roleplaying games

This is actually happening

Not my new writing project. I mean, that is likely going to happen, but I’m still figuring out how to line up my writing time and move forward with it. The Labor Day start didn’t happen, but this Sunday, which isn’t after a major travel day, is more likely.

No, I’m talking about my planned RPG campaign, happening in person and using Burning Wheel as the system. I’ve talked about running something in Burning Wheel forever, but I’m done just talking…that’s a surefire way to get nothing done.

I’ve started to clear all Wednesdays from my calendar, with the intent of running the game twice a month on Wednesday evenings, probably 6 or 6:30 to 10 or 10:30. I have two interested people and a third who is interested but will join remotely after resolving some computer issues. That means I need somewhere between one and three additional people, but more likely one or two.

The planned game is inspired by dark and intrigue-heavy fantasy that I’ve consumed, including Game of Thrones and the Witcher series. I know these aren’t particularly deep cuts, but it gives the right vibe of political turmoil cut by magic and monsters. Burning Wheel is perfect for something like this, as magic is difficult to study and perform, but still powerful and terrifying. The game is likely to be human-only, both to keep some of the fantastical elements down and to simplify my life as a first-time Burning Wheel GM.

Starting characters will have three lifepaths, making them early-stage characters who will develop (at least a little bit) quickly. While I’m going to write the bare bones of the world, hopefully the players will help provide me with some detail and help a good setting emerge.

So my hope is to have this ready to go in the next month or two, with a majority of players local to Boston (our one potential remote player is grandfathered in). I’m looking for players among my social circles…possibly including people who may read this on Facebook. You can check out the Burning Wheel core rules (the Hub and Spokes) for free, and then the book is available for a reasonable price many places online. There are no official PDFs, sadly.

roleplaying games

RPG a Day, part 5

This is the last week for RPG questions!

August 25: What is the best way to thank your GM? As I said, return their enthusiasm with your own. It can be so disheartening when you put a lot of work into something and get back a mild response. What I’d like from my players is when I use a tool like Obsidian Portal to give them a chance to engage with the game I’m running, I’d like to see it used. Even when players enjoy the game, it can be disheartening when they drop it after the session and don’t think about it again even as it’s constantly in your head.

August 26: Which RPG provides the most useful resources? GURPS is the one system that consistently produces sourcebooks which I can use in many other systems. GURPS Mysteries, as an example, is one I recommend to any GM trying to run a mystery, whether it’s in GURPS or not. Space similarly has a whole swathe of random star system and planet generators that are gold.

August 27: What are your essentials for good gaming? All I need for good gaming is something to write on. I do work better on computers, in which case having a word processor and spreadsheet is all I really need. Google Sheets has actually been pretty amazing, as it combines most of the functionality of Excel with collaboration tools that make it easy to see what everyone’s inputs are.

August 28: What film/TV series is the biggest source of quotes in your game? We end up quoting ourselves from past games way more than any one TV or film property. And when it comes to memorable utterances, they tend to be the off-the-wall ones we come up with ourselves. Our quote log is over 30 pages long and covers ten years of gaming at this point.

August 29: What has been the best run RPG Kickstarter you’ve backed? I said Burning Wheel Codex because not only was it run tightly, but the product shipped super quick. In all honesty, most of the Kickstarters I’ve backed have been pretty good on the RPG side. The ones I backed which ran into delays were transparent and still shipped good product, but many of those I backed were not particularly delayed at all.

August 30: What is an RPG genre mashup you’d like to see? So many already exist. I nearly facepalmed when I was thinking about fantasy and Cyberpunk and somehow forgot Shadowrun existed. I ended up saying something with Supers…out of those I really wanted to see Supers horror but I think that’s Wild Talents to a degree. See, so many already exist!

August 31: What do you anticipate for gaming in 2018? There’s a lot of exciting stuff coming out between now and January, including some really neat stuff out of some of the big studios (Genesys from Fantasy Flight, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything from Wizards). I’m anticipating some great opportunities to try new stuff and really get back into GMing. At the same time, the stars are aligning such that I may be able to game in person again in 2018 as well. Only time will tell.


So that’s it for RPG a Day this year! I did decently well at staying current, and had fun thinking about all the questions. A couple things are happening which will likely show up here later. First, I am serious about getting back into an in-person group. Now that LARP season is over I’m trying to free up my Wednesdays and get four players who can all come over and roll dice for a couple hours. I’d like to run Burning Wheel in this time, but I’m also aware that sub-3 hour sessions are both likely and not ideal for a game of that intensity. Up to the point that I have a group actually together, I’m willing to be flexible.

Additionally, in the last couple of months I had an idea for a novel, and I’m going to try again to execute on it. Starting next Monday, the end of Labor Day weekend, I’m going to put myself on a writing schedule again. I’m aiming to write every day, without setting an amount. I’ll use this blog to track my progress. Once things have coalesced, I’ll tell everyone what this story is about.

Continue checking out Cannibal Halfling, I posted a neat article about recent editions of Paranoia there yesterday. And keep watching this space, we’re getting closer and closer to me having GM shenanigans again!

roleplaying games

RPG a Day, Part 4

Another full week of gaming questions!

August 18: Which RPG have you played most in your life? I tried to answer this as which game I’ve been a player for most, but I don’t actually know the answer to that question. We as a group jumped around a lot, especially after college. That said, with four or five campaigns as a GM (one was split into two campaign-length sections) and an additional 2.5 as a player (the .5 was a short summer game), Cyberpunk 2020 is the game I’ve spent the most time with as both a GM and a player.

August 19: Which RPG features the best writing? I hedged here as both Fate and Apocalypse World serve as excellent play guides, but in terms of being both a good game and a fun read, Apocalypse World wins. The fact that people are divided on the writing style is one of the signs it rises above being merely a game book, in my opinion.

August 20: What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs? DrivethruRPG. Even the old cyberpunk books I like finding as artifacts are all available in PDF. If you actually want the game books for a game, PDF is the only way to go.

August 21: Which RPG does the most with the least words? This basically translates to “what is your favorite micro-game”, and for me the answer there is Everyone is John. One of the few micro-games that not only does great with word economy, but does something strikingly different.

August 22: Which RPGs are easiest for you to run? Here, I went with easiest to run and produce the game I want…any small game can be “easy to run” but if it doesn’t do what you want it to do that’s not very useful. In addition to being straightforward, Apocalypse World also produces the game that is advertised very easily.

August 23: Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout? I answered Grant Howitt’s Unbound, because the art is gorgeous and it doesn’t interfere with the function of the book. Most books, even modern ones, split the difference between functionality and prettiness, but Unbound does a solid job at both with full-page art and a simple layout. From the looks of the Kickstarter, Howitt’s next project, Spire, looks like it will be as pretty if not moreso.

August 24: Share a pay-what-you-want publisher who should be charging more. I don’t really buy PWYW, except for some of the early Fate books which had PWYW PDFs…and I bought hardcovers of all of those. I’m up for discovering great creators, but so far the new games I find are ones with enough credibility to already charge money. Getting me further upstream in the discovery process will require some friends from my network.

Once again, I’m posting these answers daily (or nearly daily) on Twitter, my handle is @LevelOneWonk. Next week I’ll wrap this up, and talk about my next big writing project.

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.

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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.