Thursday, May 5, 2011

Those Other Indie Games

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?

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Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I have never gotten into tabletop RPGs, but I can't say no to a Jenga tower. My network of friends are mainly into video games, we have done board games but things less abstract like Settlers of Catan, or Dominion.

I guess I am not creative enough and favor a more structured table experience like Magic the Gathering.

May 5, 2011 at 2:42 PM  
Blogger Jason T said...

Dread was the game that suckered my girlfriend into letting me run an RPG for her. I was a little surprised, as she's very much not a fan of horror, but she absolutely loves Jenga. I think the physical trappings of games have more of an impact on how willing people are to approach them than many gamers and developers might like to admit ... but I guess the Wiimote/Wii Fit, the DDR pad, and the Guitar Hero controller have probably pretty well demonstrated that by now.

May 5, 2011 at 6:47 PM  
Blogger Paul Bauman said...

I've been carrying a torch for Earth Reborn lately and I think it would be right up your alley. Read up on it over at BGG. I also blogged about it a short while ago ;) I think you'd be surprised at how much it can feel like a GM'less RP and how many possibilities are contained in what looks like a skirmish game at first.

You might want to also check out the Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardolon co-ops if you haven't already.

May 5, 2011 at 8:58 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Gaming in Public As a mention below, there are some games that kind of a bridge between board games and tabletop RPGs. Mansions of Madness would be something I'd recommend to anyone curious about tabletop RPGs but not comfortable immediately jumping into the deep end.

@Jason T Heh, one of my buddies got his wife into tabletop RPGs via Call of Cthulhu. People may say they don't like horror, but I think deep down everyone does. The Dread/Jenga works well possibly because the tower serves as a physical reflection of the dramatic tension in the game. Mechanically, one could probably replicate it with dice or something, but I honestly think it wouldn't have the same effect anymore. The tangible, present representation of building toward inevitability is just too good.

@Paul Oooh, interesting. We just tried Mansions of Madness last weekend and it was pretty interesting. Halfway between Arkham Horror and CoC. I'll see if I can't find a copy of Earth Reborn to check out.

May 7, 2011 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger Adam Bunnell said...

I am a huge fan of board games and tabletop RPGs. After your post about BSG, I am definitely going to pick that one up!

I have played several indie tabletop games in the last few years. Disillusionment with the slick corporatization of D&D 4th edition caused my friends and I to branch out. Among the best we have played is a game called Polaris. It is an improv game where the mechanics are entirely conversation-based. It works best when the players are actively trying to destroy one another, and everyone's character is doomed to either death or corruption from the start- so you don't fault the other players' diabolical designs.

Another good one is called The Riddle of Steel. It features incredibly realistic (but mechanically cumbersome) combat. It makes for a much more gritty feel. Characters really think twice about getting into any kind of sword fight, as it might be their last. It's nice to give violence and combat the kind of weight they deserve. Of course, it is definitely one of the "behemoths" plagued by massive rulebooks and many, many tables so I'm not sure how appropriate it is in this context.

This Dread game sounds awesome, and I'm already planning on bringing it up at our next session!

May 9, 2011 at 6:09 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@abunnell Interesting, I'd never heard of Polaris. I'll have to check that out, thanks! While Riddle of Steel sounds good and crunchy, it was the mechanical overhead that caused us to walk away from 4E. It's quite good for what it is, IMHO, but what it is wasn't what we wanted. Rather than try to square peg, round hole it, we just went looking elsewhere and found great riches.

Thanks for the recommendation though, I'll mention Polaris to the krewe!

May 11, 2011 at 9:40 AM  

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