Let’s start thinking about what we want to do. Before I go on new adventures, I like to examine what exists that does what I want or gets close to where I want to be. I don’t like to reinvent wheels, unless they really could use the work.
Leaping into it, I think Fiasco does a great job of setting up a loop. you break Fiasco down into these fast-playing, discrete units, and you construct a situation and do something with it very quickly. It can take 2-3 hours, but this is in part because it needs time to construct a scenario from whole cloth. Once you know how things work, the gameplay gets lean and even faster in short order.
In a similar vein, Our Last Best Hope is a game that I really want to play so bad it causes me pain. It takes many cues from Fiasco, but takes a different thematic bent: instead of acting out something from a Coen Brothers movie, you are playing a group of people confronting an earth-ending catastrophe. Theme aside, What I like about Our Last Best Hope in terms of this style of driven, focused play I advocate is its clever systems for generating complications and threats, driving the game forward without the need to do a lot of prep-work.
What both of these games do is create a space for you to do your thing in the fiction, with just enough “scaffolding” to move you along and tell you what’s next. Actually, I need to park on this concept of “What happens next?” for a moment.
Systems that tell you what happens after a player takes an action lessen the need to do a bunch of prep-work ahead of time. What happens is a very different thing than a result. I can roll my attack, get less than my target, and acquire the result of a “miss”. But what happened? A result, is something a rule provides you as a basis to interpret into the fiction. A result doesn’t usually mean much outside of the abstract system that created it, but you often need or prefer a result because it gives you that interpretative control over the fiction, which is awesome. If you are constantly interpreting results into fiction however, creative fatigue can sneak up on you. A system that offers the next “move” in the fiction of your game provides a valuable service.
Think about it: what do you spend most of your time prepping for in your story? Contingencies. If the players do X, Y happens. If they do Y, Z happens. That’s just a GM ahead of time deciding what happens next for a subset of actions. Nothing bad about, but what I’m advocating is that we get to the table without the homework and without the guesswork. If I am GMing and I know a system provides ample feedback on what happens next, it lifts the burden from my shoulders. I can be more confident that I can keep a game going since I don’t have to do all the legwork of providing feedback to player actions over and over, or worse yet, having to prepare a lot of it ahead of time (knowing that most of it won’t be used)
A game that I think really pushes “what’s next?” gameplay to another level is Apocalypse World. When you do X, roll dice and see what results fall out” is a really powerful design pattern in RPGs. If you don’t believe me, shall I point you all of the really incredible hacks of the system spread over the entirety of the internet, the most famous of which is Dungeon World. A less-discussed (or I don’t hear it very much at least) aspect that Apocalypse World works with are threat “clocks” and “vectors” with the mechanics and structure of Fronts. This takes “what happens next?” even further. It asks and answers “What’s coming?” which is a great tool for adding suspense and tension to a game.
Did you really think you were going to go a whole week without hearing me talk about Marvel? Really? I thought you knew me by now.
Anyway, here’s the deal: having a generalized conflict system rocks. Hands down. In Marvel we never roll for initiative, and we never have to lean back and let the dust settle. Winning an argument and getting into a fight with the Hulk (why would you do that?) use the same rules in different contexts and with different tools available to you. We don’t have the cognitive load of switching subsystems and we get to represent all of our actions on equal terms so it lets us run crazy stuff in parallel at a quick pace. I can run a pretty solid Marvel game in about an hour and a half that feels like an issue of a comic.
Last, I want to talk about Dog Eat Dog. I have yet to get folks together to play this game (it hurts!!!) but looking at the game I can see its elegant premise and mechanics at play in a game that falls nicely within my (admittedly arbitrary) parameter of 1 hour. If you want to play it via G+ Hangout, you should let me know. I’ve been wanting to play it for quite some time. Dog Eat Dog combines a narrow (but strangely versatile) premise with a simple , consistent mechanic as a driver to what seem like meaningful and concise games.
Of course I missed your favorite game! Please tell me about it in the comments and why you think it’s something we should take note of.