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Indie Games Are Not More Focused. They Are Differently Focused.

Campbell

Legend
In a number of conversations on these boards the idea that indie games are these narrow curated experiences and more mainstream games are somehow more flexible keeps coming up again and again. There's usually no real justification for this.

I like a lot of mainstream games. I am player in D&D 5e and Infinity games right now. I love running Pathfinder Second Edition, Exalted Third Edition, Legend of the Five Rings Fifth Edition and Vampire. There are a lot of attendant expectations that go along with running and playing these games. They are almost on adventuring where players are expected to work together to complete the adventure of the week. There are all sorts of expectations around the sorts of scenes you are expected to frame, the sort of consequences you can inflict, and like how the player characters are oriented towards each other. In my experience there are also strong expectations around stuff like spotlight balancing, character concepts, and the like.

Sure there are constraints placed on a GM in games like Blades in the Dark, Apocalypse World, and the like. There are also things you can do as a GM that would not go over well in D&D or another mainstream game. Like in a game like Masks or Apocalypse Keys the GM has the ability to say it makes sense you would feel Angry and have that impact play. In Blades in the Dark if you can get arrested and have to serve out a sentence. Having that sort of consequence without giving players lots of opportunities to avoid it or escape would be very fraught in most games. The sort of hard moves I make when I run Apocalypse World just don't work in most mainstream games.

I guess I don't understand how someone could make the case that mainstream/traditional games are more flexible without accepting their constraints as the norm.
 

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Arilyn

Hero
I think that it comes down to familiarity. A lot of indie games approach play in a way that feels different from mainstream games, so players become hyper focussed on that, missing the constraints in their own favoured games.

And of course, indie is a pretty fuzzy term. PbTA. Indie or now mainstream?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
In a number of conversations on these boards the idea that indie games are these narrow curated experiences and more mainstream games are somehow more flexible keeps coming up again and again. There's usually no real justification for this.
I mean, yes there's no justification for that position, but is this really something you've come up against a lot? I've never seen anybody posit such a position. I'm not saying it hasn't happened in conversations you've been in, but I don't think it's a widespread sentiment.

You get very focused indie games and very flexible indie games. Indie games encompass a massive, wide range of game types. The most flexible tabletop RPGs in the world are usually indie games.

I'm not sure what you're defining as 'mainstream' (D&D?)
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I guess I don't understand how someone could make the case that mainstream/traditional games are more flexible without accepting their constraints as the norm.

Not sure about the "more flexible" part, but in buying games, indie and trad, at various places: itch, gencon, etc.. I prefer hard copy to really sit down and read. My group does place a combination of indie and trad games, usually as we rotate GM's. All that said, I find indie games, often are more focused, and also usually have less supplemental material. It is feature, not a bug, though; at least how they seem to be presented to have the mechanics for specific things they are trying to emulate, and in a rules light fashion.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I have seen discussions about how indie games won't be able to generate broad appeal because of a lack of flexibility or more commonly because they are hyper focussed on a set theme, like Dogs in the Vineyard.

There is some truth to that. My Life with Master, for example, is a tightly focussed game. Game play, however, is going to really depend on the game, and there's a huge variety across the market. And just like music, indie can become mainstream. 😊
 

Campbell

Legend
I have seen it all over these boards recently. Mostly in the context of touting D&D's flexibility. The idea basically seems to stem from the perception you can basically do anything with D&D you could use other games for. I think that relies on a lack of awareness of D&D's culture of play and the constraints they do not see because they are use to / embrace.

I mostly use mainstream as a stand in for 'traditional' games because that's a label I'm not super fond of. Adventure gaming is probably a better stand in.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I mostly use mainstream as a stand in for 'traditional' games because that's a label I'm not super fond of. Adventure gaming is probably a better stand in.
OK. So what do you define as 'traditional'?

(I'm not trying to have a go, just trying to get a handle on your points of reference)

I literally don't see [indie - mainstream] and [focused - flexible] as being the same spectrum. They're too entire different axis. Is Star Wars mainstream? It's pretty focused. But it has a generic spawn, Genysis. Is Apocalypse World indie? It's pretty flexible. There are a hundred RPGs 'powered by the Apocalypse'. Generally, a light game (as many indie games are) is going to be incredibly flexible.

And of course, any game can do any genre. Sure, D&D can do sci-fi horror if you want it to. I'm sure the new Alien RPG can do cartoon slapstick, if you really want it to. But some games do some genres better than others.

I just don't understand the points of reference here, or how popularity relates to flexibility.
 

MGibster

Legend
In a number of conversations on these boards the idea that indie games are these narrow curated experiences and more mainstream games are somehow more flexible keeps coming up again and again. There's usually no real justification for this.
I would tend to agree. Some indie games, such as Bluebeard's Brides, are narrowly focused but I don't think FATE is.
I love running Pathfinder Second Edition, Exalted Third Edition, Legend of the Five Rings Fifth Edition and Vampire. There are a lot of attendant expectations that go along with running and playing these games.
I think you're on to something when it comes to how we define something as flexible. For example, I don't consider D&D to be all that flexible because the game experience is largely the same no matter the campaign setting. And I know some people will vehemently disagree with me, but every campaign world, even Ravenloft and Dark Sun, are just rife with D&Disms I'll find in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, or even Birthright. Despite being a big box game, I don't think D&D is all that flexible which I'm totally fine with. I don't expect it to be flexible.
 

Campbell

Legend
The games I tend to think of as traditional are like party or group based games where the GM creates and adventure with story hooks that you are expected to try to resolve. D&D, but also games like Edge of the Empire, RuneQuest, Scion, Shadowrun, etc. Exalted, Vampire, Conan 2d20, and Legend of the Five Rings kind of skirt the line. Basically crack team of specialists solve problems while sharing spotlight. Next week on sort of deal.

Basically indie to me are games that break from that action adventure mold. That are more focused on individual characters and their stories. Stuff like Sorcerer, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc. Stuff like Dungeon World. Monster Week and to a lesser extent Apocalypse Keys kind of skirt the edge the other way.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
The games I tend to think of as traditional are like party or group based games where the GM creates and adventure with story hooks that you are expected to try to resolve. D&D, but also games like Edge of the Empire, RuneQuest, Scion, Shadowrun, etc. Exalted, Vampire, Conan 2d20, and Legend of the Five Rings kind of skirt the line. Basically crack team of specialists solve problems while sharing spotlight. Next week on sort of deal.

Basically indie to me are games that break from that action adventure mold. That are more focused on individual characters and their stories. Stuff like Sorcerer, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc.
OK, so just to clarify what you're saying -- you're finding that people are claiming Edge of the Empire is flexible, and Apocalypse World is not? I mean, we both know the opposite is true, but you're experiencing a more than expected number of people claiming otherwise?
 

MGibster

Legend
Basically indie to me are games that break from that action adventure mold. That are more focused on individual characters and their stories. Stuff like Sorcerer, Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc. Stuff like Dungeon World. Monster Week and to a lesser extent Apocalypse Keys kind of skirt the edge the other way.
I think of Indie games as being those that aren't produced by the "big" RPG companies and are largely under the control of the creator(s).
 

Based upon a couple definitions - one of which is from the forge - indie games are more likely to be narrowly focused.

For the forgite definition, Indie games rules are owned and published by the game designer.
The opposite isn't Trad, but Corporate. And there's a middle ground.
Note also: Any licensed mechanics game is axiomatically not Indie. This is because the game IP is derivative of the license. So, d20 or Cepheus Engine versions of anything else aren't Indie. Especially since Cepheus is derived from Mongoose Traveller's SRD.

Given that fairly objective definition, it's been my experience that indie games are more likely to be narrowly focused subject matter. Likewise, corporate games tend to be broader in scope... even FFG's End of the World with a storygame focus is a broader game than Apocalyse World, in that it has more mechanics for more situations.
 

Campbell

Legend
So from my perspective something like modern D&D is super specific. It's nothing like any of the fantasy I grew up reading. It has highly specific setting and play expectations. The whole fantasy A team vibe is like kind of bizarre. I love it for it, but I have trouble seeing it as a general use game.

I think part of it is I come from a perspective of not really being super into action/adventure type stuff. It feels like there's this normative thing to me where games that rely on those tropes get more credit for being flexible despite their elaborate systems for combat, super powers, and expectations built around procedural storytelling. Anything built to focus on more dramatic or character centered stories get treated as more specific even though the rules just focus on different things.
 

So from my perspective something like modern D&D is super specific. It's nothing like any of the fantasy I grew up reading. It has highly specific setting and play expectations. The whole fantasy A team vibe is like kind of bizarre. I love it for it, but I have trouble seeing it as a general use game.

I think part of it is I come from a perspective of not really being super into action/adventure type stuff. It feels like there's this normative thing to me where games that rely on those tropes get more credit for being flexible despite their elaborate systems for combat, super powers, and expectations built around procedural storytelling. Anything built to focus on more dramatic or character centered stories get treated as more specific even though the rules just focus on different things.
D&D is a genre engine. It's generic, in that it's not any single setting, but a genre that is a set of tropes embedded in mechanics. It's not a good fit to any other genre of adventure fiction - it's not planetary romance, it's not pulp fantasy, it's not eldritch horror (Chtulhu, etc), it's the dark fantasy adjacent to eldritch horror (eg: Conan, Elric)... it's its own genre, and even most D&D branded novels aren't quite on point.

You're right that there's an A-Team vibe, but I'd hazard a guess that it's either D&D influenced or Coincidental, not A-Team influencing D&D... excepting specific individuals' campaigns. (My D&D games have never had the A-Team vibe... but my Prime Directive games owe more to A-Team than I care to admit, even though it should be closer to Seal Team than to A-Team. And I can see an idea of a team of fixers operating outside the local systems - it's not unique to A-Team, and is in a couple old modules. And a hinted at playstyle in the AD&D DMG.)

One of the biggest misnomers in gaming is "universal systems" - every system has specific tropes built in that, if you use the rules, arise from the mechanics. No game is equally good in all genres, unless you're ignoring the rules and going pure narrative (in which case, rules are irrelevant).

Generic properly doesn't mean universal - the G and U in GURPS aren't redundant (but the Universal is an exaggeration). Generic literally means "of a genre" ... and most supposedly universal games are merely multi-genre.

I've run a number of universal engines in various settings... GURPS, Hero, CORPS, EABA, Simply Roleplaying, Silhouette, Interlock...
Each supports several genres, and claims to do more - but the truth is, not a one is equally good in all genres. Likewise, each is differently valuable to different playstyles. And some genres aren't suitable for some playstyles. Hence why there are over 10,000 different RPGs.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I mean, yes there's no justification for that position, but is this really something you've come up against a lot? I've never seen anybody posit such a position. I'm not saying it hasn't happened in conversations you've been in, but I don't think it's a widespread sentiment.
It pops up quite a bit here, generally to promote 5e (or more broadly D&D) as a better, more flexible game.

I think you're on to something when it comes to how we define something as flexible. For example, I don't consider D&D to be all that flexible because the game experience is largely the same no matter the campaign setting. And I know some people will vehemently disagree with me, but every campaign world, even Ravenloft and Dark Sun, are just rife with D&Disms I'll find in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, or even Birthright. Despite being a big box game, I don't think D&D is all that flexible which I'm totally fine with. I don't expect it to be flexible.
One of the greatest, longest cons ever pulled was TSR and WotC convincing generation after generation that D&D is generic fantasy useable for all fantasy genres rather than its own genre of fantasy. But ever since I've been playing, I have found that my biggest hurdle to running D&D for homebrew settings are the thousands of D&Disms.
 

I think a big part of this is how D&D was designed versus how it’s come to be played. The focus of the game has shifted from the very specific dungeon crawl experience of early editions to a more general fantasy fiction type of experience. The rules themselves have shifted in response, but I don’t know if they’ve always done a good job of doing what they claim.

Although my D&D games have been used for a variety of settings and scenarios, I still think the game is pretty narrowly focused. Each of my games, as different as they may be in some ways, still have some pretty fundamental similarities to them. It’s still always involving a group of adventurers/heroes working together to overcome obstacles, very often through violence.

Now, that generalization may also fit many other games….it certainly applies to a good portion of my Blades in the Dark games, and my recent Galaxies in Peril campaign. But I have to say that those games…particularly Blades as Galaxies is a superhero game and superheroes is all about punching problems away…actually allow for non-combat focused missions more readily than D&D does.

I think a lot of the “variety” that D&D allows is more perceived than actual. Like playing in Ebberon versus Dark Sun. Sure, the settings are different, but the game will largely flow the same way.
 

I have seen discussions about how indie games won't be able to generate broad appeal because of a lack of flexibility or more commonly because they are hyper focussed on a set theme, like Dogs in the Vineyard.

There is some truth to that. My Life with Master, for example, is a tightly focussed game. Game play, however, is going to really depend on the game, and there's a huge variety across the market. And just like music, indie can become mainstream. 😊

I agree with this. These two indie games in particular (along with some others) are extremely focused games that aren't particularly driftable (although, I will say I attempted a Star Wars hack with Dogs and it wasn't as bad as some terrible D&D hacking I've seen!). However, there are tons of extremely hackable indie games that are tremendously more robust to hacking and drafting than D&D is.

Now, that generalization may also fit many other games….it certainly applies to a good portion of my Blades in the Dark games, and my recent Galaxies in Peril campaign. But I have to say that those games…particularly Blades as Galaxies is a superhero game and superheroes is all about punching problems away…actually allow for non-combat focused missions more readily than D&D does.

I think a lot of the “variety” that D&D allows is more perceived than actual. Like playing in Ebberon versus Dark Sun. Sure, the settings are different, but the game will largely flow the same way.

Yeah, even a game like Blades in the Dark (forget the Forged in the Dark engine) can be extremely different. Our Grifters game was very different than any of the Smuggler games I've run (including the present one) was different than the Vigilantes game I ran was different than the Shadows game I ran (the Hawkers had overlap with the Grifters game with a social conflict focus - and the Bravos and Assassins game had a lot of overlap with themselves)...

And next week will be the first session of a Cult game I'm running that will be about summoning a Raven Queen like ancient goddess back into the world to fix the shattering of the veil between the land of the living and the realm of the dead! That is going to be different than any Blades game I've ever run I suspect!


Whenever I hear "D&D is more versatile" I append "because our GM can exert as much Force necessary to make it so and/or we can play Dungeons and Beavers and ignore rules/system and just focus on performative theatrics, characterization, and saying ok roll percentile and if you get a 70 % or below you baked your strudel to the satisfaction of those partaking...if you get a 71 % + they make faces at you and walk out in disgust...be sad about your crappy strudel."
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
I have seen it all over these boards recently. Mostly in the context of touting D&D's flexibility. The idea basically seems to stem from the perception you can basically do anything with D&D you could use other games for. I think that relies on a lack of awareness of D&D's culture of play and the constraints they do not see because they are use to / embrace.

This really, really depends on what you mean by "do anything." OD&D is my go-to, "do anything" RPG, because I can use that system to run picaresque, site-crawl treasure-hunts in a fantasy setting or a sci-fi setting or an historical setting or a modern setting… and if I stretch the system a little bit, I can use it to run other sorts of adventures or scenarios that presume a set of assumptions (open-world sandbox, meaningful player agency, impartial referee, skilled play—which I define as the players prioritizing "playing to win" over "doing what my character would do"—among other assumptions). So OD&D can handle a bounty hunt or a mystery in a city or a courtly intrigue dating sim or whatever else I need it to do, as long as those assumptions hold.

What the system can't do is produce narrative beats (or satisfying narrative or character arcs) organically. The DM has to intervene to do that stuff artificially in OD&D, so OD&D is a bad system for that. Outside of the odd supernatural effect, it can't normally mess with characters' feelings or make those feelings relevant to gameplay. It can't encourage players to play off of each other, riff, converse, or banter, and it doesn't have any mechanics for defining relationships between characters—so it can't do that either (beyond whatever relationships arise organically through play).

I think that very often, when players say "D&D can do anything," they're talking about either genre/period or adventure/scenario type—and not about things other than adventure that indie games are better equipped to focus their gameplay on.
 
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pemerton

Legend
A few things I've noticed, both from my own play and my reading of others' posts:

* I seem to have more "mass combat" (ie PCs plus warband, vs NPC warbands) in my Prince Valiant game - which is a "lite" and "indie" system - than I've heard of in any D&D game. Mass combat is the only subsystem in Prince Valiant, and is the most complicated part of the system, but I think no more complicated than D&D combat.​
* When discussion on these boards turns to actions declared by players for their PCs that have the aim of persuading or converting NPCs, the response from D&D GMs seems to be to set the bar for successful action declaration very high. This gives me the impression that games GMed by those posters probably don't figure much switching of sides from bad guys to good guys, which is a pretty standard adventure story trope.​
* The flipside of the previous paragraph is conflict among the good guys. By logic this should be rife even among D&D parties: we have paladins hanging out with the Grey Mouser, and devout adherents of multiple religions (paladins again, clerics, druids, etc). But the approach to play that @Campbell is calling "mainstream" doesn't seem to accommodate this terribly well.​

The notion of flexibility is itself pretty flexible. In the context of the discussions Campbell has referred to, it's normally being used to talk about the content of RPG fiction rather than the processes of RPG play. I realise that Campbell is trying to open up the notion, but even sticking to that focus on fiction, it seems to me that a flexible RPG at least should accommodate some thematic variety - both in trope, and in theme in the stricter sense - and the attendant variety of conflicts - in terms of methods, stakes, participants - that would correlate to that thematic variety.

Under that conception, I think the most flexible RPG I've played is MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic. It can move from pretty light-hearted to a little bit serious (not as serious as, say, Burning Wheel) across multiple fantasy and superhero tropes, with conflict in various arenas for various stakes, and with the protagonists in various relationships from opposition to loose cooperation to tight parties.

I've also, back in the day, found Rolemaster fairly flexible - it's skill system is clunky by modern standards but envisages conflict being resolved in a variety of arenas, and when we played regularly we would use the Depression crit table from RMC3 to apply consequences for emotional conflict as well as physical. But (consistent with @Manbearcat not far upthread) the system needs a degree of GM force, plus understandings from other participants not to lean too heavily on its points of vulnerability, to work. (It has a cooking skill, but no resolution table for that skill and no cooking failure crit table.) Of modern games the one that reminds me most of RM is Burning Wheel. I think that's another very flexible system, but it doesn't have as much published for it as RM ended up having and so to push to its full flexibility will rely on the GM using the extensive system hacking advice to build appropriate subsystems. Even without that hacking, though, I think it covers a pretty wide range of FRPGing ground. In its heyday I think AD&D aspired to the sort of fictional range of RM and BW but never got there because of the failure to support out-of-combat conflict resolution. I don't know 3E or 5e as well as AD&D but nothing I have heard about them suggests they're very different from AD&D in this crucial aspect.

To conclude a meandering post, I think Prince Valiant is an amazing system - Greg Stafford's best work in my view - and I think the lack of its widespread uptake is one of the tragedies of RPGing. I think it's very flexible across a very wide variety of non-modern RPGing, though it doesn't have a cooking skill. In play it can range from lightly comedic to deeply intense and character-driven (not as much as BW, but at least as much as 4e D&D). What it's missing is a subsystem to support player-side magic use, which might be seen as a limitation.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
This really, really depends on what you mean by "do anything." OD&D is my go-to, "do anything" RPG, because I can use that system to run picaresque, site-crawl treasure-hunts in a fantasy setting or a sci-fi setting or an historical setting or a modern setting…

I think we'll have a real issue here, as each of us is going to have a different idea as to what constitutes "the game", and how much you have to alter it and have that be easy and a note of the game's flexibility. It isn't like there's some accepted quantitative measure of "game system flexibility or focus".

More prosaically, you can, in fact, drive a screw into a board with a hammer. I don't think that means hammers are "flexible" tools.
 

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