An RPG thought that's been bouncing around my head for awhile now

One of the… I'm going to say "dependencies for enjoyment" in many – I might even say "most" RPGs I've run (or run into) in the last few years is a deep knowledge of the genre — not just the genre for the setting, but the RPG genre of the game in question.

So… like this: once upon a time, all you really needed to know when starting to play D&D was "there's magic, no guns, and weird monsters." Same was true, basically, for Traveller or whatever.

Maybe that's still true for 5e versions of those games. Probably is. Anyway.

But there are a WHOLE BUNCH of games/settings out there now that drop a tremendous amount of signal when trying to reach a new gamer, because that new gamer doesn't have the decades of previous gaming exposure that informs the game designer's decisions for a game.

Dungeon World, for example, is fun, and it works with new players, but it doesn't work as well – there just isn't as much there – for the gamer who never played the old versions of D&D DW is reflecting. Ditto Black Hack or whatever.

Same thing is true for genre mashups: Steampunk Planetary Romance isn't inherently cool or interesting as a concept if the person you're sharing it with isn't familiar with the "pure" components of that salad, you know? It's just weird sci-fi with wood ships and a lot of brass and goggles. It might work for the player, but it won't work for the intended/expected reasons.

Masters of Umdaar is phenomenally boring not especially compelling if you didn't grow up on the right cartoons, you know?

I run into this constantly when playing with my kids – lots of stuff I find interesting/entertaining… until I realize that for all intents and purposes, my kids just don't Get the Joke.

First, I need to run the original games everyone's ironically riffing off of, before we can get to the new stuff, or it's not a nuanced re-envisioning for them. It's just… weird and kind of confusing.

When I run a game that doesn't have that problem, it's almost always something only trying to be itself.


  1. Established properties and worlds are big deals. I find there's three ways to deal with not using an world everyone is familiar with:

    – Link it to a book/movie/etc world. Use media touchstones to describe the world. "It's like Mad Max" or "It's basically the world of Wicked+Divine"

    – Create it from scratch with all players involved. Diaspora does this. It's how I started my Uncharted Worlds game too – we all create worlds and factions together during the first session, then everyone is on the same page.

    – Generate it randomly with tables and charts. This is what OSR sandbox folk seem to do. Everyone is on the same information level and has the same questions, even the GM.

  2. I've been having the same thought for a while now as well.

    Also: good point about the difference between the fictional genres these games are based on, and the meta-genre these games themselves necessarily create.

  3. John Harper the tRPG designer said the game experience is like a conversation, where it's pointless if we're not interested in what the other people at the table have to say about the subject(s) in play. This is true if the players are not bought in to the GM's or the rulebook's prepared world, or if the GM isn't bought in on players' contribution to the story. If it's a matter of not having shared media reference, as long as we check in with each other about whether we're understanding each other, it doesn't matter how deeply knowledgeable we are of a certain reference. I think that's why we tend not to care about other people's games, because we weren't in on that conversation, and it takes investment to get caught up.

  4. This is why I play Minecraft D&D with the kids. I started DMing it, but my daughter took the reins the second session and it's hers now.

  5. So much of most creative media runs into the same issue. One reason I've run my daughter through a lot of black and white and 1950s-60s color movies is because later movies and TV shows and novels are harder to get into without those cultural referents.

    Or, turned around, I was thrilled to find my daughter's lit class is currently going through (selected cantos of) Dante's Inferno, because now I can recommend Niven and Pournelle's Inferno to her, and she'll get the basic structure. (She also knows enough of fandom, and SF, and currentish events to get a lot of the other things that N&P are riffing off of).

    In turn, she's brought into reading Dante later stuff she's read (like the Remy Chandler novels) about angels and the like.

    I tend to be as sensitive to this sort of thing as I am about spoilers :-), to the extent that I not infreqently either give a prologue before a movie to explain its context or cultural referent prequisites, or pause mid-movie to explain things so that she (or my wife) "get the joke."

    They are extraordinarily patient with me.

  6. i had the exact opposite experience with DW: it only seems fun if you didn't play old D&D, or if you did but it wasn't fun for you. Otherwise you're picking eye type and your name off a list and wondering why you're being subjected to this

  7. I had a different sort of experience with DW. For me, I didn't have anything particular negative going on with Dungeons & Dragons, while I'm certainly familiar with it. I just happen to really like the 2d6 complete/mixed success/ failure results, (and generally dig into ptba stuff because of that more than anything else, which some folks will say isn't even the ptba correct "thing." Okay.)

    The thing I run into with my kids is a game aimed at "delivering a D&D experience" (or whatever) is a concept that they simply don't have as a reference point, so it is doing something they don't recognize.

    FANTASY they get, but say DNDesque they don't, so if that's a big deal/goal with a game, they won't care.

  8. +Dave Hill I've run into that over and over. Games, movies, shows…

    I want to watch Stranger Things with Kaylee, for example, but I'm not sure if she'll actually like it. I think it's great, but how much of that 'good' is composed of dog-whistles only I and other 70s/80s kids can hear?

    How can I even evaluate that?

  9. Maybe her different perspective can give you a new appreciation of the show. She can still later "catch up" and arrive at your position from a different direction. 🙂

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