My favorite part of the explosion of indie game design has been the awesome proliferation of new ways to do this thing we do. Absolute favorite.
There’s not a single sacred cow that hasn’t gotten gored at some point: the role of the GM, character monogamy, agency, social contract, incentives, subject matter, session structure, conflict, theme, everything. I don’t know about you, but the more of these variations and experiments I try, the better I understand the style I play the most: GM runs the world and adjudicates, players own their characters.
One of my favorite experiments in this experimental space has been poking at just how to move a scene forward. Who gets to say what, and when? Where’s the uncertainty? What even is “a scene?” Are there stakes? Is there even really conflict? Does it need to be resolved?
Fascinating stuff! Sometimes I don’t really treat it more than a thought experiment. But more often than not, even the thought experiments show me something new about my preferred mode of play, or gives me new tools or models or ways of thinking.
A lot of indie games come from the “here’s my solution to this problem I have” school of design. That’s a good place to start! I think it’s a not-uncommon thing for folks to have run into the whole “I swing across the chasm on a rope, crash into two kobolds knocking them to the ground, and behead King Kobold! ::roll, fail:: Uhh…nuts” situation. Mostly and practically we just kind of wallpaper over that, laugh it off, figure it out after the roll.
Experiments to move that stuff around — adding aspects, assigning dice, explicating intent, whatever! — may or may not “solve” the “problem,” right? What’s really exciting to me is when a designer stumbles into something that may have been meant to solve a problem, but turns out to be a whole different way to do things. It has a purpose greater than fixing something.
What I don’t get — or maybe I get all too well — is the reflexive hostility I’ve seen when something is called “a problem.” I also (don’t) get the triumphant fist-pumping we have a better solution and you just don’t get it behavior of the new thing’s fans.
Is game design technology or fad? Based on doing our thing a very, very long time, I have to say it’s both. I’ve said, in the past, that game design is unequivocally technology: it gets objectively better, and old stuff is objectively worse. I was wrong and I was stupid to say that. Obviously, obviously there are billions of person-hours of play that say otherwise. Might not be play that I’d enjoy. Might even seem “obviously” dysfunctional! But it’s make-believe and entertainment and I’m not gonna point and laugh at anyone’s joy in this life where joy is often in short supply.
That said, for anyone’s interior model of ideal play, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer. Frustrated at what feels like unfair one-sided creative authority? Look at all these gmless/gmful games, holy wow. Love the shit out of procedurally generated sandbox challenge? Tons of options. Love your explicit flags and incentivizing economies? Same.
It’s not a zero-sum hobby. We’re better than this.