Lessons from Metatopia 2014

By | November 15, 2014

Hello!

Last week we attended the superlative Metatopia 2014, a game design conference / convention in Morristown, NJ run by Double Exposure.  This was the most well-organized convention I’ve ever attended, and the credit for that goes to Vincent Salzillo, Avonelle Wing and their excellent convention-support staff.  Between us, the three members of Room 209 Gaming attended dozens of panels about game design, layout, editing, inclusivity and information design.  Additionally, Ray and I were able to run 3 playtests, each of which were attended by major figures in indie gaming.  We’ve added their names to our Playtester Appreciation Page, but please take note: their names appearing on that page should not qualify as endorsements of Forthright Open Roleplay.

So what did we learn from Metatopia, and what does that mean for Room 209 Gaming going forward?

On the business-side of things, we learned how to better gather playtester feedback, how to be more successful at conventions, how to better interact with social media, and learned of some professional organizations we are now discussing joining.  We also learned quite a bit about marketing, though I’m going to be honest – I foresee this as being a weak point for Room 209 Gaming for quite some time to come, as none of the three of us are particularly forceful when it comes to sales and marketing.

With luck and hard work, though, we can make games that sell themselves on their own merits, making our lack of salesmanship less of an issue.  That’s honestly where the most potent (and damning!) feedback we got from Metatopia came from – how to improve Forthright Open Roleplay.

The majority of playtesters we’ve worked with in the Raleigh area have been traditional roleplayers – players of open-ended “more mainstream” games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder.  Metatopia offered us an opportunity for playtesters more familiar with indie roleplaying games and story games.  This was particularly valuable to us because we’re trying to make Forthright something that exists in-between traditional and story games.  Less crunch, more story-focus.

Earlier this year we were taken by surprise at how closely our design hewed to the design taken by Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, and we’ve been struggling somewhat to find a way to differentiate ourselves rather than simply feeling like an add-on pack for that game.  The bad news is, we ain’t there yet.  The good news is, thanks to Metatopia, we’re getting there.

I’m going to hit some of the biggest feedback we got about Forthright Open Roleplay and briefly touch upon what it’s going to mean for the system going forward:

  • Still Too Crunchy. While it is mechanically dramatically more streamlined than 4e or Pathfinder, when compared to 5e or many OSR products there is not a significant-enough reduction in mechanics to offer a compelling reason to choose our game.  This has been consistent feedback from many gamers even prior to Metatopia – that the game is much crunchier than our target goal.  We will be looking at streamlining the system even further as a result.
  • Word Salad.  Related to the crunch, many of the baseline abilities in the game were structured so that they required significant understanding of the game in order to make an informed choice.  This provided a barrier to entry for new players.  Consequently, we’re looking at rebuilding these abilities to be clearer and require less system mastery.
  • Bog-Standard Skills.  The skill system was not interesting or compelling enough, and Vocations felt weak in comparison to Personas and Fighting Styles.  This is an overcorrection on our part (given that the earliest versions of the skill system were considered too powerful), and we’ll be looking at ways to make Vocations feel more powerful.  Interestingly, it appears that we have done a good enough job making big numbah seem less important in the system that Vocations, which provided big numbah as a core conceit, are less attractive as a result.
  • Still Just Standard Fantasy.  One of our goals with Forthright has been to provide players with an opportunity to play any character in any genre.  Our goal had been to provide Fantasy first, then move on to Steampunk, Space Opera and other genres via additional add-on packs later.  But there are soooo many standard fantasy roleplaying games on the market, yet another one (even if it has some innovations) doesn’t offer a an engaging purchase choice.  Consequently, we’re going to be restructuring the system so that the Steampunk and Space Opera choices we had been looking at are rolled into the core mechanics of the game so that we can attempt a Masters of the Universe-like blend of magic and technology as a baseline.  This baseline will be tweakable to be more fantasy or more sci-fi as each gaming group desires.
  • Session Zero Too Complex.  Session Zero had sussed out to be a collaborative world-creation engine that then narrowed to a Fellowship-creation engine and finally a character-creation engine.  This was somewhat jarring, because it was asking Players to create the world before they knew what they personally wanted to do with it.  We’ve already somewhat restructured this to be more implicit:  players create their fellowship and characters, and the choices they make as to what they want to play inform the world-building.
  • Too Many Words.  This was learned more from the panel “Why Do You Hate Your Readers and Players?” presented by John Adamus than explicitly from the three playtests, but it was a compelling lesson regardless.  The fiction heading each chapter, and the large bulk of words in each chapter explaining the theory behind the rules, was misplaced.  It indicates a lack of faith in the reader’s intelligence and a fear that the reader won’t “get it.”  Rulebooks are reference works, so they don’t need to have so many words between the reader and the rule the reader is trying to get to.  Consequently, I’ve scrapped the entire text of the book so far.  I’ll be rewriting it from scratch: smaller, cleaner, more direct.
  • Rather Easy.  The game aspects of the system were a bit too easy, though.  The 50% to 75% success rate built into the system makes challenges trivial.  We’re going to look at pushing that downward by 10 – 15% in order to get a nice balance of difficulty.

Not all the feedback we got was about things that needed to change, though.  Here’s some very positive feedback that told us we were on the right track in a lot of ways:

  • Amazing Art.  The art was universally beloved, to the point where looking at the art for the game made people want to play it.  They wanted the game the art promised (and it was kind of there, buried under a cruft of too-many-words and too-standard-fantasy and a poor elevator pitch).
  • Smooth Combat.  Combat ran very smoothly, and the Strain mechanics were well-liked.  We experimented with allowing a single action to be strained multiple times with these playtests, but that worked out badly so we’re going back to one strain per action.  The goal of having combat sequences not take forever has been achieved!
  • Clear Skill Obstacles.  The Skill difficulty system is very clear and easy to understand, and we got positive feedback on Players feeling comfortable with how they could interact with it and help each other out.
  • Original Ideas are Better than D&D Retreads.  A lot of the feedback we got indicated that playtesters wanted to see us focus more on our more original ideas / use of ideas such as Strain, the Fellowship and adventure-based advancement rather than spending so much energy building D&D-alikes such as the Assassin.

All told, the advice we got and the better understanding of the roleplaying market that we now have will see us making significant changes to Forthright Open Roleplay.  In addition to completely new text (goodbye, 130,000 words) and a more direct writing style that gets to the point faster, we’re going to be reworking the game to provide genre-independent roles that will allow a cleaner mix of different fantasy genres.  We’ll start sharing what we’re working on next time.  See you then!

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