Indie role-playing games

Iain wrote about role-playing games for boardgamers, looking for a role-playing game that would satisfy the needs of a modern Euro boardgamer. He got some suggestions, but I have some as well. This was originally an e-mail to Iain, but as it grew, it became a blog entry. Whee.

Anyway, over two years ago I declared that my roleplaying games were over. That doesn’t stop me from getting interested in hot new games!

I’ve been particularly tempted by two new indie role-playing games. First one is Paul Czege’s My Life with Master. In this game, the players are minions of a beastly master — think Dracula and his minions, Dr. Frankenstein and Igor, Saruman and Grima.. or even Santa Claus looking for world domination using his elves.

Players are forced to do all sorts of evil acts, just because the master commands them. In the end, the master will fall — the villagers will come with their torches and pitchforks — and what happens to the player characters depends on their stats (which are Self-Loathing, Weariness and Love). They might survive, they might be killed, they might commit suicide after their master is gone.

The game has very rigid rules, which remind me of nothing else I’ve seen. Players tell the story, mostly: GM gives them a task, players roleplay what happens. A die-roll is made to see if the player manages to resist the command (if he or she wants to!) — it’s all quite narrative-centric. The rigid structure actually gives me hope: this is something that actually could be played.

Greg Costikyan writes about the game in his blog (My Life with Master), that’s a pretty good introduction to the game.

He has an interesting point, too: consider photography and painting. When photography came up, painters had to turn to abstract art, because photography is simply so much better for exact, lifelike images of real-world things. It’s probably a big simplification, but here’s the main point:

In this case, I wonder whether the advent of MMGs, which do a pretty good (far from ideal, but not bad) job of satisfying the same jones as classic RPGs–with really pretty graphics, albeit much inferior storytelling–is forcing tabletop RPG designers away from the classic RPG style and toward styles that reward real storytelling, which nothing digital (despite Chris Crawford’s best efforts) can provide as tenth as well as a skilled GM.

The other game — Dust Devils — is set in dark-ish Western setting. Player characters, a mixed bunch of archetypes, are driven by their Devils. The game’s main point is basically this, as the website says: “There comes a time when you got to shoot or give up the gun.” The characters are continuously driven towards that point, towards break-down.

The mechanics here are interesting. Conflict is resolved by playing Poker hands. Best hand wins, but highest card narrates the turn of the events. I like this, as it reduces the load on the GM — there’s no need to come up with a complicated adventure, just make up a setting and the players will tell the story.

That hits the nail on the head, at least when it comes to me. I don’t like roleplaying because it’s hugely time-ineffective. I don’t want to plan in advance, I want quick fun — that’s, of course, where board games are vastly superior.

However, I do like the storytelling involved in roleplaying games, so perhaps these kind of games would be key to having fun with roleplaying games. Dust Devils is good for one-shots, MLwM generally takes one to three sessions to finish. That’s good, too, as I simply have no time for campaigns.

Why these two? After all, there’s a ton of interesting indie stuff out there. These have won prestigious awards (MLwM bagged the mysterious Diana Jones award), but for me the key is that both have been published in Finnish. Imagine that! MLwM has sold, what, 600 or so copies in English and still someone has the guts to do a Finnish translation. Talk about niche products!

Both are available as pretty cheap PDF editions, too, which is nice. For reviews, check RPGnet (review of My Life with Master, review of Dust Devils).

Sorry ’bout the rambling, but I’m quite excited about these games and probably going to get them both at some point. Just supporting Arkkikivi, the Finnish publisher, is worth the money, even if I never play the games.

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6 thoughts on “Indie role-playing games”

  1. I could try a dungeon crawl type game, but what I am after is the free-flowing gameplay of an RPG. Like I said, I think I’ll be lucky to persuade my game group, but I’ll try…

  2. I know my dungeon crawl needs are satisfied 100% with Baldur’s Gate games (on PS2, not the more complicated PC versions). If that’s not enough, then there’s the Dungeon Crawling Championship tournament here in Tampere, which is basically simple D&D-style role playing, where players compete against the dungeon masters, who try to kill off the characters. Should be fun…

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