The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Monday 7 July 2014

Why do Commercial RPGs Fail?

There’s a pretty short list, really.  Avoid those and you will avoid most of the pitfalls that can keep your game from being a success:

1. Lack of Promotion: Before getting into anything about the writing or content of the RPG itself, this is the single biggest reason why an RPG would fail. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written a masterpiece; if no one knows your RPG exists, then it will fail. Make sure everyone does, and even a mediocre RPG stands a chance of doing well.
Ironically, this is one of the areas where many would-be writers fail to pay proper attention; they discount the whole concept as though “if you build it, they will come” was the only guideline they needed. 

2. Unclear Writing: the game might be full of potential greatness, but if no one can actually make sense of what you’re saying, you’re fucked. Get an editor.

3. Too Much Front-end Commitment: if you have to memorize 10000 words of jargon, or remember that some stupid word with no vowels in it is what they use instead of “shield” in the game setting, or in some other way have to learn massive amounts of stuff UP FRONT, from the beginning, that relates only to your game, odds are most people won’t bother.

4. The System Sucks:  Of course, system is one of those things that falls on a spectrum: you say “GURPS” and one gamer might get wood at the thought of all that delicious point-buy and pseudo-realism, while another might cringe.  But there’s that, and then there’s systems that just suck.  If you have to do quadratic equations to play your game, or if you are missing a certain table vital to determining outcomes of most battles, or if there’s a low-level spell in your game that basically makes the entire party invulnerable forever, then you’ve got a system that just plain sucks ass.  Some people resolve this through playtesting; I think its important besides that to have a “mechanics editor”, someone apart from the regular editor (the guy who makes sure you don’t have the aforementioned crap writing), that specializes in understanding how games work.  Your regular editor need not be that (shit, it could be someone who’s never played a game in their life), but your “mechanics editor” should be a guy who can look at something you just wrote and explain “that means that in your game nobody could ever have a high enough skill to  successfully drive at speeds above 30km/hr”, or whatnot.

And finally:
5. Pretentiousness & “Too Weird to Live”: Both of these are categories of things that, one must admit, have had successful games.  Of course, they’ve had far more utter failures.  Generally speaking, the pretentious games that succeeded were ones that were not derivative of existing pretentious games.  The whole point of a game full of pretentiousness is to make its reader feel like they’re special just for “getting it”; if you are doing something that is an obvious cheap copy of an existing Pretentious work, you’ll never get there.  Consider how Vampire spawned an entire brood of copycat “dark”, “gothy”, "edgy", “storytelling”, “deep” games (i.e., 50 metric fucktons of bullshit), none of which anyone remembers today.

As for just-plain-weird games, their problem is that they’re weird.  That makes it hard for people to get the point of them, and odds are they’ll fail.  Bizarre settings that have no obvious sense of cultural connection to anything we know tend to be pretty hard to roleplay in.  Your best shot in these cases is to try to make your writing as clear as possible, do massive amounts of promotion in the hopes of finding someone who digs your endless cultural essays on “the tgunslanttrhru rituals of the Ksaltohyanu”, and pray that said 'someone' creates a small band of obsessive fanatics who’ll buy everything you write, guaranteeing a tiny but loyal customer-base. 


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Poker + Stockebbye’s Bull’s Eye Flake

(reposted April 26, 2013; from the old blog)


  1. Thanks for the post... questions come to mind - how to promote an RPG successfully? What venues would you recommend? What kind of promotions have been the most successful? That sort of information would certainly help.

  2. Those are all good questions; they might have to be the subject of a future blog post.

    1. Great... having a reference guide on RPG Promotion Best Practices would be enormously helpful to would-be RPG publishers, to be sure! So thanks in advance! I absolutely look forward to reading it!

    2. Just thought I'd check in and throw the dice on cajoling you into posting on this topic! ;) I'm really interested in your observations and suggestions on this. Thanks!

  3. Why do Commercial RPGs Succeed?

    1) Usability out of the box. You take the book, read it cover to cover, and can start an actual game with people around an actual table. Good products, especially good "big" products (i.e. rulesets and settings), should always include a starter adventure with pre-generated PCs so that the book would be of immediate use to any group. This is the reason old-school D&D boxed sets always came with a pre-packaged adventure.

    2) Editing and proofreading. Significant errata kills games. The game should be perfectly playable at its first printing, with no need for looking for errata online due to missing tables and similar screw-ups. Both old-school D&D and Traveller could be played out of the box without needing much errata.

    3) Focus on actual play. An RPG is a *GAME* first, anything else second. Mechanics should facilitate play. Fluff should be limited to what is useful in play. Setting histories of over 2-3 pages rarely figure in play, especially if they come in the first product in the line. Old-school D&D and Traveller, for example, came with VERY little fluff, yet were highly successful, as they were focused on play. In my Outer Veil setting for Traveller, for example, there are about 2 pages of setting history; and most other setting material is game-relevant (a few paragraphs on things such as culture, politics, etc with some hooks); flavour text is usually a paragraph or two at most at the beginning of each chapter.

    4) Art and layout. Too much text with no art is painful on the eye. Tasteful stock art will do. Custom art conveying the feel of the setting is better. D&D always had art, especially in later editions.

    5) Aiming at the casual player. Most people who play RPGs are not the big enthusiasts, but rather people who play every 1-2 weeks for 3-5 hours each time over beer and pretzels (or Mountain Dew and pizza). They want a game which is easy to understand and use, requires little commitment, and which is fun from the get-go. Generally speaking, for the casual gamer, simple rules and quick chargen are preferable. The casual GM/DM/Referee/Judge, i.e. one with limited time to devote to the hobby, needs a game for which it is VERY easy to prep adventures. Old-school boxed-set D&D, or Classic Traveller fit this to a T.

    And, the most important -

    6) Aim towards subjects and themes with a broad appeal. A lot of people dig faux-Tolkien fantasy, for example, and thus D&D appeals to them thematically. Traveller appealed very much to all Battlestar Galactica, Alien and Star Wars fans. Being unique and "original" can be bad for your game - it is generally better to take a common, even cliche, theme and build a good game around it than re-invent the wheel around something too focused.

    1. Posted the above on my blog as well, with link and credit to the Pundit, of course:

  4. I cannot understand what you actually *do* in that game - so much text, no elevator pitch, no clear concept.

  5. I don't know either. That's why I pointed it out. I actually think that is an example of the kind of game that The RPGPundit rallies again, but probably in it's worse form.

    At least with some of the story games or Nobillis or other games he complains about you have a clear idea about what the game is about. The idea may be stupid, but at least you have an idea. This game, I wouldn't know what to do with it.

    And it scares me how way far past the goal it went.

  6. Kickstarter: "What would you wish for?"

    Me: "A decent game that I know what the hell I am doing."

    Sorry, but I just watch the video of that kickstarter. Holy shit man. A storytelling game that is built on invoking emotions. Clearly not my cup of tea as I love to punish dumb players too much.

  7. I didn't even see there was a video. I saw the kickstarter and the page and that alone gave me a headache. I don't want to think about what the video contains