Gaming Miniseries (#RPGaDay 2017, Day 9)

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

Funny fact: I’ve never actually played any RPG for only ten sessions. Or, wait, no, that’s not true: I’ve played a couple, I’ve just never run them that way.

The thing about running an RPG in that way—as a sort of miniseries run, or a short term or “single season” campaign, as some are calling it now—is that it requires a couple of things:

  • characters need to mostly stay alive and pursue their individual agendas
  • each player’s investment in his or her character need to intensify as things progress
  • there needs to be a satisfying arc from start to finish

I think for these reasons, story-centric games are likelier to work. My experience matches that: the one time I played Vampire: The Masquerade, I think it lasted about seven or eight sessions. It was an investigative scenario. The same thing goes for the one time I played Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and that mortals-centric Wraith: The Oblivion game I mentioned a few posts ago.

Am I saying Old World of Darkness games? Not really: I actually think those games would get more fun as you played them longer and pushed the GM beyond what she or he had prepared. (Over-prep for any game, even a World of Darkness game, can really stagnate things.)

I think, though, the oWoD has one advantage: it’s a hodgepodge of familiar RPG tropes: if you know vampire movies, you “get” Vampire: The Masquerade. Likewise for the other game lines, with, I’d argue, the exception of Mage: The Ascension, which has a steeper learning curve due to the open-ended magic system. The nice thing about the oWoD games was also that they were mechnically pretty similar, just as with nWoD: there was a learning curve, but once you learned one game, the others were almost self-explanatory.

Am I arriving a a partial answer? I think so: if you’re running a ten-session game, you want something where the mechanics can be easily learned or are familiar from elsewhere. You want a milieu that either is already familiar from books or media consumed by your players, or which they can intuitively pick up. One reason Fiasco works so well is because we all understand schadenfreude, and we’ve all seen Fargo. The same system probably wouldn’t work if it had been soldered onto a complex, highly unique worldbuilding book.

I also think, if you’re running only ten sessions, you need to give the players an explicit goal or objective to achieve. That’s not the same as saying you need to railroad them, of course, but the constraint helps give that ten-session run purpose and shape, and helps give them something to focus on. Of course, you need to remember the point is the journey, not the destination.

Going by that, I guess I’m saying if I were to run a short-term campaign of ten sessions or so, I’d go for a simple system and a familiar, well-understood genre, so that the ten sessions aren’t spent bickering over rules or learning the weird intricacies of the setting. The ones that stick out for me—if I’m playing with people of my approximate age—include:

  • postapocalyptic road trip
  • espionage/spy thriller
  • investigative/conspiracy
  • superhero crisis
  • time travel mission
  • supernatural underworld conspiracy (like the World of Darkness setting)

Mashups, too, need to be self-evident and simple: for example, Night’s Black Agents (spy/thriller + vampire hunters!) is a good example of how to mash together two familiar and well-understood game concepts to get something players can essentially intuitively grapple with. (And if a player is struggling, you can easily point them to one or to chunks of media to help get things clearer: go watch the Bourne movies, and go read or watch Dracula.)

I guess I’m saying it’s less about the system, and more about the milieu, genre, and feel of the game that mattrs, when you’re figuring out how to run a short series of ten sessions. In fact, I feel like the systems you might use for running these games are pretty self-evident, and will come down to the age, interests, and preferences of the GM and players. One group might want to just use d20 for their postapocalyptic game and use Darwin’s World. Another might want to go hog wild and play Mutant Crawl Classics, while a third will be happy with the 1st (or, yes really, the 3rd, or, yes, even the 7th!) edition of Gamma World.

One more thing: I think this differing use case might be why some people embrace a game, while others reject it. For example, th reaction to the Gamma World 7th edition game was really polarized: many people hated it and ranted loudly just because it wasn’t whatever previous edition of Gamma World they liked best—and it really wasn’t, and I suppose that’s valid, from the point of view of wishing that the older Gamma World lines could be resurrected and supported, in spirit at least if not in fact. (That said, it’s not like Wizards of the Coast went around destroying copies of earlier editions or something, and if you play Gamma World and aren’t used to making up stuff now, well… good luck to you.)

But others complained about it because the everything about the game—mechanics, rules, the vibe, the worldbuilding (if you can call it that)—all pointed to it being a game designed to be played in a short and limited series of sessions, probably with an optimal number of ten or twelve as the maximum for a particular set of characters. Characters losing their mutations after every combat, and items picked up being essentially one-shot every time? There was no continuity, leaving little to build a long-term campaign upon. Some people look at a game, after all, and think, “Is this rich and interesting enough that I could run this for two years straight? No? Then forget it, I’m not buying it.” Hell, I am guilty of that sometimes too.

But for other people, I think that was why they dug Gamma World‘s 7th edition. A lot of people don’t run anything for two years straight, and are happy buying games they know they won’t be running for more than a season or two (and revisiting only occasionally). The last iteration of Gamma World actually had a lot of things going for it, if you think about it in terms of how designers can eliminate learning curve and get players into a game that’s meant to be run for a limited number of sessions. After all, the mutant powers came designated on cards, so you didn’t have to flip through the rulebook to look them up, or scratch them off your character sheet: lose a mutation, discard a card. The constantly-changing mutations and special devices kept things constantly surprising and interesting, claimed some people. Character generation was simple—though, as a lot of homebrew designers realized, you could make it even simpler if you used cards to randomize character origins, the way you randomized mutations. (See also here.)

An example Origin card from the One Inch Square website. Click the card to go to the source.

Meanwhile the flimsiness of the worldbuilding made sense, because (a) the game wasn’t designed for long-term campaigns, and (b) we all know what a gonzo postapocalyptic world looks like. The art evoked a certain gonzo cartoony feel, and that was enough for those who liked that mode of play: they didn’t need pages of world description, and in fact those would have been a minus for them, not a plus. I mean, this is a game where you wear a backpack made of car parts and armor made from road signs, and with your mutant praying mantis buddy you fight off crazed toaster robots, and your weapon is a frigging parking meter:

… and if you get that, you’ve got all there is to get.

A lot of the players who embraced it were also comfortable with the D&D 4E combat and liked how it was more of a tactical miniatures combat game than, you know, a traditional RPG of some sort or other. (I’m not, and the slowness and complexity is the one thing that’s held me back from actually trying to run this iteration of the game, despite being interested in seeing how it would play out. I got a copy of all three of the main installments of 7th Edition Gamma World for just $10 with a bunch of older Gamma World, but haven’t gotten a test game run yet. Maybe someday.) I think, however, that I’ve come to be very interested in the idea of cards both as a prop to help make game info available to players—from spell cards like we’ve had in D&D/AD&D for ages (and you can make your own stripped-down ones for D&D 5e here), to the various kinds of Shock and Injury cards that are planned for the new King In Yellow game, to these mutation cards. I really am attracted to the idea of resource cards, just because they allow players (and GMs) to have crucial information in their hands without having to go hunting for it in a book.  

I’m actually considering coding up some kind of software to mediate digital RPG resource card handling between players and GMs since, as Robin D. Laws recently commented (I think in this episode of his and Kenneth Hite’s podcast), cards in a digital form can be handier than having to paperclip physical cards to character sheets when things are meant to persist from session to session.  They’re also, you know, less stuff to have to haul around, and don’t require more printing every time you come up with something new, even if having a nice physical card in your hand is nice. I think it might be a nice starter project for a new programmer, albeit with the caveat that it may be tougher for me to do up versions for both iOS and Android. We’ll see, anyway…

I don’t know if I’ve said anything non-obvious here, but I think the shorter the run, the simpler the system and the worldbuilding you need. Since I haven’t run many short sessions on purpose, I don’t have a lot of specific recommendations, though I’m guessing some of the Apocalypse-powered games, and Ben Lehman’s Polaris, and (for gamers of the right generation) a lot of the games we grew up playing, would all fit the bill… it all just depends on what you want.

In more concrete terms, here are some short-term games I’d like to run:

  • I’m actually thinking about shifting my ongoing/soon-to-be-resurrected Obtenebrations campaign (run with LotFP) to a season basis: the next season would be characters (of a group chosen by the players) grappling with an overriding objective designed for that group, set in the setting that I’m working on with Ahimsa Kerp. After a “season” we’d shift to some other faction in the setting, possibly the enemies of the original group of PCs.
  • A Vampire: The Masquerade game centered completely on ghouls (as in Ghouls: Fatal Addiction) who’re stuck managing a crisis—or, maybe, who create the crisis themselves and have to handle the fallout. (“Man, I’m sick and tired of serving on the Master hand and foot while waiting for him to Embrace me, aren’t you? And do you think he’ll really bring us all into the fold? Really? I think it’s time to take things into our own hands…”)
  • A postapocalyptic game (no system chosen yet, but I’m eyeing Mutant Crawl Classics) set in the ruins of postapocalyptic Korea (North and South), where the objective is to catch [someone] who [did something bad] to the PCs community at the southern end of what remains of the peninsula, and subsequently fled north. I’ve got a ton of odd worldbuilding stuff in my head I think I could write up nicely. Maybe even pitch to Goodman Games, who knows, though I suspect my take on the postapocalyptic genre may be less slightly gonzo than they want for their MCC product line, and I’d have to, er, WTF? things up a bit. I might also run it with Mutant Future, or I’ve heard Stars Without Number and Other Dust would work well for this sort of thing. I’m not sure.
  • Some sort of funny/goofy Ghostbusters-type game set in either Seoul or some other city in South Korea (Daejeon? Busan?). Hapless former foreign English teachers lose their jobs when the EPiK system collapses and cram schools are made illegal—i.e. when jobs for unskilled white foreign English teachers dry up—and figure, hey, what if we buy ghostbusting franchise rights for Korea? What could possibly go wrong?!? I imagine I’d either just use the original Ghostbusters rules (though I’d want to get a second-hand boxed set of the first edition, or at least a nicely printed copy of the content from it, which you can get from the game’s biggest revivers, The Nerdy Show) but I’d supplement it with the newer, nicer cards created by the folks at The Nerdy Show. (Then again, InSpectres is another option.)
  • A riff on Paranoia where the PCs are invaders from another Complex somewhere else (possibly a neo-Soviet one, whether in Russia or, you know: Bolivia, Australia, wherever) and their mission is to infiltrate, gain Ultraviolet Clearance as quickly as they can, and either get the previously infiltrated agents (many of whom are now comfortably living as High Programmers) to give up their lives of luxury and sabotage The Computer beyond repair, or, failing that, figure out how to do it themselves and bring Alpha Complex down. Sort of The Americans, but set in Alpha Complex. Oh, and Alpha Complex is much nicer than the run-down neo-Soviet Alpha Complex they come from. But I woudn’t run this till I’d run the game a few times, and gotten a sense of how it works when played straight. (By which I don’t mean the Straight mode, just the traditional mode of playing Paranoia.)

Oh, and one more:

  • I would like to at least try out the aforementioned Gamma World 7E. I don’t know if anyone will be game in my area, but it feels like a fun, crazy, goofy-combat-centric game a kid could get into, so maybe my son will go for it someday. He can do the player recruitment, if he wants to try it!

That’s a ton of short-term games, though, and who knows when I’ll have time to run them all, while running my main game and playtesting the RPG design stuff I’m hoping to work on in the next couple of years? Ask a GM about campaigns she or he would like to run, and you’ll usually get a list like this. Most of them never get played.

(If we ever got Guaranteed Basic Income, I suspect an unexpected side effect would be the dawn of a golden age of sorts in the RPG hobby—not necessarily in terms of published material, but in terms of the number of such long-imagined, never-implemented games suddenly being organized and played. Not that I’d want to be on GBI and just D&Ding all day, but I betcha a lot of people would dig it.)

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