Try Something New: the Indie Exploration Kit
Tomorrow the new edition of D&D is coming out. At first it’s going to seem very different from what you’ve played before, and in some ways it will be, but in more ways it will be the same. Compared to Third Edition D&D it may be a brave new world, a revolution even, but both together only make up a small slice of what’s possible in gaming.
There are, it turns out, a lot of different games out there and a lot of different ways to play — some radically different. If you want to be a better gamer, you owe it to yourself to try something new.
I’m not saying you should abandon your favorite game or change what you usually play, but trying different systems can open up the way you think about the games you already play. Playing a completely different game can make you _better_ at that game you played for years. Your gamecraft is a muscle: stretch it.
Rockin’, you say, let’s do it! But there’s a catch: gamers play to have fun. You might be fearless and pick up a radical indie game only to discover that it’s so different from what your group is used to that the session is a total disaster, which will just make them (and you) less likely to ever want to experiment again. The world is full of stories of gaming groups who tried a different thing just once, confidently declared it crap, and then retreated to the safe and the known.
Nobody wants that. So in the interest of successful gaming, here are some games I think a group that had only played “traditional” games like D&D could pick up and enjoy right off the bat. You’ll be able to try something new with maximum fun and minimal risk. Consider this your Indie Exploration Kit — it worked for me, it can work for you too.
Glory-seeking heroes in mythic Greece. Slay monsters, complete quests and win contests to earn fame and the favor of the gods. The system is easy to pick up but has a solid feel. Combat uses a clever positioning system that’s simplified and abstract but rewards smart tactics and teamwork. You get dice for things you use (spear, shield, etc) and then literally place them in your left or right hand to show whether you are using them for attack or defense — very intuitive, very fun.
What’s different about it? The heroes are all on the same side, cooperating to complete the quest, but they’re also competing because each of them wants to be the best: the most famous, the most glorious, the most renowned hero. You can start off playing completely straight but sooner or later heroes will start vying for glory, bargaining for Oaths to win important contests, and generally wishing _they_ were the one who slew the harpy and earned the king’s gratitude. Eventually the interaction between the heroes becomes almost more interesting than the challenges they’re facing. Sure the heroes are going to slay the boar, but who’s going to get the credit? And what will you give another hero to be that guy?
Agon also lets players ease into narrative control. You start off just rolling the die for the appropriate ability (my Hunt die if I’m stalking a wild boar) but if you need to bump it up you can describe how you bring in another ability to help — a player wants to bring in his Athletics to help with the hunt, so he says how the boar is outpacing the hunters but because of his fleet-footedness he can keep up. Another player could bring in Cunning by describing how he cleverly finds a shortcut to head off the beast.
What should you watch out for? Fate is the lifespan of the hero, but it can also be spent for short-term advantage. Because there’s no immediate downside, new players may think it’s too easy to burn Fate to solve problems before they understand the balance.
Conan-esque game of heroes, schemers, dark gods and forbidden rituals. In A Wicked Age is a bit more of a stretch than Agon: mechanically it’s very easy to pick up, but it puts the players characters in direct opposition rather than cooperating. A single game session is usually a whole story arc, with lots of characters meeting their fates — In A Wicked Age is not about becoming attached to your character, it’s about playing that character to the fullest and fulfilling their destiny for better or worse. Want to be the villainous sorcerer ruining the other players’ lives and then get destroyed by your own demon servants when your power spirals out of control? You can play that whole rise and fall in three hours.
What’s different about it? One of the golden innovations of In A Wicked Age is the oracle, a random adventure seed you draw to create the game. The oracle gives a vague description of who’s in the story, then it’s up to the players to decide which of those people they want to play and how all those characters are at cross-purposes (take a look at a sample oracle online — a particular game would only use the set under one of the headings e.g. God-kings of War).
The beauty is that a game of In A Wicked Age takes literally zero prep: you sit down, draw the cards, and start making characters. Five minutes ago your whole group was tired after work and not sure they wanted to game: then the oracle is drawn and everyone is talking at once, throwing out ideas how the characters could connect. It’s a creativity booster rocket. It can also be a refreshing challenge: would you normally choose to play a virgin sacrifice? Maybe not, but it’s in the oracle and since it’s basically a one-shot, give it a try. You’ll find yourself coming up with plots you never would have thought of before as you try to integrate all the elements the oracle gives you.
What should you watch out for? As the book says, you want strong conflicts of interest between player characters. Everyone should start the game with a clear idea of why some or preferably most of the other characters at the table are in their way. If you make characters with no conflicts or flinch at pushing the other players you won’t have as good of a game.
When I said “traditional” games before, what exactly did I mean?
Lots of roleplaying games are based on the same core concept: the players control their characters, and the GM controls everything else. That’s a “traditional” game, because that’s where D&D started and the tradition most games still follow. Many indie games mess with this assumption, giving players narrative control, the ability to set scenes and decide the pacing of the game, or even eliminating the GM entirely.
It shouldn’t be surprising than that one of the best indicators of the ability to hit the ground running in non-traditional games is GM’ing experience. To run good games GMs have to be able to constantly improvise, play random characters at the drop of a hat, make up and describe common and outlandish locations, and all the while keep their eye on what is dramatic and what is interesting as the plot unfolds — the same skills you need to _play_ many indie games.
The games I recommended above don’t require those mad skills (which is why they’re a good starting point), but the next indie games — the ones you play after you’re hooked on trying brave new things — those ones will.
Special thanks to the folks at the Story Games forums for providing input for this post. In the end I decided to stick with the games I had had personal success with in my own group, but Spirit of the Century earns an honorable mention as a recommendation from lots of the people who responded.