Writing the Wrong Game

We all have that vanity project, right? The one that gathers dust on our hard-drives and old notebooks – a personal RPG that we’ll finish someday.

I have one. Actually, funny story, I’ve created two vanity project RPGs in the past… but the BIG one, the one that keeps getting away… that’s still out there, waiting to be finished. I’ve probably been considering this one for about five years now and at one point, I had real traction. I had a prototype that I was ready to test out with players and stuff. It was going to be real.

Of course, this was before I kinda slipped out the back door of gaming and just, quit in April 2019. And don’t get me started on the emotional burden of the pandemic.

But, now that I’ve written an introduction worthy of your grandmother’s tomato sauce recipe; here’s the thing I think I’ve learned.

I’m writing the wrong game. And I always have been.

What I’ve Been Working On

The game I’ve been working on is a slim game. It’s very story-game in its orientation. I started from this conceit that I wanted to create a game that built itself around the structure of a novel. There would be clear story arcs, chapter breaks as a game mechanic, a whole set of rules for playing NPCs when your main character wasn’t in the action.

Characters were defined in broad terms; short skill list, fuzzy traits that left room for negotiation and interpretation at the table, and an on-the-fly magic system. The magic system was particularly problematic and was often what brought the whole project to a screeching halt because, well, magic systems are always a problem. But also because the magic system was built on the faulty premise that vague, inspiration-based magic is what I wanted as the game designer.

Now, I’ve read some exceptional lightweight story games that really inspired me.

  • Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North by Ben Lehman (2005),
  • Malandros by Thomas McGrenery (2016),
  • Ocean by Jake Richmond (2009) (also, Tokyo Brain Pop, 2013 by Jake Richmond),
  • InSpectres by Jared Sorenson (2002),
  • Dog Eat Dog by Liam Liwanag Burke (2013),
  • Heroine by Josh Jordan (2013).

If you haven’t read these games and you love RPGs, then you should make the time for these. They are exceptional examples of creating tight, small games that do something really well and the writing is often quite inspiring.

And not quite story games, but if you haven’t looked at Barbarians of Lemuria by Simon Washbourne, Castle Falkenstein by Mike Pondsmith, or – a personal favorite – the Amber Diceless RPG by Erick Wujcik, then you should give these a read as well.

These are all quality games that really pushed me to want to create something.

But they pushed me to want to create the wrong thing.

With the exception of Amber, which is a unique case I’ve written about many times before, those games I mentioned above aren’t the ones I’ve spent hours and years playing and really getting into. Most of my favorite games are very different.

The games I’ve spent the most time and energy playing and really building memories with are old school D&D, The Atlantean Trilogy by Bard Games, Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, The DC Heroes RPG, GURPS, Shadowrun (2nd and 4th editions), the Star Wars D6 System, Teenagers from Outer Space, and Warhammer Fantasy RPG (2nd edition). All fairly traditional-style RPGs that vary in complexity but all focus on creating a coherent, comprehensive set of basic rules that can be extrapolated into the campaign you want to create.

While I see the play of RPGs as a very particular, cooperative social contract – a structured conversation with room for interpretation and negotiation – I still want the game system to do the heavy lifting of mechanics so that I – as the player or GM – can focus on story. I often find that games like Call of Cthulhu or Shadowrun are more freeing than story games because I’m less concerned about how mechanical shit is going to go down at the table than with a fluffier game system like FATE.

While I see the play of RPGs as a very particular, cooperative social contract – a structured conversation with room for interpretation and negotiation – I still want the game system to do the heavy lifting of mechanics so that I – as the player or GM – can focus on story.

Don’t get me wrong; all those indie games I listed above are brilliant and inspiring. While I don’t love FATE, I do love the very FATE-like ICONS super hero game. In future, it would absolutely be my go-to game for a super hero campaign. And DC Heroes was – objectively – kind of a shit game. But I love it anyway, warts and all.

When I consider how I want a gaming session to go, I find that I would prefer to play Call of Cthulhu over Trail of Cthulhu any day. Again – not because there is anything wrong with ToC. It’s a really cool game with a lot of innovative ideas. It just doesn’t get there for me in a way that CoC does.

Now, this side of the gaming conversation can go too far as well. I can’t stand Pathfinder with all its extremely fiddly feats and list of thousands of spells. Five Bestiaries is probably too many.

Of course, all this is predicated on my way of finding the fun. All the opinions espoused above show what I value and focus on when I sit down at the table. For other people, it can be totally different.

But what it showed me is that I’m making the wrong game. I like charts and tables. I like an element of randomness that creates emergent play. I like resource management and games where time passing in the game world matter. I like persistent damage that can hinder heroes while not shutting down play completely. I like clear, focused magic systems that provide a real sense of what is possible. But I also don’t need 1500 spells just to do 2d6 damage. Like all things, it’s about finding a balance.

So, I’m starting over. I’m going to look again at this game I’ve been puttering with and try to envision it in a new light. One that creates the game I would actually want to play.

Stay tuned, maybe I’ll talk about the game here for some accountability. And as always, thanks for reading.


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