RPGaDay2021 #6: Flavor

2021/08/06 21:30 – Fub has responded to this blog post on his own blog. You can find his reply here.

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Flavor”. Oof, that’s a tough one! A recent RPGaDay2021 post prompted my thoughts in this direction, fortunately. Fub made a post that stimulated me, and we had a brief talk in his comments about it. I realized that what I wanted to voice seemed to go beyond a set of comments, so this is a good a time as any to post about it.

The Post That Started It Off

For RPGaDay 4 2021, Fub wrote a post on his blog about the theme “Weapon”. It’s an interesting post for me, because he starts off from an idea that I share, namely that RPGs are fundementally about something. However, he ends up with a question that I disagree with quite strongly, being the question of whether you can emulate any genre within the D&D game.

You can find Fub’s whole post here

He made a specific argument that triggered my thoughts:

Could you indeed emulate any genre in D&D by going back to the idea of those first games and let the GM decide what happens?

Fub-log, August 4th 2021

We had a brief discussion about it in the comments, where he expanded on his thought as follows:

I mean, you could emulate pretty much anything in D&D by rolling on a stat against a difficulty number. That’s actually in the rules! So you want to convince the baroness to give you the key to the crypt? Roll Charisma against a DC of 17. Want to know what trade goods will be in demand in the next city over? Roll Intelligence against a DC 15.

In that way, you can pretty much play any game within the D&D rule framework, and that is how it was played originally, I think.

Fub-log, August 5th 2021

It’s an interesting question when it comes to tabletop role-playing: in how far does system determine your options? Could you do anything with D&D? For that matter, if you could do anything in D&D, is that just uniquely for D&D or could you do anything with anything else? Are there specific systems that allow for universal play? Specific requirements to such systems? Once again we approach the type of topics that could be fuel for a PhD project, but I’ll give it my best shot in a short blog post.

A question of definitions

Due to my educational background in English and Cultural Philosophy, and my current professional field being quite legalistic in nature, my natural tendency is to first ensure that we’re clear on terms. Fub used the term “emulate” to indicate one game system to sit in place of another. It would fit given the term. Checking my Concise Oxford English dictionary (OED), “emulate” is defined as “attempt to match or surpass, typically by imitation.” Wiktionary.org defines it as “to copy or imitate, especially a person”. With this, I think, we can swiftly dismiss the possibility of most RPGs to emulate what it is they are representing. Not to be facetious, but a tabletop RPG session involves individuals sitting together and talking about things. Hence, little emulation of physical action is happening, for example. A Penny For My Thoughts is one of the few RPGs I’m familiar with that emulates the situation it attempts to represent: a group-therapy like scientific experiment to recover memories. Sadly, it appears that the RPG is no longer available online. Little actual imitation is happening

Rather, I would argue, we should be speaking of “representation”; RPGs simulate the thing they mean to represent. the OED defines “simulate” as “imitate or reproduce the appearance, character, or conditions of”. Similarly, wiktionary.org defines it as “to model, replicate, duplicate the behavior, appearance or properties of”. This is where we should look to see what RPGs dosemiotically speaking, they are a sign where the rules are a signifier to a signified that may either be real or fantastical. RPGs models diegetic worlds regardless of their ontological origins. Or, simply said: RPGs are about stories, real or imaged, fiction or non-fiction, fantastical or realistic. An example of an RPG that takes this to an extreme is Aces & Eights, which seeks to mechanically represent quite accurately what the Wild West was like, to the degree of having to model exactly each buckshot from a shotgun during combat. Theoretically, your character could just randomly get smallpox and die, because that’s a thing that could happen. It should be noted that Aces & Eights does fail in the way most representations of the Wild West fails, in that most cowboys were persons of color, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Applications in System (and secretly one more definition)

To say that RPGs simulate reality is a rather macro-level view of system, however. It’s a question of what an RPG does rather than how an RPG does that. That’s where, to my mind, flavor comes in (see, I did have a reason to type all this for the RPGaDay prompt). To give an example, I’ll take the game Vampire the Requiem (for clarity, I mean the book with ISBN 9-781588-462473; the history of Vampire and World of Darkness franchises include mergers, splits, re-issues of editions, split timeslines, and much to confuse a new reader). Vampire the Requiem is ostensibly a game about characters who are turned into vampires, gaining various supernatural powers. That is, at least, what the system models. In its introduction, the RPG claims the following, however:

This is the purposes of Vampire: The Requiem. What you hold in your hands is a Modern Gothic Storytelling game, a roleplaying game that allows you to build chronicles that explore morality through the metaphor of vampirism. In Vampire, you “play the monster” and what you do as that monster both makes for an interesting story and might even teach you a little about your own values and those of your fellows.

Vampire The Requiem, p. 14

None of the above is within the system, though. The game does include a “Humanity” statistic for a character: a number from 10 to 1 that indicates how in touch they are with their humanity. Every immoral act a character performs within the fiction runs the risk of lowering that number, with each such lowering being accompanied by the character gaining a psychiatric issue. Yes, that’s right, in this system, being inhuman is equated with having a psychiatric issuea “derangement”, as it’s called. When the Humanity number hits “0”, a character becomes unplayable. These derangements are mostly left for players to act out. Mechanically speaking, Humanity becomes similar to hitpoints: a number that you endeavor to keep above 0, or otherwise it’s game over. So, ironically, while the flavor of the game is intended to be “Modern Gothic Storytelling”, the reality of Vampire games that I’ve played in or run is that Vampire is a game of superpowered bad people doing whatever they want, popping a six-can of blood, before wreaking more havoc.

I’d argue that flavor is something that must be continually put into the narrative, if that is something that the group aspires to. In the Vampire example, the game does nothing to prompt you to making it a Modern Gothic Story, so the players and Storyteller have to ensure that they themselves keep the Modern Gothic genre. This would certainly seem to fit Fub’s argument: if Vampire can be a game of superpowered bad people, and we layer it with a flavor of Modern Gothic, then couldn’t we just layer it with a nice sauce of slapstick comedy, for instance? At the same time, there’s an argument there for why system matters in terms of flavor as well. Since Vampire models an immense power distance between the vampire characters and regular mortals, it nudges the players towards a dismissal of their worth or importance. Some vampire characters could literally be shot at by multiple people and walk away with hardly a scratch. That implies a flavor. It’s difficult to narratively represent the melancholy of losing humanity when the alternative is so powerful and relatively problem-free. Sure, the characters lose touch with mortal society but they integrate just fine with vampire society. And losing the game by reaching Humanity 0 is quite unrealisticthe characters would have to be indiscriminately serial-killing in the most public and violent ways to even come close.

For another example, we can compare the combat mechanics of D&D or Pathfinder-type systems and Burning Wheel. In D&D systems, characters have hit points in the range of 0 and anywhere between roughly 100 and 200 points. Characters with hit points above 0 are alive and can do whatever they want; once they hit 0, they’re unconscious or dead, depending on the edition of D&D. However, dead characters can often easily be brought back to life at relatively early stages in the game already, and at later stages the cost becomes quite trivial. As a result, physical violence often does not feel risky: characters can be slashed by swords over and over, and are still as fit as they were before all that happened. This encourages a numbers-based risk-assessment strategy. Your character can jump into dangerous situations regardless of their health status, because they can themselves dish out damage as well as easily recover from harm. I would be hard-pressed to make D&D into a game where a single person with a crossbow is a threat.

Burning Wheel, on the other hand, does not have a hit points-based system, but uses a Physical Tolerances Grey Scale (PTGS) system unique to BW. It models on a scale the wounds that a character has received, and attaches penalties to each such wound. Most weapons have the ability to cause serious wounds, and there are several that are lethal enough to heavily injure or kill a character with one hit. That one character with a crossbow that is relatively trivial in a D&D game could be deadly in BW. I find it much easier to create a tense situation in BW where somebody pulls a gun on a character than I would in D&D. Conversely, I would have great problems to model the adventurous feel of high fantasy in BW that is so easy to model in D&D. Now, in both I could try and flavor narrative descriptions to match the mood, but the system itself certainly pushes in certain directions. As much as I’d like it to be, that one person with a crossbow will get beat down easily in D&D. As much as I’d like to have pirates having swordfights while swinging from ropes and doing acrobatic flips in BW, it falls somewhat flat when a character has to go “OW! Okay, stop stop stop, I have a cut.”

What About Single Rolls and Resolution?

To circle back to Fub’s original question, why not just resolve everything with a single dieroll? Have a skill with a number that modifies the roll, have a game host setting an arbitrary number to beat with that dieroll, and make that the whole of the system. Here too, of course, you’re running into system determining flavor. Fub references the D&D framework and refers to the early editions of D&D as a model here. In those systems, there are still separate mechanics for some actions over others (depending on what you take as the first D&D system). Combat had a separate system, with the early HP meaning “hit points” which were points representing fatigue more than health (your character’s ability to hit others rather than to take damage). There were armor classes, to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and so on. So, the system still puts a primacy on combat as a unique skill over others. However, what if we reduce combat to a similar single roll? Your character has a “combat” skill with a modifier, there’s a challenge rating, roll and have the game host decide what happens. Clear, simple, and easy, right? At that point, though, are you still playing D&D?

It’s a tough discussion, of course, to decide when you are using a system and when you are not. How different, really, are Pathfinder and D&D 3.5e? Their game mechanics are incredibly similar, so why are they different games other than setting? Additionally, what if a game of D&D had a house rule that their fictional world did not include Druids? Does removing that small subset of rules no longer make it D&D? Naively speaking, I would say removing or outlawing a class of characters would not change the system significantly, though removing a combat resolution system would. However, I have no easy argument to make that defines where this essential diference lies. There may be something in the argument that the latter forms an essential resolution mechanic whereas the former is a subset of rules to use with the resolution mechanics. Then again, BW works exactly with this in mind, as it’s set up to be a modular system. If something doesn’t matter much to the story, the GM should just agree with the player’s suggestion and move on. If there’s some interesting conflict, the GM can ask for a skill roll. If there’s more narrative consequence, there’s an even more complex system where the skill roll will have more mechanical consequence. Finally, if the conflict is about a significant Belief that a character has, there’s an extensive conflict resolution system to put that conflict center-stage. So, does not using the more extensive modular rules suddenly make BW no longer BW? Clearly not, by the very design of the game.

As an interesting perspective, I would suggest Universalis, which is a storytelling game in the true sense of the word. No player owns a single character, and there is no separate person in charge of the game itself. Players sit together to tell the story, sharing characters, plots, developments, genres, and everything. Every single narrative concept is paid for in coins (the game suggests using pokerchips for this). In fact, the start of the game involves setting the rules for the game, once again paid for in coins. The number of coins for a thing sets up how important it is. To remove a concept or character from a game costs an amount of coins equal to how much was put in it. So, the core of the game itself is more the framework of how the narrative is established. The individual expressions of that is modular. I’d argue if you change the way the game works (which is to say paying in coins to give diegetic weight to things), then you’re changing what the game is. However, paying in coins to say that the story is not only a western but also a sci-fi still fits within the framework of Universalis itself. Incidentally, you may notice I glossed over the conflict resolution system there: everything is paid for in coins, including conflicts. If somebody wants to kill of [Luke], the [Jedi] [Padawan], they’d have to pay three coins; however, if they want to give Luke a [Facial Scar], that’s just one more coin. No dice rolling there at all!

However, let’s say we have a D&D that really is just a list of skills, with every action just being a single die roll against an obstacle to let the DM decide what happens. Then still I would argue that you have a system that determines flavor of the game. What is on that list of skills? Do you have a “social” skill that determines everything when two characters interact? Have you split up “social” into “body language” and “speech”? Did you split up “speech” into “negotiate” and “etiquette”? Each still indicates a focus and flavor of your game and indicates what is important in the game and what isn’t. The more individual skill you’d made, the more simulationist the system becomes. On the other hand, the more broad scope your skill list is, the more you handwave actions. This is quite crucial, because the more rolls are made, the more chances there are for things to fail. It’s much easier to be an acrobatic pirate if you just have to pass one role than if your pirate can fail one of five individual “swing from rope,” “swing sword”, “hit enemy”, “land safely”, and “mock mercilessly” rolls. It may seem a ludicrous example on its face, but this is essentially what happens in most RPG systems. For D&D, a single “combat” skill roll is replaced by a “to hit” and “damage” rolls. These may be subsystems, but mechanically speaking, how different are they from rolling two skills with numbers instead of one skill with a number?

System Matters and Flavor Is Subject to System

Based on the Fub’s post I referenced before, we both certainly agree on the idea that system matters. In Fub’s words: “I am a firm believer that RPGs are about something”, and I whole-heartedly agree. I think his question of whether you could simulate (and now I am replacing his word here) any genre in D&D focuses on which system we’re talking about. In those earliest proto-D&D games, like the famous example of spies in Cuba, the game being played was a storytelling game. How different was what they were doing back then from a Universalis or Amber Diceless Roleplaying is today? However, the D&D of today has very little in common with the D&D played back then. The system in its core is quite different. Though Dave Arneson is central to the development of D&D, it’s Gary Gygax that usually gets the credit for creating it. Gygax, famously, was an antagonistic style of DM. He created the Tomb of Horrors adventure to challenge the skills of players. Under his vision, D&D became a more action-orientated antagonistic game. That’s not to say that the was unlikeable or aggressive, but that he saw the DM and the game world as opponents of the players. Over time, the antagonistic view was reduced but the core was still there in the game mechanics.

As I’ve argued, you can try and flavor a game in some directions, but that is certainly subject to the direction the game itself moves towards. If you’re needing to remove or ignore sets of the core game system to make your flavor work, then you’re not really playing the game itself. I dare any DM to turn D&D into a story about a couple in 1985 going through divorce proceedings in court without using any of the combat mechanics or spellcasting and tell me that that game is still fundamentally a D&D game.

To return to my own question, expanding on Fub’s: could you have a game where you could play anything? I don’t think it’s mechanically feasible. Universalis is certainly one example where you could tell a story in any genre you wish. However, the system would still determine quite a lot; in the case of Universalis, you’re still playing a storytelling game. There’s little chance of having some simulation in there. GURPS is an example that more mechanically tries to handle multiple genres; however, there’s the base rules, and then every setting will have its own separate rule book again, so we’re back to the question of whether GURPS is really a single system or a collection of systems. Whatever it is you’re doing, you’re doing it through a medium and media come with limitations. By the time you’ve create a simulation that’s so specific and inclusive that anything is possible, well, then you must be a deity that’s created a separate universe.

RPGaDay2021 #5: Throne

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Throne” (though inclusivity would have been fun to write about as well). Though it would have been easy to write about campaigns involvings royalty or players questing to gain a throne for themselves, I think that for today’s prompt I’ll take it metaphorically and use it to talk about the position of the host in RPGs.

To start with, I’ll have to say that it’s a little odd that I use the term “host” for somebody who leads a gaming session. The most traditional word for that role is “Dungeon Master”, as it originates from the first Dungeons & Dragons by TSR. Interestingly enough, that term is actually trademarked by Wizards of the Coast, which means that other games have had to get creative. The World of Darkess RPG uses “Storyteller”, Apocalypse World games go by “MC”, and Burning Wheel uses “GM”, to name but a few examples. Others find a loophole by terming the host “DM” as an acronym without meaning; “Dungeon Master” may be trademarked, but “DM” is not. Clearly, there’s plenty of terms already for the role that one person in the group holds that differs from the others. I choose to use the term “host” because to me that emphasizes a core element of the role: making people feel welcome, at home, and comfortable.

The term “Dungeon Master” has antagonistic connotations to it. The players control specifically characters, whereas the Dungeon Master controls, well, the dungeon. It seems limitative in its scope: the DM is there to populate a dungeon, which is a set of combat challenges, and that’s it. Similarly, the Storyteller of World of Darkness RPG seems distant from the players. The term would imply that the story is independent of the players, existing by virtue of the Storyteller alone, and the players are invited into the story. The MC, or Master of Ceremonies, seems a nicer fit. It acknowledges that everybody is taking part in the occasion together, as is common in a ceremony (even guests to a wedding play a role in it, for example), though there will always be somebody who makes sure that everybody goes through all the steps (such as a wedding officiant, to keep with the example).

I want to see the person leading an RPG session to not be ruling over it like a monarch (see? I tied that “Throne” prompt into there!). While the person leading the session does end up making some final calls on what happens and what doesn’t, their executive power in that regard isn’t the defining point of the role. Rather, they are an arbiter in the true sense of the word (there’s a reason why the word “arbitrary” is derived from the word “arbiter”)—leading an RPG session is an anarcho-socialist move, as a group of people chooses to accept the ruling of one of its members solely because that person is the one stepping up to do the extra preparatory work for the others. That’s why the term “host” to me emphasizes more what it is that you’re actually doing. You’re there to help set the stage for something that the group as a whole has agreed to do as a team. The person leading the RPG is simply a primus inter pares for the group for as long as the group wishes that to be so. I guess if I’d ever write an RPG, “PIP” would be a nice name for the host!

Not to diminish the role of a player in an RPG, after all they’re also out there every session acting along with the rest of the group, but every player has to focus mostly on how their character responds to the world. The host of a session, on the other hand, has to handle everything outside of the characters. I’ve had times as a player where I haven’t felt good, was tired, or just didn’t feel like it, so I could just phone it in. I’d sit there, respond, and participate, but it was all low-key. The host of a session, though, has to be on stage all the time. All this is to say, I really appreciate the people I know who host games that I’ve played it. It’s a lot of work to do, and while it is a hobby, it’s still an investment to make. So, a big thank-you to the hosts out there!

RPGaDay2021 #4: Weapon

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Weapon.” The first thing that popped into my head when I saw this word is “Oof, how about the other words?”; the second thing was “to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

There are so many tabletop RPGs that have the characters carry around weaponry. When you think about that, isn’t that quite strange? Think about your daily life—how many people do you see actively carrying weaponry around? Unless you’re in the U.S.A., I would imagine hardly anybody beyond police officers. Around here, even then I don’t often see much beyond pepper spray. The closest I would come myself is a little swiss army knife I keep in a pocket in my backpack, which I would see as a tool that could potentially be used as a weapon, rather than the other way around. Yet, in our tabletop RPGs, quite often, our characters walk around in full battle gear constantly.

A setup like that predisposes players to think of violence as a reasonable solution to problems, which is something I don’t like. As I wrote yesterday, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a tactical combat game if that’s what you’re going for. Conan The Barbarian is still one of my guilty pleasures, both the novels and the movies (but not the 1997 show that was edited into a movie . . .), and sometimes it’s fun to play out a power fantasy like that. I’ve been meaning to look into it, but I suspect much of the enjoyment in that comes from the representation of a post-capitalist world: a world where you are beholden to no one but yourself where you can self-actualize and provide for yourself on your own terms. Incidentally, post-capitalist does not necessitate post-market economics, so there’d be no incongruency in buying and selling items and so on. Anyway, that’s an idea I’ve been meaning to work out properly, but I fear a project like that would turn into a whole PhD thesis!

Coming back around to the point of this post, I’m charmed by RPGs that don’t frontline physical violence, like Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, or Ryuutama. Physical violence may happen in the games, but it wouldn’t be the natural and unavoidable end-point of a situation. It’s similar to why I thoroughly enjoy Burning Wheel, as the main terms used there is “conflict” rather than “combat”. While physical altercations are more to be expected in Burning Wheel than the other examples, the game isn’t orientated towards it. Rather, it’s a game about passion, drive, and goals, and what people will do in pursuit of those goals. It acknowledges that words are also weapons whether they are wielded in a political arena or in a personal relationship. Much like that swiss army knife I carry, though, those words can be used either as a tool or a weapon.

What makes Burning Wheel so poignant to me is how all its various mechanics click together. Verbal conflict via its Duel of Wits system has little to no risk of direct physical harm (assuming the Dual of Wits is not your character’s defense during their murder trial, or somesuch thing). The Fight! mechanic, however, carries a high risk. While character death is relatively difficult to achieve (but not outlandish), severe injury is quite close by whenever swords are drawn. Any hit from any weapon can result in a severe wound that will drastically and dramatically change a character. So, as a result, Fight! mechanics are high-stakes affairs that players are encouraged to treat similarly to violence in real life. What makes this click so nicely is how it ties in with the Let It Ride principle in Burning Wheel: once the dice are rolled and a test is made, that’s it. No re-rolls. The matter has been decided. No testing again for the same thing. Of course, you don’t have to test for the same thing. If your character couldn’t win a debate in the pub, you could always resort to throwing fists. However, you’d be upping the stakes (and getting yourself thrown out of the pub).

Of course, you could do this narratively in most games but what Burning Wheel does well, in my opinion, is that it mechanically encourages these considerations. Character advancement in Burning Wheel comes from Artha, which are points awarded for acting on your Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs) (roughly said: statements made about what your character wants, does, and is). The host’s job is to challenge those BITs and confront the players with the question: “how far will you go for what you believe in?”. It’s always a question of what weapon your character will take up to fight for their beliefs, but it’s not a question of what physical violence they will enact on others. Rather, the question is what values weigh against each other, and how to navigate these safely.

I’m planning to host a game of Burning Wheel soon, and I hope I can show these amzing parts of the game to the players well enough. Burning Wheel is a tricky beast, but once it really clicks, it can be amazing.

RPGaDay2021 #3: Tactic

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Tactic”. Although it would have been very interesting to write about either “Risk” and “Support” in regards to tabletop RPGs, I’ll stick to the spirit of the rules and take “Tactic” as my prompt for the day; after all, it’s about stimulating us all to write about things we wouldn’t normally write about, and if I start choosing the topic, I’ll end up with some bias in my topic selections.

As much as I can harp on Dungeons & Dragons for being a tabletop combat boardgame about murderhobos, I do enjoy that game for what it is when I feel like playing exactly that. The most fun I’ve ever had with that is in Pathfinder while I was DMing the Kingmaker adventure path. Incidentally, that is now available as a PC game, which I’ve enjoyed playing through. Another adventure path, Wrath of the Righteous, is also coming out as a PC game soon.

D&D changed radically from its 3.5 edition to the 4th edition, and not everybody was happy about the direction Wizards of the Coast was taking (4th edition was even more boardgame-like than 3.5 was), so Paizo decided to work onwards from 3.5 and retool that system into Pathfinder. Currently, Pathfinder is in its 2nd edition. The group I had back then (this would have been about a decade ago or so) met up religiously on Friday evenings, and we had been doing that for years. Our previous DM had burnt out on DMing, so I had taken over. I’d run some campaigns for them, the most notorious of which was a World of Darkness campaign, but as I was going into my MA degree, I had much less time to devote to DMing, so I turned to adventure paths. That worked nicely for the group as well, as they wanted to play something more like a powerfantasy as well.

The way our previous DM ran D&D 3.5e was always very forgiving: many enemies were intentionally not too bright, and there was never a real risk of losing your character as there’d always be some kind of way out. What I was proposing for my group was a much different style of gameplay. If they wanted Pathfinder, that combat-orientated boardgame of murderhobos, then I’d give them combat-orientated gameplay. We all agreed that I would be pulling out all the stops. I wouldn’t be out to kill them and of course not every enemy would be a tactical genius, but enemies would be using their skills as best they could and I wouldn’t be pulling any hits. Wolfs would hunt like packs, and while a lowly bandit might break and run, the bandit captain would certainly remind the melee fighters to surround the spellcasters and the rangers fighters to attack the hand-to-hand fighters from a distance. Once the bandit captain would be out of comission, sure, things would devolve. In short: I made sure to give them a real challenge.

Some of their first characters died quickly and easily, but the tone around the table was usually exhilarated. Everything was risky, and they had to work together as a battle unit to survive the world that was out to kill them. My players started to get creative, too: rather than the usual “throw fireballs until it dies” approach, suddenly there were buffs and debuffs, entangling spells, attempts to flank, and debates on who to take out first and who to leave behind. The battles became Conan-esque struggles between good and evil, and every victory bolstered the players while every defeat had them planning out revenge.

All this provided wonderful contrast to the city that they were building in the campaign. As dangerous as the outside was, the city was their slowly increasing sphere of control and safety. They worked to bring the allies they’d make outside into the city, and a sense of camaradery grew within the fiction, as the players and NPCs worked towards safety.

For that type of game, the Pathfinder/D&D-style games, I love the tactical combat of it and enjoy leaning heavily into the strengths of the system. It almost makes me want to pick up Pathfinder 2e to see what’s going on with that.

RPGaDay2021 #2: Map

Today’s RPGaDay default prompt is “Map” ( there is a ‘roll 1d8/2’ mechanic to get one of four options).

I enjoy the look of maps that look a little dated and hand-drawn, like the famous map of Middle Earth:

They remind me of the medieval T-O maps, which looked like the one below:

Most maps today are used for navigation, so we expect them to be accurate and precise. We’ll navigate to Google Maps in order to know exactly where to travel past, how far that is, and how long it will take for us to get there. We expect it to represent exactly the path we traverse in small. T-O maps, on the other hand, were not maps to navigate by but rather maps to indicate what the world looked like. The east was positioned at the top, because in medieval Christendom, Jerusalem was at the top of the world, and Jerusalem was to the east of Christendom, i.e. Western Europe. Maps, as you can see, can be a political message in and of themselves. (Incidentally, this may be one of the sources of the mistaken belief that “people” used to think the earth was flat—it’s been common knowledge that the earth was a sphere since antiquity).

This is also true for the map most of us will be familiar with, which is one using the Mercator projection. While this is a map used for navigation, this map also distorts the reality of our geography, because we’re trying to fit the surface of a sphere onto a flat rectangle. As a result of the Mercator projection, the surface areas of regions farther away from the equator are distorted to be larger than they are, which creates quite a shocking effect if you look at the difference between actual size and Mercator projection size:

For clarity: the smaller sizes are the more accurate surface areas of the regions, as they really are on the surface of our globe.

There too, you can see a political message, as in most languages “big” is taken as a synonym for “important” (think, for example, of the expressions “you’re going to make it big!”, “big things are in store for you!”, “big things are about to happen!” and so on). In the case of our geography, you can see how this exaggerates the relative size of Westernized countries as compared to equatorial ones.

Now, what does all this have to do with RPGs? To me, this shows that maps and representations are important to the story you’re trying to tell. The very shape of the map itself will transmit a strong message to players. Have a very detailed map with measurements and a five-foot grid marked in inches on it, and you’re clearly communicating that this will be a miniatures-focused battle map for an encounter, for instance. If you have a map that shows every tiny little detail, then it suggests that each of these things might matter, or might be relevant.

Personally, I love that style of map that the Middle Earth image above shows. It gives some details by letting you know where forests and mountains are, but it keeps things vague as well; where, for instance, does Rohan stop and Mordor begin? We can assume that mountain range, but you can’t exactly be sure. Is the distance between the north and south of the map equal to the east and the west? It doesn’t really matter – just know that the rough shape looks like that. In fact, if you look at where the details and specificity of the map is, combined with the rough shape of the map, you can see what its singular message really is: there is a path from the Shire to Mordor. Without saying that, the map communicates exactly that. Everything around the places relevant to the story are vaguely handwaved to or omitted altogether.

That, to me, is also the best type of map to use for RPGs. The details are not particularly important. It’s similar to J. Michael Straczynski’s comment when asked about the inconsistencies of the travelling capabilities of the starships in Babylon 5: they travel at the speed of plot (the actual quote is quite hard to find, but it’s repeated frequently and has not been debunked as apocryphal). What RPGs bring to the table (sorry-not-sorry for that pun) is an imaginative space to explore interactions in. So, much like a T-O map, I prefer to tell players what the places are that they’re interacting with rather than precisely where they are. A place 13.4km to the north is not as interesting as a place that’s through a dark and twisty wood. A week’s travel away is dull; a week’s slough through a desolate wasteland is a risk. An exact map of a port tells you what it looks like but letting the players know that it’s “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” tells you exactly what to expect.

Any map that you present to players in whatever form isn’t a picture, it’s a collected set of ideas.

RPGaDay2021 #1: Scenario

As in last year, this year August is the month of RPGaDay, where everybody is encouraged to write about positive experiences with RPGs every day for the month. This year as well, I’ll be trying this challenge! In 2021, the first word pompt is “Scenario”.

For me, a scenario is a short set of individual play sessions that come together into one smaller story arc. RPGs can consist of grand campaigns, which are large story structures take take many individual sessions to complete. Often, these are built up out of smaller adventuressizeable stories that have multiple parts and take some work to go through. Below that structure, I would personally place scenarios (let’s not go into overcorrected plurals like scenaria or scenarii), which I see as individual short stories that can combine together to become an adventure. Below this, I would put an actual individual session of play, though narratively those often aren’t enclosed by strict beginnings and ends more than the real-life timeframes of play.

Nowadays, scenarios are my favorite size of RPG play. I used to love the grand sweeping RPG stories as a player. I think fondly of the months I spent with friends, meeting weekly to play through the grand campaigns thought up by the DM. These days, however, I have an odd love/hate relationship with such longer sessions. I do enjoy playing RPGs but I also feel restricted at times by the obligation it imposes on my life. Much more than the days of my youth, I sometimes just don’t feel like socialization on that schedule, and I’d like to just bow out for no other reason than wanting to binge-watch a thing, just read a book, or play a videogame. Scenarios are, for me, the perfect solution to this issue. I can commit to three or so sessions of gameplay, after which I know I can bow out without having to renege on a promise.

Lately, I’ve been feeling stimulated by a friend of mine who’s currently running a Torchbearer scenario to run something myself as well. I haven’t really run anything myself in years, but it might be time to take one of the bunch of ideas I have in a notebook and work that out into a scenario for play. I mean, if it suits the player side of my experience, surely it should also work for the hosting side, right?

Improv Rules in RPGs

In a recent post, I made an argument for playing flawed or regular characters in RPGs, and when thinking back on it, I realized that I missed part of the process in that post. Specifically, I realized that, without consciously doing so, I’ve been using a “yes, and” rule from improvisational theatre (which, incidentally, I’ve never actually done myself, because I dislike performing). I listen to quite a few podcasts, and so many of the ones I listen to feature comedians who either explicitly discuss the “yes, and” rule or embody it during the prodcast. I surmise that purely by osmosis, some of that must have trickled through to my RPG experiences.

The essence of the “yes, and” rule in improv comedy is to go with the flow. Don’t contradict what the other person in the scene is doing, but rather go along and build on it. Hence, “yes” to affirm what is going on, as well as adding on to what was said by going “and”. Of course, there’s nothing to say you can’t use that to put an interesting twist on what’s happening, but that’s a whole different story.

I certainly don’t do this as much as I should do, though. A while back, I played in a playtest of a module that a friend of mine released, which was a lot of fun. However, between sessions, a friend of a friend was added to the roster of players, jumping in midway in the game. I don’t know her that well yet and after the session, I realized I didn’t support her the way I would have liked myself to have done. She were trying to portray a caring character who would de-escalate situations. Our two characters were in a situation where her character was doing exactly that, and I had my character committed to escalating things. Rather than have her character take the spotlight, which I think I should have done there, I threw my own character in the mix which essentially blocked her intention. A “no, but” rather than a “yes, and”, I’d say.

At other times, I do run with what I’m given by the other players. I realized that I use their statements as a randomizer, as it were, for my character development at times. I prefer to go into an RPG game without a character in mind–I’ll see where the character ends up through play. At times, I realize I’ll do this in a “yes, and” sense. If one of the other players assumes my character is a scaredy-cat then, sure, they’re a scaredy-cat. If they’ll ask me whether the character is a woman, then sure, she’s now female. Obviously, this only works when characteristics haven’t been set yet. Essentially, though, I’m trying not to play the same thing repeatedly, and using other people’s thoughts and ideas about my character is a great way to not following standard thought patterns.

As I mentioned, it’s not something that I’ve been doing very consciously, so perhaps it would be good to experiment with that a little more to see if I can avoid a situation like the one I described a little above. So far, I’ve always found that encouraging others to be awesome results in more awesome all around.

Torchbearer Skogenby Session 3

I want to start writing small summaries of the RPG sessions I’m involved with, even if just to keep a record and remind myself of them. For this session, that’ll be a little odd, since it’s the last of three sessions but there’s no better time to start than the present. A friend of mine was running a Torchbearer adventure for us, namely the demo adventure The Dread Crypt of Skogenby (that’s the full adventure, so beware of spoilers). It was mostly for us to experiment with the system. The DM and I had played the game before, around five years ago, in an adventure run by Eric Vulgaris. However, with the new edition coming out, the current DM felt motivated to run something again.

The Session

As I mentioned, this was actually the third of a series of short sessions, and actually also the last one we had planned as a regular session. At the point of starting this adventure, our group of adventurers found ourselves in an ossuary, after having delved a little ways into a crypt while looking for treasure. We had just fought off four animated skeletons in the previous session, so our characters were all somewhat put off and ready to head back to town. However, before then, some shenaniganry had to happen. Not only did Merrick, my Halfling character, rummage through a set of skeletons in search for loot but Fingala, the Elf, had decided to sort through all the bones available to reach an accurate count of how many bodies were actually interred here. All this to the consternation of Dillah, the Dwarf, who wanted to get out as swiftly as she could.

On our way back to Skogenby, having only mildly lost our way, the party ran into Jim, the peasant, who was stuck on the side of the road. Fortunately, helping him out with his cart netted us a kind invite to a stay over at his house, despite the condescending demeanor of the elf. Torchbearer has an interesting separation of the Adventure Phase and the Town Phase, each with their own (though parallel) systems to deal with game progression. Where in the Adventure Phase, your worry is the ever-ticking clock called The Grind, that burdens down your character with Conditions, the Town Phase turns this around by putting a monetary cost on all your actions: the more you do in town, the higher your eventual debts will be come time to leave town. So, having an invitation to stay somewhere for free for a night is an amazing offer.

While deciding how to move on from this town, now that our heroes had stolen some treasure off those animated skeletons, we happened to show one of the gilded torcs we’d taken and, surprisingly, our host recoiled in horror at the sight. Clearly, there was more to investigate here. After looking around for a while, the party found an elder of the village, the Priest Jesaiah, who informed us all that the fear evinced by Jim was caused by a spate of odd deaths that had occured recently. All this started after a young girl disappeared in the crypt, having been dragged in by an arm emerging from it when she and a young kid named Marius went exploring there. Given that family members everybody who went to the crypt to look were the ones suffering those mysterious deaths, the priest suspected there to be some manner of plage in the crypt. Hence, the villages were quite fearful of anything to do with it.

Merrick immediately decided that the girl needed help, as nothing is ever too broken to repair, and offered help. Fingala and Dillah, however, were more interested in hearing whether there was any money to be had in doing that, considering they already had treasure burning a hole in their pockets. Fortunately for the girl, the priest did offer some compensation, so the elf and the dwarf also decided that some services could be offered. With the priest offering the party an armring from the crypt that was recovered in some of the first visits, the party got ready to head back into the crypt.

Reflection

Though all our sessions had been set up to be brief, because it’s hard to make our schedules match and we also wanted a low-barrier experience, this one felt a little shorter than usual to me. In part, though, It think it might also be that I was only now getting back into the swing of things again. I didn’t feel too good in the second session, and in the first session I was still finding my roleplaying groove again, so this was the first session I felt more comfortable playing again. Another reason would be that with the Town Phase, we were engaging with a new mechanic again, so we had to reference the rules a bit. All the Burning Wheel style games do ask for some system mastery, so when you start out it does take a bit of experience to get comfortable with the rules. As a result, exploring the Town Phase had a lot of breaks in it.

Overall, though, I liked it. My character, Merrick, is starting to develop some, well, character. As always, it takes me a few sessions to get a grip on what I want to do with a character, both to see what interests me in the game but also to see how the character meshes with the characters of the other players. I do feel like we’ll need a few more sessions before we really engage with the game fully as a party, though. We’ve explored the rules a little bit, we’ve explored the crypt in-game a little but, but it all feels like build-up to the actual game so far. Particularly given that we only now hear the story of the missing girl in-game, it seems like we’ve had the first hook to the story but only now to we get the hero’s call to move forward.

I’m not sure whether we’ll be continuining the game, though. As I mentioned, this is the last of the original scheduling that we had done, so there’s no particular moments scheduled after this. The other two players, as far as I am aware, were new to Torchbearer, so for them it was also a question to see if they liked the system. While, as I mentioned, I do believe we need more sessions to have a fair look at how it works, this is also a quite natural moment to step out if they just don’t like the system at all. So, we’ll see what comes of this.

An Argument For Useless Characters in RPGs

Yesterday, I was playing in a game of Torchbearer being run by a friend of mine. I enjoy Torchbearer as an interesting critique of Dungeons & Dragons while at the same time being an homage to the older Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from the ’70s and ’80s. Roughly speaking, D&D tends to be an action-oriented tabletop tactical fighting game–most of the rules in D&D tend to be combat-orientated, and most rules for non-combat actions are often a little hand-wavy. Torchearer, on the other hand, is based off the game Burning Wheel, which places a much, much heavier weight on storytelling and narrative structure than it does combat. Torchbearer is a bit of a mix of the two: it shares the focus on resource-management that the old AD&D games had with a more narrative focus that BW espouses. It hits a sweet spot for me that is quite enjoyable.

Before I continue, I should acknowledge that the creator of BW and a co-creator of Torchearer, Luke Crane, is a problematic figure in the tabletop RPG scene. It’s a long and winding story involving the problematic Adam Koebel and how he transgressed against one of his players followed by Luke Crane’s involvement in a Kickstarter campaign where he deceptively included Koebel without the knowledge or consent of the other creators nor any transparency towards the backers of the project. I have little desire to financially encourage this person any further by buying his work, though at this point already own several copies of BW and had also already bought both editions of Torchbearer. So, I do have to admit to loving both systems but would like to make sure that anybody who would discover either via this post be aware of these issues.

With that said, back to the post at hand. Every time I play an RPG with people, I tend to get the same accusation from fellow players, which is a variation of “Ah, it’s one of your characters. One of those.” What is commonly meant there is that the characters I play tend to be flawed or damaged in crucial ways–nowadays, they’re my favorite type of character to portray in RPGs. To argue why, though, we’d have to go back a little ways to my first experiences with RPGs.

When I started with RPGs, it was, as for most others, with D&D. Baldur’s Gate had just been released (a computer game based on AD&D), and my father had bought a copy for me during a business trip in America. For the almost 25 years since then, I’ve replayed that game so frequently, even though the original 5-pack of CDs had since been replaced by a DVD, and later on just by a digital copy. Around the same time, me and some friends of mine discovered D&D 3rd edition, and met up to play that pretty much all the time. It was a great way to be social together.

As so many others at that time, I would min/max my characters–I’d design them to have the best numerical advantage in combat (the “max” part) by spending almost no in-game money or attention to the non-combat parts of the game (the “min”). The natural consequence is that there’s an excessive focus on combat in the game sessions and that actual roleplaying gets mostly ignored. A side-effect is that all characters start looking the same, in part due to the fact that there’s very little character to them, and in part because they all do the same thing: hit very hard. As you can imagine, that gets boring after a while. So, I switched over to building weird characters. I’d apply the same min-maxing zeal to bizarre characters, such as home-brewed four-armed demons that wield different whips in each hand, or a shapeshifting goo creature that has no real shape of its own but changes to fit whatever is necessary at the time. That was fun for a while, but it had the same essential problem of being a really strange fit for the story being told.

It was after all this experimenting, I stumbled across a much more interesting way to play RPGs: just make actual characters. Not characters for a game, or something equipped to solve the problem at hand, but make just an average person. An argument I often use is that a character in a horror movie doesn’t know they’re in a horror movie. That’s exactly why they go into that dark basement because they heard a funny noise down there; after all, if I hear a funny noise in the kitchen in the middle of the night, I also go stumbling out in the dark to see what my cats knocked over this time. Yet in tabletop RPGs, so many people have their character act like a SWAT-officer about to storm into a hostage situation–makeshift weapons are sought out, careful armor prepped, and tactical plans are written out.

It took me a while to figure out exactly why that bugged me, but I settled on the idea that when a person plays like that, they’re playing against the game. The game is an adversary that they’re trying to beat by circumventing and solving all the problems. That goes counter against against having an interesting story, and reminds me of that Community clip where the character of Abed tries to tell a scary story. Trying to solve the central problem efficiently doesn’t make for interesting stories. If Frodo was just put on a giant eagle to airdrop the ring into Mount Doom, Lord of the Rings would be the most boring two-page story around (and yes, it’s been discussed frequently before. See this page for one example). Rather, Lord of the Rings is made interesting, because a quartet of unusual characters, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who are initially wholly unsuited for adventure get thrust into just that regardless. The actual adventurers involved, like Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are quite dull by comparison. I would argue that’s because LotR is inherently quite Marxist, and the latter three characters represent monarchies and old power structures, whereas the four hobbits represent a rather unusual political stance called anarcho-monarchism, but that’s a whole different blog post altogether.

In short, I shifted from making overpowered cardboard characters, to bizarre characters, finally settling on making just regular people. In a game where the party played low-level goblins who were part of a giant army from the Underdark swarming the surface world, I decided to play a barbarian who really just wanted to belong. So, at second level, he multi-classed a level of cleric, and he became something of a shaman-type figure, cooking food and sharing it around his immediate surrounding. He wasn’t a particularly good barbarian, nor was he a good cleric, but he sure was interesting. Playing him was so much fun that ever since then, I’ve made characters using that same methodology, like a reporter in a cyberpunk adventure that’s is desperate to look tough and move up in the world, an out-of-touch magistrate in a medieval setting that gets confronted with life for the average person, or a kobold that’s not evil at all but just really playful but has a hard time of communicating that to others.

RPGs have been much more fun to me since the characters I create are all just average people in odd situations. The crucial thing to then add to that is to focus not on the characters but on the story. It’s good when my character gets hurt really badly, because that gives them an opportunity to grow and change. The term for a character in a story that is the same going in as they’re coming out is flat. So, I make sure to have my characters make some mistakes every now and then. Instead of fighting off the entire band of muggers, I like to let one run away; now we have a chance at a returning nemesis! Speaking of that, why even fight that band of enemies right away? Is that really rational? I don’t know about you, but if I had four skeletons raising from the dead in front of me, I wouldn’t be fighting them, but I’d be running away–let somebody else deal with that noise. Plus, that creates a great opportunity to rush blindly into even bigger problems. After all, even Star Wars began when a bored farmboy chose to bring a malfunctioning droid to this old dude that he knew just to see if something interesting would come of it.

So, my current characters always share some larger characteristics. They’re not necessarily suited to adventures; I’ll figure out later how to use the skills they do have to help out in what’s happening. They have some essential flaw (or multiple); without a way to cause trouble, how are they ever going somewhere interesting? I want my characters to make realistic decisions; nobody is rational all the time, and sometimes people act in ways because they’re angry, hurt, afraid, or unsure. Along with that, I as a player want to make interesting decisions; I’m not necessarily motivated to keep my character alive, nor am I motivated to kill them–I’m motivated to make things happen. I want to be part of an interesting story.

To me, this is the best way to play RPGs and get a story happening. Having also led my share of RPG sessions, I can also say that, in my opinion, it helps the storyteller along. So yes, my character will stick their head into this dark room to see what’s going on. My character will reach out to touch that shiny treasure that we all know surely must be cursed. I’ll make sure that my character is thirsty enough to not care what’s in this gross water in the dungeon. It’ll help give them some scars, and scars have cool stories behind them.

International Waters is Released

A friend of mine, Capybarbarian, has just released his third adventure, called International Waters, for The Sprawl RPG. He was kind enough to run it for me and a few others in a playtest session, and it was a lot of fun.

Figure 1: The cover for International Waters – if you play The Sprawl, I can recommend it. If you like cyberpunk, I can recommend it. Heck, I can just recommend it outright!

It’s a cyberpunk adventure, in which your crew is hired to retrieve a person from a ship that’s been stranded somewhere due to corporate tomfoolery. When we played it, we chose a route of violence – I looked forward to seeing how Capybarbarian would deal with our crazy approach, and he GM’d it quite nicely. The end result for us was an action-packed module that had an enticing background – a setting that hinted at so much more behind it. That was with us doing our best to ignore the plot points, to stress his module and put it through the wringer. There’s a wonderfully intricate world that’s behind it all and, honestly, all of us wanted to replay it right after we finished to find out more about it.

As I’ve gotten used to, his work is thoroughly researched, with a lot of references to real-world events, cultures, and situations. I can thoroughly recommend you give it a try.

Capybarbarian’s three available modules can be found for sale here.