LowFantasy: iPhone App RPG Outline, part 1

2009 Jun 19

Christian Griffen challenged me to design an indie tabletop RPG as an iPhone app. Here’s the design work. The rest is up to you crazy programmer types, though I’ll be happy to help out however I can.

Guiding Principle

Teach a man to fish. Designing content that people consume is great, but the purpose of this project is to design an app that facilitates users creating, enjoying, and sharing content on their own terms, as active rather than passive participants in the life of the app.


LowFantasy is loosely based on a short game I designed (with some help from Dev Purkayastha and others) called Mare Caspium (PDF).

In broad terms, users create a map of a fantasy world of their own devising, define initial situations for different locations on that map, and then gather a group of friends to explore these situations as characters of their own invention, growing and changing the fantasy world and its situations as they play.

More In-Depth

Users use a pixel editor to design sprites and tiles for mapping their own fantasy world. They use these to build maps, where specific locations are tagged with a number of different Tweet-length written descriptions of various situations that can be encountered at those locations.

Then, a group of users signs on to play an instance of a particular map + situation set, collectively called a “fantasy.” Fantasies are generally played not in real-time, but in the manner of a play-by-email, play-by-forum, or play-by-chat game, leaving messages for each other.

Each user controls one or more characters, who move between locations on the map. When a character enters a new location, a message is sent alerting all the players to a random situation connected to that location that the character is presented with. While the user controlling that character describes the character’s response to the situation, the other players can also describe complications or antagonists connected to the situation. All these responses are Tweet-length and are passed between players, saved as a threaded conversation connected to that location.

Users can decide, at any time, that a character ceases engaging with one situation, either having their character move to a new location or randomly generating a new situation at that same location for the character to encounter.

Multiple characters can occupy the same location at the same time and can choose to encounter the same situation or different situations.

When a specific situation is marked by one or more players as having been resolved, it is no longer randomly generated and assigned to characters, but becomes part of the “history” of a location. Users can choose, during play, to add new situations to locations or simply allow the pre-generated situations to gradually all pass into history, leading the game towards an eventual conclusion as the character converge on the final remaining situations.

During play, users can also alter sprites, tiles, and the descriptions associated with specific characters and locations to reflect changes that have occurred over the course of the game.

Fruitful Void

There’s a whole lot of things that specifically are not supposed to be part of the app’s design:

1. We don’t tell people what to make with this, though there should probably be a number of example “fantasies.”

2. We don’t moderate, control, or distribute content (which is important for legal reasons), but allow users to pass content to each other through normal channels. If somebody wants to make Harry Potter fanfic fantasies or NC-17 stuff, that’s their business and nobody should be able to sue us for it. It’s like suing GMail.

3. We don’t tell people how to moderate or manage characters “encountering a situation.” People come up with their own resolution, whether it’s freeform or dice or whatever, using whatever methods they like. Perhaps we have a few included methods that have full native support, including freeform (which we don’t have to design for, but might explain a bit).

Anyway, that’s the gist. Next time, more specifics on features.

8 Responses to “LowFantasy: iPhone App RPG Outline, part 1”

  1. storybythethroat Says:

    That is hot. Makes me want an Iphone. I’m super-excited about using technology in this kind of way, where it’s procedure-driven, not content-driven, so users can create their own. Well done!


  2. Alex D. Says:

    I have no iPhone and probably won’t for a while, if ever…

    However! I’d be greatly interested in such a game on another platform. I hear that custom development for Nintendo DS’s is possible, and that does have wireless capabilities – I’d jump at such a thing, and quite a few gamers I know already have them.

    Or, hell, just on PC. Because this idea is really cool.

  3. misuba Says:

    I could definitely see this as a web app – perhaps actually using Twitter as the communication substrate.

  4. This is great stuff! I wish someone would put this interface together. A browser plugin for PC users, as a crossoverinterface, would be a bug bonus. That way, Lisa and I could play even when one of us is away fromhome :)

  5. Jonathan, is it important in making an “iPhone” game to make it so that using the iPhone is advantageous? I mean, I could play this game on paper and it would be better, I think, in every way except for the enabling of disconnected players (in both time and space). Or, as comments above, suggest — this would work fine as a web app.

    So, to be a “proper” iPhone game, does it need to take advantage of more? Platform portability? Geolocation? Internet connection? Voice connection? Camera?

    I have an iPhone. I write software for a living. I don’t (yet) have a modern Mac, but I’ve been seriously thinking about what makes iPhone software matter and how to use the platform. And I’m always centering my thoughts on games. So, I’m not trying to call bullshit or anything — I’d play that game! I’m just trying to find the balance between using the features of the platform and forcing the overuse of those features just because they’re there.

    Some other things:

    I’m interested in how the Fantasies would be distributed if not through the app as a portal. Passing content through “normal channels” seems like a bit of handwaveium.

    I like the idea of formalizing Fantasy creation as a collaborative act — modular maps or taking turns or attaching situations to the mapped bits authored by others. But I’m pretty sure that’s totally outside the scope of the game you imagined.

    For some reason, as I imagine playing the fantasies, I keep coming back to Otherkind dice instead of freeform or something else. That’s just an interesting note about my own psychology — I’m not sure what about your description is causing that.

    What are you envisioning happens with the history of a Fantasy. Is there some kind of AP-display to showcase how different groups played through a given Fantasy? That would be kind of neat.

  6. […] own story. This is a fundamental shift in design orientation and was the grounding principle of LowFantasy, the imaginary iPhone app I sketched out for Christian Griffen a couple years […]

  7. Paul Drussel Says:

    So it’s basically a MUSH with graphics and twitter like updates.

    Neat idea.

    • Yeah, you could think of it as a SMS-powered MUSH, automatically illustrated with low-fi pixel graphics that the players can freely alter, to be shared with just the group of friends that you allow in. And it’s not one big game world but a bunch of different instantiations.

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