I've mentioned before that I'm hugely fond of non-digital games. There are a lot of interesting mechanics and types of interaction that don't get explored very often in digital games. Unlike video games, where the presentation elements can sometimes compensate or at least obscure what's going in the game itself, analog games are basically game laid bare. These games live or die solely by their merits as games.
These analog games include complex and interesting board games (*cough* BSG *cough*), but I think there's also value in looking at tabletop RPGs. Wizards of the Coast's D&D is obviously the one everyone has heard of, or maybe White Wolf's Vampire or Werewolf games. While certainly interesting, these types of RPGs tend to be presented in encyclopedic multi-hundred page tomes, thick with graphs, tables and formulas. They can be plenty enjoyable, but they're a bit difficult to get into unless you really have someone already familiar guiding everyone else.
However, much like digital games, there's been a recent upswell in indie table RPGs. Simpler games exploring novel new mechanics and offering experiences that don't really exist amongst the old titans. I've got a group of friends that get together for weekly gaming and we've been chewing through a bunch of indie RPGs lately. Some thoughts on four that were particularly notable.
Lady Blackbird: The most similar to other tabletop RPGs, Lady Blackbird is commendable for being tight and streamlined without feeling hollow or anemic. The entire game, everything for the players and the GM both, is maybe 15 pages long. Mechanically, the player characters each have a collection of "Keys." They're basically rewards for acting in a way appropriate to your character. It's an interesting way of using the game's systems to reinforce characterization from the players.
The other thing I really like about Lady Blackbird is it only provides the roughest skeleton of a fiction. It's roughly a sorta steampunk version of Firefly. It's enough constraint to get people thinking, but it's almost completely open to where the players and GM want to take things. It's also really easy to imagine adapted the rules to almost any setting and fiction. If you've played other tabletop RPGs, this is an easy leap to make and I'd highly recommend taking a look (and the entire game is free on their website in PDF form).
Ocean: Ocean is a GM-less game, meaning no one player is responsible for setting the stage, providing a challenge or anything else. Because of this, playing Ocean feels as much like an improv game as it does a tabletop RPG (as I mentioned before, improv and games go well together). The conceit is everyone wakes up wearing hospital scrubs with complete amnesia in some kind of facility. You soon discover the facility is underwater and there are some kind of hostile creatures in the facility. The players' communal task is to discover who they are, what the facility is and what those creatures are. Oh, you know, and then escape with their lives if possible.
Overcoming challenges (or failing to do so) provides other players with "credits" they can cash in to reveal a clue about one of the above three unknowns. And by reveal, I mean make the entire thing up. Getting three clues reveals the truth of the thing and answering all three questions means the survivors, if any, can attempt to escape. Because it truly is collaborative storytelling, it really is like improv where you have to say "Yes, and ..." to the other players' contributions. Pulling everyone's disparate ideas together can be a bit tricky, but we managed to pull it off more or less in the game we played. That sensation of taking someone else's idea and building upon it in your own way is very interesting and satisfying. Vaguely reminiscent of shared construction in multiplayer Minecraft except it's stories instead of structures. More abstract than other tabletop RPGs, but also uniquely enjoyable.
Fiasco: Another GM-less game, Fiasco is set up to create small-time capers that go horribly wrong. Think Fargo or Burn After Reading. The difference being each month the designers put out a whole new setting for the game. They range from being aboard a Transatlantic steamship in the 30s to the Reconstruction era American South, from a simple university campus to a sunk WWII submarine with something scratching upon the hull. The play goes simply by describing scenes about one particular character, with the person playing that character being able to either a) describe how the scene is setup or b) control whether the scene ends well for them or poorly. The entire point of the game isn't to "win" or survive, it's just about telling an interesting story. Halfway through the game, the Tilt occurs, which basically means some number of things go really wrong and now those consequences have to be dealt with.
The most interesting part of Fiasco is the game begins with providing a handful of adjectives that describe the characters and the relationships between the characters. Similar to Lady Blackbird, it's just enough of a fictional skeleton to start providing characterization and get people's creativity in motion. All the games are supposed to be played in a single 3-4 hour session too, so there's no expectation of weekly continuity that must be maintained at length.
Dread: There is only a single mechanic in Dread- a Jenga tower. Dread is a horror RPG where the players (there is a GM) accomplish almost anything by pulling blocks from the Jenga tower. If the tower falls, their character is "removed from the game." This usually means dead, but it could mean being driven mad by horrors from beyond the stars or simply being arrested. They are never obligated to pull, and if they don't their character won't die, but whatever they were trying to do will fail. Tension in the game increases more or less in-line with the teetering Jenga tower.
Character creation is done by answering a series of 10-12 of customized questions for each character. In what is a reoccurring theme now, there's already a vague notion of a character, but it's more to get people thinking than telling them who their character should be. We only have played one game of Dread so far and it was a bit abbreviated, but I liked the direction it was going on.
For brevity's sake, I'll spare a lengthy epilogue. But if you're at all interested in tabletop RPGs, I heartily recommend checking out any of the above. There are a lot of good design lessons to be had in addition to generally being a novel and enjoyable way to spend an evening. And come on, how can anyone say no to a game of Jenga where you die when the tower falls over?