How to Play an RPG Anywhere, Any Time
I used to play in the same Dungeons & Dragons campaign every week. Now my friends and I struggle to arrange a play session every few months. At one point I tried to make it work with another group. We made a six-month Doodle calendar to find one date we could meet. We got together, discussed character creation, and never met up again. A campaign takes so much setup, homework, planning and scheduling and rescheduling, it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Meanwhile, I made more friends who wanted to play, but didn’t know the rules. How would I ever find time to introduce them to the game, if I couldn’t even find time for more experienced players?
I wanted to play outside the house, with minimal supplies, planning, or commitment. So I had to change my approach. I looked for games that met my needs: mechanics everyone could learn in one session, but were still strong enough to bring structure and keep this from being make believe; scenarios we could jump into without an extra session for planning or character creation; no piles of dice or sheafs of paper or GM screen; no commitment past the first session.
I figured out how to play RPGs in any setting, with minimal supplies, planning, or commitment. I got to play RPGs for the first time in months. I ran two sessions in two weeks, with zero emails or Doodles. One session with my experienced friends, and one with four Lifehacker staffers who had never played an RPG. Both games were a hit. Here’s how you can run your own.
Play a One-Shot
If you and your friends are too busy to run an extended campaign, you’ve probably already tried a one-shot. Because everyone is less invested, they can whip up characters faster and start in the middle of the action. Everyone, including the GM running the game, is motivated to get less bogged down in side quests or negotiations or foreshadowing visions. Because you start fresh each time, you don’t have to keep track of possessions and levels and skills.
This style is great for casual play, when you have no standing date for games, and when you’re playing out and about. You could start a three-year campaign with deep character development, but I’d advise starting with a few one-shots, until one feels fun enough to keep playing.
A lot of RPGs are overpowered for a one-shot—when you need to wrap up the story in two hours, every minute you spend looking up weapon damage feels wasted. But if you’re already familiar with a ruleset, you can choose to follow only the basics. Dungeon Crawl Classics has one of these built in: a DCC campaign traditionally starts with a “zero-level funnel,” in which each player controls multiple unskilled peasants, most of whom die by the end. That’s a great one-shot on its own. Character creation is minimal, players have few stats to look up, and all the characters are equally suited to the task. (The GM still has a lot of characters to keep track of, and a lot of dice to roll.)
Game developer John Harper, creator of the popular one-page RPG Lasers & Feelings and the three-page Dungeon World spinoff World of Dungeons, loves complex games. His favorite game, he tells me in an interview, is The Burning Wheel. “It’s one of the rare games where the more work you put in as a player, the more you get out of it.” How much work? He says he really started sucking the marrow around the thirtieth or fortieth play session. But his usual gaming group also liked to play out at a bar. “It felt weird to be at the bar and have a very intense role-play scene.” So they’d play more “punchy, adventurey things,” often pausing the game to chat, switching back and forth. It helped to have a focused mission instead of a grand plot. One of his favorite games for this kind of play is the 48-page Into the Odd, a gothic game where each character has only three stats, and where a session can run about two hours. The group also played Dungeon World and Apocalypse World.
Use a One-Page RPG
In a casual setting, you want a game that’s mentally and physically smaller. Mentally, you want fewer rules to learn, fewer specifics to choose for your character before you start playing. You want to make decisions fast, and you want the GM to keep up. The more you can rely on imagination and cooperation, the less you have to rely on a sourcebook.
Physically, you don’t want all the stuff used in a typical RPG: sourcebooks, specialized dice (or funky dice), printouts, maps, a GM screen, pencils and paper, figurines or tokens. This is all cool and fun when you’re committing to a campaign with a group: one person shares their sourcebook, the GM keeps everyone’s character sheets between games, and everyone loves collecting bags full of weird dice. But you can’t pull out all this accoutrement at a small coffee shop or a picnic. And you can’t rely on the one person with the extra dice if they don’t show up to every game.
What you want is a lightweight, portable RPG. Super light weight. Ideally a single page. Luckily there are dozens of popular microRPGs online, with rulesets that fit on one or two pages, given out for free by their creators. Most only require a couple of six-sided dice (D6’s, in gamer terms), though some use the typical set of specialized RPG dice, especially the famous D20.
You’ll notice a lot of these games are silly, and the rules can be vague. They’re not built for long campaigns that fully explore your character’s backstory as you grow more powerful. Not until you hack them, anyway.
All the games listed above and below are free, and many explicitly carry a Creative Commons license that allows others to remix and redistribute them. Some players have collected their favorites into PDF compilations, like this four-page pack of 12 games.
Actually, Just Use Lasers & Feelings
I was immediately drawn to Lasers & Feelings, which uses a simple system with two stats: lasers, and feelings. The better you are at one, the worse you are at the other.
Technically it’s one stat—a number from 2 to 5. Whenever you try to do something difficult, you decide whether it requires “laser” skills (logic, science, research) or “feelings” skills (passion, seduction, morale). Then you roll a six-sided die. You want to roll higher than your one stat to succeed at feelings, lower than your stat to succeed at lasers. There are no modifiers, though you can roll an extra die to represent preparation or expertise.
Similar to the Powered by the Apocalypse system, you can get results other than success and failure: critical success, which allows you to ask a question of the GM, and mixed success, which comes at a cost or with a caveat.
Also similarly to PbtA, the GM spends most of their time introducing the next complication or twist and asking the players, “What do you do next?” Combat is handled the same way as other actions, with no hit point or damage systems.
To play, all you need is a copy of the rules and at least one die. Character creation takes about five minutes (in addition to the stat, there are some class and flavor choices), and the GM can select a scenario from the given options, or roll for a random one.
The game only works if you can common-sense your way through things—or intentionally go nonsensical. All the crunch—number-crunching, the game mechanics—is shrunk into one stat and one dice roll, so everything in the game depends on interpretation. Everyone needs to be ready to agree with each other, because arguing over the rules would be absurd. The players need to be flexible, the GM needs to be reasonably consistent, and everyone needs to be creative. But that’s why you chose an RPG and not a board game.
John Harper wrote Lasers & Feelings in four hours in 2013, updating it the next day after a playtest. He borrowed the over-under system from Trollbabe, a 2002 game with a 70s underground comics vibe. He mostly built L&F for experienced gamers, who could use their knowledge of RPG conventions to interpret his concise rules. “There are still fairly unclear rules that people still ask me about,” he tells me. But he likes leaving them ambiguous.
The Lasers & Feelings system is so robust that the game quickly spawned dozens of “hacks,” which adapt the rule system to different genres. These games still use six-sided dice and one or two pages of rules, but they switch out the setting, the character classes, the stats, and the possible scenarios. The blog Writing Alchemy has collected over 40 of these hacks, including:
You can tweak any of these, or hack your own—which doesn’t require writing up a new one-sheet. You can just name a few character classes, describe your setting, and invent an adventure. For one of my playtests, I whipped up a medieval palace intrigue called Swords and Sorcery. It was very poorly thought out and it worked great.
Most L&F hacks are based on an existing genre or specific media property. There’s no room for a compendium of original monsters or extensive lore about the setting and characters. You have to pull from existing tropes and make up the details.
Everybody Play Nice
The less written material a game has, the more the players and GM need to work things out with each other. The rules lawyer in your group might hate this. So will the GM who likes to rule as a petty tyrant. In a traditional at-home game, says Harper, the GM tends to be high-status. Playing out in the world helps to level that playing field. Lightweight games can’t support an antagonistic relationship between GM and players.
Almost anything goes in these games, so you have to bring your social skills if you don’t want to devolve into a game of “Oh yeah? Well I’m wearing an infinity suit.” The GM also needs to orient the players, guide their level of contribution. In L&F, Harper says, it’s helpful that the GM asks the whole table “What do you do?” instead of just one player.
You have to ignore (or have fun with) a lot of details in a casual game. As a player, your items don’t have stats. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re wearing leather armor or chainmail, unless you want to make it matter for some creative reason. If you’re used to playing RPGs like a video game, you have to think differently.
As a GM, you need to improvise a lot more. You have to know how to have fun and keep things moving, but also how to avoid “crazy town”—an improv term for a situation where there’s nothing normal to hold onto, so none of the silliness matters. But this is a fantastic trade-off, because you don’t have to plan. At all. You can literally roll a die to figure out what adventure you’ll be narrating.
You do owe your players an ending. Don’t let the casual nature of the game lead you to fizzle out. Most of the time you’ll want your players to succeed, unless it’s in the nature of the game (like anything Lovecraft-inspired) to have a high chance of failure. But even if you’re going to spend a half-hour just hanging out afterward, you’ll feel better if you have some closure.
While microRPGs can be good for new players, I wouldn’t recommend them for first-time GMs. If you want to run a microRPG, you’ll find it a lot easier if you’ve run, or at least played, several sessions of an RPG (whether it was traditional or micro).
Always Be Ready to Play
You can comfortably play most micro-RPGs using only your phone: pull up a PDF to look up the character types or scenarios. Google “dice roller” and Google will roll a six-sided die for you.
If you prefer real dice, keep a pair of dice in your pocket or bag. Or see if your local bar or coffee shop has a couple board games in the corner, and borrow from those.
The first time you play a particular system, it can be helpful to have the rules printed out, maybe even an extra copy for the players. But even that first time, you can get by with phones if you need to. If phones get too distracting, ask everyone to go to airplane mode.
After the first session or two, you should know how to start a game anywhere. You just need a few friends gathered for at least an hour, in a space where you can all comfortably hear each other: at a barbecue, a late-night diner, even in the car on a road trip. It’s a great activity for the tail end of a party, or for entertaining kids.
Case Study 1
My first game was with three members of my usual group, Tim, Molly, and Jason. We met at our local bar, High Dive—good beer, free popcorn, pinball in the back—and after a little chatter and pinball, got down to business with some printouts of Lasers & Feelings. Everyone picked their role on the crew of the SS Raptor, and their style—a sexy engineer, alien doctor, and hot-shot pilot.
I rolled up a secret threat: (1) brain worms trying to (2) protect void crystals to (3) fix everything. Not much of a threat—unless I made it an existential threat for the crew, who would have no more problems to solve around the galaxy once the brain worms had pacified the universe. So I needed to infect the crew with these worms. I, a creative genius, looked at the cup of to-go coffee I’d brought over. And I told my players that the ship had run out of coffee.
We spent two hours on a ridiculous quest on a coffee planet. At one point I image-searched coffee plants, and discovered that (at least on a phone) they look a lot like various poisonous red berries you see in a forest. There we go, a problem to solve. At another point Jason mentioned this scifi book he’d read, where dragon showed up out of nowhere and practically winked at the camera, and how incongruous it felt with the story. So I threw in a fire-breathing dragon to guard the coffee plants.
I’d intended to bring in the brain worms after a few minutes, but I only snuck them in at the end—they’d burrowed into the coffee beans. “The coffeebot turns your foraged beans into delicious coffee, and you’re all energized. But in the middle of the night, Zapf Dingbat wakes up. Zapf, something is whispering from inside your brain: ‘Destroy the ship!’ Oh no! What will happen next time on Lasers & Feelings: I’m Thinking About Those Beans!?” The end.
We were only slightly more grounded than an episode of Comedy Bang Bang: if anyone made a joke and it went over well, it was now canon. People introduced ridiculous bits of backstory on the fly. The alien kept getting new mediocre powers. And because we only had to sustain the story for two hours, we could pile it on.
And yet somehow it remained a game, and not an improv scene. We still cared whether the team completed their mission. Because characters were constantly trying to accomplish tasks, we were rolling dice more often than our usual D&D games. I’d barely read through the one-sheet before we started, as I am very lazy. A couple of the others had given it a skim. But we quickly picked up the mechanics, although as we got drunk, we had a little trouble remembering the over-under rule.
It was a relief to play without all the table-setting, literal and metaphorical, of our usual games. And because we were out at the bar, anyone could stay after—no host to kick everyone out. We’re meeting next week to play a hack of Lasers & Feelings. Currently arguing whether to theme it on Indiana Jones or Boss Baby.
Case Study 2
So it was easy enough to play a casual game with experienced players. But as Harper tells me, with such a barebones system, “you don’t have a lot of stuff to hide behind.” So I stress-tested the L&F system on four people who had never played a tabletop RPG. And it worked great.
I gathered four Lifehacker staffers—EIC Melissa Kirsch, writers Alicia Adamczyk and Josh Ocampo, and senior video producer Joel Kirsch—for a happy-hour game at the bar across the street. They’d requested a medieval setting, so over my lunch break I’d hacked up Swords & Sorcery, inserting some medieval tropes into the rules of Lasers & Feelings.
Alicia became Princess Peach, Melissa played a barber-surgeon, Josh a secretive dwarf knight, Joel a scheming wizard. Instead of offering character goals, I borrowed a trick from the Powered by the Apocalypse system and asked everyone to describe their relationship to the character to their left. It turned out they were all involved in the palace court—and most of them were related.
You don’t say no to the players. So instead of a dungeon crawl or quest, I gave them a game of palace intrigue: the king and queen gathered everyone important into the throne room to name their successor, but before they could make their announcement, all the torches sputtered out and the king and queen were murdered. Now our players had to compete for the throne.
I’d never run a player-vs-player game before. It seems harder to sustain friendly make-believe when everyone is competing, especially when who “wins” is really up to the GM. But competition turned out to be a great way to jumpstart interaction. I’ve seen even experienced players take a while to get their merry band together, but here we had characters who canonically knew each other well—easy lifting for these newbies. This is one of the ways a lightweight game relies more on players: you can’t justify things by pointing out your character’s stats, so you have to invent in-world justifications. Everyone got used to adding backstory and details to justify their skills and choices. Character creation never ended, it just turned into gameplay. It was perfect.
Everyone stomped around the castle, trying to take power by persuasion or force, backstabbing each other and forming coalitions and raiding the armory. NPCs came, went, and died. I forget who took the castle, only that the end was a Hamlet-level bloodbath. Conversation flowed faster in this fantasy world than in our usual small talk. And we did it all over cocktails without a single mechanical pencil.
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February 26, 2019 at 11:05AM