Evolutions and Revolutions

When was the last time a game showed you a substantially new way to approach play?

I’m not talking about recognizing first movers (X did it first! Z is just an evolution!). I’m talking about the actual game that opened your eyes to new possibilities.

I’ve been thinking about that for a bit now, both as a wannabe designer and as a player and consumer of this thing of ours. As a designer, there’s a draw, I think, to being The One Who Showed Us A New Way. As a player, though, maybe I’m basically conservative in my approach but A New Way is more often than not a stumbling block to overcome. Not always! Might be an age thing.

When I say A New Way, I don’t really or necessarily mean a killer app. I do think any good game will have (at least) one thing it does in a really good, effective, and maybe novel way. I might do a series about killer apps at some point. But back to A New Way, yeah? I’m thinking about a new paradigmatic approach to how we do the thing.

My operating definition of the thing, by the way, is “participating in an organic narrative.” That’s the most compact phrase I can come up with. I honestly do not feel like fighting over it (it’s my definition, doesn’t have to be yours) but I can unpack it if anyone’s interested.

Probably the first game that showed me a new way of participating in an organic narrative was GURPS/Hero. My games leading up to that started at Traveller, and moved quickly on to everything TSR had put out by the mid-80s: D&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Top Secret. None of those substantially moved the needle for me, I don’t think. But point-buy games, whoa! My first introduction to play was to funnel characters into trope sets: fighters or pilots or wizards or mercenaries or whatever. Gamma World and Top Secret kind of broke away from that, come to think of it, but not in as assertive a way as the early point-buy games. Point buy puts all the creative onus on the players to cook up something on their own, even if mostly we just cooked up variations on the tropes we had learned from earlier games. Still, it was a big one.

Next big one had to have been the World of Darkness games. For me, the new thing was seeking out conflict and tension amongst the player characters. Up to then, my games had been externally focused, I think: us versus the dungeon, or the ruins, or NPCs.

(Quick break to remind everyone that I’ve already addressed my disinterest in pedantically assigning credit or providing a comprehensive longitudinal study of all game design everywhere. I’m just talking about my own (r)evolutions.)

Since then, the revolutions have come fast and furious at me: Burning Empires/Wheel for re-centering play on explicit player priorities, Dust Devils for modeling outcomes on narrative priorities rather than character abilities, Apocalypse World for uncertainty triggered by fictional context, resulting in narrowly shaped fictional and mechanical outcomes, Fiasco for player-driven scene setting.

I’ve played a lot of games since 1980. My personal revolutions have come in spurts, then dribbles, then floods, then nothing. There’s really no way of telling when the next revolution will come. But they’re always a mix, for me, of excitement and dread. I want to discover new ways of conversing! But I also hate feeling frustrated about being inarticulate in this new language.

What was the last game that showed you a genuinely new way of doing your thing?

Liked it? Take a second to support The Indie Game Reading Club on Patreon!

0 thoughts on “Evolutions and Revolutions”

  1. Burning Wheel taught me serious differences in how one could GM. The let it ride rule in particular was eye-opening. That was when we started looking past our old school games and wondering what else was possible.

    Then Fate, or more specifically Spirit of the Century, blew the doors off of our assumptions, bringing all the players into the narration in a rich and mechanically relevant way. That’s when we started writing games.

  2. Swords Without Master blew the doors off for me in many ways, but I think the idea of specifically structuring different parts of the game to achieve different goals in the fiction, but all within a cohesive structure and generating a continuous narrative, was the biggest. It’s really quite different from games that have lots of rules for different things you do as character actions (like say 90s Storyteller System or GURPS) and unified conflict resolution games (most of my stuff! But say Primetime Adventures as an ur-example) and one core set of mechanics with variations based on character abilities (Apocalypse World, most D&D when you get right down to it).

    The rules are player-facing instead of character-facing, but the game still deeply cares about the characters and really only works when you play the characters hard, and that’s something that I probably couldn’t even have conceived of on my own.

  3. For me Fate was a big shift. Aspects where such an eye opener for me but then Fate Accelerated came along and added approaches to the mix. Suddenly gaming shifted from what can your character do to how does your character do it. It’s sometimes a subtle difference but other times it’s monumental.

    Another shift was probably WFRP 3rd edition. It was just an entirely different way to approach the medium of role playing. Physically turning rules and ideas into actual tangible components is fascinating to me. But it also added these variable resolution. No longer was the game a progression of pass/fail moments. You could pass or fail and have additional positive or negative aspects as part of the result as well.

  4. Pendragon showed me how to make long term games that were about something, and that were embedded in that thing.

    Dogs in the Vineyard showed me how very specifically and explicitly mechanics and theme could go together.

  5. My repertoire of experience in gaming is much smaller, so this might be old hat to some, but I wanted to share a cool New (to me) Way I just encountered in the past week. I was listening to a podcast that ran a little bit of actual play and then a discussion of the mechanics for a game by Todd Crapper called High Plains Samurai, which uses a system he developed called ScreenPlay (there are a couple of other settings for the system too). Anyway, the system has some characteristics that truly support the collaborative storytelling experience in a different way that most games I’ve played. Instead of a GM and players, it has a director role and then the rest of the people playing are writers. Writers write for their player character, but the character’s capacity to do things is enhanced by the writers adding details to the descriptions of what is happening in the scene; the writer has the most power to have what he or she wants happen by capitalizing on all the defined opportunities to add detail to a scene. This type of things may exist in other games, but it was new to me, and it’s a creative solution to the problem of how to get players to participate descriptively instead of simply acting strategically on their characters’ behalf. Does this type of thing sound like other systems you use?

  6. Some of these moments for me were when a game didn’t do something for me, but it happened anyway. I think about the Promethean: the Created game I ran years back, where something really unlikely, really marginal happened, and we rolled with it, and the entire game was marked by that moment, and better for it—and since then I started thinking about what would later be articulated in AW so well: Make [the World of Darkness] seem real; Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring; Play to find out what happens; Always say what your prep demands; Always say what honesty demands. I did those things, and the game was better, but the game didn’t make me say it, and I started to feel the absence. About two years after that, AW came out, and told me to do those things, and supported me, and the cycle completed.

    I guess, to summarize, that moment taught me about irrevocability, and the value in it.

  7. Brian Kurtz I’ve played several games of High Plains Samurai and it is pretty unique. I find that the sift from I am a player and this is my character to I am a writer and I’m writing for this character is also an interesting facet. I find it changes my approach to how I would typically game. While you are still rooting for your character, I find the concept shift helps create a more collaborative effort to telling the story.

  8. My biggest turning points in chronological order are:
    *Ars Magica* – Troupe-Style play
    *Burning Wheel* – Let it Ride & Beliefs
    *13th Age* – One Unique Thing & Icon Relationships

  9. Probably the biggest shake-up was AW for me. Laying out agenda, principles and GM moves, and the miss/partial/hit tech, was very eye opening.

    Most recent shake-up: many more than one GM, most recently experienced in Kathryn Miller ‘s game Immortal Beloved, about a panel of gods sitting in judgment of a couple’s love. There was something new and intense about being one of a pair of PCs facing a wall of pesky, questioning GMs. Like the best/worst panel job interview…

  10. The thing that’s really on my mind now is this concept of using loaded questions. It’s not tied to any one game in particular, although I’ve had the most recent experience with them in Apocalypse World. “Is Rich your friend?” isn’t loaded. “Why are you willing to knock over this store for Rich?” is.

    For me, this is the next step up from offering players fate points to just go along with the damn adventure. 🙂

  11. Dream Askew was a big deal for me. It wasn’t the first GMless game I’d played, but it was the first one that I found satisfying. Each player has one aspect of the setting that they’re responsible for. Certain setting elements are off-limits to certain playbooks, so the gang leader can’t be responsible for rival gangs, for instance. The diceless mechanics are great too. Each character has a set of “moves” they can do for free, some that cost a token, and some that earn a token. It really helps drive particular types of play, the way it seems like Fate was intended to. Good stuff.

  12. Apocalypse World definitely hit me hard in terms of how it specifically structure the GM side of the game. Up until then, game texts were lots of rules and then some wishy washy advice about telling stories. AW said “nah, man, you do this shit and only this shit, and you do it like this”.

    Microscope similarly showed me that players can be trusted to make up cool shit – something over a decade of GMing made me terrified of. Players ruin MY STORY, right?

  13. I would say the narrative authority of Swords Without Master. Wait, I can say how my enemies and the rest of the dang world reacts? This is a very different focus than I am used to, and a way I didn’t really know games could be.

  14. Wushu really turned my brain inside out. Prior to that, I had, without really realizing, both played and ran games with this underlying notion that realism (given the nature of the game world you are in) should guide rulings and ad hoc choices. A ruling was “just” and “fair” if it “made sense” within the confines of the game world. Wushu’s opening pages addressed this head on, with examples of why realism needed kicks in the face to make the ideas behind Wushu play work. Rulings worked when they followed narrative and style, not the laws of physics/magic. Wushu wasn’t the first game to say such things, but it was the first one I encountered.

  15. Count me in on the Point-Buy and Burning Wheel fronts. Beyond that, I’m not sure any specific game had as much impact on me as did the whole attitude of the Forge. I.e., creative agenda, system matters, the fact that we are people sitting together around a table, etc. All of that totally broke my existing relationships — with games, with my groups — and forced me to forge (hehe) new ones.

  16. So strange to see the image with this post this AM, as over breakfast today, I picked up and started reading Blades in the Dark conquering almost a year’s disinterest. I suppose the Big Rev(elations/olutions) for me were:

    -Vampire 1e (the dots-the dots, and the look of the thing; overall just a radical simplification of character sheets, and a “queers are normal” kind of setting reveal)

    -Everway (look how simple it is to build a complex, evocative multiverse; card-based chargen and mechanics)

    -Spirit of the Century (just wow, words or brief descriptors as… gameable elements of the PC, situations, and setting)

  17. John Till Yeah, I should also give a nod to Spirit of the Century. As was said: Aspects. I.e., “How about if the primary mechanic in our game is the English language?”

  18. I don’t really know of a specific game I can attribute this to. But I used to be (in my way back gaming days) under the assumption that more complex systems aka simulation or heavy – take your pick, created a more grounded or realistic approach to what was happening in the game world. Like, if the rules were the physics of the game world so more rules = more realism. I then countered that with thinking a more heavily story/narrative game would be less realistic because it doesn’t have enough rules to model realism.

    Fuck that. I’ve gone almost a complete 180 on that belief now. I find that fewer rules can create a more realistic feeling game because the narrative drives the realism far more then rules do. If you are running a grounded story game, then the narrative will keep things grounded. You don’t need a rule splitting out 100 different weapon damage types or hard rules on what strength 18 will let you carry. The story will come through when it is realistically important. Adding more rules may try and simulate realism for those rules specifically. But they just introduce more gaps then they fill in the long run.

  19. (Oh, and if we want to go slightly sideways, the combination of Vassen Road, Montségur, and We Were WASP in short order totally changed what I thought was possible in table top — but it’s a different kind of table top.)

  20. This is a relatively small satori, but it’s what comes to mind. A previous iteration of Runequest used a system that had Masteries included in the system. It might have been called Glorantha at the time? Crucible of the Hero Wars?

    Anyway, this system extended the rules for skills and stats to objects. So I could have the Murder Ducks skill at 17 (or whatever), but I could also have a Magical Sword item that had a 17 rating. Instead of rolling something that reflected my character’s attributes or skills, I could “roll the item” and influence play that way.

    I’d never seen that before. I think I read somewhere that it would be like Han Solo having a “Millennium Falcon skill” and that stuck with me.

  21. I feel like I’m still trying to process / get over / internalize The Beast, Firebrands, Retro No-Fun Hour Feat. Karate Basket, and most of freeform larp.

  22. Well, there was the first roleplaying game I ever played…Dungeons & Dragons. That was new.

    (thinks a long time)

    Primetime Adventures! That was new…

    Okay, that’s it. Those are the only two games that have shown me a new way to play RPGs.

  23. Most recent: Sentinels of the Multiverse, which pointed out the blazingly obvious truth that when your character dies, it sucks, not necessarily because of the death but because you are no longer participating in the game, so give those players something to do.

    The First was either AD&D 2nd ed Skill & Powers, which introduced horizontal character growth to my gaming, something that Guild Wars later drove home, or Vampire: The Masquerade for so much (character personalities, PvP, social first, etc.).

  24. Dave Turner i was just about to post again with an “honourable mention” for HeroQuest.

    HeroQuest – For the notion that narrative tension should guide difficulty levels through the story arc. The system emulates dramatic story arcs, as opposed to simulating any “reality”, and that was a real mind job.

  25. Dogs in the Vineyard was really disruptive to my play, in a lot of ways. The way it encourages just giving the PCs everything they want until they get to the stuff that the mechanics are all about was wild and new to me. And the stuff in town building about making each town to try to challenge the Dogs to see if they will follow their own lead as established by the last town was huge, too.

    Fate, although I’ve never really gotten the hang of running it, but the idea of players having big flags on their sheet that basically let them make their own trouble, totally reconfigured the way I think of “plot hooks.”

  26. GURPS shifted my thoughts too; but for deriving a skill one didn’t have from one that one did.

    V:tM was my first experience of a functional morality system.

    Everway introduced me to not having hard rules for whether you succeeded or not.

    My latest switch was Cthulhu Dark. For the idea that tests were about the speed one moved toward understanding the horror (so one could end up going either too slowly or too fast for comfort but always advanced).

  27. Bluebeard’s Bride for demonstrating that horror in RPGs

    1) is possible

    and

    2) can stem from restriction of choice rather than from surprise or even dread

  28. (dates are when I encountered the games, not when they were released)

    – Shadowrun, 1994 – point-buy also widened my eyes coming from AD&D 2e
    – Burning Wheel and Dogs in the Vineyard, 2009 – mind done asploded outright and changed how/what I play
    – Apocalypse World, 2012 – moves + immediate resolution + GM not rolling . . . fantastic-
    Dread, 2012? – not just in terms of mechanics but the questionnaire
    – Hope Inhumanity, 2014 (admitted bias) – amazing to watch all the “pffft I don’t roleplay” people roleplaying hard by the second round

  29. I mod a forum for game designers (http://www.reddit.com/r/RPGdesign) , so I see a lot of games and read up on a lot of games. I went through a dark ages of no RPGs for 15 years, then resumed my hobby while I was living in China. Then I entered into a messed up company where I helped publish Legends of the Wulin and Noblis 3E. For me, it was like waking up from a coma and finding out that now the kids have hoverboards. It took me a long time to understand the ideas of narrative story control and player content authority. And… I also came to realize that, although there are some great ideas in these new innovations, it’s not what I really enjoy.

  30. Hey slightly unrelated topic but almost… Luke’s (Burning Wheel) heartwarming words made me discover “At the Gates” (band from my town of residence) a type of music I did not much care for… but that was before Luke. Now I quite enjoy it. So I guess it’s an game-related eye-opener of sorts. 😉

Leave a Reply