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Mike Mearls on What Gaming Companies Are Bad At

Over on EN World [1], Mike Mearls said: “game companies are bad at telling gamers how to use their games [2].” He goes on to give examples and make some very good points. (Via Deep in the Game [3].)

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5 Comments To "Mike Mearls on What Gaming Companies Are Bad At"

#1 Comment By DNAphil On December 20, 2005 @ 9:53 am

I am a big Mike Mearls fan so most of what he said; I was in full agreement with. I think that it is important when you choose to run a game, to understand the core story of the game (if there is one), because a good game has its rules centered on the core story. I recently started in Iron Heroes campaign, and I had to make sure my players were totally clear what the focus of the rules were on.

I have one player who always plays some flavor of mage, and I had to be very up front with him that the IH magic system does not favor Mages, nor does any other aspect of the game. The game is focused on combat and skills, with magic being rare and very dangerous to use. In the end, the player choose a fighter type, but gave him one level of arcanist, just to have his hand in some minor magic. Had I not conveyed to him clearly what the core of the rules were focused on, and that my setting was supporting that, he likely would have made an arcanist and been miserable because of how the rules support magic.

I think that game companies work to hard to make “Universal” types of rules for games, as a way to keep sales up by keeping gamers focused on one type of game and pumping out supplements for it. What I would like to see, and to some extent it is starting to happen, is that some core sets of rules be developed (d20, Savage Worlds), but then tailor those rules to a specific setting.

Green Ronin I think has done a great job of this. They took d20 and stripped it down to make Mutants & Masterminds. M&M is a great super hero game, and has great rules for super heroes, but I would not run a Sci Fi game from it. Then GR took d20 and modified it for Black Company, again taking the core d20 rules, but adding on setting specific rules (Massive Damage, Ambush, Magic, etc) to make the rules better portray the setting.

I think that Iron Heroes also did an excellent job of this. Mike’s vision for what IH is and is not is well conveyed in the book. He too expanded d20 rules to make a game that better fits the type of game that he envisioned. The use of Combat Challenges, Stunts, Mastery Feats, and even the core classes, all drive to one vision. But I don’t think all those rules can be picked up and put into D&D, despite the similarities in setting.

In the case of Green Ronin’s products and even in the case of Iron Heroes, because all the games started as d20, they are still somewhat universal, in that my learning curve for any one of them is lessened because I know d20, but at the same time, they offer unique rules that enhance the focus of the game, and make for a better in-game experience.

I guess what I am trying to say, is that I want rules for a game that are perfect for that game. I don’t need portability between games, I am not putting my Barbarian/ Paladin into a super heroes setting anytime soon. Make rules that give me the best experience for the type of core story that the game was made for. In return I will honor your core story and run the game using it, so that my story and your rules will be a solid match and will complement each other.

#2 Comment By Martin On December 20, 2005 @ 8:15 pm

Phil: What you prefer — focused games — sounds a lot like what the Forge designers tend to deliver.

Other than a lot of nodding while reading your comment, I don’t have much else to say. 😉

#3 Comment By Parthirav On December 20, 2005 @ 9:31 pm

“There’s a very clear message here, and it’s repeated throughout the text: using the rules is bad. Fighting monsters is bad. Spending an hour role playing the process of renting a room at an inn is good. Running a game where the PCs are spectators to your grand story is good.”

I strongly agree with Mearl’s point on how some people view hack-and-slash gaming. I find myself frustrated by those who claim you MUST role play in order to have fun. As a player I’ve had just as much fun running through a generic dungeon and killing things, as I have asking a shop keeper played by the DM if there was a kennel nearby (so as to buy and train a dog).

As a DM though, I can understand that people put a lot of time and effort into their campaigns and want a great experience for their players. Its just a matter of how far you take it.

#4 Comment By Ian On December 21, 2005 @ 7:30 am

I think there’s two things one needs to keep sight of when designing a game. This applies equally to not only RPGs, but any kind of game. You need to keep sight of your focus, and you need to decide whether you’re going to be erring on the side of gaming or simulation.

Keeping sight of your focus isn’t quite so much a problem with an RPG, but still something you must do. Granted, you should provide for a relatively wide range of cases, but you need to build around your theme, and pay that the most attention. Sometimes, it might be better to leave out underwater rules altogether if that time could be devoted to refining your combat or social interaction or what have you. In the case of other forms of gaming, sometimes you just start trying to include too much and the game gets totally bogged down. Say you’re making a card game about building a band, well, you could have rules for getting boy/girlfriends who provide inspiration, trainers, jobs, special instruments, but that’s a whole lot of ground to cover that’s only tangentially related to the concept. (Note that this is a real example from my own idea book)

Then there’s the whole simulation vs. gaming thing. Basically it boils down to this: it’s often better to create a simple, somewhat artificial and arbitrary system, as long as it’s easy to understand and fun, rather than making a more complicated and inelegant solution that’s a better simulation of how things would “really be.”

#5 Comment By Martin On December 21, 2005 @ 12:42 pm

(Parthirav) I find myself frustrated by those who claim you MUST role play in order to have fun. As a player I’ve had just as much fun running through a generic dungeon and killing things, as I have asking a shop keeper played by the DM if there was a kennel nearby (so as to buy and train a dog).

My follow-up questions to this: Is D&D really designed to handle both well? And if it is, why aren’t the differences — and the other underlying elements — spelled out more explicitly in the rules?

(Ian) Then there’s the whole simulation vs. gaming thing.

Depending on what lens you use to view RPGs, there are also other elements — notably, narrativism (the “N” in GNS theory, as seen on the Forge) — that should be taken into consideration. The two you mention are definitely part of (say) D&D’s balancing act, but they’re less central to other RPGs.