I have a confession to make: I don’t like board or card games.
There are some very, very rare exceptions, like Uno and certain kinds of solitaire, but for the most part I just plain don’t derive any particular enjoyment out of them. That’s kind of a shame, considering that (1) some of my friends do like them, and (2) my awesome brother-in-law has a wall of such games, and regularly buys new ones. Some of it is simple burnout from the wrong kinds of games; Magic: The Gathering and Monopoly each went a long way towards ruining their respective genres for me. I’m also not all that good at such games, but a lot of that no doubt comes down to not feeling any desire to invest in them enough to develop such skills. Still, that doesn’t really explain it, especially since I like RPGs so much.
I think the real problem is that I don’t enjoy competition. I don’t like losing, and I don’t enjoy winning at my friends’ expense, but I’ve yet to encounter such a game that can really be fun even when I don’t play to win. It’s not a warm-fuzzy-hippie things either; it’s not “everyone should win,” but rather a dull irritation that rises up after a while until it becomes unbearable. Video games can be an exception at times. Even in multiplayer I can find ways to enjoy Halo (the glaring exception to my dislike of most FPS games) without worrying too much about winning, but I still prefer co-op, single-player, or even anonymous online multiplayer matches.
When I read or translate the part of an RPG’s text where it says that there are no winners or losers per se, unlike other kinds of games, my eyes usually glaze over from having read it so many times, but it really is an important distinguishing characteristic of the genre. On the other hand, I enjoy storytelling in pretty much any form—creative, passive, or interactive—and while some methods work better for me than others, there aren’t any I’ve dismissed outright. (Although there are some genres that don’t do it for me, and some combinations of genre and medium that I don’t care for. I only really like horror in prose form, and I have no particular interest in sexuality in tabletop role-playing).
That said, I do think that one of the ways we might innovate in and revitalize RPGs is by drawing inspiration from card and board games. Raspberry Heaven is a perfect example of that, considering it was Uno that helped redeem the game from oblivion, but that’s only one of a zillion different possible games to look at.
The other day I had the opportunity to look through my brother-in-law’s copy of SPANC (Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls) from Steve Jackson Games. It very much looks like the result of that approach in reverse. You create a crew of three characters, who are defined by four attributes (Space Pirate, Amazon, Ninja, and Catgirl, naturally). You can give them equipment cards to modify the attributes, and you basically throw them at challenge cards, picking a catgirl who tries to roll under the requisite skill (often with a modifier). You could turn it into a very simple RPG with no modification at all. Just let each player pick a character card, and have the GM use challenge cards or make up new ones on the fly, and you’re golden.
The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is a game that in many ways straddles the divide, and the one time my group played it (I do want to play again some time) it was surprisingly successful and won over the skeptics among us. Its basic structure is competitive, based as it is around accumulating influence tokens, but depending on how one choses to play it can be little more than a framing device. It surely has a good number of players who are interested in exploring the setting’s inherent perversity, and can do so to their heart’s content rather than worrying about “winning” the game according to the rules. The use of customized cards to keep things interesting is a definite board game touch, and it’s vital to the overall experience.
Then there’s Once Upon A Time, a “storytelling card game” that is more of a group storytelling exercise. It’s not an RPG per se (no one self-identifies with any of the characters, after all), and its use of cards is more of a way to introduce memes into the story being told and provide a way to win/end then game. Like the Roach, it shows how customized cards can be a vector for introducing information into the game’s fictional world. That’s one of the key concepts of that Moonsick game I’ve been neglecting. It also allows for a level of simplicity and abstraction not often seen in RPGs, and since (as the last post on Adventures of the Space Patrol illustrates) I’m interested in short, pick-up RPGs, this is something I think worth exploring.
Although of course there have been any number of RPGs that make good use of miniatures and maps in the style of the wargames from which the hobby originally arose, I haven’t yet seen any that take a cue from boardgames per se. If an RPG takes place in a limited geographic area, it could have a board, and the effects of different locations could be encoded into that board (this seems ridiculously common in board games). If the locations need to vary more, we could use mapping tiles (like in Zombies!!!), either randomly placed or set out according to someone’s wishes.
On a similar line of thought, a friend of mine was working on a kind of “limit break” mechanism for an RPG, which involved a 3×3 grid on the character sheet. Making use of location as a determining factor is possible even without an elaborate board, and it can accomplish all kinds of interesting things.
This is why I wish I did like board and card games more than I do (and it’s not like I haven’t given them a chance either). I really wonder what other neat things someone who’s actually familiar with a wide variety of of games could come up with.
Anyway. In another day or two I’ll hopefully be posting up the next installment of Role-Play This!, dealing with Fighting Shonen Manga.