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MECHANICAL ORYX wins 2017’s 200 word RPG contest

The 200 word RPG contest is a cracking yearly challenge, run by the selfless David Schirduan, in which – well – entrants must write an entire roleplaying game using 200 words or fewer. Seeing as I write one-page RPGs quite literally for a living, I felt like it wouldn’t be fair for me to enter, and that I should make room for new and upcoming authors in the industry to showcase their work.

Then I went on holiday and wrote MECHANICAL ORYX while everyone else was at the beach because I’m a big saddo that hates fun, and it turned out pretty good, so I went ahead and submitted it – and it won, which is nice! The other two winners (there’s no “first prize” as such, but instead three joint top entries) are both rather serious and, to be honest, fairly moving art pieces about soldiering in modern Afghanistan and the onset of dementia while you’re abandoned by your family, neither of which are a fun time to spend an evening but both of which are fascinating topics to write a game about.

You can see MECHANICAL ORYX and all the other entries on the 200w RPG official website. Alternatively, because it’s only 200 words, I’ve reproduced it below:

You have many whirring eyes and strong, beautiful coiled-steel legs and were made long ago when the cities still stood.

You spread one: plants, light, music, warmth, power, knowledge, rust, something else. The longer you stay in one place, the more intense it gets. You have three installed modules; tell us what they do.

You walk the green places where soft brown people tend to fruit-trees and sing songs they don’t understand.


When you act and the outcome is in doubt, roll 2D6 and spend fuel; if you get seven or more, you achieve your aims. If you roll a double, your solution causes an unexpected problem and something is lost forever.

When you act with love, roll 1D4+1D6. When you act with hate, roll 3D6.

You have 10 fuel. When you have none, you stop.

When you use a module, replace one D6 with a D8; if it shows 8, the module breaks.

Happy people build shrines for you containing fuel and modules. Without the shrines, you will become a dangerous, scavenging thief: a phantom.

I’m really happy with how it turned out (and I liked the other finalists too, especially Five Cards) but something that strikes me – with my game, and with the others as well – is that these games aren’t generally the sort of thing that you’d play on a given evening if something was available. I think that, in the same way as Game Chef or Threeforged, RPG design contests with such tight constraints produce and celebrate pieces of art, rather than pieces of craft – games that do something interesting and curious rather than the sort of thing that’ll keep you coming back for more and more. I’d go for playing D&D over pretty much any 200w RPG you care to mention, and I reckon that most other people would say the same.

Which is fine, of course. We don’t need another Dungeons and Dragons (despite what many, many fantasy heartbreaker authors seem to think) but as an art form we can always do with more people pushing the envelope and seeing what games can do. I suppose, given the presentation, is that these games primarily exist as texts rather than experiences, in that they’re imagined and extrapolated upon rather than played. (Which is why my game did well, I think: the worldbuilding is there, but just enough to get you to start asking questions about why on earth robot antelopes are helping people to grow fruit in, what, a post-apocalyptic setting?)

Anyway. If you play Mechanical Oryx, let me know, yeah? I’m curious to see if it actually works.

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BIG GAY ORCS is April’s free 1-page RPG

After the success of Honey Heist, it was always going to be a difficult act to follow, but I’m pretty happy with Big Gay Orcs – or A Thousand Orchid Blossoms, to use its alternative title. I’ve wanted to write more games about romance and human interaction for a while, and I feel like wrapping the fiction of orcs who are about to die around that makes it distant enough from real life for me to get over the uncomfortable sensation of talking about love and kissing with my friends.

(That’s interesting in and of itself – we’re generally pretty fine discussing blood and guts, and horrendous body horror and mind-warping terror, but the moment snogging comes up everyone gets uncomfortable. Why is that? I think there’s a blog post about that in future.)

You can download it for free from our store, and a couple of kind reddit users (namely Frieth and s_mcc) have written it out as text files if squinting at a .jpeg isn’t your thing – here’s one and here’s another.

If you like my one-page games and want to contribute to my Patreon, gee, that’d be just super. Backers at $15 and up get access to The Back Pages, which have exclusive, not-released-online content sent to them in the mail. So that’s nice.

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5 challenges to set yourself as a GM

When you end up running games a lot, like I do, you can often end up in a rut – the same characters, the same scenarios, the same challenges, week after week. If you’ve been gamesmastering for a while and fancy a change, I came up with five challenges for you to take on to keep your hand in, and probably have more fun yourself in the process. I reckon you can do all of them in one session, too. Maybe even your next session, if you’re feeling brave.

ONE: Stop using accents, start using mannerisms.

I used to use accents a lot when I was voicing non-player characters. Like, a lot a lot. But the problem with those accents is that they weren’t very good, quite aside from being so bad that I probably wouldn’t dare to use them in front of someone who came from the country I was aiming for, they reduced the characters to cut-out stereotypes instead of… well, characters.

So last year I set myself a challenge to stop using accents completely and instead focus on mannerisms, posture, vocal tics and repeated turns of phrase. Where before I would have made a blacksmith northern and slapped on my best Sean Bean impression then carry on, now I had to think about what sort of voice he had. Was it gruff? Was he tired, after a long day in the forge? How old was he? How would he stand – broad-shouldered and proud, or hunched over with back pain? Was he confident, or unsure about dealing with the characters?

Just taking a few seconds to “find” a character’s voice and settle into it can make them a lot more fun to play than channelling a bad accent you already know. (Plus, it’s 100% less racist!)

TWO: Have your NPCs lie.

I never remember to do this – somewhere along the line I developed a routine in my head that says “NPCs can’t lie to the players,” and instead of having duplicitous bastards I have open, honest bastards who lay out precisely what they’re going to do to you instead of being sneaky and fibbing about it.

And yet: there is a sharp and fascinating sensation to being betrayed, because you put some of your trust in with the NPC and they used that trust as a weapon against you. So to make a more exciting game, have an NPC betray the players. Which means you have to have an NPC be nice to the players first, or at least give them something they want, even if that’s an excuse to show off their heroics.

Now the best part about this is that, because this is an improvised story that you and the players are telling, you don’t need to plan out these betrayals far in advance. You can just decide that an NPC was lying, and work out the motivations later – remember, nothing’s true until you say it is. (Even better, if your NPC gets confronted by the players and you’re not sure of their motivations, turn it around on them. “Well – why do YOU think that I lied?” Then just go with the second thing they say.)

THREE: Give up your NPCs to the players.

If you’ve got a scene with more than one NPC in it, ask if any of the players want to take on the role of the other NPC. And, similarly, if you’ve got a scene with only one PC in it, maybe give out NPCs to every other player.

You don’t have to hand over their reins of your longest-running, preciousest NPCs to the players, but if they’re just going to sit there and watch (or, more likely, get bored and zone out) while you talk to yourself in character… well, it doesn’t hurt to give them something to do.

If you or the player is worried about messing up the narrative of the game or saying something that doesn’t gel with the reality of the world, then a) don’t worry so much about that and b) you can always give them the role of an idiot who doesn’t know anything, or a boastful character who’s talking themselves up and is economical with the truth.

FOUR: Be open with your players.

There’s a strange idea in roleplaying circles that the GM and the PCs are opposing each other, and while I can certainly see why this would rise out of traditional roleplaying philosophies, there’s no need to carry it on into the present day. A lot of GMs complain when the player characters can’t be persuaded to stick with the plot – and a lot of player complain when they’re “railroaded” or forced into a particular set of events no matter what actions they take.

A lot of this comes from miscommunication, and the idea that players have to be tricked into following the plot as though their characters had free will. Next time, before you start a session proper, discuss what you’ve got planned out-of-character with your group. You don’t have to go into great detail and ruin all your surprises, but if you can say “Hey guys, I had a fun idea for a zombie horror story tonight, you all up for that?” then you’re briefing the players on what’s going to happen – and they can steer their characters appropriately.

FIVE: Just have everything work.

There’s a rule in improv that goes like this: Everything Works. If, for example, the story you’re telling is about going to the park, then it’s no fun to watch someone lose their car keys, so they can’t start the car… and then find them, but for the car to be broken, so they need to call a mechanic… but then the mechanic’s late, and so on and so forth. What we want is to see what happens in the park, and by introducing arbitrary problems, the actors are indicating that they’re nervous about pushing the scene forward.

Now, almost all of roleplaying is arbitrary problems, and our characters are ways to overcome those problems. But, next time you sit down to play, try this: things just work. Thieves can pick locks. Warriors can kick down doors. Scientists can identify compounds. Spaceship captains can get through asteroid fields with nary a scratch.

Because, and here’s the thing – interesting stuff happens when people interact with each other. (Even if it’s just fighting.) But if we make players roll to see if they can get to the interesting stuff, what’s the point in that? So power through, and see what happens.