This prompt actually had me stumped for a couple of weeks. I worked around this posting because, well, I just couldn’t think of anything profound — or even interesting — to say. I’m not certain that has changed. Here we go anyway with Small

I usually find myself looking at games from the GM perspective. It’s the role I get stuck with, and honestly prefer, now, so I’ll start with that. Thinking about storytelling (even the collaborative type like RPGs), I realized that while big extravaganzas and denouements are fun and spectacular, they’re not always a better route to go when trying to rope in the players or engaging with the characters. A good example of what I mean would be Captain America: Civil War — which along with Winter Soldier are probably the best of the Marvel movies for character and story, respectively. Civil War may feature tons of characters, old and new, and they all get their beats in the spotlight, but ultimately, this is a story about the history, motivations, and conflict between Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Tony Stark. The movie has a spectacular action set piece, but it’s in the middle of the movie; the ending is small — these three characters, with the antagonist separate from them, in a tight, enclosed space. There’s no room for flash, and the physical closeness places the action on the emotions and motivations of the three characters: Steve wants to redeem his friend, Bucky just wants to survive but is also guilty over his past, and Tony who is driven by a need to be a better person at the start of the movie, who has been rebuffed and battered by his conflict (physical and emotional) with Cap, has that warped into anger and a lust for revenge. Zemo, the man who orchestrates much of the conflict, isn’t even really the antagonist here; he’s a catalyst. These three men are each other’s antagonists.

It’s a beautiful use of character to drive the story, and because of that — despite the global implications of the Sokovia Accords — it’s a small story. Similarly, Winter Soldier for all its grappling with the security state and loss of freedom, is a small story: once Cap knows who the Winter Soldier is, mis motivation is more about saving his friend than saving the world (as evidenced by the agonizingly long fight sequence/talking about our feelings scene between the two in the middle of a major battle.)

Sometimes, smaller is better. Instead of the massive fight scene and conspiracy, sometimes a small story over a session or two that has a personal impact on the characters is more engaging for the players and characters than a major action piece with maps and minis. It can also be more challenging, not just for roleplaying, but for problem solving; instead of punching your way through the problem, you’ve got to gut it out, reason it out, or what have you. (In our Battlestar Galactica campaign, we used to call these “talking about our feelings” episodes. For more on this, see ever damned episode of Star Trek: Discovery — seriously…you’ve got two minutes to save the universe, now is not the time for a heart-felt conversation with your brother.)

As a sometime game writer and connoisseur of RPGs, I would suggest that smaller is often better for game systems and setting guides. Case in point: One of my daughter’s favorite new systems is Broken Compass, a very lightweight system for pulp-style games. (See my review here.) The rules are incredibly terse, and this is a good thing. Like early FATE, BC keeps the mechanics out of the way until they are needed, and this makes for fast, fun play. FATE, likewise, is best when small. There are plenty of games that try to do more “crunch” with FATE, and usually not well, I find. One of my favorite systems to date is the original Cortex by Jamies Chambers — the rules are tight and fast, but with enough variability to characters to make it interesting.

Then there’s the other end. We’ve been playing 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and combat, magic use, everything has a bloody rule for it. There’s two 300+ page books just to play the game. As the current president might say, “Come on, man!” FATE has an excellent setting, Mindjammer, which is lovely, but I can’t come to grips with how much stuff in the universe there is to do. That has always been the case with The Jovian Chronicles, which has dozens of art books, sourcebooks, rules books. It’s a gorgeous, well-fleshed out universe that I find impossible to grab onto for a campaign. When I started running the new Alien RPG, this was another issue. The core book is in the mid-300 page range and there were lots of hooks; now there’s the gigantic Colonial Marines Operations Guide to complement it. I knew I didn’t want to do the eponymous creature, so what? I settled on a series of small adventures built around corporate espionage and the synthetic question (the latter seems to be much more in Ridley Scott’s interest, as well, judging from the latter movies). Small missions with low stakes built to bigger missions with bigger stakes, and allowed us to approach the setting a bite at a time. I suspect this would be the best way to approach the gigantic Coriolis setting, as well: start with some family politicking or survival level characters on a single planet and grow from there.

Sometimes, small and simple is better.