That’s part of why I’ve run unusual and “new to me” games from published quickstarts (7th Sea, Chill, Conan) and core book sample adventures (Cryptomancer, Feng Shui 2). I dig seeing what designers imagine is a good introduction to their game. Sample adventures in the main book should show off where the fun is. On the other hand, quickstarts have a more complicated mission.
Quickstarts have to explain just enough rules to play, provide an adventure that works with that slim-form system, and make a compelling case for the game as a whole. Some great products hit two of those solidly and end up weaker on the third. A few manage the full trifecta. So I have a few thoughts about what makes for a good quickstart. While I present these in absolutes, these are my opinions. YMMV.
Just about everyone has their QS available in pdf form. That’s great to see. It makes getting pieces distributed to online players much easier. I can “print to pdf” to create individual sheets for pre-gen characters. But companies need to think about the physical form even if the product’s only released electronically. When I run, I generally print the scenario and/or the rules to have those ready at the table. IF YOU DO WHITE TEXT ON A BLACK BACKGROUND OR A HEAVY WATERMARK, THAT’S A MAJOR PAIN IN THE ASS. Stop doing that. I don’t care if that’s how your main book looks. I’m interested in functionality here. Know your purpose; know your audience.
LIKE AN ONION
Related to that, give us layers in your pdf. Let me turn off backgrounds if you have them. Encourage accessibility. This helps for both printing and reading. It’s an extra step, but you can find tutorials. Also, pdf quickstarts should allow owners to cut and paste text. GMs need to deliver setting and backstory to the players. Offer tight, evocative text they can put in front the table. Don’t make them retype by hand.
Far too often, I have to type one-page cheat sheets. I’m amazed at how few games give a simple mechanical summary I can distribute. I constantly refer to these before and during sessions. It’s also a good, quick sales pitch for the game—showcasing the mechanics. Games with menu choices desperately need this. In Robert E Howard's Conan players have multiple options for “momentum” and other spends in and out of combat. It’s tough to keep those choices in front of the player. The default assumption of a QS should be that someone’s teaching this to new players—help the GM do that.
DEATH TO DARLINGS
I don’t need to know your entire game. I don’t want to learn everything. Make careful choices, stick with basic modules, and maybe show off your killer tech. Think about how to get to the most essential features of the game. Simplify and file away sharp edges. Cutting mechanics isn't bad if you tell the reader. Mention in sidebars that this is an abridged version and hint at the exciting other concepts available in the full game. The 7th Sea Khitai Quickstart does a solid job of this. 7th Sea has a simple core system and the quickstart distills that well, while still leaving room for some ornamentation, like the discussion of magic and fighting styles. Those elements function within the quickstart, but are tightly written as an appetizer for the full game.
That’s a tricky balancing act which has to sync up with any presented adventure. For example, in the Coriolis Quickstart, characters have several talents listed which the rules don't actually explain. Those should have been cut from the character sheets.
Playtest quickstarts. See what new players find unexplained. Consider if that element's necessary. If so, figure out the tightest way to present it. The Coriolis quickstart could have had a sheet providing just the pregens’ talent explanations. Or just cut. I’d say cut.
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY TIMELINE
If your game has a deep, rich, extensive history, cut it down. I’ve read quickstarts that delved into a setting’s full backstory—timelines and centuries in detail. That doesn’t help me as a GM; it doesn’t aid play at the table. Tell me what I need to know to evoke this world. Highlight interesting and meaningful elements. Designers can still use some world blather to showcase and sell the larger game. But if I can’t see the world forest for the lore trees, I’m not going to present your game well.
Intro adventures should highlight several aspects of play. If you’ve got killer tech in your game, make sure players see that. Vary what PCs are doing and give them choices. I’ve seen too many QS adventures which boil down to combat and survival checks, with a sneak check thrown in. Offer NPCs, social interactions, challenges, fights, decision points. Let the players do something—there’s nothing like a railroad to dim excitement.
BAIT & SWITCH
I have to come back to the Coriolis Quickstart. It’s super pretty. It does a good job of laying out the background and what you actually do in the game. I backed the Kickstarter on day one. I love the idea of Middle Eastern aesthetics in a sci-fi game, a counterweight to Western and white games like Traveller and Fading Suns. But the actual adventure you’re given is weak. First, the setup relies on a lot of obscure context regarding past wars... but then that doesn't actually matter. Second, it’s the most clichéd of sci-fi movie tropes: trapped on a spaceship with a killer alien; a bug hunt. But third, and most damming, it doesn’t explore the game’s premise. We don’t get the feel of “Arabian Nights in Space.” It’s an adventure you could literally drop into any other sci-fi game without changes.
It's vital to playtest intro scenarios. Obviously you have to get the mechanics right and matched to the stripped down version you present. But you also need to get story elements right, especially if you have a mystery. If they run them, many GMs will be coming to your QS in a rush or while figuring out the rules. Check to make sure the logic of your clues works. Recently I ran an intro adventure with highly specific pieces of evidence. But literally one of the pieces, though it pushed the story forward, couldn’t have existed. I’ve hit other adventures where timelines and events don’t make sense in play. And that’s what the players will latch onto. A good GM will be ready to swerve with this, but they shouldn’t have to.
THE PRICE WE PAY
If you’re giving us a preview edition—especially a preview for a Kickstarter, make the pdf edition free. I’ve got no problem charging for the physical edition. That makes sense. But if you charge for what’s essentially promo material I’m not going to bite. And I’m going to remember that when it comes around to KS time. That sounds a little judgey, but I’m really talking about big ticket publishers. PWYW is an alternative,
Lastly, I prefer if you leave your quickstart a little open. In particular, don’t name, detail the appearance of, and fully backstory the pre-gen PCs. Let the players have room. You can spell out the character’s role, personality, and traits, but give them the chance to own their PC. When I do pre-gens for online games, I let the players fill in the last 10% of the character. I know some pre-gens have explicit references to particular PCs in their plot, but you can generalize that by role (like Captain, Diplomat, etc.).
So what do I like? I can point to several products which have hit the mark. The City of Mist Starter set knocked it out of the park. This small publisher took a risk investing that much effort and energy into a quickstart. It looks gorgeous and is playable right out of the gate. The CoM Starter Set convinced me to back the game. On the other hand, Weapons of the Gods is an out of print RPG, but it has my favorite intro adventure ever, Auspicious Beginnings. It shows off the setting, demonstrates mechanics slowly, and offers lots of choices. Check it out—I’ve stolen the basic premise several times in numerous contexts.
One recent development I’ve dug are “Ashcan” versions of ttrpgs. Magpie’s Velvet Glove, Pasión de las Pasiones, and Crossroads Carnival offer a taste of the game combined with replayability. They’re stripped down, early versions of the game you can play nearly fully from. Their PbtA nature means they don’t have to offer an intro adventure, just tools for building a setting. Ashcans are useful and a great physical artifact to play from—so they’re worth paying for. I like how they’re a preview, with the idea that the game will be different when it finally arrives.
Agree? Disagree? Points I've missed? How detached am I from reality?
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.