Let's say you and your friends want to try this roleplaying thing you've heard about. You're not in the mood for any particular genre- you'll play anything as long as it's good. You've even decided to see what the world of games has to offer outside of Dungeons and Dragons. So, what do you want and where should you look?
One important distinction in the world of RPGs is that of mainstream versus indie games. Mainstream games- Dungeons and Dragons, World of Darkness, GURPS- are published by large companies, have huge amounts of supplementary books, and are often available at good bookstores. Indie games- Dogs in the Vineyard, Unknown Armies, My Life With Master- are put out by smaller companies, sometimes consisting of only one or two people, and generally have to be purchased online or at a game-specific store.
As you'd expect, there are good things and bad things about both types of game. Let's take a look.
Artsy, quirky, offbeat and other such adjectives.
In a word, innovation. Indie games are where you go when you're tired of the same old sword and sorcery you've played a million times and want something different. You want to be a Mormon gunslinger, the henchman to a mad scientist, an incompetant crook caught in a heist gone wrong, a lunatic whose magic is powered by obsession? Indie games have you covered. They've been designed to give you a unique experience you won't find anywhere else, and to make you think a little more about how you want to play. There's a reason most of my favorite games are indies- they tend to be the products of writers with a vision, not drones churning out by the book installments for corporations.
Sometimes the risks idie games take pay off and sometimes they don't, but they almost always offer an interesting experience. A writer can do literally whatever they want, and as generally happens in such cases, works of true beauty and art come out of the indie world.
The Downside (Warning: Not entirely worksafe)
Individual indie games may have problems such as pretentiousness, trying to ape a mainstream game or misery tourism (more on that in a later review, hopefully), but the one plagueing them all is the lack of quality control. Big companies like White Wolf or Wizards of the Coast can hire multiple editors to ferret out the typoes and project managers to decide when something's a good idea or not. Indie games don't have that luxury.
Along with this issue comes a problem I like to call Unscreened Craziness.
For example, let's say a young game designer has an idea he wants to put into practice. He takes his idea and marches into Wizards of the Coast with it.
"In the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons," he proclaims, "I think you should force female characters to be stupid and weak, give your players access to spells that let them rape corpses, and have weapons be able to impregnate people!"
Wizard of the Coast calls security and has our protagonist bodily ejected. Undaunted, he goes into the offices of White Wolf.
"In your next supplement about villains," he says, "you should devote lots of time to talking about how Jews, blacks, Asians and Italians are the scum of the earth."
"Nah," says the White Wolf executive. "The PC police already rammed us hard when we made up shit about gypsies. Not doing that again."
Disappointed but determined, he meanders over to Steve Jackson's GURPS headquarters.
"Your next game should be called GURPS: Rape. I know you like tables and charts, so you should have ones that give the option of a 152 inch penis that kills your victim upon penetration if they don't have the right anal circumference!"
Steve Jackson sighs heavily, and attempts to teach our hero a little bit about how the human body actually functions. When this fails, he stops talking to him altogether.
Disillusioned with the mainstream, the young gamer goes home. He will see his vision come to light, one way or another! He will make indie games, and publish whatever the hell he wants! And if he wants to make F.A.T.A.L., something which is now known as the worst RPG ever written, then by gum, the free press allows it!
Such is the danger of Unscreened Craziness.
Coming soon: the ups and downs of mainstream games!