In the Douglas Adams book Life, The Universe, and Everything a ruined supercomputer creates a full-scale model of a spaceship and crashes it into an isolated planet. From the wreckage of that spaceship, the people of the planet are able to reverse-engineer the science of interstellar travel, despite having never even conceived of the existence of a universe outside their own world.
That's how Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine makes me feel. Like I have received a communication from some superior intelligence and it has revealed a whole new sphere of possibility that I had not hitherto imagined.
Which sounds like pretty over-the-top praise (and I must admit that this is one of my top three "save this from the fire" objects, should my house ever burn down), but it's not purely a compliment. Much like a coded message from a pulverized alien computer, this book can sometimes be a bit tough to decipher. It took me a couple of read-throughs and a lot of online conversation to fully realize what Chuubo's was trying to do, and despite my enthusiasm, I've never been able to pitch it successfully to my friends.
So what is this game, and why am I geeking out about it so hard? Some of it goes a bit beyond the scope of the first two chapters. Quests, Arcs, and Issues are important aspects of the formula, and I'm still a few days away from getting there. But the overview in Chapter 1 and the genres in Chapter 2 cover enough ground that I'm comfortable talking about it in general terms.
Ordinarily, when you're playing a roleplaying game, you are describing what your character does and then the GM describes the outcome and then you describe what you're doing next and that sequence of events, whatever they might be, becomes the story. CMWGE doesn't do anything especially different from that, but its mechanics are designed to make you aware of what you're doing. At any given moment, you are on the lookout for opportunities to express the campaign's themes, or demonstrate something about your character's inner life or advance a dangling side-plot because doing those things engages with the mechanical widgets on your character sheet. The net result is an rpg that posits "what if you did the story stuff on purpose."
And that's what made it such a revelation for me. It made me realize that all the stuff about plot pacing and character emotions and player engagement could be part of the game. What you're physically doing at the table doesn't have to be wholly abstracted away from what you're trying to achieve in the fiction of the game. The game rules don't have to simulate the physics of the world. They could, instead, simulate the structure of the story. I wouldn't say that CMWGE is necessarily the best game out there, but there's no other book on my shelf that will do more to make you a better game designer.
Let's wrap up by getting concrete. What do you actually do? Well, the whole game revolves around earning XP, and much of the space on your character sheet is devoted to your character's idiosyncratic way of doing that. For example, every character has an "xp emotion." This is some exaggerated reaction that you're trying to elicit from the other players, like making them roll their eyes or audibly say "aww." And the fascinating part of this is that serves as a sort of protection for your character's niche in the story. Whereas other games might have you aiming to be "the brawny one" or "the smart one," here you're consciously aiming to be "the goofy one" or "the tragic one."
Other methods of earning xp will be detailed later, but they tend to have their own specific trigger actions that, say, remind the other players of an activity you're doing in the background (like off-handedly mentioning how you just got back from the gym) or play out your character's internal struggles (by staring soulfully off into the distance and sighing) or just demonstrate one of your character's persistent quirks (like, if you're an alien, saying "well, that's not how they do things on my planet.")
And bracketing all the character-specific ways of gaining xp are the campaign specific xp actions that any character can take, and which serve to set the pace for the game at large. For example, if you're playing an epic fantasy game, then the events of the story are going to periodically be punctuated by characters boldly declaring their intentions or succumbing to the temptations of their tragic flaw.
The fun of the game lies in seeking out (or, more accurately, arranging) opportunities to perform these xp granting actions and the game works best when players aggressively move from one action to the next. Because then, story is happening all the time and because players choose their own xp emotion and quests, that story is the one the players want to tell.
It's a remarkable accomplishment and one which I wish I was better at selling to my players, because I'm convinced that once a Chuubo's game hits its groove, it can't help but be anything but amazing.