Thursday, March 17, 2016

Astrorobbers is a tiny RPG that might be too minimalist

While I had been looking for Astrorobbers after Alessandro Piroddi referred to it in his design notes for The Name of God, I stumbled upon it completely by accident.

You see, the game is actually in a free pamphlet called 'What is a Roleplaying Game' with no hint that it might be called Astrorobbers. Heck, for all I know, the game might technically not have a name and Astrorobbers is just a knick name. I found it when I was looking for Vast and Starlit, another game by Epidiah Ravachol, and decided to take a look at it.

Astrorobbers uses a stripped down version of Vast and Starlit. The original version of Vast and Starlit was designed to fit onto a large business card and Astrorobbers is a stripped down version of that. Wow.

Astrorobbers is basically a heist movie, a la Oceans Eleven or the Italian Job or Reservoir Dogs. The players are a group of criminals who are planning a big job. The twist is that they are also astronauts since who's going to suspect a bunch of NASA astronauts to be robbing a bank on the day that they are blasting off into space? Of course, since this is a heist movie, there are going to be complications and things are going to go terribly wrong.

Mechanically, Astrorobbers is a GM – free system with the players basically acting as a troupe. You take turns playing the focal character while everyone else fills in the world around them. The scene ends when you reach a critical decision, with the non-focal players offering consequences for the decision.

The theme really only comes into play with mechanics in a couple of ways. One player has to plan the heist while another is the  commander of the space mission and one person has to plan to turn themselves into the authorities. Beyond that, the game ends when everyone is captured or dead or in orbit.

Since the game consists of a cover page and one page of rules, it only took me about a minute to read through it. And I don't regret taking that minute. The theme is certainly kooky but not so kooky that you could use it. And it is always interesting to look at a minimalist system, which Astrorobbers definitely is.

At the same time, Astrorobbers is really more of a thought experiment for me then a game I could never see myself playing. Simply put, I want to see more structure.

Technically, a game like Baron Munchaussen has fewer rules. You're a bunch of nobleman drinking in a bar and telling stories with the only mechanic being away to interrupt each other. However, in one sentence, I've described the framework that the game works around. With Astrorobbers, you pretty much have to build the framework yourself with the theme just being a suggestion. 

And yes, with the right group of players, that won't be a problem. Heck, I have played with that right group of players more than once. However, a framework and a structure gives you the parameters of what you are exploring. Astrorobbers is so free-form that you can do anything with it. The author freely admits that you can use the rules to do something completely different.

A good narrative game should give you a lot of freedom. However, it should also give you the tools that you use to create the story. A good set of rules should not restrict you. A good set of rules should inspire you and guide you, challenge you to find different ways to think outside the box. Unfortunately, I just don't think there's enough to Astrorobbers to really do that.

However, I'm not going to knock it for that. Both the Name of God and the author's own Vast and Starlit build on these rules to make much more interesting and inspiring games.

The ideas in Astrorobbers are fine, they just don't go far enough. But, hey, it's a free giveaway. Asking it to change the world seems a bit much.

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