Bite-Sized Adventures, Bots, and Solo Play
A few months ago, I was listening to an episode of Tips at the Table, the tabletop advice show from the cast of the actual play podcast Friends at the Table. One discussed topic was tabletop podcast episode length, and the hosts had a number of interesting things to say about it, but two things in particular struck me. One of them: the idea that the game they played would dictate ideal episode length (e.g. talking about how Powered by the Apocalypse games need a little bit longer in order to really let the “moves snowball” develop.) The other: an off-hand suggestion that you might create an actual play podcast with much shorter episodes by playing something like The Quiet Year, devoting a single episode (of maybe five minutes) to each individual turn.
This was a fascinating idea to me, and I immediately started wondering what other games might lend themselves to this kind of treatment. For a game to work when “broken apart” like this, I think it needs to have a relatively rigid turn structure: while I can imagine taking a game like Apocalypse World and cutting it into short chunks, you're going to run against the narrative flow of the game either for the listener (as the buildup of consequences from past actions is split across episodes) or, worse, for the player (as you artificially enforce an episodic structure during play that unnaturally interferes with the narrative flow from action to action.) Instead, you want a game that builds small episodes into play naturally, which probably means some kind of turn structure: The Quiet Year of course works here, but I can also imagine other games designed around “scenes” doing this well, including Fiasco and Microscope.
My other thought was: what would it be like to design a game with this cadence in mind? That is to say, how would you build a game from the ground up to facilitate short-episode storytelling?
This question dovetails nicely with some other recent thoughts. Like many people who have a tabletop hobby, I don't play nearly as often as I'd like, in part because of real-world schedules, making times when we're all free and ready to play relatively rare. We've tried addressing this by doing more online play, but because life is complicated and busy, even online play can have a surprising amount of slippage and skipped games, so I was thinking about games that can be easily played online via text, without having to coordinate specific session times. This isn't a new idea—for example, Vincent Baker's The Sundered Land: A Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future is a game designed for explicitly online play on a forum—but it was still one that was interesting to me.
The conjunction of these two ideas led me to sketch out some game design ideas: in particular, design ideas for a game which can be played in person or asynchronously via the internet, and either way will have a natural “short-episode” structure to the narrative flow of the game. I'm developing a more specific game that has these features which I won't get into here, but in broad strokes:
- The game should be asynchronous. Each player might in theory be participating in their “turn” at a different time of day when the other players are not present at all, and yet should still to be able to complete their “turn” in its entirety. That doesn't mean that you can't play synchronously, or that you can't include back-and-forth between players, just that the rules can't assume that all the players are present for a turn. (This rules our things like The Quiet Year's “Hold A Discussion” action, for example.) This restriction leads naturally to a few other restrictions. For one…
- The game should be GM-less, because each player needs to be able to engage with the rules on their own without (necessarily) waiting for another player's input. Any guidance that a GM would provide needs to be baked into the rules or mechanics in some way. Additionally, the asynchronous nature of the game means that…
- Each turn should be a satisfying narrative unit. A given turn should meaningfully advance the story in some way: it should be 'large enough' that interesting events can occur, complication can arise, narrative threads can finish and start, and generally each turn should on its own be interesting. Some games definitely have turns where you don't feel like you're making gambits or advancing plans, but rather treading water until you can: this design should as much as is possible advance the story even if some narrative threads aren't resolving yet. Finally, because of my own personal design-sensibilities, I resolved that it should have:
- The game should have separate by interacting resource economies for individuals and the whole group. The individual resource economy is so that each player can advance their own strategic, game-mechanical goals: perhaps cultivating more resources to be used later or making a decision to expend resources for some other purpose. Meanwhile, the shared resource economy should be present to provide a sense of not just narrative but mechanical cohesion to the players: you may be taking your turn in isolation (because maybe the other players aren't even present in the chat channel where you're taking your turn!) but that doesn't mean that your turn and story aren't tied in with the story of the rest of the group!
I made brief reference to a chat channel, because my mental image of how this would be played is that it would take place in something like a Discord channel. This would let the full history of the game be present in textual form to every player, allowing a player to go back and review the past events at any time, retracing the narrative of the game from the very beginning. Once you've committed to Discord (or something similar, like Slack or IRC or Matrix) then you also have a natural way to express and engage with the game's mechanical side: you can use a chatbot. You could in theory use a simple dice-rolling card-drawing bot, but if you don't mind the programming involved, why not got a step further and build a bot with in-built knowledge of all the mechanics of the game: a bot which can prompt players to take their turn and keep track of the state of the game resources and turn structure in addition to providing things like card draws?
At that point, what you'd have is a game whose rules, in addition to being able to be played in person around a traditional game table, could also be facilitated by something like a narrative-focused Pokécord, a (honestly very simple) digital GM that moves your game along in the background. Which I think could have some fascinating implementations!
Finally, while already considering these ideas, I happened across the Ironsworn RPG (specifically via Adam Koebel's First Look video and subsequent solo play videos), which is a game designed to flexibly accommodate GM-guided play, GM-less co-operative play, and solo play. One way it does this is by replacing aspects of the GM role with an “oracle”, a set of random tables and mechanics around when and how to use them, enabling narrative turns and complications even when no human is guiding them.
Which gave me yet another idea: what would a solo game using this bot-facilitated play look like, using the bot as “oracle” in this way? The way I imagine it, it might be something like a fusion of a game and a guided writing exercise, coming together as a facilitated fictional journal. To give an off-the-cuff example: imagine a game of this sort that depicts a nautical journey, moving from island to island. You could use specific commands to make mechanical choices: perhaps upgrading and repairing your ship, hiring crew, making rough navigational decisions. At the same time, the bot would ask for your input: when a new crew member appears, for example, the bot might use random tables to decide on some details, but ask you to supply the person's appearance, and give a short vignette of your first meeting with the crew-member. When you come to an island, it might tell you the lay of the land and the complication you experience there, but ask for your narrative input along the way.
If you abandoned my previous principle that these games should be playable on their own, you could start fusing them with the more complicated features of things like Twitter bots. Imagine, that the previous nautical-journey bot, for example, was also programmed with scenarios resembling the a strange journey Twitter bot, turning that set of fragments into a personalized story where your input shapes events mechanically, aesthetically, and narratively, but still spaced asynchronously over days, allowing you to return every once in a while to a story in progress to learn but also decide what happens next.
Would any of the ideas described above work well? What level of interaction and resource-manipulation would be appropriate for this kind of game? What are the best ways of incorporating the player's feedback into this kind of game while keeping it satisfying and interesting? Would these be fun to do, or would they devolve into a chore? I have no idea, but I think these ideas are promising enough to find out!