#12: Friendship
It is true that it’s good to play with friends, but as with any geeky activity, the Five Geek Social Fallacies are always a possibility. It is why I do not commit to long-term games with strangers, and games of a few sessions need to be with people vetted by friends first.
That last category is pretty interesting: I once played in a campaign where I liked the other players well enough, but the majority of them were not (and did not become) friends. That’s also kinda liberating: you only have to play with them, and that’s it then. That means that you also never get to develop behavioural patterns outside of the game that carry over into the game, so you get a very ‘clean’ experience. There are no expectations, so you can concentrate on the game itself. It’s also why I enjoyed going to Ambercons: you’re gaming with total strangers (though you get to meet several people again when you go next year!), which means you get to cut through all the mundane things that happen around the game and concentrate on the game itself.
(As an aside: I’m wondering if there is a market for a fully scheduled RPG convention — like Ambercon, but maybe not focused on a single game? I’d certainly be interested.)

That being said, playing RPGs has allowed me to forge the best relationships in my adult life. I hear people complain that it’s hard to make new friends once you’re an adult and kind of ‘set in a trajectory’. My advice is: play RPGs, and use one-shots to feel out who’s a good fit for you! And you get to play a game as an added bonus, too!


#11: Examine
In an RPG, the GM is the ‘interface’ between the player and the fiction — that is, the player has to rely on the GM to describe what their character is experiencing. This is the most frequent cause for misunderstandings: if the GM doesn’t describe a certain detail and the player doesn’t explicitly ask, then that detail goes unexamined, even if the character would immediately zoom in on that. I’ve been in sessions where, further down the line, a detail turned out to be crucial, a player asked the GM why they didn’t mention it, and the GM replied that they didn’t ask, and thus it was not described.
This is an important reason why investigative scenarios are so hard to do right: where a detective would immediately notice details that seem ‘off’ to them when walking into a room, it befalls to the GM to minutely describe everything so that the player may zoom in on the things that interest them in order to get clues. But players are not detectives, so they might just as easily focus on the wrong things too! One way to ‘solve’ this is to let the players roll their characters’ skill, but of course it’s not satisfying to find the culprit through a dry series of rolls.
The Gumshoe system is designed to get around this. I’ve played a scenario of Bookhounds of London, which uses the system, and I still don’t understand how it’s supposed to work…

While there will be mystery in the games I run, I do not run purely investigative scenarios for this reason. And a nice way to circumvent the issue with descriptions is to give the players part-time authorship of details in the fiction. I’d ask questions like “How did you notice that X has happened here?” or “Did you ever encounter a similar situation? How was that resolved?”, which allows the players to “invent” details that their characters picked up on. Most players really love this, and it makes for better games.

For reference, here are the questions again:


#10: Focus
Some time ago, I noticed that as a player, I tend to focus on the plot of the game. It’s why I play RPGs: I want to experience the adventure! This has two consequences.
One is that I do not do well in purely character-driven games. I can’t sit around and talk in-character for a whole session: my character will have a motivation (they want to make something happen), and will formulate and execute plans to get what they want. I’ve stepped out of campaigns that were super-interesting but did not offer a lot of ‘structure’ for my character to move ahead.
The second is that my characters tend to focus on the mission. I tend to take notes, and it has happened more than once that the rest of the group sort-of wanders off in pursuit of whatever, and my character had to pull them back together and point them towards the (often time-critical!) issue at hand. I’ve tried to move away from that — deliberately play characters that would not be considered the party leader, for instance. But somehow, whatever I do, I end up playing the character with the focus anyway. Maybe I shouldn’t fight it, and just go with the flow.


#9: Critical
Most rulesets have rules for critical successes and critical failures. Based on the die rolls, things can work out really bad or really good. Most dice mechanics have higher rates of criticals than “real life”, but then again, RPGs offer a larger-than-life experience, and things going epically good or bad are a large part of that.
There are a lot of ‘war stories’ from critical dice results, as those moments allow for over-the-top results — I still remember some criticals from two decades ago, because they pushed the narrative into unexpected directions. It’s no coincidence that there are memes for critical failures and for critical successes!
Interestingly enough, one of my favourite rulesets, the Powered by the Apocalypse rules, does not have criticals. And for some reason, I never missed them in those games. I think this is because the actions of the characters are much less ‘restrained’ than in ‘traditional’ rulesets, so you get crazy antics anyway.

There is another type of critical: critical thinking about RPGs and the stories that are told. I love that the roleplaying public is diversifying — or at least, the RPG players who are not white dudes get more visibility. RPGs have, for a long time, catered exclusively to white (teenage) dudes, and that has proven to be problematic. Now companies are explicitly diversifying their artwork, their games, and their public. I think that’s great: with more diverse voices, we get more diverse viewpoints and more diverse games!
This critical lens towards RPGs are, could and should be, also improves my own thinking, because I want to do better too. I’m going to call out @POCGamer — I’ve written about his thoughts on ‘Outsider Resolution Bias’ before, and today I read an article from him about Decolonization and Integration in D&D, which certainly broadened my horizon in thinking about games and settings.


#8: Obscure
Playing RPGs as a hobby was pretty obscure back in the day, but I’m glad it’s becoming less so these days. Or maybe it is still obscure, but the geeky media that I’m attuned to has taken a shine to Dungeons & Dragons these past years. Certainly the release of 5th edition did a lot to pull in new crowds and generate media attention! I’m glad this is the case, because it enables more people to discover the joy of RPGs!

As for obscure RPGs… I think the most obscure RPG I have in my collection is Darkurthe Legends, a so-called “fantasy heartbreaker“. I participated in the playtest with a group, which is how I ended up with the book.
I also had a T-shirt from the playtest, with a horned skull on the front and the cities where the “World Tour” went (everywhere there was a playtest group). For years, people thought this was of a really obscure hardrock group… Sadly, the T-shirt disintegrated through repeated wear and I had to throw it out.


#7: Familiar
Some gamers insist on playing only games that they are familiar with. I’m not sure I understand that mentality — I’m a bit of an omnivore with respect to gaming. Finding out how a game works, what kind of stories are told, and how the rules support that — that’s part of the fun for me. And the kind of game you get when playing, say, Blades in the Dark, is totally different than when you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons. Why would you limit your experiences like that?

When I’m playing a Ranger, Druid or Wizard, I sometimes get to pick an animal as familiar. In my experience, the familiar doesn’t really play a large role in the adventure, other than to scout ahead (if it’s a bird) or to pick something from a narrow space (if it’s something like a rat). As a result, I don’t pay it a lot of attention.

#6: Ancient

Many RPGs have ancient… ‘things’… out there that the characters encounter and have to deal with. Most notably, of course, dungeons from a lost civilisation, filled with wondrous artefacts. I had wondered before how it would be possible for the locals to simply forget large parts of what the previous inhabitants left behind, but then I realised that we have models for this in real life too. All it takes is an event where most inhabitants are displaced — such as after the sacking of Rome, when the Forum was basically dismantled to serve as building material for new houses. So it’s not that unlikely as it first seemed to me.
I’ve written about that in this entry.


#5: Space
Reading the other answers to this question, there seem to be three interpretations of this term, and I’m going to answer for all three of them.

The first is ‘space’ as in: outer space. I’ve never played much sci-fi RPGs — and the ones I did play did not ‘feel’ very sci-fi. Mostly, space is merely a backdrop for the adventure, and you don’t have to deal with all the iffy aspects of travelling through space. Most recently, I’ve played Star Trek Adventures — I’m not even counting Star Wars, because that’s more fantasy than sci-fi.
Something like Transhuman Space would be fun to get to the table, because there the vastness of space is the whole point of the setting, but I don’t know anybody who would run it. And my priorities for games to run myself lie elsewhere.

The second is ‘space’ as in: the physical space. I used to do a lot of gaming at friends’ homes, but that has largely been replaced by playing online — using Roll20 for character sheets and dice rolls; and (mostly) Zoom for video chat. Which means I tend to play at my desk, with all the comforts that are available there.

The third is ‘space’ as in: metaphorical space. It used to be that I wanted to hear myself talk, because I thought I had Things To Say — both in and out of games. I’ve mellowed out quite a bit with age (like you do), and I quite enjoy listening to the antics of the other players. I do not crave the role of a leader, and I enjoy giving others the space to explore the game and their characters.
There’s one thing that I have not been able to shake. If there is some kind of plot, then I will stay on-track and will try to keep the others on-track as well. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had multiple campaigns where the whole group looked at me to tell them what should happen next. Even if I try not to take on that role in a group, I somehow end up doing it anyway.

RPGaDAY catchup

For the sixth year running, there is another RPGaDAY month in August! This year, instead of a set of concrete questions, there’s a single term for each day, and it is up to the respondents to interpret that term and tell something about how they experienced RPGs in a way that is related to that term.
You can see the full announcement here.

What with business travel, recuperating from that, visiting a festival and recuperating from that, I only now have the time to sit down and post my answers. So today you’re getting a catch-up post! I’ll try to do a single entry for each day from now on, but we’ll see how that works out.

#1: First
My first RPG was Rolemaster, what is now called the ‘classic’ edition. In the fall vacation of my 14th year, a boy from school told me he was going to run RPGs at his house every day, and he told me that it would be right up my alley. Turned out he was right! I was given the ‘easiest’ character to play, a Hobbit Thief (of course), and with a crew of adventurers we set out to solve the mystery of Minas Anghen, the first adventure of the Haunted Ruins of the Dunlendings Middle-Earth module.
For years, Rolemaster would be my go-to Fantasy RPG, and it would take me years before I’d even play Dungeons & Dragons, because it just wasn’t a factor in my immediate gaming circles. TO be fair, my teenage self even looked down on D&D, since it lacked the skill-based customisation options that were baked into Rolemaster. At least that was ‘rectified’ by D&D’s 3rd edition (which came at a time when nobody was playing Rolemaster anymore), and even taken to the extreme with Pathfinder…

#2: Unique
D&D and its direct descendants promote a mode of play that is sometimes derisively called ‘murder-hobo’: the adventuring party is a group of exceptional outsiders that roams the wilds, killing and looting as they go, without too much connection to the places they visit. Over time, attempts have been made to circumvent this mode of play and make D&D games something different — with varying success. Still the XP requirements of D&D steer towards murder-hobo’ing.
In Ryuutama, the players are ‘normal’ people (craftspeople, farmers, healers, hunters, etc) that go on a long, extended trip — there is a justification for it in the setting. And while there are combat rules (that are expected to be used), the focus is not on killing monsters and taking their stuff, but on experiencing the trip. Instead of gaining XP for killing things, in Ryuutama you get XP for travelling! This mode of play takes the murder out of the hobo’ing, and that is pretty unique for a game that features extended travel.
And because it’s a Japanese game (it has been translated to English, French and Spanish), it has a unique flavour to it, too.

#3: Engage
The very point of RPGs is to play it with a group of people. Together, you create ‘the fiction’ (as the Apocalypse World Engine calls it), and interact with that through the rules. This means engaging with the GM and the other players, but also with the resulting story. The stereotype of the antisocial gamer can’t exist in RPGs, because to play an RPG you will have to play with others.

#4: Share
When klik was at her retreat, I started writing a Macross-inspired RPG. I didn’t get too far, and all the good parts are based on the text of Blades in the Dark or Monsterhearts II — all the bad parts are my own… I’ll just share how far I got before the week ended. I will revisit it and continue work on it, when I have more time.

Day 31: Share why you take part in RPG-a-day
Roleplaying games are, at the moment, my main hobby. I love them, and I wish there were more people playing them. I especially would like to have more diversity in the player base: things are improving, but it’s still a hobby for white dudes. And I play RPGs for the awesome adventures, so having more diverse experiences and viewpoints represented in the hobby will make adventures more surprising and interesting — and thus awesome.
Things have improved a lot the last few years, with artwork becoming more inclusive (iconic characters being non-white, no chainmail bikinis!) and a wider variety of viewpoints being represented in the subject matter of games (such as queer teenagers in Monsterhearts). But we’re not there yet, and there are shitty white dudes everywhere who will happily seek to exclude others, but I think the tide is against them and can’t be turned anymore.
But RPGs are still very much a niche hobby, so perhaps a lot of people who would be interested, just are never made aware of the possibilities of RPGs and how fun they are. So by talking about them, I hope to pique people’s interest. Perhaps they will become interested, perhaps they will find a group.

And maybe, one day, I will be able to play in a group where I’m the only white dude. I’d certainly like that.

…and on the last day of the month, that is the last question of RPG-a-day 2018!