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Formatting

Posted in Games

We get games in a lot of formats these days: hardcover bricks, softcovers that look like mass-market books, box sets, PDFs, 4-page pamphlets, verbal descriptions, apps, videos of play. Many of these games are deliberately aimed at a specific genre or license: Marvel superheroes, Smallville, Star Wars, Burning Empires, Monsterhearts.

All of those formats work, and all of the licensed games I mentioned (and many others) rock, but there’s an interesting mismatch: the format of the games doesn’t bear much resemblance to the format of the license.

Take Marvel Superheroic Roleplaying for example. The book includes a scenario based on the Breakout arc of New Avengers and takes a while to read—I’d want the book at least a week before I ran it for the first time. The collected edition of Breakout can be red comfortably in an afternoon.

Just to reiterate I love Marvel. This is not something wrong, it’s just a place I can throw out crazy ideas. We’ll come back to all the reasons this might not be a good idea later, but keep in mind that this is not a fix for something wrong, it’s an opportunity for experimentation.

What if the Marvel RPG could fit in the same reading-space as Breakout?

This would take some pretty massive rethinking. The game would likely have to be more focused to provide everything you’d need and still fit in the space. Some of the assumptions of how RPGs are presented might have to be rethought too. And to truly fit in the same space it’d have to cut down on the number of external pieces and prep needed.

The idea extends to other genres as well. What if the old (and new?) Firefly/Serenity games could be read and absorbed in the time it takes to watch an episode or two of the series? What if a James Bond game took under 3 hours to read and grok?

I’m slightly less concerned with play time. There are other reasons to think about how fast games move, but for this particular idea as long as the session has enough action to be fun, I don’t really care how it measures up to the source material’s length. At this point I’m more concerned with the barrier to entry: if a person read the first volume of Saga and really liked it, the ideal Saga game should take about as long to get ready for as reading Saga. Otherwise we’re escalating the amount of time required for the potential player.

Even better, what if the games looked the same as the source material? Let’s choose the 5 highest selling Marvel titles and remove any that are a little out of what the RPG can cover (Hakwguy?). We’ve now got 5 titles that people are likely to play with Marvel. In one month, each of those titles gets an extra issue that is the RPG for that comic. It focuses on the current arc of the comic and gives you everything you need to play.

That’s an ambitious design goal to begin with—small page count, short reading time. And, obviously, the Marvel RPG is a license not an ability to tell Marvel what to do. This is unlikely to happen for something that big, but it seems possible for a smaller title.

The current format—a game like Marvel as a big RPG book—certainly appeals to existing RPG players who like Marvel comics. That’s a substantial overlap, and (I’d hope) a good way to make a profit. Single-issue RPGs would be a huge gamble as it risks losing a lot of the existing RPG audience, but it’s more likely to work for current comic readers. A gamble at best, but an interesting one to consider.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and senior test engineer at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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