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5 Games to Learn From

July 5, 2022

Over on Twitter Liber Ludorum tweeted: You’re teaching an RPG design course. What are the 5 “perfect” games you assign your students to study?

This is actually a pretty great question to work with. I think “perfect” sets a high bar, but for “open a discussion” theoretical conversations, it’s not a bad choice to go a bit too far to at least get people to stretch their thinking a bit.

Here’s the five games I think are worth studying, the order I would have people look at them, and what I think they demonstrate:

1001 Nights

1001 Nights you get several key things straight out the gate:

  • Improv
  • Roleplaying’s simplest rule “I say something and it happens”
  • Pacing mechanics
  • the inspiration value of setting
  • “Pull” mechanics design

The overall trends worth learning from 1001 Nights is that all roleplaying is just making stuff up with your friends, asking questions and adding to what’s been made, to make even more cool stuff. While 1001 Nights is lightly adversarial, the reality is as players it’s more fun to tell a fun story, whether that’s your characters working together or not.

Primetime Adventures

Primetime Adventures teaches:

  • Flag mechanics
  • Narration Trading
  • Direct Reward Mechanics
  • Another type of Pacing
  • Collaborative Setting creation

PTA is a game that pretty much is the perfect Narrativist game. It also shows how you can take a relatively traditional structure (1 GM, 1 character per player) and by focusing the pacing and reward mechanics around a Flag mechanic system, consistently get story and theme focused play. It serves as an excellent contrast to mainstream RPG design in that many gamers believe you either a) need to have mechanics for everything and/or b) need to have open ended campaigns, to “create a good story” and PTA serves very much as the opposite – sparse, but direct, constraints to focus and channel play into a fun, powerful experience.

The Drifter’s Escape

Drifter’s Escape teaches:

  • Productive adversarial design (the two GMs vs. the Drifter, the two GMs vs. each other…)
  • Mirroring mechanics to diagetic fiction (Being the person w/o power, scrambling to get by)
  • Prompt oracles/good random table design
  • Building completely to a theme
  • Meaningful corruption mechanics (mostly, actually, by way of fiction)
  • Players’ judgement and the weight of fictional positioning

While PTA is a perfect game with a broad fiction space (“create your own setting” etc.), Drifter’s Escape is about a specific set of themes and punches you with it pretty quick. The rules encouraging the GMs to lie to the Drifter Player is an intense power imbalance that is being deliberately used to reflect the power imbalance a Drifter has; they’re homeless, they have no friends here, and they’re going to have to figure out how to get by while everyone is going to use and abuse them. Mechanically it is an easy game; it is not even as complex as Poker, fictionally, and emotionally, it is a harrowing game, and often unsettling.

Mouse Guard

  • high structured scene economy
  • heavy setting/background use
  • structured & strategic conflict design
  • Short vs. long term resource management
  • Character advancement

In certain ways, Mouse Guard is very traditional; there is a GM, there is a party of adventurers facing danger. However, the deeply specific scene pacing and conflict system produces a much more tight, and clear experience of play than most of the traditional games. While it has the most heft in terms of pages and mechanics, how the mechanics interact and affect play are fairly straight forward and rarely go beyond a 2-3 step process.

Apocalypse World

  • Modular design
  • GM advice (“Directive Rules” vs. Procedural)
  • Error resistant mechanics (system doesn’t fail if you forget some rules)
  • Layered, non-correlated pacing mechanics
  • Designing PCs to “aim” at each other in interdependence
  • Fiction focal rules

Apocalypse World is also somewhat traditional with group structure, but extremely untraditional in terms of the advice and expectations which the GM and the group is expected to follow. While Mouse Guard’s multiple layers of mechanics are pretty clear in what they’re doing, Apocalypse World’s mechanics are often indirect, or somewhat hidden in the larger play effect and that makes it more difficult to figure out how they fit together and what they’re doing. You could say that most of the Moves in the game are designed to either aim you at another player, another NPC, a threat character, or have one of those folks come TO YOU. (And, when you look at some of the Powered by the Apocalypse games that spun off of it, where they fail to load up their games with this constant pinballing of conflict, they tend to fall flat.)

Why these five, why this order?

Well, the games go from less mechanically complex to more, with AW being “less” rules than Mouse Guard but the effects are more murky and often working off 3 or more steps in effect to see what the larger game outcome is.

Although all of these games are Narrativist in structure, it’s not hard to see how Mouse Guard could tempt a Gamist, and frankly, raw Gamist design theory is well served in so many places I doubt people would need to study specifics in TTRPGS. And as far as Simulationism, I think players would get a good dose of overlapping design toolsets from these games to get a good idea of how that might work in those games as well.

Now, were I actually teaching this hypothetical course, it would be AFTER we’ve looked at and played some of these games that we’d circle back and maybe look at and play a tiny amount of some of the mainstream games, particularly with an eye to contrast and compare on what of these 5 games do differently, does anything feel like it’s missing, and what kind of systems might better serve some of those goals.

Anyway, that was one of the few times I’ve seen a “random hypothetical” conversation question in RPGs actually be something more meaningful than “what’s your 5 favorite spells” etc.

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