roleplaying games

To Build a World

I’m preparing for my D&D campaign which is going to kick off on January 7th. A lot of what I’ve done recently to prepare has been connecting the dots around some of my initial mechanical ideas and a lot of the random rolls I made when building out my hexcrawl map. I’m really happy with what I’ve come up with, but ultimately it is a D&D world through and through, albeit one with some ethnography shake-ups and old-school inspiration.

For multiple reasons, I’ve been thinking about other worlds I want to create as I continue running games into the future, and I keep on returning to a very different mode of both world creation and gameplay as I look forward. In an ironic twist, the amount of time we’ve spent playing Star Wars (and mildly related, the degree to which I need a break from it) has made me look at another angle on space opera…or hard science fiction, at least.

I want to create a game which, like my D&D game, is heavy on exploration, involves a new world map with very little filled in, and emphasizes both danger and building this world in the image of the PCs. Unlike my D&D game, I want this to take place in a science fiction setting, pulling in elements from cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic fiction to create a hard sci-fi playground. I’d run this in GURPS…or at least I think I’d run it in GURPS.

Where the line is has to do with the sort of world I’m creating. The problem with exploration games broadly is that when the primary mechanic is exploration, you have a limited palette of external sources of tension. Monsters and encounters do the trick nicely, but monsters aren’t really the primary thrust of a hard sci-fi game. Resource scarcity is an important driver too, but can get both boring and frustrating, especially if you aren’t willing to let things get shaken up.

This is why pulling Cyberpunk elements into the mix allows things to be more interesting…or at least more dynamic. You need some mix of exploration and existing human inhabitation, or you aren’t going to have a lot of conflict. Aliens could serve this purpose, but as I started to get to in an earlier post, that brings along a whole different set of baggage that I don’t think I’d want in this particular campaign.

At the end of the day, this game is a long ways off. It’s entirely possible that the D&D game I am getting ready to run in less than two weeks will do very well at scratching my exploration itch, and I’ll tone down those sorts of themes in future games. I’m also still pondering the degree to which I want to run GURPS and make it pretty gritty, versus the degree to which I want to return to PbtA, either Apocalypse World or The Veil. Hard sci-fi is a GURPS sell I think I could make, but it’s not the only one I’ve been thinking about. Hell, technothriller could be a lot of fun in GURPS, and then I could pull ideas from the Grand Theft Auto games among other places. Not exploration, but a good shot to employ the granularity of the system to good effect.

I haven’t decided anything yet, and that’s a good thing. I have a sprawling fantasy world to construct first, and some first-level characters to terrify.


roleplaying games

Today’s a very special day

Today’s the one year anniversary of me starting on a new project with a friend and writing at Cannibal Halfling. Cannibal Halfling was not the first gaming blog I have worked on; I was a contributing writer to Troll in the Corner for a hot second before grad school. I was unable to keep up a schedule on that site once grad school began, and the administrator had found contributors both more prolific and closer to the hobby than I, so it all worked out in the end. I did continue writing on my own, but with the longest period of underemployment in my life (May 2009 to December 2009) coming to an end, I was unable to commit to a solid writing schedule for another seven years.

But now I have. Though I count the somewhat BS “Level One Wonk Holiday Special” (a feature I will reprise this year, albeit with way more content), I wrote an article every single week. I was up every Wednesday, except for one week where I posted early to grab more viewers. Some of the articles have been good, some have been rushed, some have been popular and many have not, but in all cases I’m getting a much wider audience for my writing than I could have imagined otherwise.

And more importantly than audience, I’m having fun and I’m being pushed. 1500 words a week is not a terribly ambitious goal, but to do it week-in week-out, and continue to come up with new content each time, that does take work. I’m stretching my brain and thinking about how I’m engaging with the hobby as a whole. I’m looking at my own reading, seeing what doesn’t yet exist, and trying to create it. And best of all, continuously writing no matter what has helped motivate me to undertake other, more ambitious writing projects, even if they are often hampered by time and motivation.

Engaging in the gaming community through the platform I now have has been amazing, and it has continued to motivate me. I truly believe that role-playing games are a mentally enriching hobby; from the simple creative exercise of telling a story to the mindfulness of truly trying to come to grips with a person’s true motivations (even if that person is a fictional character you created) to simply learning how to conduct small group meetings, RPGs do teach you things. Beyond that, I really, honestly think that collaborative story making of the kind that RPGs enable should be a much more widespread hobby than it is right now. Storytelling is one of the most ancient of human endeavors, and role-playing games are a uniquely modern way to democratize it.

In short, thank you all for reading our stuff and playing games, whether we’re recommending them or not. I hope to keep doing this next year and for years to come after that. And if somehow, you read my personal blog and have managed to not stumble onto Cannibal Halfling yet, just go read.

roleplaying games

Blade Runner, Cyberpunk, and The Veil

This week my Cannibal Halfling post was early, so my personal post will be early as well! Early logistically if not in spirit, at least. I saw Blade Runner a few weeks ago (the new one), and absolutely loved it. The aesthetic was perfect, and it extended the themes of the original very well. It also got me thinking, unsurprisingly, about what I’d be aiming for in a Cyberpunk game the next time I run one.

The Veil is a similarly aesthetic approach to Cyberpunk as Blade Runner, of course in a different medium. This was one of the reasons I was quite tentative to run it with my group as a campaign, though that hesitation has softened. In the end, I had a clearer mechanical vision of my fantasy game, and at the moment I still do…though at the moment I damn well better, because that game is starting within a month.

Still, watching Blade Runner reminded me that I do still want to run The Veil. That movie brought up some of the weirdness involved in “Lifting The Veil” in a way that I understood better than seeing it in text, which made it much more clear that I have the capacity to attack the material. It also of course gave me some ideas, altogether too many ideas. The good thing about this is that when the genre is giving me candy store grade enthusiasm for its wide range of themes and milieus, it becomes much easier to do what The Veil requires you to do, which is give the players a hand in creating your setting with you. Wanting your players’ input instead of being nervous about it is a huge deal given the unique social contract of a PbtA game.

The timing of running The Veil will work out, because I don’t want to run the game without the supplement Cascade. Since that’s still being worked on, it helps cement my choice to run the fantasy apocalypse campaign as the right one for right now. I’m also getting more comfortable with the idea that even if this D&D game runs its course, it may not be a 1-to-20 long runner in the way I’ve fantasized about. I’m OK with that…I don’t need to get to the end of the progression curve to tell the stories I want to tell. It’s an important mental milestone to reach as the pre-game prep starts to give way to the during-game prep. Like any campaign I’m about to submit this one to the will of my players…but given the sandbox structure I may be doing so much more acutely than usual.

As I’m getting ready to GM again, I finally feel like my campaign brain has settled into something sustainable: give over most of my brainspace to my upcoming/current games, with just enough thoughts about the next one some time in the ill-defined future. I know there’s more I will want to do, but for now this is good.

Reflective Writing, roleplaying games

Genesys and my search for a do-it-all RPG

First, yes, it’s been three weeks since I posted. I was travelling for work and then had Thanksgiving, so a bit of interruption is to be expected. I’ve been posting consistently over on Cannibal Halfling and writing tons of D&D stuff, so the writing overall is going well.

Fantasy Flight’s Genesys RPG got to my hands this week, and this weekend the roll-out is done and the game is “released”. Seamus wrote the first half of our review here; the game is both not surprising (being a universalization of an existing game) and pretty well done. Next week I’ll talk more in-depth about the toolkit aspects.

And that’s what I’m thinking about as I read through the game and consider what I would use it for. There are some very well-executed expansions to the Narrative Dice system in Genesys, but in terms of its applicability, it falls into a slot which is occupied by Star Wars, the property the system was originally used for. Genesys does fast-paced, story-driven games well, where characters are archetypal but still central and the hero’s journey is reflected across the narrative. The important thing to take away from this is that like most universal systems, Genesys isn’t.

Prior to receiving the book, I was having some anxiety that I’d be driven to convert my upcoming D&D game into Genesys once I read it. Now that it’s in my hands, I can say the desire is completely gone. One of the reasons I picked D&D for the game back when I was outlining the campaign was that it was a game that came close enough to what I wanted to do that essentially all the work had been done for me. As much as Fate would have been easier to tweak (I’m still puzzling over D&D houserules and at the point where I’ll need to test drive some of them), it would have fought me to get to the level of danger and grit I wanted. D&D had some of those levers already in the game, and the rest were either easy to write or existed on one of many fansites and fora. The experience, starting with my campaign planning and culminating in reading Genesys, reminded me that I no longer buy into the concept of a universal game.

I was a GURPS-head for a long time, and I am still very happy to own all of those hardcovers. I still use them for campaign planning, even though I haven’t run GURPS in about five years. GURPS, despite the name, is not a universal system. The best title to actually describe it for me would be an anagram, USRPG; this stands for the “Ultimate Simulationist Role-Playing Game”. What GURPS does extremely well is provide a compact and intuitive system to simulate tons of bits and bobs and circumstances. Want a game of custom-built superpowers? GURPS has the math for that. Want to do gritty war scenarios with sweltering jungles, land mines and hostile villagers? All of those are covered, down to which Armalite variant your PCs are carrying. The ability to simulate anything is immensely attractive, especially for a GM who like to write their own stuff. But when you play, it all comes out roughly the same: a tactical, math-intensive game which can provide lots of circumstances and situations but does not have baked into it a story.

What really drove me away from GURPS in a big way was Apocalypse World, and it was a matter of comparison. I ran a post-apocalyptic game using GURPS for a subset of my online group a few years ago, and it was successful. It also felt like GURPS…it was my first shift away from the Cyberpunk genre in a while, and I was surprised at how difficult it was to introduce atmosphere into the game. At the same time, I had finally gotten practiced at the mechanical aspects…the combats ran great and felt punchy…I remember a PC getting shot in one of the combats and it made a visceral difference in how the session ran. But the system gave me no help in making the world feel post-apocalyptic. Two or three years later I ran Apocalypse World…and damn. Implied scarcity, emotional characters, anger, fear…it just flowed out of me and my players.

GURPS as a game works well when the challenges you want to present are mechanical. It has a great set of tools for modeling almost any conceivable situation, to the point where it can transcend genre (and this is what makes it earn its name). It lacks mechanical support for character narrative and progression, especially compared to D&D. D&D is narrower than GURPS in terms of mechanics, and those mechanics are tuned towards a less realistic mode. D&D, though, provides a rich implied setting, very good progression mechanics (very few games rival D&D’s character arc mechanics), and a much more varied (though at its heart a bit simpler) combat minigame. Compared to both of those, PbtA games are tuned to run a specific subset of character archetypes within a specific genre which gives specific setting assumptions…but the best within that group are simply evocative in a way broader games have difficulty with.

To loop it back, Genesys (and the FFG Star Wars games it’s derived from) is tuned to run dramatic scenarios. It’s for that reason the social combat mechanics were included, and that reason that motivations are both included and boiled down to single word categories (unlike, say, Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, which require much more thought [as is appropriate for their role as plot-driver for the entire game]). Even the dice mechanic is designed around elevating the drama at the table: Wait! add a setback! But no! My talent undoes that! Upgrade this! Downgrade that! Somebody help me, I need the boost! It’s good at what it does (my three campaigns as a player confirm this) but, once again, it’s not a universal system. It’s a great counterpoint to GURPS: GURPS includes thoughtful positioning, planning, and yes, math; Genesys is a much better standard-bearer for “when in doubt, roll and shout” (which is, ironically, advice from GURPS: Campaigns).

So the question then is “if Genesys can’t do it all, what can it do?” I think a lot of larger-than-life campaign ideas could be well-served with Genesys. Steampunk, Mecha, Weird War, Space Opera (though the setting-specific mechanics of games like Traveller and Stars Without Number would have to be at a minimum adapted), games with big concepts that are rolled out across the screen, are all great matches. I’d consider running Cyberpunk in Genesys, though it would heavily depend on what kind of Cyberpunk game (the first complication here is that my next Cyberpunk game would be The Veil, but The Veil only works for exactly its kind of Cyberpunk). Most of my fantasy ideas are built around worlds of darkness and danger…both D&D and Zweihander would be my go-tos, though for different reasons (Zweihander is great at making things dark and gritty, while D&D is great for making your world a dangerous place). Any gritty game idea I have would likely be done in GURPS (still), with the exception that Apocalypse World is simply my favorite post-apocalyptic game and I don’t see much that will change this.

So it’s a good addition to my shelf, and I think it will see some use in the future. Much to my relief, though, it doesn’t appear that it will change any of my immediate plans.

roleplaying games

Week(s) in Review: November has come

First, because I reference things in my titles:


Anyways. Missed last week, but I’ve been pretty busy getting things ready to go for my upcoming D&D game. Yesterday’s Cannibal Halfling post was a nice bit of synergy, as I pulled the Mass Combat rules for personal use and then decided to write a review of them as it was one of the few Unearthed Arcana articles that Seamus hadn’t covered.

Both Xanathar’s Guide and Genesys are coming up soon, and I’m trying hard to resist even the idea that I could run my fantasy game in Genesys. Honestly, I’ve put in a lot of work to make the 5e frameworks work for me, so at this point the game is no longer system-agnostic. Realistically, as long as my players don’t have as infectious a novelty bug as I do (and I’m 90% sure they don’t), I should be fine.

That said, if Genesys is good then tuning it for Cyberpunk will absolutely become one of my back burner projects. The narrative dice system should combine the smooth running of Fate with the crunch and options of more traditional systems, and it’s familiar to my group to boot. The only problem there is that it then sits next to The Veil in “cyberpunk games I will run eventually” land. I’ll worry about that when I actually have the game in my hands.

roleplaying games

Week in Review: Jump Around

So I didn’t write much Paradox this past week, but I did write a lot of words on my upcoming D&D game. I started plotting the map (though the points of interest need a lot of fleshing out), and I started writing my dominion system, which is now about 60% structurally complete though I need to fill in numbers. I also need to reread the mass combat system from Unearthed Arcana and plug my military rules into those ones. Still, loads of progress.

That pretty much covers the title of the post; I’m jumping between projects and at least a little OK with that. Our GM solidified the timeline for the Star Wars game, so it looks like the baton will be passed to me sometime around the end of the year. Since I’m waiting for Xanathar’s Guide to come out before I finalize anything, I’ll have maybe a month or two with all the supplements I need to put stakes in the ground. That said, Wizards released a preview for the book in the form of a Table of Contents, so I already have a much better idea of what’s in the book than I have at any previous point. I know there are no races, so my list is pretty much final with the potential addition of a couple fey-related races (Eladrin and maybe one of the others from Volo’s). There are no new classes, so I’m sticking with just the PHB classes (no Mystic or Artificer).

So I have enough information to give my players an overview, but not quite enough to allow early character creation. There are two items in Xanathar’s which I need to read before making some rules decisions. First, there is apparently a lifepath system in Xanathar’s. Not to get too Bostonian about it, but I am wicked excited for this. If it’s good, it could add a lot to character creation. Second, there are racial feats. I’m think these could be interesting, but with the number of non-standard races I’m using I’m afraid the options these give will not be spread evenly over the character choices I’m providing. This stuff will slow down the process, but with races and classes set I can just wait and go about the writing I can already do.

The book also has new random encounter and downtime rules, which will greatly enhance my game if they’re good. I want to be open to Burning Wheel-style time use where it’s reasonable for characters to take breaks from adventuring and use that time lo learn skills, make money, and enhance their social standing, among other things. I do want it to be totally OK for characters to winter in a town instead of adventuring constantly…and my use of weather rules should encourage this also. I’m really looking forward to a world with ebb and flow and a real sense of time passing, and to see how my players react to this.

Long story short, a productive week, just not at the projects I said I’d focus on. I’m going to try and keep dribbling out material for my players, and keep the enthusiasm at a low bubble until I can start running, or at least have all the rules in one place in late November.

roleplaying games

Week in Review: New Metrics

So this was the first week I shifted entirely to working on games instead of fiction. I’m still figuring out how well “word count” works as a metric for games, especially as certain aspects take much less actual writing than others. So instead, I’ll list out what I did:

  • Came up with a list of playbooks, and wrote descriptions.
  • Cleaned up some of my existing rules writing, harmonizing the past/present/future ideas with my new descriptions.
  • Drafted a list of basic moves.

Not too shabby, though I do still feel like I could have written more this week. Part of it was other stuff going on, part of it was distraction and energy levels. This coming weekend looks quieter, so I’ll try to use that time to my advantage.

In addition to moving Paradox down the line towards a complete prototype, I drafted a basic list of game ideas I’ve wanted to try and execute. They range from subsystem adoptions all the way to full games, though I haven’t been interested in trying to write a ground-up ruleset. Still, I’ve had a lot less difficulty coming up with game writing ideas than fiction ideas:

  • Paradox, the time travel PbtA game
  • A bottom-up exploration hex-crawl, likely using the Year Zero system
  • A Cyberpunk/near-future hack of the Burning Wheel character creation system (Burning Cyberpunk), possibly written for GURPS (though maybe something else, like Cortex or Fate)
  • An adaptation of the Rules Cyclopedia/Dark Dungeons Fiefdom/Domain rules for 5e

I want to tackle these one at a time, though I’m going to write a usable version of the last one once I start prepping my 5e campaign in November. This is a lot of potential work, though some of them have to wait (The Forbidden Lands Kickstarter which is providing an OGL version of the Year Zero ruleset will be doing so on a longer timeline). Still, I think working on Paradox now and then switching to Fiefdom/Domain once I need it for game prep should keep me occupied through at least the rest of 2017. My only hope is that this writing will scratch my game itch between now and when I start GMing again…though if not, I can always keep recruiting for Burning Wheel (Wednesday nights, in Boston!).