When starting a new campaign (or even just planning a one-shot), it’s tough to get people into a new game. Thus, the game usually ends up being D&D. Now, there’s nothing wrong with it being D&D, but with so many RPGs out there, I enjoy a bit of variety when I can get it.
Why is it so tough? Because the “buy-in” total for the game is too high.
What do I mean by that? The buy-in is anything that has to be contributed by the players (and GM) in order to make the game function. While buying the game itself and any accessories is one form of buy-in, that’s generally not the problem. The problem is how much has to be learned in order to play a new RPG.
This can generally be divided up into two kinds of buy-ins: mechanics and setting (or if you prefer, crunch and fluff.) To expand a bit, let’s use an example. Say I want to run a game of Dark Heresy. In order to have a satisfying game experience, the players need to learn how to play the game. They need to know both how to create a character and how to play, and will be frustrated if they don’t. (The more complicated the game, the longer this process takes.) In addition, I need to convey to them all the setting details of Dark Heresy. This could mean just telling them what kind of characters they can play and what their job will be, or could go as far as having to explain the entire Warhammer 40K universe to them. When running the game, I don’t want to have to stop every few minutes to explain everything: I’d much rather be able to just say “Disciples of Nurgle have infected the toilets of Hiveworld P247 and a joint force of Ultramarines and Eldar are on their way to battle Tyranids on the other side of the planet” and have that actually mean something.
Even D&D can have this problem. I’ve yet to run a game of Forgotten Realms or Eberron, despite being interested in those settings, because I know they come with all kinds of baggage that the players will have to buy-in to in order to get the most out of it. Leaving aside published settings, there’s always going to be a buy-in required to understand whatever world I’m running, which is why I tend to lean towards “exploration” games, where the PCs begin with very little knowledge and then learn more and more about the world as they play, both in and out of game.
Of course, different RPGs have different levels of buy-in necessary. A White Wolf game, with its emphasis on the various factions, is going to have a higher story buy-in, but the rules are generally pretty portable between them. Some games are going to have more complicated mechanics: joshx0rfz ran a campaign of Iron Heroes, which despite being largely d20 based, still had enough differences to throw off the players and cause slowdowns in the game.
This all is especially a problem in convention games, which is often an ideal location to try out new RPGs. New players have to learn the rules, setting, and scenario in a very limited timeframe. It’s often just easier to play something you already know, unless you are sure you’ll have an awesome teacher, or the game is structured as such to allow easy access. Those are two ways to get around buy-in issues, but there are others.
RPGs from licensed properties usually have the advantage when it comes to story/setting buy-in. When I sit down to play Star Wars- in any system- I have a pretty good idea what to expect. While I may have to find out what era we’re playing in and lookup what a Trandoshan is, much of the work is done for me.
The same was true for the Wheel of Time game I played in. However, that game had another advantage: it was the d20 system, and didn’t stray all that far from the basic d20 setup. Thus, I was up and running rules-wise very quickly in that game, allowing most of my energy to go into playing my character, and the DM’s to practice his Illian accent.
That’s one of the many reasons D&D tends to get chosen as the current game so often. Since D&D got there first, most of the players are familiar with at least the basic concepts of how to play and what the setting is like (no matter the edition) to mostly dive right in. I myself am very fond of d20 Modern for similar reasons: the rules are similar to what I already know, and there’s almost no setting buy-in whatsoever: it takes place in today.
Still, I find myself yearning to play other games, which is why I find myself fascinated with games like Dread. The rules buy-in takes a grand total of two sentences, and I can use whatever kind of setting I want. Dread looks to be the kind of game that I can play with just about anyone, which I certainly can’t say for most RPGs. Of course, there’s always going to be this push and pull between a game with enough options to satisfy players and keeping it simple enough to understand easily, so a rules-lite system like Dread may not always be the answer.
I don’t think there’s a good, one-size-fits-all solution. In my situation, it’s likely to stay the same for a while: either I’m running D&D (or very similar game), or I’m running something extremely simple like Dread. I welcome any comments about the idea, and how you’ve tackled the buy-in issue in your games.