I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want
I don’t have coherent RPG tastes. There’s a variety of different things I like, and they don’t all necessarily play nicely together. There are few categories for me, but there is a spectrum, and some individual things can come from anywhere on the spectrum, even against my “normal” tastes.
There’s also a few things I snobbishly turn my nose up at (especially as GM; as player, I’m still picky, but not as picky) some of which often go together with things I like. And I’m not consistent when it comes to things I like or dislike. I have little overall philosophy. I’m not a good critic.
All that said, for the sake of a blog post, some things I like are:
(1) Emotional involvement. I want a reason to care about the story. In RPG terms I want to like the player characters, or at least be interested in them. I want to care what happens to them. This applies both when playing and GMing. As GM, I love it like no other thing when the players get emotionally involved. As player I want to care about my character and feel their decisions, but also care about the other player characters.
(2) Mechanical involvement. When I’m engaging with RPG mechanics, I want one of two things. I want it either to be simple (and over with a single roll assuming we’re using dice) or a tiny bit tactical. By the latter, I mean if there are repeated dice rolls in a conflict (which often in RPG terms means combat; I may come back to that), I want a tiny mechanical decision with each roll. It might just be the choice of whether or not to spend a resource or take a risk with each roll, or a choice of actions. But I like to have something. Basically, don’t give me repeated rolls without any decision (whether in character or tactical) in between.
While I’m talking about mechanics, I also want any single mechanically involved piece of resolution (again, usually combat) to be over within at most 30 minutes (for something huge), with 5 to 10 minutes being more typical than 30 minutes.
(3) Appropriate mechanics. I want mechanics to suit the setting and mode of play. If it’s a general system (I don’t believe in “generic” systems), I want an appropriate one for the genre and mood at hand, since one size does not fit all, and I want it tweaked and customised to fit the setting. At the very least, this means character creation should produce something both appropriate and with some of the setting flavour. And character creation (or reading the character sheet in a one shot) is a great point to start “teaching” the setting, from the point of view of a character being played. Which is after all the one that matters.
(4) Mechanical leanness. Basically, not using unnecessary mechanics. For example, unless part of the game is about travel in some way, I don’t want us to be using encumbrance rules. And while we’re at it, I don’t care about or really want specific subsystems for poison, disease, falling, and drowning. Or fantasy accounting, going through and buying every piece of equipment with fictional funds.
(5) An RPG which gives you an idea of the sort of characters people will be playing, and the activities they are involved in. It doesn’t have to be hyperfocused in every single game, but it’s a good thing to have. If the player characters are a group of people from diverse cultures adventuring together, I want to know why they’re together.
(6) Openness of player character action. I’m not talking about railroading here, but more at the “scene” level. When the player characters come across a problem, they need a choice about how to deal with it. If in a fantasy game there’s an ogre guarding the bridge (yeah, boring example), do the player characters fight it, lure it off the bridge and sneak past, bribe it, goad it into an eating competition which they’ve fiddled, or something else? I like some sort of choice rather than an automatic fight scene.
(7) Setting and mood. If I’m going to play an RPG, sell me on a setting, player character activity, or mood, or ideally all three at once, and tell me you’ve got the mechanics to support that. Give me cultures, places, factions, conflicts, and people. Give me enough detail to lift or tweak, and enough information to understand. But don’t make it boring. That’s the directive from me…not that too much setting or too much information is a bad thing, but boringness is bad.
If I’m a player, don’t overwhelm me as GM. If I’m a GM reading a book and you’ve written the book, write it well, and remember that what I’m after is characters, places, adventures, and flavour, with flavour in a supporting roll for the others. I don’t necessarily need my people, places, and adventures directly…good and well-written flavour and cultural descriptions should give me ideas. Setting material can be great, but I want it done well!
(8) Happy pretendy fun times. I want to like the people I’m playing with. I like playing with people who are my friends, both people I see regularly, and people I only occasionally manage to get together with. I like playing with people who I don’t know at the start, but I think can be my friends when we’re done. This goes across the board for everyone present.
This last one is the only one I _have_ to have, or I don’t want to play. It applies both with regular groups and at conventions.