roleplaying games

RPG a Day, part 3

Another week, another bunch of RPG a Day responses.

August 11: Which dead game would you like to see reborn? This question is made difficult by the fact that we live in an era where everyone and their mother is rereleasing a game on Kickstarter. My answer for years was Rifts…not that it was dead, per se, but in a coma. Then Savage Rifts happened. I of course want to see Cyberpunk 2020 reborn, but a) Interface Zero exists and is a pretty good substitute and b) after v3, maybe I don’t want to see Cyberpunk 2020 reborn. So the answer I came up with was The Morrow Project, a post-apocalyptic game with a neat premise. Honorable Mentions: Twilight:2000, for pretty much the same reason as The Morrow Project, and Recon, because there is room for a nice and tight modern military RPG in the world.

August 12: Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art? I haven’t been struck by game art all that much. Burning Wheel has an evocative layout but minimal interior art, Apocalypse World is striking but overall utilitarian. GURPS art is not great, but gets the job done. The only game I’ve played where the art signaled any part of the game to me and really got me in the right headspace was Paranoia. Paranoia art pieces are comic art of smoking pairs of boots, giant weapons, literal bootlicking, and a lot of other nonsense that tells you exactly what a Troubleshooter is like. It’s brilliant.

August 13: Describe a game experience that changed how you play. In high school, one of the older members of the science fiction and fantasy club ran a game of Champions with a strong Battleship Yamato vibe, with all the characters running this alien starship we acquired through mysterious circumstances. First off, it blew my mind a little that the game’s book had superhero setting material but yet a completely different game was being run (I was 15, give me a break). Second, the character interactions were key. The one skill test I remember was the guy playing the weapons officer shooting the ship’s guns. GM says “well, it’s not moving and you’re right next to it, so according to the book it’s like hitting the broad side of a barn.” The player then missed the roll and we all doubled over in laughter. My character was the ship’s captain, who had a crippling inability to make decisions. The level of slapstick was high but it was the first time that I was playing a, well, narrative game. The crew interactions with each other were way more important and interesting than our mechanical abilities.

August 14: Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play? Well, I want an open-ended campaign first. Most of our games, even the long ones, are designed with an end point in mind, and we don’t necessarily present good fictional positioning with regards to the progression treadmill. This is one of the reason I’m so obsessed with finding good domain-based rules, because I honestly believe domain power is a better way to present mechanical progression than acquiring more powerful equipment and stat buffs.

August 15: Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most? I wrote GURPS here because GURPS is made for adaptation. Even if it can be a little overwhelming to play, mixing and matching sourcebooks and elements within makes GURPS like a Lego set for mechanics. Fate gets the honorable mention partially because it is easier to use, but also because the purple books will hopefully give Fate some more of the Lego-like adaptability that GURPS has. As it stands, as easy as it is Fate presents one of the more intimidating blank slates in the generic RPG sphere.

August 16: Which RPG do you enjoy running as is? Not many of them. Even PbtA games see me mixing and matching advancement mechanics, bringing in limited playbooks, and of course writing custom moves. I mentioned Paranoia as I think that’s the only game I’ve ever run without at least some modifications. Burning Wheel and Torchbearer look as if they’d stand on their own, but of course I’ve never run them so I don’t know.

August 17: Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played? The answer I gave here is Guardian’s of Order’s Ex Machina, which I purchased late in college when searching for a Cyberpunk 2020 successor (a search that had been happening in the background ever since I discovered Cyberpunk v.3 was terrible). The four settings included in the book are really interesting, but the mechanics were uninspired and lacked 2020’s style. Prior to college, I bought D&D and Cyberpunk 2020, and then in college I bought GURPS. I didn’t start really collecting RPGs until a couple of years ago, so Ex Machina preceded most of my never played acquisitions by a good five years.

roleplaying games

RPG a Day, part 2

Another week of interesting questions.

August 4: Which RPG have you played most since last year? The answer here is FFG Star Wars, split between Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny. No offense to our GMs, but as it’s also the most-played RPG of the year before for me, I’m quite sick of it.

August 5: Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game? I missed this one on Twitter, but I do have an answer. Burning Wheel best captures the spirit of the game, and it’s not just the cover, it’s the form factor of the entire book. Burning Wheel looks a bit like an ancient tome, inviting you in to read and discover its secrets. The entire game is built around this idea of continual mastery and advancement, both for players and for characters, and starting it with this mysterious, nearly illuminated book is extremely evocative.

August 6: You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do! I said start an involved game, but let me specify. I’d want a game where having a number of sessions back to back allows for rapid character and story development. Both GURPS and Burning Wheel could provide enough detail that I could set some groundwork and then after that week come back to a very well-developed campaign.

August 7: What was your most impactful RPG session? The two I listed were Seamus’ Masks one-shot, and my session zero for my online group’s low-quorum Apocalypse World game. The Masks session broke into dramatic play, a playstyle I admittedly had no faith in our group to pull off (I loved being proven wrong, though). The Apocalypse World session was wonderful in that I saw the gears turning in players’ heads regarding player-facing play. I hope to replicate that sort of play in many of my games, but that “ah-ha” moment was beautiful.

August 8: What is a good RPG for sessions of two hours or less? There’s really only two requirements: your players already have their prep done (rules knowledge and character generation), and there are as few rules transitions as possible. Games without demarcated combat or with very quick combat work well, as do very structured games like Torchbearer where you can play a few turns and then leave off very easily.

August 9: What is a good RPG to play for about ten sessions? My answer here is PbtA, specifically Apocalypse World. The PbtA advancement arc tends to last ten sessions, and actually crossing a bridge to a new arc is tough. Those ten sessions are great, though. While I’ve read and played a number of PbtA games, I find that Apocalypse World is still one of if not the best in terms of balancing player freedom with genre simulation, as well as still being the best example of the ideal PbtA “conversation” playstyle.

August 10: Where do you go for RPG reviews? As I said online, no one source. Being a blogger myself, I know how many good resources are out there, and tend to engage with Google or social networks to find them. While I sometimes read RPGnet reviews, I find that they either don’t cover games I’m interested in, or cover them from a very strange perspective.

Like before, most of my answers are on Twitter, where I’m @LevelOneWonk. Looking forward to continuing the month.

roleplaying games

RPG a Day, part 1

RPG a Day is now in its fourth year, after a blogger called Autocratik started the whole kit and caboodle to encourage positivity within in the hobby. Now, as a (semi) recognized game commentator and finally active Twitter user, I’ve decided to give it a go this year. I’ll be posting days in review once a week, here are my posts for August 1-3.

August 1st: Which published RPG would you like to be playing right now?

The answer I gave on Twitter is Burning Wheel. Burning Wheel is my ultimate “favorite game I’ve never played”, where both the level of rules depth as well as the highly player-facing gameplay style makes introducing the game to a group that’s never played it really daunting. Fortunately, I’m inching closer to my goal of either playing or running Burning Wheel. I’ve decided my low-quorum game for my online group will be Torchbearer, which is a Burning Wheel derivative. Similarly, for in-person players, I’ve decided that, after expending a lot of effort to try and get a group together, that said effort isn’t really worth it unless I’m running a game I really want to run. Therefore, if I’m going to get an in-person game going, it will be in Burning Wheel.

August 2nd: What is an RPG you would like to see published?

I gave two answers to this: first, a dedicated exploration game. My idea is to take the PbtA philosophy of “play to find out what happens”, and make it into the whole geography of the game. The game would continually increase in complexity and challenge as the map gets bigger, and the players would both benefit from more resources and opportunities as well as face ever greater opposition. I’m actually planning a game like this for my online group, though using a published system.

My other answer was a Burning Wheel derivative. While there have been several fantasy derivatives and a sci-fi one (Burning Empires), I think that the structure of Burning Wheel could make for some really interesting gameplay opportunities in a largely modern context. The two examples I offered on Twitter were “Burning Cyberpunk” (which Adam Koebel of Dungeon World fame has also professed interest in) and “Burning Supers”, which is basically 100% inspired by the notion of superhuman melodrama a la Masks.

August 3rd: How do you find out about new RPGs?

This is a more straightforward question with a fairly straightforward answer. I find out about new RPGs either from trolling Kickstarter for new projects, or by people posting about them on RPGnet. Occasionally Seamus will either tell me about or review a game I hadn’t heard of, and occasionally other RPG commentators and authors I respect will mention games that sound like I’d enjoy them.

That’s about it for this week. Come back next Thursday where I’ll be posting about the questions from August 4th – 10th.

roleplaying games

Character Profile: Gilbert Philips

Character development is probably the one RPG topic I complain about most. Inconsistent character development, shallow character development, the lack of my own character development, the topic of developing personalities and motivations for game characters is likely the topic of thousands of words that I’ve written over the years. When I began running my online group’s short Apocalypse World “backup” game, the amount and quality of player buy-in blew my mind, and turned me from an indie dabbler to someone who shouts PbtA from the rooftops.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that a good character-focused PbtA game would have the same effect on me sitting on the other side of the screen, a player. But yet, when it happened it still took me by surprise…even more surprising, the effect was even more profound than when it happened to me as a GM. Maybe it’s not that surprising, actually. There are two reasons I GM: first, it appeals to both my creative mind and my desire for control in specific ways. Second, the majority of my experiences as a player in the formative years of my gaming development were, at best, mediocre. GMing was always more fun for me, though as I’m finding a lot of this was how I was able to build my own fun.

Recently, after a fair spate of so-so player experiences, I decided to look inward, as opposed to blaming the game system or the play style (or the GM). When I saw myself running through a game on autopilot that others were enjoying, I had to conclude there was something I wasn’t doing…after all, I’ve been playing with this group for over a decade now, and I know where our playstyles align and where they clash. For our most recent games, I took the tack that making characters pop takes effort on my part not only to think through them and think about their motivations, but also to keep them relevant in the game, in both meta and mechanical senses. For the most part it’s worked pretty well. Sadi and Nant, in our Dark Heresy and Force and Destiny games respectively, are two of the more engaging characters I’ve played, stretching back to either our first Shadowrun campaign or the Cyberpunk game “Island Paradise” (the characters for those games, Zeke and Roland, also had distinct and strong motivations, as well as better built mechanical niches than many of my others). But then, as if to shout from the rooftops “System Matters!”, Seamus ran Masks at our annual Beach Weekend and blew my world open.

Masks is a superhero game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse, but not just any superhero game. It takes cues from Monsterhearts and makes your characters teenagers, about to inherit the superheroic mantle from the three generations that came before them. Before we even look at the mechanics there’s a great platform for a range of motivations and origin stories. Then, the rules add to that. Instead of a harm clock, you have conditions, emotional states which make things more difficult and can be given to you by teammates just as easily as enemies. Character stats can be shifted, both making social interactions *extremely* important but also representing the volatility and fragile self-image of the average teenager. The influence mechanic is there (a simpler version of Strings/Debts/Giri from Monsterhearts/Urban Shadows/The Veil), but adds the niggling detail that every adult named NPC has influence over you until they spend it, which adds yet further to the teenage milieu.

So yeah, the game’s fantastically built, and like most PbtA games it’s fairly simple. But what about my character? I built Gilbert Philips, a normal nerdy kid who after getting some experimental cybernetics shipped to him, becomes CryptoHertz, hacker and parkour master. Thing is, unlike the rest of the characters (which included a transforming blood monster and someone whose moods can set them on fire, literally), Gilbert doesn’t have any real powers. The enhancements make him do things that he, nerdy high school kid, thinks are superhuman, but he’s pretty normal compared to the others. He has imposter syndrome while many of his teammates envy his normality, alive parents, and ability to go to school and have a social life.

Gilbert is overwhelmingly based on myself from high school. The name comes from two places: “Gilbert” was the name of an over-the-top nerd character I played in a college Greek Sing show, and serves to broadcast the character archetype. “Philips” was the last name of one of my players in my high school RPG group, and is a signal to exactly what part of my life I’m borrowing most of the personality traits from (high school, but specifically the latter half of high school).

More importantly than the supporting details (driving his parents’ minivan, running gaming groups, strange levels of interest in exercise and physical activity despite being terrible at them), Gilbert enters the game with some strange demi-romantic relationships that he has trouble dealing with. They aren’t representative of actual things that happened to me in high school (Gilbert has way more game than I did, even if he’s fucked it up badly so far), but they’re indicative of an aspect I want to explore. Already in one session, playing Gilbert has been immensely therapeutic, as I get into the mind of my high school self and see similar scenarios with a very different viewpoint. It’s a weird sort of inverse cognitive behavioral therapy…get back into the dysfunctional mindset you had before, to better understand why you are now more able to handle those sorts of scenarios.

As I keep on playing games, writing games, and running games, I am getting a better hold on what I’m looking for from said games. Character escapism is not really my thing, at least not in terms of ability. That said, having the power to make impactful decisions is important to me, and you can’t have impactful decisions without consequences. It’s also fun and cathartic to be given license to make the wrong decisions…in some ways you never have more power than when you drag the rest of the party along on your ill-considered impulse journey. More than impulses and power, though, you have to care. You have to be rooting for not just your characters but all the characters, and get invested in the journeys you take. When it comes to Masks, we know the journeys ahead will be difficult, even though we don’t know what form they’ll take. I talked about the game with Seamus, and he pointed out we didn’t even know what the main villain looked like. Despite not having a solid arc yet, the game has already coalesced into a drama we care about, on the strengths of the main characters. It’s only going to get stranger, and we’ll be sitting at the table cheering on the misfits in front of us even as we grab dice and conspire to make their lives more difficult. I can’t wait.

Reflective Writing

Dear Kat

Dear Kat,

I found the mixtape you made me. Or rather the mix CD. It was the blank CD-R that was in my CD case, the big one I’ve had since high school. I don’t normally touch my CDs anymore but some time around the month of my 30th birthday I remembered that unlabeled CD-R was in there. I took it out of the sleeve, stuffed it into the optical drive in my computer (it’s not really a CD-ROM drive any more, is it? There are CDs and DVDs and BDs now…let’s stick with optical drive), and played it for the first time in 12 years.

If you’ve read any of my various online writings over those 12 years (and I suspect, Kat, that you haven’t), you may have noticed past writings about memory triggers. It may be because I remember things well, or because I have been pretty emotionally sensitive over the last three decades, but there are a lot of latent memory triggers sitting around. And indeed, when I played that CD it was a gigantic memory trigger because every one of those songs was one you told me about at the lunch table in high school.

The songs ultimately aren’t important, though some of them definitely helped me remember who you were as a person. What was more important was the image of not only those lunchtime conversations but in fact the entire year began to sublimate as I listened to those songs. You were one of a cast of many, and yet you’re one of the few who completely disappeared from my life. Starting at that lunch table…Patrick was there, it was the three of us most days. He and I still see each other, maybe not as frequently as either of us would like but frequently enough that I can say we have a relationship. I’ve met his wife (as out of character as you might have found that sentence many years ago), he’s met my girlfriend. We went out for drinks in New York maybe three months ago. He did not disappear. You did.

Timing is a part of that. I packed up for Pittsburgh, and you still had three years of high school left. You might have met my brother…he never mentioned it but then again I wouldn’t expect him to. Still, that’s quite a gulf, at least it was then. And that likely explains what happened on my side, too. Three years seemed like a big difference when I was 17. But now, if I were to meet you again, you’d be 27 and I’d be 30. Those two ages are for all intents and purposes the same.

I admit I looked for you online, partially out of a sense of morbid curiosity and partially because I thought it might be fun to drop a random note, even though there’d be a good chance you wouldn’t remember who I am. No need to chase it further, though I’m not always the best at letting things (people?) disappear. It is kind of ancient history at this point…but in some ways it’s a fixed point in time.

I hope this doesn’t all seem ludicrous or creepy. Fact is, not many people made me mix CDs in high school, so you ascended to a kind of rarefied crowd with that move. And I do remember you and remember you positively, something that can’t be said for much of what I knew and experienced in high school. So forgive this somewhat insane writing…maybe drop me a line some time. Nostalgia is a weird thing, and I’m sure you can accept that.



I did listen to that mix CD, and it was in a rarefied space. Aforementioned Patrick made me a mix, which led me to some great musical acquisitions (Beck, Morphine, Dandy Warhols, Elliott Smith, others). My one high school girlfriend Katy made me one as well…It’s in a jewel case somewhere, which means I may have lost it (I’m sorry!). In both of those cases, I still have the people. Kat I never kept in touch with. I kind of regret that, she was sweet and witty, as well as off kilter in a way that I didn’t know how to deal with in high school but now greatly appreciate. Frankly, I think our timing was off and we met 5-10 years too early. But that was mostly my fault…18-year old me was dumb and pretty impatient.

I don’t have many high school artifacts left. As I alluded to in the “letter”, I blew up a lot of the relationships I had in high school, and others I was either too anxious or too oblivous to nurture. Part of the way I’m learning to deal with this is identifying all the things I had to learn…and clearly, learned after high school. But that evolves into this weird sort of regret, the useless regret where you wish you could be back then knowing what you know now. So here’s the symbolism, a tangible object that represents a friendship I did not destroy, and yet through neglect actually did. It may be totally normal (and even expected) that 18-year old me didn’t know how to value what he had. As useless as it is, I still waste brain space thinking that guy’s an asshole.

Postscript: The day I drafted this post, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park was found dead, a suicide. He was 41. Suicide is a whole other topic for high school me (link here), but more importantly for this topic, I was playing Linkin Park albums while writing this. It added a whole other level to the vividness of high school memory triggers. I hope you find peace, Chester. You did more than you could know for me and probably scores of other angry and aimless 14 and 15 year olds.

I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter…

The song can have a positive meaning if you look at it in the right way.

Bicycles, Reflective Writing

My Dad and the month of July

First, I want to apologize to any of my friends for whom this is news. I have not been shouting this from the rooftops, nor have I been in contact with everyone. For reasons that should be obvious, it’s been a stressful month and I’ve withdrawn a little as a result.

One month ago, on June 20th, my father was struck by a car while on his bicycle. He suffered a brain injury and spent quite a bit of time in the hospital. He’s home now, still recovering but making progress. It’s been a harrowing time, for myself and my brother but especially for my mother, who has found herself conscripted as the key contact for all the doctors, lawyers, and everyone else you get in touch with when there’s a bad surprise in your life.

I was not prepared for this, though for different reasons than most of my family. Like my father, I’m an avid cyclist. Unlike my father, the majority of my cycling mileage occurs in and around the city of Boston, especially in the last five years when I commuted to work by bicycle. I had been preparing for the possibility of a bike crash in the family…but I had been mentally preparing for the day I’d be hit by a car again (yes, again). Pedaling through traffic day after day, you inure yourself to the idea that eventually someone was going to come too close or make an error in judgment and you’d find yourself laid out in the street.

That didn’t happen. My father was riding home on a rural road, less than two miles from home. The road has a shoulder wide enough to ride on, and there were no traffic devices between him and home, not even a stop sign. He was hit by a driver who not only simply failed to regard mixed traffic, but also fled the scene after the crash. Yeah, it was a hit and run. This made everything all the more frustrating. Though I can’t comment on exactly what happened, both the location and the circumstances make it difficult for me to see any reason for this occurring other than a person who simply failed to drive.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. My criticisms can’t undo the crash, and even if the offending driver stopped my Dad would have still been in the hospital and still had the injuries he did. It’s not useful to ponder what-ifs, especially as my Dad is still here, and that’s the direction my energies should go. He’s been talking about the bike he’s going to buy after everything gets resolved. That impresses the hell out of me.

There’s some point in the future this may return to normal. I haven’t been cycling all this month, though I can’t say for certain it’s related to the crash (I’m also fairly busy). For now though, I’m trying as best I can to help my parents while my Dad recovers. I’m very thankful for the support I’ve received from friends, co-workers and family…and here I must apologize again if I haven’t told you what was happening. With everything going on, I stepped back from a lot. It’s only after a recent and much needed vacation that I was able to clear my head and write this. In the long run, I’m sure both my Dad and myself are going to keep cycling…I can only hope that everyone I know does their part and keeps being cognizant of the many types of road users out there. It only takes one careless moment to change someone’s life forever.


Very quiet around here…

As is wont to occasionally occur, this blog has gone very quiet. I have not stopped writing, my weekly posts have gone up on Cannibal Halfling like clockwork. That said, my life has been very busy and as a result I haven’t had as much time to write. In big news, I have taken a new job, which starts next week. The on-boarding/off-boarding process is the cause of the majority of my additional busyness and stress, meaning my schedule should being reverting to normal in another few weeks.

Beyond that, I also took some time to travel for the LARP my girlfriend is writing, spending last weekend in Pennsylvania. I never thought of myself as a LARP guy, but between the event and Pennsic I’m getting into not only the gaming aspect but also the garb/lifestyle aspect. The campaign has eight more events over the next three years, so I’m reserving judgment as to whether or not I want to pursue a more full schedule (albeit likely at a closer site). There is a LARP post going up on Cannibal Halfling tomorrow, so check it out when it goes live.

That’s about it for now. Once my head stops spinning, I’ll come back here to discuss either a) the new, more moddable car, or b) a longer writing project I’ve been planning.