As my Night’s Black Agents game is heading into its last mission, our group has begun discussing what to play next. The decision was to play Cyberpunk Red. It was a decision I was happy about since some of my fondest early memories of gaming were playing the original Cyberpunk back in the 80s. This led to the next question, “What kind of Cyberpunk game are we going to play?” Cyberpunk Red is a broad game, so without some discussion, we would have no idea what the game would be about.
This got me thinking about Broad and Narrow games, and the differences when starting campaigns.
So let’s talk about it.
What are Broad and Narrow games?
Before we can tackle this definition we have first to define another term: Situation.
Game designer and publisher, Jason Pitre, in his blog post on the four structures, defined Situation as: …the inciting incidents and the purpose of play. This is all about why you are playing the game, why your characters matter in the setting, and why the system will help them shape the narrative.
In other words, the situation is what the characters do in the game. What is the game about, session to session?
Building off of that, broad games are ones where the game loosely defines or does not define the situation of the game. Going back to Cyberpunk Red, this game is broad. It has a rich setting, telling you about the world, but it does not dictate what the characters do in the world. In fact, the book winds up giving you various suggestions about different things you could do in the game, leaving you and your group to define that.
There are plenty of games like this – D&D, Numenera, and Call of Cthulhu are all examples. They are all games where you can do many different things all in the same ruleset and setting.
Narrow games are ones where the game has a specific situation. The more specific, the more narrow the game. Many Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games are like this. They are designed to do a specific thing. The Sprawl is a PbtA cyberpunk game that is about teams doing missions. It is fairly narrow. Public Access by Jason Cordova is a creepypasta-inspired mystery game, where you investigate a public access channel that has gone missing, and is very narrow in what the characters do in the game.
All Campaigns are Narrow
While games may be broad or narrow, campaigns, on the other hand, need to be narrow. In order for the GM to know what to prepare, and for the table to have a shared understanding of what is going on, you have to define a more narrow situation for the game.
As a GM of many decades, when I look at new games, the first question that comes to my mind is “What do the characters do in this game?” The game will tell me in either broad or narrow terms. If the description is broad, then the next thing I look for are examples in the book of what some of the possibilities are.
Cyberpunk Red gives ten different suggestions of what the characters can do in the game, from being mercenaries taking jobs from corporations to being members of a Band. That list is extensive but not exclusive, meaning there are plenty more ideas that a group can come up with.
In broad games, the situation can change over time. The campaign may start with one situation and over time the characters may find a new calling or direction, and the situation changes. Regardless of the change, the situation always remains narrow, so the table has some idea of what they are doing in each story.
Taking a Broad Game and Making A Narrow Campaign
So when you have a game that is broad, how do you get to a narrow campaign? No surprise here…communication. There is no set way to do this. Someone in the group (often the GM) could come to the rest of the players with a proposal for the situation of the game.
For example, I could approach my players and suggest that I would like to run a Cyberpunk Red game where the characters work for Trauma Team, the combat medics who fly into dangerous situations, and patch up anyone who has a Trauma Team account. The campaign would be about doing various rescues around the city, as well as the drama of their lives when they are not saving others – a cyberpunk medical drama.
The other way to do it is to collaborate. Having come to an agreement on the game you are playing, the group can talk about the different situations for the game and together work up an idea. This is what my group did.
For example: In our discussion, we decided we wanted to play something street-level, but less mission-based, as we just finishing up our Night’s Black Agents game and that was all mission-based. After some discussions about the setting and things in the setting that interested everyone, we came to the decision that the characters are protecting and helping a specific neighborhood and that the game would be about solving problems in the neighborhood, protecting the people of the neighborhood from gangs, corporations, etc, and we would also have some more personal stories about the people in the neighborhood.
From that discussion, I was able to start narrowing down the various types of stories that the campaign will start with. I know that I want to have some personal stories about characters and the NPCs in the neighborhood. I know that there are going to be some external threats. There are going to be things that the neighborhood needs. That is more than enough ideas to get a campaign started.
When to Define the Situation?
Your first instinct may be to say Session Zero, but I will disagree. You should define the situation of a broad game as part of the activity for picking a game. With broad games, your job is not done simply by picking the game. You need to narrow that situation during the game selection process. The Cyberpunk Red Trauma Team game is a lot different than the street level game that I am going to run. In fact, they are really two different games, using the same rules.
You want to head into Session Zero, where you are building consensus about what the game is about and creating characters for the game, with a full idea of what the characters do in the game. Your Session Zero will be far more productive if you have already narrowed your situation during game selection.
Taking a Narrow Game and Making a Broad Campaign
For the sake of completeness, let’s talk about the converse of what we have been talking about – taking a narrow game and making it more broad. Can you do it? Possibly. Should you do it? My personal opinion is no.
You can take a narrow game and change the situation, in essence broadening the game. How well it works will depend on how tightly the rules were coupled to the situation, and how narrow the initial situation for the game was. Can you take The Sprawl and use it for a Trauma Team game? I think so, with some work. Some of the moves of the game won’t make sense, and some new moves will be needed, but it might work. Can you take Public Access and make it into a monster-hunting game? Doubtful.
Table Top Role Playing games are an amazing form of entertainment. They let us share any kind of story we can imagine. Some games offer rules to tell a broad range of stories, while others are tightly focused on one story. Regardless of how broad or narrow a game is, we as the gaming group need to create a more narrow idea of the kinds of stories we want to tell. With a bit of imagination and some good communication, we can find the kinds of stories we want to bring to our tables.
Do you prefer broad or narrow games? What are some of the more unique situations you have come up with in a broad game? Have you ever taken a narrow game and changed the situation?
Thoughtful article. One way of broadening a narrow game is to combine it with another game. In a way, the Free League’s games are like this. It’s the same game in different packages, and you can combine them to get “kids on space bikes meets aliens”, for examples. I’m currently playing with the idea of combining Unknown Armies with City of Mist and Kingdom of Nothing.
Another thing to ponder is how some games can have multiple Situations, for example having meta play and play. In Ars Magica, you play both wizards and their henchmen. The wizards are on a different “layer” when it comes to the decision-making, while the henchmen are more traditional adventurers.