Still working my way through the last decade of small press, indie, and storygaming. Last week I hit 2011. 2012 was a big one too.
Challenging, beautifully written, makes no attempts at being everyone’s favorite. An undeniably important game-as-statement.
One of the first PbtA games to come out after Apocalypse World, Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts has been enormously but indirectly important to my gaming. I’ve only played four or five sessions across the decade, but the impact the game has had on PbtA games that came after is readily apparent: moves that lean hard on evoking player-level feelings, specific queer content, a heavy emphasis on sexuality as core to the play experience (as compared to the transactional, transgressive vibe of Apocalypse World‘s sex moves).
I feel like Monsterhearts and Dungeon World (a 2012 runner-up) started the first two major side branches of PbtA design thinking. The Monsterhearts branch led us to trope-intensive games like Urban Shadows, and Dungeon World led us to adventure-oriented games like Monster of the Week and Uncharted Worlds.
Sage La Torra and Adam Koebel’s Dungeon World is hugely important in terms of the sheer volume of DW play I’ve been in since it came out. I don’t even especially crave the Dungeon World experience these days, but it’s comfortable and easy and I’m happy to drop in on it whenever it’s offered. And if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have Space Wurm vs Moonicorn in 2016!
Dog Eat Dog
I played Dog Eat Dog exactly once, and it made an impact. It was the first time real-world considerations didn’t feel bad-weird to me for the players to address. One of the game’s killer apps is that the richest player at the table plays the colonizer, and everyone else plays indigenous characters suffering and surviving under the colonists. It prompts interesting discussions about class and money. I’ve seen drafts and games – particularly attached to design contests like Game Chef that encourage avant-garde design – that ask the players to bring their personal emotional baggage to the table, and that strikes me as veering into unqualified-therapist territory. DED plays with fire but it’s about socioeconomics, culture, and appropriation. It’s also genuinely entertaining, with some very snappy economies incentivizing choices by both the indigenous characters and the colonizers. Excellent case study in how to decolonize roleplaying.
Durance, a sci-fi game from Jason Morningstar about prisoners and guards on an alien prison planet, was the first GMless/GMful game I really liked playing. I’ve run it at conventions on and off since it came out. The big skill I was forced to learn to play Durance was how to frame my own scene, which continues to be one of the toughest skills to master. It was also the first game where playing multiple characters was energizing and interesting to me: each player plays a prisoner at one social rung, and a guard at a different social rung. It barely has any “resolution” to speak of but it tells the players where to thematically nudge the scene’s outcome. If a strong facilitator is managing the table, the premise is good enough to carry you the rest of the way. Top marks.
Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne
I didn’t get to play Witch: tRtL until 2019, but damn what a good experience. I was not ready to play this GMless guilt trip (but fun!) when it came out in 2012. You play a group of men hauling an accused witch to Lindisfarne for her execution. The witch player gets different guidelines to play by than everyone else, but everyone is playing to answer questions about their characters while proceeding through several thematic scenes. The questions-and-traits tech is simple and shows up in many freeform/larp spaces, and there are some baldly manipulative elements of how Witch plays out, but I dug it. Hell of an impact, even after multiple plays.
The Final Girl
The Final Girl deserves a mention here because, dang, I keep seeing this slender game offered up at otherwise-not-very-indie cons as Peak Indie. The premise is simple and terrific: everyone plays a character in a slasher movie, with responsibility for playing the slasher moving around the table. PCs are intended to drop like flies. It’s a very amusing party game, you can play 10 people at a table, and it just does slashers right. It’s kind of tricky to get in print any more, and I hope designer Bret Gillan puts a new edition out someday, somehow, along with some obvious hacks.