So what are some of things we can learn from videogame design?
- Full freedom can be frustrating. Most players enjoy some sense of direction, whether internally or externally directed, though they equally enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs and find something to do. This isn’t to say that you need to give them a laundry list of goals but having certain objectives (even just optional ones) baked into the game whether that is exploring your feelings of loss and loneliness or battling the kobolds in the Spider Cave can help the game feel less aimless.
- Shared experiences are valuable. One of the downsides of having a dozen different subplots is that unless there’s some kind of overarching goal or theme to play with, it becomes quite easy to end up feeling isolated. Having some kind of core framework folks can engage with (even if it’s just waiting for the prison doors to open while exploring the horrors of confinement) can go a long way to creating a sense of belonging.
- Unique solutions. It’s wonderful when players come up with cool ideas for how a situation can pan out and then execute that plan. Perhaps they’ve figured out a new strategy to deal with enemies or a sideways solution to a specific puzzle. Embrace those opportunities to allow the players the chance to utilize their creativity to succeed. If they do something a little cheesy, maybe let them use it once before changing things up again. I once had my players set up a kill chute using tables and flashlights which guaranteed their success. We could have had the NPCs leave but that would be wasting a golden opportunity. Instead we stormed them … the results went badly for us … and we just devised new tactics to use for future scenarios and let them keep the kill chute as their fallback plan.
- Realism to a point. While there are exceptions to every rule (this one more than most), most players only want realism if it lets them do interesting things. They especially don’t enjoy it if it makes their gameplay frustrating. Now this doesn’t mean realism doesn’t matter — it adds context and depth, keeps things interesting and ensures that folks have a better idea of how the game works. It just means that bending reality to suit the needs of the game (so long as you communicate it to your players) is better than slavishly following realism in most games.
- Let new players succeed. I don’t just mean new LARPers but anyone new to your game. Give them a taste of success. Help draw them into the game so they have space to try a few things and see how the rules play out. You can do this by having separate new player modules (such as all new characters arrive via a special pre-game quest they play through), by having the first hour or two of game being a bit less dangerous than the rest, or by OOC agreement such as where the characters in a political campaign just happen to be gentle with new players and provide less serious consequences for missteps (or straight up advise the players on missteps and allow them to retract it) for their first three session.
- The rules need to be as simple as they *can* be to meet the requirements of your game. For some games that’ll be a half page of mechanics. For others it’ll be a full rulebook or suite of rulebooks. The question is what you’re trying to do and what is needed to accomplish that. Every time you look at a new mechanic question what it’ll add to the game and whether it’s worth extra complexity.
- Use consistency to help off-set complexity. In Triway Chronicle, all green glowy things are radioactive. I’ll never put glow-in-the-dark green facepaint on an NPC — no matter how creepy it may look — without that NPC also being radioactive. This makes things easier. The same can be said for NPCs that are resistant to certain types of damage making a point to really react to hits from those who are using the right kinds of weapon. That way players know what works and what doesn’t. This may require some practice as it gives NPCs an extra thing to consider but it’s very important to give them game-critical information or else the players might flee a situation when they should fight.
- Side objectives have little value if players don’t understand what they have accomplished. So provide rewards to sub-goals even if it’s just extra information or an improved scenario for their NPC allies (you’d be surprised how much players love the chance to affect the unseen in-game world around them).
- Information can be spread around the world through a variety of methods. This can range from signs to pinned-up notes, chalk graffiti, letters, computer terminals, PA systems or telephone calls as well as the usual NPCs. The benefit of this is that it requires no cast and can still keep people busy.