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Soapbox: About the Industry

The 24 Hour RPG Challenge

by Sandy Antunes
Oct 08,2004


The 24 Hour RPG Challenge

by Sandy Antunes

Could you write a complete RPG from scratch in 24 hours? That's the challenge posed by 24HourRPG.com, now in its second year of crunchy creative coolness.

Me, I knew I could. I mean, it's easy, you just... umm... write, and invent, and eigenplaytest (playtest in your head), and lay it out, and PDF it, and... heck, that's a lot of work.

Since I freelance for money, though, it's not worth it to me. Plus I have kids, and grad school. It'd be hard to find 24 hours. And I need my sleep. And...

... I had too many excuses. I was sure I could do it, but it seemed I wasn't sure I could actually, like, really do it. There was only one thing to do.

But, that thing (drinking heavily) didn't bring me any closer to figuring it out. So I did the next best thing-- I announced (as is traditional) to the 24 Hour RPG list that I was going to do it. Starting then.

I'll admit, my wife was accommodating. My kids weren't (little hellions!), but that was part of my schedule. Everyone has hassles, everyone has a life. The challenge isn't for monks enshrined in the RPG Abbey, it's for real people.

23 hours later, I'd finished. 24 pages (laid out in Traveller-style in digest format), it was complete. As per the rules, I'd used no pre-written notes or earlier writings. I'd started with just an idea (which some call cheating-- more on this soon). By the end, I had The Monitors, a complete current-day/near-future RPG about conflict and world domination that neither has nor requires a combat system.

Man, it was soooo much fun doing it! I could write anything I wanted (sort of like this column series, actually). The strong structure of 'make it complete' gave me a neat internal outline to follow, while conceptually I was able to unite lots of neat ideas that had always been flying around in my head.

As a side note, I may have unconscious self-stolen from my earlier published work with Lee Garvin's "Control", but since I don't actually remember that game, I'll just consider that part of my heritage.

Of course, some call having an idea, or even having worked on earlier games, to be cheating. There's a 'wing' of the 24 Hour folks who believe the project should not just be sans earlier writing, but with a blank slate-- no preconceived ideas. Well, I broke that because my only reason for deciding to write, was that I'd had a simmering idea that finally flared up and "WRITE ME!!!" (sounds like a hemorrhoid, but there you have it... my new axiom, 'ideas are like hemorrhoids').

The idea clattered around and around until suddenly it had to come out. As well it should. It was years old. The original conceit for this game was spawned by an offhand comment by James Wallis on some e-list long ago, in which he wanted to someday make an RPG with no combat mechanics (nor need of one). Oh, this was years ago.

I even made an abortive stab at such a combat-free critter once, but put it in the 'unfinished' bin because, well, it sucked from page one. Too 'high concept' and setting-heavy.

But when all the pieces clicked, I realized, 'my goodness, I have to publish this unmarketable oddity of experimental roleplaying!' Usually, in that case, I find a PDF publisher willing to toss spare change at me. But... could I do it in 24 hours? It's a seductive challenge.

Others who have participated have their own reasons to try-- and for this, I have helpful insights provided by Manu Saxena, Carl Gerriets, Sidhain, Joshua Hockaday, 'Niklas, and Clive Oldfield, among others, on the excellent 24HourGame@yahoogroups.com list, for which I am obliged.

Reasons included fun (whee!), as a creative exercise, to do something different, to see how time pressure affects creative work, to ensure they actually finish something, to be less self-critical and more experiential, to get feedback from others, to be less emotionally involved with the work, to jump-start yourself, to hone time management skills, to improve one's ability to focus. That's a hell of a lot of neat internal growth from a 1-day period!

A usual publishing prime mover, 'egotism', was surprisingly absent. While there was a 'to see if I can/because I can' factor, well, frankly, every writer needs that self-delusion just to survive. And many of the published authors who tried a 24-er specifically mentioned that, were it ego, they'd just cite their in-print works. Philip Reed, a PDF publisher, is one of the concept's founders and even publishes a PDF on "how to publish a PDF" that mentions his own time-money criteria for self-publishing. But he did a 24-er, which has arguably less exposure than if he'd released it in his own line. There's more than ego here.

My motives, in the end, came down to "because I want to" and "because I can". There's an axiom that 'writers write', and for me, the 24 Hour RPG project was a fascinating structural framework that induced inspiration such that I was emotionally driven to engage in it. I don't know what to call it (probably 'ego', I'm so doomed), but there you have it.

One neat spill-out of the 24 hour creation process is that the actual game itself is both exactly what I intended, and something else entirely. For this, indulge me, here's a bit on what I wrote. The setting inspirations are no doubt influenced by Larry Niven's Anarchy Parks and Phil Foglio's 'Buck Godot' series. Both premise a world with no violence, then cheerfully focus on combat, violence, and other less savory aspects that the characters manage do to despite the barriers. I reckon people just like to fight.

If you take the core concept, though-- humans prevented from doing violence-- what's left? Well, 24 pages of RPG (*rim shot*).

Okay, without surprise, despite no combat system, this game is entirely about conflict, solving problems, achieving goals, building up reputation and influence, and ultimately defeating the very entities that are preventing us humans from engaging in our natural cycle of violence.

I'm not sure if it's a failing or achievement of my game, but it turns out I didn't need to leave combat out. In fact, combat could be added as "just another skill", and the no-violence backplot entirely removed. This would make it suitable for, oh, an Invisibles type game or other high-power heavy intrigue world.

I consider this revealed behavior, and one benefit of the 24 hour process. In essence, I created a game that was more than what I created. This should be the goal of any game writer, yet very often we get caught in cycles of revising, focusing, and cutting.

In a 24-hour process, you don't have time to really cut stuff. You're too busy trying to fill it out, shore out of the weak bits, punch up the fluff, and mix the metaphors. Having simple mechanics was almost a necessity for me, just to be able to hold it all in my head (see addendum for my definition of 'simple').

But simple allows for really complex possibilities on the player end. I'd argue that mechanics like Atlas' "Over the Edge" or WotC's "Everway" use simple creation and interaction rules to encourage very complex, almost literary interaction. Whereas D20 allows for creation of new rules (or skills, or classes, or gear, et cetera), but doesn't as it stands allow for extremely complex high-level interaction, merely elaborate tactical chaining.

But tossing away discussion of mechanics, systems, ego, and all that stuff that gets in the way of the pure creative spirit, we come down to, well, me (it's my column, MY COLUMN! Mwah ha ha... oh, wait, I haven't lost all my readers yet? Sorry.) So what did I get out of doing a 24 Hour RPG?

  1. A lot of fun.
  2. Free reign.
  3. A chance to test myself.
  4. Exorcism of a long-simmering idea.
  5. No cash.

Four out of five, not bad. But face it, the real question is this: what would you get out of trying to write a complete RPG in 24 hours?

Try it, then tell us. If you think you can...

Until next month,

Addendum: Simple Mechanics
Here is what I deem 'simple mechanics', and how The Monitors works. You have Pull, Rep(utation), Resources, and Skills. You get more Pull each turn based on your Rep, up to your Pull maximum. You use Pull with Skills and Resources to do Actions, which may include getting new Resources. Actions that fail cost more Pull. When you are out of Pull or used all your Resources in a given turn, you can take no more Actions. You can also use leftover Pull to defend against other's Actions against you during theri turn. Actions can change the Tilt of the game, which gives you more Pull. Rep increases by character votes at the end of each scenario. There, now go conquer the world (or at least read the damn game, it's free at 24 Hour RPG!

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What do you think?

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All Soapboxes

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  • April 7, 1998 Schroedinger Games, or, the GAMA Report
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  • October 2, 1997 "Fear of a Gaming Planet" (Welcome to the RPG ghetto?)
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  • July 2, 1997 "Good Deeds" (the dearth of evil game companies)
  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
  • March 2, 1997 "It's All in the Timing" (on hype and late deliveries, and on genres)
  • February 2, 1997 "Insiders and Outsiders" (who's who and who uses the web)
  • January 2, 1997 "Fits and Starts" (web presences, print runs, live roleplaying)
  • December 2, 1996 "Procastination Season is Over" (delays and new products)
  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
  • October 1, 1996 "Post-Con fallout and not that many new games"
  • September 1, 1996 "Our launch, news from GenCon, demos, new LARPS"
  • Our reason for existence

    Other columns at RPGnet

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