I am currently designing a new roleplaying game, with the working title of Universitas Magarum. It is a GM-less, co-operative roleplaying game, and, as one playtest group said, it is sufficiently different from those currently on the market to avoid the question of why you would play this game rather than something else. If you want to do what this game offers, this is your only option.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
This is not, in fact, at all surprising. The game is trying to do something new, so I had no way of knowing in advance what would work as a way of doing that. Experimental games, by their very nature, should normally fail. If they don’t, they aren’t really experimental. As a corollary to that, you shouldn’t actually publish and charge money for experimental games. The fact that they don’t work should be caught in playtesting.
As usual, there were contradictory comments from the playtesters. One group even managed to contradict themselves: they said both “this wasn’t much fun” and “it felt like a maths lesson”. (Hmmm, maybe they didn’t think those were contradictory.) Still, there was a lot of agreement.
First, everyone liked the setting material and the concept of the game. This is a great relief.
Second, no-one really liked the mechanics. They need significant work.
Some of the problems are fundamentally minor; the presentation and explanation of the rules needs to be clarified. Looking at the playtest reports, nearly everyone basically understood how to do it, but it wasn’t as easy as it should have been, and some people had minor misunderstandings. Given that almost every RPG has frequently asked questions about the rules and common misunderstandings, this really doesn’t worry me at this stage. These problems can be fixed.
Some other problems were artefacts of the playtest situation. That is, they wouldn’t arise in the full game, and couldn’t be addressed within the playtest. Most of the time, the playtesters realised this and were just noting it, but sometimes it wasn’t obvious. These problems should be fixable, but it’s a bit less certain than it is with the presentation problems.
However, there were also serious problems, and I think that they were all variants of one central problem: for many people, the roleplaying did not tie into the rules, and thus the rules did not engage their interest. This is not a new problem for RPGs; I remember many articles telling you to do more than say “I swing at it” when roleplaying combat. Of course, in many games, roleplaying that made no difference at all to the outcome, but game design has moved on.
This is a little disappointing, because an important part of the design was ensuring that character decisions made a mechanical difference, and that there were always multiple sensible options to choose, so that the players wouldn’t feel as though they were just following a script, with no real choices. On the other hand, one comment that cropped up a couple of times was that it felt more like a card game or Euro board game than a roleplaying game. That could be taken to indicate that there were meaningful choices, but that they didn’t seem to lock onto the roleplaying.
I can see how that could happen, so I’m going to take a look at ways to fix it. Fixing this problem is my main goal for the next iteration, ideally clarifying the presentation along the way. However, the fact that I’m going to be revising the rules as well will slow down the clarification somewhat. Maybe I’ll have to shoot for “confusing but fun” next time, and try to get rid of “confusing” on the following cycle.
Lots of work still to do, but I think I might be able to solve the problems.