Against Progress: Minimalist RPGs and the Big Picture.

In the last few years a number of minimalist systems have cropped up, and I’m a fan of many of them: The Black Hack, The White Hack, Macchiato Monsters and Index Card Roleplaying Game have a special place in my cynical gamer’s heart. There are many benefits to such systems – ease of play, quick to teach, affordability. However, there’s one argument that is routinely levelled against them: they are unsuitable for long-term play. It’s as though their simplicity conceals a time bomb that detonates after every one-shot. This argument makes assumptions about play, progress and player satisfaction that need to be challenged.

As much as I love the inherent crunch and complexity of Burning Wheel, Torchbearer, or God help me, Rolemaster, I’m getting older and my spare time is increasingly precious. My willingness to invest in comprehensive systems dwindles with every passing year, and so, I find myself drifting toward minimalist systems – which many believe take us back to the first strands of our hobby’s DNA – simple games like 0e D&D or Tunnels & Trolls.

Long-term play tends to focus on player character progression. Post 3e D&D and Pathfinder have trained us, perhaps addicted us, to the idea that without rewards for progress there is no progress. We seek to unlock our next toy, or feat, or power to prevent boredom and prove that we haven’t wasted our lives.

But there’s another version of progress that considers overcoming challenges by ingenuity, pressing our luck, or surviving unbalanced encounters a higher form of reward. This principle of player skill is one of the central tenants of the now well-established OSR movement. Playing an “always outnumbered, always outgunned” game is deeply rewarding because the stakes are so high, and as many OSR players will tell you, the answer to the problem isn’t on your character sheet. In my experience, progress measured in war stories instead of new toys makes a lasting impact on player satisfaction – it’s no limit hold ‘em every game. It’s an old point of view, but there are some new tricks that can be added that and make long-term play even more viable and dynamic: a living world, and co-created house rules.

A minimalist game can thrive over the long-term if the game world feels alive with constantly shifting threats, stakes and subplots. Powered by the Apocalypse Games approach to Fronts has created a mechanism for creating this kind of friction. The characters, and by extension the players, remain engaged over the long-term because the world becomes its own source of novelty – it’s always changing, there’s always a new threat, and there’s always something at stake. When you take a simple system like Knave, and add Fronts you enlarge the creative canvas significantly, and create more reasons to stay invested.

By their very nature, minimalist games beg for house rules – how many other things can the central mechanic accomplish? When does it break? The OSR and Knave Discord channels are bursting with this kind of ingenuity, as is the Index Card Roleplaying Game forum. I encourage gamemasters to harness this energy at the table. If you can resist the urge to overwhelm the minimalist charm that led you to these games in the first place, you can extend their lifespan by allowing the players to co-write new house rules. Now they’re not just playing a game, they’re helping build one. This creates co-ownership which fosters longevity.

Of course, these ideas can extend to more complex systems too, but to suggest that minimalist games lack the opportunity to foster long-term play means you’re focusing on the page count when you should be looking at the big picture.