Monday, January 1, 2024

Capsule ๐Ÿ’Š Games – Part 1: Introduction

Artist credit: Katie Hicks

Dolmenwood is now a big deal. But it was a journey to get here. It was originally conceived as a setting by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk around 2013, to be used with B/X Essentials (now Old School Essentials). But by early 2016, they began to flesh it out through the Wormskin zine, making it a full on playable hexcrawl. See, most setting guides merely provide fluff. The GM then has to translate that fluff into gameable content. This is the burden of their prep. But an adventure module takes the next step and completes that prep for you. The forest isn't merely described for your imagination. It's described as hexes, and the hexes are already populated with the gameables. But by 2023 we find out that Dolmenwood is also going to contain its own bespoke rule system, too! A fairly simple one, of course. Basically just OSE with some tweaks and additions. But I can't help but notice that, increasingly, there is less and less you'll have to buy or make or decide upon in order to have the complete Dolmenwood experience. They've got it all handled for you. However, it's still assumed to be an open-world sandbox, so ultimately any two groups are still going to have a mostly different experience.

Not too long ago I wrote a review about Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game. I stumbled over a particular part. It wasn't the first time. Every time I've told someone about it, I've stumbled on this part. That part is, "do I call this an adventure? Or do I call this a system? A game? A setting?" The truth is that it's all of them. It's a complete package. Even more interesting, it's a package built to replicate the experience of a movie, while also still being freeform and including audience-authorship of the experience. It's remarkably successful at threading that needle. You play it and it feels like you just played out the movie Labyrinth. But it also unmistakably feels like you played your version of the movie Labyrinth. It manages to feel like both. And all of that was contained within one book (even the dice!).

Yazeba's Bed & Breakfast is also hard to describe. It's simply itself. It definitely is a role-playing game. But there's a lot of assumptions it's breaking. Players don't make their own characters. They don't even select or roll pre-generated characters. Rather, they play as these characters. They play as Gertrude, Hey Kid, Sal, Parish, and Amelie. These characters with these names and these histories and these personalities. Then, they play out sitcom-like slice of life episodes. But not episodes of your own invention. They play through these episodes. About 50 of them. And by completing episodes, progressing through the series, you unlock these new characters and story developments. It also includes a lot of assets, especially the digital version. An entire virtual interface to play through that elevates the experience. In part, this serves to cut down on prep. But also, it makes the experience more specific to the creator's vision.

These aren't all quite doing the same thing, but they're certainly doing a lot of similar things. Things I'm seeing more and more of and that I find exciting.

Artist credit: Ulla Thynell

This post has been written in collaboration with a number of other RPG thinkers, chiefly Ava Islam and Josh McCrowell. It came about as a result of us discussing a lot of the exact same design trends that we had each independently noticed and taken an interest in. It was this very convergence of shared ideas that convinced us that this was something worth describing. That it's, y'know, a thing. Ava came up with the name.

What's a Capsule Game?

Most RPGs are toolkits. They provide you with some material to get started. Often you have to combine ingredients from a variety of sources. Choose a system, choose a setting, choose an adventure, homebrew one or all of those variables yourself, fill in whatever other blanks remain, bolt on some cool supplements and zines you want to try out, etc. The DIY ethic is the lifeblood of RPGs. And I truly love that.

But now try to imagine the opposite of that. A product that is, by itself, the whole package. It's self-contained, complete in its vision, and thoroughly-realized. It's like a capsule you get from a vending machine. Crack it open and get a toy inside.

Personally, that doesn't sound so bad to me. While the main thing that pulled me so deep into RPGs is the culture of homebrew (at time of writing, "DIY" is the second most common tag on my blog), I've found myself being more and more drawn to "capsule design." You're probably pretty skeptical, but bear with me.

What exactly does a so-called capsule game look like in practice that is apparently so appealing to me? What kind of qualities can we imagine would make a product "cappy"?

  • It includes a rule set. i.e., it covers your Game Design needs. By itself, this is usually just, y'know, "a system" or "an RPG."
  • It includes an adventure, scenario, or whatever other material you "consume." It covers your Level Design needs. By itself, this is usually either "a setting guide" or maybe "an adventure module."
  • Characters aren't made from scratch. Of course, most games including a rule set also contain material for making characters. But playbooks, pre-generated builds, and starting packages are cappier, and fully-created unique characters to play as are even cappier still.
  • "Pick up and play." The easier the game makes it to save on prep and get straight to the table, the cappier it is. Maybe that means that there are already character sheets included. Maybe it means that there's a map you can use rather than having to print one off. Maybe it means that cheat sheets and well-keyed resources are included so you don't have to re-prep the damn adventure yourself. Instant fun right out of the box.
  • It embraces finitude. Every piece of the equation is defined and finite. Players may even be welcome to learn the totality of its content and take advantage of that.
  • Playing this game as it already is provides a complete experience. There's no expectation that you need to buy another supplement or a sequel.

It's important to emphasize that cappiness is a fuzzy spectrum, not a strict category. Let's talk about a few more examples to really hammer that point.

Artist credit: Isaac Williams

1. Almost no cappiness: Mausritter

Mausritter is a pretty standard OSR game. I mean, it's about playing as little mice adventurers. But otherwise, it's as by the book as you get (albeit exceptionally well-polished). Roll up your character randomly, rely on these flexible procedures, embrace rulings over rules, put the players in the driver's seat, and generate interesting content with lots and lots of juicy random tables. So when I defined capsule games as "the opposite of a toolkit," understand that Mausritter is the epitome of a toolkit game.

But it does include a sample hexcrawl within its pages. "The Earldom of Ek." It's offered as an example of what your own hex map should look like, right alongside all the resources to make one yourself. There is an expectation that you are supposed to make your own setting, your own map, your own content. 

But like... that "sample" is pretty thoroughly stocked. Plus there are lots of sample monsters and factions already made, too. You could totally just skip the generation stuff and use the examples. The game already has enough finished content to fuel a good mini-campaign, I reckon.

So I would say that Mausritter is very far from being a capsule game in its spirit, but it could be made significantly cappier with just one small change: cut the random tables entirely. If they instead offered that hexcrawl and declared in the text, "this is the official setting of Mausritter," then that would be quite cappy. Would the product benefit from it? Probably not, but that's because it is otherwise so committed to an entirely anti-cappy design philosophy.

Artist credit: Jaime Garcรญa Mendoza

2. Playing around with cappiness: Pendragon

Pendragon was ahead of its times in a lot of ways. It's almost like a proto-capsule game. On the one hand, it still abides by most of the standard RPG assumptions. Player Characters are made from scratch. The GM still probably has to make their own adventures. Hacking it is a time-honored tradition. I've heard of people making a samurai hack of Pendragon, a Song of Ice and Fire hack, a Middle Earth hack, even a Star Wars hack.

But the thing is, making those hacks is more work than you'd think. We're talking about the King Arthur game. That isn't just a superficial flavoring on top of an otherwise-generic medieval fantasy game. It's interwoven with every aspect of the design.

Every session covers a year's worth of events. You play through some quest that represents the main episode of your knightly life during that year, but then you also handle some downtime stuff to fill in the gaps in between all the exciting adventures. More importantly, you progress through a pre-set timeline covering 80 years. From the reign of Uther Pendragon to the death of Arthur by the hands of Mordred, each major event in the history of Camelot is laid out for the GM to reveal over the course of the campaign.

And a lot of the game's mechanics themselves are keyed to specific events in the timeline. After the first 20 sessions or so, your character is too old to keep adventuring. So you retire them and play as their eldest kid for the next 20-30 sessions. But even though you've "lost experience," it doesn't feel like starting over from the beginning. Because the world itself is leveling up, independently of your individual character. As the years go by, the horses get stronger and bigger, the armor gets better and heavier, new weapons are invented, new types of fortification are introduced, and even new classes of knight get unlocked. For example, your first character will be a "religious knight," but once the Round Table is founded then you can play as a "chivalric knight."

The king and the land are one.

The rules and the campaign are one.

The main thing keeping Pendragon from being a "true" capsule game is a lack of commitment to that vision. "The Great Pendragon Campaign" has traditionally been published as a supplement to Pendragon, with all setting and campaign info relegated to an optional side book. I honestly think it really ought to just be packaged into the core rulebook, fully embraced as the campaign of the system. The mechanics are the setting.

Artist credit: Dirk Detweiler Leichty

3. Proper capsule design: Silent Titans

If you ask me, this right here is a Grade A example of a classic capsule game. It may have been the earliest example that I, personally, encountered. It's not maximum cappiness, but it's the exact sort of product I want to paint a picture of in this post.

I remember when this game was first announced, there was similar confusion about "what to call it" as I found with Labyrinth. Patrick Stuart is known for writing adventures and setting books, right? So some people called it an adventure and other people called it a setting. But it's also a "Mark of the Odd" game, which hadn't quite caught on yet in 2019. Patrick Stuart has written most of his RPG products either for LotFP / B/X D&D or to just be outright system-agnostic. So making a bespoke Into the Odd hack based around this one adventure is definitely a bit unusual.

I think that Into the Odd is already a little inherently cappy, too. Yes, you roll your starting stats and HP. But then you cross-reference those against a table of pre-generated starting packages. Silent Titans even takes it a step further and gives them names and personalities! They're pretty one-dimensional compared to the characters in Yazeba's Bed & Breakfast, mind you. But there is a gargantuan difference between playing your own PC you made yourself versus the book declaring that you shall play as "Sir Colgrin Cador the Pure, a knight magically transformed into an Orangutan. He cannot speak, but his HEART IS TRUE."

Beyond just merging game design, level design, and character options, Silent Titans has bonus material that supports "pick up and play." The full version comes with character sheets, paper miniatures, and printed maps.

Between all these things, I feel like Silent Titans achieves a "completeness" that you almost never see. Funny, then, that Ava specifically cited it as an example of a game that she didn't treat as self-contained, instead plopping it down into an existing D&D game. Nothing is immune to the DIY ethic, so don't take this post's theory as a rejection of that. You can't stop a GM from doing whatever they want to do with the product you offer them. But I still feel like this product is about as close as you can get to being the opposite of a toolkit. No DIY necessary.

Artist credit: Les Edwards

4. Hyper-capsule game: HeroQuest

Alright so obviously this isn't an RPG. And, therefore, it's not a capsule game. I mean, nearly all board games ever made are fully encapsulated. There's almost never an expectation that you provide your own board, cards, or dice.

So why bring it up at all? Well, because HeroQuest is one of the most RPG-like board games out there. The first time I played it, I couldn't really evaluate it compared to other board games. I found myself instead comparing it to D&D. In fact, it kind of just feels like a set of training wheels to prepare you for RPGs. "You're not ready for tactical infinity yet. Start off with just these six actions for now."

The simple addition of freeform mechanics, of tactical infinity, is probably all that it would take to make HeroQuest into an RPG. For my own part, while Silent Titans may have been the first capsule game that made an impression on me, it was from playing this board game for the first time that I began my fixation on cappy design. It pretty much demands comparison to RPGs.

So if we were to play pretend for a moment and imagine that it had those few adjustments, the hypothetical RPG that results would be, like, the ultimate capsule game. Something that we can maybe learn from.

Game design? Sure, we're throwing out those six actions and instead saying "freely describe what your character does from your imagination." But all the other mechanics are solid. The combat rules are the purest distillation of hack-n-slash ever and the magic and spellcasting is better than most games.

Level design? There's a quest book containing every scenario you'll ever need, with full dungeon layouts already populated with enemies, treasures, traps, and a complete storyline.

Characters? No character generation process, no point-buy, no mix-and-match, no designing a "build." Pick a character, give them a name, maybe a personality, you're ready. Their intrinsic stats, their learned skills, their equipment, and even their appearance are already decided.

Pick up and play? Why else would it come in a box? D&D has a long tradition of releasing starter kits, but never anything this comprehensive. It includes dice, character sheets, miniatures, props, spell cards, and a GM screen. Moreover, it even has a battle mat! The only one you'll ever need, so you never have to buy or print off any others. The dungeon board is infinitely flexible, as the layout of the current dungeon simply emerges by the clever placement of doors and wall tiles.

Finitude? This is one of those games that you can become good at simply by learning its content really thoroughly. When there's a finite number of magic items, it becomes possible for players to learn them all and immediately recognize the significance of a good find. When there's a finite number of enemies in the game, each with its stats always-visible to the players, they can come to learn them all and form plans and strategies based on them. Most importantly, there's a beauty in having a finite number of quests, a storyline that you can actually beat. This may sound like a bad thing, since you'll have to stop playing once you run out of content. But it'll take you and your friends a really long time to reach that point because this game is hard. The "eternal campaign" is treated as the Holy Grail of RPGs, but there's something incredibly satisfying about earning your triumph and "closing the book" instead.

A complete experience? Well, maybe not. There are tons and tons of expansions with more HeroQuest content available, and even the original game had a blank page at the end of the quest book inviting you to design your own scenario. Indulging in those creative impulses is inevitable, and it's not the aim of capsule game design to reject that.

But at least when you're starting out, it's really nice to be provided with assets and prep work done. Just learning the basics of running an imagination game with your friends is such a monumental challenge that it's no wonder so many people's early attempts at getting into the hobby fizzle out. They're trying to learn too many different skills simultaneously and lack focus.

But wait! There's more!

I have a lot of things to say about capsule games, which is why this is a series of posts. It's a fascinating design philosophy with a lot of unexplored potential. This post is merely a foundation. I aim to continue this in a series of essays that each meditate on some particular special and interesting types of cappy design in games. And I won't be the only one!

Go to Part 2



  1. I've noticed this vein of design as well, and one of the supporting qualities I had identified was of *vertical integration* between the system, setting, and scenario(s).
    A game can just compose any game system with a setting primer with one or more adventures/session outlines and be a 'capsule game' as you describe it, but when the creator leverages those choices they can build tight links between layers that don't usually exist.
    Examples I can think of from Dolmenwood include: restoring saint's shrines for bonus spells and divine spells each having a saintly tale, moon signs giving small character perks, the character creation tables favouring elements that hook into existing factions or campaign frames.
    Compare this to the D&D 5E character creation steps of background and ideal / bond / flaw / trait that need to be rather generic/agnostic to setting and scenario.
    I think one of the landmark capsule games was John Harper's Lady Blackbird - it is acknowledged by several prominent designers and influencing their own work - and it's a design space we could definitely see mined further.
    Looking forward to further instalments on this!

    1. You've already anticipated some of the big talking points of future posts! I couldn't phrase it better. "Building tight links between layers that don't usually exist" is one of the most interesting parts of capsule design, to me.

      I was going to talk a bit about Lady Blackbird as an example in some later posts regarding a number of different cappy design traits. In fact, Jay Dragon says that YBB actually started as a Lady Blackbird hack!

    2. Fantastic! I await with interest to see how you (and your party members) tease out these ideas. I think this is ripe territory for independent and small creators to innovate. There is a potential space between traditional TTRPGs and modern board gaming that is not yet fully defined, but promises complete yet *easy to swallow* imagination games. Capsule games may reach some members of the board gaming crowd that have so far not been lured in to our hobby, and I would always welcome more voices at the table!

  2. Another good example of this I think in the same vein as Silent Titans is the Super Blood Harvest series

  3. Interesting post! I think the term "capsule game" has the power to stick. But I have a question. If cappiness is a matter of degree, as you have convinced me, with some games being more encapsulated than others, then what is the opposite relational term? What is the opposite of a capsule game? The other end of the spectrum, whatever that is, should be named and illustrated with examples, to give encapsulation more coherence as a descriptive and analytical concept. No cap! (sorry, I could not resist)

    1. Dwiz described most RPGs as toolkits, so "toolkit game" seems fitting.

      I think Kevin Crawford's Without Number games are a pretty great examples: they're all extremely generic but also very adaptable and contain a lot of different tools for the GM to use. In his review of Stars Without Number, Ben Milton described Crawford as an "anti-auteur", a designer that deliberately avoids a distinctive style and instead just presents tools.

    2. "Toolkit" game may work, if we understand it to mean a game that merely intends to present a toolkit. What makes it work as a contrast with encapsulated is that toolkit games are also a matter of degree, depending on the degree of encapuslation. The original D&D names specific fantasy authors as points of reference on the first page, making it less of a toolkit than, say, GURPS. On the other hand, even capsule games have toolkits buried in them. I wonder whether "toolkit games" will hold up if we push on it.

      "Anti-auteur designer" is an interesting term, too. I had a discussion not long ago with somebody about the auteur designer, but I didn't know it was being discussed anywhere else explicitly in those terms. Please let me know of other such discussions if you have references.

  4. I fully accept it lacks the same euphony and has a doomed fate, but I am compelled to propose that the quality of *encapsulation* be termed precisely that (by analogy to bacteriology rather than pharmacology), and hence the alternative end of the spectrum be dubbed *unencapsulated* games. Something more pithy will surely emerge though.