#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 3: Thread

RPG-a-Day 2020

I really enjoy it when scenario’s have a rough thread to connect them. Like a good season of Buffy—there’s a set of monster-of-the-week sessions that nonetheless add up to an overall story arc. It’s a type of storytelling I try to strive for, though frequently fail at (I enjoy trying to create, but overall I’m not a very creative person).

Having a monster-of-the-week set of adventures that add up over time makes RPGs low-barrier for me. Too often have I seen campaigns start with the idea of grand epic stories that will span years of storytelling, only to see them peter out as person A can’t make it this week, and person B is going through some things right now, and then the DM just isn’t feeling it next time. That’s just natural. I too at times just don’t feel like it if it’s been a rough week. So having a more loose structure from which larger things may emerge as a backdrop has become my favorite style of storytelling, from both a storyteller as well as a player perspective.

On top of this, my favorite pieces of media right now tend to feature large, epic storylines only in the background. They just form the setting for a much more human and personal story that sits center stage. Novels such as the Witcher series or The Dresden Files, TV shows like Firefly, or videogames like The Last Of Us all make use of this style of storytelling, and each is the more evocative for it. It allows for the allusion of a large, living, breathing world without the responsibility of having to flesh it all out perfectly, while making the actual action relatable. Few of us directly engage with combating late-stage capitalism, but I would imagine many of us at one time or another have dealt with financial pressures.

This is exactly why I enjoy indie RPGs that let us explore human, personal themes, and why I will always recommend RPGs as a means to practice empathy.

#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.”