, when thinking about a "appeal to non-gamers" game, consistently propose more structure in terms of things like character options and most especially in terms of character goals/roles. "You play the bailiff, I'll play the defense attorney," etc.

I still have two threads to go in terms of my current Forge project, and some of my point here is probably going to sound completely bonkers in the absence of the whole, but my take is this: this "make it easy for the mundanes" approach* is right in some ways, and very messed up in others.

I think we already have the games that answer the question of this thread. My current picks are Dust Devils, Trollbabe, and Kayfabe. I also think Dread and Paladin are strong candidate, perhaps with some rewriting.

It's not the fairly-open options of a typical RPG that confuses the newcome. I actually think they are better at recognizing Premise (of any kind) than most role-players.


* I use the term "mundanes" here sarcastically - that is to say, in the voice of those people I'm criticizing. As a rule, I think that SF/fantasy fandom's mundane-terminology is flawed and unjustified in every possible aspect.

Jonathan Walton

Quote from: Ron EdwardsIt's not the fairly-open options of a typical RPG that confuses the newcome.

I agree with you, Ron, but I think the thing that is confusing for a good many newcomers (at least, it was for me) is: so, if I can do anything I want to do, where's the fun in that?  Fun, in many games, comes from antagonism, and many people have trouble finding the kind of "healthy antagonism" that roleplaying relies on to keep things interesting.

If you've never GMed before, there's the tendency either to let the players do whatever they want or to try to really bear down on them, railroading them into only doing the things you think are "acceptable" (i know I did both during my early years).  Likewise, as a beginning player who's starting out using mostly Author or Pawn Stance (seperating themselves from their character because they're uncertain and testing the waters), it's hard to know where to begin.  This is the infamous "this is interesting, but what do we do now?" phenomenon.

While I agree that more structure isn't the best answer here, I think you do need something that buffers play and will help create that antagonism.  Again, this is just based on my own experience.  I'd be interested to hear what other people think.


Clinton R. Nixon

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I think it's fascinating that role-players, when thinking about a "appeal to non-gamers" game, consistently propose more structure in terms of things like character options and most especially in terms of character goals/roles. "You play the bailiff, I'll play the defense attorney," etc.

I still have two threads to go in terms of my current Forge project, and some of my point here is probably going to sound completely bonkers in the absence of the whole, but my take is this: this "make it easy for the mundanes" approach* is right in some ways, and very messed up in others.
It's not the fairly-open options of a typical RPG that confuses the newcome. I actually think they are better at recognizing Premise (of any kind) than most role-players.


I'm fairly sure you read me wrong. First, the thought process was to find a game that, on the shelves of a place you'd find Monopoly or whatever, non-RPGers could pick up and play without that gamer-friend introduction. I don't know of any games these days that are going to really have that cross-over (and some of the games you mentioned seem even less likely to cross-over, in my opinion). Second - the options aren't that limited in my example - certainly no more limited than in D&D. The personalities of all the characters are created whole-cloth, including not only a judge, prosecutor, and defender, but a group of people brought to testify.

I see this sort of limiting as the positive sort of limiting that has appeared to work as a catalyst for people being interested in roleplaying: the same sort of limiting that you see in InSpectres (the first game where I thought limits were cool) and Trollbabe. In InSpectres, the story structure is totally limited - which focuses the game into something fun; in Trollbabe, the character's role in society is completely limited - which focuses the stories into something good, I'd hope.

Honestly, I doubt we disagree on the amount of limiting a good "beginner's game" would need: I certainly wouldn't give a random person a copy of Unknown Armies and expect them to be able to figure out how to play it; but I'd give them the same limits in a game that I'd give regular gamers.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


I actually happen to believe that appealing to the "mundanes" will require a game with more structure and that freeform games are less likely to hit.  As evidence go to any department store game section.  Every game there (virtually without exception) puts players in very narrow roles (usually as some sort of pawn playing piece) with a very narrow number of options (usually of the roll and move or draw a card and follow variety).  The most pathetic worst selling losers on those shelves outsell the best selling RPGs by an order of magnitude.

RPG type games have been presented to the mainstream public before.  D&D used to be sold in Kmart, and several lines have found their way into chain book stores.  But D&D has long been gone from the department store game Isle (with the rare exception when KBToys buys some discontinued stuff and sells it at deep discount), and chain book stores merely gives gamers an alternate point of purchase.

Further there have been attempts made at more open, less structured games...the many variations of the Home Murder Mystery games.  At one time there were dozens of them being made, so I suppose they sold well for a while but they don't seem to be any more...but Monopoly, Clue, and the like fly off the shelves every christmas season.

Why is this?  In my opinion the answer is simple...if perhaps a bit "elitist" in sentiment.  I think RPG style games require a level of imagination, creativity, and willingness to daydream socially that most adults have left far behind and have no desire (and perhaps no ability) to regain.  My own father loves games...checkers, cards, and the like...I doubt I could even explain RPGs to him in a way he'd even understand let alone want to play.  

Kids are more likely to have the requisite imagination for the game, and I think the vast majority of RPers out there got their start in their youth.  But it does IMO take a fairly particular combination of traits even then.

Most kids today I think are illsuited to be RPG hobbiests for two reasons.  First playing RPGs requires the ability to have an attention span measured in at least a couple of hours at a time.  I know a lot of kids of friends.  Few of them could sit still at a single task for a couple of hours.  ADD seems to be the default state today.  Second, RPGs aren't nearly visually stimulating enough.

There was a time when books provided our need for entertainment on demand.  In the 70s you were stuck watching whatever was on TV or at the movies.  In the 80s you got cable which openned up the options a little on the movie channels and VCRs slowly came around and video stores.  But by and large if you wanted to be entertained by a mystery, or a western, or fantasy, or sci fi NOW and didn't want to wait until some programming exec put one on TV you had to read a book to get your fix.  And book reading requires the reader to be able to get the visual stimulation we all crave from our own imagine what was going on.

Today, between 30 theatre multiplexes with new movie releases every week, 300 channel televisions, VCRs and DVDs that are ubiquitous in almost every home, pay per view movies, the internet, and computer games whose graphics capabilities are mind blowing, you can pretty much get you fix of what ever genre you want whenever you want in a visually stimulating medium without resorting to books.  Without resorting to using your imagination.  For a generation of kids who aren't forced to imagine what things look like in their minds paper and pencil RPGs have to be the most horribly boring activity imaginable.  What's the point of going down in a dungeon and killing monsters in D&D when I can play Dungeon Siege, or Balders Gate, or Everquest on my PC.

Have those forms of gaming replaced the pen an paper rpg?  Not yet.  Because there are still a few of us who remember where the true enjoyment from boundaryless roleplaying comes from.  But at the risk of sounding dark and cynical, it is far more likely to see PC games a few generations of Everquest from now take more away from our hobby than it is to see our hobby get more mainstream.  Barring some nostalgia motivated luddite revival...we're the dinosaurs just waiting for the technology to advance to the point where we can be completely replaced rather than partially.

If you really want to make our hobby bet is to find out what aspects of paper and pencil roleplaying make it so enjoyable for us (more so than playing Diablo on the PC) and then find a way to get THAT into electronic form so it can be played on-line.

Jonathan Walton

Honestly, Val, not to dismiss the points you brought up (most of which I agree with), but your post seems to smack of the "computers will make books obselete" argument that is, in my opinion, pure rubbish.  We are not dinosaurs.  We are doing something different for reasons that are valid and have nothing to do with nostalgia (at least, in my case).  I do agree that making roleplaying more internet/electronic-friendly is a nice goal (writing specifically for PBeM formats or other such things), but the success of things like Harry Potter (in books) and the CCG fad prove that non-electronic entertainment still has a draw for a great many people (especially young people).  Also, I take exception to the "kids these days" attitude.  Kids have been kids for millions of years.  Saying that this generation is that much different than the last just seems silly.  The Generation Gap is a fact of life.  Instead of complaining about it, shouldn't we be trying to build a bridge across it?


Clinton R. Nixon

Thank you, Jonathan. The "we have to make a computer RPG that is like tabletop RPGs" argument is not only off-topic for this discussion, but full of fallacies. People play RPGs for many reasons, one of them being the social aspect.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


I think a "bridge game" already exists and it's Hogshead's Baron Munchausen game.  All it needs is a less esoteric setting and perhaps more guidelines and examples.  Check out my post in Actual Play for an actual experience with non-roleplayers playing this game.
--- Jonathan N.
Currently playtesting Frankenstein's Monsters


I would actually agree more with Clinton than with Ron on the issue of games for nonroleplayers, but I think reallywe're talking about two different things. Ron is saying a less-structured mainstream game like Trollbabe would appeal to nonroleplayers, which is true; but as Clinton points out, nonroleplayers are not likely to encounter Trollbabe on their own. we're talking about the kind of game that a nonroleplayer could pick up and play with other nonroleplayers.

I think the structure issue is a red herring. sure, my proposal for "Desert Island" has structure, but only about as much structure as Clue or Monopoly, and less structure than some heavy-Sim combat games. Clinton's "Courtroom" game seems to have less structure than mine, maybe even less than Trollbabe.

what I would argue is important is not structure but familiarity. a game appeals to a potential gamer because it seems familiar in several ways:

[*]familiarity of topic or theme (game theme resembles a genre or style/game has a popular topic.)
[*]familiarity of form (game resembles other games potential gamer has played.)
[*]familiarity of character or role (players understand their role in the game.)
[*]familiarity of plot or story (players know what kind of events to expect, with the only surprise being in the details and order.)

let's break down Clinton's game based on this. "courtroom drama" is a familiar topic, in fact it's a cliche. the form is perhaps not familiar, although it might resemble Scruples (as I've said, I've never played Scruples, so I can't judge); it does resemble "mock court", however, which many people have "played" in a classroom. the roles are all well-known to just about anybody. the plot is also very familiar, since it's used in everything from "Perry Mason" through "L.A. Law" to "Allie MacBeal", "The Practice", and CourtTV. the game is thus going to be very familiar to nonroleplayers... so familiar you could throw in a twist: the court cases could all be derived from monster movies ("Your Honor, the defence for Mr. Godzilla contends that the city of Tokyo made an unprovoked attack upon his person...")

now let's break down "Desert Island". being shipwrecked is a familiar movie theme, plus the game is designed to loosely resemble "Survivor" after the shipwreck. the form is familiar, since it resembles boardgames (the unfamiliar element is the story descriptions layered on top of the action); it also resembles the popular passtime of asking "if you were stuck on a desert island..." the characters are assumed to be the players themselves, so there should be no familiarity problem there. the plot is pretty familiar ("Gilligan's Island", "Swiss Family Robinson") and is very simple (solve simple survival problems, gather stuff necessary for rescue, get rescued.)

I think designers need to think this way if they hope to make a stand-alone game that an average member of the general public could find on a store shelf, purchase, and play with a group of other average members of the general public.

on a side note, Valamir raises a question aboutt whether the average person has enough imagination to play in roleplaying games. I would say that the average person does, but I'll set that issue aside. instead, focusing on the topic (hypothetical game that would appeal to the general public,) I would say that any statement or perceived tone of elitism will definitely lower sales potential. I think, even more than fannish topics, this may be the rpg industry's biggest problem. you can't cope an attitude of "you have to be special in order to understand and appreciate this game" and then complain that the majority of consumers are turned off by your product.

addendum: ok, maybe I was wrong about Clinton's game not having a familiar enough game form; those "Host a Mystery" games are probably very similar... and "Courtroom" would be the next step after the mystery is solved...
but that is probably a topic for another thread.
John Laviolette
(aka Talysman the Ur-Beatle)
rpg projects:

Jonathan Walton

John, as often is the case, you seem to be more spot-on and discerning than the rest of us ;)  I agree completely that complexity and structure (the two issues usually tackled in the creation of "roleplaying games for muggles") are both a subset of the familiarity issue, which, as you've pointed out, is really the core.

After all, think about the rules of chess.  Pretty arcane stuff, actually.  Pawns move 2 spaces on their first turn, attack diagonally, move forward, and can turn into another piece when they reach the other side.  What the hell?!  If one of us designed a roleplaying game with rules like that, no one would think it would be a good game for beginners.  Heck, we'd probably ciriticize the rules for being arbitrary and inconsistent.  Still, it's survived for thousands of years.


Ron Edwards


Jonathan agreed with John,
"complexity and structure (the two issues usually tackled in the creation of "roleplaying games for muggles") are both a subset of the familiarity issue, which, as you've pointed out, is really the core. "

I agree in full. Look forward to my thread #4 in the five-thread series, based precisely on this point.

As a side issue, I think my comments on the structure issue have been completely misconstrued, and I think that's related to the fairly cloudy intellectual and emotional environment of the issues I'm raising. With any luck, we can clear a lot of that over the next few weeks.


P.S. Clinton, if you're removing the "introductory friend" from the scenario of people becoming interested in and buying role-playing games, then I think the baby's dead on the ground in a puddle of bathwater. That element, in my view, is crucial and central to the commerce of role-playing games.

Le Joueur

I know your feelings on the issue Ron, but I'd just like to add a small suffix.

Quote from: Ron EdwardsClinton, if you're removing the "introductory friend" from the scenario of people becoming interested in and buying role-playing games, then I think the baby's dead on the ground in a puddle of bathwater. That element, in my view, is crucial and central to the commerce of role-playing games.
Could we just say 'for now' at the end of this?  Giving it the '20 years down the road' possibility, I'd like to think, if all this works, there'll be a broad, slight cultural awareness of role-playing games that will make 'cold customer' sales possible...eventually.

Just a thought to consider (as opposed to all these absolute statements).

Fang Langford
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!