Challenge Your RPG Fun!

diceBy Jeff Mechlinski

I Challenge Your RPG Fun, are You Having Enough?

So why write anything about RPG’s?  Maybe this question isn’t very easy to answer.  After all everyone has an opinion, everyone had a system they champion and everyone has fun playing at what they are playing.  So then why does it matter?  Why should we care?  As a degreed industrial designer and a fledgling game designer I can’t help but notice everything around me that involves all aspects of RPG.  Yet RPG’s don’t consume my life.  I play video games, watch anime, spend loads of time with my awfully cute 11 month old boy, as well as go diving as often as possible.  I take in what I can and try to take a very practical approach to gaming… and by that I mean I feel  have expertise because even though I am not immersed in the gaming universe, I am immersed in actually playing games.  I don’t know who writes what and how many modules are out for this and that RPG.  We grab stuff and play; and we play a lot.

When I play RPG I play whatever is available.  I have a very successful group that has been running for 3 years and now it’s so big that we run two sessions at the same time in different rooms.  I call our group and play style “Broad Spectrum Gamers”.  That means we play anything and everything that any GM is willing to run.  We usually play 5 game arcs or switch when a GM get tired of running.  We have played: Dark Heresy, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu: Delta Green, Shadowrun, Age Past, Star Wars: Saga, QUAGS, Hunter, Vampire, and Legend of the Five Rings.  (note: I’ve played many more games over time, this is just the list of games played in my group.)  With my designer experience and eye I have swept across many many different rolling mechanics, character build systems and combat mechanics.  At this point I feel well qualified to speak about any game at any level.


So what is this all about?  Well I want to discuss what gamers want, what is available and how we as gamers forge this industry.  However, most gamers are not designers and don’t have the ability to articulate what they want from their game.  Some do and I have some great discussions revolving around what an RPG is from an existential standpoint.  When we look at gaming conventions there are lots of people playing Dungeons & Dragons, but there is a larger group playing all sorts of completely other games.  So while D&D might be the game that is being played the most it isn’t more popular than the other games available as a whole.  I guess that makes sense since there are sci-fi, espionage, and steampunk genres that D&D isn’t filling.  However, more than genre, these games tend to be completely setup differently than D&D.  They have different PC build systems, class features and combat mechanics.  Yet if D&D is so terribly popular then how can this cadre of random and strange games exist?

It all comes down to what gamers want… and that answer is easy.  FUN!!  Okay we all know that… so what is fun?  Here’s a list of the most popular fun things in RPG:

  1. Dominating the World:  Go off yonder young one and slaughter orcs to your heart’s content.  Gamers want to take the game world and saddle it up and slap it around like a red headed step child.
  2. Manipulating the World:  This is like the Fun above but is more cerebral.  You have a PC with a list of features and functions and you want to use them in creative ways to derive results that you envision within your character’s capabilities.
  3. Actually Doing Stuff:  It’s no fun not doing stuff.  Gamers want to meet NPC’s, craft items, and get into a good bar room brawl.  The more interaction a gamer’s PC has in the world the more fun the gamer has.
  4. Teamwork!:  All for one!  When PC’s can work together to make something happen a greater sense of accomplishment and funness is achieved.  This concept reaches beyond just PC’s as some narrative type games require the players and GM to determine the outcome of any particular encounter.

There are many ways to categorize fun but these are what I have seen to be the baseline catalysts of having a good gaming experience in an RPG.


What sucks for gamers?  It’s things that make them feel as if their experience hasn’t been rewarded for their gaming experiences:

  1. Sitting Around:  Gamers want stuff to happen and sitting around sucks.  This can happen with longer combat sessions and lack of interactive abilities on their PC’s.  The faster things happen the more things that can happen.
  2. Imbalance:  The lowly thief feels pretty ineffectual when the druid’s lion pounces and destroys everything.  While PC balance cannot be solely determined by damage delivered, imbalance can ruin a gamer’s day.
  3. Weak Abilities:  It’s never fun to have weak abilities or powers that don’t affect the gaming world with any authority.
  4. Staleness:  Gamers want to be immersed in a dynamic story and and to some degree the world too.
  5. Unpredictability:  RPG’s are all about randomness and of course player’s accept this.

However it’s not very fun to fail over and over again at something the PC should be good at.

While doing something you shouldn’t can be great fun is it worth failing over and over again when you shouldn’t?

Game Types

A great game is one that achieves all of the good stuff while avoiding all of the bad stuff and few games hit this mark.  Gaming is about player immersion.  Game mechanics provide boundaries for this immersion.  When an RPG does something that removes the player’s thought from the game then a point of failure is created.  Different games have different ways to avoid this but many gamers have found pulp gaming to be the best way to avoid suspension of immersion.

For those who don’t know a pulp RPG is a simple game that attempts to maximize game encounters by minimizing time spent on smaller mechanical features, such as combat.  These games offer surprisingly large amounts of fun and are learned to play in minutes.  Two great examples of pulp games are “Savage Worlds” and “QuAGS”.  Pulp games don’t emphasize complex rolling or PC generation mechanics.  They can however be weaker on game immersion and leave much open for the gamers and GM to decide.  Game sheets may only be ½ of one page large and have a total of 10 stats and skills.

Gamist type games provide a very heavy ruleset that carefully controls how PC’s can interact with the world.  Everything is managed from weight of equipment to how  many times a day you can use an ability.  These games provide very tactical based combat which many find tedious but others can enjoy like a puzzle since combat is very dynamic.  The major problem is the sitting around time since even simple combats can drag out for hours.  Often new gamers are introduced to gaming at this level which is more complex than pulp gaming and many gamers don’t understand or even know what pulp gaming entails.

Narrative games are story based where the PC’s are only slightly developed.  Often the entire group of players and the GM must agree on all courses of action before proceeding forth in the story.  If players love immersion then narrative gaming could be fun or the complete opposite.  Also, PC’s have less individual impact in the world than they would in a pulp or gamist type game.

Game Design

Game designers can use a cadre of mechanics that allow players to interact with a story world through their GM’s.  Good game mechanics yield more fun and the list below describes what makes them more fun.

  1. Dice Rolling:  Good dice mechanics allow a player to quickly determine their final score.  Also rolling can help sort the expected results not just how much someone can succeed or fail. It’s always fun to succeed at a task that you shouldn’t, but likewise it isn’t very fun to continually fail at an easy task over and over.  It is especially when a character concept can’t, with any certainty, perform tasks it was designed for.  A good rolling system allows a PC to have a chance when they shouldn’t but still allows them to perform at a baseline level.
  2. Bonus & Penalties:  A good mechanic allows for roll modes to be added on the fly and the players can quickly understand how to modify their score.  It’s no fun to wait 5 minutes while a player adds up all his +hit mods.
  3. Character Creation:  While not every player has less fun when there is PC power imbalance, some players do.  Therefore, it just makes sense to create a system where PC’s are balanced.  This ensures that all players can equally take part in the game.
  4. Character Presence:  Players don’t necessarily need their characters to be over powered, but they do need their characters to perform well at the tasks it was designed for.  Also players like choice.  There’s a nasty trend with classed based RPG’s where gamers don’t like to use the core classes, they pick and choose obscure things from supplements to build more of what they really want.  Fun is having exactly the character that you really want.

Assessment & Conclusion

So there are plenty of people having fun and some aren’t having as much fun.  I believe that some gamers get sucked into a system they don’t like and they don’t even realize it and I think for some new gamers this could turn them off to RPG’s completely.  Since there are different mechanics, types, and genres of games players should carefully choose the types of games they want to play or try a few different ones out.  This has a bigger impact than just to to test the waters; players can learn new game techniques that can be brought or transferred from one game to another.

Here is a list of questions that you should ask yourself:

  1. Can I build my perfect character or do I just get close enough?
  2. Do I feel that the PC’s I make are fun to play?  Can they do enough?
  3. Are the PC’s balanced when compared against each other?
  4. Does it take too long to make a character?
  5. Does combat take too long?
  6. Am I rolling the dice too much or not enough?
  7. Am I doing meaningful things during play?  Can I impact the world?
  8. Is the levelling system rewarding?  Can I feel my PC grow?
  9. Is the system hard to play or learn?
  10. Can I regularly succeed at tasks that the character was built to succeed?

Chances are there is a small part of the RPG that you play that drives you crazy.  I would also guess that there is a large portion of the game or some aspect that you wish had an overhaul.

So here’s my advice… try something new.  Get on some forums.  Be fierce.  There are some big game names that don’t always stack up to their little cousins when the word FUN comes into play.

If you are playing a class based build system and you need to get a hold of 50 books to make the character you want then try an archetype based system and build exactly the character you want.  If you like a world but not the mechanical system then use the background of one game with the mechanics of another.  Don’t let the RPG system define you step up and define it.

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