roleplaying games, Worldbuilding

Synthwave, Cyberpunk, and Aesthetic

I’ve started listening to a lot of Synthwave recently. For those who aren’t aware, Synthwave is a relatively recent musical movement using a lot of throwback elements to 1980s film and video game soundtracks. If you’re still confused, go play Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. I’ll wait.

Also happening around this time is Mike Pondsmith, creator of Cyberpunk 2020, getting on the horn in places like GenCon, talking about, among other things, a new Cyberpunk game. This one, with the pre-production name of “Cyberpunk Red”, continues the Cyberpunk 2020 timeline and sits between the original game and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 video game. But what’s interesting and relevant here is that Pondsmith has confirmed that there won’t be severe retcon worked into this game, other than conveniently ignoring that Cyberpunk v3 ever happened. Still, that means that the 80s aesthetic that continued into 2020 is going to stay canon, and the setting will have a retrofuturist vibe.

Retrofuturism ends up being something I keep looking at as I semi-secretly plan my future Cyberpunk games. First, Fraser Simons’ The Veil/World of Dungeons/Cyberpunk 2020 hack Veil 2020 threw the retro into his PbtA game The Veil, acknowledging the stylistic impact of earlier Cyberpunk games like 2020. Then I started planning a campaign using the base game, The Veil, and incorporating many of the transhuman elements from its expansion, Cascade.

In planning a new campaign, the question of what the world will look like becomes an important one, especially as time itself becomes somewhat mutable. The characters are waking up in new bodies after their brains have been uploaded and stored for decades, if not centuries. If this starts happening en masse, the way culture works is likely to change completely, given populations with completely different touchpoints. It may grind to a halt, it may turn into a horrifying kaleidoscope of splinters and subgenres.

Retrofuturism then serves a couple purposes to me as a writer. First, it’s a grounding point for my players, who notionally understand what Cyberpunk is. Second, it makes it easier to write. Even in an ostensibly dystopian genre like Cyberpunk, it’s hard to extrapolate off of today…either you’ll get depressed, or whatever you end up with may be just a little too real for comfort. Pulling the game away from the real world is an important exercise, both for creativity and sanity.

This will not be the first campaign I’ve tried to run where I’ve tried to build a world with an implied aesthetic. And I don’t necessarily know I’ll succeed any better this time around. That said, having so many visual and auditory inspirations will hopefully resonate with my players, and it will definitely inform how I’m running. High-tech, low-life, neon, chrome.

I’ve made a promise to one of my players that, in light of his Naval deployment, I will wait until May of 2019 to run a new Cyberpunk game. I already can’t wait.


Review: Cyberspace

Fact is, the 1980s were the time that roleplaying games really exploded. While Dungeons and Dragons was a child of the 70s, the 80s were a time that the corpus of games got a lot bigger, and some great mechanical and genre innovations came out of it. We got GURPS from the 80s. We got Paranoia from the 80s. We got Champions and Toon from the 80s.

We got Cyberpunk from the 80s.

The first wave of Cyberpunk roleplaying games came out over a very short time period. Cyberpunk 2013 was the first, released in 1988. Cyberspace and Shadowrun both followed in 1989. Cyberpunk, in my opinion, had the best mechanics of the three. Shadowrun, more objectively, sold the best. Cyberspace trailed the other two in popularity and adoption, and while a “second edition” was published (little more than a new print run with errata), Iron Crown let Cyberspace die on the vine and focused on their more successful fantasy game, Rolemaster.

At this point, I’ve run five full-length campaigns using Cyberpunk 2020 (including one with a GURPS kitbash), played in two full-length campaigns of Cyberpunk 2020, run and played numerous 2020 one-shots, and played in two full-length campaigns of Shadowrun as well. Cyberspace is, as the third member of the Cyberpunk RPG first wave, notably absent. So what did I do? I bought the book from a used book retailer on Amazon, and then last night I read it, cover to cover.

Cyberspace is based on Rolemaster, as is pretty much every product Iron Crown released (Rolemaster, Spacemaster, MERP). In fact, the book contains conversion notes for Spacemaster, in case you wanted some sci-fi crossover. The thing about Rolemaster is that it doesn’t have a unified mechanic. As an example, GURPS has a unified mechanic…roll 3d6 and your target number is your skill score. Though there are tons of modifications the system can throw at you, all rolls boil down to rolling these three dice and looking at your skills. In Rolemaster (and therefore Cyberspace), while there is one die mechanic (1d100), there is not a consistent way to determine success. Instead, there are tables indicating what happens for each range of dice results. Every type of maneuver has its own table, meaning there are somewhere on the order of half a dozen tables with results ranging from roughly -100 to 200. There are another half dozen critical hit tables, and another half dozen fumble tables.

Weirdly enough, this doesn’t affect the actual mechanics too much. This method adds some granularity to roll results, and actually reading the tables I thought it was pretty cool that margin of success had codified results. Here’s the problem, though: the raise mechanic in Savage Worlds also codifies results for margin of success, and for that to work you just need to divide your margin of success by four. In Cyberspace, you calculate the roll, find the table, read the table, and then determine the result. In a typical combat round you’ll be consulting at least two tables, and that’s if you already did out the calculations for your attack bonus and skill modifiers beforehand. So my main fear, not yet substantiated through play, is that this system is going to be slow. It’s also much more math-intensive than most modern systems, requiring the addition and subtraction of 2-3 digit numbers every roll. The main reason this is a problem is that both of Cyberspace’s competitors were much, much better in this regard. Cyberpunk is roll against a DC like D&D, and add your straight stat and skill rank. Shadowrun is a dice pool system: roll dice and count the 5s and 6s. Easy.

The combat system is based on simultaneous task resolution. The players all decide what they’re going to do, write it down and give it to the GM. The GM then resolves actions in order of what they are, with each action subtype having a ruling on how they affect either each other or subsequent actions. So ranged attacks go first, and are always executed. That means that if characters are shooting at each other, getting shot doesn’t actually affect whether or not you get your attack off. Melee attacks, on the other hand, are resolved based on an initiative order, with only identical initiatives resolving simultaneously like ranged attacks. There’s a lot of more detail in the combat system…mostly illustrated through tables.

Character creation is both very interesting and very problematic at the same time. The problematic aspect I can get out of the way at the outset: the first thing you do when creating a character is rolling 1d100 for 11 stats. That’s bonkers. I mean, people complain a lot about 3d6 for D&D, but 1d100 is completely random. You could roll below 30 for every stat while your table-mate rolls above 75 for each stat. I’d immediately houserule this to something less random, like 5d20 or 10d10. After that nonsense, things get better. The professions in the game are different packages of skills, and don’t provide many restrictions in the way of what skills you buy, merely varying amounts of start points and future XP costs. One thing I actually really like is that skills at character creation is divided into two parts: you first get a skill package based on your upbringing which is tied to social class, and then you get to the part where you buys skills based on your profession. There is a more detailed background section which is optional but too cool to actually ignore, it serves the same purpose as Lifepath in Cyberpunk but in my opinion is a lot less stylish.

The hacking and computer rules…where to start. First, I’ll concede that all hacking rules, especially very old ones, are pretty bad. Add to that that the technology assumptions are wildly inconsistent. What really bothered me about the technology in the book was how it seemed to jump from incredibly prescient (in 1989, the authors assumed in the future we’d have smartphones with full-featured CPUs, way better than the Cyberpunk phone assumptions) to incredibly stupid (the entire section on cyberdecks seems to have no real idea how a computer works). The worst is that these two things combine themselves. For instance, the authors describe memristors and MRAM with clarity…and then say you’d make a CPU with them (the confusion between processors and memory is a strong theme). They also describe the difference between a high-level programming language and a low-level machine language, even identifying that different processor types have different machine code…and then go ahead and include a table of machine languages based on software type…which makes absolutely no sense. In Cyberpunk 2020, the technical detail in the hacking section was thin…which as I see now was for the better because it prevented the authors from making technical error after technical error after technical error.

The setting material is good, similar in feel to Cyberpunk 2020 but with more detail. I do like how the main city in the book is San Francisco…as much as Night City was a neat setting in Cyberpunk, sticking a fictional city halfway between San Francisco and LA always felt weird to me. As Shadowrun was originally set in Seattle, this continues the trend of the west coast being the fictional Cyberpunk nexus. Cyberspace also goes into more detail with arcologies, space colonization and environmental damage, aspects that were important in Cyberpunk 2020 but glossed over.

Overall, Cyberspace is solid compared to its two contemporaries, but is definitely going to be a very different game. Like the system it’s based on, it’s designed to produce consistent roll results that are clear and easy to adjudicate. Also like the system its based on, it does this through miles of tables which make rules referencing during play essentially a must. This game, like Rolemaster, is designed to be crunchy and give strong mechanical support in deciding actions. It also leans on the 80s standbys of random character generation and lack of enforced game balance (though it’s nowhere near as egregious as, say, Rifts).

I’m incredibly curious to see how this game actually plays. I have a feeling that running online is going to be all but impossible unless I convince my group to all get their own copies of the book, though it may well be that I could run in a way that only the GM is looking up results on tables. I also have a feeling that if we felt FFG Star Wars could be slow in combat, we’re in for a very rude awakening.

Ultimately, I see why this game exists and why it still has fans. I can’t say for certain how I feel about it compared to Cyberpunk 2020…from what I can tell Cyberspace has a much more robust ruleset in terms of exploitability, and both the character creation and advancement rules are better from a mechanical perspective (Lifepath still has more style though). But until I try running this thing and dealing with all of these tables, I don’t really know how the core game plays compared to others. When comparing it to my broader game collection, though, it’s hard to see my interest in this other than as a historical artifact. Cyberspace could compare favorably with Cyberpunk 2020, but with Interface Zero, The Sprawl, Technoir, and others gaming has continued to move beyond the design principles of the 80s. Even GURPS, with its own design roots in the 80s, has improved significantly in its four editions, becoming an easier toolkit while still maintaining a good amount of heft. Though I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen, reading Cyberspace made me understand perfectly well why it was the third place finisher in the first wave of Cyberpunk games.

roleplaying games

After-action report: Dungeon World, September 28th

Dungeon World marks my return to GMing after a nearly two month hiatus. And man, it feels good.

We started off with character creation, a relatively quick affair in most PbtA games including Dungeon World, and ended up with an interesting little party. There’s Garath the Wizard, Mouse the Thief, Dominique the Cleric, and Briallen the Ranger. Once the characters were introduced and some Bonds were thrown in the mix, we were ready to go.

One way every PbtA game varies is in how the game is supposed to start. Apocalypse World, as well as Urban Shadows, start the game with each character going through a “day in the life”. In my experience, this quickly strays away from the actual daily routine and into all of the surrounding elements that are important to the characters’ lives. In Apocalypse World, I gave a somewhat unique but still relatively unadventurous day (a funeral), some very basic frameworks, and asked them to fill in the blanks.

Dungeon World is a bit different. The game starts in media res. The GM provides a basic scenario which the players are just about to hit the climax of, and drops them off right in the action. In this session, I had the players hiding in the rafters of a library, watching a group of goblins searching for the same book they were. When trying to use Detect Evil to determine the nature of the goblins, the cleric accidentally popped the book right out of the shelf, and into the hands of the goblins. Using some bluster and an invisibility spell, the wizard was able to convince the goblins they were outgunned, and demanded payment for the book. Not having the extravagant sum he was demanding, the goblins left, swearing they’d return. No sooner than they’d made there way out the entrance of the abandoned library did they happen upon a group of kobolds. The party couldn’t understand what they were arguing about, but when both groups turned back towards the library, it was clear everyone wanted the book. This time, it was the cleric’s turn for some bluster. The kobolds, who apparently were warned about a wizard, suddenly realized there were two magic users about, and beat a hasty retreat. Not wanting to stick around, the party quickly hiked through the night to the nearest village.

And here’s the part that makes this sort of gaming fun in a unique way. Do I know who the goblins are? No! What about the kobolds? Not a clue! What’s the deal with this book? Good question! While I am going to sit down and write this all out between now and next session, the way the first session played out created these opportunities to start sketching out this world. And Dungeon World itself has some great frameworks to help me do this. As an example, the characters ended the session making it back to the village. Nothing has been determined about this village, except for the fact that an old man who wanted a certain book lived there. But, Dungeon World has some great templates and guidelines for creating “steadings”, as they’re called in Dungeon World parlance. This should give me some more interesting ideas for what’s going on in this corner of the world.

I think we’re off to a great start. I want to try and nudge my players to fill in more blanks about their characters, as this is a fairly blank world. I know the cleric’s deity, which is great, but I could also know about the wizard’s education, as an example, or even something simple like their hometowns. This doesn’t all have to happen now (or any time soon, necessarily), but like all PbtA games Dungeon World has ample opportunity for player input.

It was a solid first session. I see a lot of opportunities for both characters and the world to grow and develop as we keep playing.

roleplaying games

Two sides of the screen

One of my friends tweeted last night about getting the opportunity to be a player in a system he’s usually the GM for. My initial reaction was “well, I prefer to GM”, but then I thought about it more. With few exceptions, I don’t get many or any opportunities to play in the systems I really like.

In person, I’ve been in a couple Fate games. One I was really getting into, but it fell apart. Another was converted from a different system and a little weird, but fairly enjoyable regardless. I played one session of Dungeon World using characters converted from a D&D game…it intrigued me but due to its place in another campaign really didn’t show off Dungeon World at all.

Burning Wheel? Finding players is hard enough, let alone a GM. Apocalypse World? Nope. GURPS? Not since 2009, excepting one short game a couple years ago that fell apart. Cyberpunk 2020? In 2011.

Meanwhile, I have been a player, but in systems chosen by other people. I’ve made it clear how I feel about FFG Star Wars. Beyond that, the system feels like one a minis company would write, and the dice system was ported from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3e, a system where it actually makes more sense in-genre. We played Exalted before, which is a fascinating world hamstrung by a terrible system, made worse by a mechanically-biased GM (which is not a problem into and of itself, but is a great way to demonstrate how badly a system falls apart in short order). Shadowrun was on the list, which is just like Exalted except I like the setting more.

And some of these games I enjoyed quite a bit. The second Shadowrun game, in particular, was a trip. But all of them have been hit or miss. I don’t know for certain if being a player itself just doesn’t get me excited. The more I think about it, I get excited about systems I really click with, and in recent years that’s just not what I’ve been playing.

I like the playstyle of my online group; it’s one reason we’re all still playing together. And as I’ve said before, I’m capable of having fun in pretty much any game someone runs for me. But it is entirely possible that where I thought “I simply have more fun GMing than playing”, the reality is “people other than me aren’t GMing games I get really excited about playing”.

It’s hard to write something like this without accidentally insulting someone running a game I’m currently playing, and that’s not my intent. All of the GMs in my life are good at what they do. And right at this moment, in particular, I have a pretty good crop of games that are gaining momentum and getting good, like Mage:the Awakening and (somehow) Force and Destiny. There is nothing wrong with the games I’m playing in now, they’re all fun and I enjoy them.

At the end of the day, though, there are a vast number of new games and ideas in the roleplaying hobby that get me really excited, inspired and enthusiastic. And in my groups, for now at least, no one’s GMing these games other than me.

roleplaying games

After-action report: Fiasco, September 23rd

I have mentioned that in the past, I thought that GURPS would be the only game I would ever need, something I discovered was dead wrong. Fiasco is a perfect distillation of everything GURPS can’t possibly do, and that makes it a fantastic game.

For those of you who don’t know, Fiasco is a delightfully simple improv RPG which has all of four mechanics: the exposition, the Acts, the Tilt, and the Aftermath. In the exposition, you choose elements from a playset, which are broken down into Relationships, Needs, Objects, and Locations. Relationships and Needs are likely familiar to any gamer: the former defines how characters know and interact with each other, while the latter are the motivations which drive characters and the plot. Objects and Locations may seem obvious, but the framing in Fiasco is more of one a film student would use: in an ideal game the objects and the locations can be just as much of characters as the characters themselves. Think “The Winchester” from Shaun of the Dead, or the Ring of Power. They drive events in the plot, rather than just sit there waiting to be used. All of these elements come from the Playset you choose, which has lists of Relationships, Needs, Objects and Locations tailored to a certain setting and genre. Examples from the core books include “Nice Southern Town” and “Wild West”, which you may notice were both settings of Coen Brothers movies. This is not coincidental.

The Tilt and the Aftermath are similar to the exposition, in that you roll dice available to you, and use the numbers you have to determine either a plot twist for between the two acts, or how your character makes out in the end.

The Acts, though, are the strongest part of the game and the simplest. Each player gets two scenes per act. Each scene, they choose to either establish the scene, or resolve the scene. If they establish, they have complete narrative control over the scene except for one element. If they resolve, they get to choose, at a critical juncture, whether the scene is going to end well or poorly for their character. Whichever role they don’t choose, the rest of the table does for them. The core of the gameplay lies in these two decision points: establish or resolve, end well or end poorly. Everything built up around it is just fodder for doing some improv and enjoying the chaos.

The table setup: my friends Seamus and Mark, Seamus’s wife, my girlfriend, and a spread of rare and/or high gravity beers. The playset: Gangster London. It got weird very quickly, with a Hebrew School teacher/undercover cop, her stalker, a Russian immigrant caught up in the middle of it, and a few lovers/drug dealers (there was some overlap with both the loving and the drug dealing). The action started at a synagogue, moved to a strip club, and ended with a shootout with the police and some unfortunate grenade explosions.

One of the reasons Fiasco is one of my favorite RPGs is that it offers something completely different, while still providing structure in a way gamers are familiar with. I think one of the biggest liabilities in the indie scene is that writers still need help moving away from existing paradigms if they don’t fit well…the clearest example of this to me is Fate, which despite being light, punchy, and fairly well-written, confuses the hell out of gamers at a conceptual level more than any other game. This is simply because Fate hews to traditional RPG concepts up to a point, and that point is exactly where many people stop following. In the case of Fiasco, the traditional RPG architecture is thrown away completely, but replaced with another one people understand: film. There are two acts. In the middle is an event which shakes up the proceedings and leads into the climax. Each scene in an act is about a character. This also sets up the intent of the game, which is to create dramatic chaos. Players are primed for this by the game’s subtitle: A Game of Powerful Ambition and Poor Impulse Control. It does also help that the game is very simple, requiring only a handful of structured decisions or dice rolls and leaving the rest up to the minds of the players.

Fiasco is likely the greatest one-shot game I own, and is probably the only game I own that is designed to be played only in one sitting. This means that I have a lot more chances to bring it out at parties than other games I own, and that is something I’ve done with varying degrees of success. Nonetheless, my hope is to keep playing Fiasco in the future, and it’s more likely than not that I’m going to send some money in the direction of buying some more playsets from the publisher…the more chaos available, the better.

roleplaying games

Absence, and a proposal

I’ve been in San Francisco for work essentially all of this week, explaining my lack of writing. I was able to put down 600 words on Fratricide in the hotel room, but a relative lack of time has made blogging about anything pertinent somewhat difficult. I leave this evening, and next week everything will be back to normal.

I’ve been thinking more about future gaming ideas, especially after spending some time with another incredibly creative GM from our college group, who has declined to continue with the group online (in his words, playing online “drives him nuts”). We always talk about games and writing, and shared some bits on our respective writing projects. But it made we think about play-by-post.

First, play-by-post has been on my mind. Second, our most successful PbP game was run by my friend here, and he’s just as into the writing aspect as I am. Thinking about having an outlet like that makes the notion of starting up a game incredibly tempting.

If I was to start a play-by-post game, it would almost certainly be in a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse system…probably straight Apocalypse World. I’d find players who were interested in dropping some word count on this thing, and comfortable with a relatively slow pace. Between the light system and the battle moves, it’d be possible to resolve combats tightly without the slowdown we experienced in GURPS (which, despite being objectively terrible for PbP was the system we used pretty much every time).

It’s another game on my RPG wishlist along with Burning Wheel, though between the system and the medium it would be a lot easier. Can I find enough people interested in a slow-burning, writing-heavy game, though? Guess I should start polling the audience.

roleplaying games

Interesting games I haven’t played

There was a time, long in the past, when I thought GURPS would be my be-all end-all game for the rest of time. Based on how much I’m playing GURPS now (i.e. I’m not), I was wrong. I’ve not only seen how much variety there is out there, but also how much more keeps on being created. Now that I’ve become a fiend for Kickstarter, it becomes even easier to keep tabs on what new things gamers are talking about. Here’s a few I’ve come across.

Games I’ve backed

Red Markets

Red Markets has the tagline “A game of economic horror”. I was in immediately. The game takes place in a zombie apocalypse, but the conceit of the plot is that those remaining over in the safe zones are financing adventurers (called”makers”) in the quarantine area (called “The Recession”) to  help them reclaim abandoned property by collecting evidence of the original owners’ deaths. Between that and the economic subsystems (mission pay based on a supply/demand model, simplified yet brutal upkeep system), I was feeling pretty good about how this was going to be executed. Then, I heard some actual play done on the One Shot podcast. Ugh, this game sounds amazing. I can’t wait to have it in my hands.


Zweihander started as the author’s house rules for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP), and evolved from there. The product being delivered is a gritty fantasy RPG which has, instead of the Warhammer setting, toolkit elements for using it however you may please. Between my interest in dark fantasy and the enthusiasm coming from RPGnet posters familiar with the alpha version, I had to back. The final product will be an old-school hardcover tome, 600+ pages of dark and gritty goodness.

Kickstarted games that have successfully delivered


Godbound is a mythic fantasy game, where the characters are demigods. I looked at the Kickstarter with a curious glance at first, then passed over. Then, I read about it on RPGnet. Someone (actually, multiple someones) had converted Exalted to Godbound, and not only did it run well, it ran better than Exalted did. So, I backed the game as a way to ensure that my online group would never try to play Exalted again (well, and because it looked pretty cool). Now that I have the book in my hands, I can say not only does it do the power level very well, it also has a setting that stands up there with Exalted (a game where the setting and lore is definitely the best part). Beyond that, it’s probably the best Old-School Revival (OSR) game I  have read, because a) it’s not just a D&D heartbreaker and b) the author isn’t full of himself.

Savage Rifts

I played Rifts once in high school. I fell in love with the setting and out of love with virtually everything else about the game. Now, Pinnacle has somehow managed to get the remarkably protective Palladium to license their baby, and allow a new edition to be written in Savage Worlds. I have the two core books in PDF form already, and it looks really solid.

Games I’ve merely heard of

Interface Zero: Pathfinder Edition

As one who has read this blog or otherwise knows me will realize, I’m quite fond of Interface Zero. I honestly believe that it is the traditional game that is closest to taking the torch from Cyberpunk 2020 in terms of flavor and setting. I’ve played both the Savage Worlds and Fate editions, and run a game using the Savage Worlds rules. While I’m not a huge d20 fan, the one product to come out of the d20 era that always intrigued me was d20 Modern, which hews to a similar technothriller style of gameplay as most Cyberpunk games. If David Jarvis has worked his magic in Pathfinder like he did in Savage Worlds and Fate, this could not only be a great addition to the Interface Zero stable but a definitive execution of modern/near-future gaming in Pathfinder. The Kickstarter for this game should be (*ahem*) kicking off soon.


Cryptomancer is a game about hacking and network security. It’s also a fantasy game. I’ll give you a minute to adjust your shocked expression. What excites me about this isn’t the promised hacking based on actual security principles (which could make the game either incredibly fun or dreadfully boring depending on how good the designer is), but the fact that it seems to be one of the first settings in a long time that actually takes Clarke’s Third Law to a logical conclusion/inversion, where magic eventually creates systems that are indistinguishable from technology. Combine the more modern inclination of the game design with a twist on fantasy tropes, and this looks like it could be the Dungeonpunk game I didn’t know I was eagerly waiting for.

What’s Old Is New (WOIN)

This game apparently got some attention because the large D&D forum ENWorld is helping to publish it. Not being a member of ENWorld, I of course hadn’t heard of it until now. The system is generic, with a few settings announced, but the core I’m interested in are the three toolkits: O.L.D. (old-school fantasy), N.O.W. (modern-day technothriller stuff), and N.E.W. (sci-fi, with what seems to be an emphasis on space opera). These three toolkits cover 90% of the stuff I typically want to play, and the system is described as being crunchy. If done well, this could be comprehensive enough that I’d use it in favor of GURPS. The jury is still out on that; only one of the three toolkits (N.E.W.) is currently out. The only thing I’ve seen in the way of reviews have been from purchasers and Kickstarter backers (who like it a lot), and the /r/rpg subreddit (who really don’t like it at all). But, between backers’ bias and redditors hating things, those don’t tell me anything. The threads indicate it borrows a lot from the old d6 system, but there still isn’t a lot to go by for how the game actually plays. Regardless, the game is now on my radar, so I’ll be watching for the other two toolkits to come out. The system sounds like it’s right up my alley, it’s all down to how it’s executed.

roleplaying games

The Wheel Turns, and the Wheel Burns

The Talmud discusses the nature of conversion to Judaism. A rabbi is supposed to turn away a prospective convert three times. When he returns after the third time, that is how the rabbi knows the convert is serious enough.

That philosophy, if not the literal process, is how I’m slowly but surely developing my game of Burning Wheel.

I’ve called Burning Wheel my ‘favorite game I’ll never play’, due mostly to the fact that despite my admiration for the system and how it’s written, it’s simply incompatible with the prevailing habits and playstyles of my most consistent group, the online group that spawned from my college group. Burning Wheel works best with 3-5 players and poses significant bookkeeping and spotlight management work on a GM who tries more. Burning Wheel requires a degree of rules and system mastery which occurs only when each player has a copy of the book available and has made an effort to read and reference it. Burning Wheel does not come in PDF form. Burning Wheel is built around narrative systems which come to fruition around 12 sessions into a game, and has progression mechanics that may not come into play until 50 sessions in, if at all.

My online group has 8 players. My online group purchases manuals inconsistently, and almost always in PDF. My online group rarely plays games which last longer than 15-20 sessions. There is not a fundamental compatibility here.

As such, I’ve started poking all game players in my life, ending all conversations about Burning Wheel with “I can’t run Burning Wheel without players who are interested in Burning Wheel.” My girlfriend, actually, was the first one to give the magic response:

“I’m interested in Burning Wheel.”

And as of the last week or so, I’ve gotten a second person to tell me that they too are interested in Burning Wheel. So now I just need one more, and I can start to figure out how I’d be able to run a game of Burning Wheel.

Why Burning Wheel? I mean, it’s a fair question. It won’t be the only narrative game in my stable. I’m running an Apocalypse World game for the online group on a back-burner basis, and my in-person group is switching from Urban Shadows to Dungeon World. Dungeon World especially may scratch some of the same itches as Burning Wheel.

But Burning Wheel presents things that other games don’t. It has a great lifepath system, but the system for creating a character narrative through play is much deeper (as it should be). It has a lot of crunch and moving parts, but doesn’t fall into wargaming tropes which break immersion (it may be that I’m in love with simultaneous action systems). The advancement system is delightful, fiddly as it may be. From my admittedly limited impressions, the system seems more like something you want to play with than a “simulator” system where you put in a certain amount of work to get a certain breadth of results.

I think in terms of rules density, Burning Wheel and GURPS are probably on par. The key difference is that while GURPS has rules for settings and events, Burning Wheel has rules for a playstyle. GURPS is broad, Burning Wheel is deep. It does mean that if you’re not interested in precisely what Burning Wheel does, you’re not interested in Burning Wheel.

But if you are interested in Burning Wheel, you know why it excites me. And you may be someone who could join my future campaign.

roleplaying games

Play-by-Post games: Going literary

I almost called this “In Defense of the Play-by-Post”, but I realized that title corrodes my thesis quite badly. The play-by-post (PbP) as a gaming medium doesn’t need defending. Instead, the play-by-post needs to be championed, because there are things you can do in a play-by-post game that you cannot do in a traditional roleplaying game.

Play-by-post (or forum game, or play-by-email, or RP blogging, etc.) gaming was born out of necessity back in the Usenet era. Like mail chess, play-by-post gaming was developed to overcome the geographical constraints of a game designed to be played in person. As such it was considered to be a lesser form of gaming, and if you’re running a dungeon crawl it may in fact be a lesser form to meeting in person and having a map, physical dice, and combat turns that take less than a day to resolve.

Newsgroups didn’t just allow for asynchronous games of D&D, though. Newsgroups were also one of the first places where you had text-driven, freeform roleplaying occur online. I don’t know and don’t deign to speculate on freeform RP’s relationship to RPGs as they came from D&D; the two activities likely could have evolved completely separately. I’m not much for freeform roleplay, but the goals of writing and developing characters are equally at home in a more structured game. Thanks to the vagaries of the internet both new and old, PbP/PbEM communities playing both freeform games and rules-driven ones cross-pollinated. PbP as it is now is heavily driven by writing, not only because of the literary motivations of players but also because running combat-heavy games via forum posts is an unholy pain in the ass.

When running or playing PbP, everything can be more thoughtful and deliberate. Players and GMs alike have more time to expand on their characters and their settings, and can add details that would be glossed over or forgotten in-person. The game as it exists becomes a rich story, easy to refer back to thanks to a permanent record. And everyone has a chance to be a writer, an ephemeral but vital difference between running a game in text and running it face-to-face (physically or otherwise). And play-by-post games, with that focus on writing over acting or gameplay, are not lesser games, not at all. They are merely different.

My biggest mistake with PbP was that the games I ran were always marketed as an alternative to an in-person game when logistics made one impossible. PbP is a different beast entirely, and different people will be attracted to it. I personally find that PbP is more likely to scratch an itch of mine that takes a lot of effort and time in more traditional games: the desire to collaborate on telling a story. When I play a conventional game, I often find I’m helping the GM to tell a story rather than tell my own. When I run a conventional game, I find a large amount of variance with how much my players are willing to put story elements on the table. In PbP, the story must be collaborative and the players must be willing to stick their necks out, narratively speaking. The mechanical tension which drives games played in real time is greatly minimized, so the momentum must come from narrative for everybody.

In a traditional game, you can have a story-driven game or you cannot; there are ways to easily do both or either. In PbP, unless the players are willing to step up with writing the game will fall apart and cease to exist. In a conventional game, not having a character who is empowered to change the story won’t make the game fail, it’ll just mean I’ll spend more time playing Candy Crush during sessions. That doesn’t make the game bad (I fidget in all games I don’t GM, even fantastic ones), it just means it’s more about play, and players care more about play when it’s their turn. Play is the thing PbP can’t do well.

This is why PbP is seen as a lesser form of gaming. There are many things that people really like about RPGs that PbP falls flat with. A mechanically heavy game with combat, stealth encounters, even mechanized diplomacy (like Social Combat in Exalted or Duel of Wits in Burning Wheel) is going to drag horribly in PbP. Basic things like ordered actions (Cleric, what do you do? OK, Thief, what do you do?) become incredibly difficult. One person ignoring their email for 48 hours can torpedo an entire campaign.

But when it works, you’re writing. You’re four or more people creating a great story. PbP helped me realize that an Israeli spy and corrupt cop from the dark future would become frenemies, a level of relationship depth that did not exist in either of the campaigns the characters were originally written for. PbP helped create a character whose ego was so large that the other players embraced plotting his downfall. PbP helped me mold a vision of a world where Elvis Presley is a vampire. PbP gives a palette on which to explore characters in depth, by writing for them and about them.

I could not give up my gaming for an all-PbP existence. The table experience of a roleplaying game is my favorite organized social activity, and that is only partially connected to the game itself (one reason that, while I’m very self-critical about what and how I GM, I will play in basically any game my group proposes). But PbP lets me combine my love of gaming with my love of writing. I remember how frustrating it is to run a PbP game, especially when it begins to fail. At the same time, I’ll read what was produced in any of our forum games, and immediately yearn to run another. Both because of what it adds and what it takes away from the traditional gaming experience, PbP is a uniquely satisfying way to create stories with your friends.