Role-Playing Games Designed for Busy, Adult Gamers

June 22, 2009 | | Comments 15

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

Filed Under: Role-Playing


About the Author: 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.