[Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design]

Here's a distilled re-telling of something I wrote fifteen years ago in a letter to Loyd Blankenship, and related nonsense I was spouting on convention panels and in emails with friends and colleagues for a few years thereafter.

It is, in some circles, mildly infamous, mainly for my determination never, ever, ever to publish it. Ever-ever, amen.

As you'll see, it's pretty innocuous. Like the Necronomicon or Monty Python's “Killer Joke,” it's something that's only sinister if you keep it off-stage. I never intended for it to be sinister, it just became so because - well, mainly because one of the nice folks who attended one of the convention panels never forgot it, and brought it up every now and then online. He even offered to pay me to write it into an article, once (guess I should've taken the offer - d'oh). Also, a few colleagues (Bruce Baugh on one occasion, I think, and recently Kenneth Hite) have talked about it to others.

So why is it finally here? We'll get to that after. Here goes:


If we examine the games and game-worlds that have come and gone, patterns emerge and it becomes easy to spot dozens of elements shared by those with the widest appeal. Here are five I consider crucial:

[Cliche]The value of cliché - the use of stock imagery and other familiar elements - is accessibility and mutual understanding. If the Game Master tells you the new campaign is to be set in the "Duchy of Crows" and concerns an evil priest gathering the Hill Ogres to his cause, that may sound a bit threadbare, but it also provides a reliable common ground. Everyone can jump right in and focus on what the game is really about: the PCs and their adventures. If, by contrast, the GM tells you the new campaign takes place in the Shining Tertiary Plane of Tsalvanithra, a science-fantasy blend of Mayan mythology, Depression-era satire, 16th-century French politics and Japanese courtly manners, you're in for some research before you dare put a mark on the character sheet. The most popular games rely on stock images as a language for skipping to the good parts (and for sharing in a celebration of things gamers enjoy celebrating). Games that make a point of shunning cliché tend to be more niche.

[Combat]Nothing's very dramatic (or funny, or scary) without some kind of conflict, and RPGs thrive on every sort. But the specific value of combat depends as much on game-structure as the visceral appeal of a fight scene. In gameable terms, most forms of conflict are best defined as a single instant (sneaking past a guard, casting a healing spell) - we gain nothing by breaking the action down into its component steps, because the steps themselves are seldom infused with drama without forcing the issue. But in a fight - whether it's swordplay, a tavern brawl, a superhero slugfest or a psychic showdown - every swing of fist or sword, every blast of energy, is something dangerous and potentially important. That packs a fight with a series of choices and consequences, providing fertile ground for enjoyable game mechanics. What's more, it provides a stage on which the PCs can cooperate and act as a team. Only a few other kinds of action can rival this under the right conditions, and none can trump it with any consistency.

[Fellowship]RPGs are an ensemble medium; the core experience is that of a fellowship of PCs cooperating (more or less) toward a common goal. The most successful RPGs embrace this, provide tools to enhance the group experience, and build system and setting assumptions around it. This means providing for variety, both in terms of character concepts and their viability (it's well and good to say you can play a Librarian, but the game-world must also provide opportunities and challenges appropriate to the Librarian's skills). This element skews the genre-leanings of successful RPGs to some extent, because there are some popular genres (espionage and mysteries, most notably) that require some re-tooling before they comfortably support the concept of a half-dozen diverse PCs working together. Similarly, some stock character types (lone-wolf vigilantes, burglars, assassins) become notably chummier in RPGs, seen more often clubbing with a team than brooding indulgently in the shadows. RPGs gain a lot of mileage and color from the ubiquity of "strange bedfellows."

[Anarchy]RPGs need rules at the table level, but they thrive on anarchy at the character level. The most successful RPGs are built on the assumption that - once the adventure is in full swing - the PCs are on their own, free to make their own solutions. Games that impose chains of command, or require PCs to check with "headquarters" before they do anything questionable, limit their audience in the process. Even a Call of Cthulhu session set in the straight-laced reality of 1920's New England is traditionally an exercise in the ritual abolition of order - In the early stages of the adventure, it's all urbane wit and let's-call-the-police, but once the tentacles start dragging people screaming into the dark, propriety and legality evaporate to irrelevance, and it's an anarchic fight for survival and sanity. Games with a military or pseudo-military premise likewise benefit from this kind of collapse. This taps into what may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can't sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can't sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that's a feature that thrives on anarchy.

[Enigma]The quality of enigma is - inevitably - the most elusive of these elements. In literal terms, it means any quality of the game-world that the Game Master is presumed to understand on a level the players never can. In many worlds, this means magic. In others, it may mean an alien society freshly met from another galaxy, or the labyrinthine mysteries of conspiratorial politics. Beyond the enduring appeal of a mystery, this is a quiet, foundational tool for the Game Master, who can exploit this consensual "shadow zone" as a spawning ground for scenarios that play fun even if they wouldn't otherwise make sense, and a place where plot-threads can vanish if they become distracting instead of exciting. From within the enigma the GM can pluck both questions and answers, making adventure design and campaign management less of a chore. The benefits to a game's appeal are vast, because any RPG that eases a GM's stage-fright (and opens up his creative latitude) is an RPG built to please.

These elements aren't keys to quality ... a game can be crummy with them and excellent without them. They are, though, a useful window into the appeal of RPGs as games, into the conventions of RPGs as a fictional medium, and into the considerations that make the design of a game world a beast distinct from other kinds of world design.


Okay, the original was a lot longer, a lot ramblier, and went on at the end into some of the many other elements (power-climb, exploring social fantasies, etc). The original was a mess - a fun mess in its way, but a mess, and I don't feel like digging into my archives for it anyway. Worth noting, though, is the absolute lack of the word "the" in the title. There are a lot more than five such elements; these are just five I feel are worth attention in that special tummy-rub way.

The reason I'm finally publishing it is because Kenneth Hite is basically outing me on it. I got an email recently from a guy publishing a - I guess a kind of coffee-table book of game-related observations. Mostly pretty basic stuff, but it looks fun enough. Might be a good conversation piece. Anyway, the guy had asked Ken to provide some digestible insights, and Ken told him about this thing (among others), and -- in a nice way, I'm sure -- basically threatened to contribute his own version if I wouldn't agree to contribute mine.

I'm pretty sure Ken didn't mean it to feel so ultimatum-ish (Ken maybe just wanted to get me included - we may not be buds anymore but we maintain a mutual respect for each others' writing). But, regardless of intent, it did create a bottom line: see someone else say it, or say it myself. Okay, then.

So, that's why it's here. This is the micro-distilled version I wrote by invitation for the coffee-table thing. But why did I never want it to be here - or anywhere? What's so big and scary about yet another pithy, piddly little bullet-list of RPG overgeneralization in a world chock full of 'em? Probably nothing, I know. But ...

Here's one reason I'm uncomfortable with it: nobody I've ever told it to seems to get that it isn't about good gameworld design, or at least it isn't meant to be. It's entirely meant as an eye squinted curiously at those things that make a game the most commercially viable, which is - as far as I'm concerned at least - an axis unrelated to a design's value at the gaming table. I'm not an anti-commercial cynic - I don't think commercial viability harms quality, but I also don't think it indicates it. They're different things, easily conflated in advertisements and proselytizing - but beginning back in the day with Loyd Blankenship and continuing to last week with that email from the book guy, this has been characterized/responded to as some kind of game-design or setting-design guide/principle thingy. It isn't one.

So, I beg, seriously: take heed of that closing paragraph in the thingy itself. A game can be crummy with 'em and excellent without 'em. This isn't - at all - about quality (the degree to which it overlaps with quality concerns is the question it's meant to stimulate thought on - not any kind of conclusion it's meant to encourage).

And yeah, it's an overreaction; I know. But I fret because I love, and gaming's one of the loves of my life (not on the Sandra level, obviously, but she's much cuter than gaming). So there's that. Anyway, hope you like this distilled version because, I gotta say - I think I do, now that it's in front of me. I'm glad it's here, and (despite my kvetching) I'm glad you're here to read it. Hi!

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------------------ By and Copyright © 2008, 2010 by S. John Ross. ------------------
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