full comments from Ryan Dancey
by Dan Repperger
In episode 261, I made passing reference to a commentary by Ryan Dancey about the content of RPG products, specifically with an eye to new players. At the time I didn’t recall where it was from, but after the show’s release I tracked it down to private communication. I sent Ryan an apology, as quoting private conversations (even when unintentional) does not fit within the ethical framework of this show. Being the great guy that he is, he not only laughed it off but was gracious enough to allow me to post the entirety of his comments. So with my thanks to Mr. Dancey, here ya go!
I think that most of the time someone in our industry tries to do an “intro” product, they’re really much more likely to be making a “switch from another TRPG” or a “play a TRPG again like you haven’t since you were a kid” product.
A product like Mouseguard, for example, has intro product potential but the way it is presented in terms of being a book, at a certain price, with a certain set of assumptions about the creative experiences of the potential players and GMs, would have a very hard time succeeding at bringing new players into the hobby.
A product like the Pathfinder Beginner Box is a bit closer to the mark, and I have hopes that it will work as intended. I fear for its size, complexity and price though.
Things I learned while watching kids struggle to self-teach themselves TRPGs from behind one-way mirrors:
1: They’re not patient. They can’t easily connect information that comes at them from several different pages of a book, plus a chart or graph, plus a character sheet. They are so excited to “just play” that you can’t get them settled enough to process the complexity of most TRPG products. More than 2 sources of information is overwhelming. They’ll just tend to remember the last 2 things you showed them and forget the rest.
2: They already know how to roleplay. You tell them “you’re a knight going out to fight monsters”, and they get it. They’ll happy speak in character and try to live up to their idea of what such a character would do. Unfortunately, most game systems are more about saying “no” than saying “yes”, so their creative spark gets damped real quick. Rather than giving them a way to process an adventure as a game with rules, the rules actually become a barrier between their innate sense of storytelling and the adventure they’re trying to have.
3: Some kids need to be given a space to act that is protected. In other words, you need to establish a way for each kid to speak and be heard without being overwhelmed by the noisiest, pushiest members of the bunch. Some kids need to be given “permission” to do what they want to do. They’re looking for an adult to validate their decision so they don’t “do the wrong thing”. An encouraging attitude that reinforces that they’re doing just fine helps them overcome the fear of looking stupid, or acting “wrongly”. And some kids need to be pulled aside and given a stern talk about sharing, being polite, and respecting others, and they may need to have a few “time outs” issued along the way to reinforce that those words will be enforced.
4: Death is a Big Scary Thing. It’s much, much better to have characters “fall down” or “be knocked out” rather than die. Some kids will get paralyzed and have trouble participating because they self-identify with their characters very strongly and don’t like the emotions they have when they, or their friends “die”. Make sure they know that “running away” is sometimes the right thing to do, and don’t let the other kids make that feel like being a “coward”. Also don’t surprise them with catastrophe. A failed save out of the blue that results in Bad Things is really jarring. It’s much better to give them a framing statement like “that door looks mighty dangerous, it might be trapped”, so that they’re prepared for the potential that something could happen that will hurt their characters. If you don’t do this, some kids will react by treating everything in the virtual environment like a bomb with a hair trigger.
So what happens when you take an experienced game designer who is:
A: Used to asking players to integrate material from a matrix of sources
B: Paid to create mechanics that manipulate the virtual world
C: Expecting that each player will assert themselves when they want to act
D: Using shock tactics, random violence, and surprise against the players
You get a designer making a game that isn’t going to work as an introduction to the hobby. Why would we expect anything else; all the other products they’re paid to work on and passionate about do A-D. What you need is a designer (ideally a design team) willing to approach the task with a very open mind, to be humble about watching kids test their work, learn from what they see and hear, and incorporate that into iterations of the design which are then tested again, and so on. They need to learn about developmental psychology and how different ages understand and process different things. And they need to see that the success of their work can’t be judged by what random internet reviewer says on RPG.NETor ENWorld, but instead on the basis of how effective the product is at taking a kid who doesn’t know how to play a TRPG and converting that kid into one who does, and who seeks out additional TRPG gameplay experiences.