These Are But Games—1603 Words About a One-Word RPG

As October approaches, so too does that 200 Word RPG challenge. This provides an excellent excuse for me to talk about games for which limited length is a core part of their design. And so, without any brevity myself, I present my less-than-brief thoughts on minimalism in RPGs.

The 200 word RPG contest is a project that invites plaintext role playing games, and judges them against some criteria. In 2019 these criteria are Actionability, New and Overlooked Stories, and Engagement, with (of course) a fourth criteria for Written in 200 or Less Words. I’m interested in discussing the nature of the first, especially in connection with the third.

Actionability is described as The entry should contain enough description to play the game.” Where Engagement is described as “The game should inspire the reader with ideas and questions. It should make the reader want to play this game as soon as possible.” And it’s these requirements for the games that I think limits what we can do with minimal RPGs. But first, we have to begin as a lot of good stories do, with some gin. 

Gin, Frank Stella, and Three Big Words

It was a Melbourne night, the kind where I left home not knowing if it would be 23 degrees Celsius, pouring icy rain, or alternating both over ten minute periods. And in among all of that, I was sharing a first date with an art teacher that I’d met through Tinder a few days earlier. We met for a gin and tonic on a Tuesday night, and had much of the bar to ourselves (as people drinking on Tuesday nights tend to do). They asked me what kind of RPG I was writing, and I promised to go deep into my own passions so long as they reciprocated, and that was how we got talking about Frank Stella. 

(I ask you, my readers, to forgive my broad-brush approach to Stella here. What I know was mostly conveyed through passionate, table-slapping, expression by a gorgeous partner on that Tuesday night. But, it was enough to get us talking about the 200 word RPG challenge, and enough for me to bring it to you)

The late 1940s and early 50s were a good era for art. The post-war period allowed for artists to collectively reflect on pre-war movements like Salvador Dali’s surrealism, and to contextualise that reflection in a world recovering from trauma (both economic and violent). The migration of many European artists into America brought with it a mixing of palates, and so we saw Jackson Pollock’s action painting, where the process of engaging with the medium of the paints was an important as any product they made. Pollock tended to name his works as untitled progressions, notably Number 17A, or as my date described it to me: “The Jackson Pollock painting you think of when I say Jackson Pollock painting.” 

These action paintings were abstractions of human movement, but they were still representative. The audience, in viewing Number 17A is expected to imagine the strokes that created it, to envisage the process, to consider process, product, and reception as parts of the same form. The painting was not just a painting, it represented something. Hell, it meant something. 

Which brings us to Stella. In 1959 Frank Stella produced a piece which uses symmetrical geometric black lines on an unpainted canvas. My date pulled it up on their phone and showed it me, as I’ll now show it to you.

xlarge_die-fahne-hoch
Frank Stella, 1959

“What does it represent?” I asked, primed by our discussion of Pollock.
“No,” they said with a smile. “That’s the point. It just exists. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Right, okay. It’s geometry. We apply meaning to it because we look for patterns. I guess I can follow.”
“So, imagine this is a response to Pollock. Can you guess what it’s called?”
“Oh, like, number 18 or something?”
“No. It’s -”
And that’s when everything changed. 

Writhe. 

But first we need to discuss RPGs. The Forge, Post-Forge, and itch-era era of RPGs has been an explosion of art (and while each of those phrases could do with some explaining on their own, we have to leave those for another time. For now, like Pollock, find the patterns that feel most exciting to you, or like Stella, disregard them entirely). Avery Alder’s Teen Witch, Ray Cox’s The Binding and Drawing of Power, and Aven Elia McConnaughey’s They Stole The Moon speak to a reflective and meditative experience practiced alone. Moon and Teen Witch even break down the idea of playing a role, moving instead to the player expressing their own emotions through metaphor. Moon and Binding and Drawing of Power also step away from having express goals for the player to meet, serving more as a space for an audience to explore within, without traditional structures. All three flex the traditional definition denoted by the name of Role Playing Game, to say nothing of the expectations of the culture. Conversely, Tuesday Knight Games’ Mothership provides clear fictional roles and express goals and challenges. All four of these games enjoy the same space as physical games on itch.io. The point, beyond eras and definitions, is that we are seeing creators express more freely, while distributing more widely than ever before

One of the primary creators that I enjoy following the work of is Taylor LaBresh of Riverhouse Games. Among LaBresh’s ludography are decidedly strange works with beautiful titles like Let these Mermaids Touch Your Dick Maybe, Hot Gay Bro Dragons, These Weird Breads are Sad, and the focus of my thoughts today: We Are But Worms.

To give it its full title: We Are But Worms, A One Word RPG. A bold claim that is followed up by a beautiful full white page with a horizontally and vertically centred word, punctuated by a single full stop: “Writhe.” 

In my opinion, which I would hazard is not here controversial, Worms would not meet the 200 Word RPG standard of what makes a “full game”, especially in that it would not be actionable. In speaking to LaBresh, it’s also clear that actionability, and whether or not Worms was playable was not a high priority in its design and production. Now, I’m a descriptivist, which means I’m not at all interested in the discussion as to whether Worms is a game. But I am interested in discussing the idea of whether it is “enough” to be a game. After all, it’s just one word, right? This is where we come back to Stella, and the three big words. 

 

The Things Unsaid. 

“Can you guess what it’s called?”
“Oh, like, number 18 or something?”
“No. It’s Die Fahne Hoch!
“…

Oh.”
“Yeah.” 

To understand the impact of a title like Die Fahne Hoch! you need to understand two facts. The first is that Die Fahne Hoch! translates from German to English roughly as Raise The Flag!, or The Highflying Flag!, and the second is that Die Fahne Hoch are the opening words of the anthem of the Nazi party. Naming a square abstract painting after a Nazi anthem has to mean something, right? And there’s a lot of meaning that could be brought into it. Assuming that, like me, you aren’t schooled in the arts, your mind can wander in a thousand different directions. But…should it? 

We know from Stella’s other works, especially other works that directly or obliquely reference Nazism, that this was likely a playful commentary on meaning. That the art meant nothing, but by placing an evocative title around it Stella teases you to find meaning in it. It’s a coy invitation, designed to make the discovery or absence into a game as meaningless as the art itself. Frank Stella, minimalist art’s greatest troll.

Stella is no amateur to abstraction. He knows the way to title a minimalist work is “untitled number 32”, but rather he chooses to flirt with intent, and in doing so creates meaning. That in playing with the idea of meaning, it communicates an idea between author and audience that transcends the work itself. Humans are pattern recognition machines, and this kind of found meaning is inevitable when we put data forward, whether that data is art, a title, or a single-word RPG.

This is where I bounce off the necessity for 200 Word RPG entrants to be actionable, and the definition that actionability requires rules. Worms is as actionable as Die Fahne Hoch is communicative: Worms exists within the context of physical games on itch, it exists as part of LaBresh’s weird ludology, it exists with a verb inspiring action, and that action is framed by the title, the art, and all the baggage that we bring to reading a text. This is where I reject the idea that the mark of a good game is its functionality as a tool to resolve play questions. Where we prize, above all else, the mechanics for shooting, jumping, or driving. There is value in random tables and contested rolls, of course! But there is also value in presenting small ideas that don’t constrain themselves by win-states, or even the act of play itself. There is value in single words, with how much we can bring into it as players, and how much is communicated outside of those letters and words. 

Games can be tools, yes, but to make that our only lens is to miss so much of the beauty they contain. Minimalism is a perfect area in which to explore games that aren’t designed with functionality in mind. There is joy that isn’t action. There is art that isn’t actionable. And I’m so excited to share it with you. 

 

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