Monthly Archives: July 2011

How a game’s playability can have nothing to do with the mechanics

So this morning I received a nice little pdf for an RPG – and I use the term loosely, as I’ll waffle about in a moment – with the unwieldy title of ‘Look Upon Your Father’s Murder and Be Ashamed, Young Prince’ (henceforth ‘YFM’). I got this pdf for the princely sum of one dollar, the benefit of trawling Kickstarter for interesting projects. I would have pledged $5 but that level came with free shipping of a hard-copy, and I think it would have cost the maker more than $5 to ship it to the UK – so now I get to feel slightly ashamed of my paltry donation. Ho hum.

YFM itself is one of those indie games that hangs around the border with the nation of ‘Freeform’ and its shady inhabitants*. Much like the Baron Munchausen Roleplaying Game – a fantastic read and well worth picking up if you see it – it’s called a roleplaying game and marketed as one, but it’s not. Not really.

It’s certainly a game, and there’s some amount of perfunctory RPing, but it’s more like a mechanism for generating stories. And it’s a good mechanism for such: don’t mistake my terminological nitpickery for dislike. The art – what little there is in a ~10 page booklet – is fantastic, too. Evocative and stylish. All in all, it contributes handily to my guilty feeling over only paying $1 for it.

But I’ll never play it.

Not because I don’t think it would be entertaining. No, I would very much like to give it a try.

And not because the name is so long and tangled, although that does make a difference.

It’s because you can’t play it casually. The strict time limit and lack of distinction between player and character mean you have to be ‘on’ the whole time – and you have to learn the (very simple) rules first. Basically, given an hour to kill with some friends I can probably have a better time by breaking out the Scrabble or firing up Super Smash Brothers. We won’t create as compelling a narrative** but we’ll probably get a whole lot more out of it.

I had similar thoughts when I got my hands on a pre-release test version of A Penny For My Thoughts – that while it was intriguing I was never going to play it with a bunch of gamers around a table. The key difference here is that Penny is eminently playable online; in fact, it seems almost tailor-made for such. YFM’s hidden token mechanic makes that more difficult without roping in an impartial GM.

The onus is on YFM to be easier and more fun than the things I could be doing otherwise***, and outside of some very specific circumstances that isn’t going to happen. If I’m going to invest time in prepping for a game, making sure that everyone knows the rules, etc., then I’m going to run Burning Empires or Nobilis – it’s a lot easier to teach casual gamers new mechanics than it is to incite them to invest in the game.

I think this also might say something about the eternal popularity of D&D: when a gang of casual gamers get together to play a game, D&D is often easier and more fun than the other options. You can play it casually, as part of a social experience rather than just as a storytelling exercise. There’s a lot to be said for low barriers to entry.

*Shady mainly because of all the Dark McDarkendarks who live there. Not even the sparkling of the vampires can lighten the gloom.

**Unless we’re playing Smackdown vs. RAW, the wrestling games. The narratives my flatmates and I concocted using those games were epic in both scope and absurdity. You haven’t lived until your very own Belgian tax-collector has adopted a masked persona and teamed up with Jesus Christ to win the tag team belts from a 7 foot tall preacher and a warrior nun.

***Similarly the onus is on Munchausen, as a game which involves drinking, to be easier and more fun than just sitting around drinking with your friends. Hence why I think the kids’ version (in the same book) has more potential as an actual game rather than just a hilarious read.

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