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PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Urban Shadows is fantastic for spinning up a sandbox game

I love sandbox games and urban horror, and at that intersection sits the absolutely stellar PbtA RPG Urban Shadows (paid link).

I expected Urban Shadows to be good at facilitating sandbox play, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it is. Since the proof is in the pudding, below is the brief recap of goings-on in El Paso, Texas that I provided to my players after our fifth session. For context, session one was character creation; we did start-of-session moves for sessions two and five (rather than every session); and our sessions are 3 hours tops, usually more like 2-2.5 hours.

Ignore the specifics and think broad — just look how much stuff is happening all over the city after this little play (bold names are PCs):

  • The Warden militia group gunning for Carmen and trying to make Angels’ Triangle their base in the city
  • A new vampire in town, Orlando Cranshaw, who wants to shake things up
  • Another vamp, Carlos de la Rosa, who is a rival to Desmond
  • Katya Ulanov, another demonic soul-trader who shares Nick‘s patron, who wants Nick’s territory
  • Mason Black’s coyote goons after Hector
  • Kyle‘s missing friend, Brandon, who was abducted by the wizard Mason Black
  • A group of coyotes who also want the Paper Shop building for their own, who have struck a deal with Orlando for protection
  • A missing senator’s son, Diego Hernandez
  • An extremely competent cover-up of the killing at Midnight
  • ICE on the prowl for Carmen, so they can deport her like the rest of her family
  • Veronica‘s visions: the Warden skinning Carmen in about a month, after assassinating Father Riley; Hector being choked to death by White Eyes in the sheriff’s office jail; and Father Riley’s death

And how much of that did I come up with, as the MC, before the start of the campaign? Zero.

Player backgrounds, and the Q&A we did for everyone during character creation, produced many of those elements. The first time we did start-of-session moves, several more came into play — including the opening scene for the campaign, another thing I hadn’t prepped in advance. Around session three or four, I generated Threats from all of the sandbox elements my players had created, and fleshed them out a bit with my own ideas. The rest grew out of session five’s start-of-session moves.

The mechanics of the game combined with the energy and creativity of the players produce a sandbox organically and with minimal effort. It’s clever, and it works beautifully in practice.

So far, I fucking love Urban Shadows (paid link).

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Love in the Time of Seið is intimate and intense

At Go Play NW, I played a session of Love in the Time of Seið that I would rank among my top five gaming sessions of all time.

Designed by Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar, Love in the Time of Seið (the “ð” is pronounced like the “th” in “them,” as I understand it) is a GM-less story game for 3-5 players — though having played it with five, I highly recommend the full complement — requiring no prep and playable in a single session.

Seið is based on Matthijs’ Archipelago II. (Archipelago III, revised by Jason, is the newest version.) About half of this slender volume is stuff you’re supposed to copy and cut out for use in play — character sheets, resolution cards, and locations — so I recommend snagging the PDF, or both print and PDF.

The play aids print up just fine on regular paper, which is what I did for my go folder of zero-notice RPGs. The character sheets deserve special mention for their design, which includes a built-in table tent:

The game itself is a Norse-themed Shakespearean blood tragedy, a spiral of death, sex, and messy relationships, and it’s a thing of beauty.

Intimate dovetailing

Each character sheet has themes (e.g., sexuality and the gods for the seiðkona), a brief background, three questions to keep in mind (but not answer definitively until play begins), a background on the fictitious Scandinavian setting, and some thematically appropriate names on the front. On the back are a series of questions — things like “More details!” and “That might not be quite so easy!” — used to drive gameplay.

Seið plays out in a series of scenes, rotating around the table, which each scene spotlighting a single character (though often including several characters). When it’s your turn in the spotlight, you choose a location and, if it’s the first time that location has been used, also choose a version of the place to describe; each location card offers several options. You then frame the scene, rope in other players as needed, and you’re off.

What makes it tick so beautifully in play is that everyone has some common ground, and everyone is involved in every scene. The common ground is in the setting, which is collaboratively created using thematically appropriate locations, and the goal: the game ends when two characters have been removed from play (in our game, they were both dead).

The involvement comes from several sources. Folks in the scene are obviously involved, of course. But the player to the spotlight player’s left is also the Location Guide, inserting an event during the scene, and the player to her right is the Theme Guide, watching for ways the spotlight character’s themes can be incorporated into the scene. And on top of that, everyone at the table can interject with the game’s questions, working to make the scene even more amazing and driving the story towards a tragic finale.

The net result is that every character, and every player, is deeply and intricately dovetailed with every other character and player at the table. It’s a powerful and surprisingly intimate experience, one that depends on trust and a mutual willingness to hold one’s own ideas lightly and react to the fiction as it plays out.

The rush is intense

I found Love in the Time of Seið electrifying and deeply engaging. It took a lot of focus energy to play, in large part because you’re almost always “on” — which I love. In our session, everyone at the table brought their A game, the story and characters surprised us all, and afterwards I had that great combination GMing high/completely drained feeling that only comes from the best gaming sessions.

Love in the Time of Seið is a masterpiece of refined, effective game design, and a glorious blast to play, and I highly recommend it.

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PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

World Wide Wrestling is an over-the-top delight

Nathan D. Paoletta‘s World Wide Wrestling (paid link) RPG reminds me of Action Movie World (paid link), another tight-premise PbtA game, not because they share a premise but because WWW 100% delivers on its premise (just like AMW).

Wrasslin’

My last contact with professional wrestling was in the 1980s, when I used to occasionally watch it as a kid. I dug the larger-than-life personalities, but it wasn’t my thing in the same way as, say, G.I. Joe (so much G.I. Joe!). That didn’t crimp my enjoyment of the game one bit — and being accessible to gamers who aren’t into wrestling is just the first of many things WWW does well.

On the night we played WWW, my Seattle group consisted of two wrestling fans, one more casual fan, one lapsed fan (me), and two players with close to zero knowledge of professional wrestling. Without fans in the group, we’d have leaned on WWW’s excellent “How Wrestling Works” essay and been just fine; with fans, we probably got into the action a bit faster than we otherwise might have.

Our GM bought this little wrestling ring, complete with figures, to make it easier for us to demonstrate what we wanted to do in the ring:

It worked nicely, and helped to set the mood. I think it’s this set, which is totally worth its $10 price.

Gloriously over-the-top

WWW’s playbooks make it easy to create colorful, grandiose, and suitably bananas wrestlers. We created characters as a group, riffing off each others’ ideas, suggesting concepts and special moves and looks and theme songs rapid-fire, and cranked out some memorably crazy characters.

We baked in relationships — rivals, mentor and mentee, etc. — during character creation, which the game facilitates, and that gave the GM (called “Creative” in WWW) fuel to prepare the bookings. He spent a couple of minutes matching us up against each other based on those relationships, and secretly noted who was supposed to win each match.

On my initial read-through of the game, I was concerned about that aspect of the system; it sounded confining. But in play, it worked beautifully. We were all excited about each match-up, and we all had the chance to flip the script and change who won the match; one player used this option at the perfect time, but otherwise we stuck to the bookings.

Ditto my pre-game concern that there might be too many mechanics for my taste. There are more moving parts than some PbtA games, but in play they all did their job and clicked — just like good mechanics should.

A unique rhythm

A game where most of the group watches two people play might sound boring for everyone but those two people (and the GM), but again, WWW sets things up so it isn’t. One person plays the announcer, using a prop microphone to provide color commentary, and that adds a layer of interaction and entertainment for everyone. (The role is supposed to rotate, but we quickly found our best announcer and generally stuck with him.) And of course the matches are quick, so after being on the sidelines in one match the spotlight rotates and suddenly you’re the center of attention again.

The division of wrestlers into babyfaces and heels — good and evil ring personas, more or less — also gave the players on the sidelines something to think about. Not in the match, but have a heated rivalry with someone who is? Use the right move, and you can show up and get involved anyway. This worked really well in play.

The evening played out as a mix of matches and out-of-the-ring scenes. We had fun cutting promos for our wrestlers, striving to outdo each other with cheesy one-liners and catchphrases. We didn’t delve much into the other side of the game — the real wrestlers behind the personalities, and how they interact outside the ring — that much, mostly due to time and this being the first session. But what we did in this session primed that pump beautifully for some more real-world action in a follow-up session.

The best way I can sum up my first WWW session is that there wasn’t a single moment that didn’t feel right. The game facilitates feeling right at every step, from character creation through individual matches through the behind-the-scenes stuff, and the mechanics work to keep everyone engaged and on point.

High-energy awesomeness

World Wide Wrestling is pure electric sex. It’s exhilarating to play, and the stuff I had reservations about after reading it — Creative booking match results in advance, the number of moving parts compared to the average PbtA game — fell away at the table.

The over-the-top goodness of pro wrestling is a perfect match for the collaborative, player agency-driven magic of the PbtA engine. World Wide Wrestling (paid link) is a two cups of coffee, bring my A game sort of RPG for me: No one can coast, because everyone is involved an “on” pretty much all the time. I highly reccommend it.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

My “go folder” of zero-prep, zero-notice RPGs

Attending Go Play NW prompted me to rebuild my “go folder” — the games I can run on zero notice, either by grabbing the book (and having everything else in the folder) or because the whole game is in the folder.

All of them are self-contained, require no prep from anyone, can be played in a session or two, and come packaged with a premise/hook to get us rolling.

The games

My go folder contains the stuff I need for these seven games, each in its own pocket (plus characters, blank paper, and stuff for my group’s ongoing games in the other pockets):

  1. Lady Blackbird (whole game), a steampunk game with a pregenerated cast that nonetheless plays out entirely differently every time, and which somehow managed to fit the core rules onto every character sheet without impeding usability. So, so good.
  2. GHOST/ECHO (whole game), a two-page RPG that kicks off with a bang: “WHILE HUNTING FOR LOOT IN THE GHOST WORLD, YOUR CREW WAS SOLD OUT. YOU’VE WALKED RIGHT INTO AN AMBUSH, WITH HUNGRY WRAITHS ON YOUR HEELS.” I haven’t played this one yet.
  3. Jedi Blackbird (whole game), a Star Wars (Old Republic era) hack of Lady Blackbird. I haven’t run this one either, but I posted about it on Yore.
  4. Ghost Lines (whole game), another John Harper game (because John is amazing at designing this style of game), this one about hunting spirits in a setting where they’re “free to roam the world since the gates of death were broken in the cataclysm.” The game assumes you’re familiar with Apocalypse World; I haven’t gotten to run it yet.
  5. DCC RPG (paid link; whole game), condensed down into a convention funnel edition, including The Portal Under the Stars and a stack of pregenerated peasants. Funnels are a hoot, and this short one is excellent; for a longer option, I could grab Sailors on the Starless Sea (paid link).
  6. Psi-Run, one of the only RPGs I rate a 10/10, because it’s perfect. The PCs are pyschic escapees from some sort of sinister program, being pursued by relentless Chasers, and if they get caught, they lose. Starts with the tension already ratcheted up to about an 8, and goes from there.
  7. Love in the Time of Seið, which is based on Archipelago, a Norse-themed Shakespearean tragedy that spirals into blood and death. I played this at GPNW, and it was amazing. All of the characters start off beautifully dovetailed with one another, and there’s almost never any downtime.

I would literally be happy to run any of these games right this hot minute.

The folder

I use an Esselte Oxford poly 8-pocket folder (paid link) as opposed to a multi-pocket folio, because in my experience those tend to smush pages unless I’m extremely careful with them (which I’m not).

This one lays flat (coil binding!), holds a ton of stuff, and has bounced around in my gaming bag for the past year with no signs of wear. It’s now tucked away in my new gaming bag — poised, catlike, ready to pounce on gaming opportunities with no notice whatsoever.

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Story games Tabletop RPGs

Mapping with index cards, and Jedi Blackbird

John Aegard has produced some really cool stuff, including two resources that jumped out at me: Jedi Blackbird, a Star Wars hack of Lady Blackbird, and a collection of tips for running a Dungeon World one-shot.

Jedi Blackbird

Jedi Blackbird is more structured than its inspiration, but only a little. That’s a good thing: Lady Blackbird is brilliant, but I want a hack of it to do something more than just reskin the characters and call it a day. Jedi Blackbird does more.

It’s still every bit as delightfully brief: two pages of sparse background, one page of GMing notes, and the characters. Boom.

The added structure comes from the premise:

NOW, word has arrived from the distant Outer Rim that the renegade padawan ORDO VALLUS has established a holdfast on the junk world of KONDU. The Jedi Council has hastily dispatched three Jedi aboard the starship BLACKBIRD. Their mission: to bring Vallus back to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, where he will stand trial.

Vallus has an agenda; it’s covered in the GMing notes. The PCs are on a mission, and on a specific planet, which fits well for Star Wars. But beyond that, things are wide open — there’s no plot to follow, no rails to ride. (JB tweaks more things about LB than just the setting and structure, too; those are also in John’s notes.)

I’ve already printed this out and added it to the folder full of zero-prep games that rides in my gaming bag.[1]

Index card mapping

I dig Dungeon World, and John’s tips for fitting a satisfying, emblematic DW experience into a typical four-hour convention event slot look good to me. But what really grabbed me was his mapping technique, which uses index cards.

Here’s why this sounds amazing:

The map will be a grid of index cards arranged where everyone can see. […] A map made of cards is super flexible and totally lets you earn your Draw Maps While Leaving Blanks merit badge. See, if you want to add a location between two other locations while you’re in the middle of play, you can just insert a card in between those two locations.

This turns the map into a pointcrawl, a variation on a hexcrawl that uses more abstract mapping and travel rules, on the fly.[2] Which is brilliant!

For a longer-term game, pin the cards to a corkboard or stick them to the table (or a portable surface) with poster putty (paid link). Or hell, just take a picture of the map and rebuild it for each session (until it gets large enough to need a more streamlined solution).

This is one of those mapping techniques I can’t believe I’ve never thought of using before. It has so many applications to different types of game, and it’s right up my alley.

[1] I suspect I’ll write a post about that folder before too long. I love zero-prep grab-and-go games!

[2] The pointcrawl series on Hill Cantons is a great look at this style of play.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

The Pool looks like a simple, versatile gem

Just four pages long, The Pool is a free RPG designed by James V. West. It comes at “short and sweet” from a different place than, say, Risus (which I love), but occupies a similar space.

The Pool features clever character creation, suitable for any setting or genre:

Making a character is simple: just write a 50 word Story. Pretend you’re writing a book and this is the introduction of your main character

Once you’ve got a Story, you extract Traits from it and assign bonuses to them. (This feels a lot like Risus to me.) The core mechanic is brilliant in its simplicity:

Anyone can call for a die roll whenever a conflict is apparent or when someone wants to introduce a new conflict. Just broadly state your intention and roll.

To win a die roll, roll a 1 on any of the dice you cast. Ignore any other results. If you don’t roll a 1, you fail the roll.

Want better odds? Gamble dice from your Pool; they go away after you’ve used them, and don’t automatically refresh until next session.

If you succeed, you can either add a die to your Pool, in which case the GM narrates how you succeeded and you may not get exactly what you want (“Yes, but”), or make a Monologue of Victory. The MOV is where The Pool kicks into high gear for me:

Giving an MOV is like taking control of the game for a few moments. You can describe your character’s actions, the actions of those around him, and the outcome of those actions. You can even focus on less direct elements of the conflict such as what’s happening in the next room or who’s entering the scene.

This is a deeply collaborative, improvisational game, with narrative control passing back and forth through MOVs, and a great deal of control and agency in the hands of the players. I love all of those things.

James also designed a second game based on The Pool, The Questing Beast, about talking animals during the time of King Arthur.

The Pool isn’t new — it came out in 2001 — but it crossed my G+ stream the other day, and that got me thinking about it again. I haven’t played it, but it’s been recommended to me more than once, and it looks like it would be right up my alley.

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Soylent Platinum

On the day the UK voted to leave the EU, which happened to be the day after I read a heartbreaking investigative piece on private prisons, I woke up thinking about corporate greed, economic collapse, the excesses of the rich, Donald Trump, and human awfulness. And I thought, “I should design a game about eating the rich.

A bit later, I thought, “No, I should design a game about the rich eating other people. Kind of like Soylent Green, except there’s no way the rich would eat poor people. So who would they eat?

Soylent Platinum is the result: a free RPG about the rich eating the famous.

Soylent Platinum is designed for 3-6 players, with no GM. Everyone plays an obscenely wealthy person bidding for the privilege of kidnapping, killing, and eating the most famous celebrity in the world — while destroying the global economy for their own benefit.

As social commentary, it’s a lot less subtle than The Thief, my previous free RPG. As a game, it’s short-form, and there’s a bit of one of my favorite roleplaying poems, Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in its DNA. Like the other games I’ve designed, it started as an idea that wouldn’t let go of my brain until I sat down and turned it into a game.

Alongside Stoke (which features a conversation with rules about tone) and Soylent Green, Soylent Platinum’s inspirations were the films Antiviral and Hostel and the RPGs Dark Conspiracy (paid link) — mainly its proles — and Dog Eat Dog (which weaves discomfort into its mechanics). It took me about three hours to design and another three hours or so to assemble, polish, and proofread.

If you give Soylent Platinum a whirl, I’d love to hear who you ate, how it felt, and what you thought about the game.

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Story games Tabletop RPGs

Action Movie World delivers

I’ve had the pleasure of playing two sessions of Ian WilliamsAction Movie World (paid link),  and this game fucking delivers on every front.

It’s designed to play like a cheesy action movie made from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. The two movies we’ve played were “Major Heat,” a low-budget cop movie starring Maj. Heat, and “Danger Force 2: More Dangerous,” an even lower-budget Predator-esque “Delta Force vs. aliens who look like Krang” flick. Both were a hoot.

Get to the chopper

AMW is a self-contained Powered by the Apocalypse game — all you need is this one book. At 120 pages, it’s a quick, fun read, but it’s not fluff: This is a solid, thorough, focused, and exceedingly good game.

What drew me to it was this excerpt from the foreword, which someone (I’ve forgotten who, sorry!) posted on G+. It’s one of the best summaries of a game I’ve ever read, and it’s an excellent litmus test. Does this sound fun?

This is a stupid roleplaying game. That’s not to say that there is not an examination of action movies going on within this book. It is to say that this examination probably shouldn’t be foremost in your mind as you settle down for a game. Just be dumb when you’re playing this. Dumb and loud and happy.

If so, and especially if you like movies like Commando, Total Recall, Bloodsport, Universal Soldier, or others in that vein, AMW will likely be right up your apple cart.

See you at the party, Richter

AMW plays out in about two hours, and — no surprise — works great as a one-shot. You play an actor playing a character[1], and choosing your actor is a lot of fun. When the movie title, and the niche within the broader genre into which it fits, start to come together at the table — collaboratively, of course — it all clicks into place, and you’re off and running.

But there’s an ongoing campaign option, too, and it sounds intriguing. You earn XP, but remember: You’re playing an actor. It’s the actor who earns it, not the characters she plays.

Want to play again? Spend that XP, pick a new genre, and play the same actor playing a new character in a new movie. (My group has also talked about doing this without retaining playbooks, so I might play Arnie in two movies, but as the Musclehead once and the Smartass another time, which also sounds fun.)

Don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired

The rules suggest actors who are a good match for each playbook, and the book is full of clever touches like this.

In every session, you choose a lead; the lead can’t die, and is the only one who can kill the movie’s Big Bad. Everyone else is expendable.

The Director (MC) gets movie-specific moves, as do the PCs. And every move I’ve seen, from the basic ones to the scripts we’ve used to the playbooks I’ve played, has been spot-on. This game knows exactly what it wants, and bends every word of its rules towards that end.

I could go on — and on — because there’s not a single sour note here, just well-executed cleverness that makes being loud and dumb and happy extremely easy at the table.

Action Movie World (paid linkfucking rocks on toast.

[1] I assume you can also play an actor playing a dude disguised as another dude.[2]

[2] [Inception horn]

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

mr. gracie used to live here: a solitaire LARP

I’ve never heard of a solitaire LARP before, but that’s exactly what Caitlynn Belle‘s mr. gracie used to live here offers up. What a neat idea!

There’s a twist, too — and it sounds creepy as hell.

Based on the game’s introduction (“don’t read ahead”), and the excellent — spoiler-free — RPGGeek review that led me to it, this is one it’s best to go into blind.

Ingredients

I think just reading the setup will tell most folks whether or not this is going to be their jam:

you will need
– the rest of the pages from this game, printed out
– a pen
– a timer
– a flashlight
– thirty minutes uninterupted time in the dark of night
– an isolated, dark building to explore, preferably one that is unfamiliar
to you, and preferably one with plenty of odd ambient noises

So: a solitaire LARP played at night, by flashlight, in an otherwise empty building. Fuck. Yes.

I haven’t played it yet, and honestly I’m new enough to Seattle that I’m not sure where I’d go to play it — yet. But I’m so in.

This ticks all of my personal boxes for weird, experimental RPGs, and I don’t get too many chances to LARP.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

What’s one unit of play for an RPG?

With RPGs, what counts as one unit of play? Or, basically, what is a single session of a roleplaying game?

Lately I’ve been playing The Beast, a single-player epistolary RPG that takes place over the course of sessions, each lasting 5-15 minutes, and it’s gotten me thinking more closely about units of play and the nature of RPGs in general.

On a concrete level, I log all my plays on RPGGeek, so I have to think frequently about whether some gaming thing I did counts for those purposes. But it’s also fun to think about in the abstract — and my thinking has changed over the years.

Contents: one play

To count as a session of play, my current thinking is that it must:

  1. Be discrete
  2. Not be crazy-short
  3. Involve roleplaying

So if I play a session of Savage Worlds (paid link) that lasts four hours, and then play again a day later, but only for two hours, that’s two sessions. Even though the first session was twice as long as the second, the unit is the discrete time spent playing, regardless of length — provided it’s not crazy-short (which these sessions are not). And obviously Savage Worlds is a roleplaying game, so there we go.

Wibbly wobbly

Where things get interesting is on the fringes and in the liminal spaces. #1 isn’t too fuzzy, and really has no fringe: When the session ends, so does the unit of play.

Number two is a bit fuzzier, since “crazy-short” is obviously a subjective measure. Number three is fuzzier still, since any given roomful of gamers is reasonably unlikely to agree on a single definition of “roleplaying.” So let’s poke those two a bit.

Number two

Most of my gaming over the past few years has fallen into six broad time slots, session-wise:

  • 9 hours[1], when the weekly game ran really long
  • 6 hours, which was about normal back in Utah
  • 4 hours, like most Gen Con slots
  • 3 hours, my new normal in Seattle
  • 90 minutes, how long my online group plays
  • 5-15 minutes, for short-form games

I’d probably describe anything under 3 hours as a short session in conversation, and anything over 4 hours as a long session, but they’re all fundamentally sessions.

For me, only the last entry — the shortest — pushes up against the boundary of what I’d consider a play. My sessions of The Beast are short, but not the shortest I’ve played: My free RPG The Thief can be played to its conclusion in under 5 minutes. And at some point in my gaming career I’m going to play a game that takes 30 seconds, and I suspect I’d still consider that to be one play.

At any point on the time spectrum, the key is that meaningful gaming happens during the session. If I sat at my desk and made a character, that’s not a session. If we sat down to play D&D and, 10 minutes in, had to call it a night, that’s not a session.

The Beast and The Thief both define the unit of play in the rules — and that’s important, too: If the game designer says “This is a session,” I give them the benefit of the doubt.[2]

Number three

My initial list of criteria for what counts as a play is missing a few things — intentionally so:

  • A game master
  • More than one player
  • Any reference to the format of the game

Despite GM-less solitaire RPGs going back as far as the second-ever fantasy RPG, 1975’s Tunnels & Trolls (paid link), I’d be willing to bet there are gamers out there who don’t consider GM-less games, let alone solitaire games, “real” RPGs.

Throw in format, and the waters get even murkier. Is an epistolary game like The Beast an RPG? I think so, absolutely. How about a map game like The Quiet Year (paid link),  where no one does any in-character roleplaying, or the fractal history RPG Microscope (paid link),  where in-character play is optional and no one owns any elements of the game (in the sense of owning a PC, for example)? Ditto and ditto — but I’ve seen folks contend that those aren’t RPGs at all.

Like units of play, I place a lot of weight on what the game’s designer says about it. If she calls it an RPG, it’s an RPG.

But it doesn’t rhyme

Back in high school, one of my English teachers wrote this on the board:

Stay off the grass

He then asked us if that was a poem.

Duh, right? Of course not! It’s a lawn sign.

But what if a poet writes it and calls it a poem? Then yeah, it’s a poem. That was the closest we got to a definition of “poem” that the whole class could agree on.

Everything is personal

Alongside the designer’s intent, though, is the personal component: Do I think it’s an RPG? Because at the end of the day, I’m the one playing it and I get to decide what it is — for me. So do you, for you — so does everyone. (I’m not sure one trumps the other, intent or experience; RPGs are weird.)

That’s why, for example, I count collaborative setting creation as play: When we sit down to create a Dresden Files (paid link) city, we’re making roleplaying choices and collaborating in ways that feel like play to me. There the collaborative element matters — whereas The Beast, defined as a solo RPG, necessarily doesn’t take that into account.

I have zero stake in what anyone else considers a play (or thinks about what I count as play), save as a philosophical question — it’s just an interesting question to think about. But it’s also a question that’s broadened my gaming horizons — and that I do care about.

[1] Somewhere in the past 30 years of gaming, I may have played a session that ran longer than 9 hours. Let’s just take “9 hours” to mean “a really long time.”

[2] Especially when it’s me.