Some background before I dive into this specific opinion. I have reviewed games and more specifically TTRPGs since 2005 in the Swedish gaming magazine Fenix. To date I have written around 600 reviews, and more than half of those are of role-playing games.
I’m telling you this so that you won’t think that this opinion is based on a bunch of arbitrary games that I may or may not have read.
In addition to that, I’ve sort of slipped into collecting TTRPGs, which means that I have around 900 RPG books in my shelves.
What I mean when I say that many TTRPGs are unplayable isn’t that they can’t be played from a game mechanics perspective. Some TTRPGs are unplayable from this perspective as well of course, but that’s not nearly as common as TTRPGs being unplayable due to the game world being devoid of interesting adventure hooks.
If the game world is too complete or too lacking in details the GM has very few options to develop a story or a campaign.
A Lack of Meta Game
This is not strictly necessary to create an interesting world or interesting hooks, but a meta story, a meta game that spans the world and has some sort of future built into it may be one of the best things to play with as a designer, provided it is detailed but not too detailed. The meta game can be part of adventures and guide the game towards a specific event.
It’s usually no disaster if there isn’t a meta game, but it simplifies things.
A Lack of Mystery
Authors will on occasion explain everything. A world with no unanswered questions is a boring world. In addition, if the author has made the mystery “complete” there’s nothing to latch on to.
A perfectly wrapped world won’t snag the GM’s attention and it won’t allow for interesting developments.
Too often writers use role-playing games as their magnum opus. Everything is already done. There’s nothing to do.
Conversely, a world that is completely unfinished – where the intent is that there should be a game world – will not give the GM enough to go on to create a mystery. “Figure it out yourself” is not very helpful. In other words, not too much, not too little.
A Lack of Interesting Groups
One of the best TTRPGs to my mind is Aeon Trinity by White Wolf, the first edition. The reason I love that game is because conspiracies abound, and they are thought through and grounded conspiracies, they’re aligned with the world and they’re unfinished in the sense that I as a GM can take them and roll with them.
In order for things to get interesting there has to be differences between people and or groups or companies. Those differences need not be hostile to create conflict.
A lack of factions, families, tribes or groupings takes the edge off the world. In a world where everything is equal, there is no story.
Groupings are a great tool to create interesting situations.
A Lack of Inequality
Like groupings, a completely equal world is boring. It’s probably a hell of a lot better to live in, but it won’t provide many stories.
When I say inequality, I bet your mind goes to sexism and racism, but those are tired ways to create conflict unless you have a purpose and values associated with investigating them. Having a world be sexist by rote is not innovative.
Having the world be sexist, the characters be recipient of said systematic sexism and in addition men – that might be interesting.
It all comes down to the type of game you want to make. The inequalities of our reality may not exist in yours. A complete lack of them, though, leads to a lack of conflict.
A Lack of Conflict
I want to emphasize that conflict does not equal violence. How about instead looking at a family, let’s call them Capulet, in competition with another family, let’s call them Montague, and a young man and woman, each from one of those families, falling in love and causing a ruckus.
How about two young women, each aristocracy, falling for the same young man? How about a cola brand competing for market shares with another cola brand? How about one country trying to reach the finals in a music competition?
If you think about it, very few day to day conflicts are resolved with violence. But violence is a tool in the box.
A game world that lacks conflict is pretty barren for any GM.
No Support From Rules
In order for the game you have made to work, you need to make sure that the rules support the narrative.
Too many games put massive effort into combat systems but nothing into social conflict mechanics. If a game is supposed to be centred on, for instance, friendship and relationships, the mechanics also need to support that. Too many games are hand wave-y in the areas that are “soft” meaning relationships and social aspects.
Violent conflicts are easy, the mechanics are easy. It’s easy to wrap your head around the fact that the more you hurt someone, the more broken they become, until eventually they die.
When it comes to emotions and sanity, those are not visible in the same way. There are RPGs who have tried to surface things like insanity in a mechanical perspective, but those games are rare.
My point however is that whatever values you focus your game around, whatever the game world requires, that’s where the focus should be.
No Reference Points
In some cases the author of the TTRPG is too intent on creating a unique vision, to the extent that there are no recognizable reference points for the GM or the player.
Those TTRPGs are not necessarily technically unplayable but they might require enormous effort and a massive cognitive load for both the GM and the players to learn how to play and the game world they’re playing in.
Reference points are good, because they create a shorthand for the players to hold on to, even if the world you create is different, emotion is a reference point. Two legged creatures – reference point. Religion – reference point. Everything we recognize and can refer to – reference points. The more we see similar worlds in media that surround us, the easier it will be to understand what the world is about.
What to Do
The first thing to consider is to test your game. Give it to a GM. Have them write. Their own adventure. Ask for honest feedback. Most games that suffer from unplayability have really interesting game worlds. You just can’t play in them.
Playability testing is something everyone should do and with all aspects of the game, but sometimes I get the feeling that authors forget this specific aspect.
To address the issues that usually occur, this is my recommendation to aspiring authors:
- Are there any mysteries in the world? Strange events?
- Are there factions? Groups of people?
- Is there inequality between people based on arbitrary aspects such as skin colour, gender or where you are born?
- Are there conflicts? What are the conflicts based on? Are they violent? (Not all conflicts need to be based on violence or result in violence).
- Does the rules support investigation and resolution to all of the above?