I first became aware of the 200 Word RPG Challenge in April of this year, and was immediately impressed with both the elegant simplicity of the challenge itself and the quality of some of the past entries. One thing that really stands out to me about the challenge is how well it matches Robert Yang’s description of “games as conceptual art”:
Games are primarily conceptual / performance art; games are culture; it’s more important to witness a game than to play it.
Most people haven’t played most games. Conversations about games often start with “oh yeah I’ve heard about it” or “I haven’t played that yet.” Thinking about the vast intergalactic politics of EVE Online is so much more interesting than trying to play it, and watching high-level Starcraft play is much more interesting than drilling on a specific build yourself.
To “consume” a game, it is no longer necessary to play it. Rather, the most important thing about a game is that it exists, because that means you can think about it. (Or maybe, games don’t even have to exist? Consider the endless press previews and unreleased games that engross so many people. These are purely hypothetical games that are often better than playing the actual finished product.)
The concept, and your explanation of that concept, and your audience’s understanding of that concept, is your game.
The vast majority of the entries to the 200 Word RPG Challenge weren’t playtested prior to submission, and I’m willing to bet that most of them won’t ever be played at all. But that doesn’t matter, because in this context, the experience of playing the games isn’t really the point – a challenge entry can be “successful” without ever being played so long as people read about it, think about it, talk about it, and derive inspiration from it.
With that in mind, I wound up reading through a lot of the 2017 challenge entries, and I came away from the experience with a head full of new ideas about game design. So I figured I’d go through and highlight some of my personal favorite entries, in the hopes of spreading and provoking discussion of the concepts they embody.
A surprising number of this year’s challenge entries managed to work in the composition of poetry as a game mechanic, and Chromed poets is probably my favorite of these. Between the prompts you’re given (“who you are, what you pilot, why you fight”…) and the requirement that each haiku you compose has to somehow answer your opponent’s previous haiku, the game very effectively recreates the feel of the psychological back-and-forth between rival pilots in Gundam’s extended space-mecha duel sequences.
I’m also a fan of how tightly constrained the poetry composition mechanic is here. In games where players have to create stuff, the fear of the blank canvas and the anxiety of being judged by other players can easily intimidate them into mediocrity. Tightly constraining the creative parts of gameplay (as Chromed poets does with its use of the strict haiku form, its topic prompts, and its list of goal words) has two key benefits: it (1) gives players something to react to instead of a blank canvas, and (2) relieves some of the anxiety of creating in front of others – since you can blame the constraints, instead of your own creative ability, if the stuff you make isn’t any good.
No Mistakes, Only Deeper Plans
On Twitter I described No Mistakes, Only Deeper Plans as “a clever mechanical interpretation of heist-movie logic”, and I stand by that description today. The division of gameplay between the planning and execution stages of the heist, with failures during execution kicking you back into the planning phase to explain how that was actually “all part of the plan”, perfectly captures the rhythm of my favorite heist scenes in film. I also love how the game suddenly strips you of the ability to explain away your failures, but only after you’ve gotten used to having it – the loss of this ability really drives home the unraveling of the meticulously thought-out plan, and sets the stage for an especially energetic and thrilling final act.
Thank you for the feast
One thing I find especially compelling about Thank you for the feast is the way it piggybacks on an existing social ritual, taking as its setting a literal dinner party between close friends. Another is the way it seems to deliberately blur the lines between in-character and out-of-character actions. You’re told to do a certain amount of character creation and worldbuilding at the start of the game, but you’re also instructed to “have your meal and enjoy the time spent with your friends” before the closing round of accusations and explanations – seemingly leaving it up to you to decide how much you want your out-of-character relationships and interactions to bleed into the final scene of the game.
Chromed poets uses mechanics to recreate the feel of a Gundam fight scene. No Mistakes, Only Deeper Plans uses mechanics to recreate the logic and pacing of a heist movie. Continuing in this vein, Bullets is notable for the way it uses mechanics to recreate the dramatic tension of a Mexican standoff.
My favorite thing about this one is that each character to enter the scene is responsible for introducing the previous character – meaning that the character you’re playing is decided not by you, but by the player who goes after you. I also really like that when your character is shot, you get to make a choice between taking damage and exercising narrative agency (declaring something about another character) or avoiding damage and relinquishing narrative agency (having another character make a declaration about you). The dynamic of having “your” characterization dictated by everyone except you is incredibly intriguing to me – more games should explore this!
There’s not much room for worldbuilding in 200 words, but the way TROLLS manages to recall such a particular flavor of online conflict (from the days of old-school web forums) shows how far you can go with just a few well-chosen turns of phrase. The use of ALL CAPS TEXT (or rather, “TROLLSPEAK”) and the fact that the mechanism for attacking another player is called “BLOG POST” both carry a lot of weight here – all-lowercase text and a mechanic labeled “callout” would put in mind a markedly different era of trolling.
Unlike Thank you for the feast, which deliberately blurs the line between in-character and out-of-character actions, TROLLS attempts to create a clear demarcation between player and character, explicitly instructing you not to “draw on you, the player’s, insecurities” during character creation. This is important given that the whole game revolves around attempting to discover and mock your opponents’ insecurities – a dynamic that could cause a lot of interpersonal harm if too much bleed was permitted. I also wonder if the game’s focus on insecurities related to physical appearance could be an attempt (albeit a limited one) to discourage attacks based on race, gender, sexuality, and all the other axes of marginalization that real-life trolls frequently employ against their targets.
One final step the game takes to establish itself as a separate space comes at the very end, in the form of a pact between the players “never to speak or write as you have just done” – essentially having the players explicitly disavow their characters’ actions. I find this part especially neat since it’s a kind of built-in “de-roleing” ritual, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a tabletop game.
Marked borrows from Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive the mechanic of drawing meaningful sigils on your arms as part of play. In Marked, however, the sigils represent spells cast in a real-time witches’ duel, with both you and your opponent simultaneously struggling to complete each sigil in time to counter the other’s next move. Under the rules as written, I suspect this game would be too chaotic to play well in real life, but I’m still fascinated by the idea of games that leave behind a lasting physical record of play – whether a series of markings on the player’s body, or a quilted gameboard produced by a session of Threadsteading.
Tabletop RPGs usually treat character sheets (and other kinds of player-maintained documentation) as non-diegetic parts of the game’s “user interface”: they don’t exist in the game world, and are present exclusively for the convenience of the players. [REDACTED], with its diegetic character sheets, represents an exception to this rule. Player characters are spies during the Cold War, character sheets represent the characters’ in-universe dossiers, and words from character sheets can be permanently redacted to grant one-off advantages during play.
I find myself wondering what other kinds of novel mechanics might be created around the alteration of character sheets – maybe give players a way to “attack” or selectively rewrite one another’s sheets? – and what other typically non-diegetic parts of the RPG “user interface” could somehow be brought into the world of the game. In the author comments, the author of [REDACTED] encourages this line of questioning by linking to a discussion thread that mentions several other possibilities for similar mechanics.
Go On Without Me
In a clever inversion of the usual narrative logic of action/horror movies (where every character attempts to survive as long as possible), Go On Without Me tasks players with being the first to heroically sacrifice themselves for the rest of the party. Something strikes me as inherently hilarious about the idea of a whole party of characters each trying their utmost to fail at everything they do, while simultaneously keeping the others from doing the same. Why hasn’t anyone made a videogame about this yet?
So there you have it: eight of my favorite entries from this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge, along with a short description of what I found most exciting or interesting about each one. Although these are the ones I chose to highlight, I definitely want to point out that there’s a ton of entries, many of which I never even read. There’s also several I read and found really compelling, but just didn’t have enough to say about them (yet?) to justify a review.
If any of these inspire you or lead you to any interesting thoughts, I’d love to hear about it on Twitter!