What gives a roleplaying game “staying power”?

Apparently August is the annual RPG-a-Day month, where bloggers post their thoughts about a specifice tabletop roleplaying each day, a different question/prompt every day. Of course I’m only finding out that this is a thing at the END of August…but hey, at least I found it.

The Geeklife Balance blog had a great, brief response to one of the more interesting prompts. Interesting to me, anyway, because I’m trying to build my own game.

What gives a game ‘staying power’?

Short Answer: Flexibility and timelessness.

Long Answer: If you want a game to last the long haul, it helps to not tie it to a specific event. Especially one within living memory. For example, an RPG based around the 2008 American election might be interesting to some. But, how many campaigns could you run before it became stale and repetitive?

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t design a game around an event or period of time. There are plenty of games that prove these can work in the long-term. The trick is to find a way to broaden the setting enough to give some variety, while still retaining its core.

An excellent example of this is D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. The game is set during a very specific point of American history, but is open enough to allow some freedom. Baker also included suggestions for using the rules for games in different settings. Need a break from judging guilt in Deseret? Pit your players against mob bosses in Chicago instead.

Dogs in the Vineyard is a game I’ve read, but never played — a situation I’d love to remedy sometime. It’s a very interesting premise with some very interesting mechanics.

The “broaden the setting” advice is a bit of a conundrum when it comes to the Old West. It was a relatively brief period of time during which technology and social change moved rapidly. In 30 short years, we go from the end of the Civil War to the prelude to World War I and the end of the “wild west.” From virtually trackless wilderness to transcontinental railroad to the incipient invention of the horseless carriage. From muskets to manual repeaters to semiautomatic firearms.

Many game systems that have a Western setting do it by going “weird west.” Steampunk. Fractured planes of existence letting magic into the world. Zombies. Alternate history that gives a (usually flimsy) rationale for freezing technology and society in place.

I don’t want to do any of those things. Maybe when the game system is finished and released, if people want more, I could develop some of those aspects for people who wanted to add them to the core rules. But really, I don’t think any of that is necessary.

How can there not be scope for endless variety in the Old West? If you don’t want to play a horse opera, set your game in the city. Tired of playing cowboys and Indians? They weren’t the only game in town. Push a railroad through to a new market, run a racket in San Francisco (or bust one), explore the beginnings of Chinatown…whatever.

The key, I think, is making the game system flexible enough and robust enough to handle all those things. Which was my idea all along, anyway — FAR stands for Flexible Action Roleplaying. It’s baked into the concept.

The real trick, though, is that I have neither the resources nor the desire to make the FAR System and FAR Western into something as massively simulationist as GURPs, and the last thing I want is a Pathfinder-style morass of minutiae. I need to find a way to occupy the middle ground between simulationist and minimal/streamlined, and it’s not as easy as I imagined.

But I have some ideas… We’ll see how this goes.

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