The Elusive “Family RPG”

Lately I’ve seen some references to RPGs in what is (to me, anyway), a new context throughout the blogosphere. That is what I call “the family RPG”. Something that is “evergreen” (i.e., has steady sales at toy and mass market stores in the same way that Monopoly and Operation do), something that you would expect to find in any house with kids, and something that gets trotted out on “family game night” with more or less equal frequency as Risk, Life, and Sorry!

Among the OSR blogarati, such a thing is “rules lite” and weighs in at 36 pages; it’s bought and the purchasers are never heard from again (perhaps “everbrown” is a more apt name for such a product from a marketing point of view). Among the rest of the RPG universe, it’s a way to lure new people into more expensive (and thus lucrative) games; the longed-for gateway drug that will finally steal the audience away from WoW. I’m not sure such a thing is even possible, but let’s explore the possibilities.

I believe there are a few criteria that a “family RPG” needs to meet:

  • It’s got to be accessible. Weird settings that require a lot of acclimation and understanding are going to put off the average family, which should be looked at as a “quadruple casual” gamers, if that. Go with something at least vaguely familiar; a wildly popular IP is a choice, but it runs the risk of alienating folks who just don’t like Harry Potter, Tolkein, or Iron Man.
  • It’s got to be easy. Easy does not necessarily equate to “terse” or “short”. A set of rules that’s four pages long and packed densely with information, jargon, and acronyms is going to fail. Reading level should be no more than 5th grade.
  • Corollary to the first criterion: It has to be quick to start. Monopoly takes about as much time to set up as it takes to count out the money. Risk takes a little longer, but not much. Spending an hour on character creation is a non-starter.

  • It’s got to be geared for 3-5 players. That means 3-5 classes, or races, or roles, or whatever. No more, no less. Save the rest for expansions for the hard-core players. You need to have one for mom, dad, and 1-2 kids, and deciding should be as easy as choosing between the car and the top hat. Why do you think “Hungry Hungry Hippos” is made for 4 players, and Monopoly works best with 4-5?
  • It’s got to be forgiving. You trade two railroads for Baltic Avenue, you won’t automatically lose the game, even though it might be harder. Same thing if you roll four 2’s and a 1 when defending Kamchatka. The sort of “you are punished both for stupidity and for bad luck” that many old school games embrace just won’t fly.
  • It’s got to be fairly winnable. It could be a team win, or an individual win, but it cannot be a situation where one player serves as the referee/foil for the rest. In a family scenario, nobody wants to be felt “ganged up on”, and that’s what the DM is, basically, in traditional D&D-type games. Normally, that’s counterpoised by the near-omnipotence of the DM, which in turn is balanced by the fact that people will leave the group and find a new DM if he is consistently unfair. However, plug that into a family scenario where mom had a bad day at work, or Susie stole Jimmy’s last Popsicle from the freezer, and it becomes a madhouse of metagaming mayhem. What’s lost is the last piece of balance; in a family game, you can’t just go find another group, because you’re stuck with the family you’ve got.
  • It’s got to be fun. Because nobody plays a game twice if halfway through you have to ask “when does this become fun?”

The question becomes, can such a game be designed and still be recognizable as an RPG (in the way most of us think of RPGs)? I don’t pretend to have an answer; if I did, I’d be pitching it to Hasbro right now. Thus the discussion; are there parts of the above that invalidate the RPG concept? Can you have an RPG in the D&D sense of the term that is easy, quick, accessible, 3-5 players, forgiving, fairly winnable, and fun? Did I miss a criterion or is one of mine off-base?  Please weigh in.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

15 thoughts on “The Elusive “Family RPG”

  1. I think there's potential to develop some product like that, but it may not "qualify" as a full-fledged RPG.

    There of course have been attempts, like Dungeon!, Dragonstrike, Talisman, or Descent, to create a FRPG feel in a board game.

    There are also some board games that could lead to including RP elements, such as Zombies! or Betrayal at House on the Hill.

    The big problem with most of these is that of continuity. These types of games (haven't played Descent yet, so not sure about that one) have you at your full power at the beginning and you never get any better, barring cards/items acquired.

    And the next time you play, you're back to where you started again. And while the second class of games use tile-drawing to create the board and make things different, it takes a lot of time, work, and skill (or money to buy all the expansions) to get something different.

    If that could be fixed, then there's hope for an evergreen intro RPG. And I think this is the place to start – with board games, not with RPGs.

  2. And its got to be cheap. Most board games at your local ToysrUs is $20-$30, more if it's a "premium game"

    I think you could have a $20 starter set and $10-$20 add-ons to increase complexity and variety.

  3. The Pathfinder Beginner box works pretty well in most of these regards. I think it is a nearly perfect way to introduce new players to the game and get them playing literally immediately, from the moment you first open the box.

  4. I run a game with my 4 kids, two 6 year old kids, a 7 year old and my oldest a 12 year old. We play Mutant Future. They love it, have grasped the rules pretty quickly and we play it as much as any other game.

    Recently my 7 year old lost his first character and without a miss beat he asked to roll up another character.

    The game is run as a hex crawl and the kids wander about doing what they want, exploring, looking for parts for a motorcycle they found and just kill and loot stuff. It's fun and reminds me what it was like when I first played.


  5. "Can such a game be designed and still be recognizable as an RPG (in the way most of us think of RPGs)?"

    No. GM-less games require a dissociated mechanical approach that render them very distinct from traditional RPGs.

    In addition, GM-less games are significantly more difficult for new players than GM'd games.

    So I would ditch the "no GM" clause from your list.

    What I would add to your list is a very clear game structure: Most games function by giving their players a very specific sequence of what they're supposed to do and how they're supposed to do it. OD&D did this for both players and GMs. Very few other games have; and even D&D has abandoned it almost entirely over the last two iterations of its rules.

  6. LEGO's Heroica sets might be on track with what you're talking about. I would get them for my kids if they weren't already fairly D&D obsessed.

  7. I completely agree with Lord Gydion's comment that playing boardgames *IS* the introduction to RPGs. This is especially true of the more cooperative boardgames (Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Last Night on Earth, etc.) as well as the story-telling boardgames (Once Upon a Time, Runebound, etc.).

    The problem is that a core feature of playing an RPG requires multiple sessions of play: character improvement over time. I'd argue that such a commitment is beyond your average family, which means that you are limited to scenarios. However, if you are going to go with scenarios, then there are plenty of boardgames that are out there.

    That said, The Game of Life is pretty close to an RPG with regards to "character improvement." I loved it as a kid, and my kids loved it as kids. Maybe something like that combined with a scenario-based framework would make for an introductory "rpg."

  8. An excellent post. I still remain convinced that strategies involving brick and mortar stores and rulebooks are not going to do anything for the game in the long-term, but that's not what I'm posting about.

    I think the old "First Quest" boxed set was a pretty good approximation of what you are getting at. Still, unfortunately, it had too much in the way of rulebooks and the poster maps were not re-playable. All of which makes it too big and expensive (IMO, for reasons you explain) to be an option for family or cafe "game night" events, especially with kids.

    I would like to see a study on how many people have played Monopoly or Risk after reading the rulebook. While I agree with Justin Alexander that the DM needs to be a part of the event, the players should definitely be able to play happily without needing to read a rulebook at all. I don't know how that got to be such a basic assumption of FRP play. Actually, I guess the "RPG industry" wanted that, but it's probably the first truism they need to ditch. The players' info and interface should be about as dense as a smartphone app (and, eventually, probably will be that only).

  9. We don't necessarily need something new and packaged for the family. In my experience, all one needs is to target the agining gamer dad such as myself and work to nudge him to dust off his his RPG books (or buy new ones) and introduce them to his own children much like myself and Eric have already done.

  10. I don’t see any reason why the 1981 version of D&D shouldn’t still be on the shelves next to Monopoly and the like.

    That doesn’t mean that it needs to be more like Monopoly. So, I don’t think any of the changes you outline are needed.

    It’s just that, like Monopoly, there is no reason for it not to be there. It is a classic game that people can enjoy just as much today as in 1981. So, why can’t they buy it the same place they can buy Monopoly?

    It doesn’t need to be a gateway. Some people would certainly move on from it to other RPGs. Some people would be happy with it being their only RPG forever. And that’s OK. Just like it is OK for Monopoly to not be a gateway to anything else.

    Now, personally, I’d put it in one box. I’m not convinced the Basic/Expert split was such a good idea. I’d also want to split the tutorial aspects from the reference aspects. Still, you could do worse than just dumping the contents of the Basic and Expert sets into a single box.

  11. There is also another alternative to the "family" boardgame, which is the "party" boardgame. These are things more like Scattergories and Taboo. You don't target mom, dad, and the kids. You target young couples getting together for cocktails.

    There actually already exists an introductory RPG that specifically targets this market: How to Host a Murder. Check it out sometime. Aside from continuity, it would be challenging to find a criterion in which it is *not* an RPG. Unfortunately, it is not marketed as such, so no one ever looks for more complex games like it.

    I'd also say that Fiasco fits this category of games extremely well. If someone could take Fiasco, re-package it, and market it more broadly, it has the potential to really take off.

  12. First, thank you for addressing this idea. I’m not at all saying that RPG’s shouldn’t be a hobby, just a game. Nor do I consider a simplified or truncated set of RPG rules (for the sole purpose of selling the full set), a mass-market RPG. (Although ideally, the mass-market rules should at least related to the hobby version of the game.) Simply, can the RPG experience (open ended adventure) be replicated in a set of rules designed for non-hobbyists? Not just kids and families, but also groups of just teens or adults.

    The rules don’t have to be dumbed down, but they need to fairly easy to understand and remember. (It’s not like all family board games are simplistic, either in rules or strategy.) They should also not require a referee to adjudicate. The DM would be more along the lines of the banker in Monopoly, or in this case, a Master of Ceremonies who introduces scenes and plays the part of beings encountered.

    Character creation is quick. Characters can be modified somewhat or not, depending on the player. Adventure creation is also quick with a book of scenario hooks and goals, many random encounter elements that can be rearranged, and groups of beings that can be modified or not, depending on time constraints. The running time may be estimated by the number of encounters. (If only RPG’s did the same sort of hand-holding for DM’s in adventure creation that they do for character creation.) This would be the main difference between the hobby RPG and the mass-market one: full adventures can be created straight from the book, with only a little imagination needed. The base rules are complete, but more scenario and setting books would be available.

    Character advancement rules are very simple, or can be disregarded. Likewise, the adventures may take place in a persistent environment (a campaign), or just be one-shot scenarios with one-shot characters. The rules support either style. A DM might make up an adventure before the session from scratch, or by randomly rolling it up as the adventure goes along. (No change there from regular D&D.)

    There is no gameboard with the game. In my opinion, one of the details that differentiates D&D from Canyland is that D&D should be playable without a gameboard. No, I’m not saying you need to play the game in your mind like a Zen master. I use miniatures and maps. But I don’t use a gameboard. This isn’t Chess or Panzerblitz. Also, a battle mat and precise positioning is going to increase the need for more rules, not decrease them.

    So what does this game sell? A freedom of action and many possibilities for play that a typical boardgame doesn’t have. Imagination and heroics. Players doing goofy, dumb things with their characters and dying horribly and being laughed at later. Or, somehow coolly taking out the big bad guy with a lucky roll and a ridiculous plan.

    Unfortunately, this theoretical game requires resources and playtesting that will likely preclude a fan-made version (certainly fan-made scenario books would propagate). I don’t think WOTC can do it, at least not alone. I think Hasbro’s expertise would be needed, at the very least, in getting the game in the toy store’s game aisle.

  13. Do Descent or (Hero-/Warhammer) Quest not fit the required criteria? Dungeon crawl games with nice simple basic rules and loads of models and cardstock terrain for little hands to play with. True, the price point for those big boxes was 'Xmas money' rather than 'pocket money', but they're an effective gateway game.

    Lego Heroica? That just wishes it were WHQ.

  14. Actually I can see a really simple engine using a set of Fudge dice, three attributes with values raging from + to – and a resolution system that's based on matching symbols rather than pure maths.

    Character's would have abilities/powers based upon what attributes were +, – or just average. Character advancement would be gaining a breadth of abilities/powers rather than getting better within a narrow field.

    Let me give this some more thought.

  15. I think the only way this could be done without a live DM would be to have some sort of software that acted like the DM. I'm envisioning a geomorphic maptile setup, preset PCs, and the use of a computer or iPad to track data and display outcomes and display. Perhaps the game would offer a variety of options at each decision point, and the players would collectively choose the best option … e.g., you see a sleeping dragon, do you a) attack it b) quietly shut the door or c) steal some treasure …

    So it's tabletop, it's boardgamey, but it allows cooperative gameplay and 'action RP,' if not 'real RP.' An introduction to the hobby, and perhaps an inspiration to try the 'real thing.'

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