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Accessible? To Whom?

Started by Christopher Kubasik, November 22, 2002, 02:05:30 PM

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Christopher Kubasik

Hi Everyone,

This is a thought spun off of Ron's Fourth of Five thread.

To jump right to it: Some people are comfortable talking off the top of the their head, others aren't.

One of the greatest boondogle grails in the RPG hobby was the publisher's attempt to "break out" to the mainstream audience while pleasing the existing market.

Time and time again during development meetings I'd be asking, "Do we really need all these rules?  What about the people who just need enough of a framework to keep the story going?"  (I'm showing my Narrativist colors here.  Sorry.)

The response was always, "Some people won't do well with that kind of creative pressure on them."  I've since heard that response during casual RPG discussions, on, and in Ron's 4/5 thread.

The truth is though, that some people would simply cut loose with a game that demands you keep coming up with one new description of an event after another (like Sorcerer), and are stiffled by games that, for all their rules, basically say, "Here's the list of 31 actions you can take, and the GM will adjudicate the result."

This line of logic always assumed that a) the core audience of RPGs weren't that quick on their feet verbally and creatively, and b) needed to be protected from being put on the spot by such situations.

What I was advocating was something that specificually put folks on the spot -- because that's what I wanted.  I knew everyone else had their games -- the game stores were rife with them.  Where was my game?

Games with lots of rules checks along the way allow the exploration of system by focusing on the rules.

Sorcerer asks people to explore the system to by riffing on action/theme/character off their top of their head.

(By the way, I'm not sure how Vanilla/Purvy fits into this.  The Pool demands this as well, but Ron defines it as Pervy.  I have a long way to go on my RPG B.A. degree.)

The key issue for me is simply this: To keep saying, "Well, it'll make some people uncomfortable," is a no brainer.  It'll make most of the people who already buy the games uncomfortable -- that's why they buy the current games.

Tying this into Ron's other threads, we end up with games designed to funnel an entire evening's social interaction through the manipulation of numbers and rules, rather than actually having to a) talk, b) reveal anything about yourself, c) come up with anything off the top of your head (otherwise known as social interaction).

There are people out there who like to talk, who are comfortable with others, and might want to have a good time actually revealing who they are and what matters to them.  (A good game of Sorcerer, it seems to me, can't help but allow players to at least touch on these qualities.)

There are also people who love "knowing" things: the rules, the exceptions to the rules, the in-jokes, the tricks and flaws to "min-max" a system that allow them to "know better" than folks in their first game.  (As opposed, to say, a game of Sorcerer: How do you does a character something? a) Describe it? b) Drop the dice?  It's damned straight forward.  The game is in the off the cuff description, bound by concerns of theme and previously improvised imaginitive elements.)

So: No game will be all things to all people.  To hit this "mainstream" means cutting some losses.  The people who need to be protected from games like charades (loud, physical, improvistory, with a high-ridiculous factor) are examples of folks who will say, "But I'm afraid I won't be creative enough."  But people play charades all the time, so some people out there don't think this is a problem.

The charades folks are the folks I'd want to play an RPG with.  To keep holding back for fear of losing the people already in the clubhouse seems likely to prevent that from happening.

Dkinds of games for different kinds of players.  And they really just might not play together.

Take care,

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Mike Holmes

Hmm. This is problematic in that it all hinges on the assumption that the only good reason to have more rules is that shelters those who don't want to have to think creatively. What if, the rules put forth support player understanding of their role? Then they really aren't about restricting creativity but supporting play, no?

IOW, I can see a game that has lot's of rules that aren't intended to replace creativity in any way, but instead encourage creativity, and support it. Thus we don't have to sacrifice rules support for the sake of creativity. IMO. We just have to consider the purpose of the rules included individually as to what they provide in terms of play. Are they there for, as Ron puts it, arcane reasons, or do they support accessibility via enabling comfortable creativity?

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Ron Edwards


I think one of the developments I'd like to see in thinking about this stuff is that Vanilla/Perviness is GNS-specific, especially in terms of the accessibility issue.

Hence a hardcore Sim-preferring person would find Sorcerer extremely inaccessible, as just one example. That doesn't make Sorcerer Pervy; it makes it not his cup of tea.

I tend to think that "willingness to talk" is a pretty difficult variable to identify and pin down, as I think most people are willing to contribute in a role-playing situation if they are (a) not dysfunctionally-accustomed to suffering for it, (b) not being pushed, and (c) comfortable in the particular GNS combo that's occurring. Most instances of being unwilling to talk during play arise, I think, from these things rather than from some basic facet of the person's personality.

Which is to say, people do differ in how much they want to sound off, theatricalize, butt in, or otherwise talk, but once (a-c) are cool, then a person who does a little is just as good as a person who does a lot. "From each according to his enjoyment," or something like that. I don't see that as being an accessibility issue per se, if we're talking about game design.

So, "accessibility" is a matter of several variables, not just Vanilla vs. Pervy. It includes the GNS focus and Coherence of play, as influenced by all aspects of System and embedded in the Social Contract. I think a great deal of the "willingness to talk" variable comes from the configuration of these latter things, relative to the person in question.

Christopher, you brought this up in the Publishing thread for a reason, I'm sure, but I'm having a little trouble nailing that down. Can you help me with that?


Christopher Kubasik

Hi Guys.

Mike, yes, your right.  I might really be missing the boat here, because I've always found that more rules meant less room to imagine and describe.  In other words: "You can swing, cast a spell, roll a social interaction roll."  How one does these things doesn't matter so much as choosing the action, determining the result.  On the other hand, Sorcerer demands much for description from the players (for bonus dice), but fewer layers of rules.  

However, my imagination is still mired in the previous generation of rules.  There are many rules coming out of the Forge that do encourage verbalized exploration of game elements.  I'm just a tad out of step.

Ron, I put this in publishing, because I was specifically piqued by the comment on the 4/5 thread stating that Vanilla versions of the will scare off people because it puts them on the spot about their creativity.

Since I'd heard the same arguement in the offices of RPG companies, I see this as a Publishing issue.  Trust me, a lot of these issues on the Forge were hashed out years ago (at least by me, but not as well).  But invariable, the fall back position was, "But... People will feel uncomfortable having to describe what they're character is doing with infinite choices."

The fact that people successfully play Sorcerer shows the flaw in this thinking, but that didn't stop publishers, out of fear, from waving a whole new flag.  

When people start talking about "accessiblity" I'm assuming that it's at least a tangent to the issue of marketing.  (At least it is for me -- it might not be for others.)  And marketing is the brother of Publishing... and so I put it here.

My main point is that accessibility is a chimera.  I'm not saying Vanilla or Pervy is more accessible than the other.


"AD&D protect players from having to create imaginative riffs on the fly."

"Sorcerer protects people from having to do math."

Now, how many times have we seen the second sort of post here and at other sites?  The first sentence is just my way of twisting around the logic.  It's easy to twist around because it's just a matter of taste to the person who likes one kind of game or another, but assumes that's the way games should be.

I don't assume games should be any kind of way, and I assume people have really different taste about gets them off.  Both sentences are essentially absurd... But there's still a touch of truth about them.  (One can go into elaborate detail about how your Paladin beheaded a troll, after all, though there's neither a carrot nor a stick for that; and one could try to min-max demon creation in Sorcerer.)

To sum up: Concerns about Accessibility, I think, are goofy, and only hindered progress that could have been made by game companies years ago if they'd been willing to tap a different kind of player that was already well catered to.  I'm trying to discourage folks from thinking along those lines, as writers and publishers, because I'd hate to see them fall into the same trap.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Ron Edwards

Hi Christopher,

I see, now. OK, I buy your criticisms of the kind of kneejerk "... it's not accessible because ..." statements you listed. That makes sense.

But what about other real accessibility, rather than the bugbear one? Is it unreasonable to state, as a working hypothesis, that:

... an RPG design which facilitates Coherent play (in any given functional GNS combination), has a relatively Vanilla rules-design, and presents concrete ways to arrive at a functional Social Contract, is more accessible than a game which (in any number of ways) does not?


Christopher Kubasik



I find myself squirming over semantics.  (And I always feel icky when that happens.)

I don't think of coherence as an issue of accessibility.  To me it's like saying, "We've designed a car with part that all work with each other, and think it will be more accessible to customers than a car that works in fights and starts every quarter of a mile."  Yes, it's more accessible, but the larger issue is it works.  "Accessible" seems a kind of squishy concept compared to that.

Social contracts.  Yes.  More accessible.

But Vanilla... at this moment I fall back on what I wrote above.  For some folks the mountainous arcana of three volumes of AD&D is precisely what makes it accessible.  On the other hand, from reactions to the game I read on, Hogshead's Baron Muchausian is inaccessible to these same people because they're going to have to come up with stories on the fly without solid rules underpinning and supporting the words they're going to speak.

Listen.  There's a reason you wrote this sentence in Sorcerer:

Announcing a task generically ("I swing at him!"): -1 die

It's because a lot of people who play RPGs are perfectly content to say exactly that -- endlessly.  You wrote a game that demands that people actually think like writers: on the fly, come up with a variety of verbs, sentences, and images that actually entertain the "audience" -- and are rewarded for doing so.   It's not an easy thing, but it is rewarding, and you designed a game for people who want that challeng.

Some people don't want that challenge.  They want the challenge of putting together bits of this modifier, that strategy, and this combination of spells combined with the knowledge that this weapon against that monster produces the greatest damage.  The fun is not describing the event in a verbally entertaining manner.  (Though that is possible.)  It's in unlocking the correct combomatopm of modifiers/rules/and system, to nail the enemy and survive.

I'm suggesting that different people like different things, that some people are drawn to arcana, some are repelled by it; some love manipulating numbers, some love manipulating words (some love manipulating both, by the way), and to attach accessible to something that I consider a matter of taste is odd.  To me at least.

Now, I might be missing the issue of Vanilla rules design... Which I confessed in my first post.  So the last few paragraphs might be moot.

But if they are, I'll soon be corrected (and that's a good thing), and I'll know more than when I began.

Take care,

(This is as good as time as any to state how much I enjoy checking in at the Forge.  The passion and committment to the subject at hand, no matter how ridiculous we can get on picking at the last thread, is really terrific.  Thanks to all.)
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Ron Edwards

Hi Christopher,

Perhaps I wasn't clear about something: when I talk about a game being more accessible because its design is Vanilla, I'm talking specifically and only about one type of person. That person is the non-role-player who has already become interested in checking out this "role-playing thing," most likely by interacting with someone who role-plays. I'm totally not talking about people who are already well into the hobby.

For those folks, as it happens, I'd be far more interested in showing them Pervy Coherent along the mode or modes of play that they prefer, which is to say, "System Does Matter." That's exactly what Peter, Jonathan, and Monte did with D&D3E, after all.

Does that help at all? Or am I missing your point?


Christopher Kubasik

Hi Ron,

I gotta go in a moment, but I just want to get a quick response out to you before I check the email tomorrow...

I see now.  Yes.  The non-gamer crew, they would have been gamers by now if currently marketed games appealed to them, which, apparently they don't, so a different kind of game might be more accessible.

My concern, though, in using simply the word accessible is that someone can turn around and say, "Yes, but the kind of game your proposing isn't accessible to these [already-gaming] folks."

Which brings me around to this title of this thread: "Accessible?  To Whom?"  I just don't think one can use the word "accessisble" and assume everyone is going to know to whom this stuff is accessible to.

So, it's not your logic that is at stake for me, it's the use of the word, and thus the notion -- since the the object of the sentence "This kind of game is more accessible" is hanging out on the edge of existence.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Jack Spencer Jr

I had gone back-and-forth about responding to this thread because I wasn't really certain if what I had to say was relevant. Then I figure, hell, since when did that stop me?

About this accessability thing, regardless of who we're talking about, we all already know this bit but it bears repeating, people learn to play RPGs by being introduced to it by other people.

A bit of personal anecdote. This has to do with my past religious experience, such as it is, so take this with a grain of salt. Possibly several.

My father became religious for some god-only-knows reason. The francise he eventually settled on was the Church of Christ. DO ask me why or whatnot. That's not a relavant issue here. He later found out about a splinter group off of the Church of Christ that was growing at an exponential rate. He looked into it and eventually joined. But here's how the land lies, and hopefully my point is in here:

What my father was with before is called by some as the "mainline Church of Christ." I don't know the exact official doctrine, but what I saw was an open door policy. Anyone could come in and join if they wanted to. And that was pretty much it. There would usually be one or two people who were the "really religious" people in the congregation who would invite their friends and neighbors (a couple of whom might actually be converted and then never show up again a few months later) and the the big inspiration to the rest who rarely did likewise. (or such is my experience)

The church he joined later calls itself a discipling ministry. It's actually pretty simple. One person goes out and converts one other person, than those two people convert one each, becoming 4 then 8 then 16 and so on.

What I am hoping I am getting across here is that accessability is hinged a lot more on people being shown said item, product, religion, usually by another person (friend relative neighbor what-have-you) than anything, and I mean anything the publisher can do themselves. This includes things like advertising, reviews, and even a well-designed product.

I mean AD&D 1st ed was a poster child for hapazzard design decisions, wasn't it? Certainly more incoherient that some of its peers, including so-called basic D&D. Yet it dominated as the most popular game (and I have no hard evidence to support this, but I'll bet it was the most played as well) Why? Because people were taught it by their friend, who were taught by their friends and so on.

I don't personally think AD&D 1st ed is especially accessable, regardless of GNS vanilla/pervy criteria. This just prooves to me that accessable is simply a matter of the will to get in. Those of you with kids or pets know darn well what I'm talking about. No matter how carefully you lock something up or how high the shelf you put something on, if they want it, they will get it. People wanted to play an RPG (whatever they wanted out of one) and they waded through AD&D to get it, no matter what it took.

Now am I saying that designing game useing the criteria being discussed here in the parent thread is a waste of time? Hell, no. Just that I don't think it will have that much impact on sales (this is the Publishing forum) I'll be willing to bet that some of the best games ever written have languished on the shelf or have rarely been played.

Accessable in terms of design is a good thing to have, but it doesn't cut the mustard if your goal is to have people play it. Much like the mainline church's open door, come on in policy. Just not that many people with get the idea into their heads to come on in. You need to evangelize people, create some zealots, some apostiles. And it this, accessability in the design is still only an asset. It might be a good asset, but I don't think it's the difference between making or breaking. I mean, if history tells us anything, well made products, especially entertainment products, quality workmanship does not equal success.* Good products can fail, and dog turds can fly to the top of the charts. It is mostly luck. Being lucky enough to have fans who will tell their friends about your game. And I'd be willing to bet that it's a bigger part than any of the design theory we've ever discussed here on the forge.At least in terms of sales and/or your game being played. Both noble ambitions IMO.


*I am reminded of a bit out of Michael Crichton's autobiography Travels, specifically the part where the talks about two surgeons, one who did everything right or "by the book" (we'll call him Dr A) and the other (Dr B) who worked somewhat fast and loose and sloppy(as much as you can and be a surgeon). The thing is, Dr B had a higher success rate than Dr A. Dr B's patients tended to recover quickerand just have better results from the surgery and so on that Dr A's patients. And this could not be pawned off on bedside manner, either. Dr B had no bedside manner. He was fairly curt with his patients. Crichton's point to this was that there was some reason why Dr B was a better surgeon than Dr A, but this reason could not be pinned down or explained, so all the students could do is do what they were taught. Work quickly, cleanly, and so on and hope for the best.

GO read the book for the full impact of that little bit.

Christopher Kubasik

Hi Jack,

Yes, you'll be introduced into it by other people.  But one seldom learns how to play softball alone, either.

The issue is: When someone pitches a person softball/RPGs/whatnot, is the person interested?  I remember trying to introduce people to AD&D and their eyes glazing over when I produced a character sheet.

Last night I was out to dinner with a lovely friend who swore off RPGs.  For some reason we started talking about the Forge and Sorcerer.  I showed her the character sheet and her eyes lit up.

Different game details will produce different reactions from different people.

Finally, Ron, I clarified my thoughts about this thread on my way to dinner:

I completely appreciate your concern about accessiblity through game design.  My concern is that I hashed this out with Mike Nystul, Greg Gorden, Bill Slavesik, Ray Winninger, Tom Dowd and other in RPG game offices... And the moment anyone introduced "accessiblity" as a win-criteria, lack of accessiblity meant a losing.

This very concern of accessiblity produced a lot of the incoherent game design that you and I bemaon from 90's.  Each company tried to produce the game that was accessible, and thus accessible to all.

Thus, I mistrust the word.

This is going to sound very naive, if not stupid, and not worthy of the thoughtful and rigid discussions on the Forge, but last night, on my way to dinner, all I could think was, "Accessibility is the mind killer."

The truth is, no one knows what's accessibility.  If people did know, executives in Hollywood wouldn't be led up to the chopping block in a steady line.

The truth is, you can try to be as accessible as you want, and end up with the dry pablum that is the current Hollywood slate.  Or you can commit to what you like.  Accessiblity be damned.

(Again, this isn't a matter of coherence.  Coherence is a game working.  Not a matter of taste.)

If the people in the offices I worked in had committed to making the kinds of games they actually played (tossing out mechanics left and right to jury-rig coherent systems off published games), instead of saying again and again, "But the consumers expect these kinds of widgets in the rules," we might have pissed off the TSR fanbase, but we would have been making games that work.

This is a vital split from accessibility.  In one case, one is designing for others in mind.  In the other, one is designing for one's self, and then sharing with others to see if anyone is interested.

As someone who hit a writer's block several years ago, after training through the RPG offices, I can confidently suggest that the "accessible" training is part of the core of the block.  I have no business trying to outguess the tastes of others because it can't be done.  I can write to please myself and then sell it as hard as I can.

I would never wish these last frustrated years on anyone (which I think are coming to an end), and so felt compelled to address this issue in the publishing section.

"Accessiblity" (not clarity, no cohesion), is a death trap, and I offer all would be best to avoid it as a concern.

Take care,
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Oh, a side note...

Jack, in reference to your Chrichton story, let's remember that work produced by not hewing to the rules, but following one's instinct might in fact produce the better product.  It might not please fifth grade english teachers, it might not please a studio head.  But it might be the mark of a real writer or a film that is remember for decades after it's release.

Take care,
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Christopher, is it simply taken-as-read that "accessible" means "universal"? This boggles me. No wonder it was the mind-killer for so many people. I'm not talking about relative popularity or draw for a given game; I'm talking about the chance that an interested person, looking at the game, will keep looking at and want to play the game. A much smaller item, if you will.

Jack, your concern seems a little different - you are saying, if I'm correct, that one variable concerning a game cannot make it accessible/whatever. I agree. I never claimed otherwise. That's why we're looking at the Infamous Five, each of which has spawned daughter threads, not the Infamous One, all by itself.


Jack Spencer Jr

Quote from: Christopher KubasikJack, in reference to your Chrichton story, let's remember that work produced by not hewing to the rules, but following one's instinct might in fact produce the better product.  It might not please fifth grade english teachers, it might not please a studio head.  But it might be the mark of a real writer or a film that is remember for decades after it's release.

I agree. In Elements of Style, Professor Strunk even acknowledges this much. I am pretty sure I had quoted this elsewhere, so I won't do so again.

I think the only real thing we can do is make games we ourselves would want to play. Ourselves and our friends, anyway. That way we can be guarenteed at least a small audience. This is, to my way of thinking, a good way to do anything like this be it writing a book of music or making a movie or whatever. After that, I think it's as much luck as that by tapping something inside themselves which is also within others and they can identify with it.

But I think you already know this.

QuoteThe issue is: When someone pitches a person softball/RPGs/whatnot, is the person interested? I remember trying to introduce people to AD&D and their eyes glazing over when I produced a character sheet.

This is pretty tight to the whole church anecdote, which more than a little off-topic here, I think, so I'll leave it unless a new thread is started.

Christopher Kubasik

First let me apologize to everyone for going on so long about this.  Not only is the horse dead, but his flesh has long rotted, and I'm beating bones.

Hi Ron,

To finish up, I'm suggesting that using "accessible" as a win-condition for design creates a slippery slope to "universal".  It's not "taken-as-read" at all, but a process of broadening the conditions of accessible through a design process until you try to remove all conditions of inaccessible.  And so end up with universal.  If I dind't make that clear in relating the events above, I apologize.

The way you use accessible ("I'm talking about the chance that an interested person, looking at the game, will keep looking at and want to play the game.") make sense to me -- up to a point.  But since many people are interested in something at "shiny, new object" level, I'd offer that the responsiblity of keeping anyone who is intrigued with an RPG on first blush offers many of the same problems as I've outlined above.

Ultimately I think  the creator of an RPG (or movie, or novel, or whatnot) is responsible to the creation itself, and any attempt to keep the potential audience member in is a poisoned trap.  Responsiblity to the creation includes, by the way, such things as Proportion, Clarity, Cohesion and so on.



Both of you,

I've gotten so much out of this thread actually, it astounds me.
Thanks for playing.

Take care,
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Ron Edwards

Hi Christopher,

The horse may be dead, but perhaps the post-mortem will be valuable.

Specifically: it fascinates me that in your objections to "accessible" as a term, you provide a perfect and complete example of what I intended by the term - the woman's reaction to Sorcerer, as you presented it to her.

So, if "accessible" is too problematic a term for describing what happened with her, what term would you use?