It’s been said that “simple is best.” This is a fairly universal axiom that can apply to almost anything, including games. Of course, it can also be fairly ironic in that it’s also easy to take too far, in which case the simplicity is no longer what’s best. It’s in this vein that Postmortem Studios has released their game – I’m not sure if I should call it a role-playing game or not – The Little Grey Book.
The Little Grey Book is a two-page PDF file. Each page is divided into three columns, with the first column of the first page being the cover image, and the last column of the second page being a “character sheet,” as it were.
I keep equivocating about whether or not this is a role-playing game because, as a game, it lacks a lot of the traditional trappings of most RPGs. There is no randomizer, for instance (e.g. dice, drawing cards, etc.) nor is there any sort of referee or Game Master. The Little Grey Book is more of a storytelling game than anything else, and the quality of the stories are…well, read below for more on that.
The premise of The Little Grey Book is that it takes place in a utopian society. Everyone is equal in every way, and society is run by the Consensus. All permutations of sex and sexual identity are accepted, all ages are accepted, and even names have not only had surnames removed entirely, but the remaining personal names are all gender-neutral.
The game-play here involves each player (of which there need to be at least three) creating a character based on choosing a name, age, and gender/sex. Each player then describes one typical day in their character’s life, from waking up until going to bed. The remaining players collectively play the role of the Consensus; each Consensus member can describe a troubled situation that happens during the day (e.g. someone flirts with you), and the player needs to describe how they resolve it before continuing on with their day.
The rub here is that the (non-Consensus) player gets a black mark from the other members of the Consensus each time he does anything that violates the equality of someone else. This is incredibly easy to do. Frowning at someone is passing judgment on them, for instance. Using a gender-specific pronoun is making an assumption on their sexual identity. Offering a tip to a waiter is a comparative insult to other waiters. In other words, differences (both real and perceived) still exist between people, but every time you fail to pretend that such differences don’t exist, you get a black mark. Hence, virtually every time a Consensus member introduces a troubled situation into your day, you’re going to screw up somehow; it’s a given.
Each player takes a turn as the person describing their day, and all of the other players operate as members of the Consensus, until everyone has had a turn. Consensus members tell the player why they got the black marks they did, but there’s no arguing these judgments. The explanations are final. The game ends when the person with the most black marks is taken away for “adjustment” (which isn’t defined, though you can probably guess) and the person with the least black marks gets off with a warning…making them the de facto winner.
That’s literally the entire game.
It’s clear that The Little Grey Book is presenting us with a minimalist critique of political correctness. However, how much of fun you’ll get out of playing this game is debatable – like all instances of minimal presentation, what’s here is so little that it invites you to fill it in with your own interpretations; you can’t help but imbue this game with your own thoughts and prejudices on the exaggerated premise that it lays down. Likewise, the real fun also comes from just how bastard-ly your friends feel like being when they come up with troubles for you, and how try to wriggle out of the situations they invent.
I do think that there could have been some greater emphasis on some of the unique aspects of the setting, such as noting how the Consensus seems to be a borg-like collective governance, or that the troubles that arise during your day are caused deliberately by the Consensus as a test of a random citizen’s perception of social equality (though how they caused such issues to happen would be a bit tricky to answer).
Ultimately, there’s little to do here, which is sort of the point. Nobody will get through a day without a black mark, but the real fun is in trying. The game here is a very basic framework, and the play style is similarly basic. It’s a simple game, but as they say, sometimes simple is best.