For a while now, I’ve wanted to write some posts in response to Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball’s excellent little volume, Things We Think About Games. The best thing about a book like this is not that it’s even 99% correct but because it makes you think about your own experiences and things you may be taking for granted.
Thought #30 is: Dollar for dollar, a roleplaying game is very nearly the most efficient entertainment you can buy. This is an oft-tauted advantage that roleplaying games supposedly have over video games and the like. After all, you can theoretically play a roleplaying game forever, hours and hours of entertainment, for less than the cost of X-Box game with limited retread.
However, this is also a myth, at least in the general terms stated here. Sure, a hypothetical roleplaying game could potentially be an efficient source of entertainment, but most roleplaying games are not especially efficient. Rather, most roleplaying games require an intense amount of invested time, energy, and money in order to deliver on their promised potential.
For example, my experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons 4E and the Dungeons & Dragons Board Game (i.e. Castle Ravenloft) couldn’t be more different in their respective efficiencies in delivering enjoyable experiences. With 4E, as the GM, I was required to invest substantial time and energy (making maps, building encounters) or in additional products (buying pre-made maps and encounters) in order to bring the game to the table. And there were very few guidelines or “best practices” instructions on how to do that in an efficient manner instead of stumbling through trial and error. Even when there were guidelines, over and over again, it was shown that they were not — in fact — correct. Fights dragged on forever because the creatures had too many hit points. Spending 1 Action Point per encounter was both lame and nonsensical. The group had to learn for ourselves, over extended play, how to play the game in a way that provided consistent enjoyment, and that process included a lot of wasted time and effort. Basically, it was not efficient at all.
In comparison, the more recent Dungeons & Dragons Board Game, despite being much more limited in content and replay value than 4E, was much more efficient in delivering enjoyment. There were several things that the group had to still learn through play — the biggest one was that any character exploring new territory was always attacked by whatever was in the next room — but overall the enjoyment happened with much less trial and error or laborious effort. You didn’t have to prep monsters or locations or plot. Character creation happened nearly instantly, thanks to the recommended power choices. Even players will no gaming background at all picked it up very quickly. It was not, perhaps, as fun as a good 4E session, but it delivered a solid, enjoyable experience with much less effort on our part. Consequently, I’m much more excited to play Castle Ravenloft again than I am to play 4E (or 3.5, or 3.0) again.
So here’s the axiom I would suggest for beginning discussions about the “efficiency” of particular entertainments: Games are efficient if they enable the players to more-or-less replicate the promised play experience with a minimum of unnecessary labor and struggle.
A simpler version would be like “efficiency = fun / effort,” but the subjectiveness of fun makes that less useful, perhaps. You can’t really ensure that other people will like the things you designed the game to do. But you can ensure that they can make those things happen without needless wasted energy. Improving the overall efficiency of player efforts has been especially emphasized in recent games, from Montsegur 1244, to Lady Blackbird, to Apocalypse World, to Castle Ravenloft.
In this day and age, when we have to compete with (or, really, coexist alongside) video games and the new wave of well-designed board games, even roleplaying designers should strive for their games to play faster and easier, without unnecessary hours of prep, extended study, and trial and error. Designers should know how to make their games really sing and be able to communicate that knowledge to their prospective players through guidelines and procedures. We cannot wait for other players to figure out how to play our games properly. We have to be able to show them.