What's In A Game? #200wordrpg 2018
I’ve been reading the 2018 submissions for the 200 Word RPG Challenge, and I’ll probably be percolating impressions and opinions from this year’s crop of games for months, but something immediately bears exploration:
A huge number of entries don’t really fit my personal definition of a “role playing game!”
I’m not here to debate what is and isn’t a game, or what is and isn’t an RPG. Nor do I think it’s a bad thing that game designers on the internet are pushing the boundaries of what an RPG can be so hard that they are, occasionally, front-flipping over the line. But I do think it’s surprising, and I’d like to share my thoughts on these entries in a way that highlights them, what’s interesting about them, and what I find challenging about them.
"With Astral Flames, We Burn Even The Gods" is not a game, and I'm pretty confident about that. It’s a list of (impossibly specific) materials you’d need for a game. The only actionable rule is “begin.” It’s more like a poem in the form of a game? The fact that someone who has lived a different life can’t hope to gather the required materials is part of the point. In any case, it's beautiful.
In a lot of these games, you’re playing yourself. Many of them are about exploring your real-life identity, or centering yourself, or processing something. My personal definition of an RPG puts emphasis on the “role playing,” in that you’re stepping out of yourself and into a role (ultimately, hopefully, to learn more about yourself in the process).
“We’re queer & in a field” by my dear pupil-become-the-master Jay Dragon, doesn’t give you an explicit command to make up a character, and in fact, demands a kind of honesty from the player that mirrors the honesty they put into the game (which is essentially a folk/movement autobiography of our shared community).
But is “myself, but honest” enough of a role to be the R in RPG?
Many RPG players make characters, especially early in their hobbyism, that are idealized versions of themselves, right? They’ll write a backstory and make a few glaring differences between themselves and their characters, but this all just camouflage for the fact that they’re exploring a stronger, more powerful, or otherwise better version of their own ego.
Why is having a goofy fantasy/scifi name and a veneer of deniability so important to differentiating an RPG from a mindfulness exercise? Where exactly is the line between a solo RPG, and a creative writing prompt?
“Memory-Keeper of the Stars” is a moving entry about training to be a memory keeper, a role which it offers little context for (and, in fact, mentions only in the title and the last sentence). You do this by counting stars and receiving and interpreting messages from alien worlds. You’re definitely playing a role, here, but is it a game? At a certain point, don’t meditative activities that are actually useful and approached with a degree of seriousness stop being games and start being spiritual practices?
I think RPGs have a spiritual effect, but the level of abstraction between the player and the subconscious elements the game manipulates is… important? And these games have such an intense intentionality to the operations they intend to perform on you.
Some of the entries aren’t really games, but political statements in the forms of games. Now, don’t take me for a “politics don’t belong in games!” whiner-- games without a political or identitive agenda are, by my accounting, frivolous. But when a game clearly isn’t intended to be played, so much as read and ruminated upon… well, then I’m not sure it’s a game so much as a thought experiment?
“These are animals” by James Wallis, which is about the ongoing ethnic cleansing happening in the US, is one of the most thoughtful entries, and it’s technically a roleplaying game, in that you and a partner play by inhabiting roles. The rules are functional; more than functional, actually, as every rule serves to reinforce the thesis of the game.
But while you could play it, I’d be surprised if anyone did play it to completion. The rule “replay 1475 times” sees to that. Like with Astral Flames, the game’s unplayability-as-written sharpens its edge. If we’re unwilling to play this scenario out over and over in a harmless fictional context, how can we tolerate it happening over and over in the real world? It's probably my favorite entry I've read, but I'm not sure it strikes me as a game!
Compare to a game like “Secret Person of Color,” which is also a perfectly functional RPG about race. But it’s not impossible to play, and in fact, I can imagine people playing it as an awareness-building exercise.
(In both these games, the rules are rigged. In “These are animals” the only possibility of a good outcome involves a miracle or the players ignoring the rules. In SPOC, it’s nearly impossible for the “people of color” team to accumulate enough points to win.)
To reiterate: I’m a fan of all the remarkable submissions I’ve linked to, here, and I think that toeing these lines is really valuable, even to a cursory reader. I wanted to make sure that I linked to them, in case someone who isn't binge-reading all the entries would otherwise miss them. Check out their authors!It's certainly neat to see that, for other RPG designers, the defining boundaries are in all sorts of different places.