I posted the 2014 edition of my ongoing “Best of the Twenty-Teens” series recently. In it, I called 2014 “The Year of the Trindie,” which got me thinking about what trindie even means. There’s quite a lot in that space as I conceive it: conventional (“trad”) power and resolution arrangements paired with unconventional (“indie” aka storygame) solutions to long-standing problems. Or sometimes just nifty new tech.
It’s tempting to go looking for bright lines between categories of design and play. If you’ve been reading my blog at all you know I’m not here for that. I’m not going to define one game as “trad” and another as “trindie,” good grief. I’m also not particularly coming from “here’s a trad game with indie tech” angle, nor “here’s a storygame that plays pretty trad.” The cross-pollination is the point, not who came first and who deserves which bit of credit.
I’m unable to provide a perfect and uncontroversial history of these trends and designs. Sharing, stealing, and parallel development make it nearly impossible to know when an idea first appeared, or first appeared in a way anyone cared about.
In short, please read charitably and ask questions in the comments if you have ‘em.
That said: Here are some of my favorite things I’ve found in games I call trindie. If you find them, you might be playing a trindie game!
The Rules Get In The Way
I’ve used the phrase intentional design before and maybe it’s worth unpacking a bit more. This is the general trend I’m talking about: rules that purposefully create specific play experiences, and not just default to a “players try to beat the GM’s obstacles with a combination of capability and luck” frame. If you’re the sort of GM who prefers to present their story their way, new-school rules feel like they get in the way.
Personally? I love rules that get in the way. Rules can surprise me when I’m facilitating, which is both an exciting creative challenge and alleviates most prep. I’ve never had a good head for prepping with interesting combat or obstacles in mind, so those rules that are “in the way?” I’d rather put my creativity toward things other than balancing fights.
Intentional design shows up all over the place now and for various reasons: genre emulation, or strong emotional response, or enforcing tempo. Redistributing creative responsibilities in surprising ways. Gosh, even just to de-prioritize violence as the main way to get what we want.
GM Doesn’t Roll
The first game I ran into where only the players rolled was Apocalypse World. That does some interesting stuff, largely in that it leaves results in the hands of the GM, along with some guidelines (GM moves and principles). I don’t include Amber, Theatrix or Everway here because those games are entirely diceless. Fully diceless play accomplishes something different than GM-doesn’t-roll: the players generate external uncertainty and often make choices based on their rolls.
GM-doesn’t-roll today shows up in Monte Cook Games‘ Cypher system (Numenera, The Strange, No Thank You, Evil!) and Cypher-adjacent games like Invisible Sun. It’s also how all the Forged in the Dark games I’ve seen thus far handle things: the GM’s adjudication is constrained by the position and effect the player negotiated.
The cross-pollination works both ways! Under Hollow Hills, Meg and Vincent Baker’s work-in-progress about carnival performers in fairyland and solidly in the storygame end of the PbtA pool, hands the GM (the Mistress of Ceremonies, tweaking the MC role in Apocalypse World) the opportunity to roll dice for NPCs making common plays (“moves” in UHH’s frame). Storygames sometimes get re-tradded.
The Say Yes/Declare Intent/Let It Ride Triangle
One of my favorite bits of design I first saw come together in Burning Wheel was a three-fer:
- Roll the Dice or Say Yes: frequently flipped (“say yes, or roll the dice”), but the idea is mostly the same. That is, only introduce uncertainty when uncertainty is interesting. It’s a reminder that the GM can and should say yes to everything except the most pivotal rolls. To use discretion rather than calling for rolls all over the place.
- Declare Intent: this bit requires the player transparently explain their goal to the GM. The action your character takes matters in terms of consequences, but intent and action are formally separate things. This bypasses lots of miscommunications, and helps the GM shape the final resolution.
- Let it Ride: You roll once and whatever happens, happens. No rerolling until the situation changes.
These three small bits came together in a way that transformed our very trad table: Transparently explain what you want to accomplish, the GM decides whether to just say yes to that or make you roll, and if you roll, it’s one roll and then it’s over until something changes. Together, those three rules stripped out tons of arguing and dumb, pointless rolling and rerolling, and made each time we touched the dice matter.
The Triangle shows up again in both Mutant Year Zero and The One Ring. The Triangle is a fundamentally different way of engaging with the rules than “when it’s your turn, declare your character’s action and roll to see if you succeed.”
The Triangle is part of a larger trend: explicit rules about when to roll. Many, many games never define when you’re supposed to roll (outside of combat). If you do a thing, you roll, right? Or whatever other culture you grew up with. It’s a direct refutation of “we played all session and never even rolled.”
Democratized Fictional Authority
“The GM runs the world” has been such an assumed structural requirement of ttrpgs that anything else was very nearly unthinkable for decades. Decades! What would keep the players from cheating? Who will think of the children?
It turns out the children are just fine, and distrusting your players is only elemental when competition to overcome obstacles is the core play experience.
Burning Wheel is the first game that comes to mind where declaring facts about the setting can be a player thing. Skills called wises let the player declare a fact, the GM determines how narrow, rare or otherwise difficult that declaration should be, and you roll to see if the character was right or not.
Player authority over the fiction shows up in quite a few places now. A recent one that comes to mind is the Loremaster role in Band of Blades, in which the player is responsible for inventing the history of the Legion and calls upon it now and again. The Loremaster also frames camp scenes, which is the open roleplay portion of the game.
Interlocking Economic Cycles
Many trindie games have experimented with incentives other than bildungsroman character advancement, where the players chase experience points or their equivalent and enjoy a steady progression in effectiveness in power. My favorite early exposure to this was how Burning Wheel offered several different economies (Artha) to incentivize players to engage with their Beliefs and Instincts, but engaging with those thing didn’t directly advance you. Instead, you had to use the skills you wanted to advance (not a new idea), with Artha being how you avoided catastrophic failure when you used them. To advance your skills, you must engage with obstacles that were mathematically impossible to succeed at without Artha.
My latest favorite indirect-advancement thing was, believe it or not, Godbound. Not only do you earn XPs in the usual way, but you also have to spend Dominion (your divine energy) changing the world. Succeeding isn’t enough, you have to go be godly as well.
An interesting thing happened when Apocalypse World introduced the world to playbooks. They looked an awful lot like plain old “classes,” but played in a much more narratively intentional way. The Driver, for example, isn’t just skilled at driving The Last of the Interceptors across the wasteland, they were also emo loners. That is a result of the Driver’s moves, which had nothing to do with professional capacity and everything to do with the Driver’s narrative role in a well-known postapocalypse franchise.
Mutant: Year Zero meets this approach halfway, with classes that tell you what you’re good at but also gives you special abilities and advancement triggers that are tied into characterization. And not just “good roleplaying,” which honestly is the weakest punt in all of gaming. The One Ring hides this inside your “calling,” which looks diegetic (you’re a wanderer or a monster slayer or a treasure hunter) but is really a narrative declaration.
Relationship Maps/The Death of the Party
R-maps! Oh how I love thee. Many games now include a “I know X character because…” element, sometimes building connections between PCs and sometimes invoking an implied web of NPCs.
This wouldn’t have ever been a thing without holding environments where exploring interpersonal relationships was the core play experience. When you’re playing a unified party, relationships might evolve organically but if they don’t, nothing is lost. None of the narrative was expected to come from PCs squabbling or being friends or fucking (or, ideally, all of those).
Driving a stake through the heart of party-centered play has been one of the most refreshing things in trindie games for me. Your various ghosts and ghouls and vamps in Urban Shadows might occasionally join forces to face a common enemy, but just as often they’re dealing with each other’s daily lives. The magical weirdos of Invisible Sun are just living their lives and maybe helping each other out. The gangs, crews, and families pursuing a common enterprise in Forged in the Dark games look like a party on the surface, but they’ve got their own relationships and goals as well.
No doubt, though: unified party play is easier! Ongoing play about interpersonal relationships takes more work. The players need to not only engage with the premise, but a willingness to start trouble for themselves and others in pursuit of their needs.
Phases of Play
Conventional RPGs usually have detailed, interesting rules for combat, and then rules for everything else. You might cast a spell here and there, maybe have a special rule for dealing with sneaking or traps or whatever. Mostly pacing is left to the discretion of the GM, who would either play out the lives of the characters in detail, or if they were very adventurous and daring jump events ahead to the next conflict. I think of pacing as a point of distinctiveness between traditional GMs.
There have been games around for quite a while that helped create, even mandated, a particular mechanized pace. The earliest one I can think of is the passing of the years in King Arthur Pendragon: each winter, the GM rolls on a series of tables that inject a bunch of interesting new fictional development. It’s a completely different set of rules than the rest of the game. There may have been other games that provided this sort of set-aside mode of play but darned if I can remember any of ‘em.
The first storygame I personally ran into with distinct phases of play was Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches: you played the lives of WW2 Soviet airwomen during their days using one set of moves, then switched to a different set of moves as they went on raids at night. They were practically two different games, each informing the events of the other.
Mutant: Year Zero does the phases-of-play thing by dividing play into events in the Ark, and events in the Zone. They both use identical systems, but they’re both framed in very different ways. When you’re in the Ark, the action is usually driven by the relationship map, or by existential crises facing the mutants…that can only be addressed by sending expeditions out into the Zone. Once you’re in the Zone, the GM has tools to procedurally generate the wild and random things the mutants might find out there. The feel of the game is quite different at that point, switching to a grindy survival game. The shift in style and tempo is signaled on their return by dealing with the Rot they’ve accumulated out there now that they’rehome.
The One Ring breaks down all play into journeying, combat, or encounters. That’s it. There are no other kinds of play time. Each one has its own subset of rules that sit atop the general conflict and advancement stuff. There’s even a nod back to KAP, the Fellowship phase, where the characters explicitly stop adventuring, rest and recuperate somewhere safe, and advance the clock and the fiction a bit.
Forged in the Dark games like Blades in the Dark or Copperhead County thus far have a clear split between being on and off the job: the downtime phase. The job tempo is set by an engagement roll that drops you right into the action, and the job is over when it’s over. Then the characters deal with the fallout of their actions, get paid, manage the growth of their gang, take on personal projects. If there’s going to be any “open roleplay,” away from the pressure cooker of being on the job, this is when it happens.
Another case of cross-pollination: when Torchbearer designers Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane tore into B/X D&D, they rediscovered the mechanical grind of surviving a dungeon delve: light, food, water, rest and carrying capacity. These existed to create verisimilitude, but that verisimilitude created a diegetic sense of urgency. If you need to kick the players in the ass to take action, mechanical urgency is a good way to do it.
This is one of those places where old methods, I think, got a modern reframe. I suspect the old realists felt like the grind was oppressive and an impediment to beating the dungeon. I know I spent a lot of years playing D&D and just not caring what my carrying capacity was, or whether we had enough torches packed. Hauling around lamps is not heroism! Somehow, decades later, we’ve unearthed this idea as fun and motivating. Winning might be fun, but have you tried not losing?
(If that last line makes your skin crawl, you probably aren’t a trindie fan.)
Now you’ve got the constant threat of your lenders coming after you if you miss a payment on your ship in Edge of the Empire, the careful balance of food and time necessary to keep the Legion moving ahead of the zombies in Band of Blades, trying to stay hopeful enough to outrun the Shadow in The One Ring.
One more: the game that’s designed with a campaign already baked. When was the first one? Polaris, maybe? The Mountain Witch? The idea here is that the game isn’t designed to be a toolbox for open-ended campaign play, but focused on a particular narrative arc.
My current best-in-class in the game-as-campaign category is the Eden storyline that comes with Mutant: Year Zero. Through a combination of card draws, map prep, and procedural generation, the mutants’ search for Eden gets delivered piecemeal to the players. You can totally just bump around in the Zone indefinitely when you play MYZ, but its highest and best application is watching the campaign play itself out without having to do anything specific. Other Year Zero Engine games have attempted something similar, but MYZ is still the best in my book.
Band of Blades is another game wrapping an integral campaign: the Legion is falling back toward its headquarters at Skydagger Keep, while The Cinder King and his endless zombie hordes implacably march across the world. It’s grim and dark, and very tightly structured. The Legion proceeds from location to location on a map, engaging with missions along the way. You can play, dunno, Legion adventures outside of this I guess, but most of the interesting gameplay becomes irrelevant.
I could keep going with the innovations that have happened in storygaming that found their way into mainstream, conventional ttrpgs. I left a bunch out because the piece was getting long – the rise of minigames, mechanized flags, an appreciation for fictional positioning as its own goal – when I realized that hardly any part of mainstream gaming remains untouched. Games are good and they’re constantly evolving to be even better. Even the folks who proudly declare themselves part of a renaissance of the old school are creating some genuinely creative, weird, new stuff. What a time to be gaming.