Declaring that a game is “good” (or, worse, “bad”) is almost always a controversial prospect. In general, I prefer to say that I have liked or disliked a game rather than claim that it has an absolute or objective quality. “Good” is a subjective distinction, and opinion will vary from player to player.
That said, I feel pretty confident in defining what a good game is, as long as the definition itself leaves room for subjectivity.
Vincent Baker (designer of Apocalypse World among other games) says that a game is a bell curve of player experiences, and it’s a suggestion I largely agree with (assuming a non-technical definition of “bell curve”). Someone who enjoys the game immensely will be under the higher-end tail of the curve, and someone who has a miserable time will be under the lower-end tail of the curve. Most will have an experience somewhere in the middle.
The player experience will be different every time they take part in a game, and different for every player taking part. One player may have a good experience in one session and a bad session in another. Two players may have different experiences even though they are playing the same game at the same table at the same time.
The goal is to shift the entire bell curve towards the positive end. When playing a roleplaying game, the probability of having a good experience should be as high as possible, and the most likely experience should be as good as possible.
Simplifying it a little:
A good roleplaying game is one that fosters a good gaming experience for its players.
Player experience at a gaming table is not solely as a result of the rules of the specific game they are playing, of course. There are a large number of factors. Other players, environment, mood, and impinging real life issues all play a part.
But the factors associated with the game itself are the only ones in the designer’s power to change.
Here are some of the ways I’ve seen designers improve the player experience:
- Mechanics are enjoyable to engage with;
- Rules promote certain behaviours, and thus generate specific types of story, affect or play;
- Presentation inspires player creativity (usually in directed ways, e.g. through tone or setting);
- Marketing of the game means it is most likely to be played by the people most likely to enjoy it.
This is not an exhaustive list, but each of the items is broad and covers a lot of methods.
Intuitively, it might seem that a game do as many of these as possible, but in my experience it’s better to focus on just one of them. Vampire: The Masquerade did a huge amount to inspire its players with the tone, setting and themes of the game, even though the mechanics were not easy to engage with and the rules incentivised the wrong kind of behaviour to support the tone. Smallville is the best game I’ve ever played at promoting specific player behaviours, but the resolution mechanics are unwieldy and the setting can easily be changed. Any number of board games focus on the enjoyable mechanics to the exclusion of player behaviour and narrative.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how a game goes about improving the player experience. But if people don’t enjoy playing a game, it’s hard to justify calling the game good. And if people really do enjoy playing a game, no matter what critics think about it, then it must be doing something right.