Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Continuum: Atomospheric to Episodic

As people, we’re good at identifying two opposing things and using that to make sense of the world. So, let’s talk about one of these opposing pairs, and maybe in a later post I’ll talk about creating axes as a way for understanding games more generally. The pair I’ve been looking at recently is what I’ve been calling the “plotiness” axis.

On one side of this scale are games about atmosphere. Here, the gestalt experience of mixing specific feelings and tropes together is the whole point of the game. Atomspheric games tend to have lighter character mechanics, quicker character generation, and sessions of the game tend to be disconnected from each other. These games have strong scene framing techniques and some emotional distance between the players and their characters. A good example would be Annalise. Another good one is Durance. (Both are excellent, and the latter has a Kickstarter underway right now.)

On the other side of this scale are games that feature strong episodic content. By that, I mean that the game is intended to be played week after week with the same crew and the same cast of characters. These games often have richer character mechanics, an “us-them” party-based dynamic, and GM-directed play. There’s also a strong “event-ness” to them—players will make plans, have those plans go awry when something happens, and generally focus on getting through the events of the day. Most traditional RPGs fall into this category, but so do games like Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel.

What’s cool about drawing lines in the sand is what we see by looking at the whole beach. We see games like 3:16; its char-gen is notoriously lightweight and play is highly disconnected—each session is a new planet. This is an atmosphere game about war. But at the same time, subtle mechanisms like Strengths/Weaknesses and Rank/Medals add just enough episodic play to give it a hook.

Or maybe we take a look at something like Call of Cthulhu and see that despite it being a very episodic plot-oriented sort of game, that sanity scores can really push towards brooding, atmospheric scenes and that GM techniques to establish tone are essential to creating a great play experience.

Or we can look at things that fit surprisingly well and extrapolate additional qualities: games like Dread and My Life with Master both fit very squarely into the atmospheric domain. And both these games barely, if at all, include character advancement. Neither particularly talks about “stuff”—items or gear or tools that might make things easier to do.

Or we can find games that don’t seem to fit cleanly into the spectrum. Principia: Secret Wars of the Renaissance—a fun episodic game where there’s this extra “what is happening to the world” mechanic that doesn’t really fit into this model at all. (Go download it. It’s free and it’s good.)

Next time, more on creating axes like this. Enjoy!