With August now over, it’s time for the last catch-up for RPGaDAY!

#29: Evolve
I think RPGs as a field are evolving, in quick spurts followed by slower growth. Every so often, something comes along that shifts perceptions of what RPGs are, should or could be. And while not every change fills me with excitement, I’m pretty sure someone, somewhere, is getting all fired up about it.
The first shift that I saw (consciously) was the OGL: Wizards of the Coast basically open-sourcing the basic rules of the 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons. Suddenly, everyone could make an RPG or even a smaller ‘plug-in’ for a very large body of existing work. And a lot of people did — not all of the resulting ‘glut’ was good, but it did enable a few experiments and launched quite a few game lines.
And now it’s an accepted practice to describe the design of your ruleset and to make that available to anyone who wants to use it in their own game. It’s not like game rules are copyrightable anyway, but having this as an accepted practice makes it possible to try out new RPGs without having to learn new rulesets. If you know how the playbook construction of Apocalypse World works, then you can play any ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ game without too many troubles.
I think that has also made it a lot easier to experiment with all kinds of games: the rigorous testing of the rulesets has already been done, so the designer can concentrate on genre and tone. For pretty much every genre, there is a PbtA game — maybe not quite to your taste, but you can easily mix and match because the underlying rules are similar!
And this variety means people who do not like fantasy or the way D&D does it, can try out a few things and find the game that’s right for them. And who knows, maybe they will design their own game at a point in the future, meaning an even more richer landscape of RPGs!

#30: Connection
Playing RPGs has allowed me to make some of the strongest connections as an adult.
It’s hard to make new friends as an adult: it’s almost impossible to just ‘hang out’, since everyone is under the obligations of work and family. But finding a group that ‘clicks’ allows for a rapid accumulation of shared experiences (even if those experiences are in-game). I’ve had some bad experiences gaming with people I don’t know, so I’m hesitant to just jump into any game with anybody. But if you sort-of know some people that you think are cool, then gaming is certainly a good way to get to know each other better.

#31: Last
read: Robotech: A Macross Saga RPG. It wasn’t good, unfortunately.
purchase: Fate Accessibility Toolkit. Making gaming more accessible to everyone who is not an able-bodied cisgendered heterosexual white man is the most important push for RPGs into the future.
session: Blades in the Dark. Our crew of drugdealers have transformed into a crew of strong-arm thieves — but the ill-advised plans remain!

RPGaDAY catch-up

#26: Idea
All RPG games are about something, but most of them are bad at communicating what it is that the characters do, and how that affects their world(s). You should look at the XP mechanisms: what character behaviour is rewarded? D&D says it’s about roleplaying and exploration, but the XP systems tell you that it’s killing things is what you will be doing. You’ve seen me use the term “murder-hobo” a few times, and it’s no coincidence that this mode of play is strongly associated with D&D.
What the game is about is seldomly communicated clearly. Which is why I really like the introduction to Blades in the Dark, because it is quite explicit in the goal of the game:

We play to find out if the fledgling crew can thrive amidst the teeming threats of rival gangs, powerful noble families, vengeful ghosts, the Bluecoats of the City Watch, and the siren song of the scoundrels’ own vices.

This tells you everything you need to know to play a scoundrel in BitD: this is the kind of stories you’ll be creating, right on the first page. It gives a very clear vision of the Idea of the RPG. Having this vision so clear makes it easier to design systems that support that kind of play, which is why BitD has a very tight system. And as a player, it’s also really easy if this idea appeals to you, too!

27: Suspense
It’s hard for me to feel suspense during a session, since I always have some kind of detachment from my character. I’m not a method-actor — it’s more like I have a mental model of the character, and examine that to decide how the character would react in a given situation. I am certainly not my character, so my character might be in suspense, but I hardly am.
And most RPGs make it hard for a character to die, because players hate losing a character that they have invested so much into. So even during fights, there is very little suspense. Yes, there are RPGs where characters drop like flies, such as Dungeon Crawl Classic’s funnel adventures, but there a character can be made in minutes, and you’re not supposed to feel any attachment to the character until they have survived their first adventure.

#28: Love
Romance can be a powerful motivator, but the transient nature of most character groups (see: murder-hobo) does not really make it easy for a character to develop a strong attachment to an NPC. Games that have a more political side, where characters have their own bases that they can return to easily, then a long-term relationship becomes more feasible.
My characters rarely have romantic entanglements, but that one time in Astrid’s Amber Campaign, where my character was flirting with the crown princess of a Shadow who was actually betrothed to someone else, I really enjoyed it. Maybe I should take a look at the games that are on my ‘to do’-list and see if I can introduce an aspect of romance in there.


#25: Calamity
Calamities feature heavily in RPGs: if you’re going to have an epic adventure, better make the stakes big, right?

In the ‘murder-hobo’ mode of adventuring, it could be argued that the adventuring party is the calamity: monsters are just going about their business, getting by in their various ways, and then this party shows up and starts indiscriminately killing everyone. Especially if the adventure features tribes of sentients (like goblins and orcs), this has gotten a (deservedly) bad aftertaste of colonialism and racism. (POCGamer has a good overview of colonialism in D&D.)

There is another mode of adventuring, where the party is part of established society, but a group of evil-doers are preparing to overthrow the status quo in some kind of calamitous way, and (often) going about this in a ruthless, haphazardly way. This means that the characters are not the movers and shakers in the setting: they are merely reacting to what the ‘evil’ group is doing. One could argue that the group are the actual protagonists, and the party are simply antagonists that try to prevent something from happening. It’s interesting to see that almost all ‘evil’ groups are indeed, actively evil and ruthless, casting the adventuring party as the agents of good and reason. I’ve hardly ever seen a scenario where the group scheming to overthrow the status quo are actually trying to make things better for everyone — overthrowing an oppressive regime, for instance.

And then there are the natural disasters. Mostly these happened in the past, and serve to explain why a town or castle is abandoned — often as a prelude for the ‘monstrous’ species to make their home there, before the adventuring party goes in and kills ’em all… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a natural calamity occur ‘in-game’. Would it be fun to play a group of adventurers trying to evacuate a bunch of people out of a village, in time before the volcano erupts? There might be a Ryuutama scenario in there somewhere, with some hard choices as to what you can take with you and what you have to leave behind to become prey to the lava…

I’m sorry for lagging behind so much, but that new Zelda game is not going to play itself!

#22: Lost
This makes me think of rupertdaily, an erstwhile friend, whom I introduced to RPGs and who died eight years ago. Through an auction, I got all of his Rolemaster stuff — Rolemaster being his first RPG (as it was mine, four years before I met him). I’ll never get to play with him again, which sometimes feels like a lost opportunity.

#23: Surprise!!!
Ambushes are a big part of combat in RPGs. One way to make sure you survive insurmountable odds is to even the odds a bit by getting the drop on the opposition! Often, this means that the group doing the surprising gets to make their attacks before the other side can get their attacks in. And from then on, it’s just the usual initiative rounds.
The most interesting rule for initiative I’ve ever seen is in the Genesys ruleset (which is also used in the FFG Star Wars games), where you roll for a different skill depending on whether you expect a fight to break out, or not. I’ve never seen that anywhere, and I’m not so sure it makes sense: wouldn’t you expect the fight to continue after the first round, and thus react with the other stat in case of an ambush?

#24: Triumph
To me, a good session is when the characters have some kind of triumph. This doesn’t have to mean that everything goes their way (in fact, I’d argue that the fiction generated is more interesting when that does not happen), but some succesfull skill checks or a turn of the story is part of what keeps me coming back to a game. I want to feel like my character is making a difference, as if it matters what they are doing, and that they are succeeding in making progress, in whatever big or small way.
If I’d want an endless, hopeless slog without any ray of light, I’d go to my job. 😉

As a reminder, here’s the list of prompts!


#21: Vast
What is ‘vast’ in an RPG? I’ve seen the adjective used mostly to describe space, so let’s take a look at sci-fi RPGs that feature space travel. Distances in the solar system are pretty ‘vast’ in human terms, but if you want a real galaxy-spanning empire, then you will need to have FTL (‘Faster Than Light’) travel — otherwise the vastness of space will simply prevent you from interacting with all of the planets and systems that are out there.
And because you have FTL and because it’s (mostly) impossible to interact with objects that are going FTL, the travel itself is not that interesting — it’s just setting a course from A to B, waiting a bit, and then you arrive. And since that’s not interesting, you just skip those parts of the story. So the whole vastness of space is just reduced, and there is actually less game time spent on travel while traversing the vastness of space than walking a few hours to the next village over in a fantasy setting.
And I’m not sure how to make FTL travel interesting. In the Elite videogames, you could be intercepted in hyperspace by the Thargoid aliens, and you’d have you fight your way out. That would be interesting… once. I’m not sure a sci-fi variant of Ryuutama would be a viable option.

RPGaDAY 19 & 20

#19: Scary
There are quite a few ‘horror’ RPGs out there, with Call of Cthulhu being the grand-daddy of them all. And, to be honest, they just aren’t that scary to me. I mean, the character might be scared, but I am not. Sure, there’s excitement and a bit of stress to keep the character (relatively) safe while trying to reach their objectives, but I have the same experience when playing a fantasy RPG and the party gets into a tight spot during a fight.
Maybe I just don’t ‘get’ it like I get other RPG genres? I’m not a big fan of horror movies and horror computer games either, so I guess that carries over into my preferences in RPGs?

#20 : Noble
Fantasy is, without a doubt, the main genre for RPGs (not in small part because D&D, the biggest RPG out there, is a fantasy RPG), set in some kind of white-washed, pseudo-feudal quasi-Europe. Which means that there are nobles. There seem to be only two kinds of nobles: either they are robber barons, and the poor populace needs the assistance of the party to chase them off, or they are ‘quest givers’, who can’t manage their own domain and need the assistance of the party to get rid of some monsters or bandits or whatever. (See also: Outsider Resolution Bias.)
Those are not interesting, I believe. They’re just ‘set dressing’ and serve no purpose in the story other than to act as an obstacle or to get the party started on a quest.
Ryuutama has a ‘Noble’ class, which is interesting. In Ryuutama, even if you’re a noble, you’re still a normal traveller, and you need to rely on your companions for mutual survival. So nobles are not expected to be ‘in charge’, but just one member of the party. Because they are trained in etiquette and combat, they fulfill a certain role in the party, but not necessarily the role of ‘party leader’. And, like every character, they have somewhere to go back to — if they ever go back. Knowing what ‘back home’ is like, can be a lot of fun.


#18: Plenty
I keep buying RPGs that I think are interesting, but I do have to admit that I have enough RPGs to last me for… quite some time. But I simply enjoy reading different mechanics and different viewpoints! It’s basically an embarassement of riches…

If I had my way, I’d be playing Breath of the Wild just 24/7. It’s the same kind of experience I had with Skyrim: behind every corner there’s something to find, there are all kinds of small stories to discover…
Anyway, let’s catch up with RPGaDAY!

#16: Dream
Dream sequences of a character are a powerful way for the GM to give information to the players. But they have to be used in moderation, because the novelty wears off quickly: ‘dream logic’ is different from ‘game logic’, and as a player I always get annoyed when I can’t interact with things in the game in the way the game intended. So the idea is to use them sparingly, also to preserve their dramatic effect.
I think I’ve used a dream sequence only once, in a scenario based on Tanith Lee’s “Companions on the Road” — the book has a powerful dream sequence too, and when I used that on a player, they got shivers when they discovered what it meant…

#17: One
The one thing that would make my RPG’ing life better (ok, maybe one of the things…) then that would be a semi-local RPG convention that was fully scheduled and that offered a diverse set of games to play with a diverse set of people. I’ve been to a few Ambercons, and I always enjoyed those, but then we sort-of drifted away from the Amber DRPG — and the timing (a weekend in July, which constrains vacation planning) and the costs added up.
But if there was a con that I could reasonably drive to, with a schedule that you could book for in advance, then that’s certainly something I’d be interested in…

RPGaDAY 14 & 15

Yesterday the Nintendo Switch I ordered came in, so I had to spend the whole evening sitting on the couch, running around Hyrule. I’m sure you understand. So you’re getting a little catch-up post today.

#14: Guide
One of the most enjoyable things is to introduce curious people to RPGs. I make no secret of my love for RPGs, so when someone who knows me is interested, I hope it’s easy for them to talk to me about it. Most became curious after seeing the act of playing RPGs portrayed in popular media (Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things, etc). Of course, it doesn’t take much to get me to talk about RPGs…
If they’re still curious after hearing me talk, I will offer to run a game for them. Sometimes the logistics make that difficult and I direct them to organised play initiatives that are local to them — though to be honest I am hesitant to do this, as I do not know how welcoming their local community is. And if the first experience is bad, then that sours the whole activity, even though they could enjoy it with the right group!
So I have been running games for interesting newbies. Some people jump right into the story and are deliciously receptive to the adventure, which I seriously enjoy. Some people need a bit more nudging, but that’s okay too, of course. And sometimes, some of those people find a local group, and they end up playing a lot of RPGs.
I love being a guide to RPGs for people.

#15: Door
Doors are, of course, a feature of many dungeons. Standard protocol is to check for sounds from behind the door, and then open it if it seems like the room beyond is empty. (Or to storm inside with weapons drawn if that is not the case, of course.)
But it’s also a way to obscure what is behind them. Unscrupulous GMs have used this to ensure that the players get to a certain encounter, no matter what choice they make: no matter which door of many they would have picked, all of them would have led to that certain encounter. This takes away free choice, and sounds like ‘railroading’ (a term used to describe an RPG where the characters do not have any possibility of changing the pre-determined plot, which has a deservedly bad reputation), while giving the players the illusion of choice. This is quite the debate: can you put all of your cool stuff in the path of the characters, or are you taking away the essential nature of RPGs by denying the players meaningful choices? And does it even matter if the players never find out?

I’m not so sure on what side I fall in this debate. In principle, I’m all for giving the players meaningful choices. On the other hand, I recognise that many players (me included) play RPGs to experience an exciting story.
Take, for instance, the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The hero is, of course, Indiana Jones. But have you ever noticed that he has absolutely no influence on what happens? It’s true: he can’t prevent the nazi’s from getting the Ark. He can’t prevent them taking it on their submarine to their secret base, and he can’t prevent them from opening it. In fact, if he had not been there, things would have progressed exactly as they did with him trying (unsuccessfully) to interfere. Does that mean he didn’t have a grandiose adventure?


#13: Mystery
Oh no, I totally covered this topic in my entry about Examine!

But I will add to this that you can have a mystery in a non-investigative scenario, and that it will add to the experience. Even if you’re a group of scoundrels fighting for territory to sell your drugs, it is fun to not know how the rival gang gets their drugs, how they transport it to the sale location and why it’s so similar to your own stuff. It’s not an investigative scenario (the goal is not to find out ‘whodunnit’), but having this (admittedly thin) layer of mystery adds to the situation and, crucially, gives the players multiple avenues to take as their next step, which allows the GM to show them more of the setting and what’s going on. And that is awesome!