The Window Playtest Review by Ron Edwards on 11/02/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A grass-roots Narrativist game that relies heavily on Drama mechanics. A good candidate for trying something new.
Product: The Window
Author: Scott Lininger
Company/Publisher: Methods in the Madness
Playtest Review by Ron Edwards on 11/02/01
Genre tags: Generic
IMPORTANT: This review assumes you are familiar with the terms and concepts introduced at http://www.sorcerer-rpg.com, in the essays "System Does Matter" and "The Nuked Apple-cart." Also: my ratings are highly subjective and have nothing to do with anyone else's priorities. I only include them because they are required.
The Window is one of the Great Historical Games of indie-grassroots role-playing. Scott Lininger wrote it and has played it at conventions for years; it's grown into a beautiful site and is now used as the system for many authors' settings. It deserves all possible accolades for what it is: a classic one-man's-dream system that's steadfastly defended itself since the bad old days and served as a witness for new-form RPGing.
The Window exists squarely in the same corner of game-design with Fudge and Risus: it is strictly a system, a way of doing role-playing, provided as a means for the group to figure out what does or does not happen during play. All the setting, story conventions, range of permitted character abilities, and so on, are left up to the group or GM. (I am not going to call it a "universal" system, because I don't believe there is such a thing.) Its claim to fame is in providing a mechanic that aids effective story-making, rather than inhibiting it.
In mechanics terms, The Window is almost exactly like Fudge, in that characters' abilities are rated along a seven-step range. Situational modifiers simply scoot you up or down the "rungs." Unlike Fudge, each rung is represented by a die type (d4 at the top, d30 at the bottom). An attempt is made by rolling one die type of that type. To succeed, you roll low; the default target value is 6.
Philosophically, The Window goes rather farther than any of the other games mentioned above. Three Precepts are stated which are considered to be the final Rule regarding any event during play. I'll follow each with my personal interpretation derived, I hope faithfully, from the surrounding text. Everything about a Window character is described with adjectives rather than numbers. [This refers only to how actions and descriptions are announced, as the system is in fact quantitative and the GM, at least, does have to think in terms of numbers and dice.]
It is the actor's responsibility to play their role realistically. [This does NOT refer to the usual "realism" employed in munchkin-style rules arguments, but rather wholly within the genre conventions of the moment. It does hold the player responsible to stick with those conventions in terms of the effects of damage or fatigue without relying on numbers or rules of any kind.]
A good story is the central goal. [As opposed to winning, as opposed to simulating. This is great insofar as one is playing with like-minded people, and like all Narrativist games, The Window assumes as much.]
Bluntly, there are no restrictions on character creation beyond the Three Precepts. The GM says, "Hey, let's play in a cyber-heavy, grim SF setting," and the players list up a bunch of stuff about their characters. The only check is the GM's sense of story: "Hey, that's stupid and doesn't fit. Take it out." I find no problem doing this, and I applaud Lininger in tossing out one of the cherished shibboleths of the 1980s RPG, "game balance." (Fudge, for instance, clings to this thematic holdover even as it proposes innovative mechanics.) Some GMs might need to develop their aggressive leadership skills to make it work, however.
The Window shares a certain limitation with all games of its type: it relies almost entirely on Drama without organizing its use in any way. Events occur or are resolved either by (1) Drama in the form of GM fiat, or (2) Fortune as dictated by the players' dice. These methods have a way of intruding upon one another in an uncomfortable way. During play, I keep finding myself wondering which to use, and wishing there were some structured way to determine when one over-rides the other, or for players to use Drama.
My only specific criticism concerns target numbers. The default system puts the target number at 6 (so d4 and d6 rungs are really effective unless there are situational modifers). However, the GM may also alter the target number at will! So there are two "dials" for determining the difficulty of the situation: rung AND target number. I find this even more confusing, especially as a GM - it means I have such total control over the difficulty in question that I might as well just use Drama and dictate what happens. I recommend that a Window GM set some standards for how he and she is going to operate the dials. (In my case, I pretty much ignore the target number adjustment and stick to the rungs.)
So how did it work out? I used a fantasy setting I've always loved, H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands all by itself, with no link to Call of Cthulhu. The Window worked wonderfully for character creation and, after I worked out some of the kinks following the first session, it was generally transparent to play. It seems to work best when the GM has a very clear idea of the conflicts at hand and perhaps even the outcomes, such that the players are mainly reactive. (As opposed to Puppetland, Extreme Vengeance, Amber, or Sorcerer, in which they must be very proactive.)
My final word is that not only you, but many a commercial RPG designer, should play the Window and any others of this type of game. It might be too free-form for you, but it will show you that such an approach is not impossible, and using the Three Precepts as written law will help your players to understand Narrativism, if that's what you desire.