Friday 10 October 2008

What do I want from a free game?

As a consumer, you might fit into one of two categories: those that think that free games should be produced to exactly the same standards as commercial ones and those that are content to accept a less polished product. I empathise with both camps. There is nothing more annoying than downloading a game and finding it part finished, poorly written or laid out like a chaos theory strange attractor. You have not paid for anything but you have spent time downloading, reading, investing emotionally and giving it the time of day. It's unsurprising you feel disappointed. So, what is reasonable to expect from a free RPG? I am going to attempt to outline those facets I want from a free RPG because it is different to what I demand from one exchanged for cold cash. As such, it's not particularly objective, so please feel free to give your ideas in the comments.

NB: At this point, I am not talking about works in progress or ashcans (RPGs that are outlined to check feasibility) but those professing to be complete. Scenarios, settings, resources, tools and so on aren't really comparable here because they rarely boast 'completeness'.

I'm going to split up RPG facets into groups: Need, Want, Nice to have. Need items are things that you really can't do without in an RPG. Any RPG, for that matter. Want are those things that I really want from a free RPG, aspects that make an RPG really worthwhile. Nice to have are just that. In the style of 'notes for authors', here are my Needs, Wants and Likes to have.


To be able to print it

So many free games in the past are simple HTML pages that do not print well. Google Documents can take your game and create a PDF from it. It makes all the difference. If you can make an HTML print well then go for it but dual columns tend not to work over many pags.

To be complete enough to play

A snappy title representing an important requirement. If a game is advertised as complete, then make it be that. A GM must be able to sit down and run a game from what is offered.


Good spelling and grammar

Your readers are going to be suspicious of your game because philanthropy is rare, bump up the quality by good grammar and spelling. Typos can be avoided by spell checking and grammar by reading through carefully.


Very few systems can stand up to purely design. Playtesting is not just about getting the mechanics tuned but also to see if the setting makes sense. If you have made a generic system, then you will need a setting before anyone will play it, so make one and play it. And play it again.


How many fantasy games are there out there? Thousands and many sink without a trace. If a free game is offered for other people to read please make it new in some way. As it's free, you can be as creative as you like: Magic Bunnies in Rockets, Slaughter Nuns, The Journey to The Centre of My Nostrils, My Beard Is On Fire! So please do be creative.

Nice to have

Attractive layout

Two columns is a good start if you don't know what to do. The eye likes to read along short lines, so please consider two columns. Beyond that, any fancy text layout is is nice but do not lose any sleep over it.

Pretty graphics

If you can find a kind artist to donate images in a fit of philanthropy or you fancy yourself as an arty type, then please splatter your rules with images. Do not worry if you cannot muster any up, the game can stand on its own. If you do have strong images with the game, more are likely to take it up as images can spark the imagination instantly and without effort, whereas text description requires more effort of the reader. Images are never missing from a free game.

I suspect that there are more aspects a free game writer should consider when sharing their idea. Such is the danger of any list, it is never complete. Please do add your thoughts on items missing, or perhaps a different ordering. Do you feel that I've downgraded something important to you as a 'Want', when it should be a Need? Please do let me know.


Hanley Tucks said...

It's a good list overall, but there are a couple missing.

The first is don't do a joke game you know no-one will play. Things like Babewatch or Bernard & Jean are just too specific and/or obscure.

Secondly, don't make a scenario masquerading as a game. Anyone can take some one-off scenario they ran, design some simple mechanics around it and call the whole thing a game; but a proper game must have some replay value.

There are a few of both of those, sad to say, on John Kim's list.

The last thing is that while novelty is good, you should avoid novelty for the sake of it. I mean, we could make a dice mechanic where you roll d4 times d12, or instead of rolling d20 tossing darts at a board, but honestly, what's the point?

Rob Lang said...

Thanks for the ideas, Kaishu! You've noted a few good things there. I hope I can provide a suitable repost!

Joke games are fine by me if they are obviously labelled as such. It's free, it's a bit of fun, someone might download it and have a bit of a laugh for an evening off the back of it. Harmless tosh but if it sparks a bit of a giggle as a filler game, then I don't think you can really lambast someone for sharing it.

However I agree wholeheartedly with your second point. Mislabelling things is very irritating. Authors should be careful to forfil precisely what they say they will. There is nothing more grating than getting into a setting to find that the system might have been better served with Yags, Jags or Fudge. In the other direction, creating a system and then pretending there is a fully featured setting to go with it should be dealt with by flogging or some such. If there isn't much of a setting, say so!

Finally, I also agree that novelty for the sake of it is annoying. Re-reading my post I could see why that might pop up. A good clarification. However, now you've mentioned a mechanic involving potentially lethal dart tossing I am willing to bet someone will make it. It's out there, on the net. You've opened Pandora's box!

Many thanks for the input.

Hanley Tucks said...

I googled "rpg dart throwing resolution" and of course came up with a Forger discussion.

Groundhog writes, "Tossing dice onto a tray, throwing darts at a dartboard, throwing horseshoes, arm wrestling, dropping grains of rice from above one's head into a shotglass, or whatever are completely legitimate ways to determine success or failure in an RPG."

No, mate. No, they're not.

It does not seem to have made it into a published rpg. But you're right, merely by mentioning it I may summon it into existence, sort of like that law about pr0n fetishes.

- the viking hat GM

Rob Lang said...

There are some mechanics that would have appeared to be wacky ten years ago but are all good now. Amber, for example, seemed mental at first but worked really well for the type of game it was. I remember playing D6 Star Wars and having to roll 18D6 for something completely frivolous.

I was torn. In one way I thought: "Pain in the arse, pass me a D10" but feeling the heft of 18 dice gave a certain physical gravity. Hearing the deafening clatter prompted a round of exclamation, profanity and laughter.

I wonder if our pooh-poohing of the dart-in-board mechanic will be seen as quaint in the future.

[Thanks for the Blog link, reciprocated]

Michael Taylor said...

I think you forgot the most important 'Need'. It has to be PLAYABLE.

Not just by the author and their friends, but by real people.

I know that sounds subjective, but I've read a lot of games (many published) that simple do not stand up to the 'squint' test. That is, if it doesn't answer the FIRST question I can think of to ask about how it works, it definitely wont answer the questions my players will ask about how it works!

In theory, playtesting should uncover this, but in practice, even those games that ARE playtested are usually done from a very limited pool of your friends - who already 'get' your style and are therefore likely to 'get' the game.

Of course, I'd also count FATE, ICON and FUDGE in this group! ;)

Rob Lang said...

Thanks for your comment, Michael. What is playable and what is not? That's so very subjective that I can't really filter on that. Your group, my group, person X's group will consider playable to be very different things.

My group will play just about anything. You could glue two hard boiled eggs together, draw lines on them and call it a game and they'd play it. That would make it playable.

Most games are playable. Even really boring ones. Even one-pagers. As long as it is complete - contains all the rules it needs to be run then that's enough for me!