Killer Apps

Killer Apps

2. What do you look for in an RPG?

I look for the game’s killer app, the one really new idea or overarching set of ideas that sets the game apart at the procedural level. I look for new ways to play make-believe.

Consequently, I’m completely baffled by the “the rules get out of your way” school of thought, which strikes me as diametrically opposed to the thing I look for in a game. If the game’s getting out of the way, why did I spend money on it? I definitely prefer there to be game in my game.

This is probably why nostalgia Kickstarters and OSR games continually elude me. Better versions of existing things don’t seem to trigger my craving for real novelty.

Then why do you play so many PbtAs then, smarty pants? I can hear you back there, in the utilikilt, asking. Good question! Maybe because moves are more densely designed than, say, a pass/fail roll-under thing. Lots more room for the kind of novelty I like. Specifically, novelty that carries with it a clear editorial voice. I can hear the designer’s intent and opinions more clearly via a certain school of modern design choices (moves, yes, but others as well) than I do when they’re hidden behind systems meant to “neutrally” model reasonable and realistic outcomes.

I don’t know that I’ve ever bought or played or loved a game for its setting. Mage: The Ascension maybe. King Arthur Pendragon certainly, but that’s a whole package deal. Might be it. Although the question of “setting” is worth a couple hours of bullshit over beers at the after-con party.


0 thoughts on “Killer Apps”

  1. Also in PBTA, you can find innovations within the overall structure. It may not be wholesale unique, but it does offer wrinkles on the way in which to play make-believe.

  2. I think that when people say they want the game to get out of the way, what they often mean is they want the procedural game elements to be easy to use, intuitive, and fluent.

    (This seems to be one of the areas where different communities have persistent trouble communicating, and I am not sure entirely why.)

    I wonder how widespread the desire for procedural novelty is. It is a big draw for me, as a designer and referee, constantly on the lookout for easier, more intuitive, and more fluent procedures to adapt for other games, but when I look for a base chassis, for me at least, procedural novelty is neutral, and maybe moderately negative (unless the idea is super exciting or able to be used entirely on the referee side), because familiar procedures have a huge advantage for the average* player. (And I think such familiarity need have minimal connection to nostalgia.)

    * Perhaps an overgeneralization, but I think it is warranted, even among tabletop RPG power users.

  3. “Maybe because moves are more densely designed than, say, a pass/fail roll-under thing. Lots more room for the kind of novelty I like.”

    This seems to explain the appeal of PbtA design in general, IMO.

  4. When I say something like “I want the system to get out of my way,” I mean that I don’t want it to be so divorced from the fiction that it breaks narrative flow. “Let’s see, I have a d8 in persuasion, but we are in favor with the Griffin King, so that bumps to a 3d8, keep highest, unless 2 dice match, in which case we have a roll over and add a point into the conflict pool…”

  5. “System that gets out of the way” is, AFAIK, ’90s-speak for a host of bullshit RPG design and practice that I can’t believe people still believe. Might as well follow it with “all you need is a good GM.”

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