RPG in an App

Over on Story Games there’s been a thread about RPGs/story games going digital, and I had an idea I thought was really interesting, even if I won’t be able to do anything with it any time soon.

Dungeon World now has an iOS app, which is basically an enhanced e-book. It includes several reference features, plus audio commentary, and Sage is planning to add more functionality over time. Which is all really neat (especially since Sage is planning to make the details of how he put the together available for free), but I think barely scratching the surface.

There are two GameCube games that did really interesting things in terms of their interactions with the players. The GameCube version of WarioWare has a multiplayer mode called “Listen to the Doctor,” where a doctor character tells you to do something (sing a song, touch your nose, etc.) while playing one of the micro-games. Afterward the other players can tap A to “applaud” depending on how well they think you did. That shows that a video game can still have a social, human element. Pac-Man Vs. is one of the very few games that made effective use of the Game Boy Advance link cable. One player plays Pac-Man, while the other players are all ghosts. The ghost players share the TV, which shows only the areas of the maze immediately around each ghost. The Pac-Man player holds the GBA, and the screen on it give them a private view of the entire maze. When a ghost catches Pac-Man, the players of that ghost and Pac-Man trade controllers, and the new player gets to be Pac-Man. It would be a bit much to expect every player to have a GBA and link cable, so having it be a thing you pass around as a reward for good gameplay turn having only a single GBA into a strength.

Suppose we have an RPG in the form of an iPhone app[1]. I have two gaming groups, and at best half of each group has iOS devices, and no game no matter how awesome is going to convince the ones without to pony up for an iPhone, even assuming they could afford it in the first place.[2] So the first thing we do is be sure to make it so that you only need one iOS device, and have it either rest with one player who takes up a particular role, or make it part of the game that you pass the device around. (Maybe give the app some kind of “reference mode” or something for if a player has an extra device and wants to use it.) Since the screen is relatively small and not good for doing any great amount of reading, we keep the amount of text relatively small and in digestible chunks. This points to a relatively simple story game type thing, and admittedly the idea crystallized in my head after listening to the Actual People, Actual Play podcast on Ron Edwards’ game It Was a Mutual Decision, which sounds like it’s a powerful experience but on-rails structurally.

Some of the things such an app could do include:

  • Take input from players in any number of ways. One obvious thing would be to let a player enter a character name, and then the game can seamlessly put it into the text for the duration of play.
  • Reveal or conceal things to/from different players at different times, possibly including things input by various players.
  • Do random number generation electronically (and possibly behind the scenes), presenting players with just the results. These could come from an extensive table of random elements so that the players only need to worry about what’s been generated for this instance of play.
  • Make sounds and/or pictures a part of the experience.
  • Integrate any number of “analog” things into the experience, in addition to role-playing of course. In some ways it would be better to make it so you just need the app and some friends, but equally you could put in other elements, whether traditional RPG trappings (dice, paper character sheets) or totally off the wall stuff (Jenga!).
  • Likewise, smartphones have plenty of stuff like GPS, motion sensors, cameras, internet access, vibration, etc. that a game could leverage in various ways.
  • Provide players with built-in tools to tinker with the experience in various ways. Have settings that tweak numbers for pacing mechanics, if the game has something analogous to Fiasco playsets have a way to submit and download new ones, that kind of thing.
  • Let players just peel back the game’s facade and fix stuff if things are going wrong. Change numbers during play, force the game to skip to Act 3, etc.
  • Include liner notes and other reference material available in hotlinks.
  • Let players save the game’s current state to be resumed later.
  • Where multiple devices are available, they could link up via the internet or Bluetooth.

[1]An Android app would be fine too (especially since Android is apparently gaining a ton of market share), or a web app or whatever, but I happen to own an iPhone so that’s what I’ll use as an example.

[2]It would be nifty to have something where, say, you do tactical battles a la D&D4e and everyone has their own device for it, but it’s not gonna happen.

7 thoughts on “RPG in an App

  1. The game I am working on is designed to have the entire character sheet, sans skill and ability descriptions, on one card. Similar to how the 4e character builder did it, but my game is much more simpler.

    I decided that I was going to create a basic character builder in Ren’Py, since it can compile on Windows, MacOS X and Linux, as well as Android (which is what I have).

    For a mobile device, it would be nice to have a character sheet, spells and abilities, items and other notes on “cards”, which could be sorted and swiped aside to show the next one. It would be great if some nifty library came out for that. Indie games could really blow Wizards away, since they insist on keeping everything closed up.

  2. Hey Ewen. Stop talking about shit no one cares about and release Golden Sky Stories already.

    Seriously though? There’s never gonna be a replacement for pen and paper(or keyboard and notepad, for some of us), though I’ve seen a few interesting things out there that makes RPG experiences a hell of a lot quicker and easier. Most obvious example is the numerous character builders out there that do all the math for you, but I’m partial to a thing of my own: an IRC bot that rolls your maid/butler/master/mansion/whatever up in an instant, and all you need to do is name and age the bitch. It also has dice and a glossary that ctrl+Fs the entire MaidRPG book, so newbie players don’t even need a copy to play it – it’s all in the bot. It may take away from the “being there” experience for some(I know I enjoyed watching my GM manually roll all the qualities for my first maid), but it’s really invaluable how you can take five dudes out of some random channel who know nothing of Maid and be playing the game twenty minutes later. I could see something like that being integrated into an “app”, but it’s really just something that makes things faster and easier than the ole’ P&P. Something that uses an “app” would probably have to have special mechanics made especially to take advantage of their capabilities. Nothing really comes to mind right now.

    Why are you even reading this instead of mailing out copies of Golden Sky?

    1. Dude. Chill out. I have a ton of stuff I have to do for GSS (I took care of harassing the layout guy this morning), but it’s getting there. The mailing out books part comes after the book is laid out, we raise enough money, and get it back from the printer.

      I don’t think there’s ever going to be a “replacement” for P&P, but I do think there’s a lot of room for, let’s say cousins of it, games that use some of the traits of a traditional RPG but not all. And yes, I am talking about specifically designing a game around it being in app form, though I have enough other things (like GSS) to eat up all my free time that I won’t be even sketching out a design any time soon.

  3. Random thoughts…

    While I have not been to GenCon and seen True Dungeon with my own eyes, the first thing that came to mind was using the motion sensing features of the device to include mini-games such as pick the lock, cast the spell, navigate the minefield, etc.

    Perhaps creating a third-eye or other detection ‘magic’.

    Of course, some type of Pokemon or Yu-gi-oh game play is also possible. (I know nothing about the actual game-boy games. So, I may be off there.)


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