Monday, September 6, 2021

High Concept Anxiety

A recent post on Monsters and Manuals reminded me how much I miss running High Concept RPG games. My friend David Cotton (who alas is no longer with us) used to say I ran two kinds of campaigns, Blockbusters and Art Films. Today, I want to talk about Art Films. 

Before I do though, I guess I should address what High Concept means. A Google word search defines it (via the Oxford Dictionary) as '(especially in a movie or television plot) emphasis on a striking and easily communicable idea'. Hmm. Not sure about that last part. Wikipedia says, 'High concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise'. Interesting. What I find odd about both of these descriptions, though I will concede that they are correct, is they say a High Concept story is easy to communicate or describe. For some reason that feels counter-intuitive. In my head the opposite is the case.

Standard Dungeons and Dragons is pretty easy to explain - warriors, wizards, and other Fantasy types go exploring dungeons and ancient ruins, kill the monsters that live there, and steal their treasure. Your run-of-the-mill Dungeon Crawl isn't very High Concept. 

Monster Hunter, the video and computer game franchise from Japan, takes that in a whole new direction. In a largely unexplored world, skilled people called Hunters slay monsters in order to produce things needed by the Medieval to Renaissance level societies of the world. These things include food, armor, weapons, and information on the environment and the Monsters themselves. Monster Hunting is a key economic and scientific touchstone of that world. 

That latter description is much longer and doesn't even scratch the surface of some of the Monster Hunter World's background and world-building. So how is High Concept easy to explain? Huh. Maybe it's a bit different with gaming? A standard game isn't Low Concept but it is relatively easy to convey - We're playing Superheroes. It's a Wild West game. We're playing Call of Cthulhu. There will be varying particulars but the basic premise of the campaign is described by a simple genre or IP title. You can give as little as a pitch line and your game idea can be understood. 

What I consider to be High Concept games can be a little less clear as to what the players will do in the game. It's possible the genre or setting will be atypical, a road less traveled as it were. Maybe the campaign's structure will be peculiar, with episodes told out of linear order or as if being narrated by a mystery storyteller. 

None of this implies things such as pre-plotted campaigns, pre-determined outcomes of events, or any such strange assumptions. A High Concept game is, in my humble opinion, one with an unusual concept, an innovative or at least non-traditional approach, and hopefully a memorable outcome. 

Next up, I will try to deliver one such campaign...

Barking Alien


  1. It sounds like High Concept corresponds with Blockbuster and Low Concept corresponds with Art Film. In this case, it's "high" as in High Marketability, not High Art. So, D&D is High Concept, albeit "Low Art" (depending on your DM). I think instead of calling games High or Low Concept and changing the meaning of the terms, maybe it's better to use other terms. I'm not sure what those terms are. Perhaps traditional versus non-traditional, or standard versus experimental, or mainstream versus avant-garde.

    1. I love Avant-garde! lol

      I think you hit the nail on the head. When I think High Concept, what I am really thinking about is something more akin to High Art.

      Simultaneously, I don't think I am quite pretentious enough to see my games as 'High Art'. Not quite. :P

      Experimental vs Traditional might be the way to go.Hmmm...

    2. I think Gordon's right. "It's a war. In space. We call it 'Star Wars'." High Concept. One (or a few) key concepts that the audience can easily grasp. "It's a story of human evolution, told from the earliest primitive roots of the species up through the creation of artificial intelligence and finally contact with higher dimensional beings." Highly artistic, but not 'striking' or 'easily communicable.'

      Of course, the post from Noisms seems to be using the term more to mean "heavily themed" which is a bit different from the dictionary definition.

    3. Right you are on all counts Dennis.

      I've come to the realization that I've really been using the term incorrectly all these years. I am guilty of taking it to mean 'Heavily Themed' and 'High Art' or actually some blurred definition lying somewhere in between.

  2. As the definition debate seems to be settled (I was going to post something akin to the other commentators), I have a broader question that relates to a question you posed on Twitter the other day.

    Given your good-natured "bait and switch" with your Alien campaign, and the release of a certain big franchise movie trailer yesterday, have you ever considered a Matrix style game where the player-characters are, for a couple of sessions, simply "norms", with a suspicion that "something is going on", until the curtain is pulled back by an external force (probably a key NPC) and it is revealed they are actually operating in a 'simulated reality'?

    1. It would be very difficult for me to sell the base game as, "You're going to be normal people in a normal, modern setting." I'd be lucky if anyone showed up to the first session and if they did it would be because they knew something was up.

      I once began a traditional Medieval Fantasy campaign by billing it as an experiment in using R. Talsorian's Interlock System (Cyberpunk 2020, Mekton II) for Fantasy. A test run for eventually doing something else.

      The players initially thought it was strange coming from me (knowing my general distaste for Dungeons and Dragons fare) but accepted it since they also knew of my love of Interlock. As we went on, it turned into a really good, though not particularly ground-breaking, campaign.

      Every once in a while I would throw in clues that something strange was afoot. At that point the players and PCs chalked some of the odd happenings and disembodied voices as the work of an Illusionist or some sort of Demon.

      The reveal was that the PCs had been trapped in some sort of Virtual Reality MMORPG, not unlike the Japanese Anime/Manga series' such 'Log Horizon' or 'Sword Art Online'. The system itself was none other than R. Talsorian Games' Dream Park.

    2. Love the fact that you can glide effortlessly from saying my "suggestion" wouldn't fly with your group to a detailed write-up of exactly how you pulled it off. Thank you!

    3. Not the same group. You gotta know your audience. 😉