Under the Hood – A Matter of Depth

A Matter of Depth
By The Warden

We’ve talked about it before and it bears repeating. One of the best features of roleplaying games is their versatility. Not between individual games – that’s always up for debate and varies from player to player, ironically yet another sign of RPGs’ versatility – but across the entire industry. There’s little end to what you can pretend to be, regardless of genre, inspiration, or style and it’s a landscape that’s grown through independent publishing.

The discussion for the impact of such variety in a small marketplace is for another time. This is a column on game mechanics and that’s what we’re here to talk about: the effect of variety on game mechanics and their ability to make its game a success or failure. What’s kicking around in my mind relates to some of my own considerations, options, and whatever other clever terms I can whip up, and that’s the game’s depth. Depth is a term I prefer for the level of provision your game will have at its minimum, represented by the number of core and supporting products, such as adventures, supplements, and bonus resources (i.e fold-out maps, minis).

It’s one of the earliest decisions, if not the first, in game design. Obviously, there will be a core rulebook, but how many pages will it contain? How much should you set aside for rules? Character creation? Do you have a unique setting or setting options? From there, will you be able to support supplemental products? How many per year? How many of them will be supplements/adventures and can you guarantee they’ll be out and selling within a certain amount of time from the core release?

We all know a game with failing mechanics is a flop and in the pursuit of demonstrating their capabilities and attracting a wider audience, many publishers and game designers consider the depth they can afford to achieve. Seeing as it directly affects the game’s budget, it’s the selling point to any publisher. If you can only afford to do so much, you need your game to work quickly and efficiently without bogging down your pages with rules and complex character generation and maintenance. Many systems provide similar content, but the way they’re presented to fit within their allowed depth can make them appear vastly different.


Major publishers such as WotC and Paizo can afford to produce a vast number of support products for their games and both use them in similar ways because their systems support the demand. Modern versions of games like D&D took a mildly different step from earlier versions where the emphasis on support products were adventures; they build in pre-generated add-ons, such as feats or edges from Savage Worlds. Sure, you could always go about creating your own using the core rulebook’s examples or you can simply scroll through a couple hundred examples and find the perfect one you know will work because it’s tested and publisher approved. Theoretically. The proof is in the feat or edge’s requirements, whether they’re based on levels, classes, races, or other selections and events in your campaign. For the most part, they’re intended for an elongated number of sessions to create a massive campaign.

It’s an approach I like to call the shopping mall. And I know it may seem insulting seeing as we’re on the Internet and everything’s all anti-capitalism, but it’s not my intention at all. There’s no denying the convenient approach of finding everything you need in one collection and that’s exactly what games like D&D and Savage Worlds offer. The only difference may be in payment: true shopping malls would charge you for every feat or edge your character needs (DON’T GET ANY IDEAS, PUBLISHERS!!!) while shopping mall games require you to pay a set price and you can take whatever you want in that particular store (or book, as it were).

Smaller, independent games capable of offering one or two products in its entire lifetime may skip over such elements entirely. As a result, their games are designed for one-shots or a brief exploit within the system and its setting for a few months before moving on to something new. They’re intended for dabblers and older players who have to condense and maximize their time without endless paperwork and preparations in the days and weeks prior. They need to pick up the pieces, glance over their character, learn or remember the rules, and start rolling. No excuses. It’s why they’re predominantly turning to story-based systems to solve their depth problem.

In which case, independent games provide players with a select number of open-ended components based on their character’s personality. Each game may have a certain number of parameters or pre-constructed key selections, but the majority of the character’s uniqueness will come from you, the player. Achieving that demands no more than a broad enough concept and application capable of handling the common, the unusual, and the bizarre.

Aspects from FATE are an incredibly effective way of handling independent systems and rather than affect bonus training and experience of a major RPG’s standardized attributes, they represent the core capabilities and highlights of the character. In a sense, they are the key features of the character. It compliments the system’s resolution mechanic as you can pick and choose your aspects and enhance them with skills to determine your total bonus through a storytelling element – you have to describe how your character tries something using the aspects and skills you’ve selected. It’s the complete opposite, yet basically similar function, as shopping mall characters all attacking the same way using different expansions. When it all comes down to it, you’re all making an attack roll against a difficulty number or opposed roll. The difference is how your attack is assembled.

These games can now get away with limited pages and content and still put out a complete work. This reserves any support products for settings and complimentary adventures or open the gates for other publishers to step in and fill out the corners.


And so we come to the open and limited licenses and there have been many success stories where the community was invited to join in on the party and take it back to their place. It’s been an effective strategy for both shopping malls and story games alike and for the same reasons. It saves the new party-goers from spending their own resources on explaining the game’s mechanics and lets them right to the good stuff: crunchy bits. “Sure, sure, you know how to play Savage Worlds, but we’re going to show you how to do it in space. With dragons. And blackjack.” Prospective players can learn the particulars of a given setting within the first few pages and gauge interest right there in the story or preview. There was a little something back in the last decade where this exploded to nuclear proportions, but I can’t find my notes on it anywhere. Probably not that important after all.

Additionally, open licenses provide one extra incentive favouring publishers: you have to buy their core rulebook if you want to use the supplement. Not for the entire rules, mind you, just for the character creation and experience tables. Even unlicensed settings offered some measure of free advertising for the core rulebook and its attached system, in the same way music piracy does help keep a band’s name out there. It also presents prospective players and Gamemasters with an automatic basis for their expectations; if you don’t like d20 settings, the odds are likely you’ll skip anything with the logo on the back cover.


Unfortunately, there is a consequence to making the wrong decision and it mostly affects independent publishers. If you create a complex, purchase-based system and can only afford to produce one or two products a year, it could seriously backfire on the game’s longevity. Coupled with other crucial factors, such as market impact and setting, players could either grow weary of the limited options or find them too overwhelming for the brief amount of time they’re willing to play said game.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for major publishers releasing a story game, though it may be due to lack of experience rather than absolute success. If a big player releases a game with limited rules and affords to pump out a dozen plus releases over a given year, the worst that can happen is greater exposure. Failure in this case would be dependent on the game mechanics and marketing rather than depth.

Independents face the greater risk in their game’s depth and its incredible difficulty to bounce back from a flop when you could afford to make that flop. Poor depth management is no better than poor debt management; it catches up with you eventually.

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