RPGaDay 2021 #31: Thanks

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Thanks”. I tried to complete RPGaDay 2020 last year, and didn’t manage. I’m pretty pleased that I managed to actually post every single day this year.

I guess the person I’d thank is Fub, as he introduced me to RPGaDay back in 2020, and I’ve had a lot of fun participating this year. So, thanks!

RPGaDay 2021 #30: Mention

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Mention”. What a flexible prompt today! I guess the best thing to do is to just make a post mentioning a whole bunch of things!

I’ve recently gotten interested again in mapmaking for RPGs. I’d made a few maps years ago when I ran games, as I just enjoy the physicality of them, but I never was that good at it. So, I’ve been looking around to find some cool map inspiration. A found a YouTuber, JP Coovert, who makes maps that look cool to me. He emphasizes that the drawing skills needed are quite rudimentary, as most of the shapes he makes are quite basic. The challenge lies in the creation of the map itself. Here’s an example of his videos:

His channel is filled with cool videos on hand-drawing maps. I love the look of the world map he makes in this video, and it’s exactly the style I want to be able to make. I can recommend his other videos as well.

Through one of JP Coovert’s videos, I found the artist SkullFungus who makes really cool and intricate dungeon maps. His style is so evocative and interesting. Just have a look at this dungeon map:

What I like about it is that it shows you exactly what the dungeon is like, but it isn’t a full-on gridded map that pretends to some manner of exact measurements. The map is a great tool to evoke a sense of the space. Looking at that picture, I can almost smell the place!

Lastly, I’d like to mention the Trilemma Blog, which started me off on this lovely path of one-page dungeons. I can really recommend browsing through the maps on that blog, because I just love the skill and detail he brings to them.

These types of things are really inspiring, and I’m hoping to find more resources like this.

RPGaDay 2021 #29: System

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “System”. It seems hard to write something about this that I haven’t engaged with already over the past month!

Both Fub and I have been participating in the RPGaDay 2021, and have posted regularly about RPG systems, mechanics, and their interaction with storytelling. It’s been interesting to engage with him, as he is more of a narrativist with some gamist interest, whereas I’m more a gamist with a narrativist flair. Our ways of looking at games are similar but our conclusions differ, which frequently leads to interesting debates. I think we’ve established that both of us are convinced that system should serve narrative (i.e. that games are fundementally about something), but the main question that remainds is how much system is preferable to achieve this. He’s in the camp of using as few rules as possible to achieve your goal, whereas I don’t mind how many rules there are as long as the experience is interesting.

Having been prompted to think about this over the past month, I do see an unexplored implicit idea in my thinking that some mechanical modeling is required to more interestingly engage with narrative. I have a disinclination towards strongly rules-light games, because they seem like storytelling interactions to me, which I’m not so much interested in. I’ve tried some of the more gamist versions, such as the various Mafia/Werewolf/Villager party games, and they don’t grip me as much. To me, they seem flightly and ad hoc.

This is why I’m interested in playing in a game of Nobilis run by Fub. I’m pretty much expecting that I won’t like the system, but I’ve found it’s always a good idea to have somebody who’s pretty excited about something introduce you to it. They’ll have a way of showcasing the best part of something and so there’s always a chance of learning a new perspective on it. He’s partial to diceless systems, and so is one of the other players, so I’ll be interested in seeing what my experience with the system will be like.

RPGaDay 2021 #28: Solo

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Solo”. What an interesting and fruitful prompt! While it might be interesting to explore games run for only one person, or even the relationship between choose-your-own-adventure stories and RPGs, I think I’ll focus on the word “Solo” as it’s used in music: a piece for one.

The big challenge in hosting an RPG for me is always making sure each individual player gets a bit of a spotlight to feature in the game. When composing an adventure plot, I always manage to find hooks for this player or that, and often for a small group, but it’s hard to address each character’s background at the same time.

I’ve recently been watching a lot of Dropout.TV, and particularly the RPG campaigns hosted by Brennan Lee Mulligan. He is wonderfully creative, and with a cast of improvisational comics and professional RPG players, the stories are quite entertaining to watch. One of the shows on Dropout .TV is Adventuring Academy, a roleplaying podcast that he hosts in which he discusses running roleplaying games. As luck would have it, one of the earlier episodes discusses his method of addressing character hooks, and it’s a really simple approach that I’m looking to try.

Basically, his argument was that addressing everybody at the same time is really difficult. The best you could do is ensure that each character has a hook for the campaign as a whole, or some manner of motivating reason that they should even care. For an individual session, he puts the focus on a specific character, and sees whether one or two characters can be tied into that. That way, each character essentially gets a solo, as it were, a story in which they are either the centre of attention or the character that has the best tools to deal with the problem at hand. By rotating these moments, each player can really shine at the table every so often. Without giving any spoilers here, there’s a great example during the Unsleeping City campaign: during one episode, the story conflict centred fully around one person’s character; however, the hook into that story was from another character; finally, the ensuing combat encounter included a threat that was best handled by a third player. It was such a nice example of how each player got their individual spotlights and yet these all tied together to make it feel like a real group effort.

This in particular is a skill I’d like to start practicing more in my gaming, because it seems like a great way to include everybody at the table.

RPGaDay 2021 #27: Fraction

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Fraction”. I have to say: this is a tough one. Most of the prompts this year, I could at least think of a direction to go with. This, however, left me wondering for a bit.

If I take “Fraction” as representing a small part of a larger whole, then I would argue that each person around a gaming table (virtual or not) is a fraction of an RPG campaign. More and more have I started seeing the host of a game as one of the roles around the table, rather than seeing it in a more traditional sense of there being players and there being a host of the game. The separation of players versus another has become odd to me: surely the host of the game is playing as well?

I think this goes both ways for tabletop RPGs. Game hosts need to put in energy to the game to guide the narrative, but need to realize they are only one part of the larger whole and must match their efforts to the rest of the players. The other people around the gaming table also need to realize that the onus is not just on the host of the game, but they also contribute to the experience. When all those fractions come together to one whole, though, tabletop RPGs are a wonderful experience.

RPGaDay 2021 #26: Theory

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Theory”. Clearly, given by my previous posts for RPGaDay 2021, I am a big fan of theory.

Of course, that’s something of an occupational hazard. Academically, I’ve pursued a BSc in Psychology (while I went all the way to finishing a thesis, I never completed that degree), obtained a BA in English Language and Culture, focusing on literature, and have an MA (Research Masters MPhil equivalent) in Literary and Cultural Studies, focusing on English-language popular media. I’ve come pre-loaded with analytical tools and theories, and have spent years training to analyze cultural forms, epistemological, ontological and phenomenological aspects of cultural transmission, and just popular culture in an academic context.

As a result, I can’t help but look at the world through this lens. RPGs are no different in that respect. That’s one of the reasons why I so thoroughly enjoy thinking about the systems behind the games, the interactions, and the workings of the hobby. It’s also one of the reasons why I enjoy the mechanics of gameplay so much. If there was a reasonable means to provide for myself by researching this and publishing about it, I’d probably do something like that. The realities of academia are a whole different story, though; let alone the economics of hobbies combined with the pressures of capitalism (don’t get me started on everything that’s wrong with the use of the phrase “doing what you love”).

Something I particularly enjoy about cultural analysis is how culture is like a giant neon sign attached to every tiny aspect of our lives. Small gestures during interaction with others, tiny illustrations in our environment, the types of goods sold in stores—every little bit of our lives is filled with poignant history and allusion. Training in cultural analysis is like being taught to read for the first time, except all your reading is between the lines and in the margins of the page.

Popular culture is my favorite thing to read in this way. A lot of popular culture is speculative in some way: science fiction, fantasy, superhero, alternate timeslines, and all other forms of popular culture all speculate about alternative worlds to some degree. They all start with the phrase “What if…”. What if elves, orcs, and dragons were real? What if five centuries in the future humanity had spread out into a galactic federation? What if the USSR had become dominant after the cold war? What unifies popular culture is imagining things that are not real, but inlike most fiction which roots itself in a real world and invents a story within that, popular culture also invents a world to some degree.

Whatever we invent, though, says more about the world we’re in than the world we’re inventing. Any “What if…” story implies, at its heart, “What if we had something other than what’s here now”. It’s a departure in some manner, whether that’s a “fleeing from” or a “going towards” journey. Analysing stories like that tells us a great deal about our world, the author (depending on whether you’re a postmodernist or not), but also the readers of the text if we know their reactions.

The really fun thing about RPGs in this respect is that they’re so rich with information. The creators of the RPG system write in their world view in the mechanics and their choice of art and setting. The hosts of games expose their ideas and views in the plots they bring in and the characters they portray, and the players tell us about their views by the interacts they have with the world and the characters they create. Every single point of an RPG is a font of information that works together to create new and unexpected stories.

On top of this, as a genre, it’s an intensely reactive genre. A book once written is static. An author might change our views of the book (such as J.K. Rowling’s trans-exclusionary views having radically changed the reception of the Harry Potter novels), but still the book is written. An RPG, however, is more like a palimpsest. Every single session of play rewrites the RPG in the minds of all those involved. House rules might get used, parts of systems get ignored or forgotten, or players choose to tailor the experience to their own needs. Every individual game may shift narratives or viewpoints. RPGs are quite alive in that sense.

It’s a pity that in the interest of self-preservation within the academic world, not much work has been done on this type of hobbyist engagement. It’s pretty much academic suicide to try it. This is the kind of thing, though, that would be fascinating to work on.

RPGaDay 2021 #25: Welcome

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Welcome”; perhaps my professional life (I’m a lecturer for a hospitality degree at a university) predisposes me to think of this prompt in the sense of hostmanship.

To me, it’s crucial that people are welcoming of others in the tabletop RPG scene. Already, as I wrote yesterday, tabletop RPGs are quite intimate in the sense that it takes vulnerability to sit together and act out scenes. To allow this, the space has to be welcoming and open, so that people may feel comfortable enough to empathize with the rest of the group. While a lot of RPGs may put the onus of something like this on the host of the game, I think that it’s a responsiblity that’s shared among the group as a whole.

On a larger scale as well, though, I’m of the opinion that RPG players should be welcoming of others in their space as well. Much like any other group, RPG communities can fall prey to gatekeeping. People feel that games should be played this way or that, or that certain games are good and others are terrible (rather than that being their personal opinions), and so on. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re having fun in your game then good on you! RPGs are about new experiences, so a sense of welcoming and openness should pervade the space.

RPGaDay 2021 #24: Translate

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Translate.” The most difficult part of hosting a tabletop RPG game for people is translating the vision in my head to the players, while at the same time trying to pick up on what they’re seeing and running with that. Fub wrote a funny post about that very problem a while back as well.

The way I tend to think about scenes in tabletop RPGs is as though I was directing a movie or a TV show. Funnily enough, I have trouble picturing things in my mind; I can think of concepts, or see conceptual parts of a thing, but I cannot just imagine, for instance, an apple, and see the entire thing in my mind. Scenes, however, are about storytelling, and stories are quite vivid in my mind (in a non-visual sense). So, when I try to translate what I’m thinking about to people around a table, I try to express it like a storyboard or director. I’ll use phrasing like “Our camera pans over a village, muddy, noisy, and busy with activity. At the end of the main street, crowded with oxen pulling carts past loud hawkers selling goods to passers-by, we see our group, happy to finally have reached their destination.”

I tend not to have a fully-formed idea of a world in my mind, nor a scene, nor a character. Far more interesting to me is to translate this vague idea I have in my head via a set of vignettes to the others at the table. I enjoy it when a character does a small thing, and then we cut to the next scene or another character, after which we pick up with the first again. I think this probably is because it matches how I try to visualize things in my head: a larger picture that’s built up out of the small abstract components of it.

The difficulty for me is to translate what the others around the table have in their heads in a way that works for me as well. Some players are very distant from their characters, and prefer to operate only the mechanics of the game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. These types of players will do a minimum of roleplaying. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve played with people who want to talk out every single thing; they’ll verbalize a characters thoughts, want to discuss every detail in-character among the group, and then pursue that full cause-and-effect chain. That’s perfectly fine too.

The challenge is to connect and translate their experiences and preferences in play to your own, and create enough empathy so that they can also understand your own way of working. This is also the thing that ends up being most tiring for me while roleplaying, and it’s why I can only do a few hours at a time. After a good session, I’m pretty spent and need some rest. However, every now and then you end up with a group that really gels together. Time flies by as everybody is engaging with the fiction, because the translation now works and everybody is on the same page. At the end of these sessions, I’m hyped up and excited.

It’s funny how, in early representations of roleplaying, that tabletop RPGs were always represented in media as some manner of failure of character—the sad group of nerds sitting isolated, because they can’t make friends and so instead hang out with each other paying RPGs. I think you can easily imagine that, in my view, roleplaying games are such incredibly social engagements. They train empathy and understanding, and are constant quests to translate thoughts and ideas from one player to the next. There’s few recreational activities I know that are so intensely social as RPGs.

RPGaDay 2021 #23: Memory

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Memory”.

Memories have a curious place in an RPG, because the characters portrayed in the narrative will quite naturally have a whole host of memories of the world that the players themselves do not have. On the one hand, the players around the table may have a wonderful experience exploring an unknown realm, but for the characters involved much of the world may be fairly commonplace. The other interesting issue is that at times, for story purposes, a character may need to remember something that the player wouldn’t know. Traditionally, this is an easy way for the host of the game to manipulate the story in a certain direction. “Oh, well, you remember that it would be impossible to fight them head-on because they’re too powerful” is a great excuse to make sure the players stay on a set of rails. It’s also quite boring, however.

The improvisational nature of some RPGs have shown me a much more interesting means to handle this, however. If a character remembers something (through whatever mechanic the game offers), then the player just gets to make up what they remember. It’s easy, it’s powerful, and it promotes buy-in on the player’s side. They remember that there’s actually a wise man who knows the answer to the unknowable riddle? Sure, that exists now. I’ll put that wise man in a hermit’s hut at the top of a treacherous mountain, though. At some point, he got really tired of everybody always asking him for the answer to the unknowable riddle, so he made it a little harder to bother him. Does a character remember where there’s a nearby village with a healer to patch the group up? Okay, sure; give me the name of the village and the healer (saves me time to think of it myself!).

Using character memories like that have become my favorite way of world-building. It saves on prep, it promotes player agency, and it makes sure the story goes in fun and interesting new ways.

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.