So WotC have announced a new version of the Red Box starter set, to much excitement. As expected it’s reignited a lot of chatter about intro sets and about getting new blood into the hobby. I was pondering my take on the whole thing when a line of thinking started taking shape. That thought starts with a radical proposition. Why don’t RPGs cut out the whole character generation element?
Think about it. There’s always a lot of space devoted to it in every book. Hell, WotC themselves have managed to make players buy entire book ranges just for their characters. As I almost always DM I don’t need that stuff much myself, but that’s not the point. The point is, just how much of an obstacle is chargen to the potential gamer? I think it might be quite large. My very first AD&D session,I was given a copy of the PHB and some dice and told to generate a characer while the others carried on playing. I managed, just, and returned with a Paladin. (That was the first time I’d even seen that word!) There are very, very few games where so much prep is front loaded into the game experience. If you don’t have a character, you can’t play, end of story. People often talk about the amount of rules being the challenge to new blood, so why not cut away huge swathes of those rules, by doing away with everything needed to make your own character?
That doesn’t mean no characters at all, obviously. What it means is pregens, a solution already available and widely used for one shots and Con games. Imagine an RPG with 10 character sheets, all plotted out for you, and nothing left to do but pick one, a bit like Arkham Horror, or Monopoly. In fact, imagine your copy of the PHB with everything taken out that isn’t directly pertinent to the character you are playing right now. Pretty slim book now, right? Now imagine what you could do with the rest of that empty space. I submit that what you do is fill it with adventure, and call out the rules as they are needed just for that scenario.
It’s not that crazy an idea. Advanced Fighting Fantasy got close to it in the 80s, and then there’s West End games’ Star Wars with pioneered the use of templates. Even they had to bend to percieved wisdom that people would want to create their own characters, and advance them. We’ve all bought into that idea and, like many elements of RPG design, maybe we still do it just because OD&D did it first.
Some players just don’t want the bother of chargen. I contend that the vast majority of new gamers would prefer to have someone else take care of chargen for them for their very first game. In fact, they might expect to be handed their ‘playing piece’ fully formed from the off. I know I would if I were to sit down to a new game. And that’s when I got to thinking about How To Host a Murder Mystery games. They come in boxes, they have nice props, they are one shots, and they have the characters all written out for you. You can customise your character with costume and personality (ie roleplaying) but you certainly are not expected to roll it up, let alone use a complex application on your laptop.
These Host games are big business, and they’ve gone a long way towards making roleplaying mainstream (though I’m sure it’s adherents wouldn’t categorise themselves as roleplayers, or even gamers). Perhaps we should look to those sort of boxed games when we consider getting RPGs into book and toy stores? They don’t have huge replay value, yet that is made up for by tthe range available. They’re not cheap either, proving that price point isn’t necessarily the barrier some think it is. They have good production qualities, which WotC can certainly match. And they make it easy to get involved. That’s where RPGs need to go.
Of course, the yardstick for gamers is BECMI, the set of basic D&D box sets from the 80s that really brought D&D into the public arena, and for many many of us, was our first forray into RPGs. What I’d take from them is the notion of an entire series of boxes, that together form a gaming library to pick from depending on taste. Each box would have 5 characters (and maybe a couple of alternates), all done and ready to play, and an adventure for them, made up of a few 4 hour sessions. There would be loads of kit too, from dice to handouts to soundtracks. The rules would be for the DM, and they’d be introduced only as needed. This is a bit like the solo adventure in the Mentzer red box, but for the whole group. Other boxes in the line would have different characters, and different scenarions, just like the Host model. In fact, go mad and have genre boxes, sci fi, 20s, supers, whatever you like.
The next crazy idea, there’s no advancement. None. You don’t gain levels, or hit points, or go shopping for new kit. None of that at all. Again, think of the space saved. Items would be collected in the scenarios, no other way. Imagine your copy of Adventurers Vault with only the items you possess right now in it. 2 pages right? Instead of all that you just pitch the adventures at levels of complexity, and you do it by tier. No more basic and Advanced versions, instead we have geroic, Paragon and Epic. Yep, 3 levels of play, 3 types of experience. You could have a whole run of Heroic boxes (no levels remember?) with different parties, and different challenges. Then a colour coded set of Paragon boxed adventures, with a suitable focus on large scale actions. Then Epic, with mad plane hopping dimension saving antics. essentially, I’m after the starter set nature of Keep on the Shadowfell, extended into all the other modules. Imagine if the 3 cores had never come out? All you have is the quick rules in Keep and those 6 PCs? Then along comes Thunderspire, with 6 different PCS and a whole new adventure. Continue ad infinitum, but without having to laboriously climb any levels.
Madness? Maybe. It certainly flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But then again, how’s that wisdom working out for ya?