As make-believe has existed since the dawn of civilization, the idea of minimalist RPGs has probably existed before. This article focuses on more recent development in the RPG design community.
RPG Game Jams and the Rise of Micro RPGs
Game jams have been a great way for people to get into game design (as well as for veteran designers to experiment with new ideas). Originally used in the context of video games, they have been increasingly popular for tabletop RPG designers in recent years. Itch.io is a popular marketplace for indie games, and it allows anyone to host game jams, making them highly accessible.
While big RPG books from the major publishers are still the most commercially successful, the internet allows indie creators to distribute shorter digital games that don’t fit on store shelves. John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings and Grant Howitt’s Honey Heist are both 1-page RPGs that have gained a huge following online.
In game jams, games are created within a strict time period, meaning that shorter games are produced. In fact, many game jams have a length restriction, requiring the submission to fit in a specific word count or format. Running from 2015-2019, 200 Word RPG Challenge (hosted by Bryk, Miller, and Schirduan) was one of the earlier examples that started before analogue game jams were commonplace on itch.io. The 1-page RPG is one of the standard micro RPG formats, and One-Page RPG Jams (hosted by James Lennox-Gordon) have been wildly successful, with over 300 hundred participants in 2021 and 2022. Business card and bookmark are two other popular formats that have been adopted by multiple game jams.
Lyric Games, Poetry and Nano RPGs
At the same time, some indie designers use the micro RPG medium to experiment with lyric games, a genre that aims to convey certain feelings or vibes with minimal mechanics. They often disregard the difference between players and characters, blurring the line between RPG and LARP, with some lyric games designed to be read like poetry rather than played. In fact, some poetry do read like lyric games, such as the action-poems by Yoko Ono (as pointed out by David H. K. Jackson on Twitter).
RPGs up to 4-pages are generally considered micro RPGs. While there is no strict lower limit for the term, 100-200 words are usually what people think of when describing the smallest micro RPGs. What about RPGs that are even smaller? Riverhouse Game’s We Are But Worms is a one-word RPG that rocked the RPG design community in 2019, and inspired many other minimalist/nano RPGs.
Hamlet is a one-letter RPG by the article’s author. Referencing the famous Shakespearean soliloquy with a simple “B” printed at the centre of a business card, it is also an examination on the non-prescriptive nature of RPG mechanics. In traditional RPGs, mechanics are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and it is valid not to perform what is written in the rules. (Some indie games such as PbtA in particular, use prescriptive rules to reinforce the theme.) For example, D&D mechanics are mostly concerned with combat, but it does not mean the players have to fight every single NPC to the death. In Hamlet, the one-letter rule to “B” also implies the option not to “B”.
280-character, 2-word, and 12-word RPG Jams
Many designers have made minimalist RPGs on Twitter, with a 280 character limit being imposed by the platform. One notable 280 character game jam is the Micro Fiction Games Jam hosted by James Chip, which has been running yearly since 2020 with a unique three word theme for each year. A 2-word RPG Jam was run on Twitter by Amber Autumn, and Sean Patrick Cain has compiled their entries into READ/PLAY.
A lot of the minimalist lyric games consist of a one-phrase instruction for a single player, but it can be more than that. The children’s game Hide & Seek can be read as a 2-word RPG for two or more players, and following this train of thought, the writer of this article has written 2-word RPGs where each player gets their own one-word instruction. This has inspired the upcoming 12-word RPG Jam which the article’s writer co-hosts with Luke Russell.
A Few More Noteworthy Minimalist RPGs
Many RPG designers have flexed their creative muscles with minimal word count and small formats, forging truly inspiring creations under the restrictions. Improvisation! by Courtney (@astorysomewhere) is a one-word RPG that makes clever use of its graphical elements. Loss by Oz Browning is a hauntingly poetic RPG in 29 words that fits on a single side of a business card. In just 70 words, Spoor by Caverns of Heresy is a complete OSR-esque system that fits on a double-sided business card. For a more traditional micro RPG experience akin to Laser & Feelings and Honey Heist, The Ultimate Micro-RPG Book edited by James D’Amato has 40 games by prominent indie designers.
In summary, recent developments of minimalist RPGs have coincided with the game jam culture, leading to a new wave of artistic expression through the medium. Whether you are a newbie with interest in RPG design or an experienced pro, you should give one of the minimalist RPG jams a go. (Even if a jam is already over, you can still make a minimalist RPG under the jam’s rules at your own pace.)
About the Author
W.H. Arthur (he/佢) started game design in a 200 word RPG jam in 2018. Since then, he has released a number of small RPGs on itch.io, and contributed to a few popular indie RPG projects. Last year, he wrote Molotov College, a GMless RPG on superhero drama.
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