The learning curve for a new role-playing game presents a constant drag on the quality of play. When does the fun start? It starts once you learn the rules. Why can’t we enjoy learning the rules? And the more complex the rules, the longer it takes to start having fun. Some of my favorite indie games I still don’t know how to play (Ben Lehman’s ‘Polaris’ comes to mind). Some I think I know how to play, but friends of mine tell me I don’t play them correctly yet (as my friend Joel tells me about Vincent Baker’s ‘In A Wicked Age’).
Something seriously needs attention here. Why do we assume that to learn a new role-playing game, we must drudge through the learning curve of a new system? I in fact hear players of some role-playing games say “I don’t want to play those indie games – I don’t want to have to learn a new rules system” (though they don’t bat an eye at learning to play new video games or card games).
This to me indicates that too little focus in indie role-playing game design has gone in to the pedagogy of play; meaning, how can we make sure players enjoy every step of learning the rules? How can we give them such bite-sized pieces that they never notice the medicine going down? Once they’ve mastered one rule, we go on to the next, and the next, and the next…
In fact, Evan Gardner’s language fluency game ‘Where Are Your Keys?’ works exactly like this; I think any highly player-friendly game works like this.
For some games, learning the complex rules counts as the price of admission. This makes sense in the right contexts.
But for story games, where we want to remove barriers to play, where we want them accessible by more kind of players in greater amounts, where we want to tell stories and storyjam with all kinds of folks who haven’t experienced it before – as indie game designers aiming for this new crowd, we need to start learning the pedagogy of play.
Oftentimes the gaming convention ‘demo rules’ version of story games makes them much more accessible and easy to play (above and beyond the fact that personal interaction makes them much more easily learnt). Problematically, I’ve bought games that I’ve played at a convention, gone home excited, and then couldn’t figure the rules out. So I see a need for an intentional step-by-step design to get a person from holding the game in their hands, to playing a fully complex version of the game.