As you write your roleplaying game (RPG), ask yourself this: who is your audience? Are you aiming for a specific type of game master (GM) or player? Do you only want the dungeon-crawl kill-everything crowd? Do you only want the high-drama crowd? Do you want to appeal to both? Or someone else entirely?
Pick Your Audience and Stick With It
Pick an audience to appeal to. You can decide, “I want this game to appeal to everyone,” which is a legitimate approach. But you have to make that decision; you must know who you’re trying to appeal to if you want your work to be consistent and your customers to be even remotely happy. Yes, it’s impossible to make all of your customers happy; everyone wants something different from their roleplaying experience. But consistency does help.
Get a firm grip on that audience you’ve chosen. Look at everything you produce with an eye toward “will this appeal to my chosen audience?” Write down a handful of broad characteristics that you believe appeal to your audience, and judge each work you produce based on that list before you publish it. Do some research when making your list; read through books that have been popular with the sort of roleplayer you want to attract. Talk to people. Run polls on web sites. Read newsgroups and mailing lists. Make extensive use of playtesters.
Admit Your Audience
Go ahead: tell everyone exactly who you’re trying to appeal to and be very clear who you’re aiming your game at. Make sure your writers know it (in fact, give them that list I was talking about). Make sure your customers know it. Plaster it on your web pages and the back of your books (without being elitist about it — there’s a difference between saying “this is my intended audience” and “the rest of you suck”).
When you attract buyers who aren’t your intended customer base, they probably aren’t going to be happy with the product. Plenty of them will let you know that, too, and tell you in what ways they’d prefer you to change things. You’ll get tempted to do it in order to attract a wider customer base, and then you might end up with a schizophrenic product that’s trying to appeal to too many different crowds at once, and in the process making everyone unhappy.
Obviously it’s necessary to listen to your customers and to make adjustments to your work based on their suggestions. But you do need to carefully choose which changes to make.
Of course if you choose, research and admit your audience and you still seem to be attracting lots of people who don’t match the crowd you’re aiming for, then rethink your audience goals. Are you aiming for the wrong audience; should you consider that your product appeals to a different audience instead and go with that? Or was your research incomplete — do you need to change your list and try to do better with the next product? Only you can make that decision.
Play to Your Audience
Keep in mind that different GMs need different sorts of material. Some GMs need everything spelled out for them and need rules for everything. This is particularly the case if they’re inexperienced GMs running a game for unruly people; sometimes the only way they can keep control of the game is if they can point to rules.
On the other hand some GMs find rules very restrictive and would prefer to have the ways and means to muck about with the world without upsetting the game balance too quickly. Some GMs and players need the rules spelled out very clearly in order to understand them or prevent abuse. Other GMs and players want to be able to run through the rules as quickly as possible, and feel comfortable using common sense to fill in the blanks.
On top of that, different sorts of roleplayers tend to want different sorts of rules, background material, and so on. If you don’t have a lot of experience writing roleplaying games and aren’t sure what different roleplayers want, then look at what’s out there already. Check out the popular games and see what they provide for their customers. Talk to people and ask them what they want out of a roleplaying game.
Aiming for Everyone (or Aiming for the Other Camp)
What if you want to aim for everyone? What if you want your game to appeal to as many roleplayers as possible, and you don’t have a specific audience segment in mind? What if you want your game to be flexible? Or, what if you want your game to appeal to a type of roleplayer that you don’t normally get along with? This is a bit of a tricky situation, so keep a few extra things in mind:
- Don’t go around slamming types of roleplaying that you don’t like if you want to sell to those people. No one wants to patronize someone who doesn’t like them. This sounds obvious, but clearly it isn’t, since I’ve seen it happen quite a few times.
- If you do look down on certain sorts of roleplaying, think long and hard about whether you really want to try to appeal to those roleplayers. Are you going to be able to write well for them? Are you going to be able to talk to them reasonably when they contact you? When you look down on someone it’s hard for them not to pick that up.
- If you’re still convinced that you want your game to appeal to everyone, then consider that the point of roleplaying is for the roleplayers to have fun. If a group is having fun with what they’re doing and they aren’t causing anyone any harm, then is what they’re doing really that terrible? Just because you don’t agree with a roleplayer’s style of roleplaying doesn’t make it “wrong.”
The requirements of different sorts of roleplayers seem difficult to reconcile if you want to appeal to as many roleplayers as possible; I believe the key is to provide a variety of material. Give a summary of the key points of the rules for those who want to move quickly and fill in their own blanks. Provide details and examples for the people who have trouble getting it or need to rein in difficult players. Suggest some ways to play with the rules for those people who want your material to be flexible.
Most of all, if you’re trying to aim your game at more-or-less everyone, then listen to the people who contact you with suggestions. You obviously shouldn’t follow every single one (many of them will contradict each other). But you should carefully consider the issues that lie behind each request, and whether there exists a way that you can address them.
Get a Handle on Your Game
You don’t have to make your game appeal to everyone. Most games won’t, and that’s fine. It’s hard to have games with a good, strong feel to them that appeal to everyone. Just try to have a handle on what sort of roleplaying your material is meant to support, and make sure that your work and your writers’ work backs that up. Different crowds of roleplayers often prefer very different types of material, and if you provide the wrong one you could find yourself with a real dud of a product and some very unhappy customers.