I've been playing role-playing games like D&D and its ilk since I was a wee lad, often with pathetic heartbreak, as I'd invite friends over and they'd get bored by the complicated rules or subvert the activity into silliness . . . this was often the fault of these games, supposedly about creating epic stories, but which actually are about killing & looting, or which create stories that are not so much "epic" but ... "lame."
Or I'd spend enormous amounts of time creating worlds and scenarios and rules which would never get played at all. So after I turned 16 and learned to drive and to pursue women I all but gave up on role-playing, except for maybe the odd memorable one-shot of Paranoia or Cyberpunk or The Fantasy Trip. (Or a session of D&D where I played a Celt and tried to speak with an outrageous irish accent - and somehow didn't realize until later that I was the only one doing a funny voice.)
And this is despite the fact that I even had a job working on computer RPG's - the Magic Candle series! I came to hate computer RPG's - I hadn't enjoyed one since Ultima 4. I wanted to like them, but they never lived up to the promise - "Be in this world, tell an epic story."
I realized that games and storytelling just don't mix. I, at least once, said as much on this blog. So when we moved up to Washington, a mecca for role-playing, and a friend was playing a regular, ongoing D&D campaign - just like I wished I was in when I was a kid - I got in on it. And, of course, it wasn't about the storytelling, or the acting, it was about killing monsters. And that was usually fun, often the highlight of my week, but...
Just recently, a few months ago, I started hearing about some new games - and unable to restrain my curiosity (could this really work?) - I talked some friends into playing a few of them.
And they were *awesome*. They were everything I used to think role-playing was supposed to be. We "acted"; we created epic stories; we spent our time actually playing instead of looking up rules.
So what was it about these new games? Ever since Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu and Vampire there have been efforts to increase the amount of "story" in our games...and in 2002 there was Sorcerer and Universalis...the new new effort to get more story in games. I've never played Sorcerer but I've played games that subscribed to its creator's philosophy, and I've dabbled a few times with Universalis and although it's always been very memorable it didn't quite hit the *awesome* level that these recent games have hit, didn't put me in this frothing anticipation for another session. Somehow they missed the mark.
Here's one thing this latest crop of games have in common:
First, it's not just the GM telling the story - in fact, the GM has been neutered or is gone completely. The players not only get to say "I do such-and-such" but also invent other characters, setting elements, obstacles and complications. The result? It's better for the GM (if there is one) because they don't have to prepare much (or at all); and it's better for the players because they're invested. It's their story too.
But Universalis had that, and Sorcerer to a lesser extent. (Vampire did not - they even call the GM the "storyteller", for Christ's sake, how disenfranchising is that for the rest of the players?) So what else?
Flow. These games that have worked so well for me are exceedingly light on rules - sometimes the rules fit on just a page or two. So there's no flipping open the book to page 321 to figure out if you can cast Dispel Magic on a Purge Invisibility field. But 3rd edition D&D is an extreme case - most RPG's aren't that complicated. What I didn't realize is just how simple rules have to be before you're playing fluently. Universalis is a pretty simple game; I've taught it to several people, including my 5-year old daughter. But I've never gotten to the point with it where I don't have to think about the rules anymore.
A side effect to playing these games is that, for now, I've lost interest in video games. With the exception of Limbo there hasn't been a video game that's captured my interest since I discovered "story gaming". This is partly due to being completely jaded with video games after making them for a living for so long, but story games were the last nail in the coffin, seems like.
Raph Koster once said he became disillusioned with games because, after working to come up with a method to universally describe them, he realized that they're all basically math. And that's yet another reason why story games are so freaking cool - they aren't. (Well, technically they are, because the universe is math, but you know what I mean.) With D&D it's pretty easy to see through the story through to the underlying math. But with some of these story games, it's the story that matters - the math just pops up on occasion in service to the story, to resolve disagreements or escalate.
So, you're probably wondering, "What are these games that have Jamie in such a lather?"
I'll tell you:
Lady Blackbird (possibly the best RPG session I've ever run)
Geiger Counter (there was one moment in our GC play that didn't flow, btw, due to me missing a key rule, but other than that...)
In a Wicked Age (though this went terribly when I ran it, it was awesome when someone else who had played it before ran it for me...)
A couple of homebrew games created by old friend Mark Nau (who played in those aforementioned TFT & D&D games and has really been the one to turn me on to this kind of gaming)...one of which he hasn't even written up the rules for, so I guess you're not going to get to play those. Maybe he'll post a link to New Hope in the comments, though.
And just last night I playtested Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple and while it's not exactly an RPG it is a neat way to collaboratively tell stories.
Despite my inexperience I've tried my hand at making them myself, and this one we've had some good fun with: Nowhere Road
There's also a good book on how to approach this kind of gaming: Play Unsafe, by Graham Walmsley.
And a community of people who are into it at story-games.com. I've been posting there a lot lately myself.
There, go play, share my joy.