If you want to clarify to yourself the things you love about roleplaying games, play a session of your minimum viable game. Start with as blank a slate as you can manage and feel for the missing pieces.
There are a few games that excel at completely improvised roleplay, but the list is shorter than you think. There are lots of “generic” RPG systems or platforms out there, but in most cases there’s still prep to be done: working out stunts in Fate, spec’ing out opponent values in GURPS or Hero, whatever. I recently got to play a couple games of Mana Project Studio and Fumble GDR’s Not The End, which was a fine example of this minimum viable game genre.
Not The End
Sometimes you just want to wing it, you know? Particularly at a con: I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get a bug up my butt and I’m like, “I could really use some space horror right about now.” Or “time travel, awesome, but man it’s a hard genre to just improvise around.” You didn’t prep anything, didn’t want to prep anything, you just want to sit and play a game with some friendly strangers.
Not The End, from Italy-based Mana Project Studio and Italian podcast Fumble GDR, has turned out to be outstanding for this kind of play. It’s also most definitely not for everyone. It’s close to a perfect Rorschach Test of a game, the absolute minimum to provide prompts and structure to your play and hardly anything else.
Not The End’s central trick is that to test your character – you run tests at the usual time, when something is risky and the outcome is uncertain – you draw from a bag filled with colored stones. The GM sets the test’s difficulty (how many GM stones are going into the bag) and danger (how many of the GM’s stones you need to draw to be taken out of the scene). Then the player looks over their traits and also throws their stones into the bag. The player, knowing exactly how many of the GM’s and their own stones are in the bag, then decides how many stones to draw, from 1 to 4. The decision doesn’t have a fictional position. The point of the exercise is to make the player feel the danger, weigh how much they want to do something against how dangerous it is to even try.
If you hit the danger number of GM stones, well, you’re out. But you only need to draw one of your own stones to succeed. Mostly you end up with lots of “yes, but” type outcomes. A single player stone means success, with additional stones providing either additional benefits to the success, or a marker on a trait they used for a future bonus. The player decides how the GM stones they drew get used, either assigned to “adrenaline” (the next draw you make will be four stones) or “confusion” (tally up the total number of stones in the bag, the GM randomizes the colors, and then you draw), or handed to the GM with an instruction to receive a Misfortune (a negative trait that will drop more GM stones into the bag when the trait impacts the action) or a Complication (the GM introduces a twist that increases the difficulty or danger of the situation).
One fun twist: if, after you’ve drawn the number of stones you’re committed to but want a better result, you can call the whole thing “risky” and automatically draw a total of 5 stones. Then you give the GM their stones, who then gets total freedom to do with them as they wish.
So lots of push-your-luck, a fun player-facing bit of tension that reminds me of Epidiah Ravachol’s Dread (and later, Alex Roberts’ Star Crossed) with the Jenga draw, and tons of free-wheeling characterization around character traits.
The Character Hexes
The bag-building push-your-luck system is the most novel bit of the game, but character creation is worth talking about as well. You start with an archetype, a broad short description of your character based on the premise you’ve agreed to. We played a “go investigate a rescue beacon that’s been set off on not-Isla Nublar where a not-Jurassic Park catastrophe took place decades ago” premise, so the players picked things like trail guides, scientists, trophy hunters, and hackers as archetypes. Easy enough.
The next ring of hexes around the archetype are your Qualities, adjectives that describe your archetype. And then finally, the outer ring is Abilities, specific things your character is good at. If you look at the sheet, you’ll also see that many Abilities have pairs of Qualities connecting them. The idea is to be inspired by interesting or surprising match-ups of Qualities: you might be “Cunning” and “Frightening,” and those things point at “Interrogate” as an Ability, as one example from the book. The connections mean nothing mechanically, but they prompt interesting thinking around how to describe your character.
Not The End isn’t the first game to feature freeform trait creation, of course. And to make the most of a game like this, you need to want to be constrained by your traits. It’s all too easy to weasel your way into anodyne phrases like “Driven” or “Brilliant,” thinking rightly that they’ll be useful darned near every time. But that’s pretty boring to play because you’re gonna go back to those easy choices over and over. I think for competitive players, Not The End isn’t a great tool.
That said, talking out your traits at a free-wheeling table can get everyone on the same page. As a pregame conversation starter, I thought the character creation process was a fun exercise. But sometimes it can be hard to calibrate just the right adjective or verb, something with an interesting texture that can be useful but not every time.
Not The End has a slick little advancement system as well, and you can even make it fire off in a one-shot environment. At any time, you can declare a test you’re about to make is “Crucial” before you make it (they recommend once per session). Then you make the test and change something on your character sheet to reflect how the test played out. You can add another trait to your hexes, you can swap a trait with something that better reflects how your character has changed, you can take a Scar (kind of an anti-trait that gives the GM a stone in the bag, but also gives you a place to put drawn GM stones), or learn a Lesson. I love the Lessons! It’s a deck of 54 cards with special game-changing rules, three lessons per 18 different themes. Might be a new hex for you to put a stone in for some benefit, might be some change to the normal rules. I dealt random Lessons out to players for our one-shots because they’re fun toys to have available.
What About Long Term Play?
I don’t have direct experience with how Not The End may play out across sessions. The character advancement rules are exciting to me, and I do think with the right table you could see some interesting evolutions happen. One trick I keep thinking about is how you might add a couple Abilities and later backfill the Qualities that point toward them. Or you might make meaningful edits to your traits that just feel good at the table. But none of this is aimed at making your character “better.” It’s all about adding texture and description.
If I were to run Not The End in a long-term game, I would look at stricter lists of Archetypes, and possibly Qualities and Abilities. Or perhaps make Abilities contingent on particular Qualities, and make Qualities contingent on certain Archetypes. You could easily hack out something like a playbook/class system with this! And you might end up with a more clearly defined set of Traits that vibe right with the tone and style you want to play toward.
Being able to tune your tonal range is a strength of a freewheeling trait type game, but it inevitably runs up against the players who want their characters to be better. Everything is a tradeoff in games, and this is no exception.
The Stories Book
Coming from a graphics-intensive publisher, Not The End is gorgeous in PDF and I assume will be just as gorgeous as a physical artifact when it delivers. But there’s a second book for the game, Stories, which looks even more lavish.
Stories includes 15 settings/scenarios/premises. I worked from the Evolution Island set for my test games, and it was … okay. Not great! I never quite understood whether we should be leaning more toward survivors on the island during the dinosaur catastrophe, or many years later returning to the island. I mean, it’s not a big deal, I made a call and adjusted accordingly. But all the scenarios in the book feel undercooked. In some cases it’s clear the story got edited but didn’t go through a final review, with missing NPC references or stubs of storyline just hanging out there. In others, you get a fascinating setting but no actual scenario. But it’s packed with interesting ideas, more colorful and weird than most anything else you’ll find on the shelf. And that’s another strength of coming up with your own Traits: whatever setup you dream up, you can easily come up with natural-language descriptions that just plug into the game and work.
One of the sample scenarios from the core rulebook has since been expanded into a freestanding game, Kickstarted, and is now available in PDF: Knights of the Round, an Arthurian-esque anime-style game featuring high schoolers piloting mechs. Yeah it’s as bonkers as it sounds. The Sax’on Empire is, apparently, the primary enemy of the heroic Bret’ons. Oh yes.
Other Tools In This Toolbox
Not The End is, of course, not the only way to improvise a session of play with minimum viable rules. Here are some others I’ve personally played, and how they compare to NTE:
In this four-player GMless (or “GMful,” if you prefer) game, players decide on a premise – the assumption is a journey between two places, not sure why – and figure out how to break the game up into four broad areas of authority. When I played this, we told the story of a rolling ultramarathon across the country and the misery the runners were going through to finish. So we broke the game up into things like “the road,” “the weather,” “the other runners” and “the race officials.” Whenever we had a question come up about those things, the player in charge provided an answer. The game is mostly driven by cards with random prompts, as well as a set of ritual phrases to nudge folks toward or away from certain outcomes (for safety or creativity reasons). Easy, affordable, I always have an Archipelago deck in my con go-bag.
The discussion of how to divvy up narrative duties feels creatively related to working out the traits (archetypes, qualities, abilities) in Not The End. In terms of actual play, Archipelago requires more collaboration than Not The End but also requires the players to share at least some understanding of the scenario or premise, since there’s no authority figure there to provide canonical answers.
In this GMed game, the conceit is that you’re playing out a TV show. Everything in the game is framed in TV terms, with the GM as Producer and everyone taking a character in the show. The premise itself is what makes the game so wonderful for pickup play, assuming you’re dealing with folks who have ever watched television. The game’s core economy revolves around Fan Mail, little beneficial tokens you pass around for cleverness and principled character play. Like Not The End, Primetime Adventures features free-form traits, and all the strengths and problems those entail. Truly one of the most innovative of the previous generation of indie games.
I think the big difference here is the metaphor of play. PTA is a TV show, with all the abstraction that comes with that. It uses card draws to work out resolution, and that felt to me less like the Jenga-like experience of the player manipulating their own risk-taking threshold. It’s also quite exterior-focused, if that makes sense, because of the TV show metaphor: how do scenes look, what actors are present, what does the show require? Different than looking at your character’s description and working out how they perform from that.
This extremely stripped back version of Fate also features freely created traits (called Aspects here) and a little ecosystem of Fate Points that go either into manipulating the narrative through adding new scene elements, or paying players to invoke existing elements. Lots of fictional-positioning manipulation. When I’ve played Fate, it feels very much like the Aspect-creating bit of play is about directing the game’s camera, as it were, toward things to make them “important.” Fate also uses little bonuses called Stunts, which are combinations of a small bonus used in a specific situation. Stunts strike me as something an experienced GM would be able to quickly describe back to a player who had a vague idea, and not necessarily a barrier to a truly improvised session.
Here are some others I have not played, but the IGRC Slack community brought up. If you know more, write back and tell me about it!
- Simple World
- Arium: Discover (and Arium: Create, a worldbuilding side game)
- Vice & Virtue
So About That Rorschach Test…
With nothing more than a handful of descriptors and a way to inject unexpected outcomes into unresolved moments, here’s what Not The End highlighted for me about my roleplaying baselines:
- It’s hard to get everyone on the same creative page under time pressure. Probably the toughest challenge of a literal “hey you want to play a summer slasher story? Great, let’s go!” event. Much to my chagrin, mood board GMing would probably help here.
- I personally like specificity because constraints prompt creativity. Of course it’s a continuum, extreme constraint just strangles everything, but NTE’s amount felt good. I’m also reminded that some folks naturally prioritize effectiveness over specificity, and that’s a tough circle to square.
- When I’m forced to improvise across many hours, my brain naturally either goes toward tropey cliches, or wanders so far afield into weird territory that all that “same creative page” nonsense I worked so hard for goes out the window. This is a place where I appreciate PbtA style moves or other rules that prod the conversation toward surprising places (and makes me sigh in resignation when those rules just further reinforce tropey cliches – turns out I’m already pretty good at that).
- Having some kind of randomizer at hand to inject uncertainty is good for me. I liked the visceral feel of the uncertainty as well, although the fact it’s semi-isolated from actual character competency feels a little weird to me. Not a show stopper! But it’s a distinctive style of play.
- Of the myriad ways to structure The Conversation of roleplay, I really do like prioritizing description over competence, adjectives over stats. But I also like the process of confirming that everyone at the table is there with me, or can quickly throw up a flag letting me know they’re not. Which, honestly? Is absolutely fine as long as I know. And a game like Not The End is quite good at highlighting that gap.
- Gosh is it nice to not have to think about how to mechanically balance threats. I’ve never loved the math side of trad gaming and all that it entails: does this threat feel dangerous? Will it straight kill the characters? Do I care about a fair fight or are we gonna let the players decide that for themselves?