We know what we don’t want and we know what we could use, but let’s think about what goes into this game. Delving into this, I’ll say I prefer structure to rules, and I am not a slave to immersion or fiction. I like to keep both the player and the character in mind in about equal measure, and I don’t like spending a lot of time separating fluff and crunch. If I err, it is towards blending the different aspects of roleplaying games into something that fits into the constraints I’ve created. I don’t care about systems at this point –I’m not shopping for systems at this time, just stating design goals to see if I understand the problem.
Anyway, back to building quick games that scratch an itch to socialize, roll dice, and make decisions that collide with other decisions to make an interesting story.
The first thing we need are simple mechanics with rich outputs. When I say simple I don’t just mean simple to conceptualize; I also mean that the mechanic should be simple and quick to actually execute. Most large dice pool systems are out. I’d also cut out any system that has you making multiple rolls to get to the output.
Rich outputs means whatever the resolution mechanic gives us should provide a solid sense of “what’s next?” It’s OK to have an immediate effect but if we can also add context or a next action to the output, we’re even better. Tables and charats can be a big help for this, but we can also provide simple guidelines for what the dice express when rolled.
Next, we need to get “things” in and out of the game. I need another post to talk about thingification, but in short, a “thing” in an RPG is an element of the fiction that is given just enough mechanical heft so that systems can interact with it. Fate Core is an example of a game with strong thingification, as is Cortex+. Why thingification? We need better rewards than the typical “you have your way” and we need those rewards to get put on the table and into play as soon as possible. Without strong thingification we are forced to have multiple subsystems, which works against our simple mechanics. More mechanics equals more cognitive burden which equals more time. With consistent and clean ways to interact with “things” we give ourselves tools for rapid play that isn’t shallow; we will sacrifice the quantity of scenes in our game, but our play should have depth to it.
Our game also wants ways to generate situations. This ties into the rich outputs, but we also need something to start with at the beginning of the session. Over episodic play, we need a way for each session to be at once self-contained but capable of living within the continuity of what comes before and what will come after. Each session needs a way to start using a blend of new material and old (possibly we keep around some of that material we thingified earlier).
Last, the game needs to know when to end. Whether it is stating goals clearly or simply putting a timer in the game system itself, we need a shut off switch to help bind play. The game should be designed such that play typically “shuts off” within the hour.
That’s the high level look at what I think needs to go into a short play episodic RPG. You beg to differ, or have something to add? Hit me up in the comments!