Building the Tight Loop: What’s out there.

Building the Tight Loop: What’s out there.

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.

7 Responses

  1. I think Transneptune Games upcoming Cybernoir game Piece of Work. Is getting towards that. It’s a movie lenght and movie paced game. 1.5-2 hours. Creation is about 30 minutes but each players Stesses are used as the levers to start the action and keep it moving through the game.

  2. I would suggest John Harper’s current pocket-version of Danger Patrol. Yeah, not a finished game quite yet, and still has some holes here and there, but as long as I let everyone know that it’s just going to be slam-bang action with some hand-wavy drama in between, it can be quite a bit of quick fun.
    Plus it also has the “what next” aspect. Danger adds up, but what does it do? Oh, lookee here, it tells you the effects based on how much Danger you roll. True, you have to add your own details describing what the results actually look like, but with the fiction flowing freely between GM and players, it’s pretty easy to just ask for suggestions from everyone else at the table (and sometimes even asking bystanders!)

  3. Dog Eat Dog plays *fast*. Like 60-90 minutes for two different groups I played with. In terms of technology supporting really tight loops this is what I’d look to in a published game.

    I’d also look at rules engines like Cthulhu Dark, which address premise mechanically but don’t require specific time investment. One hour Cthulhu dark scenarios? Yes please.

  4. There’s two things I see play a big part towards fast games.

    First, the easiest mechanic is “I say X happens and it happens” and everything that deviates from that needs to add to the game in a meaningful way – so this is logistical constraint that affects which mechanics make sense.

    Second, a reasonable endgame trigger – whether that is mechanical (when the cards run out, everyone gets one last scene) or fictional (when the dragon dies). Fictional is harder because it requires matching up a resolution scale that fits the goal and strongly pacing the action towards that.

    Games that do short well:

    1001 Nights – It sits very close to “I say X and X happens”. It usually runs about 2-3 hours.

    Hot Guys Making Out – this game lands well on both of the traits listed above, and plays consistently in the 90 minute range.

    Primetime Adventures – PTA plays about 2-3 hours a session, and works much better as the full short campaign format, but the mechanics are pretty clean and worth looking at.

    Trollbabe – Mechanically, this game flies very fast. I’ve done a few one shots in about 2 hours. Unfortunately the GM’s advice in the most recent edition is… not easy to parse.

    Falling Leaves – this game plays very fast usually about 45-90 minutes, though it can hit creative fatigue pretty fast, as the core mechanic is “If you do X, Y will happen” loaded up on two choices, and players choosing which set of X they will do to receive Y results. On the other hand, it’s very elegant and you can do a lot with it.

    The Pool – the Pool has very simple and fast mechanics. What it lacks is a tight structure that would make it work better – people with good scene framing skills and the ability to set appropriate stakes for conflicts can make this do amazing things.

  5. @Eric looking forward to it. When is coming out?
    @Mike pocket version? It’s been awhile since I rocked Danger Patrol, but that sounds awesome. Will look.
    @Jason Dog Eat Dog does look like it will play fast. I need to push harder to get a game of that going. I will check out Cthulhu Dark as well.
    @Chris I need to check all of those out beside PTA but that seems like a great list for the reasons you specify.

  6. @Quinn an excellent question. I think the KS will be “soon”TM. We should press John Leboeuf-Little and Kit LaTouche to see if they have firmed up their timeline.

  7. I just had an awesome game of The Drifter’s Escape and it made me think both of this, and what we were talking about earlier about the issue of “when do we roll the dice?”. Drifter’s Escape ran in about 90 minutes for us, and one of the core mechanics that is interesting is that the default is GM Fiat UNLESS the player decides to “Make a Deal” in which case the mechanics are pulled in.

    This ties a bit to what I was saying about Trollbabe where anyone at the table can say “Conflict!” and declare it’s time to roll dice.