The Puzzle-Maker’s Paradox

My dad reads all my games. It’s an incredibly touching and sweet thing he does, but I also feel bad when we discuss the games afterwards and it really sinks in for me how hard it is to read games. He’s tried to read other games by other writers, and he’s told me that while mine are easier for him, it’s still all very hard to get into. While driving to Louisiana during the hurricane earlier this year (it’s a long story), we had a conversation about what games would be like if they were written for him to get into.

And it made me realize a lot of things, about ease of access, how our current approaches to text fail us when welcoming new players in, and how our modes of conversation around this topic aren’t enough to ground us as we design games. In fact, I would argue that as game designers, we are perhaps the least-equipped to understand what new players actually need from games. This article is an attempt to dive deeper into the current conversation around new players in TTRPGs, how our biases limit us as designers, and what approaches we can take in the future — or beyond.

Many Different Ramps

Sometimes we discuss “on-ramps” for new players — building structures that explicitly or implicitly guide new players deeper into tabletop RPGs. It’s easy to conflate all of these together into a single process, but we will benefit from looking at them as a wide variety of processes that together help usher in new players. In a perfect world, someone can discover TTRPGs and immediately be greeted with one of these ramps, welcoming them into the world and helping show them around.

Within our community, there are many effective on-ramp structures that have been built. Podcasts and Actual Plays, vitally responsible for the growth of the current TTRPG scene (both indie and mainstream), are incredibly effective on-ramps. More experienced players are frequently word-of-mouth ambassadors for their hobby, for better or worse. The easiest way to show them what a TTRPG is like is to get them to play it. By the time someone is sitting at a table making choices about their character, they’re already more invested than 90% of people who know what TTRPGs are.

Sometimes though, people just find your book at a store, or stumble across your PDF on Itchio, or decide to back your Kickstarter because they like the art. In those circumstances, absent the ability to personally take that person and show them around, we look to the text to see what gifts it can give us. That’s why this essay is concerned with texts, and why we’re going to put aside non-text models of on-ramps.

Many Different Texts

Game texts struggle with having to do too many things all at once. In addition to explaining the rules, setting the stage for the culture of play, immersing the players, and being a book that can be read, game texts also have to serve as a path for new players to understand what is even going on in their hands. When confronted with the bizarre reality of this structural overload, there are many different responses a game designer can have.

Most game designers go “well, let me just copy what my forebears have done”, copy and paste some text from Apocalypse World or Dream Askew about “What is a TTRPG”, and assume that will do. I’ve done that myself for a project or two in a pinch, and while I despise the approach, I sympathize.

Some game designers look at those passages about conversations and definitions and go “Wait, if this game is supposed to be new player friendly, why is it so hard to get into? I’ll rewrite the whole text to maximize new player retention!” This leads to games like The Quiet Year or For The Queen, which have been designed very elegantly on this front. It’s also a lot of work and a level of testing that most people don’t have the time or means to access. The texts also often sacrifice literary quality for educational prowess, sometimes closer resembling teaching guides or powerpoint presentations.

Other game designers see these same passages, recognize their lack of artistic merit, and roll their eyes. “Other forms of art don’t care about welcoming people in, why should I?” To these people I say — you are correct. If your goal has nothing to do with welcoming new players into the scene, you don’t have to care about on-ramps or any of this. Go out into the world and create your art, I’m going to continue to focus on the areas of design I want to focus on.

There are many other opinions — compromises between education and artistic intent, fusions of tradition and innovation. I have held all three opinions at one point or another over the past two years, and I am probably going to change my mind further as I bounce between these extremes! My critical point — that I will delve into shortly — is that game designers are probably the least equipped to recognize and identify what is actually valuable for new players.

An Aside On Other Forms Of Art

Sometimes, certain especially droll designers on TTRPG Twitter point towards literature, movies, and modern art as examples of art that don’t require on-ramps in order to access. “You’d never see a book explain how to read itself, or a painting how to look at itself,” they exclaim!

These designers mistake the invisible societal on-ramps these industries have invested millions of dollars into for an absence of on-ramps entirely. Americans are taught how to read literature in elementary school. We are socialized into a culture of watching movies, and the film industry is more cunning than even grocery stores when it comes to getting new audience members through the door.

Additionally, as outsiders to those industries, we don’t see the quiet debates about retention. Modern art galleries are practically in crisis about how to help people learn how to look at the art, and there is a constant endeavor among publishers to make genres like classic literature or poetry easier for readers to pick up and get into. Most advice for new writers trying to get published is about how to create an engaging first page — how is this different from any other on-ramp?

Survivorship Bias

Do you remember when earlier I mentioned someone merely playing a game is more invested than 90% of people aware of the game? I cannot articulate how small a percentage game designers are in terms of this scene. Designers are superfans, the TTRPG equivalent of people who love Disney so much they get a job there. However, unlike Disney with its multi-million marketing and research departments, TTRPG designers only have their own experiences. This frequently leads to confusion and frustration, as designers suffer tremendously from Survivorship Bias.

For those unfamiliar, the classic example of Survivorship Bias comes from WWII-era fighter pilots. Military researchers would examine planes returning from bombings, and advise to put armor on all the areas covered in bullet holes. But statistician Abraham Wald advised the opposite approach. He noted those bullet holes were on planes that had been shot and made it back home. Planes that got shot in the engine didn’t make it back at all.

The classic (and memetic) illustration of the survivorship bias

TTRPG designers come from a variety of different design sources, but when they reach for how to write on-ramps they will look towards their own starting point for reference. For example, a designer might believe that because Monsterhearts was good enough for them as a new player, it can serve as a functional baseline for their own work. Or alternatively, if Thac0 wasn’t too complicated for them when they were starting out, then surely something less complicated than Thac0 will be fine also!

Some of what designers are missing out on involves shifting contexts. We don’t see the on-ramps that were constructed as we joined the scene, and many of the people who applied them either aren’t active or have left. A lot of the first decades of the hobby were maintained by traveling DMs and expansive home games, that meant those early texts were a reference point, and you might not even read them for months after you started playing. The idea that a text should itself be an on-ramp is born from the boom in PDFs, podcasts, and the rise of online play, which makes it easier than ever before to sit down and play a game without having first played it with a more experienced player.

But there is another factor TTRPG designers miss out on, something I’ll call the Puzzle-Maker’s Paradox.

The Puzzle-Maker’s Paradox

My first experience roleplaying was in a LARP at my summer camp. It was 9 hours long and I was miserable the whole time. I lost my shoes in the woods, I got scared of the dark, I almost fell off a cliff. A friend of mine (for whom it was also their first game) and I were discussing it many years later, and we realized we had the same reaction to it. We walked away from that game saying to ourselves:

“This is bad, but I know how to make it better.”

I would argue most TTRPG designers start from that impulse. A common story among designers is that they begin by playing D&D, and find it unsuitable for their needs, so they start to design on their own terms. Most designers don’t like their first game, and are driven forward by the desire to innovate on what they played.

This paradox means the design community self-selects people who were able to play specifically in spite of inaccessible or bad games. Most people, when confronted with something they don’t understand and lack the motivation to dig deeper into, stop engaging with that thing. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably part of the small community of weirdos who have the opposite response.

And that’s okay! I’m a weirdo too. I read House of Leaves and Homestuck back-to-back when I was 14 and stare at subway maps for fun. When I’m confronted with something confusing and hard to wrap my head around, I feel an impulsive urge to dig deeper. When I’m shown an unfun game, I want to fix it. This is reasonable, and part of what drives me forward as a creator, but it’s also not an accurate reflection of what most people are like.

Some designers are unaware of their place in the paradox, or own it and seek to make games that don’t care about pulling in new players. Other designers are aware of this paradox, but don’t know how to get past it, and so they look to the solutions other games come up with.

An Aside On “What Is An RPG?”

A cliche in TTRPG circles is the “What Is An RPG” section of a rulebook. Pick up nearly any rulebook in your local game store and you’ll see a version of it. It always follows a similar structure — it defines what a role-playing game is, what you’re supposed to do with this book, and what makes this game different from all other games. It is a compromise between the desire to welcome in new players without the craft to warp the text around actually welcoming in new players, and as a compromise it is miserable. While it served a valuable purpose originally (my favorite use is in The Ultimate Micro-RPG Book, where it’s part of an editorial forward explicitly separate from the games themselves) it has been xeroxed so many times by designers struggling to meet deadlines that it’s become a shadow of its former self.

My favorite solution to this challenge is M Veselak’s approach. Veselak advises to skip the grandstanding around what is every RPG and focus on — what is this specific RPG and how do you engage with it in particular. That is often easier for a designer to write, gives the game its own specific voice, and less miserable of a project. The goal of new player integration is to help them access this specific TTRPG, after all — you are not writing a primer on all games ever.

What Can We Do?

We are in a challenging situation. Most of our tools within the text are not actually useful for on-ramping new players, and the people most invested in solving this problem are also the people least-equipped to actually solve this problem. I’m going to share a few different approaches that I’ve either seen or believe can help, and while I can’t provide a clear solution, I hope I can at least create the space for imagining future solutions. Even if none of these ideas are productive for you, they might at least prompt you to find a solution that works for you.

The approach I take with my designs is to treat the game text like a book (I’m going to call this The Literary Approach). I focus on concepts used by writers in other fields, focusing on how to make the first page as gripping as I can, and show the text to new readers to ensure that it’s engaging as a text. If someone sits down and reads Wanderhome all the way through and enjoys the read, then they have been caught and are invested in playing.

Another approach designers like Avery Alder or Alex Roberts use is to craft the game around teaching you how to play while picking it up (The Educator’s Approach). This approach borrows from board games and textbooks to ensure the game welcomes you into it as quickly as possible. The Quiet Year provides text samples to read out loud throughout the rulebook and avoids complex language, and For The Queen puts its rules instructions as the first several cards in the deck, ensuring all you need to play is the deck itself.

Many people have started pulling tactics from video games (The Tutorial Approach), although I’m not sure any published games have made it into the world. One could release two books, with the first book serving as a teaching tool and the second being a reference for experienced players. One could also design intentional tutorials that help welcome new players. Many of these tutorials are imperfect, or focused on bringing in players who are familiar with TTRPGs in general. Video games themselves struggle with new player retention, with the linked video serving as an incredible example of how many modern games assume a knowledge of game vocabulary.

Even Further

When I was talking to my dad about this dilemma, he shared what an effective on-ramp would look like for someone like him. We talked about the shame most adults feel about playing, and a book that serves as a series of exercises welcoming the reader into the act of play. It could start as a solo game, before integrating other players and finally arriving at the game itself. I don’t know how to design this (although I’ve taken a couple stabs at it with Wanderhome drafts) but perhaps this idea could serve as the scaffolding for a new approach entirely.

At my summer camp, many of our opening activities were about introducing kids to the idea of playing with each other, a skill many older kids lose as the pressures and anxieties of the grownup world infect them. It is even possible that my entire analysis is off-base, and that what I should be truly looking at is the culture of shame that exists around play, and its subsequent eradication. Maybe our games become accessible when we build spaces where play is freeing instead of embarrassing. What comes next, after this?

In this article I have done my best to walk through the current state of conversation around new player retention, the barriers that make designers uniquely unsuited to solving the issues, and some of the solutions various designers have invented. There is still more work to be done — this article is an introduction to a conversation, not a call to action itself.

As TTRPGs grow and the text becomes an increasingly vital part for introducing new players, we are going to confront this challenge again and again. We will never know how many people are exposed to TTRPGs and are turned away by its lack of care for new players. If we’re going to make games for kids, for seniors, for our family (blood or found) and for our communities, we are going to need to learn more about how to write our texts so that they are welcoming instead of harsh.

We are puzzle-makers, tinkerers, and weirdos who want to build something better. I write my games for kids hiding in a corner of a bookstore, for my friends who are too tired to sit at a table once a week, and for my parents who haven’t played pretend in 50 years. I hope someday to share my games with them, and for them to feel welcome too.

This article was originally posted on the Possum Creek Games Patreon. Please support the Patreon, so that we can afford to continue releasing articles and exploring complex topics around game design.

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Game designer at Possum Creek Games. Gay trans. Has never successfully caught a ghost. Wrote Wanderhome, among others.

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Jay Dragon

Jay Dragon

Game designer at Possum Creek Games. Gay trans. Has never successfully caught a ghost. Wrote Wanderhome, among others.

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