Raph Koster wrote an excellent post last month on the ease with which a well-designed game can be thoroughly and disastrously ruined through the implementation of one stupid idea. That's not quite his take on it, but Raph is a fairly polite fellow, with a good corporate face he presents to the public; I'd love to know what he really thinks.
I must tell you, O gentle readers, when I go looking for game design articles intended to make me think, Raph's site is where I begin reading. It is the only place on the net where I read article after article without the need to comment about how the writer is inaccurate - but then, all these writers are doing very well for themselves.
Koster ends his post with the following:
"Every inconvenience is a challenge, and games are made of challenges. This means every inconvenience in your design is potentially someone's game."
Read that very carefully. This may be the reason your game design sucks. You have spent such an amount of time creating monsters that are cool, or dungeons that are keen, or tables that are nifty ... but you haven't yet created anything intended to challenge your players. You haven't given them anything special to overcome. You've created a bougoise resort, where they're put on tour and told to look left and look right at all the fascinating pretty things you've devised, but there's nowhere to get off the bus that isn't brimming with ready-to-eat buffet tables for their convenience. Yes, yes, it's all very nice, but the world you've created is Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean. It isn't paint ball, it isn't skydiving or kayaking. At its very, very best, it's miniature golf. The monsters are all laid out in neat rooms, and the players get to knock the ball as best they can, but there's only one hole where the ball goes.
Well, someone is bound to say, it's pen and paper at a table. It's not going to BE paint-ball, no matter how hard you try. Don't expect too much.
Think about why paint-ball works - about why it is FUN. You get to hurt people. Oh, you don't hurt them very much, but the little balls hit hard enough to bruise, they certainly hit hard enough to know you've been hit, and there's an excellent adrenaline-dopamine rush involved in not wanting to be hurt, yet really relishing hurting others.
Sure, we don't say "hurting." We say hitting or sometimes killing, or some other removed word that doesn't remind us we've just had a great afternoon causing others to feel pain. Even if they shout about the pain they feel, we're quite capable of blotting out the questionable morality by intoning the rules or blatantly dismissing pain under rhetoric claiming, "If you weren't ready to get hurt, you shouldn't be here!" Ah, the human brain. So conveniently compartmentalized.
So we all agree to be hurt, and we all agree hurting other people is fun - and we all agree its a bit MORE fun when you get hurt somewhat less than the people you hurt. There's no question about it - the participant who has done the most damage is probably having the MOST fun. That's something else we compartmentalize out of our thoughts.
It is fun to hurt. And there are activities where hurting others - even strangers - is considered acceptable.
Yet I also mentioned kayaking. You're not hurting others in kayaking (if you are, I want to know how that game is played!). The principle is similar, but not quite the same. Yes, the less hurt you are, the more fun you're having ... but if you're not hurt at all, then you're NOT having fun. If the watercourse isn't capable of hurting you, then it's boring. You want there to be a chance of being hurt - and if you're hard core, you want there to be a chance that the watercourse will kill you (thus, skydiving too). Otherwise, you're bored.
Any activity that has the potential to hurt us dupes our hormonal system into flooding our blood with a variety of consciousness-affecting chemicals. That's the rush. No threat, no drug. It is the natural drugs we want.
Those drugs very definitely exist at the D&D gaming table, because the participants bring those drugs with them. At the gaming table, we may not be able to threaten people physically, as with a paint ball gun or a river gorge. I haven't yet dropped a player out of a plane at 9,000 feet (give me time).
But I have created a world that threatens a player emotionally. Character death, insults, tension, frustration, inconvenience ... it all leads to anger and shouting and thrills and human-manufactured drugs. The game has to be hell on the players, else the players won't enjoy it. Convenience up the game for the players, and you'll reduce the game to something that doesn't need their effort or suffering to succeed at ... and people love to suffer where it comes to succeeding at things. They may not want to risk being hit by a paintball, but they want risk - they want to know the character they love has at least a chance of dying - so that when the character doesn't die, the absolute triumph at clubbing down the monster's last hit point brings a scream of pleasure.
If your players aren't wallowing in despair from time to time, they're not nearly as high as they could be.