No-Player RPGs, or Imagination Games

Jul 1 · 4 min read

For the last 11 month or so, I’ve made about 40+ “games”. The vast majority has been for my One Card RPGs thing, which set out to make a small RPG every day for the first wave and three times a week for the second wave. A Korean-language TTRPG wiki describes the project succinctly:

A collection of mini-RPGs that you can play on an index card! (Sometimes you can’t.)

And that’s a great description, I think, because some of the games I made can’t be played and meant not to be played. At least, in the traditional sense of “playing a game”.

During that 11-month period, I made another game called Taterpig: A No-Player TTRPG. It started as a funny thought in my head, but I made it a game because it expressed a lot of my thoughts over the year.

Does a game need to be played or even playable to be a game?

It might sound like a dumb question! Most would say “of course!” but I feel differently at this point. Let me explain!

When I first discovered TTRPGs, I had no-one to play them with. The first TTRPG IP that I ran across was Mage: The Ascension in its descent years. I thought the writing and world-building were fascinating and the game system stimulated my young brain. I read as many books as I could (I had no idea of TTRPG editions back then, so my understanding of the game’s setting is still hodge-podge) and simulated playing the game in my head. And it was fun.

Eventually I started playing TTRPGs with others. It is great fun, but I don’t know if I want to compare that fun with the no-player TTRPG experience because I might favor the latter. Playing with others introduces constraints that don’t exist when I’m imagining TTRPGs — character relationship dynamics, system niches, real-life logistics, et cetera.

But the biggest issue, I think, is discovering that players at a game table are playing different games. Say, a table is playing Dogs in the Vineyard. One player is imagining ethical drama; one player is imagining coming-of-age story; another is imagining gun-toting action. Maybe Dogs in the Vineyard could support all those modes of play (well, maybe less on the last), but I don’t know if players having different and sometimes at-odds games in mind enhances fun in a universal, omnidirectional way.

Like, okay, if that’s the case then I need to choose a kind of fun and go that direction. Conflict! Emotional drama! Twisted and constructive relationships! Delegated and co-dependent roles! Those are excellent sources of fun. But… what if I could choose a different direction of fun?

What if a TTRPG could be a framework of intrapersonal (as opposed to interpersonal) imagining? It’d be more like writing a novel or a poem than paying a game, perhaps. But it’d still be a game — guidance on imagining, structure for resolving conflict, constraints on choice, and so on. This “no-player game” would have total but guided control of the imagined game world. There would be things one could do and couldn’t do.

This isn’t a game where player sit down around the table (or an online chat room). Nobody is really playing it. It’s a no-player TTRPG.

I’m not done yet! I think there’s another path where a TTRPG can become a no-player game, perhaps in a more literal way.

I made this game some months ago. This game cannot be played, at least according to how it’s written. It’s statistically impossible.

Still, it has rules and goals. It has a structure for doing thing. There is even an achievable victory condition. And (dare I say it) it’s mentally stimulating to think about playing it. But it can’t be played. I seriously doubt anyone has played it since I posted it online.

I did not intend anyone to play this game! Infinite origami papers would be so expensive and preparing the materials alone would destroy the world.

Nobody plays this game. It can’t have a player, according to the rules. I still think it’s a game, however, and I think it evokes imagination. Thinking about playing this game may provide a new way of thinking about things.

Those are just some ideas I had about games where no player is necessary or possible. No-player RPGs. There are probably many other ways a game could be a no-player game.

Where does mental stimulation happen? It’s definitely not from interacting with other players in a guided way. It’s definitely not from solving problems with elements one has no control over. I think it’s purely from imagination, an inherently critical part of TTRPGs.

Long ago, when I was more active in a certain TTRPG fan community, I was yelled at for talking too much about that game despite having never played it. They meant to discourage me from speaking up or talking about it with the justification that I’m not a player of the game.

I don’t really know if their argument is valid anymore.


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