Friday, 17 June 2011

What makes a bad convention roleplaying game?

For me, this question is just as revealing as its opposite. When I put the survey together for what made a good game I also asked what made a game bad.

I had a sneaking suspicion that there would be a different set of elements mentioned for a bad game (not merely the opposite of those elements which make up a good game). It turned out I was sort of right and sort of wrong.

The question I asked was:
From con games you have played in the past couple of years (up to four years ago), have a think about three games you came out of thinking that they had been really bad.
What struck you in particular about why those games were so bad?
In doing analysis on this one, it got a bit tricky to classify what category a particular comment went under. For example there were a number of comments to the effect that the game was too linear. In the end I decided to put such comments under a general category of players didn’t feel in control of the game. This was the top category of complaints about a game, but over in the good game elements, it was almost at the bottom of the ranking.

There were a number of variations within each category. I’ll quote many variations as I feel they are all indicative of specific areas to avoid.

Players didn’t feel in control of the game
  • Railroading (well, a game can be fun even if the actual storyline is linear, but it gets annoying when nothing you do makes a difference to anything)
  • The players were merely there to witness the "Awesomeness" of the GMPC who solved everything
  • Being Given Toys, and Not being able to use them: That is, getting a character that has a power/ability and never getting to use it. Why give it to me if it's not going to get used? eg. Being given a fighter character for a game that doesn't have any combat at all. This would be OK were the fighter capable of anything else.
  • Characters and setting were regularly played by GM, Co-GMs and friends, who were heavily invested in both the home and con games and thus had STRICT ideas on how they wanted events played out and characters interpreted
  • Game offered meaningless choices (in which players had no information to prioritise one option over another) and then repeatedly punished them for choosing wrongly.
Insufficient stuff to do
Given equal number of mentions as the one above were variations of the players having insufficient stuff to do. This was commonly referred to in freeforms, but also got a number of tabletop specific mention.

  • Directionless and static. Attempts to find the plot only delayed it still further.
  • Boring plot / lack of things to work with
  • The character had nothing to do in the session (freeform), and no motivation to talk with anyone other than her husband. I'm usually reasonable at making my own fun, but there's only so far one can ride on a one-shtick pony.
Poor GM
The next mostly commonly mentioned category was variations on poor GMing skills. While there is a lot a good GM need to do, staying away from the following is a good idea

  • Inflexible GM
  • GM was totally unprepared to run the game
  • No hints from GM when we got seriously stuck
Game not in preferred style
It turned out that while a good game is a game in a player’s preferred style, we are a fairly forgiving lot when we play a game not in our preferred style. It did get mentioned, but it was down further on the list

  • A tabletop where the plot was more important than the characters
  • Worst game was presented as a story/character heavy game and turned out to be two hours of dice rolling with no characterisation at all.
Poorly thought out characters
Characters were mentioned in both the good game and the bad game lists. For the poor quality games character sheet flaws were commonly mentioned.
  • Characters with no in-game motivation to undertake the adventure. No scope for roleplaying.
  • Unlikely characterization
  • Absence of character in the characters.

All of the above were reversals of the good game elements. In order of number of mentions, they were.
  1. Players didn’t feel in control of the game
  2. Insufficient stuff to do
  3. Poor GM
  4. Game not in preferred style
  5. Poorly thought out characters
For the good game list, they were there, but in a different order
  1. Game in preferred style
  2. Well structured premise
  3. Interesting characters
  4. A good GM
  5. Well paced game
  6. Props and multimedia
  7. Players felt in control
It turns out that there was no reversal of either a well paced game or props and multimedia. However, there were a number of categories which only appeared in the bad game responses.

Inappropriate content
The top of this list was inappropriate content. It turned out that players were unhappy with both explicit material, and material which should be explicit, but was watered down by the module writer.

  • Poorly thought-out and forced R-rated content
  • Writer's personal social/political views rammed down throat
  • The Corruption of Political Correctness: I've played several games that should have involved racism, sexist behaviour, or some other "bad" element, but PC gamers decide to ignore that element of the character. Can't blame the writers for this, but maybe writers need to craft their character sheets in a way that spells out these elements so that they can't be ignored, or have a warning on the characters during character selection: "if you select this character you will need to roleplay a strong ideological standpoint that may not align with your own. Are you comfortable playing a biggot?"

My ideas on overcoming this one would be to remember that players want to be entertained first and foremost. If the game creator wants to discuss a particular topic within the module, let players know both on the blurb and holding a pre-game briefing might help.

Unfamiliar system
The next one isn’t so easily overcome within a game. Players complained about games with an unfamiliar system, or a system in which they didn’t feel any certainty in. Three hours is simply insufficient time to get players used to a system (IMHO). But for these players, being comfortable with the system is a big part of their gaming experience.
  • Had what seemed to be a complicated system that I was unfamiliar with. I spent most of the session stressing over looking at charts and wondering if I'd missed some important clue because it was in a chart somewhere. Yes, I could ignore the system and let the GM figure it out for me, but it doesn't help me to feel *comfortable* in the game
  • Game featured neither clear nor consistent mechanics
Bad Players
This one isn’t really under the GM’s control, but was mentioned, so I include it here for completeness sake

  • Game where a couple of people acted against the interests of the group and the game.
  • Arrogant and rude players (game itself would probably have been good with better players).
The long tail
There were a couple of individually mentioned areas for specific games. As I think they are all good things to avoid, I’ll include them here:
  • Game was poorly paced and strongly encouraged a small group to split up and effectively have four solo games
  • Players were actively encouraged to compete lethally with each other in a game where collaboration was the only way to 'win'
  • No editing (15 page 'character sheet' or which only *four words* were relevant to my PC)
  • Games that climax based around one or two pcs only.
  • Failed to capture anything good in the genre and system - and there were lots of potentially good things in both! Basically took something I love and jumped on it until it died.
So, what are the elements which make up a bad convention roleplaying game?
  • Players didn’t feel in control of the game
  • Insufficient stuff to do
  • Poor GM
  • Game not in preferred style
  • Poorly thought out characters
  • Inappropriate content
  • Unfamiliar system
In project management, there is an idea about capturing lessons learnt in each project, so that as time goes on there is a whole library lessons available to those whoa re about to embark on a new project. While mouthing off with friends about an atrocious game might be somewhat carathic just after the experience, I would hope that the above list be consider as a lessons learnt document, rather than anything else.

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