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Wednesday 29 June 2016

Classic Rant: Why RPGs Fail

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 it's 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 someone creates a small band of obsessive fanatics who'll buy everything you write, guaranteeing a tiny but loyal customer-base. 


(Originally Posted June 20, 2011)


  1. My response to this latest post on the RPGPundit site:

    As I'm designing Æthercoil, I want to make steps to make this RPG setting successful. Therefore, I'm looking at posts like this to keep this setting from becoming another list of failures in my life. I'll be looking at this list part by part to see what needs help or not.

    Before I go, a one-paragraph description of Æthercoil for reference's sake:

    At the surface, Æthercoil seems like a OSR take on the movie "Shrek," where every fairy tale has combined into a single world, where the fairy tale characters resemble what Walt Disney would come up with if he did the movie, "Sucker Punch." However, below the surface you find that, instead of an old-time world, Æthercoil is really a post-apocalyptic realm, where the OSR world is built over the downfall of the Modern World. Some remnants of this Modern World remains in Æthercoil, but most of it is hidden in caves, castles, towers, ruins, and other places of adventure. It is the goal of the PCs in Æthercoil is to find these relics of a by-gone era and restore them to their proper place in the world.

    Now, with that paragraph, let's go down the list:

    _Point 1: Lack of Promotion_

    This is something I have no problem with: I intend to promote Æthercoil as much as I can, especially with the Magazine I'm making.

    _Point 2: Unclear Writing_

    However, this point will be the biggest problem with me. Even with the use of Microsoft Word and Ginger graphic checkers, there's still going to have a lot of typos, grammatical errors, and other mistakes. I'd look for proofreaders but the only response I got for this request is a demand that I go back to remedial school and post the homework on DeviantART. Swear to God, that's a real response. Small wonder why I left that site.

    (How can I be functionally illiterate? I'm typing in English, am I?)

    This doesn't mean that I don't appreciate a proofreading or two. I might not have money, but I'll put you in the credits. (It's the most I can do at this point.)

    _Point 3: Too much front-end commitment_

    Outside of some keywords, coding-based writing constructs, and a footnote or two explaining some thigns, I keep my writing to as basic and readable as I could. Most of the preparation of an Æthercoil campaign is printing out a material file and cutting out the cards, notes, handouts, and maps. Otherwise, the campaign is very easy to pick up.

    _Point 4: The Systen Sucks_

    I got that beaten. Æthercoil is a Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition campaign setting. No need to reinvent the wheel if it works so well.

    _Point 5: Pretentious & "Too Weird to Live"_

    I do hope that I don't fall into this pitfall. After all, I am combining two differnet genres together that don't usually mix very often: OSR and Post-Apocalyptic settings. However, the familiarity with the setting material (a variant of a Shrek-like world) may help maters here. The only part of pretence I know of is how the Modern World fell; SJWs are mentioned as part of the cause. But compared with some of the Storytelling games that the RPG Pundit site railed against, this is pretty tame.

    That's my thoughts on the subject, but what say you?

    1. I'd say the title is a problem in itself. One, many folks are going to wonder about the "aether" instead of "ether," which just seems pretentious, let alone wtf does "aethercoil" even mean, especially if it's Disney Sucker punch Shrekworld...? An evocative title would be better.

    2. I'm continuing this discussion over at my Google Plus Page ( ) so I can help develop this campaign setting. My most recent post includes an attempt to replace the Disney Sucker Punch Shrekword idea that obviously doesn't fly.

      Thanks you for the feedback and hope to hear from you over at G+

  2. I think the premise of your game is weird enough that you are going to appeal to a limited audience as it is. It isn't "OSR and Post-apocalyptic setting" that is the problem, that's bread and butter for OSR games. It's that your world is disney/shrek like. The fact that you didn't seem to diagnose this doesn't bode well for you.

    At least you're using D&D, so that's a saving grace. If it had some ridiculous homebrew system instead, you'd be screwed.

    1. So you say that the Disney/Shreck bit that's the problem? Thank you for letting me know about this. :) Especially when I'm just starting out and not during the second draft of the campaign setting. I'll look into fixing this part to make it less weird. (I did want to have some fairy tale concepts in here, and toning it down some will be of some good, now that I'm aware of it.)

      This is why I posted this on this site. I appreciate a second pair of eyes looking into this finding things I might have missed, which is the rule, not the exception. The appreciation is doubled for criticizing the work and not me, which has been a problem.

    2. I agree with Pundit, the Disney/Shreck bit lost me.

  3. Fairy tale land in post apocalypse world....sounds like the Adventure Time tv cartoon...
    On the plus side that show has some dark themes and DnD references throughout.

  4. Awesome post, definitely food for thought. Are settings such as Dark Sun or Al Qadim to weird to live? They seem popular in niche and amongst nostalgia fakers, but during the day, they just were not played by that many groups AFAIK.

    1. I'll add Planescape to that list as well.

    2. From what I recall, Dark Sun was very popular when it first came out, just because it looked all badass, and you got to start at higher level, and whatever. But it lost its lustre very quickly.

      The other two were never hugely popular, though Planescape was probably an order of magnitude more popular than Al Qadim.