Something’s Brewing

April 16, 2009

Thanks largely to that swell dude John Harper (check out Ghost/Echo and Lady Blackbird if you haven’t), there’s a new design trend that may soon become a movement. He gives me credit for starting it (via Geiger Counter and my love of hacking), but the intellectual historian in me gives credit to the first Game Chef competition, game contests since then, the Forge Birthday Forum threads where people request games from other designers, the Ashcan Front, “roleplaying poems” inspired by Nordic trends, the anti-publishing undercurrent (frex: Clinton), and stuff like Ben’s XXXXtreme Street Luge and Vincent’s Poison’d, Storming the Wizard’s Tower, and Apocalypse World. I’m a part of all that somewhere, but it’s hard for me to say exactly where.

If I had to sketch out the basic principles of the trend, it would go like this:

  • design small, fast, and light, spending less than a week on the initial design work and then tweaking as you play;
  • design for real people that you plan to play with;
  • hack together existing material that you dig;
  • make it pretty;
  • enjoy playing it, because why bother otherwise;
  • share it freely;
  • ignore formal publication as long as possible (maybe forever), and
  • move on once you’re sated, because there’s always something new and getting stuck on one thing can kill your passion.

Somewhat ironically, my sense is that this is the kind of game design that more “traditional” folks engage in all the time (frex: Brand), but don’t tend to share or necessarily even write down formally. But because these games and hacks are emerging from the indie scene, they’re going to look a bit different and share a certain body of background thought.

Personally, I’m excited as hell about this. Honestly, this is the kind of community of practice that I’ve always wanted roleplaying to be (partially due to my strong passion for design, low attention span, social socket, and overgrown sense of aesthetics). And now it seems like it might be coming together. Rock.

28 Responses to “Something’s Brewing”

  1. Ben Lehman Says:

    There are four Xs in “XXXXtreme.”

  2. Matt Snyder Says:

    I’m pretty fascinated by this trend, too. Harper’s pieces in particular reminded me that I still have ways to contribute creative stuff online, and that free offerings with dazzling presentations are worthwhile.

    I don’t know that I can outright disagree with the principles you’ve outlined. But, unsurprisingly, there are exceptions. I have doubts about the first principle, but that matters very little.

  3. Matt Snyder Says:

    Oh! Damn! I forgot the thing that most interests me! I’m really interested by the amount of material that’s NOT in these things. And, I find it a good thing generally. Harper specifically noted on SG that he does indeed players bring to the document / game a bunch of skills or knowledge or experience. And, great.

    What’s interesting is that stepping back, these things become really exciting things for an existing hobby, for some kind of critical mass. They are, without human hand-holding, things that bring novices into role-playing, as far as I can tell.

  4. Brand Robins Says:


    Its funny, because after Ghost Echo I was talking with John and was like “this is kind of like the internal group documents I make for my game group when we start a new game… but done with skill and a sense of aesthetic that I lack.”

    (And yes, I do lack a sense of aesthetic in layout. Shit, you saw my Changeling hack. How ugly was that?)

    The thing that I find interesting here is how much of these games relies upon “already knowing how to play this kind of game” along with “already knowing what this genre is about.” Because of Harper’s ability to leverage that on a scale wider than that of a single group, he’s able to put something out there that does sort of what I do for my group, but for a much larger and more diverse audience.

    Of course, all of this requires things to be built on the shoulders of giants. Without the initial heavy lifting work of someone else, either in design or writing, a lot of these micro games wouldn’t work. So I think if people start looking to make a movement of it, they should also pay attention to the ecology of it — the way that it interacts with other types of play and design.

  5. Judd Says:

    I love to see how John lays this stuff out and which information he includes and cannot wait to see how Lady Blackbird plays this Friday.

    The “on the shoulders of giants” thoughts are also running through my head. Without techniques I have learned through BW, Mouse Guard and TSoY, I wonder how much sense I’d make of those 8 pages.

    I’d really like to see a few different people play Lady Blackbird:

    1) someone who has NEVER gamed before

    2) someone who has never played any of the games I mentioned above

    and just see what they’d make of it.

    Based on a question or two that popped up on the SG thread I think it might very well be a disaster.

  6. Ralph Mazza Says:

    I actually don’t consider what John’s doing to be “game design” at all.

    I consider it module design or “campaign” (for lack of a better word) design. Endeavors that I hold in equally high esteem, so no “just” should be read into this.

    I make the distinction because I think there’s a danger of thinking in terms of this being a game design trend. I think that’s the completely wrong path to track down for insight.

    The insight I take away from the this is:

    1) the indie game hobby has matured to the point where we are now able to hack together “my house campaign” in the same way old skoolers have been doing for decades.

    2) the natural evolution of the recent emphasis on building a culture of play vs. a culture of design.

    3) how poor a job we’re still doing at designing games with actual useability and functionality in mind. John’s packed more immediate useability into just a handful of pages than any game I can think of has managed to do in an entire book.

    I’d love to see John’s work feed back into design with new games actually including an 8 page “lets get started campaign” right in the book, and used as a promotional “quick start” from a website.

  7. Robert Bohl Says:

    “Poison’d, Storming the Wizard’s Tower, and Apocalypse World”

    Where do you see these fitting in? They don’t seem like XSL, or Harper’s stuff.

  8. Fred Hicks Says:

    The earlier free versions of Fate that went online lived in a similar space. That’s ultimately what the whole community and, eventually, SOTC grew out of: doing a Fudge hack, covering all the bases of stuff we liked, based on play we were actually doing, and then making it pretty (at least by 2003-ish standards) and free.

    I’m not trying to take credit here for starting anything — I honestly viewed it as a combo of already existing principles of the Fudge community combo’d with Rob and I having a desire to make things look more attractive than they typically did. Nothing we’ve ever done has really felt like it’s been original, so much as a synthesis of existing stuff.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying “right on” and “definitely do this” — and perhaps more importantly “this has been proven to work well in the past” and “you never know what this might grow into”.

  9. Colin Says:

    I’m mostly just nodding my head at the “shoulders of giants” line of thinking, but I’d like to expand on that a bit.

    These feel like the SG analogue of “modules” – a specialized outgrowth of a pre-existing corpus of rules and techniques (in this case a spectrum of techniques from different story games, rather than some “Players Manual”) that allows you to play out a particular scenario with minimal prep time.

    And, like modules, they’ll never replace the games they’re based on. They’re not meant to.

    Maybe a critical function of full-sized Story Games is going to be to teach techniques, with the micro-games out there for people to play with others who have figured out which techniques they enjoy and are on the same page?

    Or can these games teach techniques too? I’m inclined to say that they can, but not easily. Apocalypse World, for example, looks really fun to play, but I can’t for the life of me understand Vincent want’s people to run it. To be fair, though, it’s in development. Things may make much more sense when it’s done.

    Did I mention that all of these games look awesome and I want to play them all at least once? They do, and I do. Fun stuff. 🙂

  10. Colin Says:

    [Cross-posted with Ralph Mazza, who articulated it much better than I did. Ah well 🙂 ]

  11. John Harper Says:

    I think module design is a fair analogue. I generally call that game design, though, because I am not a stickler. 🙂

    Also, I’ve been following the development of Apocalypse World very closely and it’s been very inspiring to me (obviously). I think Vincent is making a really amazing fusion of the quick-play module and full-blown RPG, building on the success of Poison’d (the other huge player in this category).

  12. Ryan Macklin Says:

    In reading this, I can’t help but think of the Nordic freeform traditions that are essentially doing the same thing (and have been for some time). Not a criticism or a gotcha, but more of a “I wonder how much individuals have been influenced by that other school of thought, design & play.” I know I can trace influences back to there when I wrote Murderous Character Ballad.

  13. John Harper Says:

    When I said Poison’d was the “other” game of this type, the other I was thinking of was Geiger Counter. GC is a lovely blueprint for how to do a game/module like this right.

  14. Ben: Fixxxxed.

    Matt: The first principle only works, in my mind, because of the “hack” approach which encourages you to work with mechanics that you’ve already played a bunch, become familiar with, and feel comfortable remixing. But yeah, details. And yeah, it’s nice to find a kind of design and sharing that I can really get excited about, that I feel could be sustainable for me.

    Brand, Judd, Colin: Your points about context are important, but, also, I think a lot of the context can also be transmitted through play, in person. So if John brings this document to his group, even if they don’t share the same play background as him, and plays the game with them… Afterwards, they probably have enough to recreate and transmit it themselves.

    Ralph: I agree with you about “campaign design.” Mark Causey does this thing where he hacks games together for convention one-shots or arcs and this is similar to that, with the intent that the game will be played at least a handful of times, in sequence, with roughly the same players. However, I think you’re wrong about it being something less than full-on “game design” or that it’s best use might be in how it informs 50+ page games. I think the stand-alone nature of them (caveat for the context Brand and Judd mention) is one of its main strengths. Like John, I think there are exciting ways to combine “quick-play” and “full game” in a small number of pages (though I haven’t checked out Apocalypse World yet).

    Rob: I mean in the sense that Vincent has created them and released them for free, informally, instead of formally publishing them. And they’re also open to being hacked and, in fact, require play groups to fill in a lot of the gaps in the text with shared context or their own choices. And yet they are “professional quality” and look really sharp. Whatever he may eventually plan to do with them, I think they’re hovering in this space right now.

    Fred: Yup, totally. Also, there’s a reason that stuff like SOTC and TSOY are common sources of hack material. They do so many things right and sit right on the border between “traditional” and “indie” interests, making them interesting and accessible to a bunch of different audiences. I imagine Aspects and Keys will keep showing up in these things.

    Ryan: I mentioned the Nordics in the post above for a reason, but in a number of these cases (me, John, Vincent, a bunch of others), I don’t think they really play a major role in our inspiration. I mean, I’ve been recently excited by Danish scenario play (like Montsegur 1244), but the Jeep stuff isn’t really my thing at all. It’s possible the ongoing conversations and the interest of folks like Em, Jason, Paul Tevis, and Remi in Jeep will play a big role in the future of short-form design.

    John: Or it will be, as soon as I finish the next draft 🙂

  15. Matt Snyder Says:

    Wow, I’m striking out today. That last post entry of mine should have read:

    They are NOT, without human hand-holding, things that bring novices into role-playing, as far as I can tell.

  16. Matt: Why and how would you introduce novices to roleplaying any other way (i.e. without actual humans)? I’m not trying to be cute; I’m genuinely baffled.

  17. Ralph Mazza Says:

    Jonathan, yeah. That’s because you and I have pretty fundamentally irreconcileable ideas about what good game design looks like.

    For me, a good game design should require no esoteric knowledge of its players other than the ability to communicate like adult human beings given the language the game was written in.

    In otherwords, it should teach you everything you need to know to play the game in a way that can reliably produce quality play.

    Neither Lady Blackbird nor Ghost/Echo do that. Therefor, to me, they are utter failures as game design. They are absolutely FANTASTIC as play design. And I don’t think the one is “less” than the other.

    But I do think they are decidedly different things that I wouldn’t like to see confused with each other.

  18. timfire Says:

    You know what this makes me think we need for this sort of thing to work?

    We need a book that presents one or more simplified “models of play”, followed by a whole bunch of techniques/mechanics, followed by some discussion of how the various models and techniques interact.

    From there, someone could just throw together a little 5-page document like John did and be ready to play.

    I know that’s basically how other “modular” games work, but the distinction here is that the “system”/book would focus on play techniques, rather than on mechanics. And rather than have a “game” that simply gets tweaked, the idea here would be to have a generalized “form” (like, let’s say, “jazz music”) that is then processed into specific implementations (like, “a jazz song”).

    (By chance, is that how Jeepform or any of that other stuff works? I need to look more into what they’re doing other there.)

  19. Ralph Mazza Says:

    In reading my last post, I realize that doesn’t actually sound like the compliment I meant it as, so allow me to clarify.

    I think the world probably has enough game designs at this point. We are desperately deficient in good play enhancing / supporting / encouraging designs.

    So when I say Lady Blackbird fails as a game design but succeeds as a play design, I mean that as a good thing…a very good thing.

  20. […] Se blandt andet dette indlæg: Something’s brewing […]

  21. Ralph: As you can probably tell from my question to Matt, above, I honestly don’t think roleplaying should be primarily taught through texts but rather through people, so that’s a big difference in our perceptions of game texts, I think. Whereas you’d like to see better teaching texts, I’d rather adapt to the reality that roleplaying has traditionally had few, if any, good teaching texts and focus on person-to-person transfer of ideas about play and techniques.

    Tim: That sounds like an excellent project for someone to take on, and I’d love to help with it.

  22. Ralph Mazza Says:

    I’m sorry…did I just hear Jonathan Walton submit to tradition?

    I think I’m going to go home and repent, for surely the end of the world is at hand…

    But I don’t know. I think back to the tremendous amount of dysfunctional play in our hobby. I think back to the number of people who had or were about to give up on RPGs before they found Story-Games. I think back to how our hobby has never managed to grow beyond a niche of a niche…

    …and I think, all of those people were taught to play through other people…and the success rate of that method has proven…poor. So lets try a better way.

    If you buy a board game…someone has to be the first to read the rules. Everyone else might learn from that person, but that person has to learn from the text. And they do. And they do successfully. And they manage to learn how to play THAT game without first needing to be familiar with how to play a bunch of other games. And they don’t have to fill in holes in the rules with what they do in other games. And their play experiences are similar enough that they can share strategies with other people who play the game because they all learned to play from the same set of rules.

    And to me…that’s a good thing. That’s BETTER than the traditional way RPGs do it. And that’s a big reason why there are so many more board gamers than role players. Because board game texts do a hellavalot better job teaching people how to play.

    Compared to that…the way RPGs pass down arcane mysteries through oral tradition seems ass.

  23. juddthelibrarian Says:

    I think that RPG rules and techniques have been transmitted orally for so long, not because it works particularly well, but because the texts were created for us to do it that way.

    We could get nasty and say they were/are poorly written but let’s not. How about the texts were written with plenty of room for players to make up their own shit and fill in the blanks, figuring out the left-out bits as they go.

  24. Ralph Mazza Says:

    Sure, I think that’s probably how those texts were written (although I think there has also been a good bit of laziness masquerading as customizability in the later generations of traditional texts, but yes, no need to go there).

    But to me, that approach seems very much to be catering to the hard core of the hobby rather than designed to be accessible to the broadest base of potential players.

  25. Ralph: I’ve personally given up on doing whatever’s best for the hobby. I mean 1) I’m not sure I know what that would be and 2) fuck the hobby. I feel like I should use my resources where they can be most effective: on playing fun games with the people around me (both physically and through internet ties) and helping/encouraging others to do the same. So I guess I’m not really interested in bringing some mythical audience that may or may not read my design work into the hobby. But I might be interested in playing some really cool game/hack with some specific non-gamers that I know. And for that, I don’t really need texts, or, if I do, that’s supplemental to talking with them face to face and showing them stuff.

    I guess, in general, I’m more convinced than ever that revolutions or even medium-sized changes start at the local level, person-to-person and don’t often occur because somebody wrote a really good text. Focus on the small, local, personal stuff, and the rest flows from there, if it flows at all. And, honestly, if the small, local stuff works, why does it really matter what the rest of the hobby does? Those people and their fun aren’t really my responsibility, yeah?

  26. Willem Says:

    “I’m more convinced than ever that revolutions or even medium-sized changes start at the local level, person-to-person and don’t often occur because somebody wrote a really good text. Focus on the small, local, personal stuff, and the rest flows from there, if it flows at all.”


    I think that paraphrases my new religion pretty succinctly. In a sense, this has driven the whole of Lady Blackbird and Ghost/Echo too – games made for the joys of the playgroup that invented them, not for others.

    This provides some pretty heady food for thought. Following your own bliss can do some amazing stuff.

  27. Tommi Says:

    If you buy a board game…someone has to be the first to read the rules. Everyone else might learn from that person, but that person has to learn from the text.

    I’ve learned almost all board games that I have played through mentorship.

    I feel it is very similar to learning roleplaying games by reading and maybe participating in the relevant forums. My process for learning Burning wheel was: Buy the books, read through them, read discussions about them on forums. I think this is very similar to learning by mentoring. I wouldn’t be surprised, at all, if hardcore boardgamers did something similar.

  28. timfire Says:

    I don’t think “oral transmission” of role-playing techniques is inherently bad or ineffective, but in order for that to work, I think there has to be some sort of good “role-model” to follow.

    For example, I would argue that most musical techniques are actually taught person-to-person. But that’s OK, ’cause if anyone wants they can just flip on the radio or head out to a concert hall and see what other people are producing.

    I think one of the problems with the role-playing hobby historically has been that local groups have been rather insular. So if your local group(s) didn’t utilize particular techniques, you had no way of learning them. (We can argue whether that’s still the case, given the internet.)

    One other thought is that since role-playing sessions aren’t typical recorded or performed in front of an audience, there’s no objective record for future players to analyze and learn from, like there is with music. I think that creates a stronger need for good mentorship, which can be difficult to maintain over long periods of time.

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