Standoff (Matthew R.F. Balousek) is a Back Garden entry in the 2016 Spring Thing. It is ‘interactive fiction’ only in the broadest possible sense; more usefully, it’s a storygame tabletop RPG. (It is very cool to see this kind of thing appearing in the event.)
I’m going to be reviewing this without playing it. On the one hand, that’s kind of an awkward thing to do; you can’t fully understand a storygame without trying it in the wild. But there’s a very real issue here: it takes a certain amount of effort to get a storygame going. Someone needs to read the rules, and then a group of players need to be assembled and motivated to commit several hours and not-inconsiderable mental efforts into making the thing happen – and motivated to play this game, rather than one of their old favourites. Your audience needs to be excited about your game before they play it. Word-of-mouth is useful here, but that comes later. First and foremost, you need to write something that leaves the reader impatient to play. I didn’t get this from Standoff.
Storygames aren’t all scrappy, amateurish outsiders; they include exhaustively-researched, glossy books running to hundreds of pages. But a lot of them are the RPG equivalent of zines: they’re circulated as beaten-up, sometimes-anonymous free PDFs, self-printed booklets, postcards. I’ve joked before that the ultimate storygame is a mostly-blank notebook, the entire text of which reads ‘You’ve played Let’s Pretend, right? Figure it out, asshole.’
Standoff is by no means among the most minimalist storygames, but it’s on the light side: it boils down to about four widely-spaced pages of rules (about eight hundred words if you don’t count the intro bumf) with no credited testers. Games like this tend to rely on an audience that’s already familiar with storygames, and doesn’t really need an extensive primer on, say, how a scene works, or how and why to negotiate tone.
It sketches out a familiar narrative outline: a heroic protagonist, with dramatic strengths and flaws, must foil the evil plans of a Big Bad. Players don’t have individual responsibility for player-characters of their own; everyone builds on the same story.
Brevity is a virtue, but to my tastes Standoff feels a little underbaked. This is the final sentence of the game:
When there are no more minions, the final battle with the protagonist can begin. Good luck!
How does the final battle work? …the same as the rest of the game, probably. Can the protagonist lose before the final battle? …sure, I guess? What about minions? Well, the Big Bad has some, and there’s a paragraph dedicated to explaining how an eliminated minion isn’t automatically dead, but the only other piece of information about them is this:
To further their dark plans and oppose the protagonist, the antagonist has minions at their disposal, but we’ll figure these out as we go.
So I feel as though the game is a little overfocused on describing the narrative principles of a very familiar narrative form, and a little underfocused on expressing those principles through rules and procedures. Which is OK if that’s your jam; my personal feeling is that at this point you might as well tell collaborative stories completely freeform, but plenty of trad-RPG people probably feel that about storygames in general, so whatever.
The big mechanical concept that Standoff relies on is reversals:
When two characters are in conflict, however, every action should in some way reverse, undo, or mitigate the other character’s action.
(Which is presumably going to come up rather a lot, because the story structure is explicitly about the conflict between the protagonist, the villain and the villain’s proxies.)
This is a variant of the “yes, and” technique, very common in storygames. Polaris, in particular, makes a powerful and deft use of the approach, turning every conflict into an escalating dark bargain (its variant is “but only if…”) So the reversal is a solid technique, but it’s one that’s of considerable vintage; nothing to get too excited about. And the way it’s resolved – “when nobody has any more ideas” intuitively strikes me as a bit of a cop-out.
Partly this is a matter of taste, a question of exactly how freeform you want your RPGs to be. To me Standoff feels as though it’s so freeform that – OK, it’s not quite figure it out, asshole. But it offers very little structure that you wouldn’t immediately get from getting a bunch of moderately experienced storygamers together and asking them to tell a story together; and it doesn’t have a Cool Thing going for it, a core element that makes me excited at the prospect of playing the game.
When I talk about a Cool Thing in a storygame, it’s often about the interconnection of theme and mechanics. Fiasco is a game about ill-considered schemes going awry and causing personal damage, and the epilogue procedure is a powerful way of sketching out the grand extent of that damage. Shooting the Moon is a game about a Beloved choosing between two suitors, and the character-creation process ensures that the suitors will be reflections (and inversions) of the Beloved’s own strengths. Monsterhearts is a game about immature, fucked-up relationships, and its Moves are all calculated to frame interpersonal actions in a toxic, adversarial way.
Sometimes, the Cool Thing is more about content. Temporally Excellent Adventures is basically Bill & Ted, The Storygame: it doesn’t aspire to mechanical greatness, but it knows the kind of story it wants to tell and has procedures that support it. I don’t look at TES as a system likely to mechanically encourage moments of narrative brilliance, but I think it’s likely to offer support for fun silliness in an under-explored idiom, so what the heck. The hook relies on new territory: I hadn’t played a Bill & Ted-like game before. If I’d thought of it I could probably have played it in a generalist system, but since someone made a game specifically for it, I might as well try that one. At the other end of the scale, Night Witches is a solidly-designed game with a number of mechanical Cool Things, but its biggest hook is its very specific setting and themes.
And in content/theme terms, Standoff doesn’t have enough going for it. Its narrative hook is ‘the hero in conflict with the villain’, which is too broad and too commonplace to be exciting. I think it needs to figure out what its Cool Thing is and put more emphasis on it. Certain things in the text suggest that it’s intended as a series of escalating boss-fights, possibly involving ever-increasing levels of ridiculousness – but if that’s the case, it could stand to be a little clearer about it, and to do more things to support that.
The most energy in the piece appears before the rules, in the opening example. This is the place where I most felt the author had a strong idea about what kind of experience he wanted to support. I want to see more of that enthusiasm reflected in the rest of the text! I want to see design that feels excited and exciting. I want the feeling you get when Vincent Baker describes the Dogs’ coats.