Monday, 20 June 2011

Bad convention RPG challenge

A couple of days ago, I did an analysis of what made a bad convention roleplaying game. I came up with a list which was different from the elements which make up a good convention roleplaying game, so now I have a challenge.

I’d like to see people write more bad convention games. Seriously, I would.

You know the saying, for every rule there is an exception. Well, I would like to see some expections to these rules.

Elements of a bad roleplaying game were:
  • Players didn’t feel in control of the game
  • Insufficient stuff to do
  • Poor GM
  • Game not in preferred style
  • Poorly thought out characters
  • Inappropriate content
  • Unfamiliar system

To give you an example, a few years ago I ran a game called Six Soldiers. I deliberately wrote it to break some of the above rules. Specifically, I wrote a game in which players had no control over the plot (this is commonly called railroading, and I set the game on a traintrip to emphasise the point). I also tried to give the players insufficient stuff to do, in that the game was set after the adventure had already finished.

The game got some nice comments from players, so I think it worked.

It’s a risky challenge, if it goes wrong you can end up with a deliberately written bad game. Not fun for anyone. Also, I’m not sure how many of these rules you can break in one game and still have something playable at the end of it.

On the up side, I reckon we’ll get some interesting and unusual games out of it, and that seems worth it to me :)


  1. I remember Six Soldiers and the design process that went into it. On reflection I'm not sure that you quite managed the elements of a bad con game.

    No control over plot:
    While you may have intended that the players have no control it certainly didn't seem that way from inside the game. In fact, as I remember, there were ways that players could de-rail the plot if they tried hard enough (for example by actually de-railing the train). It certainly wouldn't have been easy but mostly it wasn't relevant because the game was setup to be about the character interactions and there was plenty of scope to change the outcomes in terms of the characters progression. In effect by establishing that events weren't the point of the game you shifted the goal posts for lack of player control, or at least so it seemed to me.

    Insufficient stuff to do: It didn't seem so to me at the time but, sadly, I don't remember enough of the game to comment.

  2. If that was your aim, you missed badly. Six Soldiers had plenty of plot, and it was firmly in the hands of the players. It's just that the plot wasn't about the adventure, it was about dealing with the consequences of the adventure (especially the emotional consequences, although there was a big, nasty physical issue to deal with too). I loved the game, and a big part of why I loved it was because you gave us so much control over the stuff that really mattered to me.

    Some of those rules you list are really hard to break. For example, if the GM didn't manage to screw up the game for the players, he or she did not GM poorly pretty much by definition. To get more meaningful rule-breaking, you might need to define the rules better.

    There's a bunch of long-standing rules of freeform writing (which vary somewhat depending on who you ask, but there does tend to be a lot of overlap). Pretty much every one of them has been broken successfully by someone at some time. Generally, though, breaking the rules successfully requires knowing and understanding the rule and then deliberately choosing not to follow it for good reasons. (My favourite is one GM per eight players, minimum. I nearly always break that. My record is 24 players, one GM, and nobody waiting on me to get to them.)

    (BTW, I did write a big comment concerning Eternal Companions, but blogspot failed to confirm my LJ credentials and ate it. I'll probably rewrite it sometime this week.)

  3. To a small extent, my game Every Body Else was about not letting players play with the toys. Each player starts the game with a lot of things worth saying to the other characters; the nature of the game is that in Act 1 they won't feel ready to say them and in Act 2 they'll be too busy to. It's an intended part of the gameplay that players leave the game reflecting on the things they never got a chance to say.

  4. Don't worry, Jacinta; I didn't enjoy "Six Soldiers". As I recall, my character sat around feeling guilty, avoiding conversations, hoping nobody found out who he was and then killed himself. However, I'm pretty sure if I had decided to ignore the guilt I could have found a game in there.

    You could write a bad game, but I expect somebody intent on having fun could do so by choosing to (creatively and selectively) ignore what has been written. This reminds me of a discussion after Pheno 2010 about GMs writing 'secrets' for characters when they fully intend everybody to find out all about them in the game. In the same way the secrets get revealed, a taboo placed on the characters to prevent them having fun could be subverted. Players might even believe they were meant to do it.

  5. Hmm… From comments so far, I don’t think I’m being clear. I would like to games which break the rules, but still work as a game. Something that people enjoy playing.

    @Rob & @Travis - I hear what you are saying. But trust me, the two tings I built that game on were (my variations on) those two premises. I had hoped to make a good module by breaking the rules.

    @Greg – Sounds intriguing. Did it build tension in play as you’d hoped?

    @Christopher – I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy Six Soldiers (and am therefore glad you came back for another try). Were the two premises I built it on why you didn’t enjoy the game, or was it the characters didn’t work for you, or something else?
    BTW: I think you are right in if you ignore aspects of a bad game, you can create a good game for yourself. Also, calling back to that chr sheet conversation, I noticed there were two camps in EC (particularly for the history chr, Margaret) – those players who were content to explore being in the situation and those who felt the looming disaster was something to move on from in game. Very much those who played the sheet as written and those who used it as a launching pad.

  6. Six Soldiers worked me, and (if I may be bold and speak for my team mates) it worked for all of us.

  7. When you say you were trying to break those rules when writing Six Soldiers, I can't gainsay you there, obviously. Nevertheless, when my group played, we still had a hell of a lot of plot running around, we had a lot of control over that plot, and it was that plot that engrossed us. The intent you express does not match the result.

    (Maybe you built in more plot than you realised. Maybe the negative plot-space you left filled naturally with plot once players encountered the scenario. Maybe good players just filled in the plot they needed themselves, and you provided the needed background material to do that. I don't know, I just know that it was there.)

    If I may, I can put forward another game that I believe had less plot. A few year ago, Random and I wrote Don't Mention the War. It did have the tiniest bit of plot, but the only reason it was there was to force an end to the game near to the end of the game session. (Essentially, it provided the reason certain people had to leave, which starts a natural exodus given the situation.) The scenario was literally a dinner party game, and we just gave the characters some background and more personality, then stuck them in a room together to make small-talk with people they hated for a few hours. I think that game had a lot less plot than Six Soldiers.

  8. @Jacinta - Tension in play in EBE came from other sources; the game effect was to add to the catharsis in the last 30 minutes when players actually did share some of what they had to say, and then to add to the depth of the game in the post-game by giving players to think back over and reflect on afterwards. It appeared to make the game more memorable by (a) occupying a larger amount of people's thoughts after the finish and (b) by facilitating post-game discussions between players. The mark of a good game is not the story told by the game but the stories people tell about your game; EBE is certainly the only game where I've ever had players come back to me afterwards with fan-fic they've written of it so I count that a success.

  9. Memory broke the rules in this way. Players were powerless (they were dead, and were merely recycling memories)and could only find truth and emotional resolution in the context of flashbacks. (Did X sleep with Y? Did Z know? Did A recommend B for the big job? What was the expected reward?) The players frustrations were difficult to manage, but actually helped build the claustrophobic horror atmosphere of the game, and made the twist-in-the-tail pay off even more rewarding.
    I guess it was unfamiliar system as well, as it used an explicit systemless format.


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