The obvious, and I suspect universal, answer here is “It should be fun.”
Assuming we can agree on that, when you look at a game’s core rules, what element or elements are most important in leading you to think, “Yeah, this could be a fun game”?
Personally, I’ve always been a core resolution mechanic kind of guy. I look at the baseline mechanic, which tells me what kind of game I’m holding, and then at the other mechanics around it. I also read the “What’s this game about?” section, if there is one, and flip through the whole book to get an overall feel for the game.
Over on ars ludi, though, Ben Robbins points out that the first thing you should look at is the character sheet, not the core mechanic. And you know what? I think he’s absolutely right — there’s a wealth of information in any character sheet, and it sounds like a great shortcut. I plan to give this a shot in a day or two when my copy of the Star Wars RPG: Saga Edition arrives.
So how about — when you pick up an RPG, what signals “fun” to you?
‘character sheet’ is what leapt to mind for me, too. if i can easily suss the core mechanics from the character sheet, then the game’s probably well-designed. if the character sheet has evocative design or artwork which makes me want to play, then its probably cool. the best designs help me find relevant information quickly, as well. putting the AC within a little shield was one of the things i loved about the original orange AD&D character sheets.
1. Character sheet is a good one.
2. Early on, I really look at detailed suggestions for jump-starting the game. Quick scenerios or ideas for adventures/encounters that typify the game.
I’m always mystified that Wizards of the Coast, for instance, sticks this information in the BACK of the book, rather than near the front. True, you know where to look for it, but I’d rather the game or supplement try to get you up and running from the get go.
I am always sucked in by games that have a new or innovative concept.
The rules don’t matter all that much to me becuase if I don’t like the rules, I’ll just pare them down or use a different system entirely.
I also like a game that has art that is evocative of the setting (and doesn’t suck).
If I can flip through a book and feel inspired to make miniatures of the characters featured, that usually closes the deal. 😉
For me, it’s almost always the extent to which I can customize a character. I’ve always enjoyed old school Mage: The Ascension because, with every character, I could customize the paradigm, foci, style, and effects of my magic. It made for some very interesting and unique characters.
These days, I look for good instruction on how to run the game, and from that, a vision of what the game is about. A quick glance at the rules should support this.
One game I recently evaluated using this criteria was the new RuneQuest Lankhmar game. I read about what the games were supposed to be about. But then I saw no mechanics to actually support that.
I’m curious about the new Savage Worlds pirate game, but a quick read didn’t seem to show it supporting good play (this game got my hopes up for a possible way to run a new LEGO based pirate game – perhaps with a few mods).
You could just as easily say “The core Mechanic is the vehicle through which your avatar interacts with the imagined game world. The specifics of said character and world are more or less irrelevant to your enjoyment of the game, as evidenced by the fact that you could use your DnD rules to play space cowboys, herding animally aware asteroids to giant ore refineries in space or use your WhiteWolf rules to play a accurately detailed medieval farmer simulation.”
The theory works just fine under the assumption that all core mechanics are more or less serviceable and have little effect on the enjoyment of the game in question. Given the history of RPGs, wherein core mechanics have always consisted of a small group of a handful of original systems (here defined as systems that are the first of their kind and recognizably distinct from other first generation systems) and a large collection of variants that are similar in general structure but different in details to some degree* this is a reasonable assumption. However, the group of original systems (as opposed to variants) to which we’re exposed is very small, perhaps a half dozen to a dozen. This is not to say that there aren’t MANY original systems out there, just that most aren’t high visibility. Of the low visibility original systems, some (like Dogs) are pure genious and are only low visibility because of issues nonrelated to system. However, Statisticly speaking, a good number of these systems must be more or less trash, sentenced to permanent exile from the spotlight because they are untenable.
That in mind, The character sheet is a great place to start your inspection of a game. Just don’t take it to the cashier before takeing a quick look at the core mechanic.
*For example, we would say that 4th edition Shadowrun and the Whitewolf system are variants of one another with very little difference except the size of the die in question.
I’ve always thought core mechanic and character sheet. Kind of like the keys to the kingdom. You get those and you can figure out almost anything. Sure you need the rules to get the exacts, but those two kind of lead the way to how the game is played.
The thing that makes me think a game is fun though is what I can do in it. Superhero game I know I’m getting superhero fun, DND I know it is going to be combat grinding, White Wolf I know it is going to be playing in their metaplot. If these appeal to me then I’m definitely interested. I guess it is the overall theme of what the game will give me.
Appropriateness. Can the game’s mechanics evoke the right “feel” for the genre? This should be hammered home by the flavor text and examples of play.
(I say “can” instead of “do” because sometimes it just takes a little tweaking and adjusting. Perfection is difficult in a subjective topic.)
The first thing that grabs my attention about any roleplaying game is the setting and/or premise of the game world. That is what drew me in to many of the FASA and White Wolf games.
Second is whether the mechanics “get in the way” of playing in that world. If I have to look-up any tables from the book to do things in-game, my suspension of disbelief has been ruined. The more I can do using just the character sheet and the dice in front of me, the better.
The first that a game needs to pass is, “what sort of stuff do PCs do.” The stuff should probably be cool, exciting, scary, thought-providing, or anything that isn’t just dull. One industry writer (regrettably, I don’t remember who) admonished people trying to sell games at conventions to have a one line summary in the form “You play X who do Y”, and to make sure that X and Y were things that were appealing.
Now assuming the game will let me play an X doing Y that I’ll enjoy, then it’s time to look at the core mechanics, primarily with an eye to “does this reinforce, harm, or have no impact on the X/Y?” If it reinforces the X/Y aspect, great! If it has no impact, the game may yet be good. If it hurts the X/Y aspect, it loses. Lots of games fail at this point. A common mistake is to try and sell me a game about heroics, then give me a combat system that is highly dangerous and encourages conservative play.
Since we’re talking about “looking at the core rules” here rather than the broader “looking at the total package on the shelf,” I’d put it like this:
“If I can hold my players’ hands through the chargen process, are the core mechanics simple enough to grasp in play that I don’t have to assign the rulebook as homework?”
My Sunday group is much easier:
“Is this a d20 game?”
The setting. I generally ditch the mechanics anyway. I have no interest in anything beyond what I already know, unless it really catches my eye (I use Fudge). So yeah, definitely the setting.
Appropriateness. How true. Even a hard-core D&Der/d20er like myself recognizes that some games are helped by different rules sets that evoke a different feel for the game.
Deadlands and 7th Sea (roll and keep) come immediately to mind. The d20 versions of those games fail to capture the essence that their original rules sets did.
I am sure there are other good examples, too.
Only one kind of character. The best games I played (Paranoia and Shadowrun) had only one kind of character with many variations, but only one kind of character (troubleshooter or shadowrunner). That didn’t leave any doubts to the players about what they were going to do. That’s very relieving.
I like a system that allows me to think of a character and then make it. -Not make a character and then try to bend/break the mold.
Whatever looks cool. I am an RPG book whore.
I have purchased books based on one or a combination of these factors:
– Size of the book. (HERO systems books, Talislanta 4)
– Pretty pictures. ( Palladium stuff, Buffy , Exalted )
– Nice artwork throughout. ( Palladium and Exalted again. )
– Tone of the writing. ( Any Eden Studios book )
– Fascinating mechanics. ( Wild Talents, Villains & Vigilantes )
– Nostalgia ( D&D, Palladium’s super hero game )
– Neat/interesting world. ( Talislanta, Buffy, AFMBE, Harn World, Forgotten Realms )
– Sheer Awesomeness. ( HackMaster )
– Super-nice layout. ( Buffy, Shadowrun 4 )
– Players want to play it. ( Shadowrun 4, D&D )
I’m sure there are other reasons. If I ever open a game shop my promise is to carry at least one of every RPG book I can get. Even if it just sits on the shelf for years… for instance, any FFG book…
(Darel) I have purchased books based on one or a combination of these factors:
– Size of the book. (HERO systems books, Talislanta 4)
“Hi, my name’s Martin, and I’m a shameless book slut.”
“I too purchased HERO 5th and Talislanta 4th largely based on their size.” 😉
“Hi, my name’s Kurt, and I’m a book addict.”
“I also purchased Hero 5 based on volume, and Shadowrun 4 because well, everyone else was doing it.”
“Hi, I’m Kestral, and I am a book addict.”
“I’ve wanted to purchase Hero 5 based on volume, but I was only stopped by not knowing where to get it. I purchased Shadowrun 4 because my friends mostly played Shadowrun.” (I don’t really want to know about where to find Hero, at the moment. It just would mean yet another system book I’d read and likely never use…)
The tribulations of system sluttery…
But seriously, I think definitely the most significant things about an RPG (there are two) are basically ease of play and ease of concept. But in order to get them, you must have.. consistency. Consistent mechanics go a long way towards ensuring that a game with slightly inconsistent flavor is enjoyable; consistent flavor makes a game more easily enjoyable despite a slightly inconsistent core mechanic. This is perhaps why I think the RPG market’s moved so heavily towards games with very consistent mechanics and theme. They’re a lot easier to run well, after all.
â€œHi, Iâ€™m Jim, and I am a book addict.â€
â€œI have bought many RPGs and RPG books that I knew I would probably never use to actually play the game. There was FASA’s Doctor Who RPG, SJGames’ In Nomine, and AEG’s Spycraft to name a few. I get drawn in by the setting, and I enjoy reading the books, but I cannot find anyone else locally who is interested in playing them (or running them, so that I can play them).â€