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Friday, 25 October 2019

Different strokes

Games designer, critic and journalist James Desborough put up this video in response to a furore at UK Games Expo back in June. James's points are pretty much what I think myself about all the fuss, but that's not why I'm linking to it here. What I am particularly interested in is his succinct definition of "indie" vs "traditional" roleplaying from 9m 55s on.

In the former, the players get together to tell a story (if you've worked in a writers' room or collaborated on a novel you'll know how that goes) whereas in the traditional form of roleplaying it's not authorial. You play a character. The umpire (or GM, or referee, or MC, or whatever) creates situations. Your characters do things in response to those situations. In retrospect, that can be seen as a story (or a plot, as in, "The king died, and then the queen died of grief") but nobody knew what was going to happen in advance. There was no author. The story emerged from what the player-characters said and did.

Personally I prefer that because my day job (one of my day jobs) is being a writer. I don't want to repeat that in my downtime. Also, I play RPGs to discover and be surprised. The stories that are generated spontaneously from players' in-character words and deeds are more unexpected and more interesting than the ones we'd get if we sat around applying the cookie-cutter of Campbellian story paradigms to the pastry of a story set-up.

That's a personal preference, of course. I bristle if I hear players talking about their story arc and whether it's time for another player to move their relationship on in order to incite a plot point. But then, I'm not much of a fan of genre drama or fiction, and much of that "indie" take seems to derive from genre shapes for stories. As Roger Bell-West says here (at 1:26:20) in such games the goal is not to simulate any physical reality, but to simulate a genre.

In any case, every gaming group is entitled to play in whatever way they most enjoy. There's no One True Roleplaying religion. It gets interesting (and matters) when proponents of one style run up against and misunderstand the playing style and intentions of the other -- as seems to have happened in the Things From The Flood game at UKGE. But if you want to know more about that, continue watching James's video from 12m 12s onwards. I have to say, though, that I ran a Powered by the Apocalypse game (Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders) and my players enjoyed it in a thoroughly traditional, in-the-moment, inhabit-the-character style, with absolutely no authorial discussion or narrative analysis. Maybe we were getting PbtA "wrong", but it worked, and I might post some of the scenarios now that the nights are drawing in.


  1. This is a bit messy. There are some good bits and some bits that are plain inaccurate. He calls OSR games 'indie' but they're in fact the opposite; they are quite clearly a reaction to indie games.

    1. No, what he's saying there is, in effect: "OSR games are indie games (in the sense that they are usually independently published) but what I mean in this video by 'indie games' is specifically those 'story' games that have arisen since the '90s." He has to make that distinction otherwise something like Jewelspider would count as an indie game (given that I have no publisher and all the funds are coming from kind patrons like your good self, Joe) but that isn't the kind of game James is talking about here.

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    1. Sorry botched it.

      Sounds like you played Saga just fine. That's exactly how I've always played any PbtA, and is pretty much how the games tell you to play them. Play to find out, as they say.

      If anyone is adding on a layer of discussion about character arcs and such, that's something they are bringing to the table. It's not there in Apocalypse World or Dungeon World, though I can't vouch for all PbtA games. There are tons of them. In fact in a Dungeon World actual play I listened to recently, with some very experienced long time PbtA gamers, one of the characters died in the first encounter because that's just the way things went.

    2. I'd like to try out some other PbtA games, though I don't want to take away from Gregor Vuga's achievement by implying that he just skinned an existing system. Sagas seems to be 90% his own original work (and really is brilliant at recreating the exact feel of the Icelandic stories) so it might be more accurate to say it is not "Powered by" so much as "Inspired by the Apocalypse".

      I'll be running one of our adventures (strongly inspired itself by Grettir's Saga) on the blog next month.

    3. I think the move structure in PbtA is an incredibly expressive game mechanic. The succeed/succeed+complications/GM hard move structure is a huge improvement over the crit/succeed/fail/fumble structure. Especially since most successes come at a cost. It really works to generates further action.

      On top of that, the pick 3/2/none or pick 2/1/none structure, with options tuned to both the genre and/or the particular foibles of the playbook mens you can tailor the mechanics to the intended play experience. Yet it does this while largely putting the choices in the hands of the players.

      Put together, it makes for a very expressive system for the game designer. However it does put a huge burden on the designer too, because choices in the core moves affect how the playbooks moves have to be framed. You can't cop out easily with a generic skill roll. You have to carefully think about how it all fits together, and Gregor did that brilliantly.