I Hate RPGs: The RPG

Introduction

Q: What’s an RPG?

A: I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry.

Design goals

This is an RPG system with no gamey abstractions or rules to look up. There are no Clich├ęs or Qualities or Descriptors. There are no charts explaining the adjectives I’ve assigned to numerical values. I haven’t reinvented the wheel, summarized aspects of humanity, or come up with a clever way to simulate a battle of wits.

It’s simple and sparse and won’t work if you’re uncomfortable with playing pretend and coming up with ideas on your own. There aren’t any crutches here. I think rules that dictate narration exist to obscure bad writing, to give the illusion of meaning, and to fake inspiration where there is none.

There are also no rules to keep people in line. There is no game balance here. If you’re playing with ego-tripping assholes who want to feel powerful at the expense of everyone else, it’s not the game’s fault for not accommodating that. Kick them out or something, or play a wargame with them instead. The stories and characters they’d come up with would probably be awful, anyway.

If you make a tabletop RPG that has rules to stop people from being unreasonable assholes, your target audience is now unreasonable assholes. It’s designed for them.

I don’t play RPGs because I don’t like them, so maybe my ideas don’t work. This game is minimalist and conceptual and probably isn’t usable at all. You could call it an “anti-RPG,” but I won’t.

Getting started

Character creation

RPGs are about characters, so you should make some characters first.

Here’s how you do that:

  1. Get a piece of paper and write down a summary of your character. It could be about a paragraph. It depends on how much everybody else feels like writing. If people get your character in one sentence, that’s fine too.

That’s it. I’m not going to force you to include foibles. If your character has no real flaws it’s probably a shitty character, but that’s just my opinion.

Be sure to be clear about what your character knows and can do, because people might be upset if you forget to mention something important – it could seem like you’re making shit up on the spot. There are no skills or feats or anything like that.

But there will be a lot of situations that aren’t covered explicitly by your character summary. Most things that happen won’t be covered by the summary, so don’t worry about trying to include everything. You can imply a lot.

If people can’t get a good idea of your character from your description, either it’s a shitty character or you’re a shitty writer. No game is going to fix that. Just figure out what went wrong and address it. It shouldn’t be hard for other people to get an intuitive feeling for what your character’s shtick is.

Example character

Here is a hastily written character sheet:

“Cedric is a healer from a small town to the north. He was drafted in the war a few years ago, and doesn’t like to talk about the things he saw. He’s no-nonsense and doesn’t trust people much, but he’s amiable enough if he has to be – at least, outwardly. He used to be more fun.

The healer he apprenticed under and worked for died recently, so things are up in the air for him right now.”

It doesn’t have to be long, and that example is pretty bland. I hope you get the idea, anyway.

You could draw a picture on it too, if you want.

Narration

There can be a “game master,” or there might not be one. Whatever works best. Things will probably go the most smoothly if someone has an idea for a story, and thought up some locations, events, and background characters in advance. So in that way, I’m recommending a “game master,” but it’s up to you. Maybe you’re all on the same wavelength enough to not need that.

Situations and resolution

In RPGs, usually you roll some dice to figure out if you can pick the lock or listen for a clue at the fucking tavern or whatever. I don’t like that.

In this game, you decide what happens by using your mouth-sounds at each other. I don’t have any poker chips that you can use in an abstract, convoluted bidding war to decide which asshole’s idea that everybody hates actually happens. You have to talk about it.

Most things shouldn’t need to be explained. If someone has a broken arm, Cedric can obviously set it. But maybe he can’t because he’s running away from a monster with someone who’s injured, and setting an arm takes a while. Or maybe he’s in a prison cell with no supplies to do that sort of thing.

Example situation

Here is an example of how the character summary can be used:

“The soldiers keeping you captive are talking to each other in a foreign language.”

“Oh, Cedric understands that language. What are they talking about?”

“Hmm, I read over your summary and I didn’t see anything about that.”

“Well, he was a healer on the frontlines in the war with this place, a couple years ago. He helped some people who spoke this language, and he picked up a bit of it.”

“Well alright, that makes sense, and it goes along with the feeling of your character. Remember to write that down so we remember it next time. But I kind of had a thing planned. He doesn’t know much of it, right?”

“He’s not fluent or anything. Maybe he just understands bits and pieces.”

“Well okay, you hear something about the captain and the barracks, but you can’t make out anything else.”

More thoughts

Something important to note is how someone said they had an idea that might get ruined by Cedric knowing the language. It’s important to say why you might not want someone else’s character to do something. Figure out what’s important to the story.

After this exchange, Cedric’s player would add to the bottom of his character summary that he knows whatever language. Keep it around in case you need to reference it for something. Get more paper if you run out of room.

Some important things to add to your character summary might be:

Rolling dice, combat

Rolling dice in this game is only for things that either can’t be talked about or are actually truly random. I don’t like random RPG deaths. A hero who is randomly incapacitated because his numbers got too small is not an interesting story, and it’s not something that should happen in this game.

Combat

Combat happens by just describing what happens, back and forth. This means that it’s really boring to kill a lot of monsters for loot. I don’t see a problem with this. That sort of story is boring to me, even with dice rolling and rules.

There aren’t any fixed turns. There are no rules to prevent people from talking over each other and trying to win unfairly. I don’t want to tell a story with a group of children, so I’m not bothered by that.

Combat is ideally something like Luke and Vader’s fight in The Empire Strikes Back. It serves a narrative purpose, and they don’t just stand there hitting each other or using powers. Almost nothing that happened there can be explained with RPG combat rules.

Someone might not be able to understand why it would be more meaningful for their character to lose a fight. If you need rules to decide that sort of thing for you, I’m sure there are other RPG systems you already like.

When to actually roll dice

It really shouldn’t be necessary the vast majority of the time, but sometimes you want a random outcome to keep things surprising. An example might be to see if your character wins an arm wrestling match. In that case, each person representing a character rolls a die. The winner of the roll wins, whatever that means.

If someone is outmatched, really consider if it really needs to have a random outcome. It might be something that can logically conclude on its own and can be hand-waved away. If you want stacked odds though, have someone roll two dice instead of one.

If there’s a tie, interpret what that means and go from there. In the arm wrestling scenario, maybe they’re evenly matched, for now. They’d probably keep going, so you’d roll again.

The dice roll isn’t the focus, though. It should be 0.01% of what happens. Don’t just look at it and go, “Well, I guess I won that.” You need to describe stuff. You’re telling a story here.

You could also introduce random elements organically, if that would be fun. Maybe the person who came up with the story idea could write down some plot points on cards and shuffle them so that things happen unexpectedly. There aren’t any rules for this and I’m not focusing on it because I think that sort of thing is just a novelty. It might be fun once in a while, though.

Is that it?

There isn’t any experience, or leveling up. If you want your character to be better at something now, talk about it. Ideally you can get a sense of progression and accomplishment just from the story being told.

Equipment is implied. If Cedric is in a prison cell, I’m sure he doesn’t have the sword he was carrying. Maybe he has the knife in his boot, if they didn’t search him. If he’s out somewhere during the day, he probably has some medical stuff with him, since he’s a healer. If he needs to have enough money to buy a mysterious trinket at a shop stall, then he has enough money. Unless he doesn’t have enough money. Talk about it.

There are a lot of words here to explain a really simple idea. You shouldn’t have to look back and review anything.