#RPGaDay2020 10: Want

I enjoy games that come with some baseline direction, whether that’s through the game itself (like, for instance, My Life With Master), or through buy-in during a Session 0 discussion with the group.

Back when I was DMing Pathfinder, the group I was running it for was very much for the murder-hobo style of play. What they wanted was to get XP to get to higher levels, so they could complete their build (which some of the people there had worked out from level 1 to 20 before even the first session), and they wanted gold to buy new equipment for their characters. Essentially, they just wanted to play Diablo 3 around a table. That was their basic want that drove both their characters and them as players.

For me, however, that led to less enjoyment of the game itself. The result of that is highly callous characters. The characters’ main motivations at that point are greed and a lust for power, which skews the characters’ actions towards a lack of concern for the world and the characters in it. As always, if that’s the game that everybody chooses to play together, then fine; however, that wasn’t necessarily the game I wanted to be playing.

For me, a central want is crucial for an interesting character. And for an interesting group, there should be a shared want. I’ve run a game for a group whose characters all wanted separate things, which meant that all their characters invariably ran off on their own to do their personal things. The game, however, was centered around preventing doom for the city they lived in by preventing a cult from completing their work. The result, however? The characters ended up in conflict with each other (the players were having a great time having their characters squabbling amongst each other, though!) and in the end they neglected the actual plot advancing. I’d set it up as an actual timer of certain key events, and well, the timer ran out!

Experiences like these taught me how important it is to have that Session 0 talk with a group. Everybody needs to be on board to play the same game, by which I mean theme, genre, goals, and plotline. My Life With Master, for instance, is great when it comes to that. You play a Minion who will be breaking free of the Master at the end of one (possibly two) sessions—great clarity. Together with the players, you make the Master, so that everybody understands what their threat is. The mechanic for the final resolution is also clear, because it’s directly determined by a set of statistics on the player’s character sheet. Does a player want their Minion to become the new Master at the end? Okay, lean into that! Do you want your player to have a good live? Sure, work towards it!

Understanding everybody’s wants—both players’ and characters’—gives you a much greater chance at enjoyment in your games.

#RPGaDay2020 9: Light

Ẁhoops! I forgot to post something yesterday. It’s a bit cheaty, but I’ll post today. In fact, I’ll respond to Fub’s post about rules-light systems, and piggy-back off of that. In that post, he takes a strong stance for rules-light systems:

In my opinion, lighter rules give a better experience because there’s more time left to create better fiction.

from https://ragas.nl/fublog

When it comes to this, Fub and I are very much in disagreement. When I played D&D, I was always frustrated by the Diplomacy skill: there is a skill that is supposed to govern diplomatic resolutions, but almost no explanation of how that works. So, the usual houserule people go for is to just act it out, and ignore the system. At that point, in my opinion, you don’t need to be playing the RPG, as you’re just storytelling together. Now, if that’s what you’re going for, then that’s good—enjoy your storytelling together, but don’t argue to me that you’re playing an RPG at that point. You may be roleplaying, but I wonder to what extent we can call it a game.

I’ve played some rules-light storytelling games such as Universalis and A Penny for My Thoughts, and they’re interesting experiences but I don’t see their rules-light approach as a solution to the problem I had with the Diplomacy skill in D&D. For instance, what if you have a player who wants to play a highly intelligent, socially fluent character, but they themselves lack those attributes? I couldn’t expect somebody who doesn’t know how to negotiate to roleplay a negotiation that is a satisfactory game experience. However, to me, RPGs should allow you to play and explore with things that are not necessarily available to you.

The solution to this problem is part of why I love Burning Wheel so much. It has modular resolution systems, that the GM can apply as a tool to focus on or gloss over conflicts to their choice. Let’s take an example of a martial conflict. If the conflict doesn’t matter, then just say the player character fights and defeats their opponent (essentially a rules-light or storytelling solution). Perhaps you want to know whether the fiction will twist in an interesting direction based on the conflict, but not make a big deal out of it? Just use an opposed role, and set consequences before hand—it’s basically just a random outcome generator. Want the conflict to be part of a larger system of wear and tear on the character? Make it a Bloody Versus: you do an opposed roll, and the outcome also results in some status changes for the character. Is this the large climactic fight between two people that you’ve been working towards all session? Out come the Fight! rules, with structured volleys and interactions, designed to mimic a Kurosawa movie samurai-showdown of clashes, separations, and moves. The moves available to characters lock together in an extended rock-paper-scissors style, encouraging players to vary up their moves, and resulting in a cinematic experience around the table.

In my opinion, to argue that removing rules improves all games is to suggest that rules are only a nagging bureaucracy that prevents you from actually playing the game. If you feel that the rules of a game are preventing you from enjoying yourself, in my opinion you’re just playing the wrong game. If you feel the rules aren’t supporting you and helping you have more fun—you’re playing the wrong game. If, however, the rules help shape your storytelling as a DM; if the rules help provide structure to the players; if the rules through restraint breed creativity, well, that’s when a game can really shine. Rules are tools, not obstacles.

#RPGaDay2020 8: Shade

I’ve always enjoyed images of darkness and light in RPGs (and stories in general): old mansions blanketed in shady light, a shady forest that is interspersed with golden shafts of light, or the ghost of an old king turned into a vengeful shade that needs to be brought into the light. Shade in particular is an interesting liminal space between darkness and light. It’s suggestive of a crack between our normal categories in life. It reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s writings, such as Neverwhere, or RPGs such as Don’t Rest Your Head. Works like these suggest that more mysterious worlds are just behind the crack in the door.

Don’t Rest Your Head is a game where you play somebody who’s been suffering from insomnia so long, that the normal veil of everyday life is lifting, and they’re slowly entering a mystical world that lies just beyond ours. A world where you pay for favors in memories and emotions, and where all the scary things you were afraid of as a child turn out to be real (all very Gaimanesque). Hence the shade: it’s not the darkness of all-out horror, nor the light of common, everyday life, but a shade: a thing that is a reflection of the real world painted in darkness.

Ever since reading Neverwhere and playing Don’t Rest Your Head, I’ve been interested in adding that aspect to my games as well. The world is just a normal world where there’s good and bad people, but go through the wrong door or turn the wrong corner, and you might run into the weirdness that leaves you unsettled.

#RPGaDay2020 7: Couple

RPG-a-Day 2020

My Burning Wheel game (that I should start back up—it was on pause due to illness, and then the move) is a game for two couples: me and Tracy, and two of our friends. Tracy doesn’t particularly enjoy RPGs, but she humors me because it is a fun activity that we can do together with our friends. I am lucky to have a relatively nerdy set of friends, so there’s quite a few couples that play RPGs together, which is usually a hoot. I find it a great way to spend time together without necessarily rehashing the same types of conversation every time you meet (“So, what have you two been up to lately?”).

Interestingly enough, as normal as romance in daily life, I have not often seen romance be a key component in my games. Neither as a thing between player characters, nor between a player character and an NPC. I wonder why we engage with that so little in our games.

I am reminded of an RPG I have heard about, but never actually played (despite it sounding interesting): Kagematsu. It’s a game set in 16th century Japan, in a small village in desparate need of a hero. Enter Kagematsu, the Ronin who may become the hero. Kagematsu must be played by a woman, and all the other players play townswomen who intend to seduce Kagematsu, so he will stay in town and help them. I have heard it gain great praise if Kagematsu is indeed played by a woman, and the townswomen all played by men. Apparently, it is often hilarious for the woman to see what the men believe is seductive, and for the male players it ends up being quite educational. It would be fun to play that someday!

#RPGaDay2020 6: Forest

RPG-a-Day 2020

The traditional dungeon is, as the name suggests, a dungeon: a brick-and-mortar thing, square in shape, and specifically separated from normal spaces. Those are the first dungeons I ran through in tabletop, and what my view of them was like. The first time I saw an organic dungeon—a malevolent forest that led everybody inside it astray–it blew my mind. It harked back to medieval European history, when the forest was indeed a place of danger, and that danger was just outside of the village.

After that, I learned about World of Darkness, where adventures were abstract flowcharts that just roughly described a set of cause-and-effect connections, each of which contained some conflicts. It offered a far more organic way to deal with adventures. Moreover, it brings along an interesting reminder: danger is not something that is separate from normal urban life, it’s right out there in the forest just outside of the village. The village is just that little bit of safety that we’ve carved out in the wilderness.

#RPGaDay2020 5: Tribute

RPG-a-Day 2020

When I’m a storyteller, I steal a lot of my plots I pay tribute to a lot of source material. I make no attempt to hide this in my RPG storyline notebook. I’ll have a title at the top of a page like “Haunted House Flipper” or “Deadwood With Magic”, and some notes of elements I find interesting in those bits of media. Sometimes it’s a single idea, such as the bar location of The Red Strings Club; at other times it’s as expansive as the basic plotline of a Poirot mystery flipped upside-down (what if somebody accidentally died, and it totally looks like you did it, and you have just a little bit of time to hide the crime from the investigator coming in?).

Whatever it is, I really enjoy ripping off taking creative inspiration from things I read, watch, and play. It’s quite difficult to create a new thing from scratch, but if you can twist something or just put a familiar thing in a new setting (let’s face it: Firefly is just “what if there were cowboys in space?”) oftentimes people either won’t realize it and enjoy it without hinder, or realize it and enjoy it all the more by leaning into it. There’s even a special joy you can take in hamming up a scene with a poor impression of the source material.

#RPGaDay2020 4: Vision

RPG-a-Day 2020

I have a pronounced vision of how RPGs should be run, which (as is commonly the case with visions) can be the reason for game sessions either really coming together or just being a frustrating experience. I haven’t really put it into concise wording yet, but in short, I am convinced that RPG sessions should focus purely on the sections that matter for the story.

I’ve known many groups who will run an RPG like a simulation: they want long backstories for all characters, so that they can feel that the characters have organically existed in the world, and they want to deal with things step by step. I’ve run games where the characters wanted to confront the big bad guy, and they would narrate every tiny step from being at home base to travelling to the big bad: they’d have a long in-character talk about what they just decided on, and then they would want to narrate walking out the door, buying all the necessary gear, stumbling over a branch, and twenty other things before even reaching the front door of where they were going.

My vision for RPG sessions boils all of this down to only the stuff that matters. Does the discussion between player characters matter? Okay, then talk that out if you want to. You’ve decided to confront the big bad? Okay! Tell me the what and how of the matter, and I’ll decide if there’s anything interesting inbetween. If I can’t find interesting conflicts, then I’d much rather go right to the scene where you’re in the throne room face-to-face with the big bad, guards strewn behind you—now what?

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean to imply that I only want to skip forward to fights, but I would want to skip forward to conflicts. Your player character wants to talk to their spouse, who has been cheating on them? Okay, tell me the how: are you angry and want to confront them? Okay, next scene you’re in the middle of your shouting match. Are you vindictive and do you want to hurt them? Okay, next scene is them confronted with the discarded underwear of your one-night-stand, strewn across the living room. Are you desperate to make this work? Okay, next scene is three therapy sessions in, and your other goal is within hand’s reach but you’ll have to skip out on your therapy session to get it, after having just promised you’ll do whatever it takes to save your relationship—what do you do?

It’s this vision of gaming that I strive for when I lead games. It’s tough to do, because I need to be really on point to keep selecting the interesting conflicts. It’s also tough because you need to be sure that all of the players are into that idea as well. It’s incredibly tough, because as a storyteller, you also need to be really aware of what your players believe is interesting about the game (hey, maybe they are into detailed shopping sprees for supplies?). When it all comes together, however, when it really works—it’s pure magic.

#RPGaDay2020 2: Change

RPG-a-Day 2020

My tastes in RPGs sure have changed since those Baldur’s Gate days. I remember that in university, I met a new tabletop group in Groningen. They were people quite different from those I had met before, and as an insecure twenty-something person, I wanted them to like me. The game of choice was D&D (3.5ed by this time), and we were playing in a Forgotten Realms setting. The DM was creative and invested, and combined his interests in history and geography with some storytelling, and that resulted in quite some interesting stories.

Sadly, looking back on those days, there was also a lot of sexism and racism involved. It was that 20-something ironic “joking around with the guys, not hurting anybody” kind of nonsense. We made light of things that in reality not a single one of us had real experience with nor suffered from it. They were jokes that seemed to fit the group culture, but looking back at it they were harmful behaviors. I carry them with me as a reminder of how easily and how quickly we can all fall into harmful behaviors that we, with age, experience, and wisdom can recognize as problematic. I don’t blame them or myself but I do regret having done that.

As time went on, I learned and grew, and also met a new set of people in uni that I admire much to this day. They are open and kind people, who are critical and fairminded. With the first group, I started DMing, but it was with this group that I really learned to enjoy DMing my own material. We explored new types of RPGs, and sometimes we played to squabble amongst ourselves, sometimes we just did fun crazy stuff, and sometimes we explored difficult subjects together. Roleplaying can be a really healthy thing to do with a group, and I’m happy I got to explore that with them.

Now, as we’re all older, we’ve hung out less and less. One in our group moved to the middle of the country, and I mostly had contact with her through the others. The other two live in the city Tracy and I just left, so it’s trickier to meet up with them quickly. However, a little while back we did start up a new Burning Wheel game (my favorite RPG) with the two latter people. It’s a great way to hang out with people, and sometimes it’s easier to just invite people to a game than to say “Hey, I miss hanging out all the time with you all.”

#RPGaDay2020 1: Beginning

Reading the Fublog, I got introduced to the RPG-a-Day writing prompts. It sounded like a really cool idea, so I’ll give it a try! Each day in August 2020, there’s a word prompt to encourage us to create something cool, positive, and awesome about RPGs. As my best creative tool is words, I’ll choose to write some things.

I love that the actual roadmap for this is a hex-grid map. For RPGs with mini-based combat, I do enjoy these.

My first real introduction to RPGs was as a kid with the PC-game Baldur’s Gate. I’d read about it in a magazine, and it seemed amazing! At that time, my father made frequent business trips to America, and he’d always bring each of us kids back a present. So, that time, I asked for a cool RPG. My father went to an American store, and asked what the new cool thing was. Baldur’s Gate had just been released, so naturally the salesman convinced him to get that. When he got back to the Netherlands, I was extatic. Ever since then, I’d been hooked on RPGs in some form or another. I’ve also replayed Baldur’s Gate frequently.

Soon after, D&D 3rd edition became the next big thing in the Netherlands. Fortunately, I had some friends at high school who enjoyed all the nerdy things I did as well, and we invested in a set of D&D 3rd edition books. We played together for years, and had so many wonderful adventures. It wasn’t until we lost touch when we all went to our respective universities that I had a gap in roleplaying.

In one way or another since that first Baldur’s Gate experience, though, I’ve always been finding something to scratch that RPG itch.

Torchbearer, 2nd Ed Kickstarter

I’ve been a fan of tabletop roleplaying games for ages. Starting out (like most) with Dungeons & Dragons, through podcasts I discovered quite a few others. Among my all-time favorites are Burning Wheel and Torchbearer. Torchbearer is having a kickstarter for the second edition right now! If you’re interested in tabletop RPG gaming, I recommend you go have a look. You won’t regret it.