A table-top role-playing game is probably one of the least usable gaming artifacts that I know of, with the possible exception of that thing PlayStation did with movement, or maybe the Kinect for non-English speakers who were women with an accent.
I’m being a bit snarky. I feel I have deserved it. To give you some idea of what I’m talking about I’ve reviewed about 300 – 600 TTRPGs in my day. I started in 2005 for the Swedish gaming magazine Fenix.
Because I am a woman, and because I will get called out and totally trashed for any errors (or heaven forbid opinions) in my reviews 1 I usually play the games I review to find issues, but I also do benchmark tests.
How long does it take to make a character? How hard is it? What are the most important mechanics? How long do they take to learn? What do I need to know of the game world? How difficult or easy is the language?
What I’ve found is that usability is lacking.
Most games require the rules to be easily referenced, and running text has never been that great as reference. Some of the game world can be structured more as a story, but again, running text and references don’t really work very well.
Sure, I like a cool layout just as much as anyone, but not when it makes it more difficult to read. Delight shouldn’t trump usability, but all too often it does.
In addition, not all authors/ designers are very good writers. The mechanics may be super cool, the world amazing, but if your language puts me to sleep or makes me scratch my head in confusion, it doesn’t really matter how unique the idea is.
Role-playing games have developed since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson made their first version of Dungeons & Dragons, but the format has not. We still use books, for the most part. We’ve played around loosely with other formats but nothing has stuck. D&D still has one of the worst indexing systems and players and GMs are expected to read massive amounts of text and in some cases learn math formulas and roll in tables to determine what happens in the game. Character sheets resemble tax forms.
I’m convinced these things can change. Being a UX designer I would love to do a proper problem statement and design pass on role-playing games, not as books, but as artifacts with a specific purpose.
Don’t get me wrong. I love books. I just think there must be a better way to structure them that is adapted to the game form.
Just as I wrote this, the news of D&D One (or whatever it will be called) dropped, which as far as I understand it is an attempt at TTRPGs as a service, something digital games are leaning towards.
While I get that this is probably a better business model, it still doesn’t change the fact that D&D and D&D Beyond today isn’t exactly usable, and that the massive amount of text that is the corpus of D&D probably won’t be much easier to navigate.
The things that do get easier with an online version of a TTRPG are of course the things associated with calculations and math formulas, such as character sheets.
D&D is however in a position many other companies and individual creators are not. There is a huge user base and a huge audience for D&D. They can afford doing something like this.
For my part playing a physical game with a digital component has never been a favourite, even though in all honesty, it has allowed me to keep playing with some of my friends I would otherwise not have been able to play with.
Not everyone who designs games know how to create online companions either, so the D&D route is only one solution to the problem.
The issue remains. If we have a pen and paper/ book interface, how do we make it usable and also accessible?
- It’s happened more than once. The two most memorable occasions were when I reviewed Cthulhu Tech and a Swedish adventure called Mörkret vid stigens slut. The first one bagged me several pages in a forum thread where the people involved called me an idiot, stupid, rabid fan girl, uneducated, unaware of what TTRPGs were together with a few other choice epitaphs, none of them very flattering. I was also not allowed to discuss the reasoning behind the review, because – and I sorta quote – it had already gone to print, so I “couldn’t take it back”. There were some who said they were friends of the authors, and despite admitting that they hadn’t read or played the game, they absolutely knew I was wrong. The second incident triggered a tough baby reaction where I was apparently out to get anyone who used stereotypes of women, and I was also a rabid feminist with a vendetta. It earned me the nickname feminist armoured fist.