Today’s prompt is ‘Mention’.

I guess this is where I mention people I look up to, or websites I frequent? Ok, here’s three:
D100 News: good overview of the current state of the RPG industry, and an overview of crowdfunding campaigns in progress;
Bundle of Holding: cheap RPG (and adjacent) bundles for charity. I keep an eye on it, I’ve scored some really good deals here;
Itch: a marketplace for games — and that includes ‘physical games’, which in this case are RPG PDFs. The scene on Itch is much more progressive and prone to experimentation than DriveThruRPG. If you’re looking for interesting indie games, Itch should be your first stop.

RPG-a-Day 29: System

We’re in the home stretch for this year’s RPG-a-Day! Today’s prompt is ‘System’.

Paulo, who has been doing RPG-a-Day too, had some interesting thoughts on my entry from yesterday and our differences in playstyle.
He is right in that I want the rules of a game to support its theme (I’ve written about that before this month), but our preference on how the rules interact with the narrative differs. I finished reading Floria, which is a Japanese RPG. Those games tend to be quite gamist: the scenario has to be finished in one session, so you need to get a move on and not dither and chew the scenery too much. So one thing that I noticed is that these games have tests that are part of a ‘procedure’. Like in Ryuutama: if you’re traveling, you roll for how you fare that day. If you miss your travel roll, you lose half your HPs. And while that is fine from a gamist point of view (you follow the procedures of the game to produce occurrences that turn into a narrative), it’s something I have trouble with — it just doesn’t sit right with me. Same with Torchbearer: you miss a roll, and as a result you become Angry.
As someone with a more narrativist preference, I want the rules to follow the narrative (“ok, so you try to cross the river? Roll a test to see if you make it.”) rather than the reverse (“ok, you missed your test, you lose half your HP. How did that happen?” “Oh, when crossing the river.”). It’s a subtle difference, but one that is (somehow) important to me.

As for Paulo’s apprehension for the Nobilis rules system, I don’t really have anything to re-assure him. The rules kick in in specific circumstances (when you want to perform a miracle), but that (probably) won’t be the focus of the campaign. That’s also why a diceless system works for Nobilis: You only engage with the rules in specific circumstances, and the setting is such that those circumstances will happen, but probably not that often. Most of the intrigue is social in nature: your relationships with your Familia, other Nobles and Imperators and with the various spirits are the true driver of the game. And your character talking to an NPC is just that: talk, no real rules needed. And you’re so competent/powerful that most actions simply don’t require any special action. Crossing a river is no challenge at all for a Noble with Aspect 1 and above, so there’s no rule to engage with.
It’s probably quite different from what he’s used to, but it’ll be fine. 🙂

RPG-a-Day 28: Solo

Today’s RPG-a-Day prompt is ‘Solo’.

While playing an RPG is traditionally a group activity, sometimes you don’t have a group available. One time-tested option are the ‘choose your own adventure’ books, with the Fighting Fantasy series (kicked off 39 years ago with ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’). There is a rudimentary game system for things like combat and general skill, and you hop from ‘chapter’ to ‘chapter’ based on choices and the outcomes of combat, skill or luck tests. (Incidentally, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ is a trademark, so such books are generally called ‘game books’.)
The series was written by the British writers Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. It was a public secret that a lot of different writers had ghostwritten the books — including the American game writer Steve Jackson (of Steve Jackson Games fame). Probably one of the very few times a book was ghostwritten under the writer’s own name!
The first six books were translated in Dutch a year after they were published, and I had ’em all — this must have been before I started playing RPGs ‘proper’. I lost books 1 and 4, but the others are still on my shelves. There’s also an interesting trend that any series of gamebooks will get turned into a full RPG too — there is a Fighting Fantasy RPG, as well as for a few other series.

Then there are the ‘solo journalling’ games that let you produce a diary of sorts of a character in a particular situation. Prompts give you material and things like card decks give you randomness. It’s not my thing, but there’s a ton out on marketplaces like itch.

Another option is to use a ‘game-master emulator’, either a stand-alone engine or an ‘oracle’ option if that’s built into the game. Most of these work in that the players ask ‘questions’ (“Does the baron know we’re coming?”) and some random factor gives you an answer. I’ve used one of them, the Mythic Game-Master Emulator, in a group RPG session. It was interesting, but a lot depends on the input from the players. I did like that there was a ‘chaos factor’ that meant that at higher chaos/entropy, answers tended to trend to ‘yes’, giving more wild results. It was interesting, but ultimately not something I see myself using again.

Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Fraction’.

In Nobilis, each character chooses a personal code to follow. There are some thoroughly unpleasant ones (the Code of the Dark) and some more ‘good’ ones. While all Nobles (who embody a certain aspect of reality) are allies in the war against the Excrucians (who want to destroy everything), you can imagine how any set of Nobles that is forced to work together may not be thrilled with the prospect if there are some of the opposing fraction.
Games where the characters have to interact with different fractions (and those interactions are not in the form of “kill everyone”) provide interesting situations, I think. Your character might detest a certain NPC, but they have to have polite interactions (or even work together!) — so how do you go about it? And if you’re basically unaligned yourself (which is the case in the Root RPG), then do you balance out your interactions with each fraction, or do you play favourites — and what do you do when the other fractions find out? There’s some real choices to be made in such settings, and I love that.

(I just realized that I might have answered this question as if the prompt was ‘faction’ instead of ‘fraction’. I will claim innocence on grounds of English not being my native language.)

Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Theory’.

There is a lot of theory surrounding the design of RPGs. Most of the vocabulary used in the community was developed on a website called ‘The Forge’, and includes such gems as ‘gamist’, ‘narrativist’ and ‘simulationist’ — these being the three perceived axises of RPG design. Because RPGs are simultaneously a game, a tool for the creation of a narrative, and a simulation of a certain reality.
A gamist RPG is, first and foremost, a game to play, with rules to follow and a ‘win condition’. A narrativist RPG emphasizes the narrative produced, seeking to provide a certain ‘handcrafted’ experience. A simulationist RPG tries to simulate a non-existent world with
Different games place different emphasis on these three, and if you know your preferences, you can see which RPGs correspond to that. Arguably D&D is gamist, as it has careful manipulation of variables and a clear-defined ‘win condition’. King Arthur Pendragon can be said to be simulationist, at least in part, as it seeks to simulate what it would have been like to be a knight in King Arthur’s court — as well as providing rules for managing your fiefdom. And a game like the Amber DRPG is narrativist: with self-motivated characters that can affect the setting in dramatic ways, the RPG produces an intricate narrative and de-emphasizes game mechanics.
If I had to place myself in that space, I would say that I am leaning hard towards narrativist, with a bit of gamist on the side. I love mechanics that produce a certain feel or flavour.

RPG-a-Day 25: Welcome

Today’s RPG-a-Day prompt is ‘Welcome’.

Anyone reading this blog knows that I really enjoy playing RPGs. And one of the best things is to introduce curious people to the hobby — RPGs are prominent enough in pop culture that people know what it is about and some are curious to try it for themselves. I always enjoy running a session for people who are curious. Some really like it, find a group and continue playing; others like it but don’t have the opportunity to play structurally; and still others enjoy it but don’t seek it out further, their curiosity sated. (I don’t think I’ve ever had someone who didn’t enjoy it — or at least, they never told me.)

Today’s prompt is ‘Translate’.

Most RPGs are American, derived from American RPGs or commentary on American RPGs. That might not be surprising, when seen from a historical and cultural perspective. But there are many different cultures out there, and some of them have a rich RPG tradition too. Of course, with those RPGs aimed at their ‘home market’, they are in their ‘native language’, which makes it hard for people outside of that ‘home market’ to enjoy the game, which is a shame. Luckily, translations allow more people to enjoy these games.
I have written before how the unique RPG culture in Japan shapes its games, something you can see in games like Ryuutama, Floria and Golden Sky Stories. (I am still salty that in 2003, the Adventure Planning Service announced an English translation of their RPG ‘Meikyuu Kingdom’, which I was/am interested in, and that never materializing.)
But there are other groups that break out of the US-centric mold. There is a thriving community of South-East Asian RPG authors that reclaim their culture and re-imagine RPGs through an anti-colonial lens. There’s a large Swedish group of RPG authors (including of course the Free League, but there are quite a few others — the hugely popular ‘deathmetal-inspired’ game Mörk Borg is Swedish too (as the title suggests).
And even in the US itself there are some groups making their own settings and whole RPGs because they don’t feel at home in the traditional RPG spaces. Black creators banding together to build Afrofuturist settings, etcetera.

I think it’s really cool that various people and groups decide to built their own to fulfill their own needs, and I love that through the miracle of translations, we can experience the games and appreciate their perspectives.

RPG-a-Day 23: Memory

Today’s RPG-a-Day prompt is ‘Memory’.

One of the most interesting things about thinking back to the many adventures I had in RPGs, is that the rules rarely feature. Ok, improbable dice rolls are memorable because they produce memorable results, but it’s the results that count.
An RPG is a set of procedures that result in a narrative: the players (and in this sense, the GM is very much a player too) input their creativity and use the rules to create a result — it’s like a little machine that way. I enjoy a lot of aspects of RPGs: being together with friends, doing something fun, seeing what they come up with, using rulesets and roll funny dice, managing characters and making decisions. But what sticks in my mind, ultimately, is the narrative. The story that comes from using the ‘RPG machine’, that goes in unexpected directions or is funny or exciting. That’s the stuff that sticks in my memory.

Today’s prompt for RPG-a-Day is ‘Subtitute’.

The most obvious alternative for a table-top RPG are computer RPGs. Those are convenient because they’re single-user experiences, and you don’t have to contend with scheduling issues (which are the bane of any RPG campaign). Just boot up the game and off you go! But of course the only types of experiences you can get in a CRPG are the ones that are pre-programmed.
When Skyrim was launched, much was made of its ‘Radiant Quest System’, which would generate quests ‘on the fly’. That ensured that there was always something to do — even after you’ve finished the game. But all that amounted to was a Jarl giving you a quest to go somewhere and kill something. Even though that might be a good approximation of how D&D quests work, it’s not that interesting in the long run.
What’s interesting about Skyrim as a role-playing experience is that you can inject quite a lot of character to, eh, your character — but the game does not really support that. You can decide as to what your character wants to do and who they are, and stick to that side of things. If you fancy your character a wizard, you can do the quests of the college of magic, and not do the thieves’ guild and assassin’s questlines. The game doesn’t care, it will happily let you do all of the questlines (and it’s pretty amazing at how you can finish all of the wizard’s college quests with only a sword and still become the grand magus…), but if you care about who your character is supposed to be, you can totally seek out the things that support that. When the Hearthstone expansion came out, and you could build a home, decorate it how you wanted, get married and adopt kids, the roleplaying aspect became even more important.
It was (is?) really fascinating how people poured so many characterization into a game that didn’t really have mechanics to support that. If you go that way, any ‘open world’ CRPG can be a good substitute for an RPG. (I’m sure there’s a parallel with how D&D doesn’t have rules for deep characterization and yet people go really deep with their characters in that game.)