My Indie Realization

I wrote the first draft of my first indie game (codename: hicks) on the plane back from GenCon 07. It was the perfect recipe for writing: post-con euphoria, extreme exhaustion, lots of caffeine, and complete captivity in an airplane seat. It helped that my partners in con-crime quite sensibly passed out so I was on my own. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but write.

I had just read It Was A Mutual Decision by Ron Edwards, a perfectly ordinary game about relationships except that one of the characters is probably a murderous were-rat. Yes that’s right: a murderous were-rat, because that’s the first thing that pops into my mind when I sit down to write a relationship game.

This was the final nudge that led to what I’ll refer to as “My Indie Realization”, which was:

You can make whatever damn game you want.

A game doesn’t have to be all-encompassing. It doesn’t have to be applicable to a broad range of situations. It could be about one very small thing, or even one particular facet of one very small thing. It could be the smart bomb of games, zeroing in on a particular target topic and ignoring everything else.

A game doesn’t have to work with any other game. It doesn’t have use the same concepts, or structures, or mechanics or anything. At the risk of repeating myself, it could be whatever damn game you wanted:

  • a game that takes place solely from when skydivers jump out of the plane to when they hit the ground. You’ll have a little time to think while you wait to see if your chute opens.
  • a game with only one hero, but each player controls different themes or destinies and strive to impose their agenda on that character (“Screw you Love and Redemption, this story is about Glory!”)
  • a game where each player controls a different piece of furniture in the hectic yet immobile domestic realm, a world ironically known as the Living Room. (“Down with Pax Recliner! Couch Uber Alles!”)
  • or possibly the most bizarre, a game in which ordinary people lead ordinary lives and nothing really unusual happens…

This may not seem like such a big revelation, but consider that the vast, vast majority of the roleplaying populace is laboring under quite the opposite premise, that games are monolithic superstructures, are in fact “game systems”, with a whole hierarchy of dependent supplements, genre-specific spin-offs and yadda yadda like the echelons of angels arrayed before the heavenly throne. Phrases like “compatibility” rear their ugly head.

How do you define Indie?

“The AD&D game system does not allow the injection of extraneous material. That is clearly stated in the rule books. It is thus a simple matter: Either one plays the AD&D game, or one plays something else, just as one either plays poker according to Hoyle, or one plays (Western) chess by tournament rules, or one does not. Since the game is the sole property of TSR and its designer, what is official and what is not has meaning if one plays the game.”

— Gary Gygax, Dragon Magazine #67, Nov 1982

Much like that bit about the word “level” in old skool D&D, indie seems to have a lot of different meanings. It’s independent yes, but independent of what?

To me the important part of indie is independent thought. Thinking for yourself, deciding for yourself what’s interesting and what your game will be about, how it will be designed (if you’re a designer) or played (if you’re a player).

And that last bit is an important part: it’s easy to see an imaginary divide between game designers and everyone else who just play, but that’s a big fat illusion. Every time you sit down and play a game you are deciding how to play, whether to follow the advice in the book or do something totally different. Want to skip the fighting and spend the whole scenario roleplaying the scenes in the bunker while the war rages outside? Go for it. Invert some damn paradigms if you want or delve into old school basics. It’s your game.

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”

At some point you’ll ask the question: is this a good game or a bad game? That’s simple: if the game is fun, it’s good. It doesn’t matter if it’s derivative, or original, or traditional, or grounds-breaking, or has pretty formatting, or uses dice: if it’s fun, it’s good. It’s true for a game you’re writing and every session you play.

A bad game may still be very educational. A terrible game can be downright revelatory. Just be careful not to inflict it on others.

Yes, I wrote the first snippets of the first draft of project hicks on the plane. Does that mean I’ll ever finish it? Or playtest it? Or release it? Not necessarily. I may just kick it around with my friends (because they are tolerant) and work on it for fun because it’s interesting to me. Y’know, just like gaming.

    Ben Robbins | February 8th, 2008 | , | show 2 comments