A roleplaying game about ghosts, in just 150 words

unfinished

I never loved pen and paper games like Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. That kind of play felt like it took everything I liked about fantasy and pretend—being a character, drama and romance, surprises!—and turned it into a spreadsheet that chased friends away. But there are all kinds of ways to roleplay today, and some might surprise you.

Stew Wilson has just released Unfinished, a ruleset that's just 150 words long. You and your friends play spirits of the dead, each with something holding you back from crossing over. With a brief, structured question and answer set and a single die, you discover and resolve your unfinished business. That's it.

I love indie roleplaying games and the ways they experiment with what we can expect from that experience. My friend Avery McDaldno's beloved game Monsterhearts imagines each player as a high schooler haunted by some supernatural status -- where that status is a metaphor for the extraordinary pains and appetites of our teen years. There is (pretend) sex involved (read here about when I played it with friends). Another of her works, The Quiet Year, gently led me and a friend to build an entire people's mythology around a map we drew by hand.

The wonderful Elizabeth Sampat makes games with unusual themes—they're exciting ideas, like playing spies who've been blacklisted or fallen angels deciding the fate of humankind, but they often serve as vehicles for emotional experiences. Both Sampat and McDaldno's works actively look for ways to help players challenge staid gender and sexuality stereotypes—which tend to go unchallenged in traditional commercial fantasy realms— and to include and care for others at the table.

Of course, things don't always have to be deep or dark: Here is a free PDF roleplaying game about Sheryl Crow.

It's true that tabletop games with few, loose rules are sometimes as challenging to organize as folders full of character sheets and stat tables. You might need someone who intrinsically understands the rhythm of more formal games to DM, or run, these less formal experiences, or at least you need to be willing to study and decide on house rules when an element isn't as defined as you're used to. You also need a group of people who generally like to perform and pretend, who are willing to express themselves in sometimes intimate ways, and who are comfortable improvising (and then you need them all to come to the same place and sit for a session, which any roleplayer knows can be tough enough).

So it's not like there are no barriers to entry for nontraditional indie RPGs. But they're worth exploring if you're a playful story-loving sort, and they can be sneaky ways to get your Kobold-averse friends to understand a bit better what you like about tabletop RPGs.

Stew Wilson's Unfinished is available online to download and print for the suggested price of $1 or pay-what-you-want.

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