All Lemonade Is Local

There exists in this world a designer who is very famous for making a very poor lemon squeezer. In 1990, Philippe Starck made a product resembling the unholy love-child of a sci-fi weapon, a squid, and a half-deflated balloon. He called it the juicy salif, and he was hailed as a design genius for making this completely non-functional item.

By any criteria, the juicy salif is a poorly designed lemon-squeezer. But what Philippe Starck actually did wasn’t so much make a bad lemon squeezer. It was more that he made a great piece of artwork, and called it a lemon-squeezer.

Philippe Starck knew his audience - people much more interested in modern art than in lemon juice - and he was designing for them. He understood the people he was designing for, and he understood what actual use his product would be put to, and he made it for that specific purpose. In doing so, he brilliantly illustrated the two fundamental principles of any sort of design. A designer must understand the people who are going to use their design, and what they will want to get out of it.

If you’re Philippe Starck, your audience wants artwork that they can call a household object, and you deliver the world's most beautiful and useless lemon-squeezer, and it is perfect for them.

For RPGs, that lesson doesn't change. The central idea is the same: you need to look at the people who you want to play your game, and what those people are going to want to get out of playing it. You need to understand your audience, and to understand their needs. If you're just whipping up an adventure for Saturday's game, you need to understand the five people who are driving over to your house. If you're designing an RPG for sale, you need to understand the people who will be using it to whip up that adventure. Either way, the questions are the same: Who is going to be using what I make, and what are they going to want to use it to do?

The answers to those questions are not necessarily as obvious as one might think.

Who?

When you think of the maximal potential audience for a game, the scope is potentially "every living human being and also many of their pets and possibly wild animals." Games are a phenomenon that exists well beyond even the bounds of humanity. That, of course, is almost uselessly broad.

Fortunately, the nature of the game necessarily limits the audience. Even if we only consider human beings, the audiences for games like Tag and games like Scrabble and games like Borderlands 2 and games like Pathfinder are different. There’s overlap, to be sure, but Tag isn’t designed to be easily played by 72 year old paraplegics, and getting a toddler to play Scrabble is going to be a bit of a challenge, and getting Borderlands 2 into the hands of the son of a fisherman in Dakar is going to be a pretty involved process, and giving Pathfinder to someone who’s anti-social and illiterate? Well, “the game wasn’t made for that.”

Certainly we like to think of our favorite hobby as being all-inclusive, but there are all sorts of people we cut out right from the get-go, thanks to formatting and language assumptions and even assumed income levels and all sorts of personality quirks. Fantasy tabletop RPGs are, in a word, niche.

But even within the tabletop RPG world, there are different target audiences. A game like D&DNext is designed – specifically, blatantly – for fans of D&D (whatever that may mean). A game like Dread is designed for fans of horror. A game like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is designed for fans of the Marvel comic books. A lot of the time, again, these overlap: there are certainly a lot of people out there who like some D&D, like some horror movies, and like some comic books.

That any given RPG is a niche activity is probably well-appreciated, but keep in mind that this niche isn't accidental -- it's a product of the design of the thing. In any kind of design, you get to choose your audience. If I wanted to design a game for the sons of fishermen in Dakar or 72 year old paraplegics or anti-social illiterates, that’s entirely a possibility. It might not be a tabletop RPG (and it might not be economically viable), but the demands of the audience would dictate some of the design of the game. For instance, I would probably make a game for anti-social illiterates not rely on interaction with others, or reading. I’m thinking some sort of visual card game…

Anyway, the point is to acknowledge that the needs of the audience dictate the design of the thing. Long before there was any designed thing, there were people who were potential audience members. Before anyone invented a door, there were people who had a need of one. Before there was a D&D, there were fans of fantasy fiction who wanted to tell their own stories. The audience you're targeting then helps determine how the game is to be made, and what it is to be used for – design is always for someone. Tag isn't for 72 year old paraplegics, but it’s for someone, and Tag's core audience (active children) to some extent its game design principles (run around and try to touch and/or avoid being touched).

So with most tabletop RPGs, there is a target audience. I’m no marketer, but I can take an educated stab at what some of the traits of the core audience for tabletop RPGs might be. They’re educated. They’re culturally Western or at least quite familiar with Western culture. They’re surrounded in pop culture. They’re fairly intelligent. They’re probably quite independent-minded. They have a decent amount of disposable income (ie: likely above the poverty level, probably at least solidly middle-class). They’re more likely to be early adopters of technology. They’re probably likely to either be students, or have jobs in some high-education field such as technology or education. They’re likely to be involved in clubs, friendships, or organizations with others who are more similar to them than different from them.

Of course, those are generalities. If you look around your table, though, you'll probably see a lot of those traits in the people you play with. It's important to see that those traits aren't automatic -- they make your group different from others. Given the requirements for playing an RPG (read books, have friends, do math, tell stories like those you read in books or see in movies), your RPG group is likely more similar to other RPG groups than you are similar to, say, a random assortment of basketball players.

You can also likely appreciate that your RPG group is probably different from every other RPG group in the world, too. There are plenty of ways you are similar, but there are probably a lot of remarkable differences between you, too. Individual incomes differ, education levels differ, there are regional differences, gender and ethnic dynamics, differences in media and entertainment you enjoy, age differences...it's entirely likely that what might work for a majority of RPG players worldwide doesn't necessarily work for your specific group.

That's part of why we all play at least a little bit at being game designers when we run an RPG session: we are designing a play experience for 5 or 6 other people, and designing what they want is going to be dramatically different than designing something for every RPG player everywhere. This also affects the kinds of games we make. If you know your 5 or 6 players love crude humor and fart jokes and hyper-violence and horror movies, you're going to make a very different game than if you know your 5 or 6 players love Monty Python references and romantic notions of chivalry and HP Lovecraft. Neither is better or worse, just better or worse for one particular group. Groups change over time, too, and what works when you're playing D&D at 16 isn't necessarily what works when you're playing D&D at 40. When we run our own games, they should be targeted very much for the group we're going to play them with and the sessions that we're going to play them in.

The juicy salif, after all, wasn't designed for everyone who wanted to squeeze lemons, or everyone who wanted modern art, but for a particular small subset of people who wanted modern art that could also be called a lemon squeezer. That's a small audience. The particular alchemy of what the players at your table like is probably even more obtuse and idiosyncratic.

What?

So given that we know, broadly, who is going to use our thing, we next need to figure out what they’re going to do with it. Or more specifically, what we want them to do with it.

Okay, we know the answer to that. “Have fun!” right?

Well, that's true, but it's big and vague and really not very useful. A lot like asking who plays games. Yes, have fun, but our target audience has countless ways to have fun. We know who they are, so we also know that being entertained is not a problem for them: the games we design rely on pop culture references that we assume they already have. We know the audience has seen movies, read books, played other games. Why play Dread instead of going to see a horror movie? Why play Mouse Guard instead of re-reading the comic books? Why play Dungeons & Dragons instead of reading Moorcrock? What can a game offer that those other methods of fun don’t?

Heck, while we’re at it, if you were going to play a game, why not play one of the more widely-accepted and widely-embraced games. Why play Fiasco instead of Super Smash Bros? Why play The Burning Wheel and not a pick-up game of basketball? Why not play Scrabble instead of Pathfinder? What can a tabletop RPG offer that those other kinds of gameplay don't?

To answer that, we’re going to need a more detailed way of looking at “fun,” a way that can sift through all these options and tell the differences between them. What kind of fun do you have watching a movie or reading a book? What kind of fun do you have playing a fighting game or a game of basketball or a board game? And how does the fun offered by a tabletop RPG differ from that?

That’s a sticky question, and the answer isn't exactly clear and absolute. However, some work is starting.

(Typically, in my articles, that would just be a YouTube link, but you’ll have to settle for going to the site and watching that 9-minute video on this one. Come on back when you’re done!)

Nicole Lazzaro has done some science to this thing called Fun, and has a pretty good idea, psychologically, what that means in gameplay. Those of you familiar with Robin Laws or GNS theory might want to pay particularly close attention, because the four types of fun that Nicole Lazzaro has identified underpin those other divisions quite keenly, and, I personally believe, come to a more useful place. You’ll be seeing lots of parallels. Don’t worry too much if you’re not familiar with any of that stuff – Nicole’s four categories are the important thing to understand for the rest of this article.

Tabletop RPGs fire on all four of her cylinders. And the truth is, all of us are much more engaged when all four types of fun are activated than when only one or two are.

In tabletop RPGs, Hard Fun comes from the challenges inherent in the mechanical system for instance, combats with monsters, in a typical D&D game, or the Jenga tower in Dread). Serious Fun comes from the creation of a character or a world (the creative process giving you the feeling of making something of value). People Fun comes from the interaction of the players at the table. Easy Fun comes from rolling the dice and improvising actions and reacting to unpredictability consistently in the world.

Passive media such as books or movies aren’t participatory. They generally only fire on the Easy Fun cylinder (with occasional dips into others – James Joyce’s Ulysses has a major component of Hard Fun in it!). Other games might possess Hard Fun and People Fun, but rarely give you the creative outlet that fires up your love of Serious Fun, or permit that passive experimentation of Easy Fun.

Tag, for instance, is Hard Fun and People Fun, by and large getting the fun out of the challenge of outrunning your friends. Poker and Scrabble fall into the same camp, though their skillsets are very different (the challenge of lying to your friends, or out-thinking your friends). Each might occasionally overlap with Serious Fun (winning actual money, or learning actual people-reading or vocabulary skills), while neither really fires on Easy Fun.

The thing about the four types of fun is that we all like all of them, though we might not all seek all of them all at the same time in an RPG. Part of the issue with other types of division, like Robin Laws’s player types, or the GNS structure, is the claim that “fun” is something monolithic for a player, that once you figure out what one thing a person thinks is most “fun”, you can serve that need and be fine. Most offer some generalized reference toward the need to not become monolithic, and then quickly lose themselves in the minutiae of minor differences in stated goals. The Four Types of Fun are clearly all important for every player, and these needs might be personally weighted differently or even may change over time in playing the game, but that they do exist in all of us, and our greatest game moments combine all four into a seamless, singing whole.

You. Your game.

So, back to squeezing lemons. It should be clear now that Philippe Starck absolutely understood his audience and their needs. People expecting to use the juicy salif to squeeze lemons are like the anti-social illiterate trying to play Pathfinder, or the 72-year-old parapalegic trying to play tag. It wasn’t made for that.

You could say the same thing about people who use Monopoly to role-play, or who want dramatic narrative out of a tactical wargame. They’re not using it in a way it was intended to be used.

And in that case, the designer has two questions they must ask themselves: am I right about my audience? Am I right about what they want?

If the juicy salif wound up in the homes of lemonade-stand kids and lemon-pie-makers the world over, it would’ve been a design disaster. Elements of the juicy salif including cost and appearance keep it from being frequently mistaken for something you can actually squeeze a lemon with. If a tactical wargame winds up in the hands of a group of people who are trying to use it to play a dramatic narrative RPG, something has gone all pear-shaped somewhere in the process.

And, it's key to note, the problem isn't in the people playing it that way. It's a problem with the design of the thing, that the intention is not clear, that unlike with the juicy salif, this thing looked like it could really be something that it's not. A tactical wargame isn't going to give you a dramatic narrative. It's not for that. What went wrong isn't that these people are trying to do the impossible -- it's that they mistakenly believe that it's not impossible, because the game wasn't designed clearly.

In the realm of tabletop RPG game design, there’s not often a clear “right” or “wrong” or “better” or “worse” answer automatically. If you do your job as a designer well, you know who is using your design, and you know what they’re going to try and do with it. That’s why the juicy salif is a well-designed object, even if it’s not a well-designed lemon squeezer: Philippe Starck knew who he was selling to, and knew what his audience would do with his design (ie: display it, not squeeze lemons with it).

And so we come to your games. As DMs and players, we’re all designers of one stripe or another (character, world, game, adventure…), and we’re designing for a very small, local audience. All we need to do is make sure the people we’re at the table with that night fire on all four types of fun with what we create. If we use THAC0, weapon speed rules, weapon vs. armor rules, an array of polearms, iterative attacks, and treat our succubi as devils, all while running Dogs in the Vineyard, we might have a perfectly designed game for our audience of 5, for the purposes of having those four kinds of fun. It doesn’t need to be good for anyone else outside of that, or for any other purpose. Elegance? Balance? Symmetry? History? Backstory? Character options? Ease of use? These things are only good if they are good for your group, if they lead to the Four Types of Fun at your table. It's less important that things "be balanced," and more important that no one at your table feels like they aren't hitting all four types of fun. The former can help aid the other, but it isn't a prerequisite, and it isn't an endpoint.

So I want to hear from you, about something your table found perfectly suited to you. Tell me about the character you created based on your friend’s dog, or the house rule that docked Eddie XP for not cleaning his room, or whatever you do to make your game personal, designed for you and your group, that likely wouldn’t work outside of it. The best designed games are those that meet our local needs, and I want to hear about the great untranslatable designs of your tables. What was your version of the juicy salif – a game rule created uniquely for your group, not for the world?
 

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A

amerigoV

Guest
A fine article and it does explain why all of you are doing it all wrong! ;)

In Savage Worlds, every session starts with 3 Bennies that players can use to reroll dice or soak damage (think of them as the "Luck" element in HP, but you can use them for other things). The book suggests getting another 1 or 2 Bennies in the player's hand over the course of the session. PCs also have Hindrances that help get those Bennies in your hand (the best way to think of it is you are Loyal and you do something Loyal even when metagaming says do something else, you should get a Bennie). You can also get them for great ideas, timely puns, etc.

Well, our GM realized he was just not good at getting Bennies out to players. So, he did it in two ways: one was if someone shuffled the deck for initiaitve when needed (SW use cards for Init). The other was to give everyone an edge called Common Bond that allowed players to share Bennies (ie, I could spend a bennie so another player could reroll or soak damage). That worked out nicely as without this edge inevitably 2 players end the session without Bennies and another 1 or 2 players have a stack of them left. This effectively got that extra 1 or 2 Bennies to the PCs over the course of the session.

These are not by the rules and not the best ideas for all groups. But it worked very well for this particular GM.
 

El Mahdi

Muad'Dib of the Anauroch
I can't give Kamikaze any experience right now until I spread some more around. But that was a really good article. Thanks!

Now, how about designing an art object that can make banana smoothies...?;)
 

Ravilah

Explorer
I had a 3.5 D&D gaming group that loved interacting with NPCs. They chatted up every shopkeeper, blacksmith, herbologiist, beggar, town guard, or hermit they came across. They liked getting to know people, and they remembered the people they met. I had keep a folder with lists of the NPC's names and a record of their previous interactions. Some very enjoyable sessions centered completely around catching up with old friends from cities they hadn't visited in a while.

So I started making these interactions into challenges worthy of experience. I pushed the responsibility of remembering all their NPC acquaintances back on them. The team archer had to remember that he flirted with Jayme the Barmaid last time he was in Calthan's Point. They had to recall that Darl the Blacksmith hates people who don't haggle. They had to remember the Red-Haired Elf's name or he'd get offended. I would purposely pose memory challenges like this, and they could get experience for how well they used their past experiences with these NPCs to either strengthen or ruin their connections with them.

The party loved it. They started to take notes on all their connections, and it added another dimension to that whole game.
 

ErisRaven

First Post
Self-generating games

I once completed a long-running campaign in my gameworld, with the announced intention of taking a break and running something else. It ended well, all but a couple of players went home.

That's when weirdness happened.

Two players were sitting around BSing about what would happen to their epic-level characters after. One, who had died in the final session quipped that he was halfway to heaven by now. "Oh, no," I replied off-handedly. "You knew the devil's true name, and you owed him a debt. You're a gemstone on his mantel shelf now." I didn't have anything planned about that, it just seemed like the sort of thing the devil in question would do (He was all about conserving his resources). The player thought this was pretty cool.

"What about me?" said the other player. "Can I be on the shelf too?"

I blinked.

So I wind up running the two of them for half-an-hour that night, through the process of discovery in their new space.

They told the rest. And other friends.

The next thing I know, I've got a new, bizarre campaign. It was the best campaign I ever ran, and the players invented it on the fly. They brought all their beloved retired characters that had no true end point. Invented their own reasons to be on 'The Shelf', and I just facilitated. It was four sessions in before character sheets happened. Seven before they mattered, and found a way to convince the demon to get one of them out of the gems.

By the end, they'd unraveled a plot by the lichlord of the planet to elevate himself to godhood. They'd freed the devil from Hell, and elevated him instead. They destroyed the lichlord, freed those who were enslaved by him, and several of the character established themselves as rulers. One descended and took the Devil's place. Two ascended and became divine minions. They literally reshaped the face of my campaign world.

The campaign ended six years ago. The players are still around, and occasionally, they will spontaneously pick up a forgotten thread of that campaign and we'll spend a night with it.

The only thing about it that makes me sad is that I've never been able to come close to that magic in another game since. Best damned thing I will probably ever run.
 

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