Happy Games

Lately there’s been some discussion of some pretty awful stuff that happens in the RPG scene, to the point where I get genuinely tempted to distance myself from the whole thing. I’ve been working on a blog post trying to address some of the awfulness, but it’s long and depressing and given the kinds of discussion that sort of thing can attract I’m not sure I can really handle it at the moment.[1]

Right now I want to blog about something more pleasant. I want to talk about happy, pleasant RPGs. It can be frustrating to try to talk to people about these kinds of things, and I see two major reasons. One is that violence is so ingrained into RPGs that many people just can’t even comprehend how you could have one without it, much less how it could be fun. The other is that I’ve found that any time you propose doing something unconventional in an RPG design, people act as though you’re demanding that the entire hobby should be that way from now on. I’m very big on variety, and while I’ve been involved in some very memorable long-term campaigns, to me the sheer variety of games available is one of the best things about the RPG scene we have today. When I say I want to see heartwarming, non-violent RPGs, I’m saying so from personal experiences that show to me that they can be great, and I mean I want to see them alongside all kinds of other games.

I’ve had direct experience with four such games–Golden Sky Stories, Raspberry Heaven, Clover, and Adventures of the Space Patrol[2]–which is probably a lot more than most people.

An important part of a happy RPG is simply the setup. I suppose this is true of any RPG, but the situation you put the players into makes a big difference. One way I explain Golden Sky Stories is in terms of its “basic question.” When you start playing D&D, the game says something like, “You’re a young adventurer, and goblins are invading the town. How will you stop them?” When you’re playing GSS, the question is more like, “You’re a fluffy bunny. You see a boy who’s crying; how will you help him feel better?” Part of the joy of playing GSS is seeing the kind of role-play it can draw out of people. Looking at the aforementioned games (plus Witch Quest, which I haven’t played yet), that’s the single biggest thing they have in common. Being a cute magical animal or a spazzy little girl instead of an inquisitor’s acolyte or a scheming vampire really makes a difference. From there trusting people to role-play appropriately can be enough.

Ryo Kamiya thinks of Golden Sky Stories and Witch Quest as belonging to a genre he calls “everyday magic,” so named because these works blend stories of everyday life with a spark of magic. There are plenty of possible genres for happy RPGs, but everyday magic is probably the one that’s most accessible to gamers, as it allows for both a wide range of material and PCs with special powers that really differentiate them. You can also go beyond “magic” in the literal sense. GSS starts with henge, but the first supplement adds “mononoke,” so that you can involve stranger supernatural creatures, and even science fiction elements like robots and time travelers. There are also titles like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou to look to for inspiration. It takes place after a major cataclysm and stars an android girl, but concerns her daily life running a coffee shop.

More mundane settings are a bit harder to pull off, or perhaps just harder for people immersed in RPGs as they are today. Certainly it’s going to be harder with a crowd where any time you bring up the possibility someone will inevitably act like you’re proposing a game about a guy doing chore and paying taxes and generally waiting to die, as opposed to being about the kinds of things that they’re actually about.

Clover is a pretty fascinating little game, and one I think more people should check out.[3] It presents a pre-made set of characters and places, and even the presentation of the rules adopts a warm, inviting tone. The rules it does have are incredibly simple, and in my experience the part about how one player is Clover, one is her dad, and other players (if any) are her friends chosen from the book is more important than the part about rolling dice. The dice rolls as I see it are for the dad player to hand certain decisions over to the dice.[4] My work in progress Raspberry Heaven game has a similarly light touch, but draws a bit on Fiasco in terms of its structure. Given that we both drew on the works of Azuma Kiyohiko, I think it’s interesting that Ben and I both made games with pre-made characters. Although you could rewrite Clover to use a different cast, as written the characters of Clover and her dad are at the very core of what the game is about. The cast I made for Raspberry Heaven is less essential to the game–I’d originally conceived of the game as having character creation–but they’ve become important out of a need to create something players can be familiar with, in the manner of a friend or a favorite anime. That’s not going to be the only way to work an RPG about ordinary people, but I think it works because it provides a clear way for the designer to provide something for players to springboard from. Where a D&D player can latch onto being a Dwarven Fighter or whatever, it’s harder to make generic archetypes for regular people,[5] so letting them choose from pre-made characters can make up for that.

There’s lots of possible ways to make a happy RPG, hopefully many more than I could ever hope to devise, and I think it’s not so farfetched a premise that normal RPG design wisdom goes completely out the window. From the games that have come along so far, some use reward cycles (GSS hinges on a fanmail-like mechanic for rewarding cute, helpful role-playing and developing relationships), while others use a much lighter touch. I don’t want to play nothing but happy RPGs, but I know for a fact that they can be every bit as fun as more conventional RPGs.

[1]That also may have something to do with why I’ve taken an interest in certain kinds of card games over the past week or so.

[2]Space Patrol has action, but it’s cartoonish, non-lethal action.

[3]Also, Ben will literally give it to you for free if you want.

[4]Golden Sky Stories’ action resolution rules are resource-based, but it occurs to me that they’re similar in terms of being more of a tool for the GM (narrator) to use to push the game in a certain direction and create a decision point. Where in Clover dad will say, “It’s scary. Roll high to be brave,” a GSS narrator might say, “You need an Animal result of 6 to climb the tree.” This gives the player a decision point, since they can spend points to succeed, or not spend them and fail, except that failure of one check can at times be advantageous or just more fun.

[5]More or less…

2 thoughts on “Happy Games

  1. I could use something more…non violent. I saw images from Lamentation of the Flame Princess that made me almost sick.

    1. Yeah, I don’t begrudge Raggi doing his thing, but pretty much nothing about LotFP interests me personally, least of all the “grindhouse” aspect. Happy, non-violent games OTOH are hard to come by, though I’m doing what I can to rectify that. And if you haven’t already I definitely recommend checking out Clover.

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