In a “traditional” RPG, there are several players and a game master (GM). In the game, each player controls the actions of a so-called player character (PC), who are the protagonists of an unfolding story, and the game master is responsible for the world and every other character. Each PC has a character sheet, where their skills and in general what they are capable and good at (or bad at) is detailed in terms of game-mechanics.
Within the traditional RPG there is a great variation. Some are quite simple, with the rules fitting into a few pages, and others are heavier on the rules front. Many many genres and settings are covered.
Then there are “indie” RPGs. I don’t like that term- there’s a confusion as to whether it’s used to denote something small-press and creator-owned or something with a certain philosophy of play that differs from the traditional. I’m using it in this post in the second sense (where there is a substantial overlap with the first, though there are many “traditional” RPGs that are also creator-owned). I’m using it because it’s probably the most commonly used term, and I don’t want to introduce more terminology, though Storygame seems to be reasonably popular, and Hippy Game, as used sometimes on UKRoleplayers, I quite like.
Indie RPGs move the focus away from the actions and abilities of the player characters to the story told as a group, to a greater or lesser extent. Some have players as well as the GM make contributions to the narrative rather than just PC actions. Character sheets can be simplified or even done away with entirely. Rules tend to be simple, but often a shared responsibility rather than adjudicated by the GM, who must abide by rules (possibly in a different form) just as much as the players. Some of them share GM responsibility, or do away with the GM entirely, with the rules structuring the story. Many Indie games are extremely focused on a specific type of story, with all of the rules going towards that.
I’m just describing what I see as trends in Indie RPGs here rather than trying to define anything- that’s a game I’m not going to go into. I’m also not going to go near the argument about whether or not some of them are RPGs- even if they’re not, according to whatever definition, they’re clearly closely related, and that’s enough for me. I should also comment that some traditional RPGs do take ideas from Indie RPGs and incorporate them into that framework. It’s not two camps, it’s a spectrum, and I’m most comfortable somewhere in the middle part of the spectrum in most of the RPGs I play, though there are always exceptions.
I mention all this as Josh Jordan has kindly given me an electronic copy of his RPG, Heroine, for review purposes. It’s Indie and it’s rather good, and I thought I’d give some context first.
So what’s it about? Well, there’s a number of pieces of fiction out there that involves a girl growing up who is somehow transported to another world, where she undergoes various heroic experiences in that world, before returning to the real world having learned something about herself, and maybe gaining a more mature perspective. Examples are of course The Wizard of Oz, but also Alice in Wonderland, Coraline, Labyrinth and Mirrormask.
That’s the set-up for the Heroine RPG– a Heroine begins with real life problems in the real world, before being transported, having adventures, facing an antagonist, and returning to the real world having grown more mature and able to cope with a real life obstacle. This is a single story, designed to play out in one game session, with a structure encoded by the game’s rules.
Amongst the players, one plays the Heroine herself, who is undeniably the central player in the narrative, but to a great extent is reacting against what the other players do. Another is the Narrator (basically, the GM). The others play Companions- people accompanying the Heroine in the otherworld. The game is divided into chapters, each of which ends in a central Challenge, which is described mechanically in terms of various “moves” the GM is allowed. The Companion players can simplify or complicate the challenge. The heroine is allowed various moves to respond to the Challenge. These Heroine moves are Be Heroic which means the heroine will behave admirably, but may or may not triumph, Be Successful, which means the heroine succeeds in the challenge, but might not come across very well, or Take a Chance which means the heroine either succeeds and looks brilliant, or fails and looks foolish, with slightly greater odds of the positive outcome than the other two moves.
That’s basically it. There are Drama Points for the Companion and Narrator players, which are needed for certain actions. One of these actions lets a Companion player take over as Narrator, with the Narrator playing a Companion. There are no character sheets- everything is described by the narration and decided by the various moves. You could easily play this with little or no preparation time, even as the Narrator.
By now, you probably know whether the game is for you or not. It’s an easy and clear read, being about sixty pages long, with separate chapters for the Heroine, Narrator and Companion players. It looks delightful, with a nice page background, crisp font, and art in the form of well-done photographs of models in costumes. The PDF is nicely hyperlinked. There’s no index, but it hardly seems needed. There are nice charts summarising the structure at the end. I like it a lot, and I look forward to trying it out in play with the right group.