The Boardgame/RPG Hybrid

I’ve never liked one-shots. You so rarely get anything like a satisfying experience when you’re only playing a single session, and the lack of any long-term goals or consequences makes what experience there is feel lifeless. To me, the long term results of my actions are essential to my investment. Ergo, I tend to play in lengthier campaigns, or not at all.

This is a big part of the reason I’ve never been interested in the convention scene. I’ve attended one convention in my whole life, and don’t feel any desire to seek out another anytime soon. Online conventions, like ConTessa, are cool in theory, but since it’s all one-shots, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

Sometimes, though, because I’m a Nice Guy ™, I’ll endure a one-shot if a friend needs players. It’s good to support your friends, and so I do that, because I’m a good person. And so, last year, when a friend invited me to both of the two Anti-GenCon games he was running, I agreed to play.  One was going to be straight up D&D, and the other was a homebrew system he’d worked out based on the old Doom games. I signed up for both, fully expecting to be bored.

The first game, the D&D one, wound up like every other one-shot I’ve played in. It was dull, and forgettable. That’s  not a condemnation of my friend, it’s just an inescapable reality of how I react to the format. The second game, the homebrew, was whole different animal. It was fun. More than fun, playing it was the highlight of my week.

We were barely a half hour into play, and I was already excitedly making notes about little ways the game could be improved. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if my friend would be okay with me stealing his idea to write a game of my own. After the session ended, he and I talked for quite a while about how it went, and what could be done with the system. Since then, we’ve been working together to turn his 6 pages of homebrew into a complete game.

Spoiler alert: this post ends with me shilling a product to you. But, before we get to the boring advertising bullshit that I will hate myself for writing, I want to discuss what I think makes the game work. The spark of fun that was there even when the game with just 6 pages long, and made me enjoy a form of play I’d never enjoyed before.

Dungeons & Dragons, and its many variants, are built around the idea of a campaign. There’s nothing stopping you from playing one-shots. One-shots are a time honored tradition, as ancient as the game itself, but all of the game’s incentives are focused on long term play.  Why plunder the dungeon for gold, if you’ll never get to spend it? Why gain experience if you’ll never level up? Why shouldn’t you play recklessly and get yourself killed? It’s not as though you’ll ever get to play this character again anyway.

Perhaps I’d enjoy one-shots and convention games more if my character was persistent between them. Sorta like  how Flailsnails works. But, that’s beside the point.

Bubblegum Berzerk, which is the name we’ve settled on for our game, is built around the one-shot. There’s nothing stopping you from playing an extended campaign, but all of the game’s incentives are based on short-term play. Much of the moment-to-moment fun results from players making diegetic jokes, which the game rewards them for.  Instead of overcoming complex challenges and being rewarded for success, the challenges themselves are a reward in the form of a fulfilled power fantasy. Through play, players earn points, and when the game ends, those points determine who is the winner.

That’s why, very early in the game’s development, I started pushing the idea of the RPG / Board Game hybrid. The PCs are not characters, so much as they are playing pieces. Something taken out and played with, then put back into the box until next time you want to play. And when you do, it doesn’t matter if you play the same character again, or a new one. There’s no difference between those two concepts.

To boil the game down to basics: the players are a team of disposable action heroes. They’re trained from birth / cybernetically enhanced / warped through gene therapy / whatever other explanation for superhuman badassitude you can think of. They run around a map, and roll a d10 anytime they want to do something. If they wanna do something “kickass,” they gotta roll high, if they wanna do anything else, they gotta roll low. How high and how low change over the course of the game, so that it generally gets easier to do badass stuff, but more difficult to do basic stuff.

Most of the game is spent in a cycle of Running Around the Map -> Fighting Assholes -> Opening up new options -> repeat. It’s a simple cycle, within which the players are encouraged to be creative with Alpha Points, the game’s “score.” While the player with the most Alpha Points technically “wins,” the points and the winning are explicitly dumb useless goals. The only value the points have is whatever value the players imbue them with.

Alpha Points are earned in various ways, but the most notable to me is that players can get them by saying killer one-liners, or performing some super badass action that impresses the referee. To paraphrase something Zak Smith once said: normally, being funny is risky, because maybe nobody will laugh and then you’ll feel bad. This game is fun because it takes that stress away. You can try to be funny all you want, and if anything you say doesn’t get a laugh, it’s okay, because you were just playing the game. Making the attempt was expected of you.

At the time, Zak was talking about Cards Against Humanity, which is kinda fitting. I think there’s a sort of bizarre overlap between that game and Bubblegum Berserk. Not really a mechanical one, but I think the fun of the game comes from a similar place.

If I had set out to come up with a cool idea for a new game, this never would have been it. But I didn’t set out to come up with this idea. Instead, I just had a really fun experience, then tried to preserve and communicate that experience, so it could be shared by other people. Which, in retrospect, may be why I actually enjoy playing the game a lot more than running it: because my goal the whole time was to recreate the fun I had while playing.

As of now, writing is done on the game, art and proofreading are progressing at a good pace, and layout hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer after those things are done. I’m sure that once it’s out, I’ll be posting all of the place about it, annoying people, and making myself sick at how much of a sell out I’ve become. Sorry in advance for that.

But when I do it, you should totally spend some of your monies on the game. I sincerely think you’ll have a real good time playing it.

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One thought on “The Boardgame/RPG Hybrid”

  1. Reading that reminded me of Fiasco, its a roleplaying game where you generate a one-off character using semi-random connections between each of you (I am… your twin-brother and… the cyborg… leader of the local mafia!) You get points for being funny/creative/interesting, which are rewarded by other players at the end of each scene, and at the end of the one-shot, you roll for the number of points you have and that tells you how much you ‘win’
    Least that’s my take away from many years ago.
    Anyway, I remember you mentioning this a long time ago, looking forward!

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