#RPGaDay2020 Day 30 - "Portal"


You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. Twilight Zone, Seasons 4 and 5 opening

Today's word, portal, got me thinking about things that takes people from where they are now, to some other place. Sometimes those things are subtle: walking into the throne room of royalty or the Oval Office of the United States. These are in some ways just going through a simple door to a place that is only a few feet different...just one room over--but in context is a shift to a physical center of true power.

Of course, there are portals that dramatically take let you take a non-linear jump to a different location, such as the Dimension Door spell (or the incredibly popular video game, Portal.) or which take you to entirely different planes of existence.

Rather than a treatise on planar topologies, though, what today's art inspired was a desire to consider the idea of gateway games, which help people seamlessly move from being non-gamers, to being fans to being lifelong members of the hobby. In the picture above, the first few steps through the portal are no different that on our side, but things change and warp and move beyond that--and this is the journey I want to explore.

Knowing there is a door

There is a lot of discussion on various forum boards about the best games to get people interested in the hobby. And the fact is, the best game for making this transition is an invitation, a group of enthusiastic players and a GM who helps the new player enjoy the game without having to understand the rules. The simplest and most approachable mechanics in the world are nothing compared to a GM who can make people feel comfortable and engaged when they say "You are being attacked, and need to counter attack. Your weapon is a sword--shown *there*. Roll a d20 and add the +tohit value. If I tell you that you hit, roll the d10 and add the +dam value. The rest of the page doesn't matter right now." (Caveat: Some players pick up the hobby much faster than others. And I've learned that ff they want to fly solo..let them! They'll ask if they have questions. Not looking at you, older daughter.)

As I mentioned in my first essay of 2020, my gateway game was D&D. Complex character sheets, especially since I'd never seen one before, and a bunch of new dice I had never seen either. And yet, the GM explained as we went, and so it was just a matter of doing what he said, while also relating it to this sheet, so I could do it myself next time. And since everybody else at the table was equally new and yet having fun, it worked.

Making the door inviting

Even so, there are certainly some games that make new players feel like experts much more quickly than other games, and even within this set, there are two subsets: Games that are easy, and games that seem easy.

There is a big trend over the last 5-10 years to introduce rules-lite games, where character sheets only have a few pieces of mechanical information, die-rolling and targeting mechanics are streamlined and consistent, play sequencing is linear and the number of system-defined options is limited.

These games are neither better nor worse than other games--some people, even advanced players, prefer them and the narrative flexibility they allow. Others prefer the crunchier more rules-heavy systems that allow them to do "character builds" to optimize certain themes. But for new players, rules-lite games tend to be a lot easier to understand and play at the outset...and are an enticing first step into the new world of gaming. Below, I have a contrast of two systems. Neither is better, but they are different levels of complexity.

  • D&D: You have a bastard sword, which you can use 1 or 2 handed. You have weapon focus, and a BaB of +3 and a strength mod of 2. Roll a d20 to hit, and add 6. If you hit, because you chose to use the weapon 1-handed, you roll a d10 and add 2 for damage otherwise you would have added three. (In older D&D these numbers were affected by opponent armor types and opponent sizes...those were streamlined out.)
  • Cypher: The creature has a rating of 3, so roll a 9 or better (Do you want to use effort? In that case, it's roll a 6 or better.) If you hit, you do 5 damage.

Optimization, variability of outcomes and choices in how you approach problems are all great aspects of D&D and a lot of people love this (and it's crunchy cousins), but Cypher is one roll, and you get the outcome--much easier for new players to understand.

Rules-Lite Games
Highly-rated games that are commonly listed in this "rules lite / easy" discussions include
    • Cypher System games, by Monte Cook Games, which includes Cypher System (on its own, or combined with any of its 5-7 setting specific variations), Numenera (Gold ENnie winner) and The Strange (Silver ENnie winner) (which I wrote about a few days ago.)
    • Fate, by Evil Hat Productions, which has been hacked by fans into virtually every game you could want, as well as several official versions. Also it's a Gold ENnie winner. A bonus of this game is that Fate Accelerated, its simplified version, is Pay-What-You-Want with a recommended price of $2.50 for the PDF.
    • Savage Worlds by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. This manages to be a deep game, while still being very approachable. (ENnie nominated) The PDF rulebook of this is only $10.
    • Dungeon World. (Gold ENnie winner). While I'm not personally familiar with this one, it is always brought up in the same breath as the games above as an easy and great game.
    Narrative Games
    There are also a few games which are highly narrative, with the only mechanics being a single "chance resolution" tool. These games are in a special category, because they are extremely approachable, but don't necessarily introduce key elements such as "character", "attributes", "skills" etc. I think the most impressive of these is Dread, which is a horror game which uses Jenga blocks for narrative control. Based on the difficulty of what you try, you move a certain number of Jenga blocks to the top of the progressively more unstable tower. If you succeed, your version of the narrative continues. If not...the GM has fun.

    Games like this, and like Engle Matrix (described in the Humor essay earlier this month) are so approachable that they can actually be party games, with people who like storytelling but have no idea what RPGs are. (Bonus, the various materials are between free and about $10 for PDF's, depending on the system and what you get)

    Rich Games that Seem Easy
    There are also some games which are incredibly rich and detailed, with the ability to do many of the things that the crunchy games allow, while still being very approachable to new players. I will list two of my favorites here:
    • Dungeon Crawl Classics (also known as DCC) is a game that easily supports multiple extended campaigns with dramatic variation in each one. It has the support of numerous published adventures, settings and even spinoff games (Mutant Crawl Classic, for example.) However, the game often begins with what's called a "funnel" where every player starts off with 4 0-level characters. Each character has a character sheet, profession, randomly generated stats and a couple of rudimentary skills or items. They may survive, they will likely die. It's often more fun when they die.

      Each player will probably have at least one of their characters make it through the 0th level adventure--and that character becomes 1st level, and becomes significantly more survivable. Anybody who knows another gaming system will certainly get it, but people who don't understand gaming will also get it, because there's nothing to get other than "roll d20's, and try not to die."

    • Shadow of the Demon Lord is another game that is extremely rich and well supported by backup materials. However, my first experience with it was "Here's the 400 page rulebook. Make a character." which is the fastest way to turn me off to a game. Except that I followed the 6 or so step process, laid out with tables and tie-ins to my character sheet, and in 10 or 15 minutes I had a fully fleshed-out character that was completely different than everybody else's.

      The initiative mechanics, to-hit mechanics and variety of skill and attack/defense options of SoDL are all straightfoward, and so for a "new" player to the game, I found it really approachable, and feel that it would be a solid choice to start people off.

    A clear and natural path

    This is an obvious but important final step. Getting someone to step through a portal is easy. And they may even enjoy it on the other side. The next step is to give people a reason to keep going, once they have stepped through. If there's a new person at the table, especially if they haven't played before, follow up with them. Did they have a good time? Was there anything they didn't get? Did they feel that they got to participate? 

    In addition to feedback...invite them back. If it's a one-off tell them when the next one-off is, and/or make it clear you'd love to have them back. If it's an ongoing game, tell them that you'd love for them to come back. Especially let them know that their novice status is not something to worry about. We were all novices once.

    Finally, let them know that first-time play doesn't have to set the tone for the game. Let them throw away their character and try something different. Maybe they were a mage, and the magic mechanics were a bit too much to keep track of for a first time player. Let them try something else next time. Maybe they thought somebody else's mechanics were more interesting, or they just didn't have the skills that seemed useful or fun for their desired style of play. Let them re-spec their character to be more like what they'd want.

    In short...given them a reason to keep going and let them know that safe fun awaits them on the journey.

    To bring this to a close, I have a rule at GenCon that I attend at least two sessions of games that I've never played before. This expands my view of what's out there, what people are doing to further gaming, and to see what settings and mechanics are there. But also, one of the things I'm always watching is how the GM introduces their game, and not judgmentally. Rather, I run a fair amount of demos, and am always looking for better ways to get people playing quickly, while still understanding the setting and mechanics well enough that they don't feel lost. And that is a skill I need to always try to improve, whether it is running a rules-lite game or a more complicated games that a friend wants to try.

    The game system we are playing is certainly a key element to people enjoying themselves, as is the story, and the other players. But ultimately, as the demoing GM, I know that I am the main guide to everything on the other side of that gateway, and for my love of the hobby, and my enjoyment of watching other people have fun, I want to do anything I can to make these new visitors to the RPG realm excited and interested to stay on this side of the portal.

    About Today's Art

    Today's header art comes from Iwona Sibeijn, of the Netherlands. She goes by the name yv on her DeviantArt page and is a fantastic creator of both digitally enhanced photographs and surreal art. In the course of perusing her art, I found at least three pieces that probably fit my essay better, but they either didn't actually have a portal, or they were a bit dark for the fairly light theme. Even so, I was very impressed by the quality of her work, and marked her as a favorite on DeviantArt.

    As for why I chose this piece, my essay today was about gateway games, and how they encourage people to enter the hobby. This piece shows a dark skied landscape, with an arch and a sunny but surreal view of the same landscape on the other side. It made me wonder what it would feel like to enter that portal--natural? uncomfortable? What would going "forward" look like? But also, if I traveled a bit, and looked back from the other side, would the craggy landscape of this side look flat, featureless and uninviting, or would I prefer to go back through?



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