I am still busy reading the recently released Mythender roleplaying game. There’s a lot of stuff to digest and I hope to have a review up by next week. In the meantime, I’d like to discuss one particular aspect of the game that I find very cool and could be used to improve other games as well.
Mythender is a pretty crunchy game with some unique mechanics that set it apart from the “traditional” roleplaying game (if there is such a thing as traditional in RPGs). This could present a challenge to the player/GM who wants to understand how the game works before they dive in. Fortunately, the game designer came up with a very elegant solution to that problem. Just after the character creation section, but before the battle section that forms the heart of Mythender (it is a game about ending gods after all), there is a 30-something-pages-long tutorial battle designed to walk both the GM and the players through the basics of the game. I’ve seen some attempts at this in the past (for example, the Alternity fast-play set), but never something as well-scripted and executed as this.
When I bought a video game back in the 90s, I expected to do some heavy studying before I could actually get to play. In those days, most games came with quite hefty manuals explaining the interface, controls and concepts of the game, unless it was something very simple such as a shooter. Today, on the other hand, I expect to be able to just put the disc in and play the game with very little prep in advance. This is because most games, whether shooters, action adventures or RPGs, will spend the first 10-20 minutes presenting a sort of in-game tutorial. During those first scenes, the game will introduce simple challenges designed to teach you how to play: Here’s how to walk around. Oh look, a chasm! By the way, here’s how to jump over it. How about that goblin at the other side? Press this and that to swing your sword. You get the idea. This is a pretty standard routine to most video games today.
Although tabletop RPGs are a bit more complicated than video games, because you have to know about the mechanics that work behind the scenes, there is nothing to prevent this approach used in pen-and-paper games as well. Most games will usually feature a sample scenario to serve as an introduction to the game world. But this can be some much more; it could be designed so as to function as an introduction to the game mechanics as well.
One of the biggest barriers in trying new games is the time and brainpower investment required to learn the associated rules. Convincing all the players in your group to study so that you can play a new game could be hard. And I’ve heard more than once about GMs afraid to run a game because they’re not very familiar with the rules and think they’re going to let their players down. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a way for both players and GMs to pick the rules up as they go? A well-crafted introductory scenario that slowly presents simple and then more complex game concepts and mechanics would be a fantastic way to do so.Even if it uses pre-generated characters. Even if it uses a linear plot. It doesn’t matter; it’s only there to teach and there will plenty of opportunity for custom characters and sandboxing later on!
We learn better and faster through experience. Learning the rules as you play with your friends is fun and makes them stick better. Learning them by reading a rulebook can seem like a chore sometimes, even for the most well-written books. Now, I suck at writing scenarios, so I probably won’t go down that road anytime soon (I want to spare the world the agony of reading through my scenarios). But I hope to see more games with introductory scenarios tailored to teach how to play.