RPGaDay 2021 #22: Substitute

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Substitute”. What a tricky prompt! I’ll do my best regardless.

I think there’s no real substitution for the kind of experience that a tabletop RPG offers, which puts it in a category of itself. For me, movies and series are somewhat interchangeable nowadays, given how much the production quality of series has improved over the years. I love books, and I would gladly read either a traditional novel or a graphic novel, as both would cater to the same desire I have. I don’t know of anything that would exactly substitute the experience I get out of a tabletop RPG, however.

Computer RPGs offer something vastly different to what tabletop RPGs can offer. Firstly, a lot of computer games are termed “RPG” because they have a point-buy system in their leveling-up mechanics, while the rest of their gameplay can be quite traditional computer game stuff. Secondly, the RPGs that do have to deal with role-playing, and are modeled after tabletop RPGs, are often focused on tactical combat simulation. There are scant few that actuall model the narrative and character0based roleplaying that tabletop RPGs can offer. And then still, due to the nature of computers, the games are quite limiting in their possibilities.

Nothing comes quite close to playing an RPG around a table (though playing RPGs online has gotten pretty convenient too, lately). It’s a wonderfully unique experience for which there is no substitute.

RPGaDay 2021 #21: Simplicity

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Simplicity”. I’ll take this opportunity to argue for complexity in tabletop roleplaying games.

Every now and then, I see new indie RPGs being launched that tout rules-light systems. Proudly they’ll proclaim that there will be a minimum of die-rolling, or that characters can be created within a few minutes, and so on. Rather than encourage me, such claims end up making me less excited about these games. Don’t get me wrong, simplicity for its own sakeor complexity, for that matteris pointless. Now, I’ve argued before that complexity isn’t inherently bad, nor is simplicity inherently good. Similarly, I’ve argued that rules are there to serve a purpose, and whatever amount is needed to meet that purposes is fitting. Today, though, I want to make a more emotional argument as to why I enjoy complexity.

Firstly, I like rolling dice. I enjoy the clicking of them in my hands or die-cup, the clitter-clatter of them rolling over wood, and gather them all together to add up the numbers. I just even like the look of dice and the varying shapes. There’s something pleasing about those little Platonic solids (and the d10 as well, to complete the polyhedral set). I also enjoy the small arithmetic of character sheets and RPG systems. I’ve spent time working out the probability of rolls, and what different rolling mechanics will mean for outcomes. It’s fun when you roll a unique number in the system, like a 20 in a d20 for systems that reward that, or rolling additional dice per 6 rolled on a d6 for exploding dice. The pure physicality of them is enjoyable to me.

Similar to enjoying the visceral experience of dice, I like RPG rulebooks. At times they feel like tomes of knowledge that I leaf through to find the answer to my problem. Cross-referencing rules and tables bring me back to the fun times I had as a university student, hidden among the stacks in the library reading academic treatises about philosophy. When writing adventures, I’m in the middle of a circle of books, with rules references in one, literary theory in another, and details about monsters or traps in a third. A well-written and designed book is a joy in its own right. Looking at the various illustrations, a good font, or a consistent set of design principles brought into reality is lovely.

It’s not just the experience of the physical books that is enjoyable, though. I like watching the mechanics come to life in play. Just comparing a pair of numbers is all right, and I suppose just rolling a die against an obstacle number will also get you a resolution to a conflict. That all seems rather arbitrary to me, though. I like allocating points to this or that, or forging a character by selecting the right skills. I enjoy mechanics that provide some influence over purely stochastic resolution systems. Whether that’s a set of combat moves or spells that provided bonuses or maluses to the numbers, or actions in volleys and exchanges that introduce elements of strategy, it’s enjoyable to me to see all the gears move in the machine. I like having part of this diegetic world under my control and the rest to be wildly out of it.

And, lastly, I enjoy seeing a full system run like clockwork. I love it when character creation, resolution systems, and reward systems all fit together to create a unified experience. Seeing a system achieve what it intends to achieve is fun. Seeing the emergent property of a system come to play is a pure joy. It’s fun to have worked with such a system and really understanding the core of it.

RPGaDay 2021 #20: Foundation

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Foundation.” With rhe risk of falling into platitudes, for all beginnings a solid foundation is needed to build on. Tabletop RPGs are no different in this respect.

I prefer to start tabletop RPG campaigns or adventures with a solid “Session 0”, which is a meta-conversation about the game to be played. A good Session 0 should lay out the interests of the players and the GM, and outline some of the Dos and Donts during gameplay. At the end of my ideal Session 0, both players and GM have a pretty good idea of what the plot will revolve around, what style and genre of game will be played, and what the end state of the story will be. However, this is also a case of my personal preferences for how to play. I also know players who prefer simulation-style games with no end in sight (a “we’ll play until we’re no longer interested” style of game) or players who prefer to be surprised by whatever the host of the game will come up with (how can there be exciting plot twists if we know everything ahead of time?). I’ll gloss over improvisational games, though I could argue they would be a style of simulationiist game. Whatever the case, though, my preference is to have these elements clearly defined before the campaign proper even begins.

The game that really opened my eyes to defining plot points in advance was My Life With Master. The system itself already defines the plot that you will be playing: all players are Minions of the Master, and the game is the story about how the Master meets their demise and what happens to the Minions during that time. That main plot should be the plot of all games run in My Life With Master, and as such the entire system is quite narrowly focused on facilitating this story. Interestingly enough, even though the plot is tightly defined and structured, the story the group ends up with can vary wildly. All you really know at the start is that in a number of sessions, the Master will fall. This leads to interesting player behavior, as there is a built-in sense of urgency. Will some of the Minions desparately try to save the Master? The player knowledge that this cannot succeed can lead to great moments around the table. The key is that the story can be one of dramatic irony, where we see the sad doomed struggle of a Minion that will meet their end together with the Master, or just as easily it could be the hilarious slapstick comedy of a Minion oafishly trying to save the Master yet bringing about their doom by their very actions. Despite having this narrowly focused plot, the stories told can be wildly different.

To be fair, the game is intended to be played seriously: the subtitle of the RPG is “a roleplaying game of villainy, self-loathing, and unrequired love.” The Minion attributes are REASON, WEARINESS, SELF-LOATHING, and LOVE, which also gives a good insight into the feeling of the game. The game also prescribes five possible epilogues, of which four are negative. Once a minion has a LOVE attribute higher than their FEAR plus their WEARINESS, endgame is triggered and that Minion will cause the Master’s downfall. Then, depending on the individual attributes, each Minion may either wander off into nothingness, the Minion may be killed, or end their own existence, or become so awful that they themselves grow into a Master. Alternatively, if a Minion’s story goes just right, they may find themselves integrated into the society of the Townspeople.

On first reading, this did seem odd to me. The game seems to prescribe the full story: from a group of Minions, one Minion will accrue enough love to find self-worth, and then by their hand they will end the Master. Afterwards, based on a set of numbers, each Minion will get a prescribed ending. So, why play at all? We can just have a PC generate the numbers, crunch out the math, have an AI write the text, and be done with it. If that was the case, though, we could just close down all theatres now. After all, Shakespeare’s plays have all been written down, right? We know the plot and story, so why bother? Clearly, the point isn’t the plot, or even the story in the case of theatre, but it’s the performance that matters. My Life With Master really solidified the thought in my mind that tabletop RPGs are no different in this respect. The way in which individual players approach this single plotline has varied wildly and interestingly in play.

In my experience, instead of limiting choice and hampering experience, such a solid foundation for a game helped to focus gameplay, support players in their decisions, and create a much more cohesive experience for all at the table. The key, of course, is that this isn’t a railroad enforced by the host of a game, but a shared agreement around the table for what the foundation of the story is and what the group wants to achieve.

Nobilis: Session 0

Yesterday, I played in the first session of a game of Nobilis (that’s the link for the 2nd edition; apparently, there’s also a third edition), run by Fub. I’d never played in the system before, though I’d heard of it. As most Session 0s go, this one was fully devoted to character and world creation. Nobilis is about a group of mortals who are elevated by god(like) beings to serve as avatars of concepts within the world. Reality is under attack by, well, something, and the players are Nobles who are tasked to preserve concepts.

I didn’t know two of the players in our group of six (counting the “Hollyhock God”, the game’s term for the host of the game), and unlike most of the people in the game, I had never read Nobilis nor was I much aware of the details of the system. Both aspects made the first session a little more uncomfortable than usual (that and the unrelated lack of sleep I had the night before), but overall the session went well. What was difficult for me is that I didn’t have a view of what the game would be, how it would play, nor what our central problem is. However, given that so much of the game depends on the powers and world defined in session 0, it’s also not surprising that it’s impossible to pin down at this point. I trust that fairly soon in our first session, we’ll be introduced to the central plot device so that I can get some grip on the system from there.

It was tricky to navigate the system so far, because the book is apparently written so notoriously badly that the author’s name (Rebecca Sean Borgstrom, the previous name of Jenna Moran) has been turned into a pejorative for confusing, contradictory, or overly-complicated systems, “Borgstromancy”. Having skimmed through some of the rules now, I would say that, sure, the book is quite flowery and prosaic in its writing, and some things are somewhat ambiguous, but to say that it’s illegible to the point of using the author’s name as the pinnacle of poor writing seems harsh to me. The ambiguity is more in smaller parts. For instance, yesterday, I struggled with Resources that could be purchased for the world we were creating. A table on p.143 of the book showed some Resources as costing “3 Chancel Points” and others as “-1” or “+1”; however, it didn’t indicate what the minus or plus values modified. Now, with some reading it turns out that the idea for these is that you’d buy one Resource and the others would be added on to that one, yet they were listed in the text as individual Resources rather than modifications or upgrades of the first. Sure, not as clear as it could be presented, but to deem this an offense greater than anything done by other RPGs still seems excessive to me.

In any case, we’ve mostly set up for the game now, so it’ll be interesting to see how this plays and whether I’ll enjoy the game system.

RPGaDay 2021 #19: Theme

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Theme”, which is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Much as I think that every RPG should be about something, I want stories to have a point to make. In order words, narratives should have a central subject or message to convey. That provides an interesting problem when running RPGs, though, as the stories are more interactive than one person telling a story to a group is. The goal of an RPG is to tell a story together as a group, and so there will always be some measure of improvisational nature to the storytelling process. I do think that it’s the task of the host of the game to try and bring that theme into the experience. Since you cannot control the actions of the players, the main method of bringing theme into focus is the opposition or conflict provided to the players, whether it’s the desires of the enemies that they meet or the recurring nature of problems that they must overcome.

This is also one of the reasons why I tend to dislike continous games: they’ll end up losing focus. If there’s no central theme beyond “we’re a group of adventurers going on an adventure”, and the game is essentially just an ongoing simulation, then my attention tends to waver and ends up waning. As I write this, I realize that this is also the reason why I do enjoy strings of smaller or medium-sized campaigns, even though practically they may ask the same time-investment as a longer game would: there, at least, I would expect each of the smaller campaigns to have its own theme, and therefore provide a coherent experience to enjoy. Without conscious effort to introduce themes to the narrative of the game, all that remains is the subconscious themes introduced by the biases of the participants, and that doesn’t interest me too much.

It’s somewhat thought-provoking to me that, reading back what I just wrote, I naturally assumed it was the host of the game that carried the responsibility of managing the theme of the game. However, at the same time, I cannot think of serious reasons why the players wouldn’t be able to be the ones introducing theme by coordinating their actions and characterization. Even in that situation, I’m realizing, it still requires the host of the game to recognize the theme that the players are bringing in and to ensure that the rest of the experience that’s outside of the players’ control matches that theme.

Burning France: Initial Character Beliefs.

In the last post about the Burning France campaign, I described the progress of our Session 0. Back then, we didn’t have the Beliefs worked out yet but fortunately now we have everything set up. Without further ado, here are the sets of beliefs for each character:

The Bastard

  1. Meting out justice is what’s required, but no-one said I couldn’t get paid in the process.
  2. My companions obviously look to me for leadership and Guidance; I will set an example and put them on the path of righteousness.
  3. (Direct goal-orientated Belief to be decided at the start of Session 1)
  4. (Zealot Belief) Nobilé lurk around every corner; under every peasant lurks a budding, ambitious freeloader that must be stopped.

This is a good solid spread of Beliefs. The first is an ethical stance, the second is a party-orientated belief, the third will be a direct goal to achieve, and the fourth is a clear invitation for me to present obstacles and ties is quite well with the theme we’d set out in Session 0. Here we have a character with a clear direction: the insurrection has cleared the power structure, a new leader is needed, and The Bastard will be that leader for the group; yet anybody else who wants to pop up needs to get pushed back down.

The Bawdyhouse Operator

  1. Always look out for number one.
  2. Power cannot be trusted no matter what mask it wears.
  3. (Direct goal-orientated Belief to be decided at the start of Session 1)

A solid pair of Beliefs, though I would have enjoyed seeing a party-orientated one here as well. However, I suspect that the goal-orientated Belief may end up being a comment on the party as well once we get to it. The first Belief may risk being antagonistic towards the party and invite some backstabbing, which isn’t particularly the type of game I had in mind, but the player intends for it to mean that her character will just save her own ass before helping others. That second Belief is again a nice one because it ties in well with our theme.

The Farmer

  1. Now that everyone is equal, we should all be able to shape our lives according to our own vision.
  2. My companions have shaped their lives according to their own vision, so they are well suited to dispense advice to others to do the same. I must trust their judgement.
  3. (Direct goal-orientated Belief to be decided at the start of Session 1)

Another good set of Beliefs to work from. The first one is a good ethical Belief fitting to our theme. The second is a nice party-orientated belief that helps me see what role The Farmer will have to play in the story. While initially these Beliefs may be passive, as they’re all somewhat wait-and-see approaches (Burning Wheel is about passionate stances), I suspect that these are the starting point for Beliefs that are sure to end up changing and growing throughout the game.

Overall

What immediately jumps out to me is that each character seems to have a different view of what the new classless political structure is to be. The Bastard feels no one should be a leader yet also that he should lead (contradictory Beliefs are such a goldmine!), the Bawdyhouse Operator believes that all power is dangerous, and the Farmer feels that everybody’s view should be respected. Those three Beliefs will surely clash once the rubber hits the road. We’re off to a good start!

RPGaDay 2021 #18: Write

Todayś RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Write”, which is ironic for a blog to write about, as that’s all I’ve been doing the past three weeks or so, of course. I love writing about RPGs, but for this post I’ll write about writing for campaigns, to mix things up.

I enjoy the idea of writing out campaigns and sessions, so that I have something to fall back on. While my GMing style at the table is improvisational, I want to have a solid background or preparation to fall back on if needed. I don’t enjoy laying down a railroad track for the players to follow but as long as you have a broad plot in mind you can always create a story together with the players. If you have the plot points ready, during play you can always move things around as needed. Your intended murder suspect can end up being the informant who was being framed, and a new previously innocent person ends up being the murderer. Sure, who cares? The players are having fun solving a murder mystery, which was the overall point anyway.

One thing that seems quite interesting to me, but also incredibly daunting, is using these types of notes to create a more polished product that I could actually put out there. A fun module that other people could use as well. It sounds cool, but I suspect the reality of it would be quite intimidating and potentially frustrating. Maybe once I’ve run this current campaign, I’ll take my notes and solidify them into a more polished thing and see what I can do.

RPGaDay 2021 #17: Trap

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Trap”. Narrative games have markedly changed how I view the use of traps, and this seems like a good moment to write about that shift.

When I just started playing RPGs with D&D, I applied traps in games in a very D&D sense, being just yet another attack on the players. Much of D&D mechanics back then were purely combat focused. In fact, it was quite a paradigm shift when D&D rulebooks suggested equal rewards for avoiding a conflict as would have been for fighting it out. Whichever way, I viewed traps through that lens for a long time: it’s just a delayed, abstracted attack by some nemesis on the group of players.

Starting with Burning Wheel, though games like Dungeon World, Fiasco, and My Life With Master, I started learning how traps can be fun ways to advance stories and give meaning. In games like Burning Wheel and Torchbearer you are rewarded for getting yourself in trouble; Fiasco is built around the idea of people with poor impulse control getting into deeper trouble than they were; and My Life With Master is about the imminent and unavoidable demise of the Master and the question of what happens to the minions afterwards. Each of these games reminds the players that failure is okay, and should make things more interesting. For Burning Wheel and Torchbearer, traps aren’t there to kill the players, they’re to give them poignant choices: do you go on despite being injured? You should really turn back at this point—are you sure you want to push your luck just to not break your promise?

As a player as well I’ve learned to see traps as an invitation from the host of the game to some more interesting narrative. If there’s a big shiny red button on that control panel looks so alluring, surely there’s something interesting that will happen if I press it. Moreover, if terrible things happen to my character, wouldn’t that just be really cool? In Die Hard, what’s cool is that John McClane ends up shoeless, beaten up, and poorly bandaged for his final encounter. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, there’s an incredibly poignant moment where Luke has, for all practical purposes, defeated Darth Vader and cuts off his hand; this prompts him to realize that his father and him are similar in quite crucial ways. How would this moment have happened if Luke hadn’t willingly walked into the Cloud City trap at the end of The Empire Strikes Back?

RPGaDay 2021 #16: Move

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Move”. Again a solid choice for a prompt by RPGaDay, as there’s quite a few directions you can go with this. I will take the prompt to indicate a game mechanical concept, being an action by a player in a game as an abstract component of playing that game (rather than, say, a “move” as an action as used in D&D, for example).

I’ll admit to doing a little preparatory research on what would constitutee the exact difference between a villain and a fiend. Apparently, crucially, a villain is a base criminal, which is to say somebody very human in their criminal activity; a fiend, by contrast, is somebody whose criminality borders on evil, and carries connotations of possession or inhuman desires.

A recent post by Fub made me think about the possiblity to abstract actions in RPGs. His post on RPG-a-Day 12 (topic: “Think”) dealt with the difficulties of having a character who is smarter than the player is, and how to deal with that mechanically.

If you’re interested in what prompted this post, have a look through Fub’s post!

Specifically, near the end of his post, he poses the following question:

Deduction is much harder to abstract away. Well, you could do the same as with recall, but is that really satisfying? Suppose there’s a murder mystery, and you collect clues. You roll the dice, and then your character solves the case. Is that fun?

Fublog, August 13th 2021

It prompted me to think of player interaction with games in general. How far away can we abstract those? If we take his question to an absurd extreme, what if we thought of the following game: you start, roll a die, and if it comes up 4, 5, or 6, you win; if it comes up 1, 2, or 3, you lose. Is that even a game? There’s no interaction between the player and the mechanics of the game. You either start the game by rolling the die or you do not. There is no further action that the player takes to influence the odds, stakes, or system. I would argue this doesn’t quality as a game. To take the other extreme, if we posit a game where every tiny little detail must be worked out by the player to a nauseating detail, we reach a level of disfunctionality similar to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a novel whose very central joke is that the narrator digresses so constantly and in such detail that he doesn’t reach the birth of the protagonist until the third volume of the novel.

To avoid these two ridiculous extremes, games abstract actions into moves. In boardgames, these are quite easily distinguished as player “turns” in which, often, players have a number of “moves” or “actions”. In tabletop RPGs, this line gets blurry. During most roleplaying games I’m aware of, narrative or roleplaying sections have no separate player turns, as all action happens simultaneously. It’s let up to the discretion of the host of the game to organize and structure the narrative with the players. Usually, when conflict occurs, many games end up having a system that includes some manner of turn-taking of declaration of moves.

It reminds me of what I wrote a few days ago in response to an earlier post by Fub; broadly speaking, Fub explained how in old-school RPGs conflicts were made mechanically more rooted in rules to avoid conflicts at the player tables. In that case we externalize rules to make them objective (though arbitrary), and provide players with explicit moves to more easily categorize their actions and make them fit within the rules more easily. This type of codifying of rules, if not integrated with the system, works to separate certain elements of the narrative out into a sub-game that is more strictly regulated.

Recently, Fub and I were in a Torchbearer game together, run by a mutual friend of ours. In an after-discussion, Fub voiced the criticism that he felt Torchbearer felt too much like a boardgame. A key point is that Torchbearer does codify quite a few more things in move-like actions. I would argue that the game integrates its systems so that there’s far more cohesion in all its components. However, I can see Fub’s point that the increase in the number of moves you work with makes it feel more like a boardgame at times. Part of the issue for that particular game, I think, is that we were all struggling with it: two of the players were new to the system, I hadn’t played it in years, and the GM hadn’t run too many games of it yet either. I do wonder whether with some more practice, we could have reached a more satisfying experience with the game. It’s a pity that the GM of the game doesn’t blog as well, as I would have loved to refer to his thoughts on the matter here.

Regardless of the outcome of that particular game, however, in general I am interesting in exploring the move in games in general. Integrating mechanics throughout an RPG interests me, as I enjoy mechanical operations in games as well as seeing intricate systems work well. I’m sure this is a topic that will be returning quite frequently on this blog.

RPGaDay2021 #15: Supplement

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Supplement.” Supplements for RPGs are usually additional or optional sets of rules released as a separate product.

Supplements, I think, are a good way to try and create an additional revenue stream for RPGs, as long as they are truly devised to be additional information rather than a system in pieces. The Revised edition of The Burning Wheel, for example, was originally released in two volumes, namely The Burning Wheel and the Character Burner, being the books for the Game Master and the players, respectively. Over the years, the Monster Burner, Magic Burner, and Adventure Burner were released. Later, these were rebundled for the Gold edition in two books, The Burning Wheel and the Codex. The Burning Wheel is fully playable with just the first two books, and as a group you can enjoy good games with them. The additional three books for the Revised edition are there to provide additional input, help, and structure for Game Masters.

Pathfinder is another one of those systems that I appreciate the supplements for. The rules for Pathfinder are actually all published online, and the game is fully playable like that if you’d so choose. However, some optional and additional material is released via published supplements. That, to me, is a pretty fair business model. You don’t have to have all the latest toys for free. Moreover, the rules online are barebones and functional, but the purchased products are extensive and beautifully illustrated. Even then, while a print version of a supplement may cost around US$50, a PDF version of the same wil be as cheap as US$15; again, as far as I’m concerned, a quite acceptable price. I suspect their business model is based on providing easy access to their materials; after all, the more people play your game, the more people will end up buying your products.

Lastly, what I really enjoy about the type of license that Pathfinder applies is that they’ve opened up the door for a Compatibility License. In short, anyone can publish material and state that it’s compatible with Pathfinder. Essentially, as long as they make clear it’s not an official Paizo product, it can be published. As a result, indie RPG stores have a plethora of incredibly cheap mini supplements that add a couple of rules or items for RPGS. What a great way to include your customers in your business!