We are used to a particular echelon of experiences in roleplaying games- the Call of Cthulhu “investigation”, the Dungeons & Dragons “adventure” and so on. These provide both guidelines and limitations – we have plenty of terms of reference when discussing or thinking about familiar stories, but there are large areas which are effectively outside our experience, where every move is virtually a leap of faith.
The questions is, broadly, what kind of experience is transferable into a roleplaying experience. Last year at KapCon there were a few games which stepped well outside of the traditional tracks to create great experiences. The most striking example was a game called Couples or something like that, where the game was simply exploring the relationships of 3 sets of couples. After the success of that game, and the overall GM prize going to for The Lucky Joneses, there was a big discussion on http://www.nzrag.com about whether the shared-narrative games would sweep the awards and kudos again in 2007.
Games like that are part of the Indie revolution, the hallmark of gaming in the New Millenium, compared to the Angst-driven 90s, and monty-hauling 80s. Some notable Wellington gamers pursuing this movement with great energy and verve are Mike Sands and Steve Hickey. Others, like myself, coast in the wake and pick up useful debris from their experiments. Of course, the revolution isn’t universal, or even acknowledged by some. Susan Harper’s comment on much of the indie movement has been that there are now rules for stuff her circle has been doing for ages, while Conan has strenuous objections to the philosophical basis for much of the indie approach. And of course, the old-school is still alive and well.
The difference between the indie movement, and the old-school is what precisely? While I think I can legitimately claim a certain expertise in the old school, I’m not a convert or devotee of the indie gaming world. But I think I’m informed enough to offer some generalizations on the kinds of qualities typically observed in Indie games, the kinds of qualities that people like are attempting to stitch into their “old school” games without sacrificing the essential old-school-ness of them.
If I were to write a motto for the Indie movement, it would be:
There is no meta-game.
I think this would be controversial. My definition of the “meta-game” was in broad terms, the game played between the players that didn’t directly involving the characters. It is also distinguished from the game proper by the lack of a formalized rule structure, or even official acknowledgment by the players of the game. The great innovation of games like Sorcerer and Prime Time Adventures is to put a lot of meta-game concepts on the table as objects to be used by the group in circumscribed ways. In the limit, the meta-game is absorbed into the game. I have commented elsewhere, informally, that this cannot be perfectly achieved, because beyond the old-school “meta-game” is the “meta-meta-game” of human interrelations, and our interpretation of creativity generally.
In order to do this, the Indie movement has tried to identify and isolate different parts of the roleplaying experience and provide a framework for achieving good results on individual fronts, unified in different ways in different gaming engines. In this, the basic methodology seems analogous to Aristotle’s approach to theatre. Find out what works and do that. And just like the neo-classicists (Racine et al) this can mean that they end up with a regimented and highly mechanized arrangement, while the Shakespearan mavericks break all the rules in just the right combination for perfection.
Of the plethora of techniques and objects delivered up for explicit treatment, I identify as the vital “identities” the following:
– Narrative Authority
– Scene Framing
– Character components
“Shared Narration” is the most controversial of these, altering as it does the basic power relations of gaming. The GM is altered from being the omniscient and absolute ruler of the game, into a more equal parter in a shared experience. I have set out a reasonably comprehensive survey of this elsewhere and don’t see the need to refine or repeat myself here; though I think my treatment of the topic today would have a slightly greater scope. In particular, I think that adequate characterization in pulp games might be dependent on a certain level of “story immunity” and I would talk more about games like Mountain Witch and With Great Power that remove a lot of story authority from both GM and player.
Framing a scene is, arguably, the least innovative of the “indie identities”, because it’s something that we intuitively recognise and do in ordinary gaming. The crucial difference to an old school scene is simply that the Indie gamer recognises that every scene must have a shape and a purpose. The various different games divide this up in different ways, but they seem to boil down to two basic scene types: enrichment and conflict. Enrichment scenes are intended to provide some insight into the characters or their environment, and conflict scenes have some kind of in-out change in the situation. This doesn’t sound like much of an innovation, but it significantly alters the way that scenes play out, and where they end.
Generally, it allows scenes to be more focused. When entering a scene, everyone knows roughly what is expected of them on a meta-game level: whether they’re simply exploring something, compared to whether they’re trying to make some change in the direction of the game. Typically scene framing runs into difficulties where some core ingredient of the desired type is unexpectedly missing, or when something happens in the scene that prompts a wider scale of action.
One of the common tools for structuring a conflict scene is called a “Bang”, which is simply where something happens which forces a character to make a choice, where they can’t simply meander through the scene.
Character components is also something which has been around in one form or another from the earliest forms of the hobby. What I mean here is something beyond the capabilities of the character – the things which form their personality. The earliest form of this is undoubtedly the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, which has been much derided from a variety of perspectives. A significant development of this was part of the “angst-wave” World of Darkness games, where personality archetypes were offered up instead of a moral compass. While these kinds of things indicate patterns of behaviour, the indie innovation is to more explicitly tie the descriptive qualities to actions or capabilities of the character.
Continuing the trend of generality, these specific-focus components take many different forms. In a game like Dogs in the Vineyard character history and personality are amalgamated into a more general picture of skills, so that a skill check might involve adding your dice pools for “trusty revolver” + “competitive spirit”. In a non-mechanical sense, players might declare “kickers”, which are scenes devised by the player to allow them to explore one or more character facets.
Having thus encapsulated, albeit amazingly briefly, with massive elisions, the Indie game movement, I return to considering the two questions with which I opened this disquisition. Can Indie games take us into story areas where conventional games simply fall flat, and are these games inherently more usable, better in essence? I might add another question at this juncture, which is: what can we utilize from this movement in the Old School?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers for this. Games breaking from the traditional three-act story have been around a long time, as have attempts to mechanically grapple with story issues. Games like Aria are, IMHO, just as far beyond the ken of Indie gaming as they are from conventional Old School adventures. Many recent games like Buffy and Adventure! incorporate minor GM-overrides for players (Drama points and inspiration respectively). For all that they utilize different tools, I think that most indie games are not trying to do something fundamentally new, but to do the same kinds of stories as the Old School in a different and better way. And in this sentence I incorporate the answers to questions 2 & 3. The answer is that yes, they are potentially better, and that is because they bring a range of additional tools to the table without necessarily jettisoning much. Just which tools they bring, and how they sort things out is a discussion I will return to, along with the other worthies mentioned above.