Apollo 47 is a one-page RPG with an additional 1,199 pages of flavor text
You know those movie scenes where people are talking very urgently into headphones? Maybe it’s a heist movie and someone crawls through an air duct, or it’s a sci-fi movie and a lone astronaut rushes to his doom. Whatever the context, it’s the atmosphere that game designer Tim Hutchings tries to recreate with his latest project, Apollo 47 Technical Manual, a one-page tabletop role-playing game with an additional 1,199 pages of largely superfluous flavor text. It’s… a bold move, to say the least.
But Hutchings isn’t just a random developer. He is the author, among others, of Millennial Vampire, one of the most critically acclaimed single-player journaling games, a concise, introspective investigation into how the long arc of history weighs on a person’s soul. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Game Design at Bradley University, responsible for shaping young minds and bringing them into the broader game development industry. A new Hutchings game is kind of a big deal, even if it’s weird. Well, maybe especially if it’s weird.
“I’m proud to be an odd-job person,” Hutchings told me in a recent interview. “Yes, I used to – and this is one of my sad secrets – a fairly vigorous life of exhibiting works of art in galleries and museums. I always do that. I still do all of those things, but in a lesser sense since I had a kid. [I’m a] Weird High End TV Commercial and Video Post [production] dude. Last night I was working on the opening credits of a feature film for Netflix. […] All kinds of shit.
The job he loves the most, however, is game design.
“The only reason I make games is because games satisfy a need, the creative need, that art never satisfied,” Hutchings said. “And so I bring artistic thinking – for better or worse, and all the indulgences and miseries that includes – to the way I think about games.”
In this spirit, Apollo 47 should be seen as some sort of commentary on the current state of TTRPGs. Its very existence begs the question: why do we need an entire library of books, hundreds of pages each, to play pretend with our friends? It was partly this question that took Hutchings from a one-page game to a 1,200-page game. It took more than three years, he says, to get things right. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
Polygon: You said you came to games after being somewhat dissatisfied with the art scene. What are the things that art has never brought us that you bring with games?
Tim Hutching: Well, I’m not bringing anything of value to the table. I just do this thing where Moe Howard from The Three Stooges falls to the side and he runs in a circle on the ground and pivots on his shoulder. And I do that and I laugh and laugh and laugh. And while I’m doing that things just fly away from me and sometimes people like them. That’s what happened. I accidentally created a very popular role-playing game [called Thousand Year Old Vampire].
With some artistic flair.
Pure coincidence that it happened like that.
Now you sent me Apollo 47 on purpose, however. What is this thing?
This is a one page roleplaying game. You will see it at the very, very, very beginning. Kind of like a little checklist page, maybe with some black and strikethrough redactions on it. And then the rest of the next 20 pages are kind of supports on how to play well, and maybe some ideas like place names and things you do. And then the other 1,170 pages are NASA manuals, in no particular order, covering all technical aspects of the Apollo missions, which you can, if you wish, use as prompts to pilot your game.
Tell me how you came to be inspired to write this.
I had been really interested in the kind of communication space where people on headsets tell other people what to do. Like we’re doing the heist, and you tell me I’m crawling through the air ducts. There should be one to my left, and then I’m directly above the bank vault, right? That’s what you’re telling me in my headset, and I’m like, “Well, there’s bars, and I’m hearing jamming in the conduits.” And so we have these exchanges, like in these movies and stuff, and it’s such a cool space, and I wanted to play in that space.
I kept making these games that just didn’t work and then at some random point about three years ago I wrote Apollo 47. A little game, then he sat for a long time. And then it became this great book. Because again, this stupid twist on art requires that the things I do have multiple reasons for being there; that they are aware of themselves; that they say things that I find interesting about format and form. And so this extremely bloated book for a one-page game was when this game clicked as a thing for me – as an object.
The thing I was struggling with is how to create a resolvable conflict in a two person headset space that concerns someone in another room. This is the problem I have worked with a lot. What can you create, and what can I create, and how do I fix these issues? But then I suddenly realized, “Oh, shit! It’s that NASA helmet thing. It’s not the astral projection psychologists of the 1960s and 1970s – which was a version of a game like the one I made, where they describe going through astral projection with a person saying, “You see, do you know this form? and the other person describing his astral visions, right? There are so many weird formats.
I don’t work hard. To anything. I don’t iterate. I’m not doing everything you’re supposed to do.
The thumbnail I think of when I think about it is Airplane, and the white zone and the red zone parking lot where they talk on the PA system. And what appeals to me about that is that there’s the chatter about what they’re talking about, but then there’s what they’re actually feeling and what they’re actually expressing; what they are actually trying to communicate to themselves about their own interpersonal situation.
What type of meta layers were generated during playtesting? What did your players really discuss with each other while they were going through this?
I am not a subtle or intelligent person or a person with great depths. I don’t see deeper conversations coming out of these things. But also, I’m not very smart or observant or a good listener. So I’ve never seen people really dig, in a deep metaphorical way to have multiple discussions. When you actually play it, it’s really absorbing to me – it’s my understanding of how people play it – in the moment.
You are not a character. You’re in this weird, tiny verbal space that you’re trying to sink into. And then people keep changing it and transforming it and the doors keep opening, and then all of a sudden it gets bigger, and you all find something else to do. I don’t think there’s room for subtle third-level play. But I mean, smart people could probably do it.
What do you want players to come out of this with? What do you want them to have gone through, grown up to, or take away from their next session of something else?
I think one of the really big ones – because again, my “secret artistic agenda” is like a Hollis Frampton-esque ability to sit in silence; to sit and just watch the systems express themselves quietly, and have nothing to break the pattern or the system or whatever is going on. We are going to watch Zorns Lemma, which is a movie where you just watch letters, things that shouldn’t show letters scrolling across a movie screen for 30 minutes. What is a game equivalent to one that is always engaging? Maybe that’s it?
That’s a huge reach for me to say that. But I think again, sitting quietly is a very important game skill that I don’t think most games encourage, and this is a game where you can do that. I also think it’s a very lively and difficult game to feed our brains. And it’s fun for me.
It’s also a unique game compatible with Zoom, I could totally call my friends and play shit and have a good night.
One of my favorite games [of Apollo 47] I never played, it was just phone texting back and forth. Super fun, super satisfying.
It’s not that it needs a means of communication, it means that whatever means of communication you have, the game can be modified for people to use that means of communication. I could stick notes to a tree in the park with someone and check them every other day, and we’d just be astronauts leaving notes at a transit station.
When you play the game, you are not simulating another means of communication. When we play Dungeons & Dragons, we pretend to walk around dungeons and chat and have that kind of conversation. When we do all these other things, we simulate these other spaces. With that, we are in that space. We’re in whatever space we’re in, whether it’s the phone, or a video chat, or whatever.
Wow! What a mess ! If we’re playing this at a table in person, we’re pretending to be on the radio. Playing it in person is the most fakie way to play it. Shit.
Apollo 47 Technical Manual is available now as a downloadable PDF and as a physical book with a pay-what-you-want price. The minimum order is $33.24 to cover the cost of materials.
Apollo 47 Technical Manual was previewed using a physical copy provided by Tim Hutchings. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.