The theme this week is Success and Failure. These three games have mechanics for determining whether a player succeeds or fails, but unlike a traditional RPG, the mechanic isn’t used to fairly or accurately simulate any kind of action. It’s designed instead to accomplish the unique goals of the game–to introduce competition, hard choices, or tension into the game.
Interestingly, all of these games restrict their resolution mechanics to the players. In each case, the GM doesn’t have to try to hurt or kill a character–the GM introduces something that will hurt or kill a character unless the character’s actions prevent it. This delineates roles pretty clearly between GM and player: the GM’s job is to come up with problems. The player’s job is to come up with solutions. The GM’s rules help them tell whatever story they want, and the player’s rules help them tell a story specific to their character.
5.) Great Ork Gods (Introduced 2004)
Great Ork Gods is a bloodsoaked horse race between orkish warriors. Players play orks who are good at some things and bad at others, and partially their success or failure is based on those skills. But there’s more to it than that; in this game, screwing your friends over is baked into every level of the mechanics.
At the beginning of the game each player picks an Ork God from a selection on the table. Each Hod has a very particular sphere of influence–stealth, technology, killing, not dying, etc. Now, this God is emphatically not the player’s character. The player doesn’t roleplay the god in any meaningful sense. They’re all playing an ork —more accurately, they’re playing a rotating selection of orks as each is burned, bashed, and broken under the wheels of treachery. Because whenever an ork tries to do something–sneak, operate a catapult, not die, etc–it’s the player with the relevant Ork God who decides how hard it will be.
In most games, without some clever balancing mechanic, this would overwhelmingly tip things towards player success. But Great Ork Gods doesn’t risk that. It actually has to incentivize being lenient by awarding resources for doing so, because the game is structured–loose scorekeeping and all–as an outright contest between the orks involved. The game tends to have a pleasingly chaotic Mario Kart structure where characters are given easier difficulties to get ahead early on, harder difficulties once they approach the middle of the pack, and uniformly hard difficulties–plus extra bogeys in the form of something called Hate Points–once they’re the clear leader.
From a modern perspective, it’s interesting how GOG very nearly–but doesn’t quite–phase out the GM. As written, the GM’s job is to be the one jogging the players along. You throw in threats, you narrate goofy consequences, you award points–you’re the ringmaster, but you’re not really needed. You can clearly envision a version of this game where all of these responsibilities are spread out among the players. Now that games with no Game Masters are much more common, one wonders what GOG would be like if it were designed today.
6.) Apocalypse World (Introduced 2010)
Apocalypse World and its Powered by the Apocalypse derivations are something I’m particularly fascinated with. It’s a very rare bird, a story game explicitly built for campaign play–playing AW for only one session is fun, but it feels like a waste, something the designers clearly intended.
Games built for campaign play have traditionally sought greater mechanical depth–they know a lot of things can and will happen in a campaign, so they take the natural and traditional step, which is attempt to make rules that accurately and fairly govern as many of those things as possible. A DM with mastery of the Dungeons and Dragons 3E core rulebooks can authoritatively resolve busking, crafting magical items, wrestling four-legged creatures, shooting from horseback, and breaking through a stone door with a hammer, all without the slightest improvisation or ad hoc messiness–if players feel something is too difficult or too easy, the DM can calmly point to the rule that ensures it is so. Er…once they find it.
Continue reading »
Rutskarn is a writer, author, wordsmith, text producer, article deviser, prose architect, and accredited language-talker. If you enjoy his contributions to this site you could always back his Patreon.