I recognize that I’ve let this go a bit, I’ve been bogged down with schoolwork, my writings elsewhere, and other stuff that I’m juggling. But perhaps I can start with one of my many articles stuck in the draft stage. Since this was the one that I’ve been sitting on for a while, I figured I’d start with this one.
I was inspired to write this by Suze, who left an interesting comment about the cost of tabletop RPGs in my Genesys first impressions post. In many ways, I agree with her. Tabletop gaming is an expensive hobby, as the many times that I’ve come away from my Friendly Local Game Store, FLGS in gaming parlance, having spent over $50.
I’m a college student, I’m not swimming in money. In the FLGS I go to I can easily identify dozens, if not hundreds, of game systems. There’s no way I can afford to buy all of them, let alone sit down with my players and run them through a new system every time I pick them up. So what do you do with that dilemma?
When I heard the news about Fantasy Flight Games’ decision to genericize the Star Wars RPG with Genesys, I was definitely interested.
While my experience with the Star Wars RPG was poor, I also took the time to read reviews and I know that playing with a knowledgeable group is key. It seemed like if I understood the dice system that I would probably have plenty of fun. I also didn’t feel like investing in a system that was only going to work inside the Star Wars universe, as expansive as that universe is.
When I began writing fiction, one of the things that was drilled into my head was that I absolutely needed to get the beginning right. It’s the beginning of a story that engages the audience, one that sets audience expectations and can easily derail a story if screwed up.
If one looks back at older books or movies, they’ll quickly notice that it often takes a long time for things to get going. Back before the internet when access to culture in both film and literature was a lot more constrained, people simply accepted infodumps and slow openings because they didn’t have much in terms of entertainment.
Modern audiences, by contrast, have tons of books, films, games, and other forms of entertainment at their fingertips. A storyteller has to grab their audience quickly, or they’ll be tuned out.
I love Dungeons & Dragons, everyone already knows this. But, I found myself wanting to go outside of that game in both setting and mechanics. My players got roped into running a D20 Modern campaign, which was a bit of a shock to my players who were used to 5e’s more streamlined approach when they opened up the skill and feat lists. D20 Modern’s character sheet has been removed from Wizard of the Coast’s website, perhaps stuffed in its archive mode.
A Google search leads to a fan-made character sheet, and you can only find the books at game stores that sell used copies (Games and Stuff gets a shout out here) or Amazon. It was during my search for a system (which I will write about in an upcoming post since I did manage to find one) that I eventually came to understand something in RPG product reviews.
I found that many product reviews lack a lot of information that I personally wanted to know. Usually, they boiled down to discussing mechanics and general “feel” of the system, but would only bring up cost and such in a very basic way. So, I wanted to compile a list of criteria that I had for purchasing a tabletop roleplaying game.
Cost of Entry
Simply put, if one wants to actually start playing, what do they need? I often hear about prices for core rulebooks discussed as if they’re in a vacuum when you usually need additional implements such as dice to play. This usually means that I end up looking at the introduction to find out what else I need, such as decks of cards, dice, and so forth.
Partly because my players are college students, and also because I try to be budget-conscious with my gaming decisions, I tend to go for systems that are less than $30 to buy core rulebooks for. Even now, my players are still getting their own copies of the 5e Player’s Handbook, which is understandable when the only thing separating you from total starvation is Cup Noodles.
Ease of Use and Ease of Explanation
Some RPG systems require a veteran player to show you the ropes. This doesn’t make them bad, but it’s severely limiting if you have a player base that doesn’t consist of veterans and you yourself don’t have experience with the system. My nightmare with playing the Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games is such an example. I’m sure that if a veteran sat down with me and ran through the entire system that I’d eventually get it. But, can a completely fresh group sit down and play through a setting without succumbing to boredom?
System Flexibility and Portability
Dungeons and Dragons and, by extension, Pathfinder are exempt from this rule because of their popularity. However, for other games, I’ve found system flexibility to be a key issue when determining whether or not I want to purchase a new system. Since every system takes time to learn, it’s better to have a few systems that you use a lot as opposed to many systems that are only used in select circumstances (unless you have really patient or voracious players and money to burn).
In fact, I found myself looking for a “Not-D&D” system, which could be used when modifying D&D was too impractical and I wanted something that D&D didn’t specialize in.
Of course, there are systems that are good at solving particular design issues, such as GUMSHOE which does investigative play.
Of course, when you play a tabletop RPG, you are going to have to visit the publisher’s page to download a character sheet. Additionally, you’ll probably want to see if they have additional rules supplements, campaign settings, premade adventures.
Are the character sheets printer friendly? I’ve seen many times where an aesthetically pleasing sheet gets the axe from me because of the sheer volume of ink it would require (even worse when they make these sheets in color). Are they form-fillable in PDF form? They don’t necessarily need to be since you’ll be erasing and writing stuff down anyway, but it is certainly nice if you have poor handwriting and need to write in static content.
Is there an easily accessible reference sheet that players or the GM can use? One RPG I looked at, which had problems with book organization, compounded this by having no GM or player reference sheet. Something that can be inserted into a GM screen is extremely helpful.
Is there a free introductory adventure meant to acclimate players and GMs to the game? Does the publisher have a “Getting Started” section that helps potential buyers pick what they need to play? Are there introductory rules for the game that can be downloaded as a PDF and played free of charge?
Is there a System Reference Document? How thorough is it? Has some content been removed or expanded upon? Has errata been covered on the publisher’s site?
This is a particular bugbear of mine (pun very much intended) because I find that nothing sours me on a system than a website that’s difficult to navigate or that is lacking content. If I don’t feel that the publisher is really supporting the product, it’s hard for me to get invested.
By the same token, there needs to be an easy access point, lest a neophyte get inundated with the sheer number of options. Otherwise, people will have no idea where to start.
But a game where people play together is only as good as the people who play it. How easy is it to find a community? Do they have presences on Facebook, Reddit, and other channels?
Are they exchanging house rules? Settings? How is the user generated content handled?
I must confess that Wizards of the Coast’s method of focusing on premade adventures as opposed to rules supplements was a strategy I didn’t understand very well until I looked at the corresponding community pages like DM’s Guild. In actuality, a publisher should not act as an opener of floodgates, showering players with content. Instead, there should be a mix of publisher and community support, creating an ecosystem where content can be shared.
So, I find this list to be something that I would use in any given review of tabletop RPGs, and eventually, I’ll submit some reviews of my own.