An RPG wish list… in progress

Here is a wish list for my RPGs. It’s a work in progress as I’m still mucking through some ideas, tying to refine them through actual play and reflection. In no particular order.

Plot. I want a plot that every player (including the GM) invests in. The best way to accomplish this is to generate it as a group. “Find the source of the corruption in the City. Defeat the Joker. Save the princess. Survive the next 24 hours. Party all weekend and pass our SATs on Monday.” Those are all good provided the players are invested in it. Of note, I think it is fine (in fact prefer it) if the game gives that plot some direction. “Tell me a story” is a hard task to fulfill. Games that address this issue specifically (games that help you get a *):

  • My Life With Master*: The group collectively creates an evil master who has enthralled them to his or her service and the story plot is always to defeat the master.
  • Misspent Youth*: Like MLWM the players collectively create the Authority, and know that they will defy that authority while growing up.
  • PTA: Any PTA game starts with a pitch session where everyone collaborates to create not only the show’s plot but also the setting, cast, etc. There is no mechanic for figuring out the “plot per episode” however leaving it somewhat questionable as to what a “plot scene” really is.
  • Mortal Coil: Only on a technicality. As “Magic” is defined by the group and magic is a central piece of the game, Mortal Coil almost does this. It falls short of defining the antagonist but gets part of it.
  • Sons of Liberty*: Using a deck of cards elements are drawn and then “deciphered” by the patriots. All players contribute to finding the meaning of a Whist mad lib.
  • In a Wicked Age*: Like Sons, cards are used to create an Oracle, which is interpreted by the players. I know less about this because I’m just going from what I’ve heard about the game.

Story Structure. I want a story structure which increments the plot defined. See Episode 28 of Narrative Control (Engineers vs. Hippies) for more on story structure. Specifically I want to know how many sessions we’ll play and when certain things should happen. For instance, in a three act game put on by Paul Strack we each had dark secrets. In act 1 they could not be revealed, but could be hinted at. In act 2 they could be revealed but none of us could be incriminated for them. In act 3 they must be revealed and one of us would be incriminated because of one of them. In each act we knew what to push for. I want that direction in every session of game. Session goals if you will. Games that address this issue specifically:

  • Dirty Secrets: We establish the length of the game using a board game mechanic. After each scene we move pieces on a board and that determined where we are in the story progress.
  • Zombie Cinema: Like Dirty secrets, there is a board game mechanic that establishes how close each protagonist is to escaping and being devoured by zombies. The board also tells us the role of zombies in the each scene.
  • Montsegur 1244: A game with a fixed end, established in four (?) acts. Each act specifically increments the story timeline. I haven’t played it personally so this is somewhat vague.
  • Burning Empires: Players are given a “scene budget” to establish their goals on a micro level before the Macro level mechanics are engaged and the story is propelled forward.
  • Sons of Liberty: Each Objective is played out like a hand of rummy. Once enough cards have hit the table, someone calls the question and ends the scene. 5 scenes max, each one pushing toward the final objective.
  • PTA: The season is mapped out indicating when spotlight episodes will happen telling everyone to focus on one character and what must happen to that character (issue must change).
  • Burning/Mouse/Anything by Luke Crane: Deserving separate mention from Burning Empires because on a very micro level the Beliefs, Instincts and Traits should tell any character what they should be doing in this scene. This is the weakest form of engineering however, as it only address moment to moment decisions rather than the story structure as a whole (i.e. you may have a belief that you are to be the next king, but that means much less if you don’t know that the next king will be crowned in three sessions).

Stakes or Sticks. Either by setting stakes in advance or by passing a stick around to dole out narration, I want every player to have a say in how conflicts are resolved so that no roll EVER ends in “nothing happens”. Something always happens, whether it was good, bad or indifferent. I want to make sure the players have enough control to say nope, let’s negotiate that to be more interesting but still give the GM teeth, allowing him to really challenge the players.

Games that use stakes:

  • PTA: Is PTA going to be in every section? No, but probably most of them. PTA fails me however in not providing a consequence for failure. Instead it uses a stick model (who ever got high card) to narrate out both success and failure. This allows protagonists to be really hosed by a narrator.
  • Burning Wheel: Very clearly, every conflict has results spelled out on both sides. The downside is that this can cause a bit of “playing before your playing” when results start to be played out before the conflict is resolved. Something to be careful about.
  • Dust Devils: Limited experience here but it uses a similar stake setting mechanic to PTA.

Games that use sticks:

  • Wilderness of Mirrors: You’re simply rolling for narration. Winner gets it.
  • Houses of the Blooded: (noticing a Wick theme here) This is another combo of Stakes vs. Sticks. There is one roll determined who gets what they want but all the juicy narration comes from wagers, which use sticks.
  • In a Wicked Age: Again, going from what I’ve heard the narration passes around the table.
  • Polaris: A very ritualized form of stick passing as player starts narrating until contested by another player.

Mechanically interesting choices.Here’s an area where some of the games that score above fall down. I want enough options within a game to feel that each character is distinct in their abilities and that their actions aren’t just window dressing for an overly simple resolution mechanic. Games that give interesting mechanic choices:

  • Dungeons & Dragons. The king of tactical battles, this game has hundreds of pages devoted to cool options for characters.
  • Burning Wheel: Both because of the huge plethora of skills (which means people accomplish their goals in different ways) and options in conflicts (DoW and Fight! strategies) Burning Wheel if full of interesting choices for characters.
  • Exalted: Charms, Spells, Power Armor, you name it. Tons of choices here.
  • Hero System: Too much crunch for me, but I can’t know the variety of options provided.

Cinematic action where appropriate. I want nothing standing between my wire-fu martial artist and his high flying kicks, in fact I want his high flying kicks to make his that much better at ass kicking. I don’t however want a player to narrate a noir detective bounding from rooftop to rooftop, the player narrations must be confined to the bound of the genre. Note, these games sometimes are in specific conflict with the mechanically interesting one. Games that support cinematic action:

  • Wushu: At the onset this feels like the perfect action movie RPG. Each killer detains gives you dice (in fact they are the only source of dice) but it falls down for me somewhat when I realize that when you strip the color away the characters are nearly identical. Also, rules are dramatically less useful in anything but combat.
  • Exalted: Bonus dice are earned for flash descriptions and the characters are generally not limited in areas of movement and flashiness. The system however can’t keep up with game play and like a baseball game there is a few seconds of action followed by several minutes of waiting. Too slow.
  • Feng Shui: Also unconcerned with trivial details like number of attacks, or even number of foes you drop. Feng Shui, like Wushu rewards the over the top action appropriate to its genre.

Shared investment. I want a game where every character has goals that all the players care about. Read that again and make note of the word character and players. There should be things in game that everyone out of game is rooting for. Maybe the characters disagree, that’s fine (even good) but the players should all be working toward bringing the conflicts that matter to each other into the light. Games that do this:

  • <….>

Short list eh? Well I may be being overly rough, there are some games that encourage this like PTA which hopefully everyone invests in the plots and sub-plots proposed, but there is no guarantee. Other games like Mouse Guard and Dungeons & Dragons really encourage team play both in the spirit of the game and in the mechanical advantages of team work but choices them are often made as a matter of mechanical efficiency rather than actual player investment in other players’ goals. Free Market (www.projectdonut.com) might do this when it’s finished but I’m not sure as I’ve only heard tidbits of it.

This list isn’t done. In fact it’s only just begun. But this is a start. Please feel free to add suggestions, debate my points, add games to lists, or otherwise call my BS.

Tags: ,