Back in the day, Betty Crocker rolled onto the market with mixes for making cakes and such. More women were working and there was less time available. The idea was to make it easier to make real home baked food with less time and effort. It was a good idea, and Betty Crocker did a number of really clever things with chemistry – all you needed to do was combine the mix and water then bake.
It failed miserably.
So Betty Crocker sat down and did some serious market research, and they discovered something. Women weren’t using the mixes because it was too easy – it felt like cheating. So Betty Crocker went back to the lab and changed the formula to remove the egg component so the cook needed to add an egg of her own. That was enough to make it feel “home made” and it was a tremendous success.
I mention this because this speaks to a lesson that’s useful for a lot of products: if you “leave out the egg”, which is to say create an opportunity for the user to invest a little bit of effort to make a product their own, they’ll be more invested in it, and more enthusiastic.
In turn, I bring this up because it seems to me that one of the most contentious elements of the Dragon Age RPG is something of an egg left out.
The issue at hand is random character creation. The DARPG creates stats in a decidedly old-school fashion – you roll 3d6 for each of 8 stats, and the sole concession to customization is that you get to swap two stats. The immediate reaction to this is usually a pretty straightforward “What the hell? Is it 1985?” and that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Random stat generation is an idea that’s been pretty much set aside in favor of more player choice for a very long time.
The reasons for this are obvious – if stats are important and impactful, you can create a situation where a player with bad luck ends up with a character that’s not much fun to play when compared to his friend who rolled much better. AD&D was a really bad experience for a lot of us who got exposed to the difference between a fighter with a 12 strength and one with an 18/00, and it really soured people on the whole idea. After all, a lot of game design is fixing the problems you had with the last game you played.
There are some real problems with randomly generating stats or other character elements, but it has some real advantages that have been set aside along with the limitations. A random spread of stats has some of the advantages of an oracle – it can suggest ideas and patterns that would not otherwise be obvious. This idea of “what do you do with what you have?” is a tonal one in addition to a mechanical one – less badass but perhaps more heroic depending on perspective. That idea is a potent enough one that a lot of work has been put in over the years to try to capture this part of randomization without risking the flaws.
Random creation is also very quick – spending points requires a number of decisions that depend upon further knowledge of the system to do right. That can be something of a drag, and can end up putting the cart before the horse. It’s often the first decision of the game, so you don’t want to make it a painful one. The randomization also tends to produce more organic spreads – point buys tend to result in all-or-nothing spikes.
Now, this is not an assertion that randomization is the only way to go. There are a lot of other ways to approach it. But I did want to lay out that it’s not as crazy an idea as it might first appear. Most specifically, these benefits sync up with the goals of a game for newbies, notably simplified choices and speed of play.
That’s all well and good, but here’s the thing that struck me during yesterday’s discussion. There are a lot of ways to address the issues of randomness – 4d6 and drop one, roll 12 and keep the best 8, roll then sort; the list is endless and has been kicked around for decades. It would take maybe a sentence or two to mention these options, so the choice not to do so is an interesting one.
And this is where I come back to eggs. To leave out the egg from an RPG, it needs to be something that is obvious and trivial to address. Certainly, every RPG has a certain amount of egglessness – house rules are our bread and butter – but it is a little bit trickier to put in something that is (for lack of a better term) blatantly trivial. If you can do so, especially for someone with very little experience with games, then it can be a real win because it makes the first step much less scary, Once they’ve made the obvious house rule, they’ve crossed an invisible threshold into a sense of ownership of the game.
The rules for generating stats feel like an egg left out. There are so many possible ways to address it if you feel it’s a problem that it seems like a gimmee. It’s easy to see and easy to make he change without disrupting the rest of the game in any way.
The thing I’m left wondering is whether or not it was intentional. If it was accidental, then it’s a lucky thing, but if it was intentional, then it’s freaking brilliant. And if it was intentional, then man, I am going to find a way to buy Chris Pramas a drink, because that is some badass ninja stuff.
I am, by the way, entirely aware that I’m taking a very positive (and somewhat quirky) perspective on the Dragon Age RPG, and some of it absolutely hinges on a certain amount of hope regarding what’s still coming. My predictions and expectations could be totally wrong, and even if they’re right, the whole game could crash and burn for unrelated reasons. I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that others aren’t going to share that perspective, so objections and counterpoints are welcome, but I’m likely to stick with my optimism for the time being.
1 – One alternate example is equitable randomness, where the randomness determines which good thing you get, rather than whether or not you get a good thing. REIGN chargen is based entirely on this model, and the DARPG uses it for the bonuses you get from your backgrounds.
2 – Now, here I make a brief aside. This is an obvious omission, and it’s one of many obvious omissions in the game. You can tell they’re obvious omissions because the reader’s first instinct is to think “Why didn’t they include THIS?”. With that in mind, take a look at the credits page for the game – this is a pretty good list of folks with some serious stuff under their belt, and it’s safe to say that they thought of most of these things, but they made the conscious (and ballsy) decision not to do so. Paring things down to 64 pages required resisting the completist urge of game design, and that’s not an easy thing. It would have been easy to do this all in a standard 256 page full color hardcover, and that probably would have been a very good game with moderate commercial success, but it would have been just like any other game out there. The risks involved in the design are the risks necessary for this game to maybe make the jump to broader adoption.
3 – This flies in the face of the school of thought that says rules should be complete and that if they require house ruling, then they’re bad rules. That’s all well and good for pure design, but house ruling is engaging, and the power of that should not be underestimated.
4 – And, hey, on the off chance that I do get an answer from Chris, I have one more question: is it a real box? Please please please tell me it’s a real box.
EDIT – One last bit of credit where it’s due. The Betty Crocker story is from a fantastic book called “Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America” by Laura Shapiro. It’s one of those books like Pollan’s Botany of Desire which is about one thing, but is really about a number of other very interesting things. Well worth a read.