Making and breaking the game

This blog about free-to-play computer games got me thinking about the business of pen'n'paper RPGs.

Usually, with a role-playing game, you buy the rules, maybe some dice, and then you play. You need not ever buy another thing to continue playing that game forever.
When I joined the hobby, in the 80s, the rules of the most popular role-playing game explicitly told you how to make your own content, and repeatedly to you that the whole game was up to you.
They also provided some standard content, scenarios, campaign setting and so on - but that first instruction to invent my own material stuck, and I never bought into the whole "buy our published content" behaviour.

The trouble with that as a business is that your customers never need to come back.

Marketing "must-have" accessories

Commonly, major games manufacturers will look to sell accessories after the main rule set.
Here are some common ways to eek more money out of a game after the rule book:
  • miniatures, branded to the game - several manufacturers have produced lines of minis that are modelled after the rule-book art. If the rules are written with an assumption that minis are going to be used (talking about distances and areas in terms of squares, for exmaple), then you encourage the purchase of your miniatures;
  • adventure modules - in the 80s, it was common for publishers to churn out lots of adventures of varying quality, but individually, these aren't great moneyspinners. Of a group of players, only one needs to buy the adventure for all to play it (the GM). More common now is for adventures to be larger books, packed with new rules, new monsters, new spells and technology and so on;
  • campaign settings - whole countries, continents, worlds, and planes of existence can be detailed in tomes, maps, and so on. Again, nowadays, these often come with their own new monsters, playable species, player classes and other material - partly to set them apart, but partly to pull the gamer in: if you don't have the setting book, then you can't play a Baal-n'groth Toothsome Axe Totem Barbarian Lord;
  • new rulebooks - an honest and straight up new set of rules, often for a particular element of play that isn't covered by the core rule books, like sea-going adventures, or extraplanar sci-fi/fantasy heroics. The line between rule books and campaing settings can be blurry, but a campaign setting is usually specific to one setting, whereas a rule book will be more generic.
You'll see that three out of four of those are products that add rules and features to games. New rulebooks are the most obvious examples, but they all do it. Some game manufacturers even add new rules in with their minis...

A quick glance around the RPG forums of the world will tell you that picking and chosing from these many different rules within a game will allow you to make some extremely high powered characters and monsters and spell combinations. Often a cunning selection of powers allows the canny player to bring a legal character to the game that is far beyond the power levels of those made without access to the same rules. That Toothsome Axe-Totem Barbarian Lord that Jack has brought to the game is far better than the basic Barbarian that Jill wants to play.
When this is permitted in games, it clearly drives people to buy the source books for those powerful new rules. Jill is going to rush out to buy Secrets of Baal-N'Groth as soon as she's seen what Jack's Barbarian Lord can do.
The d20 rules published for Dungeons and Dragons are probably the clearest example, but you'll also find it in other games where there are many rule books for one core game.

Of course, the producers have to make money, otherwise they'd stop producing. We don't want our games' inventors to go bust - but it'd be nice if they kept a tight rein on new product.

Poor quality control as a design goal

Here's where I'm going to go out on a limb. I used to work in the toy industry, and I met many people who worked in the hobby industry - some of whom worked for major producers of RPGs and other hobby games.

In conversation with one senior manager of the marketing of such a major RPG producer - who I will not name as I believe they are still associated with the industry - I discussed the proliferation of new rules and broken combinations.
I worked in quality control, so I was railing against the fact that the quality control (checking that new rules were properly compatible with the old) appeared to be poor - hence all those threads on forums about "broken" combinations.
They pointed out that there was no attempt to control new rules as a whole - just some base guidelines on how to format the rules, and the core set of rules to use as a reference.
They told me that it was a deliberate ploy to make rules in which someone would spot an amazing exploitable hole, in order to sell the associated books.

Okay - that's not too controversial. System mastery is a part of some rule-heavy hobbies. For the reasons I outlined above, it's obvious that producers want us to buy new rule books - and power creep is one way to do that.
What my industry colleague told me next, though, was at the time, shocking.

Game producers like the one they worked for deliberately avoid tight quality control so that over time, with the introduction of ever more powerful combinations, the game becomes unplayable.

Once the game is clearly broken by the weight of new rules, a new edition is designed.

...And each time, the new edition will be swamped with new rules until it, in turn, breaks - and a new edition is required.

What to do?

As I've played over the years, and seen new editions of my favourite games appear and get surplanted, I've found out a few things.

I used to buy into new rules because I was happily plundering the most amazing things, looking for new exciting shiny spells and technology and characters.
Then I found that there was little need to do so - you can standardise the rules while supporting the variety of imagination: there's no need to have a rules difference between two kinds of sword or blaster pistol, anymore than there's a need to have a rules difference between men and women.
All those different types of elf don't need special rules - just notes on their different cultures. We don't need dozens of different goblinish monsters - just a few, and a bit of an imagination.

Of course, sometimes it's nice to see what a professional designer has done to make rules for a situation, culture, environment or whatever that you want to use in your game. Not all rules expansions are bad - and with sensible selection, almost any RPG supplement will contain something useful.

But as those first D&D rule books told me: it's your game!
You don't need to buy into this proliferation of brokenness. Make your own content, hack your own rules.

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