MetaFictional Games 1: Og

Narrativist role-playing games, an esoteric spin-off from Dungeons and Dragons, turn the conventions of games upside down. In games, you play to win, the rules regulate your action, and the story is a hook meant to draw you into the game. In narrativist games, you play to create a story, the rules constrain the ways the story can evolve, and winning is beside the point.

In many ways, narrativist role-playing games are collaborative writing exercises or storytelling workshops. They might also be useful laboratories for social software design.

For example, everyone talks about Twitter and the role of its 140-character limit. Is 140 characters enough? Could we manage with less? Would we be happier with more? What can’t we achieve in the face of the limit? What can we achieve that we wouldn’t be able to do with unlimited message length?

Robin D. Laws game, Og: unearthed edition, explores the extreme case. The players in the game are a band of cavemen. They face various dangers — wolves, mammoths, forest fires, hostile tribes. They work together to achieve heroic triumph, or at least to survive.

They do this with 18 words. That's all you can use amongst yourselves, though you can say anything you like to the GM. You, me, rock, water, fire, stick, hairy, bang, big, small, shiny, thing. And it gets worse: no one knows all 18 words, so you start out with a few words selected from the 18.

And one of those eighteen words is “verisimilitude".

A blogger writes:

For some reason, though, it works brilliantly. There's a real sense of satisfaction in managing to explain (comparatively) complex ideas with your tiny vocabulary. Once you get the hang of it, you can hold entire conversations in cave-speak, and string together ever more inventive forms of abuse. Essentially, you're combining elementary puzzle solving with searching through a foreign dictionary for all the curse words, with an occasional time-out to massacre bunch of cavemen from a different tribe (without any of the pesky moral considerations of whether it's OK to kill a bunch of pygmies). There's also some pride to be taken in engineering breakthroughs in caveman technology; by the end of our session we had invented both the wheel and the scarf, and possibly scrambled eggs. Every roleplay scenario should end with a communal omelette.

Og is available as a pdf download ($7.95) from Steve Jackson Games.