Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is the 20:4 Ratio?


It’s pretty rare to get to do something on the day we celebrate Leap Year. I’m somewhat dismayed that we as a human race don’t celebrate this day more. It’s an extra day of life every four years! That’s a big deal to me. So to commemorate this day that comes only once every four years, I’m putting out my March article a day early. Don’t worry, I’ll have an extra article for March too.

I’ve been working on articles concerning some older RPG Theory issues like DFK, TITB4B, Stance Theory, and the different Fortune mechanics. Today, I’m taking on the 20:4 ratio.

The 20:4 ratio is probably an unfair characterization, but it has been and still is used quite often as a term by RPG designers and theorists (such as Chris Chinn) for years now. It goes back to the early days of independent RPG publishing, and honestly, is probably what helped to start it all. Put simply, the 20:4 ratio is having “twenty minutes of fun in four hours of roleplaying.”

If you’ve ever been in a RPG group where what was going on totally disinterested you, players often argued over which rule meant what, the GM used heavy-handed force to keep everyone “on track” and leafing through the monster manual was more entertaining that fighting the monsters themselves, you know what the 20:4 ratio is all about. The 20:4 is about slogging through all the “necessary” parts of the game like buying supplies, eating at the local tavern, traveling through the forest, getting harassed by the city guards, organizing a watch through the night, and so on in order to get to the parts of play the players are actually interested in exploring. Groups spend all this time getting to where they want to go and once they get there, the engagement with that aspect of play is so fleeting that it hardly seems satisfying. Hence, 20 minutes of real fun in 4 hours of dithering play.

So what causes the 20:4 ratio?

Well, there can be several causes. One, you could have a GM who is domineering and plays a sort of “my way or the highway” style. That’s not really a game-related problem; that’s just a human interaction problem. The players can either put up with it and be bored; talk with the GM about the problem and work it out; or just not play with him anymore. That’s easy to fix. The problem could also be that the person who is only having twenty minutes of fun in four hours of play is pursuing a different creative agenda than the rest of the group. This happens, and it’s usually just a miscommunication of expectations. The bored player can stick it out, change his style of play, or find a different group. Again, an easy fix.

But the most common cause I’ve found for the 20:4 ratio is poorly written game texts. Why do players spend hours figuring out how many iron rations they’re going to need, how much those rations weigh, how to keep the rations dry, and so on? It’s because the rules tell the players to do that! Why does the GM have to roll random encounter dice for every day traveled and night spent on the trail? Because the rules say so! Do those these mechanics have anything to do with what the players find fun and engaging? Almost certainly not, but they do those things anyway ‘cause it’s in the rules!

All that stuff may not be important to the players in any way. Instead, these non-essential mechanics keep them from enjoying what they are actually at the table to do. In my mind, this is a serious design problem; however, I believe it can be fixed with better design and better writing.

The biggest cause of this messing around with unimportant or uninteresting stuff is because designers include mechanics in their games out of tradition or fear rather than necessity. The more layers you add to your game’s mechanics and systems, the more durdling around your players are going to do rather than addressing what is important to them.

When you are designing, ask yourself some important questions. Does your game really need a complex combat system? How many of the character elements (stats, passions, gear, heritage, talents, relationships, etc.) are designed to focus on what the game is about and how many are designed to cover corner cases and contingencies? Is there anything in your text that could be left up to player discretion rather than use a table or calculation?

Focusing your design on what is really important, what you really want play to actually be about, is the best way to avoid the 20:4 problem. Toss out anything that is not reinforcing the object of play and the themes you want to communicate. Food, gear, travel-time, damage tables, skill lists, and all things of that sort are only important if they are part of what makes play fun. A game about traveling nomads in a post-apocalyptic world where conflicts over food and materials are common is the right place for rules involving hunger, starvation, encumbrance, exhaustion, and so on. A sci-fi game about starfighter pilots probably is not.

So, in the end, you need to make sure your rules are tightly focused on what the game is about, what the characters should be doing, and how you want the players to actually play.

A Separate Issue:

There is a separate yet somewhat related issue I want to address while I’m on this topic. I was hanging out at my local game store the other night. I was talking to some guys about what RPGs they play, and one said, “There’s times we never even touch the dice! Those are some of the best sessions we have.” And he was quite proud of this fact.

I thought, “What a horrible thing.” I didn’t say anything, of course, but the reason I thought it was so terrible was because it was obvious to me that the game was not delivering the kind of play these guys wanted. Yet they kept on using the game for whatever reason. This is another type of 20:4 ratio. If you’re using a game’s rules for only twenty minutes in a four hour session, then you probably need to find a new game. It’s clear that the system you’re using isn’t supporting the players’ aims and goals. Why stick with something if you never use it?

This has applications to design. If, during playtesting, the players only reference your rules on the rare occasion, they are probably relying more on their prior knowledge of roleplaying rather than on the new content you are presenting. When this happens, you need to inquire why they aren’t utilizing the rules more or, at the very least, why it seems that way. What is it about your design that they find unnecessary for most of what they are trying to do? Chances are you have left out some critical procedures or guidance.

This problem can be hard to notice as a designer ESPECIALLY when the players are having fun. But it’s not something you want to ignore. If players don’t need your rules for their enjoyment, why would they bother buying your game? It’s something to keep in mind, even for minimalist designs.



Thursday, February 02, 2012

D&D Spell Components: A Lament


A few months ago I wrote a lament about DnD Alignments. I’m going to turn this into a mini-series for Socratic Design: lamenting design aspects of games I grew up with that I wish were explored and perfected by indie games. In light of the news about DnD 5e, I think this series is quite relevant. Today, I’m going to talk about Spell Components.

Specifically, I’m referring to material components. The verbal and somatic were just kind of “meh” to me, but material components piqued my interest. As I stated last time, I came late to AD&D2e, and my group used books from OD&D to AD&D1 to AD&D2 and tried to reconcile them all somehow. As I poured over these manuals trying to learn the system, spell components jumped out at me. I saw them as a flavorful (colorful) addition to spell casting and a way to balance out wizards. In Rolemaster (my first RPG), Mages are really powerful once they get to 6th or 8th level. Icebolt was a brutal spell.

When I actually got to play DnD for the first time, spell components were entirely ignored by the group. The wizard never had to buy any, we never had to quest for any, and even when we would be captured and restrained, he could cast his spells. It was disappointing. When I switched colleges my sophomore and junior years, I found other DnD play groups. None of them used spell components either. Once I started going to conventions like Origins and GenCon, I found that most players around the country routinely ignored the spell component requirement. “Why was it in there then?” I wondered. It’s probably a better question than I thought at the time.

Anyway, I believe that material components for spells is a game mechanic full of potential. I’ve written before on how I think Magic could be used in RPGs. I’m going to expand on those ideas a bit here. In that older article I suggested that Magic could be used to accomplish one of three goals. I’m going to delve into Answer 3C: “Magic is used as Color to enhance the description of the Setting.”

I’ve written before that mechanics should work in a way that reinforces what the game is about (i.e. its thematic elements). For me, material spell components can accomplish this very well. Think about the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Lord Voldemort is restored. The spell requires a ritual and physical components to do something. Each of those components is significant in a thematic and resonate way. It’s more than just pixie dust you bought at the local general store while on your adventure. Those items are meaningful to the characters, the story, and the setting. They enhance the importance of the spell-casting and required work and sacrifice for the characters to attain.

Take also how magic in Middle-earth seems to require physical objects to work. Gandalf turns pinecones into fireballs in the Hobbit. Galadriel can see the future in her water basin in The Lord of the Rings. All this stuff reinforces that the characters have a deep connection to the world and that the mundane can be special.

A roleplaying game that took advantage of spell components (and made them a critical function of actual play) wouldn’t have to worry about balancing powerful spells mechanically. Those spells could just require rare components that must be quested. You can’t just go to Ignacio’s Curio Shop in Freeport and buy what you need. Spell power could also scale up if the mage used rarer, purer, or more personal items as components. It would also enhance the system for creating magical items since that subsystem could share mechanics with the spell casting subsystem.

I never got to play in a game where spell components meant anything to the players on any level: not in theme, not in challenge, not in exploration, not in any way, shape, or form. I think that’s a shame. I feel games that support all three creative agendas could easily incorporate material components into their mechanics and improve both the color and effect of their system. I hope someday somebody does, ‘cause I’d be the first to line up to buy it.