Day 11 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Stack’.
I do not have a literal physical stack of books of games I want to play. There are very few books that are worth the expense to me these days: shipping costs are crazy, and my local gaming store carries only a slim selection of RPGs. And if most of your gaming is online (as it is for me), then it’s actually really convenient to have your gaming books in PDF format because you can convert the pages and artwork into images to use on your virtual tabletop!
That being said, I do have a stack of games I want to play. The order of the stack changes from time to time, depending on freshness, momentum and player availability. But it seems that the Root quickstart for Free RPG Day is on top: I’ve recruited some players and we’re starting to schedule some sessions. Really looking forward to that!
Day 10 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Want’.
There’s a lot of things I want. But mostly, I want to play interesting games with fun people. And the odd thing is that I don’t quite know what that looks like. I mean, I know which people I find fun to play with, but I have learned that I am a bad judge of what games will be interesting when brought to the table.
The best example is Blades in the Dark, about which I wrote three years ago. I was positive I would not enjoy a game of Blades in the Dark because of its bleakness.
And then a friend of mine brought it to the (virtual) table. And I’ll play in anything he wants to run for me, so I joined the group when offered. And it was so much fun and we got into so much crazy antics! I miss that game, the first ‘arc’ was wonderful.
Day 9 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Light’.
In an earlier post I talked about complexity in rulesystems for games. Complexity was needed to model all kinds of effects and behaviour, because ‘realism’ was something seen as desirable. But as time progressed, we found out that realism in RPG games is just not that much fun. Who wants to do a lot of calculations to determine the outcome of a character action? If you need a minute to determine the effect of every roll, what progression are you making in the story?
The way I see it, there are three ‘levels’ to RPGs. At one level, it’s people sitting around a table (or in a (video) chat application) and talking. On the level above that, it is them engaging with the rules of the game to manipulate numbers. Rolling for an attack in order to do damage to an adversary is doing something with numbers: rolling the die, adding your attack value, comparing to the defense value of the adversary, rolling for damage, deducting that damage from the hitpoints — that’s all doing stuff with numbers. It’s what makes an RPG a game: there are rules for things.
And the third level, there is “the fiction”: the narrative that emerges from the conversation and the interaction with the rules. That’s the story you are experiencing through your character.
And it turns out that if you have a really rules-heavy game, there is less attention left to the fiction. How many fights in the fantasy novels you enjoy are basically two persons standing in front of each other and repeatedly swinging their swords? Probably none, and yet when the rules of the game take the forefront, that’s the kind of story that emerges.
The best solution for that, in my experience, is to make the rules lighter. Yes, you need rules (otherwise it’s not a game!), but the rules do not need to be complex. In the groundbreaking Amber Diceless RPG, every character had four scores, and every type of conflict was governed by one of those scores. And if two characters came into conflict, everything being equal, the character with the highest score wins and gets their way. As a player, you engaged with the rules by making sure everything was not equal, so you get the kinds of fights with feints, dodges, dirty tricks etcetera that you know from the fiction. (And, this being based on the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny, that is very true to the source material!)
In my opinion, lighter rules give a better experience because there’s more time left to create better fiction.
Day 8 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Shade’.
This prompt is probably meant in terms of ‘throwing shade’, but I’m not too much into that. So let’s talk about shadow, as it also ties back to the prompt of ‘forest’.
Darkness has always been interpreted as dangerous, because of our reliance on vision as our primary sense. It’s interesting that of all the D&D ancestries, only Halflings, Humans and Dragonborn do not have darkvision — the rest does. In RPGs, darkness is not necessarily dangerous, because most characters can see fine in total darkness!
Which is why it’s kind of weird that there are monsters in many settings that are based on shadow, like D&D’s Shadow or even Pokémon’s Marshadow. They’re often undead, restless spirits that hide in shadows — sometimes even the shadows of people. They hate the living and seek to feed on them or possess them to do some foul deed.
Most are not that frightening numbers-wise and you need a whole group of them to threaten a group of capable characters. But what having darkvision would mean you also don’t see the shadows? After all, dim light is as if it was brightly lit for characters with darkvision. Imagine playing the only character who doesn’t have darkvision, who has to call out the shots for the others because they can’t see the attacking shadows!
Day 7 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Couple’.
I know a lot of geeky couples, but for some reason it’s mostly only one partner (and mostly men) who plays RPGs. And if both of them play RPGs, then I rarely get to play with both of them in a game. I do play in one campaign (online) with my partner — with that group, we’ve always played together.
It’s really fun to play in such a very different context with someone you know so well, though we take care not to use all kinds of inside jokes between the two of us: playing an RPG is a group activity.
Day 6 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Forest’.
Of all the fantasy tropes, dark foreboding forests that nobody returns from remains my favourite. It features in most of my adventures, which I only realised after creating a few outlines for scenarios. I’m not entirely sure where this came from — certainly not from personal experience at a young and impressionable age since all the forests (if you even can call them that) in the Netherlands started out as production forests (the coal mines in the south needed timber for supports) and are thus quite ordered and neatly arranged.
That’s very unlike the forests in fairy tales, which are dark and deep and filled with all kinds of terrifying creatures. I remember one night we were staying at an inn in Nikko, at the bank of the river. We had booked dinner as well (dining options are few in the countryside) and that was at another building (I think we were staying at the dnnex of the main inn). On our way back, it was so quiet and dark, and we were closed in by mountains on all sides, with forests hugging the slopes. That’s the kind of fairy tale forest that you may enter by day, but that’s unknown and dangerous at night.
A large part of the draw of RPGs for me is to discover new and previously-unknown things. A forest is the ideal place to hide them from view, until someone is brave enough to go there…
Day 5 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Tribute’.
There is a wide variety of systems out there, that emphasize different things. Some are fast and easy, others really elaborate and intricate. It’s really cool to see how a system can support and enhance the themes of a game (it’s ‘vision’) — and sadly there are also games where there is a mis-match.
More and more systems are published with an ‘open’ license. This all took off in the D&D 3rd edition era with the Open Gaming License, but there are now more systems that have a ‘Systems Reference Document’ that you can use in your own games, with very permissible licenses. And that allows others to use and adapt those systems in their own games.
And some of those games could be considered a tribute to a much older game, which seeks to replicate the kinds of experiences people had in that game, but with a more streamlined system that cuts all the cruft.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was a real push to introduce lots of rules in RPGs to increase their ‘realism’. This gave rise to the so-called “Fantasy Heartbreaker”: attempts to basically make a “better D&D” by patching in your house rules. Most of these were unplayable messes if you were not at the table where these rules were invented and with the DM who invented them to explain them to you… Every once in a while, a new heartbreaker turns up on Kickstarter, but largely the market has moved on from that — and open rules systems make that possible and easy.
For instance, I had a lot of fun playing Rolemaster, even though it has a (not undeserved) reputation for being very complex. But the system supported things that D&D does not do very well. And now a group of designers and writers has banded together to create a more streamlined system that has its roots in the Rolemaster system. That’s really cool: it’ll make it possible to share those earlier modes of play with newer players without burdening them with all the superfluous intricacies of the old system. Rather than adding to the system that’s already there in an attempt to ‘improve’ on it, they take the essence of the experience of playing it, and re-imagine that in a more streamlined ruleset.
So instead of the experience of play being an emergent property of the rules, it is the other way around: the rules are designed to evoke a certain experience of play. I think that is the ultimate tribute.
Day 4 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Vision’.
Whenever I read a new RPG book (and I read those quite a lot), I am always looking at the vision driving the design. Contrary to many D&D enthusiasts who tell us that ‘everything can be done with D&D’, I am of the opinion that the system matters. RPGs are about something — and most often it’s not apparent what that something is. You can deduce it a bit from what is important on the character sheet and what things reward the players. For instance, in D&D the reward cycle (the experience points (XP) you get to make your character better at what they do) is based solely around combat. Every monster has an XP value, and you get that much XP for this kind of monster. Get enough XP (that is, kill enough monsters or enough of the right monsters) and your character becomes better at killing monsters. So D&D is about killing monsters: the point of D&D is violence.
(Please don’t come at me with ‘milestone XP’. That is just a weak, bolted-on option to make D&D seem like a narrative game. It really isn’t.)
In contrast, in Ryuutama combat does give you some XP, but the terrain and weather you traversed during your travels give much more XP. Ryuutama is about travel and being able to cross difficult terrain and go through inclement weather.
And then there are some games that have the vision directly in the book, like Blades in the Dark. The very first text in the book is two paragraphs that tell you in plain language what the game is about. I really love that, because you can immediately decide if that’s something that excites you.
Day 2 of #RPGaDAY 2020. Today’s prompt is ‘Thread’.
I play a bit of play-by-forum over at RPGGeek — the facilities there, including the full-featured dice roller, make it easy. I tend to split the game into three parts: one GeekList for the character sheets, one thread for the out-of-character banter and rules questions, and one in-character thread. That last one tends to get ‘polluted’ with out-of-character rules questions and stuff, but that’s not too bad.
Yes, the speed is much lower than when playing through a videocall or face-to-face, but on the other hand it enables me to play with people in vastly different timezones. And being able to leisurely scroll back a few pages to see (for instance) who has drank the potion that will protect them against the monster’s poisonous bite is quite handy.
It’s the beginning of August, which means that it’s once again time for #RPGaDAY! Every day there is a prompt in order to get people talking (or, in my case, writing) positive things about (tabletop) roleplaying games. You can find the list of prompt here in case you want to follow along!
Day #1: Beginning
I’ve had the privilege of introducing several people to RPGs — I really like to see the creativity and excitement build up during those first few sessions. There’s quite a few people who are interested in RPGs and who want to try it out, but the community is hard to find — if you don’t know anyone who plays RPGs, where do you even start? And unfortunately the community is sometimes not very welcoming to those they consider “outsiders” (more on that later…)
So when I have the opportunity, I enjoy running the first scenario for new players. In most cases, that means we’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, and that’s a bit of a pity. D&D is the undisputed market leader, so if you know how to play D&D it’s easy to find a group and support. But D&D also reinforces a certain mode of play, and that takes away a lot of the story-telling creativity that new players bring to the table. I think something with a lot less rules that puts more narrative responsibility at the player’s side would be better. Currently, my suggestions would be 6e, a very streamlined Apocalypse World Engine version of D&D for experienced gamemasters, and Quest for groups that are discovering RPGs together.
Another reason I’m not too fond of D&D as starting RPG is that players who start with that tend to only play D&D thereafter — but there are so many more great RPGs out there, it’s just a pity to limit yourself to only one.