2008-03-31 : Conpulsion 2008 Story 4: Indie Shortcomings

When I play indie rpgs, I find myself missing (please check all that apply):
_ Campaign play
_ Immersion
_ Rich setting
_ Rules flexibility
_ Other: _______________

Sunday morning at Conpulsion Gareth Hanrahan, Iain McAllister and I sat in a circle of comfy chairs and talked to people about rpg design and publishing. For those of you who don't know, Gareth Hanrahan writes for Mongoose, he's currently writing the new edition of Traveller; Iain McAllister is the author of Mob Justice.

Gar and I layed out the indie vs trad thing, publishing-wise, up front. I talked a bit about the new technologies that make indie rpg publishing even possible, and he talked a bit about how incorrect it is to call an operation consisting of 3 roleplayers with some cash a soulless bloodsucking corporation. He said that sure, there are horror stories about freelancers not getting paid, but mostly you do get paid, and I said that that's my brother Drew's experience too, as an artist.

No controversies. "Soulless bloodsucking corporation" did get incorrectly used later in the seminar, alas.

Then we talked about design. Gar was gracious - when he raised indie rpgs' shortcomings, he set it up so that Iain and I were able to answer in terms of decisions you make as a designer, instead of setting us up to defend the current fads and fashions in indie rpg design. For instance, "not so much immersion in indie games?" he said, and I got to say, "well, what matters to me is that the players be surprised, excited, frightened, engaged. Surprising, exciting, frightening or engaging their characters is one way to do it, but not the only way, and sometimes not the best way. It's a technique available to you, is all. As designer, you choose whatever techniques you think best suit your design goals."

Same with production choices. We talked about Luke's creating the infrastructure he needs in order to physically make the books he makes, vs my NOT creating any such infrastructure, so being far more limited in my physical products.

So the seminar went well. Gar, Iain, thank you. Everyone who participated, thank you. It was a pleasure. Talking about rpg design is one of my favorite things in the world.

At Cat's party a couple of nights earlier, Shevaun had talked to me about indie rpg design too. Same thing: "we miss campaign play," she'd said.

So take it as a heads up, indie rpg designers. If the Edinburgh scene is any indication, there's a strong market for indie rpgs that deliver the above. Some of us could do pretty well by reaching it, I think.

Oh and also, J, you should be proud. Shock:'s the current held exemplar of hyperfocused system-hard rpg design. Apparently everything from traditional play that indie rpgs lack, Shock: lacks extra.

1. On 2008-03-31, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Say, I *am* proud of that! Given that it was to patch the *total abject failure* of any traditional game to do what I was after, it's not at all surprising, either.


2. On 2008-03-31, Brand Robins said:

Well, Shock has never gotten me laid.


3. On 2008-03-31, Vincent said:

Eh, you're playing it wrong.

Oh wait, you said "never gotten me laid." I thought you said "never made me question my own moral underpinnings."


4. On 2008-03-31, Brand Robins said:

Well, sometimes they're pretty close, right?


5. On 2008-03-31, Ben Lehman said:

Shock: doesn't get me laid. PTA gets me laid.

1001 Nights would probably get me laid too.

I'm really skeptical about this campaign play thing. I think, yeah, people totally miss it. But given that people complain about the length of Bliss Stage and Polaris (both around 2-8 sessions) and keep looking for ways to shorten the games, I think that there's not an actual demand for long games, in terms of people really playing them, rather than just imagining playing them.

I think that missing campaign play is really missing the period of your life when you had enough time to play a campaign game. It's nostalgia, rather than true demand.



6. On 2008-03-31, Vincent said:

Brand: good point. Here's me reminiscing fondly.

Ben: I dunno. These were people who were all set to tell me about their campaigns. I suspect that for lots of roleplayers, a year or more's consistent play is the norm.


7. On 2008-03-31, Bret said:

That's funny. There's a bunch indie games that I want to play that I can't because really playing them requires a campaign. Maybe not a several-years-long campaign, but still.

The Shadow of Yesterday
Spirit of the Century
Mortal Coil
In a Wicked Age (yeah, I think IaWA would be best served by long-term play)

...and so on. I mean, there are options out there.


8. On 2008-03-31, Chris said:

I'm mostly with Ben.  Interestingly enough, I'm starting up an Artesia game with 2 non-gamers.  I'll probably post about how that campaign feel flies or falls based on that.


9. On 2008-03-31, Piers said:

Sometimes I wonder, is "Campaign Play" a synonym for "it takes a really long time for anything to happen"?

I don't necessarily mean that pejoratively.  I'm thinking about that sort of meander-y, social, relaxed play that I still associate with long Sunday afternoons gaming.  The style of play where anticipation is a big part of the payoff, and where it takes a while for characters to change either because not much is happening, or because so much is happening that they don't get very much screen time.

For me, that game is Ars Magica...


10. On 2008-03-31, Emily said:

That game is Ars Magica for me, too. There are up sides. I miss the long, slow burn-time for games where you ease into a character and a setting over the course of onths and years.

That's why I'm working on Sign in Stranger. We shall see.


11. On 2008-03-31, Brand Robins said:


For me the average length of a campaign is about a year. I could name you a dozen other groups in Toronto, without straining, who do the same.

I think the thing about it is that we've got very different camps forming. Some folks really like the shorter run, some people really like the longer. For the short run folks Bliss Stage (for example) may not be short enough, and yet not be long enough for the long run folks.

Such is humanity, never satisfied.


Sometimes. Depends on the game. I've also had games that go for a year or so in which shit explodes in almost every scene for every game for a year. It all depends on if you focus on the chronic or the acute, and how big your stakes in individual scenes are in relation to the larger scope.


12. On 2008-04-01, ScottM said:

Our campaigns last 12-18 months.  After our previous campaign, everyone was ready and willing to listen to my pitches, which were indie games.  We wound up going with Shadowrun, because everyone wanted long term play.  They're not as focussed on indie rpgs, though, so take their reasons with a grain of salt.

My alternate group formed to be experimental and is enjoying PTA; for us, the specific game length was good for planning and ensuring we'd get to play with more cool games in a year.


13. On 2008-04-01, OlaJ said:

Ben: I don't think 2-8 sessions is what most people mean when they say campaign play. IME they mean more like 30-50+ sessions. I know, for my group at least, I'd have to fight really hard to sell a game that was scheduled to last for, say 6 or 8 sessions. They would absolutely refuse to see that as a "campaign".


14. On 2008-04-01, Sean Musgrave said:

My call: People who are young have long-running games. When those people get serious responsibilities, they probably stop having long-running games.

I'm probably in the minority as a person who got into indie-gaming when they were still a stupid young person. As a result, I was in a series of long-running indie games that were sometimes a little stupid. Most of which fizzled out instead of dying due to players getting incredible jobs 2000 miles away because when do stupid young people get good jobs?

I hereby propose a counter theory: Everyones opinions of indie rpgs are inflated due to the fact when you're playing them, you're not a stupid young person playing the game with other stupid young people.

And by a stupid young person, I don't mean 6-year olds, 6 year olds can be totally awesome, I mean that awkward teenager time.


15. On 2008-04-01, ffilz said:


I think I would have to disagree. Two of the longest running campaigns (Blackmoor and Tekumel) were started by people who were not all that young, and obviously they are not young people in any sense of the word now.

It's true that many gamers settle on shorter campaigns once they get serious responsibilities, but I suspect many still prefer the longer campaigns.

For myself, one of the big draws of RPGs is the long running campaign. Sure, I've never made it longer than about two years, but I still like the promise. The other attraction to RPGs is role playing itself, but I think the initial draw WAS the campaign. In one sense, I think role playing actually makes the long campaign possible. Sure, folks were doing various kinds of war game campaigns, but eventually someone wins such a campaign, they just can't hold the same promise as a role playing campaign.

I also enjoy one shots and short sequences of sessions.

Question: how much do folks preferences for campaign length mesh with their preferences for fiction length? Some prefer short stories, others novellas, others single novels, while others really enjoy long running series. I definitely prefer the long running series (and as another mesh with gaming preferences, really enjoy series which happen in the same setting but may or may not be connected to each other - when pressed to pick a single favorite author, I have to go with C.J. Cherryh and the Alliance-Union/Chanur setting).



16. On 2008-04-02, Emily said:

Just another data point, Meg, Vincent and I had our 6 year campaign from just before when Elliot was born to shortly before Tovey was born. (Is that right, folks?)

It helped a lot, however, that there were only three of us in the game. Easier to schedule and fewer folks to have reasons to drop out.


17. On 2008-04-02, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Question: how much do folks preferences for campaign length mesh with their preferences for fiction length? Some prefer short stories, others novellas, others single novels, while others really enjoy long running series. I definitely prefer the long running series (and as another mesh with gaming preferences, really enjoy series which happen in the same setting but may or may not be connected to each other - when pressed to pick a single favorite author, I have to go with C.J. Cherryh and the Alliance-Union/Chanur setting).

I just started Cyteen!

I definitely love the SF short story. Surprise surprise. And I love when one links to the next, too. I also love it when it's obvious that they're being made up as the author goes on.

Vast, conceived-from-the-start pieces feel really....

preconceived to me, I guess.


18. On 2008-04-02, Vincent said:


Taste and preference was another topic we talked about at the Conpulsion seminar. It fit in with rules flexibility: "you're talking about changing the way people play, Vincent," the person said, "but what if they like the way they play already?"

My answer was, I don't think that most people have preferences that are all that restrictive. Cementing people to their tastes is a pretty poor way to relate to them. They already like the way they play? Cool! Maybe they'll like the way I'm telling them to play too. You can like more than one thing, you know.

But furthermore, in pretty much every area of my life, I'm unimpressed with people who won't try something new just in case they don't like it. Who'd rather avoid new things altogether than have a new experience they don't care for. Cementing people to their tastes is a poor way to relate to them - cementing yourself to your tastes is a poor way to live. Maybe that makes me an asshole, but there it is. Food, music, fiction, sex, roleplaying: I'm not impressed with anyone who won't try a new way to play just because they might not enjoy it. Unlike sex, say, the stakes are low. Nobody's roleplaying time is so precious nor roleplaying relationships are so fragile. (And if they are...)

Anyway, yeah, I like short-short fiction. It may be my favorite kind. There are a couple of long novels and novel series I love too. My favorite roleplaying is like 6-12 sessions long, much longer than my favorite fiction, but of course there are single-session games and multi-year games I love too.


19. On 2008-04-02, Brand Robins said:

I dunno, I like lots of stuff, fiction wise.

I read novels and short stories about equally, though I've an historical draw more to the novel (and again less to the series). I watch movies and TV shows about equally, though I don't always jive well with the mini-series. I do, however, generally like graphic novels more than individual comic books.

But, yet again, we're talking about playing a roleplaying game in terms of consuming fiction, rather than creating it. When it comes to writing, I have a definite focus on mid-length works (novellas, series of essays, graphic novels) over either the longer or shorter works.


20. On 2008-04-02, Brand Robins said:

And to note with Vincent's thing above, my tastes are always descriptive, not prescriptive.

I really don't understand folks who make their tastes prescriptive.


21. On 2008-04-02, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

But furthermore, in pretty much every area of my life, I'm unimpressed with people who won't try something new just in case they don't like it. Who'd rather avoid new things altogether than have a new experience they don't care for.

"Unimpressed" is a pretty understated way of putting that. I think we're in the same boat here.

I really don't understand folks who make their tastes prescriptive.

I do. You do, too. They feel that, by making them prescriptive, their assertion is evidence of their certainty, which, when others look at and recognize it, those others will validate their choices, and they thereby form for themselves a fragile and fearful identity.

Shit, I like some stuff that, over the course of my life, I've refused to give up despite it driving the people I love batty. I have weird preferences and habits. But I'm fucked in the non-friendly way if I think those things *make* me to the extent that it prevents me from experiencing other stuff. Fuck that noise right in the face.

I've played some games that other people love and I think are boring or, in some cases, hostile to humanity. But at least I tried them with as open a heart and mind as I could muster.

I'm also wrong a lot. I think I'll like something, then I don't. I think I don't like something, then I do. I'm wrong because I'm just a nervous system with sensory organs and motor nerves. They oxidize, they ionize, they do all sorts of stuff that makes me a different person from moment to moment. Imagining that, if I keep saying that I like something, it will keep me from changing, that's crazy talk.


22. On 2008-04-02, Vincent said:

Mmm, creating. That's interesting. All the static fiction I've created has been short - even when I wrote a novel it was just 30,000 words, a novella, and when I write short fiction it tends to have word counts in the 3 digits. The longest fiction I've ever created has been absolutely hands-down and by far roleplaying, not static.


23. On 2008-04-02, Chris said:

Who'd rather avoid new things altogether than have a new experience they don't care for.

I caught a lot of heat a few years back by saying that gamers are a fearful lot.

I still think it's true, though, I have a better understanding of it's source.  As you mentioned- fragile relationships, but also the failure to understand that they are not the -only- options out there.


24. On 2008-04-02, Vincent said:

Well... I don't know whether gamers are especially fearful. Maybe they are, I have no idea. I personally wouldn't generalize my own very limited observations to "gamers are more likely to have prescriptive tastes than non-gamers."

My real point is, the number of gamers who DON'T have prescriptive tastes is demonstrably large enough to be an audience for my games, while the (notional?) gamers who don't want to try playing a new way have already selected themselves out of relevance to me. I can't possibly consider them when I'm designing and publishing games.

They're like, oh, I dunno, people who spend all their disposable income on extreme rock climbing. "But Vincent, what about gamers who don't want to try to play the way your game puts forward? Also, what about people who spend all their disposable income on extreme rock climbing?" Answer: "they're going to have to look out for themselves, I guess. They already aren't my audience."


25. On 2008-04-04, Chris said:

The way I'm looking at it is, how hard it is to suggest, "Hey let's play this boardgame", "Hey, let's try out this videogame" vs. "Hey let's try out this roleplaying game."

One brings a lot more protest than the others.

But yeah, no need to design around every neurosis the world can produce.


26. On 2008-04-04, Brand Robins said:


There is something to that. However, in my experience the response to the first two, if negative, is more likely to be a flat no. The response to the third, if negative, might involve more bargaining because people know they can manipulate RPGs more than board or video games.

"Want to play Cleopatra?"

"No, I'd rather watch Buffy."

"Want to play Buffy"

"I hate Drama Points, can we take them out?"


"Then I'd rather watch Buffy."


27. On 2008-04-04, Z-Dog said:

heh. reminds me of a comment on RPG net by Vince? hmmm. probably Sorenson? that said something like, "I'm looking for a game like checkers but with the complexity of chess."  I hate Settlers of Cataan. But trying to "drift" the rules of Settlers so it's Advanced Squad Leader is a little ridiculous, especially in the middle of the game. Here's the thing: I don't need to drift Settlers. It's a complete, competent game, beautiful design. I don't need to fix anything.


28. On 2008-04-05, Judd said:

Burning Wheel has plenty of long-term potential and plenty of setting.  The trick with it is that the setting is all embedded in the traits.  It isn't written out as a short story but hidden in the characters.  If you just read the traits from beginning to end, it reads suspiciously like setting fiction.

The whole, Indie RPG's have no long term play potential doesn't ring true with me, not at all.

I think PTA would play really well long-term with each season being a definitive chapter.  Hell, season by season is how my games tend to roll nowadays anyway. I can mark the chapters of our long-term games as if they were tv seasons.

Dogs would play well for long-term play, as if I need to tell you that.  The way characters change would be really nifty and I'm eager to play a game where the players return to a town after they've "fixed" it once.  Also, the way PC's change due to fall-out is really satisfying.

How cool would it be to come to a town where one of the retired NPC's has set up shop and get to pass judgement on them?

TSoY has an end-game but it is activated entirely by player choice and can be entirely ignored, not be ignoring the rule but by the player never going for a Grand Master skill that sets off the Ascension mechanic.

I could go on and on about setting and I think I will a little bit.

I want just enough to inspire me and the people I play with, everything else is just not necessary.  I like big settings and dense settings.

I recall playing in the Midnight setting and playing most of the campaign about a family raised by the man who had turned to the Sauron-ish Dark God before the world had been conquered.  It was a few paragraphs in the book and we latched onto it with our teeth when the PC decided to play the son of the man who was granted immortality for being a traitor to all that was good.  Good times.


29. On 2008-04-06, Matt Wilson said:

I think in the indie crowd there's a loud minority who want short-run games and look to indie stuff to fill that need.

And I think there might be some anti-slow baggage that some of us carry around from our holy-crap-nothing-is-happening days that has us trying to hit as many buttons as possible in one sitting. So afterward we're like, "man, I can't believe I just ate four pounds of fudge. Let's not play this again for eight months."

I have many thoughts about long-term play, but maybe I'll start that up elsewhere.


30. On 2008-04-06, Ben Lehman said:

Note that I'm not saying you shouldn't design for long term play, or play long term.

I'm just saying that there's no market for it.

In other words: If you measure your success in sales, or in play reports, and you market to only the standard indie RPG audience, you'll probably be very disappointed in your long-playing game.


31. On 2008-04-06, Brand Robins said:


Burning Wheel/Empires?

Or does that fall into Luke marketing to people beyond the pale of "standard indie RPG audience?"

Because there are some games that make sales and AP and are designed for long term play. They just aren't the current hot turnover celebration darling of forum chatter.


32. On 2008-04-07, Jonathan Walton said:

It's interesting that we (as a whole, including me) are always disappointed that there are only a limited number of games covering a limited variety of play styles.  Considering the size of the design community so far, that probably shouldn't be that surprising, though I gripe about it as much as anyone.

Once the great utopian future arrives and everyone becomes a creative producer as well as a consumer (i.e. we all become game designers), we'll have no one to blame for this.  What'll we talk about on the internet then?


33. On 2008-04-07, Troy_Costisick said:


For me, a campaign is most rewarding.  I love a story that unfolds slowly and gives me enough time to express me character in multiple directions.  However, because of my lifestyle (teacher, husband, adult, club sponsor, home fixer-upper) short-run games are a necessity.  Now I can get together with my gaming group once a month, which is not condusive to campaign play.  In college, I ran an Ember Twilight game that lasted 3 and a half years and involved over a dozen players that cycled through my group.  I just don't have that kind of time in my life anymore.




34. On 2008-04-07, Moreno R. said:

What I see missing are games REALLY for one-shot session!

When the Con-season start, I would like to have a lot of indie games to demo in a single session... but there aren't a lot of them. Oh, you COULD play MLWM or Contenders in a single session, but it isn't the right duration, and it feels rushed. Or I could use IAWA, but I will not use a big part of the game.  Most of the games seen in these "one shot actual play" are like these: short-duration games (2-6 session) shoehorned in some way in a single game slot.

If I wanted to play a long campaign, I would need no other game: I already have Sorcerer, Burning Wheel, Burning Empires,IAWA, PTA (that can easily used for a lot of "seasons" with the same characters), The Shadow of yesterday... I would need YEARS of life only to be able to play all the long-term indie games I already got.

But when I search for something to play in a single evening with my out-of-town friends... I always have to use a game written for 3-4 sessions, we have to hurry to get to the end in time, and usually we have to leave the story and the game unresolved because there isn't enough time...


35. On 2008-04-08, GB Steve said:

I suppose one of the things with Indie games is that they focus on conflict and resolve it. There are very few games in which the idea is to keep the conflict going and push back the resolution. Games in which conflicts are not resolved directly, like Ars Magica, can build the tension at whatever suits the players. And there's always diplomacy, research and hitting stuff to fill the time.

I did design a game in which the idea is to keep as many conflicts going at once as possible and in which resolution ultimately doesn't really help the character. But it hasn't got very far (like all but two of my games).


36. On 2008-04-08, Gregor said:

It's true that there are some games existing that are able to provide long-term campaign play, but most Indie Games are seen as short, super-focused experiences.

I believe there is a market for Indie games that can provide long-term campaign play. The market may not be the people that are currently playing indie games, or talking about them online.

In fact, the people capable of writing these games may not be us. But I think there is a market for sure.


37. On 2008-04-09, Judd said:

Gregor, you wrote:

"It's true that there are some games existing that are able to provide long-term campaign play, but most Indie Games are seen as short, super-focused experiences."

It is the words *are seen* that concern me.  I think the concept that indie RPG's are not suited for long term play is conventional wisdom and not at all the truth.

It might be that frequent forum posters don't have nor want to have time in their life for a long term game but that doesn't mean, looking at game texts, that they aren't out there, itching to be played.


38. On 2008-04-09, Gregor said:

Oh, I agree. But the current crop of games isn't changing that perception is it?

And design matters, right? So what do our games do to actively support/encourage campaign play? And can the do more? (And I freely admit that many traditionally-played-as-campaign games rely solely on the GM to provide that support.)


39. On 2008-04-09, GB Steve said:

We've got a Cold City game that's been going for two years, although we only play once a year at Gen Con US. But we did have another one at home that lasted a good 10 sessions (including one with 9 players). It;s not reached any kind of final resolution so could be picked up again. We could do the same with our Hot War game if the characters hadn't all ended up hating and running away from each other.


40. On 2008-04-12, xenopulse said:

I was on an RPG design panel with Jake, Matt, et al. here at Gamestorm recently. We talked about this issue from the designer's POV, too: that many designers have a relatively small field of experience, their "neighborhood" of games that they grew up with, and so it becomes hard to break out into orbit and look down at the rest of the possible world of RPGs.

Robin Laws was supposed to be on the panel, but he had to go to the hospital, so Rob Heinsoo sat on it instead. He's the lead designer of D&D 4e, and seems like a really cool and sharp guy. His impression of indie games seemed to jive with that short-term vibe: he said that most of them seem to focus on providing a particular, powerful experience.

He talked about the time he played Dogs with his wife, I think, and someone who'd never played an RPG before. He and another Dog ended up pointing barrels at each other over whether to shoot an old lady sinner, and he said that it was a "whoa" moment, one of the more powerful ones of his roleplaying experience.

But I think, as others have said, that there are plenty of indie games that don't necessarily do that and are much more flexible.  Also, as the indie community grows, so does the variety in our games.

- Christian


41. On 2008-04-13, Iain McAllister said:

Thanks to you too Vincent. It was a pleasure talking about design with you. I greatly respect the way you approach Games Design and I love nothing more than talking about how to put games together and see the different ways that people look at things.

Thanks to Gar too who managed to keep things on track and give us an insight into how the big boys do it.

All the best



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