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.




honeyhunter said...

" It goes back to the early days of independent RPG publishing"

Actually, it was a phrase from a WOTC designer that was picked up for accurately summarizing the problem. I can't remember if it was Mike Mearls, Ryan Dancey, or who, but it came out of their massive studies into their player base.

Troy_Costisick said...


Yeah, I'm really not sure who coined the phrase. I wasn't worried about who got attribution for it, but if Mearls and Dancey (both really smart guys) said it, then the idea definately goes back to the origins of the indie RPG movement back on Gaming Outpost. Those guys were really active on that website and in fact, Mearls was involved in the early establishment of The Forge prior to getting his gig at WotC.



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Unknown said...

An interesting article, however, I would tend to disagree with your stance about not touching the dice or utilizing the mechanics. I imagine this stems from a difference in philosphy in regard of what the purpose of mechanics are.

In my estimation, the mechanics of a game do not exist to dictate what type of things the bulk of the game should focus on, but rather to provide support to the players' narrative. The mechanics of a system are tools that 1) Set a standard for how certain situations should be adjudicated. And 2) Give the players a platform from which to decide certain courses of action, by allowing them to use the standards of the mechanics to tailor their characters actions in order to reach a desired narrative outcome.

To me, it seems like you're advocating a "if you're not playing the game this way, you're doing it wrong" sort of outlook. I've played in sessions of games where we didn't end up touching the dice, and it was never because of a failure of the system, but rather a matter of the narrative of that particulary session not requiring any mechanical support.

Case in point: One session my group played revolved around conducting interviews of various NPCs when we were looking to hire another person to join our party in clearing out an a an abandoned fort. The entire session was pure roleplaying, and required the use of no mechanics, but was still in service of the narrative, which as a whole was supported by a rules system we enjoyed using.

Ill make a comparison to the actual rolling of a die. Just because you haven't rolled a 20 over the course of 40 different rolls doesn't mean that there is something wrong with the die. All it means are that sometimes the normal expectation of a series of events doesn't neccesarily match the actual outcome of those events. Rolling a 20 sided die a slew of times doesn't neccesitate the rolling of a 20, nor does using a particular system neccesitate leaning on the system at all times.