Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Weird World of Free Role-Playing Games

Jhkim's list of free RPGs is, I think, the biggest and most comprehensive of its kind (not that I've spent a great deal of time looking for others). It makes for interesting, strange reading - you get a sense, scrolling through it, of just how odd a hobby this is. I mean, just go and look at the list. Look at it. Is your mind boggling? It should be. There are over 500 games on that list.

In some sense I feel obscurely proud of all that creativity (glory by association) but in others I find it faintly depressing. Who, for instance, has ever played ARPLE (the "All-purpose Role Playing Logistics Engine")? Bestial Acts? (It's based on the dramatic theories of Berthold Brecht!) What about Fantasized Adventures, set in the world of Ba'kara? It has 6 arch-duchies.

I'm not poking fun, I hasten to add. Producing a free RPG is more than I've ever done. But don't you get a kind of empty feeling looking at the list and thinking of all the hopes and dreams that those designers might have had? Even though I'd suggest the vast majority of those games (the ones which aren't retroclones, previews of "real" RPGs, or the odd success story like Barbarians of Lemuria) have never been played once by anybody other than the designer and his friends

21 comments:

  1. Maybe this is just an internet thing? Like, these were people who would make stuff like this even if they had no way of distributing it, but the internet gives them any easy way to do so.

    Though I probably will be running the "RPG about intelligent prairie dogs on the American Great Plains" as soon as possible.

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  2. And it's not even complete! It doesn't include any game from 1KM1KT that I can see, or any from the formal or informal Game Chefs or 24 RPG competitions, except for a few that went on to have commercial versions. So maybe he's trying to avoid "incomplete" RPGs, although I think there's been a debate about the completeness of some of the games he links to...

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  3. Bestial Acts is by Greg Costikyan. It's less a game as an outline of a idea for didactic* ambush hidden as a roleplaying 'game'.

    If nothing else, scroll right to the bottom and read the outline for Acts II and III, and the 'Designer's Note'. Hilarious.

    *It is, of course, a railroad of a scenario.

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    1. Haha, yes.

      I didn't recognise the name but I did recognise one of his other games: Violence.

      I like the phrase "didactic ambush". Violence is like that too, I gather. Oh, you wanted to have fun with your friends on a Saturday afternoon just chilling out and playing a game? Think again.

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    2. Isn't the hardcore grognard line that Dragonlance was one big didactic ambush, teaching morality through railroading, pretending to be [kill sentient beings and steal their stuff] D&D?

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  4. Actually, from Greg Costikyan's Ludography I spotted that, alongside all his professional work, he has a section titled 'Amateur Designs', which contains a particularly relevant paragraph:

    "'Amateur's' root lies in the Latin amare, to love; an "amateur" does what he does for love, not money. There are game styles (and subjects) that have no commercial market; this has not deterred me from designing them. I like to think my 'amateur' games are of professional quality, nonetheless."

    Drop the 'professional quality' line, and that's what its all about - and the internet means that making these games available carries next to no cost.

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  5. "But don't you get a kind of empty feeling looking at the list and thinking of all the hopes and dreams that those designers might have had?"

    You're probably right about the disappointment factor. It's not a problem unique to RPGs, with all the wannabes on youtube and reality TV. (Reminds me of the girl who gets new eyes in Burning Chrome, and some of the themes in the previous two stories)

    At the same time, I'd like to think there's something positive about all this unbridled creative output, even the ones that never "made-it". Isn't creating worlds a value in and of itself, regardless of whether anyone ever reads it? They say Tolkien wrote his books primarily for his own kids...

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    1. Sure - I have mixed feelings about it. On the whole I'm cautiously positive about the existence of so many free games. At time same time it also makes me feel a little bit sad.

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  6. Bless J. Kim and his site! A thousand happy and prosperous days to him. I love that list and have read through a great deal of it and run far more then a few.

    I think if you look at the list as failed professional works you are greatly missing the point of it. Sure, some of them are the games of those who hoped to strike it big one day in the industry and indeed there are some who have done well with these and other properties in other forms but to me that is not what this list is about.

    Kim's collection is an ode to 'I made this cool game with this wild idea, please give it a try and I hope you enjoy it'. Does the fine artist paint a painting hoping it will sell for millions or because there is an inspired feeling inside them to paint it? Both probably occur fairly often (sadly). Free RPGs are not, IMHO, RPGs that couldn't make it as commerical products but rather gifts from one creative, hobby loving mind to others.

    Wait...You didn't recognize the name Greg Costikyan? I've always loved his stuff.

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    1. Not failed professional works so much as failed attempts to get people to play. Honestly, I think it's cool that the games exist, but it's tinged by melancholia at the thought that they won't be widely played.

      As for Greg Costikyan, honestly no, I'd never heard of him. I'd heard of Violence and that's all. What is he famous for?

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    2. Paranoia would be the big one. The Star Wars RPG published by West End Games would be #2.

      He's done some work in indie video games as well.

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    3. Costikyan designed West End Games' Star Wars RPG, Paranoia and Toon for Steve Jackson. In addition he wrote for numerous other games, tons of RPG magazine articles and "I Have No Words and I Must Design" a widely read essay on game design theory.

      http://www.costik.com/nowords.html

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    4. Oh, he did Paranoia? I never used to pay attention to designers' names when I was younger.

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  7. I know exactly what you mean and had much the same experience when i looked through a list like that (might have been that one, don't remember). It has been a couple years, but I really picked through the offerings checking them out, downloading a couple dozen that seemed better. I noticed that a lot of the freee games are not remotely complete. You would have to bring a lot to the table to play them. But some of them are very complete and really well done and illustrated. "The Blade and the Will" by MC Mullins is one like that.

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    1. I'll have a look at that one, thanks.

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  8. I understand the melancholia. Having written my own games and variants that nobody else plays, I'd say that from the perspective of the author, things are not as sad. I wrote these as glorified house rules for my home game, or as heartbreaker, and other people not playing them doesn't bother me. I still linked to them from forums or my blog – after all, why not? I'd feel weird if somebody came up to me sad faced and said "I feel for you, all these words, gone, like tears in rain..."

    On a different note, however, this is similar to the One Page Dungeon Contest. So many entries in the list, how to get started? People should try some and write up little reviews and post them, provide summaries, top 10 lists, that kind of thing helps the good ones trickle up.

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    1. I agree. Will have a look at some of them and do a follow-up post or two.

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  9. You know, you make me want to write one. Just for the sake of it.

    I've always had the theory that if you charge something — anything really — for your game, it gets more serious and more people will read and maybe even play it, especially with the whole Kickstarter hubris going on. That's why my next RPG will be published by a company and not left somewhere on the internet. Yet, I suspect that from a gamer POV one has to do it someday. It's a coming of age rite and I'm still a teenager in his forties.

    I could feel moronic just because I didn't have the guts yet to create something nobody will ever read. Strange, uh?

    On a side note, I totally want to wear the hat the Tibetan lady wears on the Yoon-Suin pics below, so that might explain the trick.

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    1. I agree completely about the issue of pricing. Even if it's US$5, at least charge something - because then people will value it and, most crucially of all, take the time to read and play it.

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    2. Possible counter-example; eclipse phase.

      I knew it was available for sale, dismissed it. People started talking about it and making characters for it, I read it because I found out it had recently been made creative commons, and had great fun with fiddling with it.

      It wasn't the price that got me interested, it was the fact that it was pretty good. Did that make other people talk about it more? Maybe. But the price made the difference between me not reading it and me reading it, and I only valued it after knowing what it was!

      People who want to sell their game promote their game, but equally, you can promote your game if you want people to play it, regardless of whether you want them to pay you or not.

      Course, loads of the classic forms of promotion, like art, adverts or demo-ing the game, cost money, so it might be better to have people pay to recoup costs..

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  10. Dear Noisms, I think the list it is an opportunity. Internet made and make it possible (and my game is in there ;-) )

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