What do you look for in a review of an RPG?
I’m picking an alternate to the standard Day 10 question. The default is “where do you go for RPG reviews?” but I don’t tend to look for them on any one site. A general search usually takes me to a random blog, and sometimes to rpg.net. If I’m at a con or with other gamers in real life, I’ll ask them about how a game works and what it’s like. Nothing more to say on that really.
If I am seeking out a product review though, I’m interested in some very specific things about how the game plays. This list is mainly for game systems, rather than adventure or setting supplements.
What sort of game does this support well? An atmosphere-building slow-burning narrative, or something fast and furious; one-shots, mini-series or extended campaigns? Optimised for one genre, or adaptable?
How does character creation work? Is it collaborative, lightweight, or emergent and I’ll be ready to play in 15 minutes? Or will I be looking up 40 different tables and have a mountain of intricate character decisions to make and a backstory to weave before I can really get going sometime towards the end of next session?
How do characters progress? I roleplay to tell stories, and I want my characters to evolve. How does the game support developing a glorious character arc.
What do the characters do in this game? What is their agency in the world? How do they change it? Are they out on expeditions, do they crawl through dungeons, run businesses, rule kingdoms, merely struggle through life?
What is the basic resolution mechanic? In most cases, how do I get stuff done? What’s the core engine? How is it exercised – cards, percentile check, dice pool, 2d6, 2d20, etc? (This is the closest I get to caring to know what the system is – I’m not at all precious about whether something is d20 or another type.)
How complex are the rules? Is there a simple consistent mechanic, maybe with some edge cases. Or are there lots of micro-systems to get your head around? Will I be looking up lots of tables in-play, or is everything boiled down to what’s on the character sheet? I’m making a judgment about whether I have the time to invest in learning a new system.
What’s the setting like? Is there a whole world set up as the background? Is it heavily detailed or mostly flavour? Is there a meta-plot? Is it intrinsic to the game, or optional/interchangeable? Are the background layer and rules layer closely tied or loosely coupled?
How does it play? When used in the kind of game it’s intended for, how does it run? Does the system run in the foreground, or does the adventure? Do the rules encourage certain playing styles and character actions? Are social and physical conflicts resolved quickly?
Where is the game imbalanced? What would you hack or house rule? Or is it good to run as written?
What does it come with? Are there form-fillable character sheets? Clear rules summaries for sharing with players? A starter scenario that’s included? Campaigns available or forthcoming? Interesting game and scenario design advice?
That’s probably quite a lot to expect. When I look at a detailed review I’m ultimately using it to support a buying decision. So I’m thinking about whether it’s the kind of game I would like to run (and not just play). If it is I’m assessing whether I’m likely to make the time investment to be able to do so.