These Games Prove That Not Every Tabletop RPG Needs a 300 Page Manual

The 200 Word RPG Challenge shows that creativity has no minimum word count.

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May 12 2017, 9:00pm

I read the winning games of the 200 Word RPG Challenge in less than ten minutes. There are three of them, and each fit perfectly onto a single sheet of paper.

The ruleset of any tabletop game is a delicate balance of what is written on the page and what is left to brew in the minds of its players, and these winners make it clear that they understand this intimately. After less than ten minutes of reading, I'm sitting typing this and wishing I was playing. Watching my friends tease out the implications and possibilities of these sparse, tiny games.

There are three joint winners: MECHANICAL ORYX, Memories, and Route Clearance. One is played with dice. One is played with cards. One is played with neither dice or cards, but does involve burning real pieces of paper.

In MECHANICAL ORYX, by Grant Howitt, you become a being with "many whirring eyes and strong, beautiful coiled-steel legs." You spread one thing, like plants, or light, or music, or rust, and "the longer you stay in one place, the more intense it gets." There are solid rules—you are told which dice to roll in which circumstances—but the game thrives in the moments it leaves unsaid. "You have three installed modules; tell us what they do," Howitt says, plainly, and players are left to colour in the gaps. My favourite rule in the game is the final one, discussing how the inhabitants of the world you wander react to you. It says: "Happy people build shrines for you containing fuel and modules. Without the shrines, you will become a dangerous, scavenging thief: a phantom." There is no hard-and-fast mechanical description here. The rules, as they are written on the page, end.

"Draw maps, leave blank spaces."

Players in Memories, by Santiago Eximeno, take on the roles of elderly people in a nursing home. Eximeno carefully capitalises "Nursing" in the rules, and that tiny touch is immediately evocative. "No one comes to see you any more," is the second sentence of the game—there are fifteen sentences. Pieces of paper representing various concepts ("CHILD", "HOME", "SPOUSE") are set alight by the group and discussed as they burn. When the paper is gone, so are the players memories of it, so as the game progresses the characters become more and more loosened from the people they once were. The game's clarity and simplicity is striking. I am skeptical, though, of its role as a sort of "empathy game"—it is so starkly metaphorical and symbolic that I'm not sure it leaves enough room for nuance. Burning pieces of paper at a table with my friends is not representative of a genuine loss of anything in particular. We will get up at the end and turn the lights back on and, while the characters we played will be gone, I'm not sure there is enough in the game for them to have really been there anyway.

The final game is Route Clearance, by Andrew Millar, in which players are US Army soldiers "tasked with clearing the road between Kabul to Kandahar of IEDs during the invasion of Afghanistan." It uses a mechanic I'm familiar with and always enjoy seeing used, in which the suit of a drawn card dictates, in some way, the theming of the scene it presents. Hearts here, for example, call for "humour or comradery." Clubs for "action or danger." "The higher the number on the card," says Millar, "the more intense the experience." I appreciate the way this game begins: eleven cards laid face down form the road the players must travel. The order of the scenes is determined from the start. Who's to say that the final four cards of the road won't be hearts? Or clubs?

In Dungeon World, a full-length RPG by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel, players are given a guideline at the beginning of campaigns that has formed something of a mantra for my friends and I: "Draw maps, leave blank spaces."

These three games, each with wildly differing themes and mechanics, each demonstrate the power of this guideline. In 200 words they draw a map.

Find some friends. Print out the rules. Fill in the blank spaces.

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