The best RPG is the one you have on you

There’s an adage in photography that goes “the best camera is the one you have on you.”

I had a good experience recently where I could apply this adage to role-playing games.

I was with some friends at a local board game pub and after playing a few rounds of a card game, someone asked me if I knew an RPG that we could play with the materials at the pub. “Why yes, The Pool”. We quickly decided that we wanted to play a post-apocalyptic scenario in New York that was set about 100 years in the future. We asked the staff for pencils, paper, and dice. They were quite curious about what we were doing — I guess people don’t play RPGs in this space, let alone obscure ones that don’t require books.

The Pool is small enough that I can fit it in my head and carry it everywhere I go. Studying it so closely in Ron’s Playing with the Pool has given me the confidence to play my Pool on the fly. Choosing something that we all vibed with such as “post-apocalyptic New York, 100 years in the future” made it very easy to follow through with “write 50 words about your character”.

One player created a cyborg who they tried to make infallible. Except that they had shot Donald Trump. Okay, now our 100 years in the future has cyborgs and Donald Trump. Another player made a fixer type who had five daughters by five different mothers. Two characters had pets. One hated water, there was a cancer colony, a Creole mafia, drug dealing, sewer tunnels, scavengers in Tompkins Square Park, zombies, etc.

I drew a few connections and added my own details: life-extended Donald Trump survived the shooting and was preserved as a brain in a jar. He was seeking out a healthy specimen to transplant his brain into, with Trump DNA, to continue his dynasty. I chose one of the five daughters as the target of this plot. One character hated water, so New York was half-flooded due to some climate catastrophe. The zombies were swampy due to the flooding. It took 5 or 10 minutes to prepare. I prepared a few other rough details but they really didn’t come up in play. Given more time or even just a different reading of the character summaries could have altered the prep for better or worse. But I felt good about having *something* that we could work with. The short prep time was a good constraint to just run with the first ideas that came to mind and see what play did with them. It also removed my expectations.

Being new to role-playing games, there were a few moments where the players would try to do things like play the NPCs they were interacting with, add arbitrary backstory in play, or skip ahead and describe outcomes before they rolled the dice. I hadn’t instructed them otherwise prior to play, they were just exploring what they could and couldn’t do. I think it was actually easier for me to explain how things work as they came up instead of doing the info dump before play.

We played out the daughter being kidnapped and taken to a bunker somewhere in the wastelands of flooded New York. Eventually the characters intercepted the cyborg mercenaries who had taken the daughter, trapped them, and defeated them, rescuing the daughter. In the last scene the cyborg player character used an electromagnetic pulse grenade to take out himself and the cyborg mercs — committing suicide as a result.

At the end of the game, that player had some questions and comments about our game and role-playing games in general. To summarize the conversation:

“Is it hard to prepare?” “No, we started with a basic idea and then you all provided me with 200 words that I could do *something* with.”

“It wasn’t a rational, logical story”. I didn’t think that he meant that it failed to be a good story, ie: good art. So I asked him what he meant. “My character committed suicide at the end, he was a perfectly rational being but he did something irrational and without cause”. I asked him why he played it that way. “Because the pub was closing, and I wanted to give it a good ending”. It may have played differently if the pub wasn’t closing or if we had established a few more prior details like why his cyborg shot Donald Trump. But then we wouldn’t have had this exchange.

I think he would have liked to redo his character’s final actions to reflect the situation in the game rather than the situation in the pub.

Does anybody else have a game on hand that they’d like to talk about? Whether in their head, on their mobile device, in their backpack?

One response to “The best RPG is the one you have on you”

  1. For a long time, I carried either the first version of Dead of Night or Ram Hull’s The Path of Journey around in my jacket pocket, as a constant accessory. I didn’t get to play either as much as I wanted but I did play them a lot in casual pick-up moments. More recently, it’s been The Pool, and as it happens I have a new-ish text for Cold Soldier that I like a lot, so that’s now my carry-about. Or will be when I manage to print it into a nice pamphlet style.

    Regarding your experience, I was thinking about the value of a teachable moment over some idealized notion of Awesome. If the person walks away thinking that X might not have been as good fiction as they’d prefer, but also knowing that it was clearly theiri own choice and play which did it, than a lot of insight is available to them. They’ll know, or have some content in mind which may help them learn, that “the game” cannot give them excellent outcomes and indeed is better because it doesn’t do that, i.e., is incapable of determining quality of that kind.

    I’ve also been thinking lately, especially after Augustifesten and Kulturnatten last year, that finishing play, in story terms, isn’t a high priority for first-time introductory play. The positive response arises from agency – knowing that what you’ve said is being heard and, through continued use, honored. Seeing instrumentation feed into that and out of it is exciting, much more so than any app-y or clever features of the instrumention by itself.

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