This post is completely a thinking-by-journaling piece, so even more than normal I'm developing my thoughts as I go.
I've been listening to GDC presentations during my commute the past 2 weeks. Today I listened to the newest release, a 2018 presentation by Zach Gage called "Building Games that Can Be Understood at a Glance." He introduces the idea of a game that is "subway legible", i.e. if you play this game on your phone while taking the subway, the person next to you can glance over, see the game, and get enough visual information to grab their interest and communicate the core mechanics/point of the game. He teaches people how to create these types of games through the idea of the "3 reads".
Using the example of a concert poster, he explains that the first read is what people can see from a distance and immediately grabs their attention (e.g. the band's name in big text); the second read is when that person moves closer to the poster, seeking more details (e.g. the day, time, venue); and the third read is when people look at those much smaller details that provide the information you only need if you're going to act on the poster or especially interested (e.g. the organizer of the concert's name).
His talk is relatively brief and gives some great examples of how this applies to visual design in games, user interfaces, tutorials, advertisement, etc.
As I watched, I started thinking that this applies really well to tabletop rpgs as well.
The first read is the phrase that cues people your game might be for them. It's the thing that sticks out in a tweet, makes someone click on drivethrurpg, or the first few words you say to a friend to try and get them interested in playing.
The second read is the core of the game, the meaty part that is going to be most important when playing and probably help you know if it will be a good fit for you. This is probably the part that helps push you towards buying the game or agreeing to try a session.
The third read is when someone starts learning specific rules or strategy to play the game.
(Related: he points out that structuring tutorials around this flow helps people learn easier; it's definitely helping me solidify how I want to re-organize my rulebook order/chapters).
Let's try applying this structure to a TTRPG.
1st read: Torchbearer is Darkest Dungeon as a TTRPG
2nd read: It's a dungeon crawl game that pushes you to choose between continuing for more treasure, which will help you survive, but risk debilitating conditions and possible death, or giving up earlier, but maybe not having enough gold to recover or buy necessary equipment in town. If you die, it's always your fault, because it only happens when you push your character beyond the safe point.
3rd read: The grueling dungeon crawl dynamic is pushed by three key mechanics: the Grind -- after you take a certain number of actions, your entire party gains new conditions like hungry or angry; your Inventory, an easy-to-use system which limits how much loot you can carry to realistic limits (e.g. you must hold it in your hand or fit it inside a limited-space backpack), forcing you to choose sometimes between food, light, or treasure; and how dice rolls resolve if you fail -- the GM can decide to introduce a twist that makes your situation more dire, or let you succeed despite the bad roll, but you have to take a condition that weakens you further.
This idea of 3-reads is becoming increasingly more important for Karma because it has changed through development. When I started the hack 2 years ago, the first read was "Shadowrun using the Blades in the Dark rule system."
That's not really an accurate first read anymore, especially with each new refinement and iteration. This is causing progressively more problems because people hear that description, look at the rules, and react with, "But Shadowrun doesn't have [X]," or "Where is [Y]?"
Right now, my trouble is balancing what I find most interesting about the game with what other people will find most interesting about the game. So the following is my totally-not-focused-on-PR version, just based on what interests me the most:
1st read: It's a cyberpunk-fantasy game where you play characters who think they are Jedi but progressively act more like Sith to survive.
2nd read: The baseline world is defined by oppression, and you start at the very bottom of the ladder: idealistic but completely powerless. As you try to prove your worth, you constantly have to decide between risking failure--and the fallout that comes with that--or compromising your beliefs in exchange for a better chance at success and power. This plays out through fast-paced, action oriented missions with periods of downtime for recovery and reflection.
3rd read: The system has five core mechanics to support this:
the karma tracker -- your group decides on their team's core ideals, and when those are compromised, the team gets closer to corruption (i.e. game over) and the world around them also becomes darker as the GM advances the campaign's main threat, but if the team lives out their ideals it stops corruption in the world from getting worse;
collaborative world creation -- your group gets to design how oppression works, from picking the powerless/powerful groups to the ways technology and magic are used to designing the core factions in the world;
sell out mechanic and relevance effect -- when a character sells out their beliefs or acts in a corrupt way, they gain bonus dice; when your character goes up against someone with less social power, they succeed more easily and with a bigger impact;
contacts/fixer/prestige -- at the start, your characters can't do anything without the help of others because they are so powerless (using contacts for rolls, a fixer for jobs), but as you succeed at missions you can improve your prestige and become as respected (and impactful)as any of the most powerful factions
gm campaign creations and tools -- the gm creates a specific threat for the campaign, which advances at the same pace as the team's corruption level, giving the team either something to fight and provide a contrast to their ideals, or creating a mirror effect to reveal the consequences of the team's growing corruption; the game also includes some GM principles and tips to help tempt the characters to the dark side
--> somewhat related to the whole "choose the dark side" flavor, I'm going to make it so people can sacrifice their PC in the final phase to increase the team's roll result for stopping the karma front, allowing the team to pull a bigger compromise from the GM on how that threat resolves...so basically you could pull a Vader to stop the GM's main villain from succeeding (or at least, from completely succeeding)
or you can still say "meh the rest of the world" and play out the final phase with your PC alive, and roll for their final resolution/end state...or push them into the new team and new campaign ...or turn them into one of those often referenced but never revealed antihero classes.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.