Role-Playing Games Designed for Busy, Adult Gamers

I am a busy adult. I have a full-time job, a wife and all the things that associated with maintaining a modern household. I do not have children, but many gamers my age have some. All of this combines in a perfect storm to destroy my gaming opportunities.

It got me thinking about the underlying design of role-playing games. Board games designers take the age and demographic of their target audience into account when creating their game. “Candyland” is a great example of a game designed for small children, with few rules and lots of bright colors. Conversely, “Die Macher” is a very complex, board game simulation of the German electoral system that requires pages of instructions to get through each round.

Both are fun games for their respective demographics, but innapropriate to anyone else. This inspired me to take a harder look at role-playing designs and assumptions.

Most RPGs seem designed for 19-year-old students. This is not a scree about content or relative “maturity” of the game material, but an observation about the underlying assumptions of the designer.

First and most importantly,  RPGs assume an abundance of time, both for play and for GM preparation. Student have far more free time than adults. Even beyond school/work demands, most young people (under 25) are single. I cannot stress enough how much marriage cuts into your gaming time. Any gamer out there that married a fellow gamer, I do not want to hear about it. You make me green with envy ;-).

Even if you get the time issue sorted out, there is still the eternal issue of player recruitment. My experience indicates that the number of gamers that actively play RPGs drops precipitously after the age of 25. Far too many see the hobby as “juvenile” and move on to more “adult” activities. I disagree with this assessment, but that is the perception from others of my age group. Sadly, these same people think that deep discussions about the latest reality-show meltdown or “American Idol” is a more mature topic of discussion. I will take orc-slaying over Simon Cowell any day of the week.

Using these observations as a baseline, I came up with some ideas for an “mature gamer” role-playing game design.

Critical to my design is a the ability to run a fast game. The days of 4-hour combats is over for me. It is just too difficult to arrange a game and then spend the entire session running a single combat. This is actually the easiest requirement with many games having “fast” combat systems.

I also think a “pre-packaged” game session would help. Of course, modules exist for most games, but I was looking for something a bit more “ready.” Modules still require some study to run well so I was thinking about a more “flow-chart” style that could be run relatively cold, with minimal preparation time for the GM. Forget all the fancy maps and art that give the game “curb appeal” in a game store. I need a great plot, well-written text to read to the players and pre-generated characters. Think “Choose Your Own Adventure” for adults with miniatures.

Oh, all games should be completed in one session (2-4 hours). Nothing is worse than ending in a cliff-hanger and then not playing for three months after the GM has a baby. You can have a campaign, just each session is completely distinct and self-contained.

Complex rules are also out the door. Rules are always the main barrier to entry for new players(aside from the  “gaming is for nerds” stereotype), so the character sheet needs enough information on it to play the game. This allows you to recruit non-role-players to actually sit down for a few hours and play the game. Handing the new player a sheet and saying “this is all you need” is far better than the dictionary-like rulebooks that are so common.

When I started this post, content was not something I planned to talk about. However, content in game is a something a personal pet peeve, so I have to mention it. Most game content self-censors down to a “PG” rating to avoid bad press and maintain a place on family-friendly game store shelves. There are a few “adult” games, but I found most of them substituted excessive sex and extreme violence for complex plotting and tough moral quandaries that are hallmarks of more mature material. Tedious. I think of it as the difference between “Star Trek: Enterprise” and “Battlestar Galactica.” “Enterprise” used some gratuitous cleavage to make it an “edgy” sci-fi show. BSG had the heroes blowing up innocent people for the greater good, joining political death squads and occasionally committing suicide when the pain became too great. None of which is family friendly, but it was great drama. Adult RPGs should strive for the latter and not the former.

Perhaps I am dumbing the game down too much to meet time constraints, but I think the more mature gamers are an under-served demographic that might benefit from a new paradigm in tabletop role-playing game design.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

15 thoughts on “Role-Playing Games Designed for Busy, Adult Gamers

  • June 22, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Very interesting comments. I wonder if we will see such a RPG ?

  • June 22, 2009 at 9:54 am

    I think these games already exist. Barbarians of Lemuria is a perfect example of this, as is the German RPG Dungeonslayers. The 1PG RPGs like Jeff Mejia’s Broadsword are good examples of \RPGs for people with no time to prepare for gaming\ as well. Even something that seems complicated, like Chaosium’s BRP, is actually pretty simple and you can probably leave the majority of the rules \at the door\ and wing it without breaking the game.

    The sorts of criteria you’re talking about were just the things I was pondering when I set about thinking up design goals for my own proposed RPG; quick and simple character creation, rules streamlined to a minimum and always based off a core mechanic to keep the operations of the game similar no matter what you’re doing, and a high degree of modularity so that if you want to add or remove elements of the game, it’s not terribly difficult to do so. We’ll eventually see if I can pull it off, but you’re right – for anyone over 30, gaming time is a pretty precious commodity and you want a system that helps you maximize the time you’re investing.

  • June 22, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Might I suggest a free product I put out called “Adventuring Party!”.

    Its designed to be able to teach new players the game, make characters and an adventure, and then play through that adventure in about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes.

    you can get it from my site at,
    or from pen and paper games in the independant /small press games section.

    There is a sample adventure with the pdf and a second sample adventure for download.

    admitantly the game is simple, but it does fit the time constraints and it is proving popular to new gamers.

  • June 22, 2009 at 10:54 am

    So, Trask, how about taking a look at those funky indie games? Many of them are designed to be played with no preparation and in one-shots or few sessions of play. Most do not have long rules. Some are about tough moral issues.

  • June 22, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Allow me to corroborate your observations. As I’ve grown older, the games I’ve run have tended towards the following attributes:
    -Simpler (as little time to introduce the rules as possible/chargen)
    -Published adventures available (I always adapt, but don’t have time to always come up with my own)
    -Shorter adventures and episodic structure (like you say, keep it short and relevant, with few cliffhangers and a way out for characters not returning for the next adventure, i.e. sedentary vs. nomadic).

    As for content, I think there are “mature” games that cover the ground you talk about without resorting to gratuitous violence and sex. Unknown Armies and Over the Edge come to mind.

  • June 22, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    MY fear is that any attempt to make RPGs simpler and easier hurts the role-playing. Most articles I’ve read about speeding up game play (or in this case simplifying it) all revolve around combat. The idea is that if combat is faster you can fight more monsters more often on any given game night. But if you try to speed up the role-playing and character development you loose something vital to RPGs. I don’t have a solution to this problem; I’m just throwing my 2 cents into this discussion. If we can come up wit a way to speed up all aspects of the game I’d be very happy.

  • June 22, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I’m surprised there’s been no mention of Savage Worlds here. It’s a great lightwieght system that places all the emphasis on “action” style roleplaying without a 80lb crate of books to support it. 4E also can be fast, but that is only assuming everyone at the table knows the rules cold, and the GM sticks to somekind of turn time limit (I do, it’s 15 seconds or you lose your turn).

  • June 22, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I also want to suggest Savage Worlds; the only problem with it is that it’s different gaming philosophy might take some time getting used to. Once you get past that buffer, however, the game is quite fast with very little prep.

  • June 22, 2009 at 11:46 am


    Again, this very issue was one of the things that led us to the design of Untold – you can learn the rules in 35 mins. or less and create characters in seconds! 🙂

  • June 22, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Ameron; It was really surprising to see how fast events started unfolding in the game when combats are resolved in a roll or two (as opposed to an hour or two) and when everyone drives the game forward; GM does not hide things or create contrived plots, but rather presents a situation and lets players loose upon it.

    So, if you want a faster game, start actively revealing things to players and encourage them to take action.

  • June 22, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    @Ameron – we had the same fears, which is why we’ve built in roleplaying as PART of our core mechanics to play Untold. You can’t get away from it; after a while, the mechanics become transparent and all that leaves is tons of storytelling fun.

    But don’t take my word for it – see what other folks are saying about Untold here:

  • June 22, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    The method I employ combines the best game plots with the most streamlined rules. As GM, I get to enjoy mature storytelling gleaned from the resources, without waiting for the dice algebra. I did this to quicken some complex adventures from the erudite DELTA GREEN setting (normally CoC rules).

  • June 23, 2009 at 6:50 am

    Yes, simpler doesn’t mean simpler plots. We ARE talking about more mature storytelling after all. It’s about simplifying mechanics because time-challenged older gamers don’t have time to learn complex rules, and then to apply those rules inside a 3-4 hour game that should ideally have a beginning, middle and end.

    Reduce the number of overall fights in a story to those you might expect in an action movie and keep them as brisk, and you’ll have plenty of time for social interaction and getting to know the NPCs.

    Simplified rule-playing, not role-playing.

  • June 23, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    You don’t need to write a RPG (though you’re free to do so); all you need to do is step away from the main stream publishers and have a look. I can name, literally dozens, of indie RPGs that are:
    1) designed for adults
    2) have little to no prep
    3) are designed for single session or short-term campaigns
    4) require fewer than 4 players total.
    5) are rules “light” or easy to learn

    Some suggestions: InSpectres, Wilderness of Mirrors, In a Wicked Age, Primetime Adventures, 3:16, Dogs in the Vineyard, Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, Donjon, Zorcerer of Zo, Sorcerer, Grey Ranks, Houses of the Blooded, Mouse Guard, Spirit of the Century…. the list goes on and on.

  • June 23, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    This post is for you Trask:

    If you want to know anything about any of the games I’ve listed, just leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer questions – I’ve played and own almost all of the ones I’ve listed.

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