Thursday, 18 December 2014

Experiential Goals Within Role-playing Games

Hello World,

There is an old adage with tabletop games called the ’20:4 Ratio’ that states within a 4 hour RPG session, the average player only experiences 20 minutes of fun.  While the ratio poses a rather unfair and generalized opinion, it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t hold some truth.  While there is a plethora of factors that limits the amount of fun to one tenth of a game, I believe it is most severely caused by a lack of coherence within the game.

Coherence is built when the players, system and surroundings all promote the same experiential goals. These experiential goals, often called a creative agenda, are the embodiment of what a player wants to achieve within the game. This agenda is different from person to person, and can fluctuate over time. One day you may really want to play through a challenging dungeon crawl, while another night you are craving a comedic adventure. The more the game you are playing aligns with your experiential goal, the more ‘fun’ you will have.

Thinking about it, I have never heard of something like the 20:4 Ratio occurring in video games. At least not to the same extent it has for tabletop RPGs. I think this is primarily due to how focused and concise video games generally are. When you start up a video game you know exactly what you are getting into.  Start up a game of Super Mario 3D World with some friends and all the players expect the same thing. They experiential goals align with that of the current game.

 “Complete the level with the most points”

It’s when the goals of the group don’t align that the experience stops being fun. For example, if one player in the above group wants to instead focus on collecting all the secret stars in each level while the others compete for points, the experience becomes a lot less enjoyable. However, if all of the players are make it their goal to collect the secret stars, the experience becomes fun again.

This is an area that I feel tabletop RPGs really struggle in. Within the same campaign each player can have drastically different experiential goals. This is due in part to a lack of communication within the group as to what game is going to be played. If the game master says he wants to run a cliché swords and sorcery themed game, different players get different ideas in their mind. One player thinks the game will be about traversing dangerous caverns to reclaim magical artifacts. While another wants the game to be about political intrigue in a mystical setting. The GM however may be prepping for an epic quest for revenge. All three of these players might as well be preparing for three different games. Within this campaign it is likely that the second player will only have 20 minutes of social intrigue in a 4 hour session. The game only aligns with his experiential goal one tenth of the time, giving him only 20 minutes of fun.

That premise of cliché swords and sorcery does not help the group focus on the games’ creative agenda.  What is more important is to determine the game’s aesthetic. If the game is going to revolve around gritty and challenging dungeon crawling, make sure everyone knows and is on board for that. Once the aesthetic is figured out, make everything build upon it.

- Have a setting that has danger around every corner and resources are sparse

- Pick a system that emphasises that style of play [Dungeons & Dragons / Pathfinder]

- Set up you play environment to echo the game, dim lighting [candle even],  dark and ominous/epic music playing or even some dungeon ambient noises.

Art Can be another good way to convey aesthetic

If all of the stimuli  within the game points towards the same aesthetic, the experiential goals of the players are more likely to align, leading to a much more enjoyable game. While this is a very extreme case the point still remains, try to make everything about the game consistent. More consistency means a higher likelihood that experiential goals will align.

If you are interest in learning more about this topic you can check out:


For now though, Thanks for Reading

- Patrick Lapienis

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