One of the very first things I did when rediscovering RPGs was find Shock: The Social Science Fiction RPG. I think I was googling "Philip K Dick""RPG".
It was a storygame, I thought it was pretty neat. After a while later, playing more RPGs, learning more, I wrote about why Shock and the other interesting Indie games I was finding wouldn't really work for my group.
I continued to be interested in them and read them though, holding out hope there'd be something useful in one of them (despite seemingly entire indie game subculture trying to keep outsiders the fuck away). The free-form combat system in Burning Wheel looked cool? But in practice it just took too long and wasn't real different than D&D where you could just do what you wanted anyway. And actually playing Burning Wheel was mostly just funny. Dread had that questionnaire character sheet and the Jenga tower, but...nope. Dungeon World was supposed to be a solution to every unnecessary complexity in D&D? Wah wahhhh
Anyway, point is: it is undeniable that these games were full of innovation. And equally undeniable that none of it was helpful. This was weird to me--I can usually find a useful mechanic in fucking anything. Over and over it seems like the same issue: massive swaths of the systems were solutions to problems I don't just not have, but I've never even even seen in real-life games. And so much text about what you weren't supposed to do.
So much of the design space is based around avoiding pitfalls that don't seem to happen (or that were solved problems ages ago) that there's little left for genuine forward-looking ideas. It's somehow new but consistently not presenting new material? New but reactionary.
Someone's got a term for it, courtesy of Twitter. Somebody's slideshow:
a problem that shouldn't exist: "GUMSHOE exists to solve a problem that many people found with running Call of Cthulhu – one bad die roll can derail an adventure." --that's straight from the section called "Why This Game Exists". So while I'm grateful for Ken Hite's prose and research in Trail of Cthulhu, the system (a lot of the book) left me cold.
So, here's a small gallery of post-traumatic game design text
All I’m saying is, the PCs’ stories aren’t yours to write and they aren’t yours to plan. If you’ve GMed many other roleplaying games, this’ll be the hardest part of all: let go of “what’s going to happen”. Play the town. Play your NPCs. Leave “what’s going to happen” to what happens.
-Vincent Baker, Dogs In The Vineyard, pg 91What game was he playing? What game does he think we were playing?
It’s not, for instance, your agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around). It’s not your job to put their characters in double-binds or dead ends, or to yank the rug out from under their feet. Go chasing after any of those, you’ll wind up with a boring game that makes Apocalypse World seem contrived, and you’ll be pre-deciding what happens by yourself, not playing to find out.Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside.
(Caps the authors. )-Vincent Baker, Apocalypse World, pg 108
…stick with me for two last bits. First, likeability. This should be a person you can believe in, a power-set you like looking at, a problems profile you can sympathize with. Second, stay super basic – no fancy justifications, no attempt to get ahead of the point-costs, no special push for originality, no piling on multiple different skill or power-sets.
You may be tempted to write up a complicated text piece about the character’s origin. However, origin stories are not about how I got my powers, but about why our story starts here, referring to the immediate situation when the character is introduced.
-Ron Edwards Champions Now Playtest document
How did originality bite you on the ass?
“Okay, so now that the monks are locked inside the tower, I set fire to it. That’ll teach them to look down their noses at me! Burn, monks, burn!”
“As soon as it’s my turn to guard the prisoner, when I’m sure the others are all asleep, I stride over to him and slit his throat.”
“I’m tired of taking guff from the gnome king. I have my heat shield cloak on, so the confined space of this throne room? One word: fireball!”
Ah, that classic moment of roleplaying dysfunction, when one person in the group decides it’s time to cross the line from lovable rogue to psychopathic scumbag. This classic move of the uncollaborative player either wrenches the storyline onto a grim sidetrack of consequences that fall on the entire group, or shreds the plausibility of your ongoing story.
-Robin Laws, here
Don’t make the PCs look incompetent
When a PC rolls a 1-3, things go badly, but it’s because the circumstances are dangerous or troublesome—not because the character is a buffoon. Even a PC with zero rating in an action isn’t a bumbling fool. Here’s a trick for this: start your description of the failure with a cool move by the PC, followed by “but,”and then the element in the situation that made things so challenging. “You aim a fierce right hook at his chin, but he’s quicker than he looked! He ducks under the blow and wrestles you up against the wall.”
-John Harper, Blades In The Dark p 197and the Moby Dick of the genre...
Don’t Use This System
That’s right. You heard what I said. Don’t use it. If you are rolling dice in the course of the game you have done something wrong. Or at least that is how I see it. But I admit that I am somewhat of a roleplaying purist. Telling a consensual story with players sitting around the table, all inputting their parts of the narrative is the most perfect game to me. It requires loads of imagination, insight, teamwork, a certain level of verbosity, sense of curiosity, and a hunger for knowledge—all attributes that are well suited to any aspect of life, not just the gaming table.Ok, now that we all feel good about ourselves, I will say it again: Don’t use this system. Dice and numbers just get in the way of good story. And that is what we are all after, deep down, isn’t it? A good story. We come to this game inspired by brilliant narratives and we want to participate. We want our chance to act in the story, to change things, to do it our way—we come to the game to get in on the action. The system should be subordinate to that desire, kept in your pocket as a back-up to your own good story. It should support that story and help it move along, not bog it down, and drag it in impossible circles. That is why you shouldn’t use this system, or any system for that matter.Let the story reign. My favorite nights around the table are the nights when we don’t roll any dice, the nights where all the hurdles are overcome with a little discussion, a little teamwork and a lot of roleplaying. Trust me, these nights are not just “sit around the campfire and talk about our adventure” nights. I have run whole rebellions without touching the dice. The inspiring words of a commander are far more important to the game and to the players than a roll of the dice.This system is the antithesis of that free form of storytelling. It is exacting, accurate and sometimes harsh. A well-placed roll of the dice will tell you unequivocally if you have succeeded or failed—if you survive or if you are destined to bleed out your life staring at the twilit sky. This system will inject such a fierce drama into the game that players might come to enjoy it. They might look forward to rolling the dice—to seeing their ideas accurately represented in those little cubes. And we wouldn’t want that! We wouldn’t want the system to actively support the characters and their development. We wouldn’t want all this to make sense, now, would we? So, like I said, don’t use this system.
-Luke Crane, Burning Wheel Page 230
And, no, the irony of this title for this blog post isn't lost on me. But keep the term, it might come in handy.
Now back to writing 258 super-powers....