Over the last week or so there appeared the most recent incarnation of a frequent discourse, one about the quality of games correlating with their likelihood of success. Now, that’s bluntly and hilariously untrue, which is clear to anyone who has ever enjoyed a niche of anything in their life. In tabletop RPGs, though, it appears, from certain lenses, to even be anti-true. Games which make choices actively hostile to such simple traits as being able to play them still become sales successes, often becoming more successful than the indie games which old guard designers seem to snark at between requests for employment. Ultimately that’s not because TTRPG purchasers are irrational (I mean, they are, but not for the reasons we’re talking about here), but rather because they’re buying games for different reasons.
This is not really meant to be a trite explanatory article. The fact that things as elemental as game mechanics are unimportant to some RPG buyers confound other hobbyists, to the point that some portions of the board game hobby are actively hostile to TTRPGs (and vice versa, really). It also feeds right into the ongoing question of why there’s so little critique in RPGs, or at least so little critique that the question asker feels will give them insight. If I, who feels like after 20 years I have a pretty good handle on what makes game mechanics work well, am still able to play in not only a good campaign but one of the best campaigns in recent memory with a system we barely used, then how can most people expect a relevant critique built from play?
So good games all bring something to the table. Sometimes it’s in good rules or good execution of existing rules, but sometimes it’s literally that this game comes from the schmucks who got the license we were interested in at the time. Sometimes it’s because there’s one game the rest of your friends have heard of, it’s called D&D, and that’s your option if you don’t want to find new friends. Let’s discuss in a little more detail, then maybe bring the snark back for the wrapup.
Mechanics / Play Experience
Mechanics alone do not a good game make. Well, for the most part. Broadly speaking games aren’t sold on their rulesets, and the exception to these tend to be generic games which don’t contain a setting and aim to have a relatively broad set of play experiences. Play experience, the way a game “feels” when you play it, is really the closest most RPGs come to actually marketing their mechanics…and even this is significantly more common in the indie space. If you think about older games, there’s generally one or two key setting-supporting mechanics tied into a non-specific resolution mechanic. Nothing ties Call of Cthulhu to d100 (well not nothing, see Legacy below), but the sanity mechanics are a hallmark of the game, problematic depictions notwithstanding.
The intent or lack thereof of mechanical design in a lot of traditional RPGs from the 70s through the 2000s is a big reason why the call of ‘System Matters’ is still relitigated in some RPG spaces. While indie designers and RPG critics can point to many examples of intentional mechanics, most of the counterexamples sold better and were more culturally important to the hobby when they were new. Even now the bestselling mid-tier games are based on portable mechanics; 2d20 by Modiphius, Year Zero by Free League, and Narrative Dice/Genesys by FFG/Edge are all generalizable, portable, and bestselling rulesets. As our coverage of both Genesys and several 2d20 games has shown, though, while these mechanics work well enough it can be very difficult to see what they add to their respective games other than cost savings on rules development.
The indie space is a bit more all over the map in this respect. Fiasco is a standard-bearer for the sort of intentional, procedure-driven game which is focused on one specific experience, and ‘specific, procedure-driven game’ is likely the best category in which to lump large swathes of the games which have emerged from the design community coalesced around itch.io. On the other hand, Powered by the Apocalypse as a design movement is more aligned to rules portability than focus. While not as portable as some of the mechanics noted above (i.e. there will likely never be a truly generic PbtA), Powered by the Apocalypse still enables the same design philosophy of adding experiential or genre-directed mechanics around a consistent core ruleset. That PbtA is better than most ‘bigger’ systems at enabling unique play experiences is one reason that it’s been so popular with designers and players alike.
It’s one thing to talk about the difference between mechanics that drive the game’s unique experience and those which simply hold everything up without contributing much. For most of the TTRPG’s history, a significant chunk of games, including some bestsellers, had mechanics which could be politely described as holding the game back. These games still sell; the notion that your rules need to be any good for your game to do well has been aggressively disproven time and time again. But these games do need something to attract buyers, and often it comes from the depth and quality of the game’s setting material.
Creation, the setting of White Wolf’s Exalted, is a big place. It’s also filled with big beings; Solar and Lunar Exalts coexist among several other types of elevated beings, and even the humble Dragon-Blooded put humans to shame with their immense capabilities. All of these are tied together in an epic, mythical history that gives the potential for any player character to feel like they too are woven into the Loom of Fate, part of larger than life stories that include the histories of every single group. Of course, to actually play Exalted requires engaging with a system which is cumbersome, unbalanced, and time-consuming to the point of being un-fun to use. This doesn’t prevent Exalted from selling tens of thousands of copies, and many fans have no problem with point-blank admitting that they skip, hack or bypass large portions of the rulebook.
There’s no doubt Exalted has a good setting; it’s unique, evocative, and dense with plot hooks that are usable across the different power levels implied by the playable Exalts. It’s also hard to argue that the mechanics reach the same heights; the extensive redesign between second and third edition implies that even the designers knew things had to change. What this makes clear is that the setting sells the book, and the setting links to the mechanics, the exact things that make the system so impenetrable (Third Edition has over 700 charms for Solars alone) are table stakes. If simplifying the system means removing the dizzying and evocative menu from players, even if that menu is unusable, it’s not really an option.
Shadowrun is another prime example. While the cyberpunk-meets-Tolkien setting isn’t as far removed as the setting of Exalted, both the detailed execution and the intense quantity of setting-mechanic links in the form of gear, magic, and granular character creation are what fans demand, moreso than making those elements approachable (which they aren’t).
There is some evidence that gamers are becoming less tolerant of systems like these. Newer games like Eclipse Phase are still going for the option-heavy, setting-heavy design approach, but working harder on keeping the system usable; Eclipse Phase made some noticeable strides in its second edition. And while games like Shadowrun and Exalted still sell very well as far as the RPG market is concerned, they’re built on decades-old fanbases; those legacies are as much a selling point as the game settings are.
Shadowrun has six editions, excluding Anarchy. Call of Cthulhu has seven. D&D, counting both the Basic and Advanced branches, has at least eight. And across the history of these games they change remarkably little compared to how much the market as a whole changes at the same time. Much like how Exalted wouldn’t be the same without its dizzying charm trees, games like Call of Cthulhu need to provide a consistent experience to fans, improving just enough to get those fans to buy the new edition while not so much that they don’t recognize the game and stick with an older version.
Dungeons and Dragons is the perfect example of a design team screwing up legacy, thanks to Fourth Edition. No matter what you think about the Fourth Edition of D&D, its deviation from the ‘D&D Experience’ was the biggest contributor to the fan backlash and its resultant poor (comparative) performance. It wouldn’t have mattered if Fourth Edition was a perfect game, if it couldn’t deliver D&D in a way that fans understood to be D&D it wasn’t going to perform well.
Legacy games represent a large segment of the TTRPG market, and their designs, by virtue of being 30-40 years old, stand in stark contrast to the mid-market games designed without legacy baggage. And of course, one legacy game towers above all the others, largely because of its influence on cultural objects that aren’t TTRPGs at all.
An interesting claim has been made on Twitter a few times, usually by indie designers. The claim is that the D&D hobby isn’t the same as the TTRPG hobby writ large. Most D&D players never interact with another game and don’t view games outside of D&D in the same way that an RPG hobbyist looking in toward D&D might. I don’t know if I completely agree with this, but I do know that D&D as a cultural community overshadows any and every other comparable fanbase in the RPG world. This has nothing to do with rules, by the way; the minute you try to argue for or against Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition on the merit of its mechanics you have already lost the plot. Rather, you must understand that D&D permeates the genre of fantasy so completely that no other game stands a chance. While I’ve called D&D a “bastardization of Tolkien” before and that descriptor is broadly accepted, it’s important to understand that D&D’s specific vision and reinterpretation of both Tolkien and the swords and sorcery genre became the foundation for a massive number of fantasy books, movies, and video games that came out in the last 30 years. Even when other fantasy properties tried to present their own radical interpretations and settings (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind), they often got sucked back into the same vaguely Northern European neo-medieval Greyhawk (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim). This isn’t D&D’s “fault”; D&D had the good timing to be designed about a decade before the true start of the home video game revolution, which is now a cultural wildfire. It also had the good fortune to build an early fan base among science fiction and fantasy authors and readers, which made the feedback loop that much stronger.
There’s nothing saying D&D is the only game that will ever have this cultural impact. Consider Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk 2077 had a fiasco of a launch, marred by technical issues and overhyped expectations. Even so it sold over 13 million copies, and that relatively modest AAA video game performance was still enough to pull the Cyberpunk RPG series into the top 5 TTRPGs sold for a solid year, possibly more. If Cyberpunk 2077 met expectations…who knows what that could have meant in the TTRPG sphere. While D&D might be the only game that’s really executed on creating a cultural moment, the partial success of Cyberpunk at least shows that the recipe isn’t locked in Hasbro’s vault.
So what do we do with this, exactly? We know that gamers play for different ends, but what support they’re getting out of the game book is yet another factor. This isn’t necessarily a revelation on the design side, but it further and more strongly emphasizes the need for perspective when it comes to review and critique. Even before we expand the uses of RPG books beyond play (there’s collecting, reading, using as a secondary resource…), the use of a system in play isn’t necessarily cemented. Elements seen as utterly disqualifying to some are trivial to others, and vice versa, pretty much down the entire table of contents.
If there’s one conclusion to be plucked from this, it’s that it kind of makes perfect sense that we all talk past each other. It’s not only possible but likely that someone has made a 25-tweet thread about something they see as central to their RPG enjoyment and someone else has seen it as not only unimportant but literally pointless.
The RPG hobby is expanding. Not advancing, not maturing, just expanding. As much as one can attempt to value and rate games, one must also understand that both Lord of the Rings and The Room have equal value at a watch party, depending on the crowd. And RPGs map onto a landscape with a lot more complexity than “good” and “so bad it’s good”. Everyone needs to figure out what they want to bring to their table…and it’s the people you game with who end up holding the final votes.
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