Party’s Past – A 200 Word RPG

A classical painted scene of a medieval tavern.

One of the areas I’ve struggled with when introducing an RPG campaign, or even a one-shot, is the composition of the party. How do they know each other? What are their experiences? I’ve explored a lot of different avenues of play, from using character creation to fill the void, to the classic “You all meet in a tavern…”

With this year’s 200 word RPG challenge, I decided to try to design a solution. And so, Party’s Past was born.

200 Words

200 words are not a lot of space for an RPG. It’s tough to create solid gameplay with such a restrictive word count, let alone a succinct rules structure. To help with this, I wanted to make sure my 2019 entry could use a player’s own understanding and experience to help pick up the slack that the brief rules text would leave off. For example, a game titled, “Lichoid Scramble” doesn’t give a great sense of what the game is about. However, a game titled, “Zombie Run” gives a much clearer sense of what the game is about.

Many players have experienced (sometimes painfully) the awkward beginning of a campaign. This means, within the first few lines, most players would have a general understanding of what the goal of the game is about. This makes it much easier to write rules for.

A Simple Structure

Of course, even with a simple concept, 200 words is not a lot. I felt it important to ensure a simple rules structure within Party’s Past. So after brainstorming and trying out a few ideas, I landed on a simple Question and Answer sense of gameplay.

Adding in the idea of a character, Party’s Past ended up with 3 different phases – Character, Questions, Answers – that almost wrote themselves.

Almost.

Two statues in contemplative thought, arching around a lone figure holding a spear under a setting sun and full moon.

Inspiration

The major design challenge I ran into, was what Q&A gameplay might look like. Originally I tried out verbal roleplaying, but found it was too hard to track the creative details. I needed a way to organize information that was more permanent than verbal role playing, but more creative than writing the answers on a piece of paper.

Then I remembered Microscope.

If you haven’t checked out Microscope, please do so. It’s an excellent world-building game and resource, designed by Ben Robbins. Within the game, the players use notecards, oriented in different ways, to track the core (and eventually detailed) ideas of the world being built. The game unfolds beautifully on the table as it is played, as if history is coming to life before your eyes.

Needing a way to organize information, I adjusted Robbins’ notecard organization mechanic so it would work with Party’s Past. Again, 200 words is not a lot of space, but most players will have used notecards to organize information before, so not much explaining is needed.

And suddenly, I had a game!

Slimming Down

One of the constants of the 200 word RPG challenge, is how quickly 200 words get used. Being able to communicate a lot of information by saying as little as possible is very important. And so, even with the shortcuts I mentioned above, I was about 100 words over. I needed to slim down Party’s Past.

A table giving 8 different options that could result in an audience for Party's Past.
The lone remaining table from Party’s Past.

I started by taking out all but one of my random tables. I’m a huge fan of tables to help randomize gameplay, but for a 200 word project, there just isn’t space. I’m thinking of releasing a full, several-page pdf with my full ideas for Party’s Past in the future – but for the competition, most of the extra stuff had to go. I still included one table, to help anyone playing get a sense as to what a questioning “audience” might look like.

Then I started cutting. I cut flavorful phrases, I cut additional words, I cut conjunctions, tried to stitch sentences together with commas, succeeded, failed. I made sure my rules were straight to the point. I used page spacing to separate ideas, rather than transition sentences.

And then I was done. The official 200 word counter put my entry at 199 words.

Conclusion

As usual, this was a fun challenge, and I learned a lot by doing it. I’m looking forward to reading at least some of the other entries, and can’t wait to see the final results, as there are some amazing prizes this year.

I send out monthly emails about projects like this – you can sign up here. And if you want to read my entry in full, which was quickly published to pdf, you can download and enjoy here.

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