RPGaDay 2021 #11: Wilderness

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Wilderness”, which is quite a staple of fantasy-based roleplaying games.

The origin of the common trope of civilization versus wilderness likely has its origin in the medieval period. In the Middle Ages, life outside of towns and villages was absolutely dangerous. “Wilderness” was an area just outside of the confines of town. In a place such as the Netherlands, this is unimaginable nowadays. The Dutch approach to wilderness is to neatly cordon off a natural area, and put down a sign saying “this area is intentionally left unmanaged.” This contrasts heavily to my wife’s experience of countryside, given her life growing up in the US: there, stray animals roam the streets and carry disease and danger. Outside of the city, there’s large stretches of wild forest where whatever might happen. That, actually, is much more like medieval life in Europe: going out into the forest is risking death, as wild animals with little fear for humans roam there. That’s why “outlaw” is a term for criminal nowadays—you were placed outside of the law of a lord, which was a realm of safety. In 15th-century Germany, that was called vogelfrei: you were as free as a bird. On the one hand that means freedom to move wherever you wished but that also meant that nobody would protect you if you got attacked (after all, birds get hunted, that’s just natural).

Quite naturally, the wilderness has become a trope for fantasy roleplaying games. This is to such an extent, that the Torchbearer RPG makes this into a mechanical concept: gameplay is split up into an Adventure, Camp, and Town phase. Interestingly enough, in Torchbearer, both the Adventure and Town phase come with their own risks. In the Adventure phase you accrue conditions that you can only easily get rid of in the Town phase; however, the Town phase costs resources that you can only obtain in the Adventure phase. In that sense, each of these spaces represents a danger, albeit danger of quite different natures.

I’ve never put this idea into practice but I’ve had a game idea for quite a while to set a fantasy adventure solely within the confines of a single large city. It would be interesting to up-end the idea of a wilderness but creating an urban wilderness. In an exaggeration of cities in real-life, town centre would be strongly regulated, safe, and a hub of commerce. Farther to the reaches of town, though, amenities and civil control decreases and sources of danger increase inversely. Another possible angle to take this would be to set this to a circadian rhythm: in the light of day, you are safe and well-kept; at night, however, the unscrupulous denizens of the city crawl forth from whatever dens they use to hide from the light. In my head, I’ve termed this version “What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse”.

It would be interesting to explore concepts of “wilderness” and its opposite “civility” through this lens, and to deconstruct the civility by laying bare the barbarous nature of society.

RPGaDay 2021 #10: Trust

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Trust” which I consider to be a crucial component in a group to make an RPG game work.

As I wrote about yesterday, RPGs are by their nature quite intimate types of games. All the people around the table are exploring characters in interesting conflicts and while sometimes that may be combat, it can also involve emotional, political, or social conflicts. Like all acting and as in all readings of narratives, empathy is a crucial skill when dealing with characters. The host of the game will put antagonists in the path of players, whom by their very nature will oppose the players. Sometimes that may be through alternative solutions to the same problem players are dealing with, though sometimes the antagonists can also just be terrible people. To actively portray someone unlikeable to the players is a difficult tightrope to walk, and it takes trust on both sides to make that happen.

Two concepts that help with this are “lines” and “veils”, which I believe were introduced to the RPG world in Ron Edwards’s Sorcerer RPG or potentially one of its supplements, Sex and Sorcery (though may have originated in improv theatre). Edwards knew that the subject matter of his RPG would become potentially trigger, so suggested the two meta-concepts to help structure play. “Lines” are hard limits to the game—topics that somebody has indicated they just do not want to have come up or discussed. It’s good to set those limits and to know what to avoid. Particularly in the case of individual trauma it’s good to have set a strong line to not cross. “Veils” are things that people are uncomfortable with but don’t necessarily mind the concept of. It’s a method to fade to black, skip over, and assume some vague things happened. I like it to skip over an evil person’s acts of cruelty or to skip over the romantic interludes of a character.

The use of these types of tools requires a lot of trust between the group of people. You need trust while playing to know that you’re exploring topics safely. You also need trust to set these boundaries in the first place, by assuming that people will understand and respect that you have limits and may not want to talk about them. Lastly, you need to trust the host of the game not to push these matters when it comes down to it.

The beautiful thing about trust, though, is that it’s a practised skill. The more often you trust a group, and the better those things go, the more trust you create.

RPGaDay 2021 #9: Medium

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Medium.” Roleplaying Games are an interesting type of medium, a seeming interstitial between boardgames, improvisational theatre, and storytelling.

I’ve always enjoyed that RPGs are something like improvisational theatre without an audience because I just don’t enjoy performing. It’s not that I’m shyfor work I’ve held speeches in front of several hundred people without a problembut there’s something about performance that irks me. It’s as though it makes me less “me” while I do it. As Kevin Spacey’s character in The Big Kahuna phrases it when speaking of formal engagements: “we become the hands of the company, there to shake the hands of all the other companies.”

This photo is from a write-up in Chinese about our visit to a partner school in China. I was part of the formal opening and closing ceremonies, where I held a speech to give our thanks to our kind and gracious hosts.

In RPG sessions, however, I love to to ham it up. Jokes bubble up constantly, and I love to lighten the mood with funny little things. The lack of an audience makes it seem more genuine to me, as I’m not trying to entertaining a group of spectators but rather trying to make my friends around the table have fun. It’s not a professional performance but a personal bond. To me, there’s an inverse relationship between the number of people in an interaction and the authenticity of the speaker. I guess it comes naturally with being a quite strongly introverted individual. That and Jean-Paul Sartre is one hell of a drug.

Compared to improvisational theatre, as a medium, RPGs are quite intimate in that way. I haven’t found another medium that works quite the same. Sure, readers empathize with characters in novels and you could argue that, in a postmodern sense, readers have quite an active role in constructing stories but not as directly as happens in RPGs. RPGs in computer games tend to focus more on the mechnical aspects of tactical combat (with a few exceptions, such as Disco Elysium) while offering much less opportunity for individual contribution. Tabletop RPGs occupy a unique space in that sense, and one which is quite valuable, in my opinion.

RPGaDay 2021 #8: Stream

For today’s prompt I think I’ll just do a little self-promotion. Years ago, I streamed regularly on Twitch, saving the videos on YouTube. Mostly, these were PC games, but there were also a few tabletop RPGs I was involved with.

The first RPG we streamed online was Dungeon World, which was a lovely game that went very much off the rails and we all loved that. We had about 13 sessions before it ran out, all of which can be found in this playlist. I do have to mention at this point that Dungeon World was co-created by Adam Koebel, an individual that has been exposed to be highly toxic. So, sadly, while Dungeon World was a very entertaining RPG, it also feels somewhat tainted to me now.

The first video in the full playlist of the Dungeon World campaign.

The next RPG we streamed online was The Sprawl, a lovely cyberpunk RPG about doing missions and watching everything go wrong. Sadly, this was a shorter run with only 8 sessions, but it was still wonderfully entertaining. The sessions can all be found in this playlist. I do miss playing games with this group, as we did have so much fun together. We’d played some games online but off-stream after this, but work pressures kept increasing for me, and I pulled out of those to keep some time to myself.

The first session of The Sprawl RPG campaign

The last RPG I was involved with was Eric Vulgaris‘ adaptation of The Sunless Citadel in Torchbearer. I’d never met either Eric of Alex at that point, nor had I played Torchbearer before, so it was a game of firsts for me. Eric did a great job in making everything run quite smoothly, and Alex and Alain really brought the roleplaying to that game. Sadly, we did have to end that campaign prematurely: Eric is in a North American timezone and the rest of us were in European timezones. You can imagine that wreaked havoc on Eric’s schedule, as he was kind enough to adjust to ours, but that could only last so long. You can see the full playlist of this game here.

The first session of The Sunless Citadel in Torchbearer

RPGaDay 2021 #7: Small

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Small”. What fun! There are so many directions to take this prompt. Although I’d love to write about my fondness of halflings, gnomes, goblins, and kobolds, I think I’ll write today’s post once again about story structure.

My preference for stories in roleplaying games are always for small stories, in multiple senses of the word. I enjoy tabletop RPGs when the sessions themselves are small and limited in scheduling. Keeping things limited means that there is a clear scope to the story, as well as managed expectations. I’ve been part of too many unending RPGs that always bleed out somewhere down the line, be it over weeks or years, due to life happening. Shorter sessions, on the other hand, focus gameplay and encourages some commitment. Having said that, I am absolutely not opposed to having multiple consecutive campaigns with the same group in the same RPG with the same characters. Just as a television show will have multiple seasons, so too can I enjoy an RPG set up like that. The added benefit is that much like a T.V. show, each season will end up having a coherent and contained story. Each of those stories, of course, could add up to a larger overarching narrative.

The other way in which I enjoy smaller stories is in their scope. It’s all well and good to have a massive, dramatic story about the apocalypse happening or political struggles between nations, but it’s hard to empathize with things of that scope. Stories (and lives) are about individual people and their experiences. The interesting thing in Lord of the Rings isn’t the story of a ring being tossed in a volcano to end an age-long evilthat’s just the backdrop. The interesting story is a fun-loving little scamp and his gardener getting swept away in something they’re not fully prepared for, growing and changing because of the journey, and becoming new people by living through that. I think the best stories have large stories as a background, like The Witcher novel series, a story of a man learning to love a woman, with the both of them learning to accept their role as self-appointed parents to a young orphan, set to a backdrop of an young empire conquering many nations. Alternatively, stories that start out small but logically build up to something larger, as in the Kingmaker adventure path that starts out with a small group of unlucky individuals essentially being exiled to an inhospitable area where, through many adventures, they get continually embroiled in larger conflicts with higher stakes.

The other way in which I enjoy tabletop RPGs is with smaller groups. I think three or four people is the sweet spot of collaborative gaming for me. I’ve played in groups of 5 or even 6 people, but that spreads out the stories and interactions so much. Individuals tend to get bored while waiting for their turn, or there is a lack of commitment from each person. With only a pair of players, there’s a lot of intense focus on each individual, and it’s only so long that you can keep that up. With RPGs, and particularly ones where improvisational skills are required from not just the host but also the players, down-time is also important. For me, 3 to 4 players hits that perfect sweet spot where each player can get some focused attention, but there’s plenty of opportunity to take a back seat as well.

At this point, let’s do one of those stereotypical blog things and say: what’s your ideal size for RPGs?

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 #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?