200 Word RPG Challenge 2017: the Weird and Wonderful

The 200 Word RPG Challenge has just completed its third year and was larger than ever with close to 700 games entered. Industry professionals, casual hobbyists, and budding newcomers alike produced an amazing amount of content, all available for free online. The competition (run by David Shirduan and Marshall Miller) closed about three weeks ago, and the shortlisted finalists and eventual winners (chosen by a fleet of respected judges) have been announced since then.

I’ve reviewed all of the games over on my blog starting here, and I’ll be running through my favourites soon, but today I want to point out a few of the more bizarre entries. The weird and wonderful games that used creative and unusual tools to help tell their stories. Not all of them were great games, but they were certainly memorable and I admire them for trying something out of left field.

They certainly inspired me. Maybe they’ll offer some inspiration for you, too.

Operation: Doomed and Arm Wrestling RPG

Though there were many, many games using dice, most of them were fairly standard “roll, apply mod, beat target” sorts of games (the bread and butter of tabletop roleplaying). However, two games took those dice and did something different with them. Operation: Doomed is a horror game of hunters becoming the hunted where you stack dice in a tower in the centre of the table. Every time you attempt a difficult task you’ll need to add between one and three dice to the tower. When the tower eventually falls, you roll all dice that toppled and consult a chart to discover what horrible event has happened to you. Though it has parallels with the Jenga tower in Dread, it is unique enough to stand alone.

Arm Wrestling RPG chose another route, giving dice mechanics a literal twist. Like some games, your attributes in this game are based on dice steps, with a d8 being better than a d6, and a d10 being better again. In all, you’ll have to apply one of each of the standard six polyhedrals to your six stats, and about that time you’ll think you know what will happen with those dice; you’ll be expected to roll high. In actual fact, you won’t be rolling at all, nor will you care about the numbers on them. In this game you’ll spin your die while your opponent spins theirs, with the die that spins longest winning the contest.

It’s a wonderful idea and adds a dexterity component to a game which is all about physicality. But another game takes physicality to an all-new level…

Might Makes Right: Muscle Marines in Space

This game is all about meat-headed beefcakes playing up to every macho jock stereotype in the book, and the system reflects that in style. To overcome obstacles you’ll have to arm-wrestle the GM (or Muscle Master, to use the game term) and if your character would suffer injury you have to perform a number of push ups in accordance with the severity of the injury. Fail to complete them all and die.

This means that your game is more like a communal work-out, and your GM is more like a storytelling personal trainer, which is an awesome way to make exercise fun. Added to that is the fact that the game setting is an absolute hoot, full of self-aware machismo and the inevitable Arnie impressions.

Might Makes Right: Muscle Marines in Space was shortlisted by the judges, and I ranked it quite highly, too. However, if something less strenuous is more your pace you might want to go for a walk…

A 5-day Walkathon

Many companies or groups employ walking contests, with a prize given to whoever achieves the most steps over a period of time, helped by the use of pedometers. This game uses a similar principle but adds a cunning auction game to it. Effectively, you can use your steps as currency on auctions for “canes” at the end of each day. These canes are worth varying amounts of points, and at the end of five days all of the points are tallied and a winner is announced.

This means you can save your steps over a few days to bid for more valuable canes, or take advantage of the low bids on lesser canes to snatch a bargain. It’s a simple concept easily explained and understood, but it offers room for a depth of tactics. It also is an easy concept to expand upon, with more and different canes offered on different days, or the contest being run over weeks or months.

It does have a few flaws. The steampunk storytelling of the game’s setting is ultimately discardable, and you’ll certainly want to adapt the auction specifics. But the basic gambling game at heart here is an excellent idea, and makes pedometer walking contests something you’ll actually be excited about.

Sonnet 155: A Murder Most Foul and Laughter or a Lit Flame: A Hack of Renga

Actually one of the big trends this year is the use of colons. Have a look at those two names, for goodness sake! This is a 200 word challenge; might be a good idea to employ some brevity.

But it at least shows a love of words, and there was a whole subgenre of games devoted to collaborative or even solo writing, many of which included the use of poetry. By far the more popular form to use was haiku, but only Laughter or a Lit Flame included waki as well (thus the use of renga in the subtitle). I overall preferred the BINGO-esque haiku system in mecha game Chromed Poets, but what made Laughter or a Lit Flame stand out was that the rules were presented in the renga style.

Another poetry game to present itself in accordance with its own literary rules was Sonnet 155: A Murder Most Foul, using the titular format. This Shakespearean drama has more focus than its renga cousin, perfectly suiting expectations with its themes. Another game with excellent poetry was FAERY QVEST, though the mechanics were to do with tarot cards (a common tool in these kinds of competitions, though rarely used well). And though these weren’t necessarily the best games of their types, they were certainly presented extremely well and are charming to read. One can’t help but admire them.

Love Is Pain, Dearest

In this romantic drama for three players, each participant will have a glass of water in front of them. During the course of the game, players drop food colouring into the various glasses and progress the story through the colour’s meaning. Yes, we’re swapping dice for dyes (ha!)

It’s a gloriously symbolic way to tell a story, with a red glass of Passion only a few argumentative blue drops away from purple Heartbreak, or a few yellow from orange Betrayal. Of course, too much drama can quickly lead to an ominous and dirty black, resulting in death or worse.

Love Is Pain, Dearest is not only a good idea, but well presented, and a lot of depth is delivered within its limited word count. Not only original and interesting, it shows a great deal of professionalism behind it. When you’re looking for the more creative ideas in the challenge, this is in a class of its own.

Doused Flames of Magic: Matchsticks of Power

There were a lot of games where candles were involved, and the most interesting were when you used them to burn pieces of paper (more on those another time). However, few games focused much on lighting the candles. Enter Doused Flames of Magic, which has the players taking the role of wizards trapped in an Inquisitor’s dungeon with only a spellbook of matches to help them.

Every time you wish to cast a spell you must strike a match. If it lights on the first strike your magic succeeds; otherwise the magic goes haywire.

It’s a great idea in theory, until you start to get tired of the horrible smell of burning so many matches. As an idea, I adore it, and maybe if it were limited to a smaller role I would love it (such as introducing it as a subsystem for one of the candle games). Nevertheless, it is indeed an entertaining and creative idea.

Trapped in Deep 17

Collaborative starship bridge simulators are always going to get a look-in on one of these competitions because most gamers will agree that Star Trek is at least a little bit awesome, so why the hell not. Some of them were quite good, usually about allocating resources and pooling efforts, but few had a lasting impact and most were pretty dry. Ironically, the best starship bridge game wasn’t set in space but underwater and was far from dry.

Trapped in Deep 17 uses two unique elements found nowhere else in this competition, which is a delight in itself. The first is a jigsaw representing their underwater vessel, which several players will be furiously attempting to solve, each limited in their own way. The second is a set of film canisters, each half filled with a volatile mixture of water and Alka Seltzer and able to explode at any time. If canisters explode and hit a player, their character is killed as a rivet shoots across the vessel due to the terrible pressure and someone else has to step into their place.

Despite the silliness, the designers are responsible and eye protection is required by rule, but that doesn’t diminish the hilarity of this whole crazy situation. It’s very likeable.

StarFry Adventures

A few games used what I call a blind draw or lottery mechanic; reach into a bag, pull out a thing, narrate result. Some were better than others, and a few are very good indeed. Some even used edible components, and the game that did it with the most panache was StarFry Adventures.

Players are employees of a galactic fast food franchise, which is a fun pitch of itself, and the game rules are presented as a letter to new employees; wonderful! The blind draw at the centre of this uses french fries, comparing the length of your fry against your opponent. It’s basically drawing straws with chips, which is perfectly thematic.

I adore games with edible components and there were a few in the competition that may have been better, but StarFry Adventures is probably the most fun to read.

Whip

There were quite a few flirtatious games in the contest, and even a few intimate ones for lovers. But Whip is on another level, and it’s nice to see the kink community represented in the field; after all, adult roleplaying has a lot of different masks.

Players in this game take the roles of two people in an argument and they occasionally have to be subject to actual physical pain (“smacks, shocks, riding crops” are given examples.) It’s certainly a game for a specific audience, but I’m glad to see that the market is being represented. It is especially nice that it is tacitly expected that players will be safe, sane and consensual without having to lecture about it.

All that being said, I don’t think that Whip is an outstanding fetish game and much more could be done to develop the principle here. But a lot of that has to do with personal taste and boundaries, of course, and your results may certainly vary.

Space Travel with Babies

Finally, we have a game which I consider a nightmare simulator where you are trapped in a spaceship full of babies. Actual babies. It’s just like a bunch of people with babies lock themselves in a house together and pretend that they’re locked in a spaceship instead. That’s the game.

The babies play themselves and everything in relation to them is considered in character, which is basically the core mechanic along with prompts to make up the background of your family’s planet or culture. Maybe if you are part of a group of gamers who’ve all got babies you may find this interesting, but I’m afraid that I’ve never been particularly clucky.

But it goes to show that this contest had something for everyone, no matter how odd or unusual.

 

I’ll be talking more about the 200 Word RPG Challenge. Next time I’ll be discussing my personal favourites, including my top three.

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