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.

roleplaying games

Real games being actually planned

I wrote in the past about all the games I wanted to play, provided I had enough time. Now, I’m starting to figure out a plan for what games I’m actually running in the future.

First, I wrote up a “mid-sized” hexcrawl for Cyberpunk 2020. Now, figuring out when I’m actually running it with the online group is proving to be a slight logistical challenge, but I’ve proposed it and have a slot to run it while one of our core GMs is out for a couple months. I’ve distributed the character creation rules to everyone, and have enough material for a solid handful of sessions.

My in-person game of Victoriana is on the rocks with exactly no sessions under our belt, so at this point I plan to retool and shift the group so we have more regular players. Though nothing is set in stone, I’m considering some hexcrawl-y goodness here as well, possibly even running Burning Wheel since in-person is my only real chance.

I’m also looking out into the future with regards to running my post-apocalyptic fantasy game, and if I’m feeling ambitious this could also be used for the in-person group. After much hemming and hawing, I decided the best game to run the sort of game I was looking for is likely Reign, even if it means I need to do some history writing, worldbuilding, and some paths/disciplines and magic rules. The one-roll spells tool is a pretty neat way to populate the world with hidden lore and relics, though I’d need to figure out how best to treat mage-type characters at character creation. There’s a built-in storyline about ancient hidden lore, but I’m not sure how people would feel about starting with no spells.

Beyond that, The Sprawl is still sitting in the future as a game for the online group. It should be a good one, and it keeps getting informed by my continued consumption of science fiction. Hopefully it’s a long runner, though we’ll see what the characters do and how interesting they are.

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The problem with constraints

I’ve been listening through the backlog of the System Mastery podcast. Not only are Jon and Jef hilarious, but in some ways I feel like they’re kindred spirits in gaming style. These guys have basically said that some of their favorite games mechanically are Fate and D&D 4e, and they see no inherent contradiction to that. In other RPG communities, most notably RPGnet, “rules-light” or “rules-heavy” is seen as a binary choice for many if not most people. Someone like me whose favorite systems of the moment are probably GURPS and Apocalypse World (at the same time) is seen as kind of an oddity.

When I was last listening, the two of them were answering listener questions and someone wrote in asking for a D&D adventure idea. Based partially on some jokes that had come before, they gave an answer that boiled down to “play 1920s bootleggers, except in a D&D world, and also there are blimps.” Through riffing off this, the two of them ended up telling the listener that the idea was too good, he couldn’t have it, and they were going to run it instead.

And you know what? It was a good idea, complete with a few interesting hooks and some great puns (the big bad was going to be “The Fuzz”, except instead of the police it would be sentient mold). And it dramatically violated expectations of what a typical D&D campaign setting looks like. I realize that, in thinking about how that world would look, that I have been sitting in my own box of “typical” settings and not really pushing the envelope in any way.

When I first started gaming in middle and high school, worldbuilding was one of my favorite parts. I’d write lengthy descriptions, make maps, and generally spend a lot of time intensely planning out these worlds. I’ve shifted away from this recently, and I think I’ve done so in a way that I didn’t think through and that hasn’t helped me. I think my instinct to push for player input is largely a good one…but using that to substitute for doing my own planning and worldbuilding has not worked out.

I keep thinking through ideas for new games and broad strokes concepts, but other than a bit of my planning for The Sprawl coming up with settings hasn’t been exciting me recently. I think I need to do more of the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that gets you “1920s bootleggers in a D&D world” rather than falling back on established setting tropes. And while system does matter insofar as the style of game you want goes, it doesn’t restrict you nearly as much as you think it does. I need to keep remembering that.

roleplaying games

The Novelty Treadmill

No gaming group is going to be perfect, and that’s not a surprise. Sometimes, though, general dissatisfaction mixes with otherwise minor personality clashes and leaves a game feeling frustrating. You want something different, something new.

For me, I’ve noticed that the statement “I want something different” is much easier to justify than “I want *X*”. Wanting something different comes about because whatever you have isn’t doing it for you, but wanting something specific requires a lot more justification.

My online group has spent a good chunk of its time throwing games at the wall to see what would stick. Generally every game play has at least one element that’s appealing, and at least one flaw that makes a chunk of the group dislike it. Fate ran fast and was fun, but seemed vague and “same-y”. Exalted had a remarkable world and backstory, but the mechanics are nigh-unusable. Star Wars has a good rules-medium system, but the world is the same one everyone knows and the game suffers mightily from splatbook syndrome. Not everyone is ever happy, even if we generally have fun.

Going forward, I’m trying to think about how to articulate what I want, rather than what I don’t want. As I think about gaming ideas I want to try, it’s very difficult to separate my system ideas into games I think would work well and provide what I want, and games that merely seem new and interesting. Part of this, of course, relates to something I wrote recently for Cannibal Halfling, looking at trying to define what players seek out of games. I need to follow my own advice and articulate what I need out of a game, and that ultimately is going to be more important than what system we’re using.

So first. I want to GM again. This I’ve known, this does not surprise me. I’m interested in long games, I’m interested in games with some level of mechanical intensity, but I’m interested mostly in games where the characters grow into people with some level of depth and personality. And I realize here that this is what I’m interested in for pretty much every game, whether I am running it or not. Equipment lists and power/ability menus are a waste of time if they don’t tell you something about the character and how the character is changing…for the same reason, finding a magic sword in D&D can be a great springboard for storytelling while finding the fifteenth magic sword with incrementally better stats is just a waste of time for everyone involved.

So how do I get to something mechanically and tactically involved while not devolving into large bouts of unnecessary ability lookups and shopping? I’m not sure. This may be the root cause of my system shopping, a desire to find something that is both mechanically detailed but also doesn’t encourage the sort of meta-mastery that plagues a lot of rules-heavy games. But then again, why do I want something mechanically detailed? What is it that I’m trying to do?

I think it goes back to what I said before…I’m looking for a way to run a game where interesting characters evolve, and my gut feeling is that you do want some level of detail to depict these characters and differentiate them. Although this probably isn’t a system problem, systems provide a crutch by which you define your character by their stats and abilities rather than developing a story and personality for them.

So I may need to put my money where my mouth is. Instead of looking for new systems that may magically solve the issues I see, I should double down on the systems that I know will work. PbtA is a good framework, as is Fate. While I have been hesitant to use Fate as a base for any of my exploration game ideas, that may be exactly what makes them work. Keep using the principles of hexcrawling and exploration to generate the game background and challenges, and then use Fate to resolve them. It will of course require some rules hacking, but I think I’ve always known it could work and work well. Now all I have to do is convince others to play the game once I’ve written it.