TTRPGs: target audience part 1

From my own observations during my time in the TTRPG community, there generally seem to be two big groups of fans: one, the people who played D&D and similar games back in the 80s and have never stopped, or have taken up the hobby again recently; and two, the newer players who got into the game a few years ago after D&D’s popularity skyrocketed when 5th Edition came out. Shows like Critical Role and Dimension 20 pulled in a lot of these latter players: most folks I’ve spoken to said they got into TTRPGs after falling in love with Critical Role.

There’s a clear distinction between the two groups: the 80s gang tends to focus more on tactical play and combat, while the younger audience prioritizes drama and storytelling.

It’s also worth noting that a substantial portion of younger TTRPG players are queer, or part of a minority. There’s an in-joke in the community that D&D helps people figure out their sexuality and gender by letting them test-run it in a safe environment: a game of pretend among friends.

TTRPGs also seem to be popular among neurodivergent people (we get to beta-test social situations, and a TTRPG has literal written rules about how these situations are supposed to work).

Recently, there’s been a push to make TTRPG spaces inclusive to all minorities (that is, not just queer and neurodivergent people). There are, for instance, third party rules for chronic pain and combat wheelchairs for D&D, and recently, Wizards of the Coast published optional rules for a character’s lineage (the previous rules were rooted in very problematic racial stereotypes).

One last thing to note: there is a vocal minority of older TTRPG players that want to gatekeep the hobby from others, especially minorities (“a disabled character is so unrealistic!” and “why can’t I have evil races anymore?”). These players are NOT the intended target audience for TFTS.

TTRPGs: theme and genre

Unless you want to design a universal game like GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System), one of the first decisions you have to make before you even begin to design, is settling on a genre or theme. A system usually reflects the genre of its game: for instance, Tephra is a steampunk TTRPG that is based around the d12 (12-sided die), because the number 12 and clockwork kind of go together.

A whacky space opera will require completely different mechanics than, say, a crime noir set in a 50s inspired world, and both will in turn be different from heroic high fantasy. A mechanic for space flight and FTL shouldn’t go amiss in space themed systems, but would be wildly out of place anywhere else. Likewise, a system centered around criminals and heists might have a heat mechanic.

The genre of your game might also help formulate what kind of abilities player characters can have. Medieval fantasy might have little use for a high tech engineer, but could have magic users aplenty.

Another important question is this: do I want this system to work in one setting, and one setting only? Or am I designing for a whole genre? The latter will have to take many different eventualities and sub genres into account while the first will potentially lack the adaptability for homebrew or third party settings.

But all this is not written in stone: of course you can have space druids and fantasy engineers, if you build the mechanics for it. Deciding on a genre doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself; it just means you have something to work off of.

TTRPGs: rules

TTRPGs are about telling collaborative stories. It’s a lot like writing a book, but each player is a main character, and the GM (game master) has to adapt to whatever they decide to do.

So why have rules at all? Why not just create a story without having to adhere to the game mechanics? Won’t a bad dice roll ruin an otherwise cool character moment?

Not at all. In the words of game designer Matt Colville, “rules are not a tyrant to be obeyed; they’re a language that helps us communicate.” And let’s be real, if a whole group is telling a story together, there’s bound to be disagreements. Rules keep the game flowing, they provide a simple framework through which to tell your story.

Not every TTRPG is the same, though: there are rules light games like Honey Heist (you play a bear planning a heist to get to the grand prize, a giant pot of honey), where the entirety of the game mechanics fit on one sheet. Then there’s rules heavy games like Shadowrun or Pathfinder, the latter of which has over 600 pages. These games favor different things: in Honey Heist, the game flows pretty fast because there’s just not a lot to look up; and when the situation calls for it, the GM can just make a ruling on the fly. Shadowrun and Pathfinder favor clarity. A GM running these systems should have a very good understanding of the rules, because looking them up is an ordeal and a half, which in turn interrupts the game flow. But, on the bright side, the books provide clear rules on just about any in-game situation.

As a TTRPG designer you must weigh one option against the other. Want a concise rule set that’s open to interpretation? Or a detailed one that may take a while to memorize? Maybe you want a little bit of both (D&D 5th edition is a good example for a game that has a medium rule set). You have to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I want to prioritize game flow or clarity?
  • How much room for interpretation should I leave?
  • Do I want to emphasize drama or combat?
  • Should my game mechanics allow for the Rule of Cool?
  • Are success and failure binary, or are there degrees of success?

Tales from the Shard: Creating an Indie TTRPG

The idea behind this project is to build a brand new TTRPG system in cooperation with my GM. Creating a TTRPG from scratch is usually the work of an entire team, which is why I believe this project may still be eligible for a master’s thesis, in a reduced capacity (a “starter set” if you will) and if co-authorship is allowed.

A TTRPG system needs mechanics for different game aspects, such as roleplay, utility, and combat. In the case of TFTS, there would be rules for a character’s culture (as opposed to racial abilities, as is often the case) and vocation (a modular system that replaces the at times rigid classes system). Although not mandatory, TFTS includes a setting native to the mechanics, called “the Shard” (some TTRPGs are made to adapt to any setting, which would not be the case here).

The two design fields that apply here are those of game design and usability. For one, creating a functioning TTRPG needs careful planning of the rules and mechanics to maintain a balanced gaming experience. Second, these rules must be playtested over and over again before the finished product can be published. (Lastly, the product itself will need accompanying artwork and layouting.)

The goal of this project would be to create a functioning prototype (a version 1.0) in the form of a hardcover book. My responsibilities would most likely include the creation of the accompanying illustrations (including the cover), the planning and analysis of the playtests, writing up some or all of the texts, and assisting in the creation of the game rules.