Indie Story Game Design – A Rant

I spent some time the other night ranting with some fellow players of story games about a subject that I feel very strongly about when it comes to Indie Role-Playing Games and RPGs in the mainstream too.

I think, for far too long, buyers, creators, and players of RPGs determine the buying value of a particular game dependent on how much text it has, and the complexity of its rules.

I think this has continued even into the indie renaissance, even with games that have dead simple rules, still padding them with distracting and eventually confusing explanations, side chatter, setting descriptions.

I think a possible next step for indie games awaits the adventurous indie designer in making games that look as dead simple, elegant, and beautiful as a well-made children’s picture book or graphic novel. Think Frank Miller’s 300, James Gurney’s Dinotopia, Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet’s Gnomes, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

My friend Jana, a graphic designer, tells me design blossoms from what you leave out, not what you put in. Bruce Lee says the same thing about martial arts, by the way.

So why do I see even my favorite indie games with gobs and gobs of background and text that nobody but the evangelist for the game will read?

Instead of pages and pages of setting, provided a streamlined setting oracle.

Instead of descriptions of character possibilities and worldbuilding, provide awe-inspiring portraits and landscape panoramas.

Instead of trying to teach someone how to play with the book, know that people only really learn role-playing games face-to-face, and let the book support that kind of learning.

I of course see some designers experimenting with this already; Nordic RPG poems in a sense may already have the tiger by the tail for some of this ethic – Jonathan Walton’s Murderland contest produced a whole bunch of awesome possibilities for exploring this territory – Matthijs Holter’s Archipelago works this angle really well Judd Karlman’s Dictionary of MU rocks this idea – Vincent’s IAWA design seems within the realm of this kind of thinking too. For just rules simplicity, check out Creative Advantage’s Juicers deck.

To sum: rather than ensuring value by the thickness of the book, or the amount of text, ensure value by making it beautiful and elegant. If people will slap down $15-$25 on a short children’s picture book or graphic novel, potential players will do that for your indie game, believe me, if you design it beautifully enough.

Written by Willem